"The only directions you need in San Francisco are uphill and downhill." Unknown author
19.08.2011 - 22.08.2011 22 °C
Driven by circumstances, our big summer holiday this year fell on the US. M happened to have a week training in Illinois and so despite our initial efforts to see the Balkans this summer, it made sense to extend our stay here instead. Unable to agree on an area to visit with no less than ten options on the table, we held a lottery. Tadaaaaaaa. And the winner was…….. California!
Two and a half weeks long road trip around San Francisco, the wine region, Gold County, high Sierras, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, San Diego and back up the Highway 1. I can already say that we were once again tiny bit ambitions and Death Valley, Joshua Tree and San Diego dropped off the list about half way through our holiday. Well, we might just have to come back here another time.
The body clock still on European time, having travelled all day Friday from Düsseldorf to San Francisco and picking up M at Chicago airport along the way, made it easy to head out 8.30 in the morning and still feel as if we had a little lie-in. With our hotel in the highest point of San Francisco, the Nob Hill, once we got over the name of the area we were able to appreciate the excellent view of downtown and great central location for exploring the town. Our first planned sight – the Cable Car Museum. Along the way we walked past Grace Cathedral and took the opportunity to stroll through it. A church well worth visiting although it is made entirely out of concrete, which they didn’t even try to cover up on the outer facade. It is not as elaborate and stuffed with artifacts as its many European counterparts. Instead it has a pleasant interior with lots of stain glass windows and murals mainly depicting scenes connected to the San Francisco area through the centuries. Still, there is something odd about a church in a classic design built out of cement.
Popping in for breakfast into a small diner opposite the cable car museum (you probably better try somewhere else), we spent a good 45 minutes exploring the free-entry museum. It’s a ‘must go’ place with lots of interesting history of cable cars and San Francisco, comprehensive yet understandable explanations of the mechanics, examples of before and after use of cables and breaks showing wear and tear, as well as a view of the engines and wheels that drive all the cable cars still running in the city. M made a first purchase of the holiday – a copper fridge magnet shaped as a cable car for her sis who happens to be collecting them.
From the museum it’s just a stone throw to China town. We took a good wander around and unlike China town in London, this one has a genuine far east feel to it. Not only because Chinese writing is everywhere you look. Walking around randomly we somehow covered most places our travel guide suggested, for example the Tien Hau temple where we climbed up some non descript staircase to the 3rd floor to see the temple room, light a incense stick and enjoy some good views over the city. The mix of place of worship and kitsch is hard to describe and so we can only suggest you make it up those stairs and see for yourself. The shops in China town sell everything from tit-tat for 99cent to ivory carvings costing over 200,000 dollars.If you are looking for tacky souvenirs for folks back home, it pays off looking around and stepping of the Grant Avenue. Even just browsing around a handful of shops we saw prices vary 100-300%. Leaving through the “dragon gate” we made it back into ‘modern America’ and headed for Union square.
The sun was out and the whole square was vibrant with artists exhibiting and selling their often rather good work and tourists and shoppers making use of the excellent shopping opportunities around the area or just chilling in nearby cafes. We managed to resist the temptation and instead walked down Powell Street to the cable car turn table at the corner with Market Street. Street artists of all kinds entertain the crowds there, in particular the massive queue of people looking to catch a cable car ride uphill. M was particular impressed by a couple of guys doing extra fast tap-dancing to hip hop music with the odd breakdance move thrown in.
Getting a Frapuccino to-go in the nearest Starbucks reminded us of the “tyranny of choice” that Europeans often experience in the US. It all started well when our names were asked and written on the cup almost correctly – nice touch. Then it became somewhat bizarre. American and English accents seem to have diverted to an extend that is barely possible to communicate across the divide. I like a decaf – what flavor? – decaf – what flavor, coffee? – ah, yes; low fat – with cream? - …. and a mere 10 questions later the order was on its way.
Enjoying the drink we wandered to Yerba Buena Gardens, which is a great place to look around or just sit down and chill – new Jewish museum or museum of modern arts nearby, nice gardens occasionally hosting musical performances, big artificial waterfall with quotes from Martin Luther King – and watch plenty of interesting characters milling around.
We walked on to the financial district to have a look at the bank of America building, where we found the 52nd floor restaurant with the best views over the town (DK travel guide) no longer to be open; the fantastic Wells Fargo museum (looked fantastic what we could see through the windows) being closed on weekends and last but not least, the impressive Transamerika Tower surprisingly also closed to the public on Saturdays.That much for reliability of travel guides. Not put off by this fiasco, we went on to the Embarcadero Center with the amazing foyer of the Hyatt Hotel, which is even better then the pictures promised – but at that point we may have been excessively receptive to anything that was actually open.
Across the road from Embarcadero is a lively square with a cool, large water feature, market stalls and pedestrian crossing leading to the former ferry terminal which is now full of cafés, restaurants and shops. An interesting feature was a (temporary) death slide running across the entire square, i.e. once in a while a couple of screaming kids whizzing overhead adding to the entertainment. Having eventually walked to the ferry terminal building and failing to find a place to just sit down, chill with a glass of wine and nibbles and plot the remainder of the day, we soldiered on along the seafront & piers towards Fisherman’s Wharf, noticing Telegraph hill with the Coit tower to our right. Feeling quite walked-out and in need of a little break, we resisted climbing up. Truth to be told, our failure to anchor at the Wharf was caused by our indecisiveness what we want to nibble on rather than the lack of choice, which was ample.
Wandering along the Piers we were lucky to stumble upon the Pallada, which was giving San Francisco a passing visit. The Pallada is a large three mast sailing ship, purpose build for the Russian navy for training purposes. As we walked up to the ship on this windy day, dozens of sailors were hanging in the ropes high above the deck securing the sails for the stay.The crew, all dressed up in their immaculate uniforms, invited passers-by to come on board and so we had a look around this magnificent ship. The Russians had put up a small exhibition of early Russian settlers in America, before they packed up and later sold Alaska to the US, which was totally new to us (the Russian settlers on the American West Coast, not the sale bit).
A bit further along the seafront we noticed the Alcatraz tour departure point at Pier 33. Alcatraz was firmly on our list of things to see, so encouraged by the sign “Queue for tickets here” we got into line only to spot a couple of minutes later that tickets on sale were more then a week away. A little frustrated about our lack of research and forward planning before we set out on our California adventure, we browsed through the exhibits on display and moved on. This is also when we introduced a new feature of our holiday: ‘List of places to see on our return to San Francisco’.
A few minutes later we hit Pier 39, which hosts a lot of shops, entertainment and restaurants. One of the attractions is a number of floating platforms next to it packed with seals. Judging by the hundreds of people hanging around to take a good shot of them, this seal colony was common knowledge. After watching them for 15minutes we were at risk of hypothermia and dehydration so decided to finally sample one of the bars along the coast.We found a sports bar in the Pier area and during paying noticed a rather curious tax appearing on our bill - a “health tax”. This was a punishment for ordering ‘junk food’ like calamari and chicken tenders. Being fed and warm again, we continued down the waterfront up to the Ghirardelli, an old chocolate factory converted to up-market bars, restaurants and shops. This area was promising plenty of nice places to have a drink and a nibble but with the sun starting to sink and our tummies being full, it was time to head back to the hotel to get changed in something more appropriate for Saturday night on the town and check out some local bars. The main observation for us was the Wharf Area is one of the key places in San Francisco to go out.
The initial plan how to get back was to catch a cable car, but after the first couple of cars being full and failing to stop, we decided to walk to the hotel. Climbing up the hill we passed the top of the famous Lombard street serpentines, where a massive queue of cars was patiently waiting to drive down. Just for fun we explored a number of side streets that lead a bit more up and down, so by the time we reached the top of Nob Hill we were quite tired and decided to skip a drink in a bar and go straight to sleep for an early start next morning.
Getting up early the next morning, I pulled the curtain and noticed a film crew on the corner. No doubt getting some iconic shots of SF with cable cars – I like to think some car chase scene was included, but by the time we were ready and hit the road the crew had already packed up and was replaced by the occasional eager tourist (like us I guess). We did however manage to book ourselves some Alcatraz tickets for the last day of our trip, thanks to great self service facilities in the Marriott hotel which even allows you to print your tickets whilst you book online. This meant we would come back to SF a day earlier then originally planned, but the only alternative would have been to be at the Pier at 6:30am latest and hope for ticket cancellations being available. As you probably guessed it was past that time already when I pulled the curtain.
Catching a cable car down to Fishermans Wharf (almost empty early morning) we set out to continue where we left off the day before. Not before getting an American breakfast though. We tried a small diner called Hollywood Café which turned out great. Pancakes and fresh fruit nicely set us up for another day of walking, not to mention that by the time we were half way through our breakfast the queue to be seated was snaking twenty meters outside the front door, suggesting we picked a rather desirable spot for our morning pit stop.
With full stomachs we set off along the seafront walking past Fort Mason and to the Marina Green. There happened to be a SF Triathlon going on, so we watched a few dozen contenders cross the finishing line not failing to notice the unnaturally fresh and energetic manner in which some still moved. Some people, eh. From there we headed to the Palace of Fine Arts, a leftover from the 1915 Panama California exhibition and an absolute must visit site in SF. Being a lovely small park at the edge of the Presidio with an artificial lagoon and a magnificent neo-classical structure we guessed this must be a favorite spot for locals to take wedding pictures. After a brief wander into the Letterman Digital Arts gardens across the street to top-up our caffeine level, we strolled back to the seafront and continued our wander towards the Golden Gate Bridge. Eyes on the price.
Deciding to walk on the beach, we had fantastic views of the bridge getting closer with each step but the price we paid was tornado-strength winds and a curious exhibition of dogs in all sizes getting under our legs. The traditional fog cloud was initially covering half of the bridge structure but by the time we got there, it risen enough for the entire construction to be visible.
Right underneath the Golden Gate bridge is Fort Point. It is an old brick-built fortification from 1861 equipped with heavy-duty canons and originally erected to protect the Golden Gate. As we later learnt though, it was never attacked and became obsolete due to weapon technology advances only a few decades later and finally closed by 1900. Remarkably it was spared when the Golden Gate Bridge was build, requiring design change, as the bridge architects thought the brick work was worth preserving as historical site. It is now a museum with well made exhibits of life in the fort, the history of buffalo soldiers (black American units) and early women of California.Having spent there a bit over an hour and getting firsthand experience of the constant cold wind on top of the fort and ever-present drafts inside it, we got a good feel for the harsh conditions the soldiers lived in.
From there we climbed up the hill to the Golden Gate Bridge, stopping occasionally to take lots of pictures as did hundreds of other tourists. There’s nothing like a unique holiday shot. After admiring the structure from the viewpoints along the path, we set out on walking across to the first pillar. It was very noisy from the constant stream of cars, windy and generally annoying due to all the bicycles trying to push through the crowd on the narrow pedestrian walkway. But one was reward by great views of Down Town SF and first rays of sunshine on the horizon a little bit further inland. Nevertheless, we skipped trying to fully cross the bridge on foot and turned around after a couple of self shots and good rant about the noise pollution
Whilst mentally ready to catch a bus back to town, we thought we stroll a bit away from the busy bridge into the quiet Presidio area and take a bus from there. The walk was great, partly a proper hiking path through (at last) quiet woodlands past a large military cemetery with excellent views of the bridge, Alcatraz and downtown. The only downside was the complete lack of bus stops or any other public transport. Some hour and a half later we came out the other side of the Presidio and walking further few blocks south, we finally spotted a bus stop on California Street.Conveniently this was the same road as our hotel– only a couple of miles west of it. Making use of our $14 public transport day pass we hopped on the bus and then switched to cable car down to Union Square for a small bite to eat, ending up where else than in an Irish pub. The food and beer was good, but the pub was unlike any other Irish pub we have ever visited. To start with, you had to wait to be seated! Then there were large windows which together with white tiled floors gave it an atmosphere somewhere between a hospital and a Victorian train station. Still, it was nice to be somewhere warm with ample supply of drinks and food. Once again full of energy, we had the clever idea to walk to the Civic Centre (i.e. the town hall) to make the most of the last hour of daylight. To our not-so-small surprise, it took only a couple of blocks to get from luxury shopping neighborhood to decisively dodgy part of town, where it felt like walking through someone’s bedroom. Homeless people with shopping trolleys were lining the street and filling darker walkways, shops were boarded or at least looked like they should be, scantily clad ladies with glazed eyes were waving on passing cars and good portion of youth hanging around looked like from Snoop Dog’s music video. With the receding sunlight we felt a bit uncomfortable, especially with M having her easily-floggable SLR hanging over her shoulder. It was quite a relief when our surroundings started to change to something that looked like a little Vietnam – feeling seedy and dirty, but safe. Another few blocks further we reached the town hall with its plaza in front, typical US government building cupola, gold-plated decorations etc., surrounded by concert halls and other large public buildings. I guess it’s a worthwhile stop, but the walk back along a seedy part of Market Street toward the cable car stop reinforced my view that this is probably best explored from the safety of sightseeing bus or public transport rather then on foot.
After a short cable car ride back to the hotel and change of attire we headed out for a drink to “little Italy” in North Beach. Nobody calls it little Italy, but with Italian flags being painted on every lamppost and 80% of all restaurants being Italians, I think it should be marked as such on tourist maps. Or maybe it is but we just haven’t seen it yet. Due to an overwhelming bias of the area for eating (restaurants) over drinking (bars), after a couple of failed attempts to get a seat in restaurant just for a drink we ended up in a lovely small Italian called Divine. They were happy to serve us just wine and so with a lovely glass of California red we settled for a couple of hours of undisturbed contemplation of the last two days and the couple of weeks ahead of us. Our San Francisco weekend was nearing the end and our next stop was going to be Napa Valley.