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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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Our first full day in San Francisco – and it was a good one.  After a comfortable night’s sleep (another plus point for the apartment) we woke to steady rain that had left large pools at the bottom of the wooden steps leading down from the kitchen to the back garden.  The forecast was for it to clear later in the morning to leave a cloudy but dry afternoon and evening.

Tradition dictates that our first morning be spent at the Cliff House at Ocean Beach for brunch.  This was just a 10-15 minute drive straight along Fulton until we reached the Pacific Ocean.  For the majority of the journey we passed an especially verdant Golden Gate Park on our left, whilst from the passenger side of the car, we caught occasional and tantalising glimpses of the towers of the glorious Golden Gate Bridge looming over the equally healthy trees of the Presidio.

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

The scene was a busy one – joggers passing in either direction and at varying speeds,  people , like us, strolling contentedly in a wind induced state of dishevelment – but most of all, dogs everywhere enjoying the freedom and excitement of exploring the endless expanse of beach.  We must have seen twenty species, from caped miniature poodles and chihuahuas and striking, enigmatic huskies to imposing rottweilers.  We felt as if we were committing an act of animal cruelty by not having one of our own to exercise.  Momentarily, I contemplated hiring one for the week, because, after all, this is San Francisco and I’m sure it is possible.  I don’t think, however, pets are allowed in the apartment – ah well! (And just as I typed this I’ve spotted a very cute dog in the back garden – think it belongs to upstairs!).

We had a twenty minute wait for our table, giving us the opportunity to check on coming events (Wednesday prix fixe menu and jazz evenings) and look in the gift shop.  We both ordered, tradition again, Eggs San Francisco (two poached eggs and crab on toasted sourdough bread with roasted potatoes and fruit) – delicious.  Feeling replete we took another longer walk in the burgeoning sunshine along the beach towards the south, exploring the bonfire pits on the way.  Crossing the Great Highway for the return to our car, we called in at the Beach Chalet to look at the fabulous murals depicting everyday scenes of San Francisco history.

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

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

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

We joined an already lengthy line outside Club Fugazi around 50 minutes before showtime.  I collected our tickets from the box office and took my place in the line.  We were surrounded by around a dozen boisterous and slightly drunk ladies of a certain age taking in the show as part of a bachelorette party.  Whilst we didn’t begrudge them their fun we did hope that their seats were in a different part of the auditorium.  Our prayers were answered as they lurched off to the area close to the stage on the ground floor whilst we were escorted to our seats in the center balcony – having been five times now this is our preferred area to watch the show.  Arming ourselves with a bottle of Woodbridge White Zinfandel and a large packet of pretzels we were ready to cheer Snow White on her worldwide search for a prince.

Once again, Beach Blanket Babylon delivered.  Although we had only been this time last year there was still a lot of new content along with the familiar old staples.  The highlight for me was when San Francisco Giants baseball stars Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum and Brian Wilson (no, not the real ones) burst onto the stage holding the World Series trophy and singing We Are the Champions. The Queen‘s appalled putdown of the upcoming wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton was hilarious and a typical Beach Blanket Babylon satirical slant on a subject that is all too often treated too reverently.

We had decided that we would try the North Beach Restaurant for dinner for the first time, provided we could get in (we hadn’t booked).  The restaurant looked very busy, but on presenting ourselves at the front desk, we were whisked to the only free table, for two, adjacent to the kitchen.  That may not sound the most appealing location but Janet found it fascinating, catching regular momentary glimpses of the frenzied behind the scenes action as the front of house staff went swiftly went about their work.

But what of the food and service?  This was traditional Italian fine dining at its best.  My linguine with porcini mushrooms and scallops was outstanding, as was Janet’s seafood risotto – both surpassing the excellent meals we had enjoyed at the Riva Grill in South Lake Tahoe.  And our waiter was suave, attentive and witty.  We would thoroughly recommend this establishment and certainly intend to dine there again.

I had wanted to visit The Beat Museum on Broadway for some time, so as the night was still young (10pm), we called in.  Although the museum itself had already closed for the day, we spent some time perusing the bookshelves and other fascinating memorabilia, and I bought a couple of books I had not seen before, one the 700 page Hippie Dictionary –  A Cultural Encyclopedia of the 1960s and 1970s by John Bassett McCleary and The Beats – A Graphic History.  On leaving we strolled around the fleshpots and nightclubs of Broadway before fleeing back into civilisation at Vesuvio’s bar on Jack Kerouac Boulevard.   Again, we were fortunate in claiming what must have been the only two seats available, at the bar.  After a couple of drinks we walked down Montgomery through the Financial District before boarding a number 5 MUNI bus at Market to transport us back to the apartment.     

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One of the most controversial and radical religious and social leaders of his time, the Rev. Cecil Williams has been an influential figure in San Francisco public life for the past half century.  Combining spirituality, left-wing politics and unstinting social activism he has been a inspirational spokesperson for the poor and margininalized in the city and across the country.  

He was born on 22nd September 1929 in San Angelo, Texas, one of six children.  After graduating from Huston-Tillotson University in 1952, he was one of the first five African American graduates of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University three years later.

He bacame the pastor of the GLIDE Memorial United Methodist Church at Ellis and Taylor in San Francisco in 1963.  Its mission has been to “create a radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization”. 

Diversity and compassion have been at the heart of Williams’s work.  People of all races, ethnic backgrounds, social classes, cultures, ages, faiths and sexual orientations are welcome to join in the Celebrations held every Sunday at 9am and 11am to “experience the energy of spiritual liberation coupled with the fusion of jazz, blues and gospel performed by the renowned GLIDE Ensemble choir and the Change Band”.  An example of this is contained in the following video:

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It is the practical demonstration of his belief in diversity that has earned him both veneration and notoriety.  In 1965 he became the first minister to perform  same sex marriages long before the battles of the past decade and he was also instrumental in forming the Council on Religion and Homosexuality in 1964.  The church provided healing and comfort for the LGBTQ community in 1978 in the aftermath of Harvey Milk’s assassination, and it was the first  in the US to offer HIV testing after Sunday services during the AIDS epidemic of the eighties.

In 1967 Williams courted further controversy by ordering the cross removed from the church’s sanctuary, stating that it was a symbol of death and that his congregation should celebrate life and living instead.

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His contribution to the struggle for civil and human rights is unquestioned and prompted him to host political rallies in which Angela Davis and the Black Panthers spoke in the seventies.  He has also arranged lectures by Bill Cosby and Billy Graham.  Other prominent public figures that have frequented and supported the church’s work include Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, Maya Angelou and Warren Buffett.

Under his leadership, GLIDE Memorial became one of the most prominent liberal churches in the US, and now boasts a diverse congregation of over 11,000 members.  It is the largest provider of social services in the city, serving over 3,000 meals a day, providing AIDS / HIV screenings, innovative adult education programs, creative arts and mentoring for youth,  computer and job skills training, drug and alcohol recovery programs and giving assistance to women dealing with domestic violence, homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues.  GLIDE Health Services was hailed by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a model for national healthcare in March 2008.

Williams retired as pastor in 2000 in accordance with United Methodist Church rules.  However, the local congregation and affiliated non-profit foundation hired him in the newly created role of Minister of Liberation, thus enabling him to continue officially serving the community and church.

He was married to school teacher Evelyn Robinson from 1956 until their divorce in 1976.  They had two children, Albert and Kim.

He has been married to Janice Mirikitani, who co-founded the GLIDE Memorial Church with him and who has worked with him on many social programs, since 1982. 

 

The church is credited with helping Will Smith and his son get back on their feet in the 2006 film, the Pursuit of Happyness.  His autobiography I’m Alive was published in 1980.

In recent years he has received numerous honors and awards, including Southern Methodist University’s Most Distinguished Alumni, the National Caring Award and an appointment as Chairman for the Northern California Dr Martin Luther King Jnr Birthday Observance Commitee at the personal request of Dr King’s widow.

The challenges for Williams and his church are no less demanding than they were when he became pastor neary fifty years ago, and are best expressed, along with a restatement of his original vision, by the GLIDE website:

“a suffering economy, poverty, drug abuse, violence, and despair continue to persist in San Francisco as they do across the country. By working to combat these problems, GLIDE serves as an oasis in a desert of hopelessness, marching to the edge where victories for social justice are won. GLIDE is a place where old, destructive ways of being are thrown out and new ones created. Where names are named and love is celebrated and a simple call goes out to all races, classes, genders, ages, and sexual orientations: It’s recovery time. It’s time to love unconditionally”.

I trust we can all say “Amen” to that.

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