Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge is probably the most recognized San
Francisco landmark. Since I moved here many of my friends come to visit and
because of this I have the chance to go to Golden Gate Bridge maybe 10
times a year. But I never get tired of walking on the bridge which is about
2 miles long. On a sunny day you are rewarded with great views of Alcatraz,
San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean. But foggy days can be interesting too.
I usually stop at one of the vista points at the two ends and walk all the
way to the center where you can touch the main cable and be impressed by
the magnificent engineering that went into building the bridge. If you stop
at the vista point before the tolls you can find a section of the main
cable. After crossing the bridge make a U-turn at Alexander exit and
continue up the hill for beautiful views of the bridge and San Francisco.
Sea lions at Pier 39
Frankly I consider Pier 39 with its carnival-like
atmosphere a tourist trap, but I like the sea lions. They started arriving
here in 1990; they used to be seasonal and come every January but now
they're here all year round. They're smelly and noisy but so fun to watch.
Everybody heard of Alcatraz as the maximum security
prison but it only served this purpose from 1934-63. Before 1934 it served
as a fort for the US military until 1907 when it became a military prison.
Unoccupied from 1963 to 1969 the islands was taken over by members of the
American Indian Movement. Today Alcatraz is part of the Golden Gate
National Recreation Area. To get to Alcatraz you need to take a Blue & Gold
Fleet ferry which departs from Pier 41. Booking in advance is recommended,
especially in summer.
Most buildings on the island are now in ruins but the
cellhouse is intact and can be visited. Rent one of the self-guided
audio-tours available at the entrance; they are well made and a good value
for the money. While you stroll through the corridors between the blocks
you get to hear former inmates talking about the harsh life on Alcatraz and
you listen to details about different escapes tried by the prisoners. Some
of the cells are open so you can enter and look around. We went there on a
cold day (which is every other day in San Francisco) and the wind blowing
through the corridors and the freezing temperature gave this place an even
more depressing look.
Cable cars are considered one of the San Francisco
signatures. This public transportation system was invented in 1873 and was
designed to deal with the city's steep slopes. Presently there's only three
lines left (Powell-Mason, Powell-Hyde, and California Street). The concept
is quite simple. Under the city streets there's looped cable which is
powered from the central powerhouse. When the cable car gripman operated
the handle the grip grabs the cable and the cable car is pulled along by
the moving cable. So hop in and enjoy the ride.
Cable Cars Barn and Museum
The massive brick building located at the junction of
Mason and Washington Streets is San Francisco's only surviving cable car
barn. Although the building's main function is as a powerhouse and barn,
it also houses a small museum which offers insight into the inner workings
of the cable car system as well as historical tidbits regarding cable cars.
On the upper level there is a balcony which offers a view of the huge
wheels over which the continuous loops of cables are revolving. It's quite
an impressive sight, especially when you realize that the entire cable car
system is run from here (the signs above the huge wheels read "California"
"Mason" "Hyde" "Powel", the only remaining cable car lines). The museum's
exhibits include the Car No 8, the only survivor of San Francisco's first
cable car line, which began operation in 1873. The museum also includes
explanatory displays, historical tools and photos. Downstairs you can take
another look at the "sheave" (wheel) room where the thick steel cables
enter the building before being routed up to the main sheaves. Address:
1201 Mason St. at Washington.
Baker beach is to me the best of SF's beaches. It not a
good place to swim because of the strong currents but if you tried to swim
in the Pacific Ocean around San Francisco you'll know the water is too cold
for swimming anyway. But you can sunbathe and fish and walk along the beach
looking at the Golden Gate Bridge. At the end of the beach there are tables
and grills for barbequing.
SF Museum of Modern Art
This is the place to see modern art in San Francisco. SF
MOMA's collection includes major works by the 20th-century artists from
post-impressionists to latest contemporary art. The beautiful building
designed by the Swiss architect Mario Botta has a central skylight which
gives the atrium a theatrical feel. The museum was created in 1935 but
moved to its current location in the South of Market neighborhood in 1995.
Works by the 20th-century European artists are located on the second floor
including paintings by Matisse, Braque, Picasso and a beautiful sculpture
by Brancusi. There are three paintings that I really enjoyed and I believe
should not be missed: "The flower carrier" by Diego Rivera, "Frieda and
Diego Rivera" by Frida Kahlo and "Guardians of the secret" by Jackson
Pollock. The two upper floors are dedicated to temporary exhibitions.
Address: 151 Third Street (between Mission and Howard Streets).
Chinatown (I) : The Gate
The Chinatown gate can be found at the intersection of
Bush St. and Grant Avenue. It has three beautifully ornated arches and is
guarded by two lions. Its design was inspired after ceremonial entrances
of Chinese villages. The materials were provided by the Taiwan government
and the design belongs to Clayton Lee. The gate opened in 1970. Once you
pass through it, you'll find yourself surrounded by a multitude of shops
selling souvenirs, jewelry, electronics, artwork etc. Address: Bordered
by Broadway, Bush, Kearny, Stockton St.
Chinatown (II): Grant Avenue
Grant Avenue, between Bush Street and Broadway is the
main tourist street of Chinatown. The avenue is lined with dragon-entwined
lamp posts and buildings that borrow elements from Chinese architecture,
with towers and curved rooftops. Grant Avenue is an odd mix of souvenir
shops for tourists, restaurants, banks etc. The parallel Stockton Street
seems to cater more for the local Chinese community.
This point offers a great panorama of downtown, the bay
and the two bridges and the views are beautiful both at the daytime and at
night. There is a parking lot at the top but you can also get there by bus
(No. 37) followed by a little hiking. Climb one of the two hills and you'll get a 360 degrees view of the city. It's better if you bring a light jacket,
otherwise the wind will make you leave too soon.
I believe that Fisherman's Wharf is San Francisco's
number one tourist trap but in a way getting there is unavoidable for the
San Francisco's tourist. The sea lions at Pier 39 are located here; the
Alcatraz ferrys or the bay cruises have Fisherman's Wharf as a starting
point. But the place is a tourist trap. Think about it: Fisherman's Wharf
has a Ripley Believe It or Not! Museum, a Wax Museum and a Rainforest Cafe.
Plus a great number of souvenir stores where you can buy anything from
bumper stickers to t-shirts reading "I left my heart in San Francisco" or
"I escaped from Alcatraz".
Fisherman's Wharf has lots of seafood restaurants and sidewalk stands where
sea products are sold. Try to sample some of the food; it's not exactly
fine dining but it's good. Some restaurants offer nice views of the bay
along with food. Be warned that this place is very crowded; Fisherman's
Wharf has its share of street performers with their mine and music acts;
one of the funniest acts is the "Bushman" (you'll recognize him right away).
The Transamerica Pyramid is the most remarkable presence
in San Francisco's skyline. Located in the financial district, it's the
tallest building in the city, measuring 853 ft (256m) from the street
level. It was designed by William Pereira as an office building for
Transamerica corporation, a financial institution. The building opened in
1972. The public is not allowed at the upper floors. Address: 600
Japanese Tea Garden
Located in the Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea Garden
is one of the most popular attractions in San Francisco. It was established
in 1894 and for many years it was tended by the Japanese gardener Makota
Hagiwara. The garden is made of a maze of winding paths lined with Japanese
trees, shrubs and flowers, a few ponds and a wooden pagoda. The Moon Bridge
takes its name from its form and close to the tea tables one can find a
large statue of Buddha that was cast in Japan in 1790. The open teahouse
offers tea and cookies and is a perfect place for relaxation.
At the base of Mount Tamalpais is the Muir Woods National
Monument, a forest of old coast redwoods, one of the few remaining in
California. The woods are named after John Muir, a naturalist and
conservationist who fought for the creation of national parks. The Main
Trail is paved and is very crowded especially on weekends; it features one
of the tallest trees in the forest. If you follow one of the trails
branching from the Main Trail you can leave the crowds behind and enjoy a
nice hike. Muir Woods is accesible by car. There is no public
transportation but you can find some tour companies that go there.
You've probably iseen an image of the Alamo Square
Victorian houses long before coming here. When a director of a movie or
sitcom wants to give the audience some hints that the action takes place in
San Francisco, they show a few opening shots which are almost always the
same: the Golden Gate Bridge, a cable car, the Coit Tower, a steep street
and the Victorian houses at Alamo Square. This image is one of the San
Francisco signatures, appearing on postcards and on the covers of many
guidebooks. It's also one of the most photographed views of the city. I
guess what makes this viewpoint special, besides the six beautiful houses,
is the background of the city downtown with its skyscrapers. The six Queen
Anne-style houses were completed in 1895. They are very similar, I believe
their beauty also resides in the little differences (it would have been
less interesting to have 6 identical houses or 6 totally different houses).
Address: At the intersection of Steiner and Hayes streets.
Lombard Street is another postcard perfect San Francisco
attraction. Because of that it's also very popular and no matter the day of
the year you'll find numerous people taking pictures here. The attraction
is advertised as the "crookedest street in the world" with eight curves in
one block descent from Hyde to Leavenworth. The street wasn't always
crooked (evidently) but its natural grade of 27 degrees made it harder for
the earlier automobiles to climb it. Around 1920, the switchbacks were
added and in the process the curve incline was reduced to 16. Cars can only
go downhill while on the two sides there are stairways for pedestrians.
The views from the top of the section are beautiful (towards the Coit Tower
and the Alcatraz). It's nicer to visit in the summer when the flowers are
in bloom. Address: Lombard Street. Descent begins at Hyde Street.
North Beach is known today as the Italian neighbourhood
although many immigrant settlers of different ethnic background called this
place home before the Italians. North Beach is one of the touristy parts of
San Francisco that I visit often, the reason being the joyfull atmosphere
and the fact that you can dine outside in numerous places. It's a nice place
to stroll and a good place to eat. At one point in time North Beach used to
be the bohemian neighbourhood of San Francisco, home for the San Francisco's
Beat counterculture so a walking tour of the neighbourhood must include the
Vesuvio Caffe, the City Lights Bookstore, the Tosca and Trieste Caffes, all
places of gatherings for the "beatniks" like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
Another highlight of this area is the Washington Square Park lined on one
side by the Saints Peter and Paul Church, a beautiful Gothic Revival church.
And finally, no tour of San Francisco will be complete without seeing the
Coit Tower, which sits on top of Telegraph Hill. At night this place becomes
even more vibrant, with numerous bars, saloons and lots of jazz clubs. Really
nice. And I almost forgot about Broadway Street, also part of North Beach.
It's the "adult entertainment" zone.
Union Square is the heart of the city's shopping district.
Many of San Francisco's largest department stores can be found here, names
like Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Levis. On the west side
lies the famous Westin St. Francis hotel. The square is named after the big
pro-Union rallies that were held here during the Civil War of 1861-1865. In
the center of the square there is a statue of Victory, on top of a tall
column. It's called the Dewey Monument, which commemorates Admiral Dewey's
victory at Manilla during the Spanish-American war of 1898. The square has
been redesigned recently; now it's almost only concrete and stone, with a
few green touches. There is one caffe in the square where you can buy a
coffe and sip it in the sun while enjoying the display of architecture
around you and the people going by. On weekends local artists display their
Coit Tower represents another San Francisco signature
landmark, one that appears in all the movies when we're supposed to
understand that the action will take place in San Francisco. It sits at the
top of Telegraph Hill, in a great location with gorgeous views all around.
It's a popular tourist attraction and if you come here by car and on a
weekend you'll wait ages to get to the parking lot at the top. I prefer to
hike up Telegraph Hill and do some little exercise along the way - well,
weather permitting :) There's also a MUNI bus that goes to Coit Tower,
the #39. The tower was built in 1933 with funds left by Lillie Hitchcock Coit,
an eccentric San Franciscan. Inside, the lobby is decorated with murals
(since I like their story I'll write a separate tip about them). A short
elevator ascent will take you to the observation deck where you'll find the
gorgeous views I was talking about. There's Bay Bridge to the east, downtown
San Francisco with Transamerica to the south, Marin County to the north and
Russian Hill and the Golden Gate Bridge to the west. The tickets for the
observation deck are sold in the gift shop (to tell you the truth,
I think $3.50 is too expensive, but hey, you're on vacation). I almost
forgot; the architect was Arthur Brown, who's done quite a bit of work in
the San Francisco area including the San Francisco City Hall.
The story of the Coit Tower murals
The murals in the lobby of Coit Tower have an interesting
story of their own. They were commisioned in 1934 by the Public Works of Art
Project (PWAP), a government funded program designed to keep artists employed
during the Great Depression. The murals depict life in modern California and
they were painted by 25 local artists, students of the famouse Mexican
communist artist, Diego Rivera. Scenes range from the busy streets of the
Financial District (with a robbery in progress) to factories and the Central
Valley wheat fields. Seeing the murals you can sense the social commentary.
The work criticizes the economic inequities of life during the Great
Depression, and that made the murals highly controversial when the project
was finished. Many where upset with the work's political content, seeing the
murals as Communist inspired. Responding to pressure the San Francisco Art
Commision delayed the opening of the Coit Tower and considered destroying the
murals. After numerous debates Coit Tower was finally opened to the public in
October 1934. What amazed me is that the murals are remarkable close in
style despite the fact that so many different artists created them.
Mission Dolores (I)
Mission Dolores is San Francisco's oldest building, dating
from 1791. Its formal name is Mission San Francisco de Asis but it became
known as Mission Dolores from a nearby pond (long gone), La laguna de los
Dolores (Lake of Our Lady of Sorrows). The small chapel was preserved almost
intact, its 4 ft (1.2m) thick walls having survived two major earthquakes.
When the Mexican government secularized the missions in 1834 to acquire their
lands, Mission Dolores was transformed into a tavern and dance hall until
finally in 1859 was reacquired by the Catholic Church and reconsecrated.
Along the years the Catholic Church erected a series of larger churches
alongside the old chapel to accommodate a growing congregation. The last of
these, the basilica that can be seen next door was added in 1913. The facade
of the basilica is highly ornated, which brings out even more the simple
beauty of the mission chapel.
Touring the Mission Dolores (II)
I really enjoyed my tour of Mission Dolores. I visited on a
Wednesday morning when only a few people were around, and most of the time I
found myself alone during the tour. The tour starts with the small chapel,
beautifully washed in yellow light. The wooden altar was hand carved in
Mexico and brought to the mission in 1780. The beamed ceiling is covered in
multicolored motifs which are said to resemble the local Ohlone Indian
decorative patterns. On the floor of the chapel there are a few plaques
marking the burial sights of prominent locals. As you exit the chapel there
is a diorama of the mission as it appeared in 1799. From there you can go
into the new basilica which has some beautiful panels and stained glass
windows. Next you'll find the small museum which houses different religious
artifactsy or things found during the restorations of the chapel. Inside the
museum, on the left as you enter, a section of the wall plaster is cut away
to show the thick adobe bricks. The last stop of the tour is the cemetery,
where many local notables from the early times of the city are buried. If you
read the names on the graves you'll recognize the names of many streets in
San Francisco. The cemetery also holds the remains of more than 5000 Native
Americans most of whom died in the measles epidemics of 1804 and 1826. The
cemetery was green and peaceful and I saw a few hummingbirds. The entrance
fee is $3 and $2 more if you want the audio tour.
The Exploratorium is the most engaging science museum that
I've seen so far. Their philosophy is to teach science through hands-on
participation and that's what makes it interesting. You'll have to push
buttons, rotate wheels or perform a wide variety of other actions to set the
experiments in motion. Each experiment has instructions and explanations
nearby so you can understand what it is you're setting in motion. We spent 3
hours there and only got through half of the museum before the closing hours
(well, we are geeks so maybe we were enjoying it more than other people). It
is incredibly fun. Exhibits are located on the main floor and mezzanine level
being divided into 13 subjects areas Electricity, Motion, Weather, Vision,
Light, Color and Sound. The Exploratorium was established in 1969 by physicist
Frank Oppenheimer who was the one that embraced the philosophy that it's best
teach science through hands-on participation. The museum was full of kids, so
if you travel with kids this is one of the places in San Francisco that would
be nice to visit. The top attraction of the museum is the Tactile Dome, a
totally dark sphere in which you crawl your way along, touching sensorially
stimulating objects and textures (not for claustrophobes). You'll need
reservations for the Tactile Dome.
Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is San Francisco's most dramatic
piece of architecture. Despite the name is not an art museum or a palace for
that matter but rather a Classical style ruin at the edge of a beautiful
lagoon. It was designed by the Bay Area architect Bernard Maybeck for the
Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 and built with the intention
to last until the end of the exhibition. When the buildings of the fair were
torn down, citizens lobbied to spare the Palace of Fine Arts. And spared it
was but by early 1960s the building which was made from such materials as
wood, plaster and burlap started to crumble and became a ruin in the true
sense of the word. Finally, the money for reconstruction was found and in
1962 the building was rebuilt using reinforced concrete. The lagoon is the
perfect spot for an afternoon walk, watching the swans gliding on the lake in
front of the rotunda.
The Castro district is the center of the San Francisco's
gay community. I live nearby and often come here to eat, there are many good
restaurants in this area. The neighborhood centers around the intersections
of Castro and 18th streets. It's a lovely neighborhood, alive at all times of
day. Castro started emerging as a gay district in the early 1970, when gay
San Franciscans began buying properties in this area and gay bars started
opening here. The side streets are also worth exploring, lined as they are
with rows of beautiful Victorian houses. You'll notice many of the windows
displaying the rainbow flag. One of the area's highlights is the Castro
Theater, a beautiful building where you can catch some interesting films
(let's just say that you won't find the latest Hollywood blockbuster here).
On Halloween the streets are closed to car traffic and a big costumes party
takes place here.
The Japan Center is a large shopping and dining complex
centered around a five-tiered concrete pagoda called the Peace Pagoda. The
complex dates from the 60's when blocks of Victorian houses in this area were
demolished, Geary Boulevard was widened and the five building structure of
Japan Center was built. Inside the complex there are numerous Japanese
restaurants, art galleries and antiques shops, music and video stores as well
as a big Japanese bookstore (they sell titles in English as well). The AMC
Kabuki Theater is one of the places that hosts the San Francisco
International Film Festival (every year in April).
Conservatory of Flowers
The Conservatory of Flowers is a beautiful glass structure
which shelters more than 20000 rare and exotic plants. The oldest building in
Golden Gate Park, the conservatory is modeled after a greenhouse in London's
Kew Gardens. It was manufactured in Ireland for a San Jose millionaire, James
Lick, who died before its arrival. The disassembled structure was purchased
by a group of businessmen and donated to the Golden Gate Park. The building
was severely damaged by a severe storm in 1995 and it was closed for repairs
until 2003 but today you can visit it daily from 9am to 4.30 pm ($5
admission). They have two rooms dedicated to the tropics and one of them has
many delicate orchids, very beautiful. I also remember an aquatic plants
section and a room with potted plants which really appealed to my
mother-in-law who has a passion for potted plants.