Monday, December 8, 2014

San Francisco for a day or two

There are a handful of cities in the U.S. that are really worth visiting.  The short list includes NY, Miami, Vegas (maybe) and – of course – the subject of the current post: “the City by the Bay”; a fantastic destination for every age group or “social designation”. 

San Francisco is unique.  Many cities would claim that attribute, but SF “wears it well”.  Beyond a perfect setting and plentiful tourist attractions, there is something about the people and the culture here that is unique even by Californian standards.  Maybe it has something to do with the free spirit that sparked the hippie movement in the 60’s and 70’s (Haight-Ashbury still a vivid shrine) or the gay liberation movement around the same time (the SF gay pride these days is one of the biggest in the country), or any of a number of liberal agendas that have been thriving in the area, or the Asian influence (about a third of the city population is of Asian descent), or the fact that it holds the second-highest percentage of college-educated residents (Seattle is first), or even the embedded vestiges of the “gold rush” spirit that preceded it all.  Regardless of which of these had more influence, the result today is a place as culturally unique as one may hope to encounter anywhere in the world!

Somewhat similar to NY in geography – in that it’s primarily constrained to a peninsula – San Fran (and the surrounding area) is a trove of riches when it comes to tourist attractions.  I won’t go into details around the “must do” obvious ones (guide books and websites will give you that in plenty of detail) but I will try to throw in some ideas that I consider worth exploring… or at least a “swing by”…

The primary “tourist magnet” is around the Fisherman’s Wharf area.  Cheesy gift shops, overpriced souvenirs, ditto for the restaurants (although sidewalk seafood or at least a cup of chowder seem to be a must) and the departure point for the boats taking you for a closer look at the Golden Gate bridge, or a visit to Alcatraz.  The sea lions on Pier 39 are an interesting and lazy bunch who seem little fazed by the gawking onlookers.  I don’t advise spending too much time here; the city has so much more to offer. 
Hard to resist the temptation of a boat tour under the bridge...

If you’re driving (which would be advisable for some of the day trips around the area – either up and down Hwy 1, or the wine country) the drive across Golden Gate is a must.  So is the stop at the North end for some obligatory pics.

But my suggestion is to venture up into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (driving permitted up to a point) and walk across to Bird Island.  For an added bonus, time it with the sunset for one of those moments that you’ll want to store in your mind forever: as the suns sets down in the Pacific sending red hues across the fog, it will likely engulf part of the bridge.  Postcard material.

Alternatively, for those more active, rent a bike near the Wharf and ride it through the Presidio and across the bridge.  It might take a couple hours, but seems to be a popular option.  Go back following the same route, or continue to Sausalito, and take the ferry back across the bay (9 departures during the week, 6 in the weekends).  The ferry building market – whether you actually take the ferry or not – offers very nice options for a quick bite on the run, showcasing some of the local producers.

Back in the Wharf area, hop on the Hyde-Powell cable car (get a day pass; it’s more convenient) and hop off at Lombard at the top of the hill.  Walk down the “crookedest” street in the world and pick up the other cable car (at Mason) heading up to Nob Hill and Chinatown.

Lombard street zigzag

Or, if you feel up to it, don’t take the Mason line cable car yet; instead, climb up Telegraph Hill to the Coit Tower.  This high point of the peninsula offers nice vistas of the surrounding areas.  Great panoramic photo spot at the top of the tower (weather permitting).


In Chinatown, you shouldn’t need much time browsing through the stores on Grant Street; they all seem to peddle the same overpriced cheap trinkets and it quickly becomes repetitive.  Instead, Stockton (one block over) is lined up with little grocery stores specializing in Asian staples; if nothing else, you might find it interesting (in an Andrew Zimmern kind of way).  Food options abound in Chinatown, but they’re mostly mediocre.  My favorite is R&G Lounge, but I haven’t sampled the others…

For better food options, actually, cross Broadway and take your pick in the couple blocks between here and Union Street.  Italian places.  A “little Italy” of sorts.  Great pizza (Tony’s) seafood (Sotto Mare) authentic deli (Molinari) café (Puccini) ice-cream (Gelato) or a hand-full of more buttoned-up places make this area a nice place to “break”… While you’re here, might want to stop in at St. Peter and Paul across Washington Square Park – the Italian Cathedral of the West, as the locals call it.

If you missed the earlier Coit Tower suggestion, you might want to consider it again.  You’re only a few blocks away up Filbert Street…

South of here, the Financial District and Tenderloin remind me somewhat of Manhattan.  Tall buildings (although the architecture is a bit more varied) and all the shopping you can imagine.  Not my “thing” when I travel, but swing through just to get a feel for it.  Don’t expect bargains; SF is pretty expensive.

Instead, venture in some of the less traveled areas of the city.  The Castro (epicenter of gay and lesbian community and home to the famous theater under the same name), the Twin Peaks (highest point in the city – at about 920 feet – offering nice views of the city below), or Haight-Ashbury (a former hive of the hippie subculture, that today is more bohemian, but still very open to the counterculture, judging by the number of – let’s just call them “unique” – venues, stores and restaurants). 

From here, Alamo Square Park – with the famous Painted Ladies [Full House opening credits for those old enough] is only a couple blocks away, but adjacent to Haight-Ashbury is the Golden Gate Park: San Francisco’s response to Central Park in NY (but 20% bigger).  There are several attractions here, the Japanese Tea Garden and Conservatory of Flowers being the most prominent. 

The park ends in the Pacific, and following the coastal road to the North takes you to Lands End, for some wonderful scenery and hiking.  Worth a quick stop before crossing over the bridge to explore some of the areas north of San Fran (but more on that on a future post)

That’s about it, in a nutshell.  But back to the people for a minute, since I started with that...

If eccentricity is somewhat unnoticeable in NY for anyone who spent a few days in the Big Apple, it’s something that “gets” me every time in SF.  It seems like “crazy” is on steroids here… You won’t see it much in the touristy areas (with the exception of the people that WANT to get your attention), but spend some time in the more hipster/progressive neighborhoods and you’ll see what I’m talking about.  You’re very likely to run into a pro (or anti) demonstration on any of a number of topics on the liberal agenda: Christian values, gay and lesbian, weed legalization, guns (less so), illegal immigration, etc., most “driven” by people that seem to be under some chemical influence or imbalance of sorts…   The homeless (in abundance) also seem a more “aggressive” bunch.  Some of that may have to do with a more lenient local administration (compared to NY, where Giuliani took a more aggressive stance).  But on the other end of the spectrum, there are a LOT of young bright minds here (more so further south-east along the Silicon Valley); the bright young minds that are shaping up what the future of technology (and social) looks like.  “The” place to be, apparently, for anyone in that space!

So when you mix all those demographics, you get something that’s hard to describe, unless you get to experience it first-hand.   You get everything in excess and in its purest form: the good, the bad, the rich, the poor, the eccentric, the “free”, the “usurped”, the believer and the skeptic, all in a very lively and somewhat clashing mix. 

You get San Francisco!

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