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Posts Tagged ‘Russian Hill’

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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If you take a left on leaving the Grace Cathedral on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, you will soon find yourself tottering down Taylor Street, one of those hills that appear to drag you down to the bay before your time. Part way down the street on the left, between Green and Union on what is now part of Russian Hill, you will come across a wooden staircase, complete with handwritten sign, where a different form of worship takes place daily.

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Those stairs lead to Macondray Lane, the acknowledged inspiration for Barbary Lane, where at number 28 resided landlady, Anna Madrigal and her “children” in the celebrated Tales of the City novels written by Armistead Maupin. There are few series of books and group of characters more beloved in all of modern literature. Inevitably, therefore, the residents are forced to share their idyll with a steady flow of pilgrims “doing the Tales tour”, taking photos of both the lane itself and the bay “peeping through the trees”, peering into windows and scouring the undergrowth for Mrs Madrigal’s famed “special” plants.  

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Once at the top of the stairs you be walking on a series of cobbled footpaths through what feels like a wooded glade. The charming and diverse styles of houses share the space with profuse flower displays and other rich foliage. It is a magical place that perfectly captures the spirit engendered by Maupin’s books.

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San Francisco boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the whole country. On the rare occasion that a property in Macondray Lane comes onto the market, the asking price is a mere fraction of that demanded in Pacific Heights (though, admittedly, the houses are much smaller).

But I know which I would rather live in.

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As children, we develop strong affinities with certain characters from the books we read, sometimes because we can relate to their experiences, but more often because they fire our young imaginations. For me, it started, understandably, with Alice, Pooh and the Famous Five, but, in my teenage years, I graduated onto Hamlet, Pip, Elizabeth Bennett, Heathcliff, Leopold Bloom, Huck Finn and many others.

But it was later in life, when I discovered the Tales of the City series of books by Armistead Maupin, that I met the most attractive and extraordinary character of them all – Anna Madrigal, the green fingered-transgender landlady of the “crumbling, ivy-entwined relic” called  28 Barbary Lane on Russian Hill in San Francisco.  Her courage, warmth and humour (and taping of joints onto new tenants’ doors) have inspired and delighted in equal measure ever since.

The stakes were high, therefore, when I first saw the Channel 4 TV series. Could any actress possibly play this woman? I was surely destined to be disappointed.

I needn’t have worried. The glorious Olympia Dukakis, due to be awarded with her Hollywood Walk of Fame star as I write this, was born to play her.

With the ninth book of the series, The Days of Anna Madrigal, scheduled for release later this year, it seems a good time to ponder some of the most memorable statements from the great lady. Here goes:

 

1

Mrs Madrigal smiled. There was something a little careworn about her face, but she was really quite lovely, Mary Ann decided. ‘Do you have any objection to pets?’ asked the new tenant.

‘Dear……I have no objection to anything’.

 

2

‘Help yourself to a joint, dear, and don’t bother to pass it around. I loathe that soggy communal business. I mean, if you’re going to be degenerate, you might as well be a lady about it, don’t you think?’

3

Mine’s (her favourite year) 1987,’ said Mrs Madrigal. ‘I’ll be sixty-five or so….I can collect social security and stash away enough cash to buy a small Greek island.’ She twirled a lock of hair around her forefinger and smiled faintly. ‘Actually, I’d settle for a small Greek.’

4

He felt a surge of recklessness. ‘What would you say?’

‘About what?’

‘The end. Your last words. If you could choose.’

The woman studied his face for a moment. Then she said: ‘ How about…”Oh, shit!”‘

5

‘Some people drink to forget,’ said Mrs Madrigal, basking in the sun of her courtyard. ‘Personally, I smoke to remember.’

6

‘How can Anna Madrigal be an anagram for Andy Ramsey?’

‘It’s not.’

‘But you said….’

‘I said it was an anagram. I didn’t say what for.’

‘Then what is it?’

‘My dear boy,’ said the landlady, lighting a joint at last, ‘you are talking to a Woman of Mystery!’

7

‘Oh Mona, we’re all damned fools! Some of us just have more fun with it than others. Loosen up, dear! Don’t be so afraid to cry…or laugh, for that matter. Laugh all you want and cry all you want and whistle at pretty men in the street and to hell with anybody who thinks you’re a damned fool!’ She lifted the wineglass in a toast to the younger woman. ‘I love you dear. And that makes you free to do anything.’

8

‘I can’t trust you.’

‘Yes, you can. I was a weasel of a man, but I’m one helluva nice woman.’

9

‘Girl? gasped Mona.’ ‘You’re a woman!’

Mrs Madrigal shook her head. ‘You’re a woman, dear. I’m a girl. And proud of it.’

Mona smiled. ‘My own goddamn father…a sexist!

‘My darling daughter,’ said Mrs Madrigal, ‘transsexuals can never  be sexists!’

‘Then…you’re a transsexist!’

The landlady leaned over and kissed Mona on the cheek. ‘Forgive me, won’t you? I’m terribly old-fashioned.’

10

She was sixty now, for heaven’s sake……Sixty. Up close, the number was not nearly so foreboding as it had once been afar. It had a kind of plump symmetry to it in fact, like a ripe Gouda or a comfy old hassock.

She chuckled at her own similes. Is that what she had come to? An old cheese? A piece of furniture?

She didn’t care, really. She was Anna Madrigal, a self-made woman, and there was no one else in the world exactly like her.

11

She tugged his earlobe affectionately. ‘I want what’s best for my children.’

A long pause, and then: ‘I didn’t know I was still part of the family.’

The landlady chuckled. ‘Listen, dear…when you get this old lady, you get her for life.’

12

The landlady knelt and plucked a weed from the garden. ‘ Sounds to me like you’re matchmaking. I thought that was my job around here.’

Mary Ann giggled. ‘If I find anybody good for him, I’ll make sure you approve first.’

‘You do that,’ said Mrs Madrigal.

13

Mrs Madrigal took it all in stride, but drew a deep breath when Mary Ann had finished.

‘Well, I must say….you’ve outdone yourself this time.’

Mary Ann ducked her eyes. ‘Do you think I was wrong?’

‘You know better than that.’

‘What?’

‘I don’t do absolutions, dear.’ She reached for Mary Ann’s hand and squeezed it. ‘But I’m glad you told me.’

14

‘Hey,’ he blurted, ‘you should grow your fingernails long.’

Now on her hands and knees, Mrs Madrigal looked up at him. ‘Why is that, dear?’

‘You know, like those housewives in Humboldt County. Works much better than tweezers, they say.’

She handled this clumsy inanity with her usual grace.

‘Ah yes, I see what you mean.’ Falling silent again, she searched until she found the tweezers, then stood up and brushed her hands on her skirt. ‘I tried that once….growing my nails long.’ She caught her breath and shook her head. ‘I wasn’t man enough for it.’

The last time we saw Anna was at the end of Mary Ann in Autumn – a frail old lady who cannot trust herself to pour a cup of coffee, a stroke survivor who puffs (admittedly “demurely”) on nothing more risqué than a vaporizer. But she still plays girlishly with her wayward hair and wears garish kimonos, and  is able to dispense sage advice to her “family”.

I almost hesitate to open that next book when it arrives.

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Those “little cable cars” climbing “halfway to the stars” are one of the best loved and most iconic experiences for any visitor to San Francisco.  But few tourists hanging onto that lead rail as the Powell-Hyde car plunges down to the bay, or commuters perched atop Nob Hill on a California Street car about to sweep past the swanky hotels en route to the Financial District, will be aware that there was a time, shortly after the Second World War, when they became an endangered species.  Or even less so of the fact that they were saved for future generations through the foresight and resilience of a genteel, middle-aged lady from the eastern slopes of Telegraph Hill.

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The devastating earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed much of the cable car system and triggered the rapid expansion in construction of electric streetcars with overhead wires, the first of which had been built in 1892.  And once it had been shown that the latest municipal buses, unlike the streetcars, could negotiate the steep hills, the continued viability of Andrew Hallidie’s invention was called into sharp focus.

By 1944 there were only five lines left in operation – the three independently owned by the California  Street Cable Railroad (Cal Cable) and the Powell-Mason and Washington-Jackson lines owned by the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni).

On 27th January 1947, in his annual message to the Board of Supervisors, Mayor Roger Lapham, a New York businessman who had been elected with a mandate to streamline the city’s finances, announced that the “city should get rid of its cable cars as soon as possible”, claiming that they were losing $200,000 a year.

Lapham’s vision of “super buses” replacing the cable cars met with little public favour, and the San Francisco Chronicle encapsulated the opposition’s argument in its editorial of 3rd February when it wrote that: “bus lines would be a good deal less expensive. But against this saving should be weighted………the market value of an institution which helps make the city stand out among cities of the world”.

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But the strongest advocate for their retention came in the unlikely form of prominent socialite, Mrs Friedel Klussmann, who, outraged by this pronouncement, immediately began to mobilise opposition through the equally improbable auspices of the California Spring Blossom and Wildflowers Association and the San Francisco Federation of the Arts.

On 4th March, within sight of the Mayor’s office, she held a joint meeting attended by leaders of 27 women’s civic groups and formed a Citizen’s Committee to Save the Cable Cars, collecting more than 1,000 signatures in the first four hours of its campaign for an initiative charter amendment, a figure that was to rise to 50,000 by the end of the battle with City Hall. Despite the increasingly desperate arguments emanating from the Mayor’s office, the Board of Supervisors voted 7 to 4 to place Measure 10 on the November ballot.

Neither Mrs Klussmann nor her Committee were mere soft-hearted sentimentalists, and they put forth a robust rebuttal of the economic argument for closure in a detailed press release that spoke about the “$34,630,522 of new money” generated by tourism in the previous year, adding that San Francisco “is constantly striving to interest the rest of the world in its historical and colorful background, of which the cable cars are the No.1 attraction”.  The loss of the Powell and Market turnaround would be a blow to the city’s identity that “cannot be measured”.

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As Life Magazine put in in its 24th February edition: “It was as though Venice had proposed ridding itself of its gondolas”.  Visiting celebrities, including Elenor Roosevelt, publicly endorsed Mrs Klussmann’s campaign.  Newspapers were inundated with letters of support for the cable cars and accounts from passengers of their grim experiences waiting for and riding buses.

Measure 10 compelling the City to maintain and operate the existing cable car system was passed overwhelmingly by 166,989 votes to 51,457.  In her victory statement Mrs Klussmann said: “It is wonderful to know that San Franciscans appreciate their famous, efficient and safe cable cars”.  The Committee was galvanised again in 1950, 1951, 1954 and 1971 to fight further cost-cutting measures, with modest success.

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In the same year Mrs Klussmann also founded San Francisco Beautiful (www.sfbeautiful.org), the “only organisation in San Francisco whose sole purpose is to protect and enhance the city’s urban environment”, working to “improve the quality of daily life, strengthen communities and empower citizens to maintain the character of the city’s parks, neighbourhoods and streets”.  It continues to do excellent work today, not least through its Friedel Klussmann grants made to organisations that “seek to maintain or enhance San Francisco’s unique beauty and livability”.

When she died at the age of 90 in 1986 the cable cars were decorated in black in her memory.  On 4th March 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of the Committee’s initial meeting outside City Hall, the Friends of the Cable Car Museum dedicated a mural to Mrs Klussmann at the cable car barn.  The turntable at the outer terminal of the Powell-Hyde line was also dedicated to her.

So next time, dear visitor, when you skirt the ridge of Russian Hill on a clanking, rumbling Powell-Hyde cable car and catch your breath at the bay vista spread out before you, spare a thought for the prosperous, middle-aged lady, whose vision and courage sixty years ago ensured that you can have those unforgettable experiences today.

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I am particularly indebted to Walter Rice and Val Lupiz’s excellent article The Cable Car and the Mayor (www.cable-car-guy.com/html/cclm.html#top) for much of the detail provided above.

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