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Posts Tagged ‘Beach Blanket Babylon’


In a little over a month my wife and I will be returning to the place we regard as our second home (financial considerations dictate that it will never be our first) – San Francisco. In fact, this will be our twentieth anniversary since we first laid eyes on the imperious Golden Gate Bridge, sampled clam chowder in a sourdough bowl or cracked open a fortune cookie in a Chinatown restaurant.

After our initial trip in 1995 ( http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/you-were-so-right-louis/ ), it would be another three and a half years, and a further three years after that, before we settled into what became a routine of bi-annual visits. We would combine our stay in the city with a skiing trip to Tahoe and a few days elsewhere, such as Las Vegas, San Diego, Death Valley and Yosemite.

Invariably, after the eleven hour flight, we would stay the first night in a budget hotel, having dinner at Calzone’s on Columbus Avenue (but not without a visit to Tower Records first), followed by drinks at the Vesuvio Café nearby. Breakfast would be taken at the Eagle Café on Pier 39 the next morning, and I would buy my holiday reading at the Barnes and Noble bookstore (now long since closed) in Fisherman’s Wharf before driving over the Bay Bridge.

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On returning to the city we would stay in a hotel, making the small step up (or was it down) from the Tenderloin to the Civic Center on our second trip before heading to the Holiday Inn at the Wharf for three of the next four vacations.

With each passing visit, we became less inclined to rush around ticking off the guidebook highlights, and began to venture off the beaten path and discover those places, within the city and wider Bay Area, where the only (other) tourists we might encounter were getting wind burn from the top of a tour bus.

It didn’t concern us that we hadn’t jumped a cable car for five years, stepped foot in Nordstrom or Macy’s or taken the rough ride across the bay to Alcatraz. Of course, we didn’t avoid all of the more celebrated spots, always finding time, however short the vacation, to eat at the Cliff House, shop on Haight Street, drink in North Beach and ramble round Golden Gate Park on a Sunday afternoon.

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San Francisco quickly became the place where we wanted to live. Without the riches required to buy our way into residency, we would have to content ourselves with alternating between staying in the city (spring and autumn) and the UK (winter and summer) for three months at a time – and only then when we had both retired.

For now, it was a matter of a week here and a fortnight, and, more recently a month, there.

We wanted to “live like locals”, and staying in someone’s (second) home was a good starting point. There would be no maids knocking at the door in the morning anxious to clean the room, no loud, drunken conversations outside the room at 3am and no lift bells ringing or washer / driers humming at all hours.

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So in 2010 we abandoned the lazy predictability of hotel living and rented an apartment in Hayes Valley, following that up a year later with similar accommodation in the Western Addition, a short stroll from Alamo Square. The migration west from downtown, however, took a sunny south easterly turn in 2012 when we chose Noe Valley for our base. It was during our second residence there that we discovered Bernal Heights ( http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/a-hike-up-bernal-heights-hill/ ).

Much as we had enjoyed living in the other neighborhoods, we immediately felt an affinity with the quirky, artsy, small town feel of Bernal and rented a cottage there last year. Our first impressions confirmed, we will be returning to that same cottage twice this year for a total of six weeks.

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It might not have gone unnoticed that our original bi-annual visit strategy has now become annual – and, at least for this year, twice a year!

Over the past two decades, our time in the city has taken on a different, more relaxed tenor. It has become a familiar and habitual part of our lives, somewhere we have now spent more of our time than anywhere else, other than our permanent UK address.

Moreover, we try, as befitting aspiring locals, to engage  more with the city and its residents on a regular, deeper level. During those interminable months in which we are incarcerated nearly six thousand miles away. we maintain a daily interest in the life of the city, and indeed, I comment on it in a number of online forums.

In addition to my Facebook presence, through which I now enjoy a number of personal as well as virtual friendships (even bumming (pun intended) prime seats at AT & T Park to see “our” Giants), I started a blog on the last day of 2010 which focuses on the history, culture and characters of San Francisco.

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And I plan to explore our experiences in more depth in my upcoming book Smiling on a Cloudy Day: An Englishman’s Love Affair with San Francisco, scheduled to be published towards the end of this year.

In our temporary home in the city we neither have to pretend to be what we are not, nor do what we or others feel we ought to do. We can watch the Bay Area news on KRON4 while catching up on household chores in the morning, stroll out to a neighborhood café for brunch, swing by the local wholefoods store and return to the apartment for a bottle of wine on the patio.

All dining options are also possible. We might have dinner in the apartment or we might try out one of the local restaurants. Or we might brave Muni on a trip downtown and eat in Chinatown or North Beach – or even Union Square. We are under no pressure to conform to a set tourist pattern.

What has happened is that our version of San Francisco has shifted, not only geographically but also psychologically, from the waterfront to the southern neighborhoods. In a sense, our journey has mirrored the historical expansion of the earlier city residents from Yerba Buena Cove to the hills.

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But, of course, there is still room for those sights that first enthralled us as much as they have millions of others. They are still only a short drive, bus or taxi ride – or even walk – away. We still make a conscious effort to revisit those attractions we might have neglected on recent trips – for example we plan to explore Coit Tower and Grand View Park again after an absence of a few years – as well as sampling new locations altogether such as Glen Canyon, Dogpatch and Potrero Hill.

If that sounds as if living in San Francisco has become routine, less exciting, even a chore, that could not be further from the truth. We have become, in a modest way, San Franciscans, interested in its history, politics, culture and, undeniably, its sport (Go Giants!) – just as we do at home.

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I invariably turn to legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, for an authoritative, maybe definitive, view on such matters. Here he ruminates on what makes a San Franciscan:

I don’t think that place of origin or number of years on the scene have anything to do with it really. There are newcomers who become San Franciscans overnight – delighted with and interested in the city’s traditions and history. They can see the Ferry Building for what it represents (not for what it is), they are fascinated with the sagas of Sharons, Ralstons, Floods and Crockers, they savor the uniqueness of cable car and foghorn. By the same token, I know natives who will never be San Franciscans if they outlive Methusalah. To them a cable car is a traffic obstruction, the fog is something that keeps them from getting a tan, and Los Angeles is where they really know how to Get Things Done.

Increasingly, our hosts  marvel at our knowledge of, and adoration for, the city. I doubt, however, that the more strident members of online forums would agree with Caen’s loose, but characteristically generous, sentiments here, but I like to feel that we have moved beyond being “sophisticated tourists” who are “charmed and fascinated” by the city to warrant that title of “honorary San Franciscans”.

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It’s near two hundred days since I slouched atop green Bernal Hill,

Dismissing the dogs drooling over my “Progressive Grounds” wrap.

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I watched with increasing heavy heart the planes fly towards SFO,

Doleful omens that my own flight home grew ever nearer. 

Now, finally, my next pilgrimage is as close as the last,

But it might as well be another two hundred years as days;

With the city again in the grip of World Series fever,

I yearn to bask beneath the evening city’s orange glow.

So much I miss about this cool, gorgeous, dirty, expensive place.

The soulful song of the foghorns out across the Golden Gate.

That heart stopping moment when you crest the hill at Hyde  

And pier, park and prison under a pristine sky come into view.

Community singing with Elvis and Snow White in Club Fugazi 

Before following Casady, Kerouac and Ginsberg to Vesuvio Cafe

Where I sit beneath James Joyce with a glass of Anchor Steam.

Bowing dutifully to Emperor Norton as he leads his latest star-struck

Subjects round the now scrubbed and polished Barbary Coast.

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Standing on stairways in Sunset and Bernal,

Gazing open-mouthed as Karl the Fog weaves his moody magic,

Slicing Golden Gate Bridge and Sutro Tower in half before 

Rendering them clear and whole again in a heartbeat.

Mouthing along to “O Mio Babbino Caro” 

While wrestling a ristretto at Caffe Trieste.  

Devouring warm, thickly buttered popovers by the Pacific

Among the toffs and tourists at the Cliff House.

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Scouring for the latest tie-dye tees in still heady Haight.

Getting through a minor novel on the F Streetcar as it

Clanks and clatters down Market and along Embarcadero.

Savouring the scents of jasmine and lemon on the backyard patio.

Marvelling at the Mission murals and their passion and exuberance

Reassures me this changing city still harbours an independent spirit.   

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Sharing stories of Dead concerts at Lyceum and Fillmore 

In the line for breakfast at Martha’s on Church,

Where the Blackpool boat tram glides past and waves

Its bunting at “Lovejoy’s” ladies taking tea and tiffin. 

Shovelling down “Gilroy’s” garlic fries at the ballpark before 

The circling seagulls, mindful of each innings slipping away,

Prepare to swoop to reclaim their birthright.

Watching a liquid sun decline over the serene lagoon 

Of the soon to be centurion Palace of Fine Arts,

What better resting place after the Lyon Street Steps descent?

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And breathing a sigh of relief as the recycling police

Leave me alone for yet another week. 

These and many more images flood my brain.

But never mind.

For now at least, there’s more baseball torture to

Endure from afar in the dark of the night.

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A First Time Visitor’s Guide to San Francisco (Updated and Expanded)


A little over six months ago I produced a potted guide for first time visitors to San Francisco. It was so well received that, following my recent visit, I thought it might be helpful to update and expand it to keep it fresh. I have also included a number of new photographs to supplement the text.

As before, it is arranged in  no particular order.

1. Golden Gate Bridge

  • The most iconic sight in a city where there are many attractions to compete with that title;
  • Drive it and take in the views from Vista Point (where the tour buses go), but for the killer photos, cross under Highway 101 at the end of the bridge to climb up the Marin Headlands (below) – you may need to wait for a parking space, and the walk up to the nearest point to the bridge can be challenging for some, but you would regret it if you did not attempt it;

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  • If driving, you have to register in advance for the toll (credit card is charged when you return to city);
  • Walk it or bike it too for more wonderful photo opportunities – and for the health-giving properties, naturally;

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  • Approach it by walking from Aquatic Park at the western end of Fisherman’s Wharf, past Fort Mason and along Marina Green and Crissy Field – it’s quite a trek and usually very bracing, but it affords great views of the bridge and Alcatraz;
  • If time permits, take a side detour to the former army post of the Presidio with its fine, preserved military buildings, many converted for modern use such as the Walt Disney Family Museum, and hikes through the woods with yet more stunning views of Karl the Fog lurking over the bridge.

2.  Golden Gate Park

  • Much to offer in a park that it is a fifth larger than New York’s Central Park;
  • Two splendid museums: the California Academy of Sciences with its resident aquarium, planetarium  and rainforest and the modern art de Young Museum where the building is as interesting as the exhibits it contains;
  • Japanese Tea Garden: it may be twee and not the cheapest gig in town, but it is undeniably beautiful and provides tasty oriental teas and snacks in the café;

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  • Walk round lovely Stow Lake and admire the Chinese Pagoda, the bridges and bird life, and climb Strawberry Hill for excellent northerly views;
  • Grab a hot dog or ice cream at the boat house and take  a pedal boat ride;

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  • Linger among the trees in the moving National AIDS Memorial Grove and sweat a few pounds sauntering through the steamy Conservatory of Flowers (pictured below);

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  • The buffalo paddock (don’t expect the creatures to acknowledge you, they are rather shy) and the Dutch Windmill (pictured below) are also worth exploring at the western end of the park;
  • If you crave refreshment when you reach the beach, grab a table in the Beach Chalet, ensuring you enjoy the murals depicting life in San Francisco in the thirties on the ground floor before you do so.

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3. Ferry Building

  • There is a gleaming new cruise terminal nearby but ferries still use it;
  • Its huge popularity, however, stems from the fantastic selection of indoor food and gift stores, including an attractive, independent bookstore and urbane wine bar;
  • Celebrated local restaurateurs demonstrate their skills at the Farmers’ Market, recently voted the best in the United States and the sixth best in the world, outside on certain days of the week;

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4. Cliff House

  • Drive or take the 38 Muni bus from downtown to Ocean Beach for two fine restaurants with stunning views over the Pacific;
  • Stroll along the beach for miles;
  • Explore the remains of Adolph Sutro’s great public baths and watch the endlessly fascinating display of sea birds on Seal Rock (via the fascinating camera obscura if it is open);

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  • Take the short walk to the western end of Golden Gate Park or, if you’re feeling energetic and haven’t forgotten your camera (to catch tantalising glimpses of the Golden Gate Bridge en route), walk back to the city along the coastal trail that leads from Sutro Baths, descending to China and Baker beaches to get close to the Pacific lashing the shoreline;
  • If you have time, call in for coffee and pastries with Rodin at the Palace of the Legion of Honour.

5. Chinatown

  • Witness the largest Chinese community outside Asia going about its daily business;
  • Grant Avenue, though touristy, is best for gifts whilst Stockton contains the markets at which the Chinese women shop for produce not seen anywhere else!;

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  • You must eat here at least once during your stay – I recommend the Great Eastern, after all the President and First Lady eat there when in town, and the R & G Lounge;

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  • Don’t forget to glance to your right as you walk along Grant for views of the Bay Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid;
  • Amble through Portsmouth Square, where Captain Montgomery raised the American flag for the first time in San Francisco in 1846, and watch the dozens of card and mahjong games being played by the elderly male residents in “Chinatown’s living room”;
  • Dip into Ross Alley and buy an inexpensive bag of the goodies produced in the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.

6. North Beach

  • As befits its traditional status as the Italian quarter, it is full of excellent cafés and restaurants – Trieste with its powerful espresso and live opera the most famous but Greco and Puccini are recommended too;

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  • We have also had good meals at the North Beach Restaurant, Calzone, Sotto Mare, Rose Pistola, Firenze at Night;
  • Rest awhile at Washington Square Park watching the dogs and their humans at play under the watchful eye of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul and Coit Tower;

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  • If you’re looking for breakfast or brunch, join the line outside Mama’s on Washington Square, or if it’s a little later in the day, take your place in a similarly long queue for Tony’s Pizza Napoletana on Stockton and Union.

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  • Have a glass or two of Anchor Steam or Sierra Nevada beer at the Vesuvio Café,  historic haunt of the Beats, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, in the fifties and sixties;
  • Pore over the framed newspaper cuttings and visit the state of the art gents restroom downstairs (I cannot vouch for the ladies, unfortunately);

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  • Peruse the unique shelves of the City Lights Bookstore, one of the most famous in the world, a few steps across Jack Kerouac Alley;

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  • On the opposite corner on Columbus, Broadway is – or, arguably, was – home to many of San Francisco’s more famous fleshpots and the fascinating Beat Museum;
  • If you want to see a cheeky rather than bawdy show, you can do no better than take in long running revue Beach Blanket Babylon – best to book in advance.

7. Palace of Fine Arts

  • The only remaining building from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition celebrating the resurrection of San Francisco from the Earthquake and Fire of nine years before;

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  • It is a beautiful classical structure set alongside a tranquil swan-filed lagoon attached;

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8. Haight Ashbury

  • Whether you’re an old hippie or not, it’s a fascinating place with lots of “head” shops, stores selling retro clothes, good cafés, a massive record shop (Amoeba) and not a few “characters”;
  • Close to Golden Gate Park, it is possible to visit both on the same day.

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9. Alcatraz

  • It may be touristy but no visit to the city is complete without an excursion to the most feared federal penitentiary of them all;
  • In view of its popularity, it’s best to book in advance, preferably before you travel;
  • The day tour is good but the evening (sunset) one is even better, though perhaps not for those of a nervous disposition!

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10. Bay Cruise

  • Sit back and rest those weary feet for an hour or two on the bay, remembering to take suncream, required as much for the wind as the sun;
  • Stop off at Sausalito for a drink and a promenade, taking in those shimmering views from the original “dock of the bay”;
  • The Rocket Boat, with its raucous rock and roll soundtrack, juddering high-speed turns and close-up views of AT & T Park, is tremendous fun, though not for the faint- hearted!

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11. Castro

  • Ground zero for San Francisco’s large gay and lesbian community, with rainbow flags are fluttering everywhere;
  • Many eclectic and unique stores;
  • Beautifully restored Victorian houses rivalling those in Haight Ashbury and Pacific Heights;
  • Good cafes and bars, with an especially vibrant night secene;

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  • Perhaps its most famous building is the great movie house, the Castro Theatre, complete with its own wurlitzer;  if you can, book tickets for a film, many of which come as double bills;

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  • You might even get lucky and be able to participate in a sing-a-long version of either The Sound of Music, Grease or The Wizard of Oz. Or if not, Frozen!

12. Alamo Square

  • Position yourself to take the perfect picture of the famous Painted Ladies Victorian houses with the modern city looming behind.

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  • The recent ban on tourist buses should make the perennial wait for the photo unencumbered by human or vehicular traffic a less annoying one.

13.  Mission

  • Boisterous, funky, traditionally Latino and Hispanic neighbourhood, increasingly subject to gentrification;
  • Great for cheap clothing and inexpensive Central and South American food;
  • Take the pilgrimage to the original Mission Dolores church, the oldest surviving building in the city;
  • Take a picnic to adjacent Dolores Park and savour the great views, not only of the city but also of your fellow humans (some of which may be naked – you have been warned!;
  • Difficult enough on a warm day to find a spare square inch, the current re-modeling and upgrade to facilities means that half of the park is closed to the public.

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14. Coit Tower

  • Fire nozzle shaped monument provided for the city by Lillian Hitchcock Coit in honour of the brave firefighters of the Earthquake and Fire of 1906;
  • Take in the wonderful views over the bay, including Alcatraz;
  • See and hear the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill (though you are just as likely to encounter them elsewhere in the city nowadays);
  • Don’t bypass the wonderful murals in the rush to the tiny escalator to the viewing stage.

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  • Climb up at least one set of steps – Filbert and Greenwich are the best – past lovingly tended urban gardens.

15.  Twin Peaks

  • If you take an organised tour of the city, this is likely to be the first place you are taken for its splendid panoramic views of the city;
  • I will take this opportunity, however, to put the case for my adopted neighbourhood of Bernal Heights..

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16. Civic Center

  • Home to magnificent City Hall and several other public buildings, including the symphony/opera and library;
  • Good, cheap farmer’s market on Wednesdays.

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  • You should be aware that this area, along with the adjoining Mid-Market (rapidly being gentrified) and Tenderloin districts, is where you are most likely to be accosted by vagrants.

17. Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39

  • The most popular tourist spots on the bay, where I, along with many thousands before me, fell in love with the city, bedazzled not only by the bay views but the fun and energy of the area;
  • For me, that love may have faded as I have gravitated towards the inland neighbourhoods, but I can rarely resist spending my last full day absorbing the atmosphere;
  • See,  listen and laugh at the crazy sea lions on Pier 39, long since now migrated from Ocean Beach;

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  • Wander round the myriad of gift shops for presents for those back home;
  • Sample seafood at the many restaurants and wharfside stalls – we have eaten well at the Franciscan, Neptune’s Palace and McKormick & Kuleto’s;

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  • The Hard Rock  Cafe is here too if that is more your scene;
  • The Gold Dust Lounge, relocated from Union Square, is a good watering hole with live music;
  • The Musée Mecanique (vintage amusement arcade) and Hyde Street Pier (collection of classic ships, pictured), are two of the best deals, not only on the waterfront, but in the whole of the city; 

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  • Beware the World Famous Bushman!

18. Union Square

  • San Francisco’s “modern” shopping heart is very popular with tourists and locals alike, and I am slowly warming to it, though I still prefer to use it more as a thoroughfare from Market to Chinatown and North Beach;
  • The Westfield Shopping Center, Macy’s flagship branch, Saks Fifth Avenue and many more designer stores account for its huge popularity;
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  • There are a number of good diners and grills in the vicinity, including John’s Grill, Daily Grill and the daddy of them all, the Tadich Grill;
  • It borders both the Tenderloin and Civic Center, so don’t be surprised by the number of homeless people, some of whom may approach you for money, or at least to persuade you to buy a copy of Street Sheet, or they may just open the door at Starbuck’s on Powell for you.

19. Bay Bridge

  • Many, including my wife, prefer this to the Golden Gate Bridge and love driving on both its upper and lower decks;

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  • The new span that replaced the old one destroyed by 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake has recently opened and is stunning;
  • It is spectacularly lit up at night.

20. MUNI

  • San Francisco’s public transit system is loved and hated in equal measure by both locals and visitors;
  • The cable cars, one of only two moving National Historic Landmarks, are not merely tourist toys, many locals use them too, and you must ride them;

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  • The lines on the Powell and Hyde and Powell and Mason routes may be long but it’s well worth the wait – hurtling down Nob or Russian Hill, especially if you nab the lead rail, is a thrilling experience;
  • If you’re averse to waiting in line, take the less busy California Line which starts in the Financial District and runs up Nob Hill before descending to Van Ness
  • The historic F Streetcar, with its colourful fleet transplanted not only from other American cities but from around the globe, runs from the Castro along Market and the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf, is a charming if uncomfortable ride. Don’t expect, however, to get anywhere quickly;

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  • Very few bus rides on Muni are boring – you’re almost certain to be entertained, amused and horrified – or all three, on any journey – after all, all human life is there!

21. Sports

  • If you’re in town between April and October, get seats for a game at AT & T Park to watch the San Francisco Giants baseball team, twice World Champions in the past four years and currently leading the Majors by a distance;
  • Even off-season, a tour of the ballpark, dubbed the most beautiful sports stadium in the country, is a treat;

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  • The San Francisco 49ers football team have vacated windswept Candlestick Park, bound for their new home in Santa Clara in Silicon Valley!
  • You can also get your (ice) hockey fix too between the months of October and April by taking the train from the Caltrain station at 4th and King to San Jose where the Sharks will be waiting to entertain you.

This is not an exhaustive list – I have not even mentioned the many day trips out of the city that can be made, for example to the wine country (Napa and Sonoma), Muir Woods, Berkeley, Monterey and Carmel. But I think what I have included will keep any first time visitor occupied for a couple of weeks at least!

I would be happy to answer any questions arising from this post.

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A First Time Visitor’s Guide to San Francisco


I am regularly asked by friends, personally and on social media sites, for advice on what are the best things to see and do on their upcoming,  and invariably first, trip to San Francisco. Rather than continue to respond on a one to one basis, I have listed below my current recommendations so that anyone can refer to them when they need to.

I should stress that the selections below reflect my personal views, though I have still included other celebrated attractions that would not necessarily be on my list if I only had a few days in the city. But the focus is on the first time visitor.

I must put my prejudices aside for this exercise! They are arranged in  no particular order.

1. Golden Gate Bridge

  • Drive it and take in the views from Vista Point, but much more spectacularly, the Marin Headlands (below), which you access by going under the road just after the end of the bridge;

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  • Note that you have to register in advance for the toll (credit card is charged when you return to city);
  • While you’re there, pop into Sausalito only a few miles away for lunch or coffee and fine views of the city;
  • Walk it or bike it too for more wonderful photo opportunities;
  • If you can, approach it by walking along the Marina, past Fort Mason, from Fisherman’s Wharf – it’s quite a trek and usually very bracing, but it affords great views of the bridge and Alcatraz.

2.  Golden Gate Park

  • Two splendid museums: the California Academy of Sciences and the modern art de Young Museum;
  • Japanese Tea Garden (it may be twee but it is set in lovely grounds and provides tasty oriental teas and snacks in the café);

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  • Stow Lake (lovely to walk round, grab a hot dog at the boat house or book a pedal boat);

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  • Visit the moving National AIDS Memorial Grove and the steamy Conservatory of Flowers;
  • The buffalo paddock (the creatures are rather shy) and the Dutch Windmill are also worth exploring at the other end of the park.

3. Ferry Building

  • Fantastic selection of indoor food and gift stores, and the sixth best Farmers’ Market in the world (according to a recent survey) outside on certain days;

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  • Nice bookshop and great wine bar.

4. Cliff House

  • Drive or take the 38 bus from downtown to cean Beach for two fine restaurants with stunning views over the Pacific;
  • Stroll along the beach for miles;
  • explore the remains of Adolph Sutro’s great public baths and watch the sea birds on Seal Rock;

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  • Take the short walk to the western end of Golden Gate Park.

5. Chinatown

  • Witness the largest Chinese community outside Asia going about their daily business;
  • Grant Avenue is best for gifts whilst Stockton contains the markets at which the Chinese women shop for produce not seen anywhere else!;

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  • You must eat here at least once during your stay – I recommend the Great Eastern, after all the Obamas eat there, and the R & G Lounge;
  • Don’t forget the side streets too with their views of the Bay Bridge and Financial District – and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory!

6. North Beach

  • Traditionally the Italian quarter adjacent to Chinatown;
  • Plenty of excellent cafés and restaurants – Trieste the most famous but Tosca, Greco and Puccini are really good too;
  • We have enjoyed meals at the North Beach restaurant, Calzone, Sotto Mare, Firenze at Night and others;
  • Rest awhile at Washington Square Park watching the dogs and their humans at play under the shadow of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul;

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  • Have a glass or two at the Vesuvio Café, our favourite bar – historic haunt of the Beats, e.g. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, in the fifties and sixties;
  • Peruse the unique shelves of the City Lights Bookstore, one of the most famous in the world, opposite Vesuvio;

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  • On the opposite corner on Columbus, Broadway is the home to many of San Francisco’s more famous fleshpots;
  • Reserve seats in advance for Beach Blanket Babylon, another thing you really should do – but best to book in advance

7. Palace of Fine Arts

  • The only remaining building from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition celebrating the resurrection of San Francisco from the Earthquake and Fire of nine years before;
  • Beautiful classical structure with a tranquil swan-filed lagoon attached;

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8. Haight-Ashbury

  • Whether you’re an old hippie (like me) or not, it’s a fascinating place with lots of “head” shops, stores selling retro clothes, good cafés, a massive record shop (Amoeba) and not a few “characters”;
  • Close to Golden Gate Park, it is possible to visit both on the same day.

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9. Alcatraz

  • It may be touristy but no visit to the city is complete without a visit to the most feared federal penitentiary of them all;
  • It is very popular so you should book in advance, preferably before you travel;
  • The day tour is good but the evening (sunset) one is even better!

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10. Bay Cruise

  • Enjoy an hour or two on the bay, remembering to take suncream, as much for the wind as the sun;
  • Stop off at Sausalito for a drink and a promenade, or even go on to Angel Island and Tuburon;
  • The Rocket Boat is tremendous fun, though not for the faint- hearted!

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11. Castro

  • Ground zero for San Francisco’s large gay and lesbian community, rainbow flags are fluttering everywhere;
  • Good shops and bars;

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  • It boasts a great movie house, the Castro Theatre, with its own wurlitzer;  if you can, book tickets for a film. You might even get lucky and be able to participate in a sing-a-long version of either The Sound of Music, Grease or The Wizard of Oz.

12. Alamo Square

  • Position yourself to take the perfect picture of the famous Painted Ladies Victorian houses with the modern city looming behind.

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13.  Mission

  • Boisterous, funky, and, at night, edgy Latino and Hispanic neighbourhood;
  • Great for cheap clothing and inexpensive Central and South American food;
  • Take the pilgrimage to the original Mission Dolores church where it all started;
  • But a picnic for Dolores Park and savour the great views, not only of the city but also of your fellow humans (some of which may be naked – you have been warned!).

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14. Coit Tower

  • Fire nozzle shaped monument provided for the city by Lillian Hitchcock Coit in honour of the brave firefighters of the Earthquake and Fire of 1906;
  • Take in the wonderful views over the bay, including Alcatraz;
  • See and hear the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill (though they do frequent other parts of the city too now);

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  • Climb up at least one set of steps – there are several to choose from, including those that run past beautiful urban gardens.

15.  Twin Peaks

  • The most visited spot for panoramic views of the city, though there are others e.g. Bernal Heights just as good in my opinion.

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16. Civic Center

  • Home to magnificent City Hall and several other public buildings, including the symphony/opera and library;
  • Good, cheap farmer’s market on Wednesdays.

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17. Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39

  • The most popular tourist spots on the bay, not my favourite but you cannot deny that it is a place of fun and energy;
  • See,  listen and laugh at the crazy sea lions on Pier 39;

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  • Wander round the myriad of gift shops for presents for those back home;
  • Sample seafood at the many restaurants and wharfside stalls – we have eaten well at the Franciscan, Neptune’s Palace and McKormick & Kuleto’s;    
  • The Hard Rock is here too if that is more your scene;
  • The Gold Dust Lounge, relocated from Union Square, is a good watering hole with live music;
  • The Musée Mecanique (vintage amusement arcade) and Hyde Street Pier (collection of classic ships), are two of the best deals, not only on the waterfront, but in the whole of the city; 

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  • Beware the World Famous Bushman!

18. Union Square

  • San Francisco’s “modern” shopping heart is very popular with tourists and locals alike, though I use it more as a thoroughfare from Market to Chinatown and North Beach;

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  • There are a number of good diners and grills in the vicinity, including John’s Grill, Tadich Grill and Daily Grill;
  • It borders both the Tenderloin and Civic Center, so don’t be surprised by the number of homeless people, some of which may approach you for money.

19. Bay Bridge

  • Many, including my wife, prefer this to the Golden Gate Bridge and love driving on both its upper and lower decks;

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  • The new span that replaced the old one destroyed by 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake has recently opened and is stunning;
  • It is spectacularly lit up at night.

20. MUNI

  • San Francisco’s public transit system is loved and hated at the same time by both locals and visitors;
  • The cable cars are not merely tourist toys, many locals use them too, and you must ride them;

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  • The lines may be long but it’s well worth the wait – hurtling down Nob or Russian Hill is a thrilling experience;
  • The historic F Streetcar that runs along Market and the Embarcadero from the Castro is charming if uncomfortable. Don’t expect, however, to get anywhere quickly;

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  • All human life is there on the buses!

21. Sports

  • Candlestick Park, home of the 49ers, is one of the most famous football stadia in America, and the 49ers won’t be there much longer, so get there quick!
  • Even if it is baseball close season, take the tour of the Giant’s home, AT & T Park, dubbed the most beautiful sports stadium in America with wonderful views over the bay;

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  • You can get your (ice) hockey fix too by taking the train from the Caltrain station at 4th and King to San Jose where the Sharks will be waiting to entertain you.

This is not an exhaustive list and I have not even mentioned the many day trips out of the city that can be made, for example to Napa, Muir Woods, Berkeley, Monterey and Carmel. But I think what I have included will keep any first time visitor occupied for a couple of weeks at least!

I would be happy to answer any questions arising from this post.

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‘Tis the night before the start of our our tenth – and longest – stay in San Francisco. And the first to be spent in summer in the enchanted city.

We spent a week in the southern neighbourhood of Noe Valley last spring, and whilst much of that time we were elsewhere, we enjoyed its relaxing, civilised atmosphere so much that, when we had to decide where to rent an apartment for four weeks in June this year, we chose it above other likely candidates such as the Mission and the Sunset . This will enable us to acquaint ourselves more with the neighbourhood and adjoining districts as well as providing a good base for visiting other parts of the Bay Area, familiar and previously unexplored alike.

So where is Noe Valley? And what we have let ourselves in for by living there? It sits immediately south of the Castro and east of the Mission in a sunny spot protected from the fog by steep hills on three sides. Its borders are broadly defined as between 20th and 22nd Street to the north, 30th Street to the south, Dolores to the east and Grand View Avenue to the west. Our apartment is on 28th Street between Church and Dolores.

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A look at a map of the greater San Francisco area would suggest that it is relatively remote, and it is undeniably off the tourist trail. But public transit and local roads render it easily accessible to downtown and the South Bay respectively. The J Church MUNI Metro line was our constant companion on our previous trip and will be so again, at least for the first half of our stay before we hire a car for the trip to Tahoe.

Noe Valley is a quiet but cosmopolitan residential neighbourhood with a classy small town feel. Its preponderance of comfortable, even affluent, young families has lead to a change in its nickname from the hippie-inspired “Granola Valley” in the seventies to “Stroller Alley” today. But it also attracts couples and singles of all persuasions, notably gay and lesbian migrants from the Castro. A healthy number of artists and writers complete a sophisticated demographic. The population of approximately 21,000 comprises 70% white, 15% Hispanic and 7% Asian, with the remaining 8% coming from all corners of the globe.

It is blessed with a significant number of classic two storey Victorian and Edwardian homes. Broad streets and brightly coloured exteriors have the writers of guidebooks reaching for words like “cute” and “quaint”. Property prices are inevitably expensive.

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The neighbourhood gets its name from José de Jésus Noé, the last Mexican alcade (Mayor) of Yerba Buena, the original name for San Francisco. He owned the land as part of his Rancho San Miguel but sold it to John Meirs Horner in 1854. Horner laid out many of the wide streets we enjoy today, and the name “Horner’s Addition” is still used for tax purposes by the city assessor’s office.

The main development of what was traditionally a working class neighbourhood came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, notably after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Today, its interest for outsiders lies essentially in the eclectic shopping and dining experience to be found along the stretches of 24th Street from Castro to Church and Diamond to Dolores. Coffee shops, restaurants, one of a kind clothing and gift stores and bookshops abound, along with one of the best farmers’ markets in the city.

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This will be our fourth apartment – the first two were in Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle (NOPA) – and, as with previous years, our aim is to blend as far as possible into the local community for the duration. With four weeks at our disposal on this occasion, our “live like locals” strategy has more chance of success than in previous years where we have stayed for no more than a fortnight. We are particularly looking forward to hiking up Bernal Heights, Twin Peaks and Buena Vista Park, as well as reacquainting ourselves with the Mission.

But the extended stay still enables us to satisfy our tourist cravings and revisit the usual suspects such as Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts, Golden Gate Park , Beach Blanket Babylon and Haight Ashbury, and, of course, three pilgrimages to AT & T Park to support the Giants in their (currently faltering~) hunt for back to back World Series titles. Any trip would not be complete without expanding our understanding of the Bay Area, so Berkeley, the Zoo, Castro Theater and the de Young Museum, all places we have criminally neglected until now, are on our list.

Having always , with the exception of our first visit in October, visited in spring, we will be also be able to throw ourselves into four of San Francisco’s celebrated annual events – the Haight Ashbury Street Fair, North Beach Festival, Stern Grove Festival and San Francisco Pride.

Our last two vacations have coincided with Crosby and Nash and Elvis Costello gigs at the Warfield. This year, we move to the waterfront at Pier 27/29 where we have tickets for the concert being given by the Steve Miller Band and the Doobie Brothers at the America’s Cup Pavilion. And finally, a short detour to Tahoe is also scheduled.

I hadn’t actually realised until I wrote this just how busy we are going to be!

San Francisco – your “wandering one” is coming home again.  

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Our first full day in San Francisco and there was much to look forward to, including brunch at the Cliff House and our fifth trip to Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon in the evening, he timing of both dictated by tradition and designed to orientate us quickly back into life in the city.

After a comfortable night’s sleep in our new apartment in the North of the Panhandle, we woke to gentle but steady March rain that left large pools at the bottom of the wooden steps leading down from the kitchen to the shared back garden.  The forecast, however, was for it to clear later in the morning to leave a cloudy but dry afternoon and evening.

The Cliff House at Ocean Beach was just a straight ten to fifteen minute drive along Fulton Street to the Pacific Ocean. We passed a verdant Golden Gate Park on our left, whilst on our right, we caught tantalising glimpses of the towers of the glorious Golden Gate Bridge looming over the dense foliage of the Presidio.

We parked several hundred yards short of the Cliff House to enable us to take in the bracing appetite-inducing air for a few minutes before we entered the bistro.  The ocean presented a turbulent picture with a swift succession of high rolling waves chasing away anyone brave or foolhardy enough to venture too close to it.

The scene was, however, still a busy one – joggers passing in either direction at varying speeds;  people , like us, strolling contentedly in a wind ravaged state of dishevelment; but most of all, dogs everywhere bathing in the freedom and exhilaration of exploring the endless expanse of beach.  We must have seen a dozen different species, from caped miniature poodles and chihuahuas and enigmatic huskies to slavering rottweilers. It is claimed that there are more dogs than babies in San Francisco, and on a morning like this, you would not doubt it.

We felt as if we were committing an act of animal cruelty by not having one of our own to exercise.  Momentarily, I contemplated hiring one for the week because, after all, this is San Francisco and anything is possible.  But pets are not allowed in the apartment – probably just as well.

We had a twenty minute wait for our table, allowing us the opportunity to check on upcoming events such as the Wednesday prix fixe dinner and jazz evenings, and look in the gift shop.  As ever we both ordered Eggs San Francisco (two poached eggs and crab on toasted sourdough bread with roasted potatoes and fruit), accompanied by the establishment’s signature warm rolls – delicious.

Feeling replete we took another longer walk in the adolescent sunshine along the beach towards the south, inspecting the periodic bonfire pits on the beach.  Crossing the Great Highway for the return to our car, we called in at the Beach Chalet to marvel at the fabulous Lucien Labaudt frescoes depicting everyday life in the thirties in the city. The brewery and restaurant on the first floor apparently have outstanding views of the ocean, a fact we need to verify before much longer.

We abandoned our planned food shopping trip as we needed time to get ready for the evening (and for me to finish my previous blog post).  The mild, partly cloudy late afternoon weather encouraged us to take the long walk to Club Fugazi in North Beach for the early evening performance of Beach Blanket Babylon.  The near hour and a half  journey took in some of the less salubrious parts of the city (Fillmore and Civic Center) before turning off Market Street to snake through Grant in the heart of Chinatown.

Sadly and inevitably, there was no shortage of vagrants around the Civic Center vicinity, though we experienced no intimidating panhandling.  I did purchase a copy of Street Sheet from a man who bore an uncanny resemblance to the queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when she dresses as a witch and tempts Snow White with a poisoned apple.  He even sported the hunch back and hood.  But he was very friendly and appreciative of my $2 donation.

For the uninitiated, the Street Sheet is a magazine that has been published by the Coalition on Homelessness since 1989, and is designed to provide information and support programmes for homeless people in the city.  The philosophy is not dissimilar to that of The Big Issue in the UK, in providing its vendors with the opportunity to earn money for food, shelter and other necessities.

We joined an already lengthy line outside Club Fugazi around fifty minutes before showtime.  I collected our tickets from will call (box office) and joined Janet in the queue.  We were surrounded by a dozen boisterous ladies of a certain age in varying states of drunkenness attending the show as part of a bachelorette party.  Whilst we didn’t begrudge them their fun, we couldn’t help but hope that their seats were in a different part of the auditorium.

Our prayers were answered as they lurched off to the area close to the stage on the ground floor whilst we were escorted to our seats in the center balcony – our preferred area to watch the show.  Arming ourselves with a bottle of Woodbridge White Zinfandel and a large packet of pretzels we were ready to support  Snow White in her worldwide search for a prince. No sign of the queen this time – which is just as well as Snow White had a hard enough (or not as the case may be) time without her.

Once again, Beach Blanket Babylon delivered.  Although we had only been twelve months before, there was still a lot of new content along with the familiar staples.  The highlight for me was when San Francisco Giants baseball stars Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum and Brian Wilson (no, not the real ones) burst onto the stage holding the World Series trophy and singing We Are the Champions. Her Majesty the Queen’s appalled put down of the upcoming wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton was hilarious and a typical Beach Blanket Babylon satirical slant on a subject often treated too reverently, no more so than in the States.

We had decided that we would try the North Beach Restaurant for dinner for the first time, provided we could gain entry (we hadn’t booked).  The restaurant looked very busy, but on presenting ourselves at the front desk, we were whisked to the only free table for two, adjacent to the kitchen.  That may not sound the most appealing location, and it was rather cramped, but Janet found it fascinating, catching regular momentary glimpses of the frenzy behind the scenes action as the front of house staff crashed through the doors leading in and out of the kitchen.

But what of the food and service?  This was traditional Italian fine dining at its best.  My linguine with porcini mushrooms and scallops was outstanding, as was Janet’s seafood risotto – even surpassing the excellent meals we had enjoyed at the Riva Grill in South Lake Tahoe a few days before.  And our waiter was suave, attentive and witty – well, Italian.

I had wanted to visit The Beat Museum on Broadway for some time, so as the night was still young (10pm), we called in.  The museum itself had already closed for the day, but we spent some time perusing the bookshelves and other fascinating memorabilia, and I bought a couple of books I had not seen before, one the 700 page Hippie Dictionary –  A Cultural Encyclopedia of the 1960s and 1970s by John Bassett McCleary and The Beats – A Graphic History.

After a canter past the fleshpots of Broadway, we sought refuge in Vesuvio’s bar on Jack Kerouac Boulevard – yes, another first night tradition.  Once more we succeeded in claiming the only two seats available, at the bar.  After a couple of drinks we walked down Montgomery through the Financial District before boarding a number 5 MUNI bus at Market to transport us back to the apartment.

It had been a long day but a satisfying one. We were truly “at home” again in our favourite city.

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“I’m coming home again…..never to roam again” the song continues. Well, sadly, I will be roaming back to the UK in no time, but not until I have spent the next fortnight back in the “one in all the Golden West”.

Many of my previous posts attest to my love for The City, especially  http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/10/29/my-san-francisco-top-ten/ .

Those of you who have stayed the course with me will be relieved to learn that I’m not going to dribble on about cable cars, bay views and hippie Haight in this post – well I might find myself unable to avoid rapping a little on the last one……..man.

No, as our upcoming ninth trip approaches, this post looks ahead to some of the less touristic experiences that await us. Some are perennial joys whilst others will be savoured for the first time.

In the best “traditions” of TV reality shows (so I am reliably informed), they are presented in no particular order:

1. Eating Sourdough bread

Taking that first bite from an authentic sourdough loaf will almost certainly be the first, and last, taste sensation of our visit. Whilst, allegedly, I can purchase sourdough bread from a farmer’s market or wholefoods supplier in the more enlightened towns and cities of the British Isles, it will not be made from the Boudin “mother dough” and, therefore, not carry the unmistakably tangy taste of the San Francisco original.

If you want to read more about the genesis of the Boudin sourdough, you can do worse (just) than read my article at:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/great-san-franciscan-characters-13-isidore-boudin/

2. Riding on the MUNI

“I get sourdough bread but MUNI – are  you crazy?” I hear any resident or informed visitor exclaim. “The “service” is totally unreliable, the drivers insolent and a sizeable number of its customers are so weird that they’d fail the audition for any self-respecting freak show”.

Ah, but there be the rub, me hearties. It is the “all human life is there” quality that makes it so endearing – provided, of course, that you’re not planning to be any place soon or are of a squeamish disposition.

I wrote about one particularly entertaining and ingenious tableau in my diary from last year’s vacation:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/western-diary-day-17-hittin-the-heights-and-muni-delights/ .

3. Watching the Giants play an MLB game at AT & T Park

Two actually – the (Pittsburgh) Pirates on Opening Night, complete with fireworks, on Saturday 14th April and the (Philadelphia) Phillies two nights later. An earlier post documented my initiation into baseball, and following the San Francisco Giants in particular:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/bitten-by-the-giants-baseball-bug/

Visiting the City that little bit later this year has meant that we can finally graduate from attending desultory pre-season games featuring squad players to joining a full house crowd at a “real” game, or rather two, with heavy hitters, or rather pitchers, such as Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

Oh, and eating those fabulous garlic fries – and taking cover from the dive bombing seagulls towards the end of the game.

4. Getting to Know New Neighbourhoods

After successful stays in Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle in the past couple of years, we are staying further south this year by renting an apartment for the first week in Noe Valley, or “Stroller Valley” as it is affectionately known for the preponderance of resident families with young children.

We aim to “stay local” as much as possible that week, exploring unfamiliar neighbourhoods such as Noe Valley itself and semi-mountainous Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill and Twin Peaks, as well as re-familiarising ourselves in particular with the Castro and Mission districts, much neglected on our previous trips. In fact, we are venturing further out of the City than we have ever done before, though public transport will whisk us briskly downtown should we, in the unlikely event, crave a fix of the wharf or corporate shopping at any time (that said, our two appointments with the Giants will steer us towards the bay on those days).

5. The Flower Power Walking Tour

For all my reverence for the Dead, the Airplane and the late sixties San Francisco music scene, I have resisted, in the past, signing up for the flower power walking tour of Haight-Ashbury, expecting it to be too clichéd, preferring to truck around the area on my own. But the testimonials are so compelling, and the bona fides of the individuals conducting the tour so intriguing (they lived through the Summer of Love), that I now anticipate it with relish.

6. Exploring the Old and Public San Francisco

Aside from our initial, guided trip 17 years ago, we have never explored Nob Hill in any detail. We have clanked past it on the California and Powell/ Mason and Powell/Hyde cable cars (sorry, I know I promised I wouldn’t mention them) many times but given little heed to Grace Cathedral, Huntington Park or the grand hotels – until now.

We will aim to combine that with a morning skulking as much of the public buildings that comprise the Civic Center as we are permitted to enter. I am particularly keen to visit the public library.

7. Breakfast with KRON4

Preparing for the day ahead in San Francisco has never been complete without the accompaniment of local TV station, KRON4, informing me of the weather prospects, the state of the “Bay Bridge commute” or the latest Giants news. Whilst Darya Folsom is my favourite presenter, I’ll also confess to having followed Sal Castenada’s traffic reports on rival station KTVU too for many years.

8. Skiing the Sierras

The full story of our miscalculation over the short skiing leg of our trip in Lake Tahoe will have to wait for another day. Suffice to say that the outcome is that we will finally be forced out of our customary torpor and ski somewhere other than Heavenly this time. Sierra-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood beware.

We return to the City for the final three nights of the trip, staying in a hotel on Fisherman’s Wharf. Our sixth performance of Beach Blanket Babylon and meals at two of our favourite eating places, the North Beach Restaurant and Cliff House await. And much else besides.

So, San Francisco, “open your Golden Gate”, don’t let this supplicant !wait outside your door”.

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