Travel: San Francisco 2009 Travel Notes

Ah, San Francisco!  Cooler than Los Angeles, more colorful than Seattle, richer than most of the rest of the world and a cultural nexus as well: For a city that doesn’t crack a million citizen, San Francisco punches far above its weight in terms of popular mythology.  It’s the gateway to both Napa and Silicon Valley, some of the most expensive real estate in the land, a highpoint of civil right activism and a historically significant city for gays, hippies, nerds and oenophiles.  What a mixture!

Everyone recognizes it: The Golden Gate bridge!

I visited San Francisco in October/November 2009.  Here are a few notes based on three unusually sunny days in the city. For lack of a better alternative, this report to would-be tourists is divided in neighborhoods, with introductory notes on what to expect, and closing notes on general impressions

What you need to know before leaving:

  • Wear good shoes. San Francisco is a pleasure and a pain to walk: It’s a compact area with plenty of public transit, but you will suffer if you’re not used to walking in cities with a definite up/down component.  Given that many of the city’s best views are from elevated areas, either take it easy or take the bus.
  • Get two travel guides. This goes under “general travel tips”, but you will need at least two different travel guides to effectively prepare for your trip to San Francisco: A complete travel guide to plan your expedition beforehand, and a compact map-oriented guide to get around town.  I ended up depending upon Frommer’s San Francisco 2009 for the former, and Moon Metro San Francisco (3rd edition – 2008) for the latter, although I also used copies of Lonely Planet San Francisco and DK Top 10: San Francisco for my planning.  On the ground, the Moon Metro‘s discreet and informative maps continue to show why they’re among my favourite travel book series.
  • Book a guided tour. San Francisco is hell on Earth for drivers, and even if you’re a car addict, chances are that you won’t want to bother with a rental.  While you can cover most of the city effectively using nothing but mass public transit, chances are that you will want to take a look at farther places.  That’s where guided tours come in, since they can take you to distant locations and give you a quick sketch of the city that you can then fill-in with walking tourism.  I’ve been a big fan of Grey Line tours for years, and their San Francisco City/Woods tours is a pretty good way to meet San Francisco.  We ended up going to Twin Peaks, Mission Dolores, the Golden Gate Bridge lookout and then, (in the afternoon) Muir Woods and Sausalito, all places I didn’t visit again during my two days walking through the city.  In a pinch, you can let go of the Muir/Sausalito half of the tour… but you may regret it.
  • Use Google Maps and Google View. Luckily, San Francisco isn’t just one of the most picturesque cities on the planet: thank to nearby Silicon Valley, it’s also one of the most heavily digitized as well.  Tens of thousands of geeks have mapped out the area in frightening detail, which means that any question you can have about the area beforehand and during your trip can be answered by a simple Google query.  Need to know how to get from BART to your hotel?  Google Street View.  Need to spot the grocery stores in your area for cheap food?  Google Maps.  Want to fly by the area in full 3D?  Google Earth nearly has the entire town modeled.  One day, all of Earth will be as well-digitized as San Francisco.  In the meantime… you’re in luck.

My trip to San Fransisco took place on the edges of my attendance to San Jose’s 2009 World Fantasy Convention: I took the plane from Ottawa to Toronto to San Francisco, toured the city for one day (October 28th) before taking Caltrain to San Jose, attended the conference, then took Caltrain back to San Francisco for two days (November 2-3) walking in SF before flying back home.

I stayed at the Hotel Fusion for the first two nights, and then at the Hotel Carlton for the last three.  Neither of them charged above $100 per night.  I have no trouble recommending either hotel for the single able-bodied traveler: Fusion is ridiculously near the Powell/Market hub and offers a convenient continental breakfast, while Carlton is closer to the living neighborhoods of downtown and offers a quasi-boutique experience with most of the chain hotel amenities.  My only issues were that Fusion’s single bed felt unusually small (let’s call the room “cosy”, albeit not unpleasantly so), and that I had the bad luck to get a room next to a noisy group of travelers at Carlton… and their room doors are thin.

For food, I had some great experience eating out (Good indian Food at New Delhi, satisfying chowder-sourdough bowl at Boudin, and the usually dependable Subway sandwiches when convenient), but spent most of my breakfast/dinner food budget at the handy Cala Grocery store on Nob Hill not too far from my second hotel.

Fisherman’s Wharf

I’m told that most locals hate Fishermen’s Wharf with a passion: It’s the tourist hub of the city and isn’t designed with citizen in mind.  This being said, if you’re a tourist, you’re probably going to end there a few times whether you want it or not.  A number of guided tours go through here, and it features a number of local can’t-miss attractions.

Whisherman’s Wharf entrance and main strip.

As far as eating is concerned, for instance, it’s a pricey but entertaining destination.  I went to Boudin’s for a lunchtime clam chowder in a Sourdough bowl (good!) and, another day, ended up at the nearby In-n-Out for a taste of that much-admired food chain.

Alcatraz (upper left), Pier 39 (lower left) and Pier 37 (with docked liner), as seen from Coit Tower

Pier 39 is the hub of the Fishermen’s Wharf area and as you may expect from a pure tourist trap, it’s filled with overpriced maritime-themed restaurants, strange boutiques and public entertainers. It’s lively, though, and a bit more interesting to navigate that you’d expect: the upper deck, for instance, is a twisty series of corridors going in and out of buildings, with right-angle turns and tiny nooks that you wouldn’t necessarily expect.  (It also offers plenty of photo opportunities, many of them helpfully sponsored.)

Pier 39.

One of those photo opportunities, at the right-side end of the pier, are the famed Sea Lions that congregate on wooden platforms.  Trust me, you can’t miss them: You will smell and hear them well before you can actually see them.  They’re fun to watch for about 90 seconds, after which the thrill quickly passes.

Smelly, noisy sea lions at Pier 39.

Also visible from the end of Pier 39 is Alcatraz Island, which famously hosted a high-security prison until the sixties.  What’s most mind-boggling about it is that you can see Alcatraz (which is located in the middle of the bay) from nearly everywhere in the North Beach area (Go to the top of Lombart Street’s “crookedest” segment, for instance, and there’s a splendid view of the Island): What impact did it have on local resident back then to constantly be reminded of a picturesque maximum-security prison right next to them in the Bay?

Alcatraz island (formerly a prison), always there in the bay.

This being said, parts of Piers 39 are more friendly to locals.  There’s a real pleasure-crafts pier, for instance, which offers a few good photo opportunities for us land-lubbers.

Boats at Pier 39

Pier 39 is also where you will find the Aquarium of the Bay.  Unexplainably enough, I always make a point out of visiting aquariums in cities that have them.  I wasn’t particularly impressed at San Francisco’s offering in comparison to Boston or Long Beach (it’s noticeably smaller), but it’s distinguishing feature is pretty amazing: a tunnel underneath two basins filled with sea creatures.

Under the fishes at the Aquarium of the Bay.

Farther away from the photobug-friendly Pier 39, Fisherman’s wharf offers quite a few restaurants, shops solely dedicated to tourist kitch, museums (including a pair of military ship museum, and a playable arcade called “Musée mécanique”) and party-friendly places.  You’ll see tourists and teenagers having quite a bit of fun.  It’s quite a bit family-friendly, and few other places offer a better opportunity to understand San Francisco’s relationship with the Bay.  You may dismiss the whole touristy thing, but it’s worth at least one look.

Embarcadero / East Side

Fisherman’s Wharf naturally leads to the Embarcadero, a long curling street that takes you from San Francisco’s North side to its East side.  A series of piers suggests elements of the city’s long history with the sea.  It’s not rare to catch a few cargo ships making their way from the Pacific ocean to the Oakland port facilities, ferries, pleasure boats, yachts and sailboats.

Cargo Ships in the Bay.

The Embarcadero goes on for quite a while, but much of it ends at Pier 1, the Embarcadero itself.  Not only does the pier offer a splendid view of the bay and the Bay Bridge, it’s also a functioning ferry stop when you can either take the ferry over to the nearby cities, but also grab a bite at a welcoming series of shops.  Plus, if that wasn’t enough, that’s also next to the public-transit nexus Market street and, from there, much of Downtown/SoMa.  I spent a good long afternoon hour just reading and sipping a soft drink in the shade of the plaza in front of the Ferry Terminal and it was a very civilized way to spend time in San Francisco.

The Embarcadero at dusk

Don’t miss a look at the Bay Bridge, which doesn’t have the public relation clout of the Golden Gate Bridge, but is in many ways a far more impressive piece of work.  Look at the shore next to Howard street for a few picturesque pillars and a pretty good photo opportunity as seen below.

Bay Bridge

The Embarcadero’s also a pretty good way to study harried citizen as they make their way between their residences and their downtown cubicles.  It’s well-maintained and benefits from numerous public transit options if you don’t want to walk its surroundings.  (But why wouldn’t you?  It’s flat!)


Slightly west of the Embarcadero is Market Street, and that’s the main access point for much of San Francisco’s downtown.

Market Street, the main mass-transit drag of downtown San Francisco.

A number of mass-transit lines run over Market (buses and streetcars on top, BART below, and cable cars not too far away.)

Turning the cable-car at the Powell/Market Turnaround

The north end of Market street marks the official distinction between the financial district up north and the increasingly gentrified SoMa neighbourhood to the south, and as such is a pretty pleasant half-commercial, half-livable area.  It’s particularly enjoyable during the evening.

Downtown San Francisco (Market Street) at night

But Market also leads quickly to other neighborhoods.  Turn north on Grant Avenue, for instance, and you will end up at “The Dragon Gate, Gateway to Chinatown”.  (For a more interesting experience, though, walk up Stockton avenue north of the tunnel at about 8:00 in the morning to see the whole neighborhood restaurants gear up for the day.)

Dragon Gate, Chinatown

The Financial sector is also where skyscraper fans like myself will get their fix of tall buildings.  The standout piece of architecture, of course, is the Transamerica pyramid.  Don’t miss the small redwood preserve immediately east of the tower.

A close view of the Transamerica Pyramid.

It goes without saying that I love downtowns and their assortments of banks, quick cafés/delis and professional people.  It empties out pretty quickly between 16:00 and 18:00, but during the day, it’s like being in any other city with a professional core –maybe including yours!

Keep walking down Market Street street, and you will find yourself in the Civic Centre area, where you will be able to see the City Hall, as well as the impressive Public Library.  The somewhat recent (1996) main branch of the Library is worth a quick visit.  Not only is it free, but it sports an intriguing architecture: the core of the space is a circular open area spanning all five floors of the building, and if I recall correctly, the third floor sports an evil-overlord-styled walkway that spans an open area to get to one of the reading rooms.  There is a substantial homeless presence, though.  (The bathrooms have signs telling patrons not to launder or shower using bathroom facilities.)

City Hall

Sourth and East of Market (sort of)

Keep walking down Market Street and you will eventually make your way to the more diverse neighbourhood south of downtown.

As you leave the Civic Center area, there are a few very typical San Francisco sights to see.  One of the most popular is the six “Painted Cities” that find their way in every single San Francisco travel guide.  Alas, November morning photography in San Francisco is hard: The sun just wasn’t pointed in the right direction, and I ended up with a rather shady shot…

Downtown San Francisco and the six “Painted Ladies”, seen from Alamo Square.

Fortunately, Alamo Square is a good place to recuperate if you’ve just made your way uphill from Market.  Take a breath, look around, enjoy the greenery, admire the dogs walking their people, and then press on to the south and west.  Eventually, you will make your way to the infamous Haight-Ashbury area, high (or low) point of the sixties hippie counter-revolution.

The picturesque “Haight/Ashbury” marker, not far away from the real (and not-so-picturesque) intersection.

As someone with no perceptible fondness for the hippie lifestyle, I wasn’t surprised to find little of value in the Haight-Ashbury area.  The area has been taken over by small independent “lifestyle” shops, which are colorful, but bring to mind that dollars and sense will endure a lot better that peace and love.  The true remnants of the Summer of Love are to be found begging for money, sleeping shamelessly or ambling along unsteadily: Some people have done a lot of drugs during their lives, and the Haight-Ashbury is where they crash at the end of it.  It’s tremendously sad, and much of that sadness extends in the neighboring Lincoln Park –its eastern edge is littered with human debris, abandoned there by the society they’re dropped from.

If you double back at the Haight-Ashbury (and considering what you’re likely to see there, who could blame you?  Visit early in the morning to avoid the worst of the crowd.), you can make your way to a far happier portion of the city: the heavily Latino-influenced Mission district.

That’s where you will find Mission Dolores, for instance, a preserved church that recalls the city’s earliest past.  It now flanked by a far more ornate basilica on the street corner.  I’m not much of an audience for religious icons, but (as I’ve mentioned before) guided tours will check off those imposed tourist attractions in minutes.

Mission Dolores, the oldest remaining building in San Francisco. (Basilica in the background)

I was far more interested in the bustling, energetic shopping district of Valencia and Mission streets.  My objective in that area was to shop at Borderland Books, one of the finest SF bookstores on the planet.  (I wasn’t disappointed, since I got the chance to be meowed at by their world-famous sphinx cat Ripley, overheard why Ripley wasn’t hairless anymore, jostled elbows with a number of famous fantasy authors and editor preparing for an evening signing and bought more books than I should have.)  But while the tour books recommend Valencia as a shopping street, I had a lot more fun looking at the discount stores and active urban dwellers on Mission than the upper-scale, in-construction mess that was Valencia.

A colorful segment of Mission Street

Golden Gate Park

One of the can’t miss attractions of San Francisco, Golden Gate Park is reminiscent of New York’s Central Park for many reasons.  It’s obviously a natural preserve in the middle of a densely-packed urban area, with a number of sub-attractions that should days to explore fully.  But it’s also a convincing demonstration of human capability to foster natural beauty when it chooses to: Much like Central Park was built from a blank slate, Golden Gate Park is all land reclaimed from inhospitable sand dunes and landscaped to lush greenery.

One of your first stops should be the Botanical Garden, which offers a tour of the world of plants in a compact area filled with unexpected sights.  San Francisco is heaven for gardeners in that it offers a climate that is cool and humid yet warm and sunny enough to accommodate a wide variety of plants.  I was charmed to see quasi-mutated version of familiar plants (such as silver-mound bushes) next to other plants that would be impossible to grow in Canada.  The contrast didn’t seem as shocking or alien as Los Angeles’ or Florida’s radically different flora.

Fall colors at the Botanical Garden.

But if you want landscaped perfection, have a look at the Japanese Tea Garden in the middle of the Park.  It’s a very small area, but it’s crammed with nooks, sights, impeccably-trimmed plants, ponds with foot-long koi fishes, a pagoda and enough photo opportunities to fill up your memory card.

Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

If you like wilder areas, the Golden Gate Park is big enough to accommodate you.  Walking the entire southern length of the park, I eventually found myself in a less-frequented area only a hundred meters away from Lincoln street.  I sat down on a stump to rest, and ended up reading there for about twenty minutes with only two passing joggers to disrupt the calm.

Wilder area in the Golden Gate Park

There is, of course, a lot more to the Golden Gate Park than three pictures and four paragraphs can tell.  There’s a museum or two, a windmill, a stadium, a bison herd, baseball parks, a gold course, soccer fields, at least two playgrounds (one of them warning that “adults must be accompanied by a child”) and much more.  Give yourself most of a day to see it all.

West Side

The north-west side of the peninsula that is San Francisco is far more residential (and so less interesting to passing tourists) than the downtown area, but there are still a few things worth looking at in the area.

The whole reason why I walked the length of Lincoln Park, for instance, was to make it to the big beach looking over the Pacific Ocean.  I’m clearly a landlubber, because I have only made it to the Pacific twice (once in Venice Beach) and both times have been a profound experience.  The surf (and it was a great day for surf) is completely unlike anything else I’ve experienced, and it’s a thrill to look at water knowing that the next stop is somewhere in Asia.  Even at the risk of sunburn, I must have stood in the sand for about five minutes, leaving only after letting the waves touch my shoes.

At the Pacific Ocean: Surf’s up!

A bit north of the beach, you will find the Lincoln Park, which has not only the French-themed Legion of Honor (a classical arts museum) and an original casting of Rodin’s The Thinker

Legion of honor: Rodin’s Thinker reflects on Honor and Country

…but also terrific views of the Golden Gate Bridge and a nice walk through San Francisco’s nature.  (Walk down El Camino Del Mar, then a bit back on Lands End Trail for the best views.)  There’s also a golf course if you want to golf while looking at the Golden Gate Bridge.

Golden Gate Bridge seen from the Legion of Honor (West side).

If you’re lucky, you may even be able to catch one of the massive cargo boats making their way to and from the Oakland port.

Cargo Ship leaving the Bay

From Marina to Nob Hill via North Beach

Every San Fransisco neighborhood has its own distinct identity and character, and it’s probably a criminal faux-pas to lump them all together in a single section.  But here’s an ambling impression of the Marina / North Beach / Nob Hill area…

If you only stop once in the Marina area, make it the Exploratorium / Palace of Fine Arts.  The Palace of Fine Arts is a gigantic set of faux-Roman ruins that evoke both majesty and melancholy (for the majesty, stand near to them; for the melancholy, take a walk around the lagoon next to the Palace.)  But on the other side of the Palace, you must go to the Exploratorium, a warehouse filled with practical science exhibits.  “Practical” means hands-on: there are hundreds of different things to try and play with.  I ended up going there to have a look, and ended up stuck there for over an hour, playing around with a bunch of stuff.  (Since it was mid-day during the week early in the school session, I had the place pretty much to myself.)

Palace of Fine Arts ruins, to human scale

There are two big landmarks on the North Beach area, and if you look at it the right way, they almost refer to one another.

The first one, near the top of Russian Hill, is obviously the “crookedest street” segment of Lombard, a set of eight tight curves leading down an incline that would otherwise be almost too difficult to navigate.  It’s an intensely whimsical solution to a natural problem, and as such exemplifies a lot about San Francisco culture.

The lower “crookedest street” segment of Lombard.  It’s surprisingly difficult to get a good picture of this area from the ground.

Getting to the top of the street by walking is painful, but the result is mind-boggling: from the top intersection, on a clear day you can spot the Bay, Alcatraz Island, Fisherman’s Wharf, Coit Tower and a good chunk of the city.  No matter the time of the day, chances are that you won’t be alone: there were dozens of tourists snapping pictures and video when I was there during late afternoon, and they’re far more conspicuous than in other tourist hot-spots of the city given that it’s a residential area.

Coit Tower from Lombard Street.

If you’re intrigued by the lone tower that rises up from Telegraph Hill, have fun going to Coit Tower.  I was actually foolish enough to climbs the stairs leading to the tower from its sea-level western side (something that astonished even the elevator attendant leading to the top of the tower), but again the view is worth it.  You can see most of downtown San Francisco from there, from the Golden Gate Bridge to Oakland.  This obviously includes, if you look carefully, “the crookedest street” segment of Lombard.  On a sunny day, it’s worth the view.  If you’re not the car-driving or stairs-climbing type, don’t worry: There’s a bus that will take you there… or bring you back.

Lombard Street from Coit Tower.

Much of the area around Nob Hill is “classic San Francisco” as we imagine it: steep inclines, Victorian-style apartments all stacked alongside each other, densely-located urban conveniences (ah, let me tell you about my love for Nob Hill’s Cala Foods, my main source of food during my days in SF) and a surprising number of expensive sports car in active use.  It’s lovely, and even more so at night.  (This being said, an attempt to take pictures of my hotel was defeated by the presence of an older man urinating against a trash can.  Hence the “gritty” location I was promised in my travel guide.)

Typical Nob Hill neighborhood at night.

San Francisco is a surprising (and hurtful) city for pedestrians, given the number of hills and almost-omnipresent inclines.  Once I got my first blisters and learned a bit more about the terrain, I started thinking three-dimensionally, planning my routes to take smaller inclines until I reached my destination.

To give you an idea of some inclines… (Lombard Street)

But the inclines have their good side as well.  One of my persistent reflexes during my travels in San Francisco was to take picture of intersections where you could see aaallllll the way down to the Bay.  The combination of San Francisco’s hills and the obstinately grid-like pattern of the street makes for curious sights, the way in front of us undulating up and down…

Look down, down, down the street…

Farther away

One of the advantages of guided tours is how they take us farther away than anyone would be able to manage with just a mass transit pass.  That’s how I found myself in Sausalito, Muir Wood park, North of the Golden Gate Bridge, or on top of Twin Peaks.

Twin Peaks isn’t that inaccessible, but it does require either legs of steel or a car that’s not afraid of heights.  On the other hand, while you’re there, you can get a pretty good perspective on everything from the Golden Gate Bridge to South San Francisco.  It’s the kind of place that makes photobugs go crazy.

Downtown San Francisco seen from Twin Peaks lookout.

North of the bay, you can get to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which gives a more honest picture of the true nature of the area as it looks like without human intervention.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area, seen from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Much farther away, there’s Muir Woods Park, a fascinating mini-ecosystem in which a deep valley hosts an amazing number of very old and tall redwood trees.  It’s a very quiet, very restful place after the bustle of the city.  If you’re as lucky as I was, you may even see deers hop on the trail a few meters in front of you.  But be warned that even in the middle of the day, the place looks as if it is in perpetual dusk.

Walking among the redwood trees in Muir Woods Park.

Closer to San Francisco, just on the north side of the bay, you can stay at Sausalito for a while, exploring the art galleries and restaurants.  For time-pressed tourists, though, there wasn’t much else to do that walk around the marina and grab a few more pictures of San Fransisco itself.

Downtown San Francisco seen from Sausalito.

A few conclusions…

I expected to like San Francisco, and was relieved to be proven right.  It’s reminiscent of Vancouver in how it’s a hip and densely-packed urban space with ready access to natural areas: The sea and the geography shape the city, and they make an interesting contrast to the high-tech and financial business the city is known for. It’s certainly more pleasant than Los Angeles (which I didn’t like all that much), proving the theories about the distinctiveness of North California versus South.

On the other hand, there’s no doubts in my mind that I can’t afford to live there: As median house prices hover around the cool three-quarter-of-a-million dollar, with consequent cost-of-living, San Francisco is doomed to remain the shining beacon that will attract the young and upwardly mobile Americans.  I haven’t seen as many high-end sports car in street use in a long time, and the urban density takes away as much as it provides in term of quality-of-life.  No wonder median house prices are even higher once you hit the suburbs –$1.2 million in Marin county, we’ve been told.

That’s part of the reason why homelessness seems like such a problem in San Francisco: it’s hard to justify the city’s often-impressive displays of wealth when it seems that every street corner has a panhandler.  The city’s weather, history, public areas and general standard of living makes it easier than other urban areas for the homeless, but it doesn’t make it any more pleasant to see people sleeping in the middle of a sidewalk, or being installed on the edges of a public park.  The front of City Hall alone is littered with people with… nothing, just sleeping on top of their possessions or staring blankly into space.

There is no clear solution or road-map to taking care of the homelessness problem in San Francisco, especially given how prevalent it seems to be in every single large North American city.  It just seems even more shocking here than in other cities.

Homeless in San Francisco (Alamo Square)

On the entirely different subject of missed personal opportunities, I know that visiting San Francisco without going to Oakland is missing half the picture, even if the photo magnets get smaller once you cross the Bay Bridge.  Next time, maybe… although I don’t expect to get the perfect weather I got this time.

Generally, I was charmed at San Francisco’s strong public transit, moderate weather, urban density and close relationship to nature.  It does, however, have many of the typical problems of American cities: The homelessness problem is magnified by the richness of the city, and some public infrastructures are clearly getting old.  Much of the traffic problems are caused by an older street grid that can’t tolerate any more cars, although the well-designed public transit definitely works well.  Next time, I’ll try hanging away from known tourist spots and live the live a bit more: Some of my most pleasant moments in San Francisco were spent doing nothing, reading a book in the shadow of the Embarcadero or sitting on a stump in Golden Gate park.

At least there’s no doubt that I will be back to San Francisco sooner or later: It’s a good vacation spot, and the SF/SF (That’s San Francisco/Science-Fiction) community is bound to organize another big event every five-ten years.  I know that there are worst destinations out there.

Fare well, San Francisco; try to be in even better shape when I come back.

Here, have a bonus photo of the Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from Crissy Field.

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