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Posts Tagged ‘Great Eastern San Francisco’

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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As we were due to return the hire car by 2.30pm we felt we should make best use of it by visiting some of the sights less easy to get to by public transport or on foot.  Firstly, we drove out to Ocean Beach and explored the delightful districts of Parkside and Sunset, before stopping at 16th and Moraga to walk up and down the beautiful marble stairway with outstanding views of the Pacific coastline.   We noticed that many of the animal designs in the marble contained people’s names, presumably by way of sponsorship, and set me to look at the possibility of having our names included on it.

Our next stop was Twin Peaks.  It had been the first place in San Francisco we had visited on a coach tour back in 1995 and, to be honest, I don’t think either of us had taken much note of it then, more interested in later delights such as Fisherman’s Wharf and cable car rides.  The absurdity of that attitude was exposed when we feasted our eyes on The City laid out before us on this warm, sunny morning.  What struck me in particular was just how near everything was, you could almost take it in the palm of your hand and stroke it.  

We prised ourselves reluctantly from Twin Peaks and headed down into the Castro and the Mission where we tried to find a parking space close to Dolores Park to relax and enjoy the famed views of the city from there.   But it proved futile, after all it was Friday lunchtime, the sun was beating down and half of San Francisco had got the same idea – never mind, we will do it before we leave.

A tortuous drive back through the Mission and along the Embarcadero meant that we handed back the car to Avis on Beach Street less than an hour before we were required to.  By this time we were hungry and in Fisherman’s Wharf where we had a mediocre lunch experience on the previous day.   However, we had enjoyed a nice meal at Lou’s at Pier 47 in the past so felt comfortable in sitting down at one of the outside tables there.  We were not disappointed as my salmon cakes and Janet’s red snapper were excellent.

With the car returned it was time to collect our City Pass booklets which I had purchased online before leaving the UK.  We walked up Mason and Columbus in the blistering sun to Washington Square where, still replete from lunch, we crashed out on the ground with a cold drink.  However, we soon sought sanctuary on a park bench, as my damp shorts testified that the heat of the past few days had still not drawn the dew left by the incessant rain beforehand from the grass.

Washington Square was understandably busy with bikini clad girls stretched out in the sun, Chinese elders gossiping under the shade of the trees, a single hippie playing catch with himself and office workers resting on the way home to make phone calls to arrange their evening activities.

Refreshed, we walked through the heart of Chinatown to Union Square, stopping only to check the closing time of the restaurant we were planning to eat at later, and for Janet to have her first fix of DW Shoes on Powell whilst I collected the City Pass booklets from the visitor information centre on Hallidie Plaza.  We then used our 7 day MUNI passport for the first time in returning to the apartment.

The highlight of the day, with the possible exception of Twin Peaks, was the journey back into the time in the evening on the no. 5 bus.  After the no-show on Monday evening, which necessitated the life threatening cab ride to the Warfield, at least the bus had the decency to turn up tonight, even if we had more than a ten minute wait in the increasing cold.

The journey was uneventful until Fillmore when a middle aged woman with a motorised wheelchair got on.  The step onto the bus was lowered by the driver to allow her to enter.  The bus was very busy with standing room only at this point but the woman had to manoeuvre herself into the wheelchair user space a third of the way along the bus.  The next five minutes entailed those sitting at the front of the bus having to bring their feet up onto their seats to enable her to get past, when she then engineered a 27 point turn into her appointed position.  It was clear from when she told the driver where she wanted to get off that the same pantomine would be required sooner rather than later.

However, it got worse.  At the next stop a young girl got on with a child in a buggy, which would inevitably complicate matters a little.  But when TWO more girls got on with buggies at the very next stop, this was going to be very interesting.  Once we had reached Larkin and the female wheelchair user wanted to get off it looked an impossibility – until the three girls with buggies, noticing that seats had been vacated, leapt back into the seats, in an almost orchestrated manoeuvre,  with the buggies, complete with babies, in their arms, allowing the wheelchair to get through, and universal applause from the front of the bus.  In our experience there are very few MUNI journeys, especially at night, that cannot provide some such adventure.

We had decided to revisit our favourite Chinatown restaurant, the Great Eastern on Grant and Jackson, and despite the delay caused by the bus journey, we were found a table immediately.  Although the R & G Lounge that we had eaten at in 2008 was possibly the smartest Chinatown restaurant we have eaten at, the Great Eastern has now given us three consistently good meals and is thoroughly recommended – my scallops with straw mushrooms and sugar snap peas, along with shrimp fried rice, was filling and delicious.

And I can proudly announce that I completed my very first chinese meal without resorting once to a spoon or fork, even to clear the final scraps off my plate.  It was chopsticks all the way – and it was still warm when I had finished! 

A couple of large straight Jack Daniel’s for me and two gin and tonics for Janet at Vesuvio’s in Columbus and Jack Kerouac Boulevard completed our evening, apart from a relatively smooth if painfully slow MUNI bus home.

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