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Posts Tagged ‘Union Square San Francisco’


In a little over a month my wife and I will be returning to the place we regard as our second home (financial considerations dictate that it will never be our first) – San Francisco. In fact, this will be our twentieth anniversary since we first laid eyes on the imperious Golden Gate Bridge, sampled clam chowder in a sourdough bowl or cracked open a fortune cookie in a Chinatown restaurant.

After our initial trip in 1995 ( http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/you-were-so-right-louis/ ), it would be another three and a half years, and a further three years after that, before we settled into what became a routine of bi-annual visits. We would combine our stay in the city with a skiing trip to Tahoe and a few days elsewhere, such as Las Vegas, San Diego, Death Valley and Yosemite.

Invariably, after the eleven hour flight, we would stay the first night in a budget hotel, having dinner at Calzone’s on Columbus Avenue (but not without a visit to Tower Records first), followed by drinks at the Vesuvio Café nearby. Breakfast would be taken at the Eagle Café on Pier 39 the next morning, and I would buy my holiday reading at the Barnes and Noble bookstore (now long since closed) in Fisherman’s Wharf before driving over the Bay Bridge.

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On returning to the city we would stay in a hotel, making the small step up (or was it down) from the Tenderloin to the Civic Center on our second trip before heading to the Holiday Inn at the Wharf for three of the next four vacations.

With each passing visit, we became less inclined to rush around ticking off the guidebook highlights, and began to venture off the beaten path and discover those places, within the city and wider Bay Area, where the only (other) tourists we might encounter were getting wind burn from the top of a tour bus.

It didn’t concern us that we hadn’t jumped a cable car for five years, stepped foot in Nordstrom or Macy’s or taken the rough ride across the bay to Alcatraz. Of course, we didn’t avoid all of the more celebrated spots, always finding time, however short the vacation, to eat at the Cliff House, shop on Haight Street, drink in North Beach and ramble round Golden Gate Park on a Sunday afternoon.

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San Francisco quickly became the place where we wanted to live. Without the riches required to buy our way into residency, we would have to content ourselves with alternating between staying in the city (spring and autumn) and the UK (winter and summer) for three months at a time – and only then when we had both retired.

For now, it was a matter of a week here and a fortnight, and, more recently a month, there.

We wanted to “live like locals”, and staying in someone’s (second) home was a good starting point. There would be no maids knocking at the door in the morning anxious to clean the room, no loud, drunken conversations outside the room at 3am and no lift bells ringing or washer / driers humming at all hours.

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So in 2010 we abandoned the lazy predictability of hotel living and rented an apartment in Hayes Valley, following that up a year later with similar accommodation in the Western Addition, a short stroll from Alamo Square. The migration west from downtown, however, took a sunny south easterly turn in 2012 when we chose Noe Valley for our base. It was during our second residence there that we discovered Bernal Heights ( http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/a-hike-up-bernal-heights-hill/ ).

Much as we had enjoyed living in the other neighborhoods, we immediately felt an affinity with the quirky, artsy, small town feel of Bernal and rented a cottage there last year. Our first impressions confirmed, we will be returning to that same cottage twice this year for a total of six weeks.

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It might not have gone unnoticed that our original bi-annual visit strategy has now become annual – and, at least for this year, twice a year!

Over the past two decades, our time in the city has taken on a different, more relaxed tenor. It has become a familiar and habitual part of our lives, somewhere we have now spent more of our time than anywhere else, other than our permanent UK address.

Moreover, we try, as befitting aspiring locals, to engage  more with the city and its residents on a regular, deeper level. During those interminable months in which we are incarcerated nearly six thousand miles away. we maintain a daily interest in the life of the city, and indeed, I comment on it in a number of online forums.

In addition to my Facebook presence, through which I now enjoy a number of personal as well as virtual friendships (even bumming (pun intended) prime seats at AT & T Park to see “our” Giants), I started a blog on the last day of 2010 which focuses on the history, culture and characters of San Francisco.

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And I plan to explore our experiences in more depth in my upcoming book Smiling on a Cloudy Day: An Englishman’s Love Affair with San Francisco, scheduled to be published towards the end of this year.

In our temporary home in the city we neither have to pretend to be what we are not, nor do what we or others feel we ought to do. We can watch the Bay Area news on KRON4 while catching up on household chores in the morning, stroll out to a neighborhood café for brunch, swing by the local wholefoods store and return to the apartment for a bottle of wine on the patio.

All dining options are also possible. We might have dinner in the apartment or we might try out one of the local restaurants. Or we might brave Muni on a trip downtown and eat in Chinatown or North Beach – or even Union Square. We are under no pressure to conform to a set tourist pattern.

What has happened is that our version of San Francisco has shifted, not only geographically but also psychologically, from the waterfront to the southern neighborhoods. In a sense, our journey has mirrored the historical expansion of the earlier city residents from Yerba Buena Cove to the hills.

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But, of course, there is still room for those sights that first enthralled us as much as they have millions of others. They are still only a short drive, bus or taxi ride – or even walk – away. We still make a conscious effort to revisit those attractions we might have neglected on recent trips – for example we plan to explore Coit Tower and Grand View Park again after an absence of a few years – as well as sampling new locations altogether such as Glen Canyon, Dogpatch and Potrero Hill.

If that sounds as if living in San Francisco has become routine, less exciting, even a chore, that could not be further from the truth. We have become, in a modest way, San Franciscans, interested in its history, politics, culture and, undeniably, its sport (Go Giants!) – just as we do at home.

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I invariably turn to legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, for an authoritative, maybe definitive, view on such matters. Here he ruminates on what makes a San Franciscan:

I don’t think that place of origin or number of years on the scene have anything to do with it really. There are newcomers who become San Franciscans overnight – delighted with and interested in the city’s traditions and history. They can see the Ferry Building for what it represents (not for what it is), they are fascinated with the sagas of Sharons, Ralstons, Floods and Crockers, they savor the uniqueness of cable car and foghorn. By the same token, I know natives who will never be San Franciscans if they outlive Methusalah. To them a cable car is a traffic obstruction, the fog is something that keeps them from getting a tan, and Los Angeles is where they really know how to Get Things Done.

Increasingly, our hosts  marvel at our knowledge of, and adoration for, the city. I doubt, however, that the more strident members of online forums would agree with Caen’s loose, but characteristically generous, sentiments here, but I like to feel that we have moved beyond being “sophisticated tourists” who are “charmed and fascinated” by the city to warrant that title of “honorary San Franciscans”.

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Regular readers of this blog will know of my admiration for Herb Caen, the celebrated San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Indeed, it is often through the prism of his vision that I see the city myself, and I find myself turning to him invariably for an apposite remark in a variety of circumstances. It is why too I chose him as one of the first subjects in my “Great San Franciscan Characters” series, the revised version of which can be found at:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/herb-a-very-able-caen/

That post explored his life and career and contained a sprinkling of some of his most famous quotes. I have selected fifty for this article from a variety of publications, though I could have included ten times as many. Some illustrate his customary wit, but others are more wistful and contemplative. Above all, they illustrate his literary skill and “loove”, as he put it, for the city.

No photos, just words.

1. I’ve been living here man and boy, since nine months before I was born, having been conceived during the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition on what became the Marina.  (No, my parents were not in a sideshow, they merely spent the summer here, complaining about the cold).

2. A city is where you can sign a petition, boo the chief justice, fish off a pier, gaze at a hippopotamus, buy a flower at the corner, or get a good hamburger or a bad girl at 4 A.M. A city is where sirens make white streaks of sound in the sky and foghorns speak in dark grays. San Francisco is such a city.

3. Isn’t it nice that people who prefer Los Angeles to San Francisco live there?

4. San Francisco has a bond of self-satisfaction bordering on smugness.

5. A city is not gauged by its length and width, but by the broadness of its vision and the height of its dreams.

6.One of my pet ambitions is to run screaming through the lobby of the Fairmont, bowling old ladies off their red plush perches and tweaking the noses of aged elevator boys.

7. No mystery about the 60,288 San Franciscans missing in the Census. They’re all down in the Union Square Garage waiting for their cars.

8. San Francisco, city of the world, worlds within a city, forty-nine square miles of ups and downs, ins and outs, and going around in circles, most of them dizzy. A small “d” democrat city run by big-buck conservatives, a place where the winds of freedom will blow your mind and your hat off, where eccentricity is the norm and sentimentality the ultimate cynicism. Cable cars and conventions, boosterism living uncomfortable with sophistication, a built-in smugness announcing simply that we are simply the best.

9. The number of foggy days over the city is never reported reportedly. But take it from me – there’s enough to satisfy everyone, and dissatisfy somebody.

10. I rose in my mythical helicopter and looked down on the hippies and the heppies, the brokers and the broken, the champs and the charlatans, the Mime Troupe performing on the Marina Square, the fog chasing the boats off the Bay, the old geezers lounging in the sun at Powell and Market, the kids playing in the alleys of the Mission, and I knew I was still in love with the whole beautiful mess. And I knew I was not alone.

11. Fresh cracked crab with Boudin’s “dark bake” sourdough and a well-chilled bottle of Californian Chardonnay is still the quintessential S.F. meal.

12. one has to wonder how the San Franciscans of today would deal with a catastrophe of similar proportions (Earthquake and Fire of 1906). If the evidence is to be believed, our forerunners faced that disaster with a smile and a Jeanette MacDonald song, and, whistling while they worked, built a city even more glittering and glamorous than its doomed predecessor. Out of the ashes rose the cliche about the phoenix bird that would haunt cub reporters furthermore. “Like the phoenix bird, the Milpitas Mustangs rose out of the ashes of defeat to” – to what? To make the boozy old copy reader spit on the floor in disgust as he applied his big blue pencil.

13. Gray Line buses hauling gray-faced tourists through the gray city on a gray day, a city crew waking the Broadway Tunnel as the rain splashes outside, Chinese selling Japanese trinkets to South Americans carrying German cameras…..gee, what a crazy town.

14. The Sounds of the city. Once they were a heady mix of sidewheeler splash, seagull scream, Ferry building siren, sea lion bark, click-clang of birdcage signal and “one more for the road”. Today, the auto horns blow impatiently, amid hippie bagpipe, flutes, bongo drums, “Any spare change?”, a blind man’s accordion wheezing out “Wabash Cannonball” and – lest we forget – “Have a good day, have a nice day” and smile, damn ya, smile.

15. The trouble with born-again Christians is that they are an even bigger pain the second time around.

16. On the top-most corners of Nob Hill, I see tourists go crazy. Standing in the intersection, they whirl like dervishes as they shoot photos in four directions: hills, valleys, distant peaks, the cables, the bay, Alcatraz and Angel, sailboats and freighters, Chinatown’s pagoda’d roofs, a snatch of the Bay Bridge. From their antics, you can tell they’ve never seen anything like this before and they are entranced. The jaded San Franciscan looks twice and becomes entranced all over again.

17. The only thing wrong with immortality is that it tends to go on forever.

18. nobody runs a headstrong city like this for long. She is still untamed. A wild streak of rebellion simmers and stews just below the surface, refusing to conform to the orthodoxies of religion and society. That is why San Francisco is a mecca – that non-Christian term – for those who have been cast out from lesser temples.

19. San Francisco is a city for all seasons (sometimes four in one day) and various reasons. A city that thinks nothing of spending $60 million and rebuild a cable car system that was obsolete a century ago, and even less of letting drunks lie on the street as long as they aren’t in the way of the cables.

20. This is the 14th largest city in the country, has the fourth largest number of so-called homeless, and the gauntlet of paper-cupped pitifuls gets longer and longer. I’m still good for a quarter but that pittance doesn’t go as far as it used to!

21. On foggy nights, where memories grow suddenly sharp in the gloom, you know the old city is still around you, just below the surface – an Atlantis on the Pacific. Maybe it’s the foghorns calling mournfully to each other, the only voices still around that evoke the swish of paddlewheels on ghostly ferries. Or, barely visible in the mist, a cable car disappearing over a hill on its plunge into yesterday. Halos on streetlamps over empty sidewalks that knew the tread of feet long gone….On a long January night in the quiet city (just before it stops being late and starts to get early), the ghosts begin dancing again, atop the creaking ferry slips, through the venal parking lots where lovely buildings once stood, across the steel bones of cable car lines that were buried without funerals. Bits and pieces remain, the leftover pieces of a jigsaw puzzle we could never quite fit together.

22. I tend to live in the past because most of my life is there.

23. Waiting for the Muni. Spent some of the best years of my life waiting for the Muni at corner of Five and Mish’, where at is situated this pillar of veracity. It’s like Richard Armour’s catsup bottle – at first none will come and then a lot’ll…….While waiting for the Muni, must think about other things. Anything. “They’re doing the best they can,” is OK thought. Also true. One thing you mustn’t do, after, say, about 15 minutes, is step into street and look for buses that aren’t there. Watched bus never boils into view. When you look up street for buses and don’t see any, get very depressed. Wonder if a strike has been called and nobody mentioned it. You think about writing your District Supervisor, whoever he or she may be if at all. Kick mailbox, which is dumb.

24. It is hard to stay depressed in San Francisco, on a crisp November afternoon, with flowers and pretzels for sale on the street corners and the tourists going Instamatically mad at the bright wonder of it all. We are so lucky to have a proper downtown, where people can parade.

25. “What a great town!” The words come blurting out at dusk on the night of a full moon, erasing the doubts and returning the child-like shine to eyes grown cynical. The beauty is slowly vanishing, but enough remains, more than enough, as the lights come on and the bridges turn golden and a pinkish glow softens the hard lines of the marching buildings that could almost stamp out the spirit of a great city. Almost, but not quite.

26. San Francisco has a large gay population, and it keeps increasing, although exactly how gays multiply has not been explained. Nothing is ever explained in San Francisco.

27. The downtown streets of the naked city are peopled with rare and exotic birds, making their various jungle sounds: mating calls (“if you don’t like my sister how about my brother?”), cackles of insane mirth, pleas for help, attempts at music, poetry and sermons on stones. The scene is at once compelling and repellent – the smell of dirt and poverty, the flopsweat of desperation., If looks could kill, you in your neat suit, carrying your briefcase, hurrying along in your well-shined shoes, would have been dead a long time ago, bones left to bleach under the warm September sun blazing out of a washed denim sky.

28. San Francisco can be a perfectly maddening city. But when there’s a good bar across the street, almost any street, and a decent restaurant around almost any corner, we are not yet a lost civilization.

29. This past summer, the bee-busy Delancey Streeters somehow found time to take fifty kids a day, from “disadvantaged” neighborhoods, on tours to Alcatraz. One day, the guide pointed out a solitary confinement cell – “Just this tiny room, with a toilet and a bed” – at which an incredulous voice from the ghetto piped up to inquire, “You mean he had a whole room to himself?”

30. Nostalgia for a catastrophe may seem odd, but this is an odd city. We glory in our past while busily tearing down the evidence of it. Those who truly care about San Francisco know in their bones that there was something very special about the Founding Fathers, those grave, bearded, hang-the-expense types who built a world city overnight, saw most of it go up in smoke, and started all over again without, seemingly, a whimper.

31. A cable car may be the last surviving piece of public transportation that is still fun to ride. You see people actually smiling aboard them. You see people standing in LINE with a smile, just to ride them. A bus is a chore, a streetcar is infinitely better and a cable car is unarguably in a class by itself, being unique……I think most of us are willing to take their chances on the outside step of a cable, simply because it IS outside. The wind, the air, the view of San Francisco passing slowly by, to be savored – no other public transport provides these lifts to the sagging urban soil.

32. I don’t care what people call us as long as they call us, besides which “Frisco” is a salty nickname, redolent of the days when we had a bustling waterfront.

33. “I’d like to lunch at some place that’s typically old San Francisco,” said the Baron Philippe de Rothschild to his good friend, art dealer Bill Pearson – so Bill took him to Tadich’s, which, being typically old San Francisco, doesn’t take reservations. After they’d waited thirty minutes in the crowded little bar area, the baron sighed, “I dislike doing things like this, but perhaps it would help if you told them who I am,” “I dislike telling you this,” said Bill, grinning, “but I did – fifteen minutes ago!”

34. I ride Muni to get closer to The People, who I wish would get closer to deodorants.

35. I don’t think that place of origin or number of years on the scene have anything to do with it, really. There are newcomers who become San Franciscans overnight – delighted with and interest in the city’s traditions and history. They can see the Ferry Building for what it represents (not for what it is), they are fascinated with the sagas of Sharons, Ralstons, Floods and Crockers, they savor the uniqueness of cable car and foghorn. By the same token, I know natives who will never be San Franciscans if they outlive Methuselah. To them a cable car is a traffic obstruction, the fog is something that keeps them from getting a tan, and Los Angeles is where they really know how to Get Things Done.

36. The Tenderloin – so what’s to like? Rundown blocks, rundown people, rundown apartment houses between the big and sterile Federal Building on one side (is that what we really want?) and the Hilton Schmilton on the other. What’s to like is the action, the struggle to survive on one’s own terms, the togetherness of losers and loners…..Hands in raincoat pocket, head down, I walk among the poor, the sad and the ugly, one of them. It would be sentimental and nice to say that they all have hearts of gold, but I wouldn’t count on it.

37. Cockroaches and socialities are the only things that can stay up all night and eat anything.

38. The Giants were the perfect baseball team for San Francisco. They couldn’t win for losing in New York, and were going broke. Now they are going broke here. It figures. A lot of old-timers got nervous when they won a pennant in 1962, but they managed to lose the Series and everybody relaxed again. Who could live with a winner?

39. Spring training! One of the nicest two-word phrases in the language, along with “check enclosed”, “open bar”, and “class dismissed.”

40. Unaccountable millions of words have been written and spoken about San Francisco since the Guyana horrors and the City Hall slayings. In newspapers around the world, on radio and TV stations, this city has been loved and hated, praised and damned, discussed and dissected. Some of the words, and I include myself as a perpetrator, have been overblown, oversentimental, maudlin. There has been a tremendous outpouring of sympathetic concern, and a surprising (to me) amount of bitterness. There has not been this much concentrated “analysis” of San Francisco since the hippie era of the 1960s, and what emerges is the jumbled outline of the city that is all things to all people. For every person who finds this “the most civilized place in the country” there seems to be one who regards it as a cesspool and sinkhole, awaiting only the wrath of God.

41. The Hippies made their deepest penetration of the current campaign on Monday night…..By the hundreds, they poured into the heart of Straightville – by foot, via bus, on hogs, in psychedelically painted VWs, in buses so ancient they might have seen service in the First Battle of the Marne. Bells tinkled, beads jangled, beards bristled, plumes waved in the salubrious evening overcast, a brave sight, and no fuzz to tighten up the scene.

42. Wilkes Bashford revealed the Willie Brown formula for dating: “As he gets older, his dates get younger. That’s because the total of Willie’s age and the age of his date must never exceed 100.”

43. Cartoonist Charles “Peanuts” Schulz, resplendent in an out-of-date Nehru jacket, dined in the Sea Cliff home of cartoonist Marty “Bobby Sox” Links. “You should wear a medallion with that” said Marty, ” and I’ve got the perfect one – I bought it in the Haight-Ashbury.” She ran upstairs and reappeared with a heavy chain from which dangled a medallion reading “LOVE” in beautiful entwined letters. After fingering it for a few seconds, Schulz handed it back with a Charlie Brown smile. “It’s just a little too much for me,” he said. “Do you have one that says ‘LIKE’?”

44. Broadway today is just another wide street with too much traffic. North Beach is just around the corner, as charming and irresistible as ever.

45. Here’s Tinytown USA with big league baseball and football, major league opera and ballet and symphony, big theater, little theater, a thousand clowns in a thousand bars, world-class hotels, a financial district with 500 banks…..and all…..those……restaurants. And it all started because a gold miner needed a place to eat and a home-sick Frenchman needed a place to cook.

46. Can a town that has sour-dough bread and honey butter muffins be all bad? Not on your life! The crab may be frozen but it’s fresh frozen, and the Swan Oyster Depot is more redolent of oysters than swans and everything is fresh there, especially the paisans. The cheap white wine smells like a wet collie, so hold your nose delicately ‘twixt thumb and forefinger and drink, for tomorrow, keed, we die. I keep telling you, it’s a great town. You’ve got to be crazy to think so and crazier not to. Stay off the cable cars and out of the health food stores and you’ll outlive us all.

47. It is no longer the beloved city that poets rhapsodized over, visitors fell in love with and natives worshipped. Gone are the spires and minarets of Baghdad-by-the-Bay. The fight now is to save what is left, and fortunately, there is still a lot worth fighting for. If ever a city had an embarrassment of riches, it is this one, even after the squandering.

48. There is a new Mr. San Francisco, plural. Mover over Cyril Magnin – and make room for Bill Walsh and the 49ers, the new rulers of the universe of football and assorted galaxies…..I don’t really know what a Super Bowl can do for a city, but San Francisco must be a different place right now. A little more joyous, a little more confident and perhaps happy to shed the title of Kook Capital of the World. Now, we have the muscles, we have the Title, we have the kind of brawling image that goes back to the real 49ers.

49. Life is a bad item, short but pointless. You stand at the bar and play liar’s dice with fate. It’s the San Francisco way. You might win, and even if you lose, the scenery’s great and the weather isn’t too bad.

And, of course:

50. One day if I go to heaven…….I’ll look around and say “It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco”.

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In 1995 we were finally persuaded to avert our enraptured gaze from Italy (we had already been to Milan and Sicily that year), to make our first belated trip to San Francisco and, indeed, the United States.

As our tour bus rattled over the Bay Bridge on a balmy early October afternoon, Louis, pronounced Lewis, our chain smoking guide from Barcelona with a penchant for stand up comedy, took to his feet, but not before instructing the driver to press play on the cassette recorder and release the crackling strains of Tony Bennett upon us.

(The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gay,

  the glory that is Rome is of another day)

These words were, however, indistinct on this occasion as they coincided with Louis loudly clearing his throat before uttering the two words that we had become accustomed to hear him preface every announcement with:

“Okey cokey”.

(I’ve been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan

I’m going home to my city by the Bay)

This was the cue for another, more violent attack of phlegm.

(To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars

The morning fog may chill the air, I don’t care)

That was the last we heard of Tony, at least for now, because Louis, larynx lubricated, was gearing up for a speech. He had an important message to impart to us before we were disgorged at our downtown hotel.

“You’ve all heard this song, haven’t you?”.

He couldn’t resist another, much more genteel, croak while fifty three passengers smiled and nodded in his direction.

“Well, it’s true. You WILL leave your heart in San Francisco”.

Emboldened by such an emphatic statement, he continued:

“We’ve been together on this bus now for twelve days and we have seen some incredible sights – the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Las Vegas , the Hoover Dam and even Disneyland. But this city is the place that will capture your heart. I am telling you that when you leave in three days time, you will know exactly what Tony Bennett means”.

As his fans beamed in childlike anticipation, Louis made one final claim before reaching for his cigarettes:

“If you don’t, then Louis knows nothing”.

If the last twelve days had taught us anything, it was that this squat, swarthy man from Spain, who might have passed for either fifty or seventy years of age, knew a lot about everything. We were, therefore, inclined to trust him on this one.

With one final, hearty cough – and another “okey cokey” for good measurehe descended the steps of the coach, shook hands with the proprietor of the Best Western Canterbury Hotel and lit up while the driver helped us to locate our luggage.

(Your golden sun will shine for me).

And for me.

Louis was right.

Despite twelve days witnessing one jaw juddering attraction after another, which had also, bizarrely, included listening to the outcome of the O.J. Simpson trial on the pier at Santa Monica, San Francisco did not disappoint. Not everyone in our party was as thrilled by its charms, as complaints about the homelessness, dirt on the streets and crowded cable cars testified.

But I saw beyond this.

Of course, I was primed for love.

It had been one of the longest courtships from a distance in history.

We stayed three nights in the heart of the Tenderloin, which rendered the moans about aggressive panhandling and grime entirely believable, and crammed in just about every tourist hot spot we could:

  • Twin Peaks (for orientation);
  • Cliff House (for the washrooms inside and jewellery stalls outside, no time for brunch yet);
  • Golden Gate Bridge (for what we would learn later was the second best view – from Vista Point);
  • Pier 39 (for family presents and the sea lion show);
  • Fisherman’s Wharf (for the clam chowder and fleeces (only joking about the latter));
  • Ghirardelli Square (for the chocolate, what else);
  • Union Square (Lori’s Diner and the Gold Dust Lounge, though I’m told there were a few reputable stores there too);
  • North Beach (for the coffee and Italian ambiance);
  • Chinatown (for cheap gifts on Grant Avenue and unmentionable looking foodstuffs on Stockton Street), and
  • Alcatraz (or at least we would have if we had had the gumption to purchase tickets in advance).

We still contrived to fit in an afternoon on Haight Street to enable me to pay homage to Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s lead guitarist, who had died just eight weeks before. And, of course, we stood in line for hours at both the Powell and Hyde turnarounds to catch a ride on the cable cars, marvelled at the cars snaking down Lombard Street, had dinner in Chinatown, and on our last night at The Stinking Rose (I still feel sorry for the other passengers sitting within three rows of us on the flight home the next afternoon).

And the rest is, as any regular reader will know, history.

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A First Time Visitor’s Guide to San Francisco (Updated and Expanded)


A little over six months ago I produced a potted guide for first time visitors to San Francisco. It was so well received that, following my recent visit, I thought it might be helpful to update and expand it to keep it fresh. I have also included a number of new photographs to supplement the text.

As before, it is arranged in  no particular order.

1. Golden Gate Bridge

  • The most iconic sight in a city where there are many attractions to compete with that title;
  • Drive it and take in the views from Vista Point (where the tour buses go), but for the killer photos, cross under Highway 101 at the end of the bridge to climb up the Marin Headlands (below) – you may need to wait for a parking space, and the walk up to the nearest point to the bridge can be challenging for some, but you would regret it if you did not attempt it;

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  • If driving, you have to register in advance for the toll (credit card is charged when you return to city);
  • Walk it or bike it too for more wonderful photo opportunities – and for the health-giving properties, naturally;

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  • Approach it by walking from Aquatic Park at the western end of Fisherman’s Wharf, past Fort Mason and along Marina Green and Crissy Field – it’s quite a trek and usually very bracing, but it affords great views of the bridge and Alcatraz;
  • If time permits, take a side detour to the former army post of the Presidio with its fine, preserved military buildings, many converted for modern use such as the Walt Disney Family Museum, and hikes through the woods with yet more stunning views of Karl the Fog lurking over the bridge.

2.  Golden Gate Park

  • Much to offer in a park that it is a fifth larger than New York’s Central Park;
  • Two splendid museums: the California Academy of Sciences with its resident aquarium, planetarium  and rainforest and the modern art de Young Museum where the building is as interesting as the exhibits it contains;
  • Japanese Tea Garden: it may be twee and not the cheapest gig in town, but it is undeniably beautiful and provides tasty oriental teas and snacks in the café;

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  • Walk round lovely Stow Lake and admire the Chinese Pagoda, the bridges and bird life, and climb Strawberry Hill for excellent northerly views;
  • Grab a hot dog or ice cream at the boat house and take  a pedal boat ride;

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  • Linger among the trees in the moving National AIDS Memorial Grove and sweat a few pounds sauntering through the steamy Conservatory of Flowers (pictured below);

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  • The buffalo paddock (don’t expect the creatures to acknowledge you, they are rather shy) and the Dutch Windmill (pictured below) are also worth exploring at the western end of the park;
  • If you crave refreshment when you reach the beach, grab a table in the Beach Chalet, ensuring you enjoy the murals depicting life in San Francisco in the thirties on the ground floor before you do so.

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3. Ferry Building

  • There is a gleaming new cruise terminal nearby but ferries still use it;
  • Its huge popularity, however, stems from the fantastic selection of indoor food and gift stores, including an attractive, independent bookstore and urbane wine bar;
  • Celebrated local restaurateurs demonstrate their skills at the Farmers’ Market, recently voted the best in the United States and the sixth best in the world, outside on certain days of the week;

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4. Cliff House

  • Drive or take the 38 Muni bus from downtown to Ocean Beach for two fine restaurants with stunning views over the Pacific;
  • Stroll along the beach for miles;
  • Explore the remains of Adolph Sutro’s great public baths and watch the endlessly fascinating display of sea birds on Seal Rock (via the fascinating camera obscura if it is open);

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  • Take the short walk to the western end of Golden Gate Park or, if you’re feeling energetic and haven’t forgotten your camera (to catch tantalising glimpses of the Golden Gate Bridge en route), walk back to the city along the coastal trail that leads from Sutro Baths, descending to China and Baker beaches to get close to the Pacific lashing the shoreline;
  • If you have time, call in for coffee and pastries with Rodin at the Palace of the Legion of Honour.

5. Chinatown

  • Witness the largest Chinese community outside Asia going about its daily business;
  • Grant Avenue, though touristy, is best for gifts whilst Stockton contains the markets at which the Chinese women shop for produce not seen anywhere else!;

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  • You must eat here at least once during your stay – I recommend the Great Eastern, after all the President and First Lady eat there when in town, and the R & G Lounge;

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  • Don’t forget to glance to your right as you walk along Grant for views of the Bay Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid;
  • Amble through Portsmouth Square, where Captain Montgomery raised the American flag for the first time in San Francisco in 1846, and watch the dozens of card and mahjong games being played by the elderly male residents in “Chinatown’s living room”;
  • Dip into Ross Alley and buy an inexpensive bag of the goodies produced in the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.

6. North Beach

  • As befits its traditional status as the Italian quarter, it is full of excellent cafés and restaurants – Trieste with its powerful espresso and live opera the most famous but Greco and Puccini are recommended too;

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  • We have also had good meals at the North Beach Restaurant, Calzone, Sotto Mare, Rose Pistola, Firenze at Night;
  • Rest awhile at Washington Square Park watching the dogs and their humans at play under the watchful eye of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul and Coit Tower;

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  • If you’re looking for breakfast or brunch, join the line outside Mama’s on Washington Square, or if it’s a little later in the day, take your place in a similarly long queue for Tony’s Pizza Napoletana on Stockton and Union.

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  • Have a glass or two of Anchor Steam or Sierra Nevada beer at the Vesuvio Café,  historic haunt of the Beats, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, in the fifties and sixties;
  • Pore over the framed newspaper cuttings and visit the state of the art gents restroom downstairs (I cannot vouch for the ladies, unfortunately);

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  • Peruse the unique shelves of the City Lights Bookstore, one of the most famous in the world, a few steps across Jack Kerouac Alley;

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  • On the opposite corner on Columbus, Broadway is – or, arguably, was – home to many of San Francisco’s more famous fleshpots and the fascinating Beat Museum;
  • If you want to see a cheeky rather than bawdy show, you can do no better than take in long running revue Beach Blanket Babylon – best to book in advance.

7. Palace of Fine Arts

  • The only remaining building from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition celebrating the resurrection of San Francisco from the Earthquake and Fire of nine years before;

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  • It is a beautiful classical structure set alongside a tranquil swan-filed lagoon attached;

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8. Haight Ashbury

  • Whether you’re an old hippie or not, it’s a fascinating place with lots of “head” shops, stores selling retro clothes, good cafés, a massive record shop (Amoeba) and not a few “characters”;
  • Close to Golden Gate Park, it is possible to visit both on the same day.

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9. Alcatraz

  • It may be touristy but no visit to the city is complete without an excursion to the most feared federal penitentiary of them all;
  • In view of its popularity, it’s best to book in advance, preferably before you travel;
  • The day tour is good but the evening (sunset) one is even better, though perhaps not for those of a nervous disposition!

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10. Bay Cruise

  • Sit back and rest those weary feet for an hour or two on the bay, remembering to take suncream, required as much for the wind as the sun;
  • Stop off at Sausalito for a drink and a promenade, taking in those shimmering views from the original “dock of the bay”;
  • The Rocket Boat, with its raucous rock and roll soundtrack, juddering high-speed turns and close-up views of AT & T Park, is tremendous fun, though not for the faint- hearted!

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11. Castro

  • Ground zero for San Francisco’s large gay and lesbian community, with rainbow flags are fluttering everywhere;
  • Many eclectic and unique stores;
  • Beautifully restored Victorian houses rivalling those in Haight Ashbury and Pacific Heights;
  • Good cafes and bars, with an especially vibrant night secene;

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  • Perhaps its most famous building is the great movie house, the Castro Theatre, complete with its own wurlitzer;  if you can, book tickets for a film, many of which come as double bills;

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  • You might even get lucky and be able to participate in a sing-a-long version of either The Sound of Music, Grease or The Wizard of Oz. Or if not, Frozen!

12. Alamo Square

  • Position yourself to take the perfect picture of the famous Painted Ladies Victorian houses with the modern city looming behind.

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  • The recent ban on tourist buses should make the perennial wait for the photo unencumbered by human or vehicular traffic a less annoying one.

13.  Mission

  • Boisterous, funky, traditionally Latino and Hispanic neighbourhood, increasingly subject to gentrification;
  • Great for cheap clothing and inexpensive Central and South American food;
  • Take the pilgrimage to the original Mission Dolores church, the oldest surviving building in the city;
  • Take a picnic to adjacent Dolores Park and savour the great views, not only of the city but also of your fellow humans (some of which may be naked – you have been warned!;
  • Difficult enough on a warm day to find a spare square inch, the current re-modeling and upgrade to facilities means that half of the park is closed to the public.

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14. Coit Tower

  • Fire nozzle shaped monument provided for the city by Lillian Hitchcock Coit in honour of the brave firefighters of the Earthquake and Fire of 1906;
  • Take in the wonderful views over the bay, including Alcatraz;
  • See and hear the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill (though you are just as likely to encounter them elsewhere in the city nowadays);
  • Don’t bypass the wonderful murals in the rush to the tiny escalator to the viewing stage.

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  • Climb up at least one set of steps – Filbert and Greenwich are the best – past lovingly tended urban gardens.

15.  Twin Peaks

  • If you take an organised tour of the city, this is likely to be the first place you are taken for its splendid panoramic views of the city;
  • I will take this opportunity, however, to put the case for my adopted neighbourhood of Bernal Heights..

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16. Civic Center

  • Home to magnificent City Hall and several other public buildings, including the symphony/opera and library;
  • Good, cheap farmer’s market on Wednesdays.

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  • You should be aware that this area, along with the adjoining Mid-Market (rapidly being gentrified) and Tenderloin districts, is where you are most likely to be accosted by vagrants.

17. Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39

  • The most popular tourist spots on the bay, where I, along with many thousands before me, fell in love with the city, bedazzled not only by the bay views but the fun and energy of the area;
  • For me, that love may have faded as I have gravitated towards the inland neighbourhoods, but I can rarely resist spending my last full day absorbing the atmosphere;
  • See,  listen and laugh at the crazy sea lions on Pier 39, long since now migrated from Ocean Beach;

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  • Wander round the myriad of gift shops for presents for those back home;
  • Sample seafood at the many restaurants and wharfside stalls – we have eaten well at the Franciscan, Neptune’s Palace and McKormick & Kuleto’s;

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  • The Hard Rock  Cafe is here too if that is more your scene;
  • The Gold Dust Lounge, relocated from Union Square, is a good watering hole with live music;
  • The Musée Mecanique (vintage amusement arcade) and Hyde Street Pier (collection of classic ships, pictured), are two of the best deals, not only on the waterfront, but in the whole of the city; 

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  • Beware the World Famous Bushman!

18. Union Square

  • San Francisco’s “modern” shopping heart is very popular with tourists and locals alike, and I am slowly warming to it, though I still prefer to use it more as a thoroughfare from Market to Chinatown and North Beach;
  • The Westfield Shopping Center, Macy’s flagship branch, Saks Fifth Avenue and many more designer stores account for its huge popularity;
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  • There are a number of good diners and grills in the vicinity, including John’s Grill, Daily Grill and the daddy of them all, the Tadich Grill;
  • It borders both the Tenderloin and Civic Center, so don’t be surprised by the number of homeless people, some of whom may approach you for money, or at least to persuade you to buy a copy of Street Sheet, or they may just open the door at Starbuck’s on Powell for you.

19. Bay Bridge

  • Many, including my wife, prefer this to the Golden Gate Bridge and love driving on both its upper and lower decks;

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  • The new span that replaced the old one destroyed by 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake has recently opened and is stunning;
  • It is spectacularly lit up at night.

20. MUNI

  • San Francisco’s public transit system is loved and hated in equal measure by both locals and visitors;
  • The cable cars, one of only two moving National Historic Landmarks, are not merely tourist toys, many locals use them too, and you must ride them;

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  • The lines on the Powell and Hyde and Powell and Mason routes may be long but it’s well worth the wait – hurtling down Nob or Russian Hill, especially if you nab the lead rail, is a thrilling experience;
  • If you’re averse to waiting in line, take the less busy California Line which starts in the Financial District and runs up Nob Hill before descending to Van Ness
  • The historic F Streetcar, with its colourful fleet transplanted not only from other American cities but from around the globe, runs from the Castro along Market and the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf, is a charming if uncomfortable ride. Don’t expect, however, to get anywhere quickly;

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  • Very few bus rides on Muni are boring – you’re almost certain to be entertained, amused and horrified – or all three, on any journey – after all, all human life is there!

21. Sports

  • If you’re in town between April and October, get seats for a game at AT & T Park to watch the San Francisco Giants baseball team, twice World Champions in the past four years and currently leading the Majors by a distance;
  • Even off-season, a tour of the ballpark, dubbed the most beautiful sports stadium in the country, is a treat;

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  • The San Francisco 49ers football team have vacated windswept Candlestick Park, bound for their new home in Santa Clara in Silicon Valley!
  • You can also get your (ice) hockey fix too between the months of October and April by taking the train from the Caltrain station at 4th and King to San Jose where the Sharks will be waiting to entertain you.

This is not an exhaustive list – I have not even mentioned the many day trips out of the city that can be made, for example to the wine country (Napa and Sonoma), Muir Woods, Berkeley, Monterey and Carmel. But I think what I have included will keep any first time visitor occupied for a couple of weeks at least!

I would be happy to answer any questions arising from this post.

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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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I’ve taken pen to paper, or rather finger to keyboard, on two previous occasions on this blog to bemoan the demise of “high street” bookshops, both in principle and in my adopted city of San Francisco. In the first, I lamented the closure of the large branches of Border’s in Union Square, replaced now by a DSW shoe emporium, which, to add insult to injury, my wife loves, and 2nd and King opposite the ballpark. I consoled myself at the time with the knowledge that the Barnes and Noble branch in Fisherman’s Wharf was still carrying the flag, only to discover, shortly afterwards, that it too had made way for an expanded Cost Plus World Market.

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But, in one sense, that has been a blessing as it has forced me to seek out San Francisco’s rich family of neighbourhood bookstores. As a result, I’m no longer sure that I miss the big chains as much as I did three years ago.

On my recent trip I had the pleasure of visiting a number of the independent stores – some new to me, others old friends – and discovered a very different story to the one that confronted me when the giants (no, not those) were collapsing around me a couple of years ago.  Phoenix Books on 24th Street  in Noe Valley was my local store where, on the first morning of my vacation, I picked up a discounted copy of Comeback Kings, a book on the Giants’ (yes, those) 2012 World Series victory.

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A Sunday afternoon stroll down Valencia Street in the Mission unveiled the dual delights of Dog Eared Books and Borderlands Books, though the latter’s sole focus on science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery is not to my taste. But the painstakingly prepared coffee was! A happy birthday to Dog Eared Books, a partner of the aforementioned Phoenix Books, Badger Books (of which more below) and alley cat books, which turns 21 this very week! On the evidence of these two thriving outlets, the declaration on its website that ‘reports concerning “The Death of the Bookstore” have been greatly exaggerated’ rings resoundingly and joyfully true.

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What struck me most about all of the bookstores I visited was the sheer number of people frequenting them, not just browsing the shelves but writing their own blogs and engaging in social media on their laptops, drinking every conceivable coffee permutation and interrogating the community noticeboards for apartment lettings or reiki classes and, in some instances, all three.

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Badger Books on the corner of Cortland Avenue and Bennington Street in urbane Bernal Heights, displayed a particularly fine secondhand selection and boasted a lovely children’s section complete with multi-coloured stools.

Needless to say, City Lights in North Beach afforded me several opportunities to part with my dollars and the Book Passage in the Ferry Building, though relatively small, always contains an interesting and eclectic collection. Besides, there are few better places to sit and read than outside with a cup of Peet’s coffee from the adjoining concession.

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Aardvark Books on Church Street near Market, where I bought a set of vintage San Francisco postcards at just fifteen cents each, The Booksmith (another regular haunt) and Browser Books on Fillmore between California and Sacramento are also fine places to stay awhile.

I may, to the purists, be about to join the dark side with my purchase of an Amazon Kindle, but I will never lose my love for plunging into bookstores (preferably those with adjoining cafes and a place to park the laptop), and divesting them of their stock. I expect that I only scratched the surface with San Francisco’s independent bookstores this time, but if the above branches are typical, their future is bright.

I dearly hope so.

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What better antidote – not that one was needed – to a day spent in hippie heaven than a morning in San Francisco’s Union Square. Now I’ll confess that it is one of my least favoured parts of the city, even more so since the demise of the large branch of Border’s Books, only to be replaced by the Designer Shoe Warehouse (DSW) store (which my wife, by the way, adores).

But, in the right light, and provided you don’t actually have to go into any of the designer stores, I can endure, if not quite enjoy, a couple of hours there.

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I stepped across the threshold of Macy’s for only the second time, and even then only to take the escalator to the eighth floor to experience the outstanding views of the entire square from the outside seating area attached to The Cheesecake Factory.

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The predominance of grey and supporting cast of green contrast dramatically with the garish hues on display on Haight Street less than 24 hours before, but the austere layout, especially of the the Kremlin-esque Westin St Francis Hotel (below), whilst not conforming to “my” idea of San Francisco, is not disagreeable when the sun co-operates.

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We could almost have been in any European city as we sat outside the Emporio Rulli café on the Stockton Street side, though the huge Macy’s frontage soon disabused me of that fantasy.

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Fortified by her latté fix, Janet was ready to take on DSW whilst I sought photo opportunities that had escaped me before (just how many pictures of cable cars cruising down Nob Hill can one man take?). Hearts, beefeaters and Betty Boop provided satisfying alternative subjects – but no, I couldn’t resist the full to bursting cable cars as they stopped in front of me almost pleading to be photographed.

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Janet’s re-emergence from DSW was uneventful – apparently this was merely a reconnaisance trip – and we settled for lunch and more people watching in the Bancarella café on the Powell and Geary corner of the square.

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Union Square still doesn’t figure in my top 20 San Francisco locations but I learnt to appreciate, if not love, it a little more after this visit.

I might even summon up the courage to shop in Macy’s before this vacation is over.

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