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Posts Tagged ‘Ocean Beach 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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My last post explored the area on the north western corner of San Francisco – from the Beach Chalet restaurant along Ocean Beach to the Cliff House and adjacent Sutro Baths.

If you need to return to the city at this point, you can either drive back via the avenues or take the 38 Geary Muni bus. But an infinitely more rewarding, if strenuous, route is along the Coastal Trail, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, that winds around the headland all the way to Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge. The walk begins at the parking lot behind the baths.

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The Cliff House, with the huge picture windows of the bistro and Sutro’s beneath, presents its more fetching side when viewed from the ruins.

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A few hundred yards along the trail, set in the wild, cypress-filled expanse of Lincoln Park, a short detour inland brings you to the stately Palace of the Legion of Honour, an exact replica of the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d,Honneur in Paris. Built in the nineteen twenties to promote French art in California and commemorate the state’s casualties in the Great War, it houses European art from the last eight centuries, including paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt, Monet and Degas, as well as exhibits from Rome, Greece, Egypt and Assyria.

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It might be best known in the public imagination for providing the setting for scenes in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but the gallery is more important for being the home to more than seventy sculptures by Auguste Rodin. Indeed, an original bronze casting of his Le Penseur (The Thinker),  the production of which was overseen by the sculptor himself, greets visitors as they enter via the courtyard.

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Returning to the trail, steep wooden steps transport the adventurous hiker onto Mile Rocks Beach, where, even on a calm day, the rugged terrain is lashed by the strong currents of the powerful Pacific.

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From here, Mile Rocks Lighthouse sits half a mile off shore. Built originally as a bell buoy in 1889, with the lighthouse completed in 1906, it served to guide the way for seafarers until 1966  when the Coast Guard dismantled the lantern and converted it to a helicopter landing pad. Emasculated it may now be, but it is still a curiously imposing structure.

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One of the chief pleasures of the walk is the “now you see me, now you don’t” tease played by the Golden Gate Bridge.

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China Beach, so named as it was once home to an encampment of Chinese fishermen, is a small cove with facilities for residents hardy enough to swim in the icy waters. As the trail turns due north towards the bridge, the larger Baker Beach, the original site for the Burning Man art festival, is one of the most popular spots for sunbathing, walking and fishing, as well as being dog friendly. On sunny days, the northern end is notable for the absence of swimwear or any clothing for that matter.

And it affords a stunning view – of the bridge, not me.

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It might be feel remote but you should not get lost on the trail.  

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At the end of Lincoln Park, the wooded, green terrain gives way to swanky Sea Cliff, one of San Francisco’s most affluent neighbourhoods with its pastel coloured mansions and their immaculately manicured gardens. Its exclusivity is reinforced on every corner by signs forbidding tourist buses, and its list of current and former residents includes Robin Williams, Sharon Stone, Paul Kantner and the founders of both Twitter and Gap. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands are unsurprisingly priceless.

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The walk on this occasion ends here on the south west corner of the Presidio. That magnificent former US army base deserves a post of its own, and I will return to it at a later date.

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Far from Fisherman’s Wharf, on the north west tip of San Francisco, peering out across the vast Pacific, or “Sundown Sea” as the Native Americans called it,  lies Lands End. To the immediate south of that, Ocean Beach stretches towards Half Moon Bay, Pacifica, Monterey and ultimately the Mexican border.

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The following account  is aimed at highlighting some of the attractions to be found in this historic, and often wind and fog ravaged, corner of the city.     

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We start at the Beach Chalet on the western limits of Golden Gate Park. Separated from the beach only by the Great or Pacific Coast Highway, it was opened in 1925, essentially to provide changing rooms for beach-goers. It now houses a popular restaurant and boasts its own brewery.

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It almost goes without saying that it affords magnificent views of the beach and ocean across the road, lulling, as on the occasion pictured, the happy diner into the misapprehension that it is warm and without a breath of wind outside those large picture windows. After all, it was only June and this was still San Francisco.

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Before taking the stairs to the first floor restaurant, visitors should allow time to admire the lovely frescoes depicting life in San Francisco in the thirties, created by French-born cubist designer and former London Welsh rugby player,  Lucien Labaudt, for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

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Venturing out into the gritty afternoon air after lunch, you should not forego a short detour into the park to relax and wander round the radiant Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden, home to the stately Dutch Windmill, the elder of two mills in the park designed to pump ground water for park irrigation.

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I have written about my affection for the Cliff House, a few hundred yards north as the road curves right onto Point Lobos Avenue, on several occasions, notably about the pleasure of eating there:

https://tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/a-cliff-house-brunch-date/

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The current, rather plain and utilitarian, building is the fifth to bear the name on the site. Rebuilt in 1909 after burning to the ground two years earlier (it had survived the Earthquake and Fire of 1906), it houses two excellent restaurants – the street level bistro (pictured below) and Sutro’s below stairs, which offers a more elegant dining experience and equally spectacular wave and wildlife watching. In addition, it hosts weddings, corporate functions and other private events in the Terrace Room.

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The sea lions may have deserted this stretch of coast for a new stage from which they can better entertain the tourists on Pier 39, but Seal Rock(s) remains a fascinating feature that attracts hundreds of gulls , pelicans and cormorants.

The ingenious Camera Obscura, based on a fifteenth century design by Leonardo da Vinci, provides extraordinarily vivid 360 degree images of the birdlife on those rocks.

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Adjacent to the Cliff House lie the ruins of Sutro Baths, the once enormous entertainment complex built by Adolph Sutro – mining engineer, property developer and latterly the first Jewish mayor of the city – who had also constructed the second and most grandiloquent version of the Cliff House in French chateau style.

Comprising six saltwater tanks, a freshwater plunge, natural history museum, Egyptian mummies, amphitheatre and much else besides, the baths could accommodate 25,000 visitors at any one time. Understandably, it was San Francisco’s seaside playground for seventy years from 1896, though it had fallen into disfavour and disrepair long before, as so often in this city, fire finished the job in 1966, just six years before the equally popular and much loved Playland at the Beach close by  was torn down.

Treading among the rocks and pools that remain, one can almost imagine being on a Greek island or an Italian coastal village.

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Opened in the same year – 1937 – as the Golden Gate Bridge, Louis’ family owned restaurant has successfully withstood the competition from its more refined neighbours around the bend in the road, and continues to provide hearty, uncomplicated diner-style fare – and, of course, affords glorious views of the baths and ocean.

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From alongside Louis’, on El Camino del Mar, the road branches eastwards back towards the city, passing the impressive Palace of the Legion of Honour, the moving Holocaust Memorial and the extravagant enclave of Sea Cliff. A more rewarding course is to take the Coastal Trail on foot, winding around the headlands, and from which you can climb down onto China and Baker Beach. The Golden Gate Bridge flirts with the walker at every turn in the path and from behind every clump of trees.

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The Coastal Trail, with its stunning photographic opportunities, is worthy of a post in itself, so I’ll close with another Labaudt fresco from the Beach Chalet and a slightly more modern piece hung up in the bar of the Cliff House bistro.

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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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For fifteen years I believed unquestioningly the received wisdom that San Francisco Zoo was to be avoided at all costs. Underfunded, rundown and more concerned about entertaining its dwindling number of human visitors than caring for its residents, the its reputation had plunged to an all-time low. And then, on Christmas Day 2007, a member of the public was savaged to death by an escaped tiger, the same animal that had bitten a keeper just twelve months before. Among locals, confessing to liking it became nearly as criminal an act as admitting to paying a visit to Pier 39. And it was too far removed from the tourist bus trail to lure outsiders to its Ocean Beach location.

But today, on reading that the zoo was making a comeback, we set aside any such prejudice and took the combined J and L Muni lines to Sloat and 47th to join the young families and school parties that appeared, understandably, to represent the main customer base.

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The first thing that strikes you is the beautifully lush setting. And there has, and continues to be, a tremendous amount of work being done in recent years to rebrand and remodel the Zoo around different habitats and focusing on conservation. As someone who has two world class wildlife parks on his doorstep – the John Aspinall Foundation zoos at Howlett’s and Port Lympne in Kent in England – I wish them well and applaud the passion that was evident in the friendly, welcoming staff.

To recommend a zoo as the perfect place to take the kids is like proposing that an aquarium is the best spot to encounter tropical fish. But the children’s zoo here is a delight. It is a spacious and clean where the children are encouraged to learn about, and engage physically, with the inhabitants, all of whom are only too willing to be petted – and fed. A steam train that picks up a thrilling speed on its short route and an indoor carousel provide added excitement.

Photographed below are just a few of the adorable characters that live at the Zoo. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many animals actually out on display, particularly in the afternoon, than I did on our visit. Generally, they are taking a siesta or just merely playing hard to get. Some, for example the snow leopard and beaver, made themselves unavailable, but the vast majority were clearly visible and untroubled, even stimulated, by the interest shown in them by the public.

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Now Singapore it is not. Nor Toronto. Nor even San Diego.

But it is a zoo that is trying hard to heal a reputation that had been seriously harmed in a market where the alternative “big beasts” like Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf, hold all the aces. And it is doing so in the right way by concentrating on conservation.

TripAdvisor places it 87th out of 520 attractions in San Francisco which, on my limited mathematical analysis, means it is in the top sixteen percent, which, in one sense, is not too shabby. But a city zoo, especially one in such a lovely setting, should be doing better. It deserves greater support from prospective benefactors, San Francisco residents and out of town visitors alike.

And yes, we did see both the baby sumatran tiger and giraffe!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our last day and  the Giants‘ first in San Francisco for this year was greeted once more by clear blue skies and surprising sunshine.  With not having to leave the city for the airport until around 3pm we had considered going to AT & T Park to see the raising of the World Series pennant and possibly even catching an innings or two from the free spot below Levi’s Landing.  But we decided against this for a variety of reasons, including potential problems with parking and the likely size of the crowd around the park.  As it happened, we saw a good deal of the game, including the winning hit, from various locations during the afternoon, so felt that we had been part of the historic event.

We vacated the apartment a little before 10.30am after Janet had virtually done the cleaner’s job for him/her.  We headed for Ocean Beach where we took a short stroll before sitting down to drink in the view one last time.  Having already had breakfast before we left we resisted the temptation to eat at the Cliff House, using the time to drive over to Golden Gate Park to visit the Japanese Tea Garden which was less busy than it had been on our previous visit on Sunday.

Twee though it may be we have always liked the Japanese Tea Garden, and we were surprised to see that it had had a makeover since the same time last year.  Not only had the cafe area been extended physically, but the menu had expanded from the traditional teas and snacks that were ordered at the cash register to table service of more substantial fare.  Mindful that we planned to eat a large meal at the airport we decided to take advantage of the new set up and ordered sushi and Japanese tea sandwiches, both of which were delicious.   This was washed down by Sen-Cha and Jasmine tea.  The shop had also been upgraded from the previous incarnation which sold traditional tourist gifts to an outlet purveying crafts and more up market items. 

After an accidentally convoluted journey we parked up in Haight-Ashbury with around an hour and a half before we needed to set off for the airport.  Although we sauntered up and down Haight Street the only purchase we made was when I added two more to my growing library of books on San Francisco  at The Booksmith.

In need of a drink we found a great spot in Martin Mack’s bar where we watched the first three innings of the Giants game against the St Louis Cardinals over a beer, when they turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead by the time we left, courtesy in no small part of Miguel Tejada‘s homer in his first ever at-bat as a Giant at AT & T Park.

We left for the airport at 3pm, enabling us, after another unintended detour that found us momentarily heading back into the city rather than the car rental return, to drop our bags off (we had already checked in online on the previous day) a full three hours before our flight time.  We settled, as tradition demanded, into the Firewood Grill, where I had a mahi mahi panini and Janet had chicken skewers, both with fries, with a couple of large glasses of wine.  The baseball was now in the ninth innings and Brian Wilson was attempting to finish the game only to concede a tying and leading run for the Cardinals.  Fortunately, the Giants tied it again, taking it into a 10th, 11th and 12th innings before we could not stay in the bar any longer.

As we proceeded to our gate I was fearful that we would leave San Francisco without knowing the outcome of the game.  But the baseball gods were smiling on me – as I went for a last call of nature before being called for the flight I passed a TV set just as Aaron Rowand made the hit to secure the winning run for the Giants, provoking a mighty roar from the assembled throng in the bar in question.

And one final bitter sweet moment – once in the air we flew directly over the city, allowing great views of the “bracelet of bridges”, downtown and Twin Peaks

The rest is silence.

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