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Posts Tagged ‘Ferry Building’

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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With a little over two months to my tenth trip to San Francisco, I am revisiting, and where appropriate, updating a handful of my articles on the city I fell in love with from afar in 1967 and in person 28 years later.

If I were forced to name the place I would most like to spend a couple of rainy hours, the Ferry Building would appear very close to the top of the list.

It was on 13th July 1898 that the first ferryboat and its passengers pulled into what was then called “The Union Depot and Ferry House”. At the height of its glory in the nineteen thirties, more than 50 million passengers passed through it each year.

Despite two major earthquakes and the construction of both the San Francisco – Oakland Bay and Golden Gate Bridges, not forgetting a hideous double-decker freeway along the Embarcadero, the latter thankfully demolished after the second of those earthquakes, the building with its 235 foot high clock tower inspired by the moorish belltower in Seville, has not only survived but become one of the most popular attractions in the City.

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.

An outstanding farmer’s market takes over the plaza on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and especially Saturdays, when celebrated chefs from around the City demonstrate their skills to locals and tourists alike. Several appealing restaurants and cafés complete the scene.

Located along the Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street, it is now one of only a handful of landmarks that I make a point of visiting on every trip to the City, however short. Ten days in April didn’t yield a single cable car ride or journey over the Golden Gate Bridge, but it did include two trips to the Ferry Building, one on the way back from a spending spree at the ballpark (in fact, it is a perfect resting spot if you are making the bracing but arduous hike on a blustery day from AT & T Park to Fisherman’s Wharf, or vice versa).

Its role as a ferry port may have diminished (it now caters only for a handful of local services), and cruise ships may soon be getting their own spanking new terminal, but the building remains at the heart of the City’s transportation system with MUNI (Metro) and BART lines criss-crossing here, and the cranky, lovable F Streetcars rattling by.

Whilst there might be other excellent, if admittedly less expensive, farmer’s markets and wholefood stores around town, the Ferry Building might just be the best. Where else can you pick up those last minute snapper fillets, fresh vegetables, rustic loaves, Californian wines and cheeses, and even pig’s cheeks, to take back to your apartment in Noe Valley or the Sunset? And the visit alone, especially if you tarry awhile and experience everything it has to offer, is worth the journey alone.

Slip into the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants , share a carafe or two of Napa or Sonoma wine, or indulge in one of the special tasting “flights” where you can sample half a dozen wines at once (I would caution, however, that if you are of a nervous disposition, it comes with a lot of (different shaped) glasses, and whilst it looks pretty, the potential for disaster is considerable). What better to accompany it than a tasty cheese board? And you may stumble upon one of the regular lectures on wine or even meet the individual who made the wine you are drinking, as has happened to me!

If the Giants happen to be playing on the live televisions, so much the better, just order another carafe. And don’t forget to pick up a couple of bottles before you leave.

With the closure of the large Border’s and Barnes and Noble bookstores at Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf respectively in recent years, it is heartening also to find the excellent Book Passage in the building. It may be small but it stocks an impressive selection of books on San Francisco and the Bay Area in particular. Pick up a book and a cup of Peet’s (coffee) from the adjoining cafe, grab a seat outside and “waste” an hour enjoying the bay views.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen called it “a famous city’s most famous landmark”, adding that the “waterfront without the Ferry Tower would be like a birthday cake without a candle”.

It is hard to disagree.

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Only after we returned from our latest trip to San Francisco did it occur to me that, during the ten night stay, we had neither visited such perennial favourites as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts or Alamo Square, nor taken a single ride on a cable car.

How can you travel nearly 6,000 miles to one of the most popular cities on earth and not take in its most iconic locations I hear you say? Surely, you are missing out on the greatest experiences it has to offer?

That is not, however, the way I see it. Rather than accept that this represents poor planning and an opportunity missed, I rather view it as a sign of our growing maturity as visitors to San Francisco. The fact is that we no longer feel the need to tick off as many of the guidebook recommendations as possible, tiring us out unnecessarily in the process.

The nature of our time spent there is increasingly taking on a different, more relaxed, you might even call it ordinary, tenor, one that more closely mirrors that of how we live at home.   Being in San Francisco has become such a familiar and regular part of our lives, somewhere we visit more often even than the places we love in our own country, that it has assumed that status of our second home, and, therefore, somewhere we neither  have to pretend to be what we are not, nor have to do what we feel we ought to do.

Choosing to stay some distance from the tourist enclaves of Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf, as we did in Noe Valley this year, allows us to do as much, or as little, as we feel on any given day.

If all we want to do is to hang out at the apartment in the morning, watching the Bay Area news on TV whilst catching up on household chores, before strolling out to a neighbourhood café for lunch, followed by gift and food shopping and then returning to the apartment for a glass or two of wine on the outside private deck whilst watching the world go by, then so be it. We then might eat in in the evening – or we might try out one of the local restaurants. Or we might decide to take the metro downtown and eat in Chinatown or North Beach.

The point is that we are at liberty to do as we wish, not as we feel we ought to do to make the most of the trip and the not inconsiderable expense. Of course, it has been the happy conversion from hotel to apartment living over the past three years that has enabled us to do this.

And if it sounds to you that living in San Francisco has become less exciting for us, even routine, even a chore, then you could not be further from the truth. Whilst I can comfortably claim that we now feel at home in the city and, for myself in particular, probably did so before I ever visited it, I am tempted to suggest even that we have become, in a small way, San Franciscans, interested in its politics (with a small “p”), culture and, undeniably, its sport – just as we do at home.

And remember – those wonderful attractions are still a short drive or a bus or taxi ride away.

Nor is it the case that we no longer go sightseeing – far from it. On our recent trip we may have bypassed some of the more renowned locations, but we made a conscious effort to sample new, and nearly new, experiences, some of which were long overdue. These included a tour of City Hall, exploring Nob Hill, the Castro and Hyde Street Pier in depth, reliving the Summer of Love on the Flower Power Walking Tour, sunbathing in Dolores Park, and spending an afternoon in the excellent California Palace of the Legion of Honour.

Attending two Giants games at AT & T Park and a thrilling Elvis Costello concert at the Warfield, as well as eating out at more traditional restaurants such as John’s Grill (in the Maltese Falcon room) and the Daily Grill (Lefty O’Doul’s was too busy) added real richness to our stay.

And we still found time to take in several of our favourite spots – Golden Gate Park, including the Japanese Tea Garden and Stow Lake, Sunday brunch at the Cliff House, dinner at the North Beach Restaurant, Beach Blanket Babylon, Haight-Ashbury, the Ferry Building and the depressingly under threat Gold Dust Lounge.  And, of course, a spot of DSW shoe shopping for my wife in Union Square – now, heretically, resident in the former Border’s bookstore (the shoe shop, that is, not my wife – though she might like to be).

Having read the above, perhaps the vacation wasn’t quite as relaxing as I first thought!

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We were greeted this morning by yet another brilliant, clear blue sky, although the temperature was significantly lower than it had been for several days.  MUNI for once served us well as we boarded a no.5 bus to the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market.  Riding a San Francisco cable car, preferably standing in the lead position at the front, is one of my favourite activities, yet this was the first time on this trip that we had boarded one.

The combination of a long line, people pushing in and my desire to nab that lead position meant that we had to wait until the sixth car, a Powell and Mason, before we could leave downtown.  Once we disembarked we headed for the Hollywood Cafe on Taylor and North Point for breakfast.  I would thoroughly recommend this establishment – the service was outstanding and my Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon and shrimp was excellent.

Such a meal may not in retrospect have been the best thing to have done immediately prior to tackling the Greenwich Steps up to Coit Tower, but we managed it, if rather slowly.  On such a crystal clear day the views were stunning, so much better than they had been nine years previously when we had last visited the landmark.  Following a viewing of the fabulous artisanal murals we took the elevator up to the viewing tower – how does that attendant cope with riding that 7′ by 4′ by 3′ (approximately) tin box all day?  It is worth the trip but not if you suffer from claustrophobia.

Having negotiated the Greenwich Steps on the way up to Coit Tower, it was only right to take the even lovelier Filbert Steps down in the heart of Telegraph Hill.  We failed to spot or hear the wild parrots (though we did see them on the following day on Lombard Street), but the smells and sights of the flower laden gardens was delightful.

Landing back on earth on Sansome we walked along the street until we reached the Transamerica Pyramid where we entered the mini-Muir Woods that is the Redwood Park.  This is a nice spot to rest your weary legs after traipsing the unforgiving streets of the Financial District, although the shade of the trees did render the grove rather dark and chilly.

After resting briefly we walked onto Market where we walked to, firstly the Embarcadero Center and then the Ferry Building.  As we were thirsty at this point we dived into the Ferry Building Wine Bar, fortunately part way through the middle of the first innings of the San Diego Padres versus San Francisco Giants baseball game which was being shown on the TV screens.

We, or rather I, needed no invitation to find seats with a full on view of the game that Giants were already winning 3-0 after a Buster Posey two run homer.  As we worked our way through a carafe each of Sonoma chardonnay and Anderson Valley rose, Tim Lincecum led the Padres a merry dance, clocking 13 strikeouts in an eventual 8-4 victory for the Giants.  No surprise that, but being engaged in conversation at our table by the very winemaker, Eric Sussman, whose wine we were drinking at the time, was an unexpected and interesting experience.

Prising ourselves eventually from the wine bar we caught the F Streetcar from Ferry Plaza back to Fisherman’s Wharf where we waited interminably for a cable car from Hyde Street back to Powell.  Fortunately, the no. 21 bus was waiting for us at Market to transport us back to the apartment.  Initially, we had planned to eat out, but our weary legs won the argument and it was pizza at home instead.

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