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Posts Tagged ‘Castro District’


A prominent San Francisco property website’s guide to the best sixteen neighborhoods in San Francisco does not feature it.

Only the “Rough Guide” of all of the most popular tourist guide books makes reference to it.

Even the “San Francisco Visitors Planning Guide”, the “Official Guide to the City by the Bay”, fails to regard it as worthy of mention.

Cole Valley, tucked beneath Twin Peaks, close to the south eastern corner of Golden Gate Park and virtually holding hands with the Haight, remains a well-kept secret to visitors and many city dwellers alike.

And that is my excuse for having neglected it too during a dozen visits spanning two decades, aside from one lunch at “Cafe Cole” following a t-shirt safari along Haight Street around three years ago. It never occurred to me to venture just a couple of blocks further south to the bustling but relaxed intersection with Carl Street because, after all, nobody ever advised me I should do so.

Until last month.

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Now, Cole Valley residents might quite like to leave it that way, but I wonder how long it will be before it gains wider recognition and joins the first division of neighborhoods for which San Francisco is noted. I doubt that this modest paeon will have tourists flocking to join the line outside “Zazie” or hike up to the prehistoric feeling Tank Hill, but Cole Valley is beginning to get noticed – and not only by me.

Indeed, within a fortnight of my visit, the “Sacramento Bee” published an article asking whether it might be the “friendliest neighborhood in San Francisco?”

http://www.sacbee.com/entertainment/living/travel/article22534629.html

I rest my case.

Despatched by a combination of the 24 and 7 Muni buses from our Bernal Heights rental cottage on a mild, breezy May morning, my wife and I arrived at the corner of Haight and Cole and set off in pursuit of breakfast.

We were struck immediately by the frequency and availability of public transportation in the area. We were accustomed to riding the buses that served Haight Street, but there seemed to be vehicles crisscrossing the intersection of Carl and Cole almost continually.

Not only did the N Judah light rail rattle past every few minutes, carrying passengers from ballpark to ocean via downtown, but the more prosaic 6, 33, 37 and 43 Muni lines were equally regular sights on the street.

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We had planned to eat at “Zazie”, a famed French restaurant that attracted brunch devotees from all over the Bay Area, but the line, or rather the ragged scrum congregating outside, made it clear that we might have to wait until Tuesday week to bag a table.

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So we opted for our second choice of “Crepes on Cole” which boasted tables free inside – at least when we arrived. We ordered eggs sunny side up with sausage and bacon respectively, accompanied by the customary fried potatoes and the obligatory nod to healthy eating in the form of a slice of fruit. The dish was good, though the eggs might have been warmer. Like (hot) tea, this seems to be a not uncommon issue in the States. We Brits do like our tea to be hot! I regretted not having plumped for my habitual order of Eggs Benedict as it looked especially enticing as plate after plate wafted past. The locals clearly knew something we didn’t!

The “Rough Guide” remarks that there is “little to see or do here other than eat” and the preponderance of cafes and dining places is exceptional for the size of the neighborhood. But I, for one, don’t regard that as a bad thing. The only problem is one of choice. In the space of a couple of blocks, the discerning foodie can eat Italian, Mexican, French and Japanese. And each of the many cafes appeared to offer its own speciality lines (though, sadly, as I write this, the attractive “La Boulange” branch may be about to be closed by its parent company, Starbucks). And the “Ice Cream Bar Soda Fountain” and “Say Cheese” are two of the most celebrated shops of their kind in the Bay Area.

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A relaxed and civilised atmosphere, combined with lovely and diverse architecture and the aforementioned public transport and dining options make this a tempting proposition for us to stay in in the future.

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The streets were relatively flat too!

With one notable exception.

That just happened to be the highlight of our inaugural visit.

That was the sight that befell us at the top of the steps that snaked upwards from the end of Belgrave Street, beneath Sutro Forest or, to give it its mundane official title, the Mount Sutro Open Space Preserve (whose lush vegetation and wildlife we intend to explore on our next visit). As an honorary Bernalite, I had argued for the past two years that the views from the top of its hill of downtown, the bay, the bridges and the surrounding area trumped even those of Twin Peaks, where it seems it is the lot of all first time visitors, including ourselves twenty years ago, to be hauled.

I know that there are advocates for several other peaks, including Buena Vista Park which we had hiked only seven days before. But the panorama that emerged as we climbed those last few steps up to Tank Hill, so named for the late nineteenth century water tank stationed there, was a worthy rival to any. All that remains of that tank is a concrete base adorned with eucalyptus planted to divert the Japanese bombers after Peal Harbor. Among the stunning vistas visible from every vantage point, the best for me was the appearance of a hazy downtown lurking behind the equally dramatic Corona Heights.

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Although the space atop the hill is small enough to fit into a corner of Bernal Heights Hill’s undulating expanse, we were surprised and thrilled to find a vacant bench that virtually teetered over the precipice. In fact, our only companions during our half hour meditation were a couple of youthful Dutch amateur photographers, hopping from one stunning spot to another, and the ubiquitous procession of canines, though they will have been disappointed that the lack of room did not lend itself to off leash frolicking. For one moment, I swore that I witnessed a cherry-headed conure, one of the famed “Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill”flit by noisily, but I suspect it was a consequence of the romantic reverie I had sunk into.

To the north, the view was dominated by St Ignatius Chatholic Church at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), where many of the denizens of Cole Valley either studied or worked.

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Cole Valley’s cosy but smart small town feel is reinforced by the presence of several family owned stores, some reflecting its proximity to Hippie Haight, such as the pharmacy focusing on alternative remedies and “The Sword and Rose” which specialises in oils, crystals and incense and gives tarot and astrology readings. “Cole Hardware” is one of the most popular and well stocked stores (it also boasts a fine backyard nursery) in the Bay Area.

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We had arranged to call in on one of the friends we had made during our last visit, the manager of the “Land of the Sun” store on Haight Street and spend a fortune on her lovely “Summer of Love” merchandise. Reluctantly, therefore, we had to burst through the Cole Street bubble and re-emerge on its earthier, spikier neighbor’s patch.

The line for “Zazie” was, if anything, longer than it had been two hours previously. It occurred to me that we would probably have to find a place to live In Cole Valley if we ever wanted to have any chance of dining there before it closed in mid-afternoon!

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For years we had avoided San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.

On our second trip we had walked from 17th Street along Mission to 5th where, leg weary, deafened by traffic noise and not a little relieved that we’d survived the ordeal, we slumped into Lori’s Diner on Powell and Geary. All I can really recall from that morning was a wary wander down Balmy Alley, home to the largest collection of murals in the city.

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And for several trips after that, we kept away from the area, spending our time in the northern and western parts of the city, with only occasional forays into the adjoining Castro district and Dolores Park.

Why?

It was not as if we did not like the culture or food of the area – indeed, burritos, enchiladas and margaritas might just be our favourite culinary combination.

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No, our reluctance to set foot east / south of Market stemmed from an anxiety that we might not be as safe, especially after dark, as in other parts of the city. Violent gangs and gun crime were – and remain (a man was killed near 16th and Guerrero only three days ago) – a constant feature of life in the Mission.

So we stayed away.

We actually considered renting an apartment on Valencia three years ago, because apart from being edgy, the neighborhood was also meant to be “hip”, San Francisco’s party capital. But, once again, we were deterred by its negative reputation.

So we stayed away.

But this continuing omission on our San Francisco CV was no longer tenable, especially as we have rented apartments in the adjacent neighborhoods of Noe Valley and Bernal Heights in recent years.

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How could we convince ourselves, and others, that we were locals in spirit if we did not embrace the Latino and Hispanic heart of the city on our doorstep?

So, finally a year ago, we ventured tentatively into the area again by taking a delightful sunny Sunday afternoon stroll down Valencia from 24th Street, crossing to Mission at 16th and walking back up to 28th Street and our apartment.

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A political demonstration outside the BART station on 24th Street was winning the battle for the attention of passers by with a handful of religious preachers on the opposite corner, but the atmosphere was restrained rather than confrontational. Cafes and restaurants were overflowing and Latin rhythms abounded. Coffee at the Borderlands bookstore was followed by a margarita at West of Pecos, where we were tempted to reconsider our plans for dinner that evening. A mariachi band serenaded the sidewalk diners.

We marveled at the murals on Clarion Alley, many of which reflected the current tensions in the city over gentrification (not least in the Mission), sky-rocketing housing prices and the closure of public parks at night.

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We repeated the expedition again this year, starting with a hike over Bernal Heights Hill, descending Alabama Street to the vibrant Precita Park Café for a Mitchell’s ice cream before crossing Cesar Chavez Street and into the neighborhood.

Next year, we will be staying in the same Bernal Heights cottage for a total of six weeks, and look forward to renewing acquaintance with the Mission district regularly. Several restaurants, including Taqueria La Cuembre and Cha Cha Cha, have taken our fancy. 

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We might even eat there after dark too.

And it is time we met the Tamale Lady.

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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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Stretching from Pier 45, home to the marvellous Musée Mecanique and historic ships, the US Jeremiah O’Brien and USS Pampanito, to AT & T Park at 2nd and King, San Francisco’s Embarcadero waterfront thoroughfare is one of the city’s crowning jewels.

Its most prized asset is the great San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge, or as it is more affectionately known by locals and other supplicants, the Bay Bridge. The widest bridge in the world, and also one of the longest at more than seven miles, its two decks carry nearly a quarter of a million passengers each day. It may not command the same celebrity status as the Golden Gate Bridge shimmering on the opposite side of Alcatraz, but the views, especially from the recently reopened east span, are stunning.

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But the Embarcadero is not all about the Bay Bridge as the following photographs demonstrate. Sinbad’s at Pier 2 is a fine seafood restaurant.

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One of its more unusual features is Cupid’s Span, a quirky but imposing sculpture, in the two acre Rincon Park, a welcome spot to rest feet wearied by the unforbidding pavement along the water’s edge.

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The main rival to the Bay Bridge in the affections of locals and visitors alike is the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street.

Once the City’s principal transportation hub and beautifully restored between 2003 and 2007, it is now home not only to two storeys of premium office space, but also a permanent gallery of stalls selling locally produced fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses, wines, meats, flowers, chocolate and pastries, as well as one of a kind gift items, many related to the kitchen and garden.

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The historic streetcars trundle along the Embarcadero with their packed hoardes of tourists seeking fun at Fisherman’s Wharf, bargains at Union Square and Westfield or vintage movie going at the Castro Theatre.

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Apartment blocks and offices loom above the constant traffic.

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In a city renowned for the quality of its restaurants, Red’s Java House is never going to attract any Michelin stars, but it provides good honest fare for fans heading for or returning from a Giants game. It may be basic and unpretentious, but it boasts as many passionate advocates as Michael Mina at the Westin St. Francis Hotel or Quince in Pacific Heights.

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In summer, extravagantly colourful hanging baskets complement the profusion of palms along the roadside.

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Back to the Bay Bridge with a SFFD fire boat sailing under it.

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Finally we reach AT & T Park at the end of the stretch of the roadway named after legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen who wrote extensively about the Embarcadero and his beloved Giants.

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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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I’ve taken pen to paper, or rather finger to keyboard, on two previous occasions on this blog to bemoan the demise of “high street” bookshops, both in principle and in my adopted city of San Francisco. In the first, I lamented the closure of the large branches of Border’s in Union Square, replaced now by a DSW shoe emporium, which, to add insult to injury, my wife loves, and 2nd and King opposite the ballpark. I consoled myself at the time with the knowledge that the Barnes and Noble branch in Fisherman’s Wharf was still carrying the flag, only to discover, shortly afterwards, that it too had made way for an expanded Cost Plus World Market.

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But, in one sense, that has been a blessing as it has forced me to seek out San Francisco’s rich family of neighbourhood bookstores. As a result, I’m no longer sure that I miss the big chains as much as I did three years ago.

On my recent trip I had the pleasure of visiting a number of the independent stores – some new to me, others old friends – and discovered a very different story to the one that confronted me when the giants (no, not those) were collapsing around me a couple of years ago.  Phoenix Books on 24th Street  in Noe Valley was my local store where, on the first morning of my vacation, I picked up a discounted copy of Comeback Kings, a book on the Giants’ (yes, those) 2012 World Series victory.

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A Sunday afternoon stroll down Valencia Street in the Mission unveiled the dual delights of Dog Eared Books and Borderlands Books, though the latter’s sole focus on science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery is not to my taste. But the painstakingly prepared coffee was! A happy birthday to Dog Eared Books, a partner of the aforementioned Phoenix Books, Badger Books (of which more below) and alley cat books, which turns 21 this very week! On the evidence of these two thriving outlets, the declaration on its website that ‘reports concerning “The Death of the Bookstore” have been greatly exaggerated’ rings resoundingly and joyfully true.

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What struck me most about all of the bookstores I visited was the sheer number of people frequenting them, not just browsing the shelves but writing their own blogs and engaging in social media on their laptops, drinking every conceivable coffee permutation and interrogating the community noticeboards for apartment lettings or reiki classes and, in some instances, all three.

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Badger Books on the corner of Cortland Avenue and Bennington Street in urbane Bernal Heights, displayed a particularly fine secondhand selection and boasted a lovely children’s section complete with multi-coloured stools.

Needless to say, City Lights in North Beach afforded me several opportunities to part with my dollars and the Book Passage in the Ferry Building, though relatively small, always contains an interesting and eclectic collection. Besides, there are few better places to sit and read than outside with a cup of Peet’s coffee from the adjoining concession.

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Aardvark Books on Church Street near Market, where I bought a set of vintage San Francisco postcards at just fifteen cents each, The Booksmith (another regular haunt) and Browser Books on Fillmore between California and Sacramento are also fine places to stay awhile.

I may, to the purists, be about to join the dark side with my purchase of an Amazon Kindle, but I will never lose my love for plunging into bookstores (preferably those with adjoining cafes and a place to park the laptop), and divesting them of their stock. I expect that I only scratched the surface with San Francisco’s independent bookstores this time, but if the above branches are typical, their future is bright.

I dearly hope so.

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One of the most endearing but infuriating features of San Francisco’s characteristically quirky public transport system are the historic streetcars that run along the F Line between the Castro and Fisherman’s Wharf via Market Street and the Embarcadero.

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Redolent of a bygone age, they are fascinating historical constructs that appeal primarily to tourists because anyone, local or frequent visitor alike, who has travelled on one, knows that they are built neither for speed nor comfort. One journey my wife and I took from Church and Market to Fisherman’s Wharf last month took an hour and twenty minutes, admittedly extended due to roadworks on Market. 

But, at the best of times, expect a rough, cramped, hot ride that goes nowhere very fast. 

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Whilst there are a number of home-grown, or rather home-built, cars, many have been imported from all over the globe, including as far afield as Tokyo and Melbourne. As I write this now, five and a half thousand miles and eight hours away, streetcars from the following cities are operating inbound towards Fisherman’s Wharf: Louisville Kentucky, El Paso Texas, Juarez Mexico, Detroit Michigan, Brooklyn New York, Boston Elevated Railway, Cleveland Ohio and Milan, Italy. Other cities to have “donated” vehicles from their collection include Birmingham Alabama and Cincinnati Ohio.

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There’s even one from the seaside resort of Blackpool in the north west of England, one I may well have sat on in decades past! We first encountered it in its new San Francisco home whilst waiting for the gleaming, modern MUNI Metro J Church train a couple of blocks from our Noe Valley apartment!

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Many “experts” opine that your best chance of boarding a cable car (which, by the way, costs three times as much for a single journey as a streetcar) is a few blocks away from the Powell Street and Hyde Street termini. That may well be true, but if you wish to ride a streetcar, your best chance of a) getting aboard at all, and b) finding a seat (though the likelihood of you feeling ill may actually be lessened by standing up), you would do well to start at either end of the route (especially alongside Walgreen’s at Fisherman’s Wharf), as the following photograph taken aboard the Baltimore bus at Church and Market would indicate.

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In conclusion, do NOT prise yourself onto one if you need to be somewhere any time the same week (sorry, I exaggerate to make a point). But if you have plenty of time on your hand, do not get stressed very easily and enjoy being part of history, go ahead, sit back and – ahem – enjoy the ride.

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