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Posts Tagged ‘Union Square’


All things must pass

All things must pass away

And so, little more than a week ago, we had to leave our temporary residence in Bernal Heights for “home” in the UK.

But I do not want to put that experience to one side just yet (and we will be returning next year), without paying one final tribute to the neighborhood.

So here, in this fifth and final article in the series, are this visiting Englishman’s ten reasons for loving Bernal Heights.

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A cautionary note for residents before I start.

In a little under a fortnight we could neither cover every blade of grass, trip over every upturned pavement slab, nor eat at every café or restaurant, so this will be no more nor less than a personal account of those people and places we actually encountered.

Where I have written on a subject in one of the previous posts in this series, I have tried to keep it short.

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For ease of reference they are listed in alphabetical order.

1. Accessibility

A few years ago, the thought of staying so far from Fisherman’s Wharf or Union Square would have been unthinkable. After all, many of the maps produced by the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau do not stretch as far as Bernal Heights. And few guide books even make passing reference to the neighborhood (the Alemany Farmer’s Market might just get a mention).

But once we had swapped hotel for apartment living, we have moved progressively further out. Hayes Valley begat the Western Addition begat Noe Valley begat Noe Valley again. The gentle hike up to Bernal Heights Hill from Precita Park last year, followed by lunch in Progressive Grounds, was enough to convince us that this is where we wanted to base ourselves next time.

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Accessibility was not the problem it might have seemed. The 101 and 280 freeways were barely three minutes drive from our cottage, the 24 Divisadero Muni bus ran along the bottom of our street and there were several other lines operating through the adjacent Mission district. Having become attached to the J Church Muni Metro line during our stays in Noe Valley, we often walked over to 29th Street to catch a direct line downtown.

 

2. Architecture 

One of the things that most charmed us about Bernal was the sheer variety of housing. No long rows of Queen Annes, Bay Windowed Italianates or Sticks here, but a real diversity of property. Their relative smallness and, in many cases, quirkiness, made wandering around the area a fascinating and often surprising adventure.

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The fact that Bernal Heights featured as low as nineteenth in a recent survey of the number of single millionaires living in each San Francisco neighborhood (Noe Valley next door came third, and even the Mission, evidence of its growing gentrification, was sixth), reinforced this impression of the relative modesty and affordability of the area.

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Though it would still be out of our price bracket!

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3. Cafés

Having seduced us to stay in Bernal Heights in the first place, Progressive Grounds was first on our list of watering (and feeding) holes on our arrival.

And it was also the last!

Our final meal in the city – scrumptious grilled lavash wraps and coffee – was bought there and carried ceremoniously up to the hill where we consumed it whilst continuing the perennial debate about the identity of each downtown building – now you see Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid, now you don’t.

We had encountered Martha’s, or Martha and Brothers to give it its official name, on both 24th Street and Church Street during our stays in Noe Valley, and were delighted to find that there was a branch on Cortland. Strong coffee, excellent pastries and outstanding service were on offer, and the tables outside were perfect spots for watching Bernal go about its business (and counting the number of 24 buses that passed by in each direction).

It would be a real shame if Starbuck’s was to take over the Badger Books site or any other vacant lot in the neighborhood in the future.

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We ate good, wholesome breakfasts at both the Liberty Café and Moonlight Café (the interior of which is pictured above). Although the former enjoys a stronger, city-wide reputation, we were particularly impressed with the latter. Perhaps our expectations had been lower (you order at the counter rather than be served at your table), but we were pleasantly surprised.

And last, but by no means, least, we called in at the Precita Park Café for Mitchell’s ice cream during a Sunday afternoon walk around the northern slope. This is undoubtedly somewhere to explore further on our next visit – the food looked delicious.

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4. Diversity

The traditional equation of a single ethnic grouping with many of San Francisco’s neighborhoods has been diluted in recent times. I have already mentioned the influx of affluent white tech workers in the historically Hispanic and Latino dominated Mission. And the edges of the boundary between North Beach and Chinatown have become increasingly blurred.

In the past three hundred years, Bernal Heights has been inhabited by Native Americans (the Ohlone), Latin Americans, Irish, Italians, Scandinavians, African Americans, Filipinos and other Asian nationalities, so it is hardly surprising that there is a refreshing ethnic mix in the community, one that hasn’t been quite so evident to us anywhere else in the city.

And this diversity was not only about ethnicity.  Young families, the elderly and lesbian and gay couples were all in evidence.

The visible contrast in the demographic between Bernal and neighboring Noe (“Stroller”) Valley, was especially dramatic.

 

5. Dogs

I wrote about the apparent “dogs rule” phenomenon on Bernal Heights Park in my article last year, and we were able to enjoy it at close hand on this trip. The top of the hill must sometimes seem like the canine community center for all of San Francisco.

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But it was the excitement of those tied up outside the Good Life Grocery every time I called in that provided the most entertainment and could not pass without stroking them. I can report that I still have all my fingers.

The absence of a doggie companion was the only thing that prevented us from feeling truly at home during our stay. In fact, at one point I feared we might be contravening some by-law by not owning one of our own, at least, walking half a dozen of somebody else’s.

 

6. Friendliness

I referred to the warm greeting we received everywhere we went in one of my earlier articles, and I’m pleased to report that we continued to be treated well throughout the remainder of our stay. The only establishment that we didn’t feel entirely welcome was the Wild Side West, though we liked the quirky back garden.   

I should add that we had been a little apprehensive about staying in the neighborhood before arriving in the light of the shooting of Alex Nieto only a few days before we left the UK. However, we detected none of the tension (perhaps we were too far away), and felt completely safe at all times, including late at night when we often walked back from Mission Street.

 

7. Hill

We could while away hours on the hill, picking out landmarks in all directions, having a picnic and watching the dogs at play. For us, it is a far superior viewing point than Twin Peaks, which most of our compatriots, and many residents for that matter, will only have visited.

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Our only regret is that we omitted, as we had planned, to go up onto the hill at night – another reason for returning as soon as possible!

 

8.Library 

Again, I have already recounted the story of my visit to the library to print some documents. This is somewhere else I would want to spend more time in the future.

 

9. Restaurants

We only ate out twice in the evening in the neighborhood, but both were outstanding experiences.

On the recommendation of Emperor Norton himself, who lives in the neighborhood, we dined at Piqueo’s Peruvian restaurant on Cortland on our second night. It was fortunate we had made a reservation as it was packed, even though it was Wednesday. Granted that it is small and intimate (and just, perhaps, a little too dark), but we were, nonetheless, impressed by its popularity.

And rightly so.

Service was attentive and professional and our food was excellent. It took a lot of convincing to persuade my wife that we shouldn’t return there rather than try somewhere else.

But we did eat somewhere else.

Acting on another local resident’s recommendation, we had our last meal at Vega, a family-run Italian, again on Cortland. We had made a reservation for 8pm. On arrival, we were told that we might have to wait a few minutes while previous diners finished off. We were offered the small table by the front desk (and the open front door!) which we politely declined, preferring to wait for a table in the main dining room.

For that we received a free glass of wine each!

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After we had finished our starters, we were asked by the waiter if we would mind moving to another table for two for the remainder of the meal in order to accommodate a larger party that would necessitate putting tables together. We were happy to do so.

Our reward this time – a free glass of sparkling wine each!

Sadly, we weren’t inconvenienced any further and so had to pay for the bottle of wine – and food – we had actually ordered.

The meal was excellent, though the short walk back up the hill to the cottage was somewhat less enjoyable in the circumstances.

 

10. Stairways

Again, I have already written about these in a previous post. Suffice to say that this was another charming feature of the neighborhood, offering stunning views and keeping us fit (if I keep saying/writing that I might just believe it).

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The only thing we don’t miss?

Climbing up from Mission Street via the Eugenia Stairway late at night to get back to the cottage.

No, I lied.

We do miss it!

Au revoir, Bernal.

A bientôt.

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A First Time Visitor’s Guide to San Francisco


I am regularly asked by friends, personally and on social media sites, for advice on what are the best things to see and do on their upcoming,  and invariably first, trip to San Francisco. Rather than continue to respond on a one to one basis, I have listed below my current recommendations so that anyone can refer to them when they need to.

I should stress that the selections below reflect my personal views, though I have still included other celebrated attractions that would not necessarily be on my list if I only had a few days in the city. But the focus is on the first time visitor.

I must put my prejudices aside for this exercise! They are arranged in  no particular order.

1. Golden Gate Bridge

  • Drive it and take in the views from Vista Point, but much more spectacularly, the Marin Headlands (below), which you access by going under the road just after the end of the bridge;

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  • Note that you have to register in advance for the toll (credit card is charged when you return to city);
  • While you’re there, pop into Sausalito only a few miles away for lunch or coffee and fine views of the city;
  • Walk it or bike it too for more wonderful photo opportunities;
  • If you can, approach it by walking along the Marina, past Fort Mason, from Fisherman’s Wharf – it’s quite a trek and usually very bracing, but it affords great views of the bridge and Alcatraz.

2.  Golden Gate Park

  • Two splendid museums: the California Academy of Sciences and the modern art de Young Museum;
  • Japanese Tea Garden (it may be twee but it is set in lovely grounds and provides tasty oriental teas and snacks in the café);

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  • Stow Lake (lovely to walk round, grab a hot dog at the boat house or book a pedal boat);

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  • Visit the moving National AIDS Memorial Grove and the steamy Conservatory of Flowers;
  • The buffalo paddock (the creatures are rather shy) and the Dutch Windmill are also worth exploring at the other end of the park.

3. Ferry Building

  • Fantastic selection of indoor food and gift stores, and the sixth best Farmers’ Market in the world (according to a recent survey) outside on certain days;

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  • Nice bookshop and great wine bar.

4. Cliff House

  • Drive or take the 38 bus from downtown to cean Beach for two fine restaurants with stunning views over the Pacific;
  • Stroll along the beach for miles;
  • explore the remains of Adolph Sutro’s great public baths and watch the sea birds on Seal Rock;

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  • Take the short walk to the western end of Golden Gate Park.

5. Chinatown

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

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  • You must eat here at least once during your stay – I recommend the Great Eastern, after all the Obamas eat there, and the R & G Lounge;
  • Don’t forget the side streets too with their views of the Bay Bridge and Financial District – and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory!

6. North Beach

  • Traditionally the Italian quarter adjacent to Chinatown;
  • Plenty of excellent cafés and restaurants – Trieste the most famous but Tosca, Greco and Puccini are really good too;
  • We have enjoyed meals at the North Beach restaurant, Calzone, Sotto Mare, Firenze at Night and others;
  • Rest awhile at Washington Square Park watching the dogs and their humans at play under the shadow of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul;

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  • Have a glass or two at the Vesuvio Café, our favourite bar – historic haunt of the Beats, e.g. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, in the fifties and sixties;
  • Peruse the unique shelves of the City Lights Bookstore, one of the most famous in the world, opposite Vesuvio;

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  • On the opposite corner on Columbus, Broadway is the home to many of San Francisco’s more famous fleshpots;
  • Reserve seats in advance for Beach Blanket Babylon, another thing you really should do – but best to book in advance

7. Palace of Fine Arts

  • The only remaining building from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition celebrating the resurrection of San Francisco from the Earthquake and Fire of nine years before;
  • Beautiful classical structure with a tranquil swan-filed lagoon attached;

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8. Haight-Ashbury

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

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9. Alcatraz

  • It may be touristy but no visit to the city is complete without a visit to the most feared federal penitentiary of them all;
  • It is very popular so you should book in advance, preferably before you travel;
  • The day tour is good but the evening (sunset) one is even better!

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10. Bay Cruise

  • Enjoy an hour or two on the bay, remembering to take suncream, as much for the wind as the sun;
  • Stop off at Sausalito for a drink and a promenade, or even go on to Angel Island and Tuburon;
  • The Rocket Boat is tremendous fun, though not for the faint- hearted!

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11. Castro

  • Ground zero for San Francisco’s large gay and lesbian community, rainbow flags are fluttering everywhere;
  • Good shops and bars;

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  • It boasts a great movie house, the Castro Theatre, with its own wurlitzer;  if you can, book tickets for a film. You might even get lucky and be able to participate in a sing-a-long version of either The Sound of Music, Grease or The Wizard of Oz.

12. Alamo Square

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

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13.  Mission

  • Boisterous, funky, and, at night, edgy Latino and Hispanic neighbourhood;
  • Great for cheap clothing and inexpensive Central and South American food;
  • Take the pilgrimage to the original Mission Dolores church where it all started;
  • But a picnic for Dolores Park and savour the great views, not only of the city but also of your fellow humans (some of which may be naked – you have been warned!).

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14. Coit Tower

  • Fire nozzle shaped monument provided for the city by Lillian Hitchcock Coit in honour of the brave firefighters of the Earthquake and Fire of 1906;
  • Take in the wonderful views over the bay, including Alcatraz;
  • See and hear the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill (though they do frequent other parts of the city too now);

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  • Climb up at least one set of steps – there are several to choose from, including those that run past beautiful urban gardens.

15.  Twin Peaks

  • The most visited spot for panoramic views of the city, though there are others e.g. Bernal Heights just as good in my opinion.

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16. Civic Center

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

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17. Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39

  • The most popular tourist spots on the bay, not my favourite but you cannot deny that it is a place of fun and energy;
  • See,  listen and laugh at the crazy sea lions on Pier 39;

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  • Wander round the myriad of gift shops for presents for those back home;
  • Sample seafood at the many restaurants and wharfside stalls – we have eaten well at the Franciscan, Neptune’s Palace and McKormick & Kuleto’s;    
  • The Hard Rock is here too if that is more your scene;
  • The Gold Dust Lounge, relocated from Union Square, is a good watering hole with live music;
  • The Musée Mecanique (vintage amusement arcade) and Hyde Street Pier (collection of classic ships), are two of the best deals, not only on the waterfront, but in the whole of the city; 

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  • Beware the World Famous Bushman!

18. Union Square

  • San Francisco’s “modern” shopping heart is very popular with tourists and locals alike, though I use it more as a thoroughfare from Market to Chinatown and North Beach;

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  • There are a number of good diners and grills in the vicinity, including John’s Grill, Tadich Grill and Daily Grill;
  • It borders both the Tenderloin and Civic Center, so don’t be surprised by the number of homeless people, some of which may approach you for money.

19. Bay Bridge

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

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

20. MUNI

  • San Francisco’s public transit system is loved and hated at the same time by both locals and visitors;
  • The cable cars are not merely tourist toys, many locals use them too, and you must ride them;

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  • The lines may be long but it’s well worth the wait – hurtling down Nob or Russian Hill is a thrilling experience;
  • The historic F Streetcar that runs along Market and the Embarcadero from the Castro is charming if uncomfortable. Don’t expect, however, to get anywhere quickly;

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  • All human life is there on the buses!

21. Sports

  • Candlestick Park, home of the 49ers, is one of the most famous football stadia in America, and the 49ers won’t be there much longer, so get there quick!
  • Even if it is baseball close season, take the tour of the Giant’s home, AT & T Park, dubbed the most beautiful sports stadium in America with wonderful views over the bay;

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  • You can get your (ice) hockey fix too by taking the train from the Caltrain station at 4th and King to San Jose where the Sharks will be waiting to entertain you.

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

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

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