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Posts Tagged ‘Presidio’

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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Today I stand, or rather sit (I find it easier to type that way), accused of a series of offences that, taken together, amount to an even more grievous crime – that of being a bad tourist in San Francisco.

With what appears now to have become an annual pilgrimage to The City approaching, I plead guilty on all counts as outlined below.

1. Failure to take a single cable car ride during the past three vacations, amounting to a total of 52 days.

This is all the more remarkable given my affection for the cute little blighters, but long lines at the turnarounds and a preference for both walking and other forms of transportation (even Muni!), have conspired to keep me away from the lead rail in recent times. But I promise that this is one omission that I intend to rectify very soon.

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2. Failure to visit Alcatraz during the past five vacations, amounting to a total of 73 days. 

Alcatraz is unquestionably one of the city’s greatest draws and any new visitor must include it in his/her itinerary if time permits (be sure to book in advance). And, to be fair, I have taken that short ride across the bay several times in the past, including the night tour, which has an atmosphere all of its own. But not recently. There will come a time when I wish to be reminded of that atmosphere, but living in the now in the city is a greater priority at present.

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3. Failure to make a single purchase in either Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom or any other large store in the vicinity of Union Square at any time.

I have less compunction about flagrantly contravening this obligation. The late lamented Border’s bookstore and Rasputin’s dark, quirky music store have been the limit of my Union Square shopping experiences. Though I have eaten in the area on many occasions!

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4. Failure to purchase a cheap San Francisco fleece or waterproof jacket at Fisherman’s Wharf or Pier 39 at any time.

Another “crime” to which I can offer little defence. I learned the hard way, as many visitors do, that clear days on the bay often go hand in hand with bitingly cold temperatures and an uncomfortable wind (it was probably the crab). But, never being one to follow the herd, I have resisted the lure of this ubiquitous top seller, ensuring that I always carry sufficient layers with me, whatever the weather. And leave the shorts behind altogether (though I do compensate by wearing trousers in case you wondered)!

I have no doubt that I could ask for many other violations to be taken into consideration, notably a failure to ride the tourist buses often enough (only once – on my wife’s birthday), stay in a hotel (rather than renting apartments in outlying neighbourhoods like Noe Valley and Bernal Heights) or fill up on clam chowder.

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But in mitigation I would argue that, at least in part, I served my tourist apprencticeship during the final years of the last, and early years of the new, century, including dutifully riding the cable cars and visiting Alcatraz regularly.

Equally, I have always found time to hang out in Chinatown, North Beach and Haight-Ashbury, however short the stay might have been.

So, whilst I may have gone a little off the rails – or rather cables – I am not completely a lost cause. Going straight – a precarious pursuit in this of all cities – may be beyond me as I journey to a new apartment and contemplate hiking the Presidio and Glen Canyon, but the need to research for my next book will also encourage me to reacquaint myself with those sights that so enchanted me in the early years.

Before sentence is passed, I would offer the following plea bargain – keep letting me back in to San Francisco and I will promise to play the tourist at least for some of the time.

But I draw the line at the fleece.

Dangle me from the Golden Gate Bridge if you ever see me wearing one.

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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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Three and a half days to go – time to settle back into The City.  One thing we had promised ourselves on this trip was to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and back.  We had driven it many times but still had not experienced the thrill of stamding on it midway across the bay.

Abandoning – not for the first time – the late running MUNI buses in our neighbourhood, we walked to Van Ness on another warm, clear morning where we picked up a no.47 to North Point.  From here  we cut through Aquatic Park to Fort Mason where, conscious of eating early this evening, we felt it was time to have a light lunch.  We discovered the Readers’ Cafe in Building B which not only served fine food and the strongest, handcrafted coffee imaginable, but contained a large second hand bookstore. 

As we ate our tofu and avocado sandwich (me) and flapjack (Janet) it was also nice to know that we were contributing towards the San Francisco Public Library.  I took the opportunity here to engage a local woman in conversation about how lucky she was to live here permanently.  Whilst acknowledging her good fortune she said she really loved London!

We have enjoyed our two stops at Fort Mason, barely half a mile from Fisherman’s Wharf yet I wonder how many tourists ever get to visit it or are even aware of it.  And do San Francisco residents make as much use of the facility as they might?

The walk through the Marina and Crissy Field was challenging as we had both the brisk coastal wind and strong sun in our faces.  The Warming Hut, therefore, proved a very welcome refuge.  Aside from the food and drink available it has a very interesting gift shop with a number of San Francisco related books that I had not seen anywhere else. After a short break we walked up the hill to the entrance to the bridge, stopping constantly to take photographs of the killer views.

The camera was called into action many times again as we made the trip over into Marin County.  We quickly became immune to the noise and rush of the traffic, although we had to be on our toes to avoid many of the (local) cyclists who seemed to think they were riding flat out in a velodrome rather than on a pedestrian filled six foot wide pavement.  With the constant photo stops and observation of a sea lion diving for fish, it took us around three quarters of an hour to get to Vista Point on the other side of the bridge. 

After a comfort break and more photographs, we set back across the bridge to make the return journey which took just half an hour.  Coffee and chips were our reward before we caught a no. 28 bus back to Fort Mason

We spent the next hour and a half exploring Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf before retiring to The Franciscan for dinner.  Excellent food, attentive service and sunset over Alcatraz made this one of our better evening meal experiences on the vacation.  I had crab enchiladas and Yukon mashed potatoes with zucchini whilst Janet had Crab and Shrimp Louie with fries.

We took the F Streetcar to Market before picking up the no.5 MUNI bus to take us back to the apartment.

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