Monday, January 31, 2011

San Francisco Sights

When I travel I like to get outside and get high.  Outside meaning walk and hike and see the lay of the land, city, town, parks, streets, trails, beaches, alleys, squares.  High meaning up somewhere, on a rooftop, on an observation deck, on a hill or mountain, on anything for a birds eye view of the surrounding whatever.  I like to wander, a lot, and much to the chagrin of some of my traveling partners I do, a lot.  People watch, too.  Sit and take it all in.  Then walk some more.

Below is a list of suggested fun stuff to consider should you find yourself in the City by the Bay, lots of it walkable, all of it doable without renting a car.  The list is in no ways complete, nor is it meant to contain all the official information; you can find that online or in the guide book you probably have.  Instead, it's a brief summary of some of my personal favorite things, whether or not I have guests in town.

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Crissy Field to the Golden Gate Bridge - Walk or rent a bike, and from the East Beach parking lot follow the Bay Trail to Fort Point beneath the GGB.  The southern arm of the trail is paved for bikes, pedestrians and roller blades; the northern arm is hard-pack gravel and is bike/walk appropriate.  Both pathways skirt the new tidal lagoon that was built during a remarkable 12-year restoration of Crissy Field started in 1998.  Lots of fresh air, beautiful views and people watching, sand dunes, native plants and probably some wildlife to boot.  From the entrance gate to Fort Point you can hike up a staircase through the Presidio and continue on, if you like, to the toll plaza at the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Coit Tower - Walk from Washington Square in North Beach or catch the #39 MUNI bus at the corner of Union Street and Columbus Street.  Coit Tower is an architectural gift from socialite and amateur fire-chaser Lillie Hitchcock Coit, built posthumously to honor the brave fireman of San Francisco and the city itself.  Some say the tower's shape resembles a fire hose nozzle; others say it vaguely reminds them of another fireman kinda thing-y that Lillie might have appreciated.  Whatever: the views from up top are lovely, even finer from the observation deck of the tower if it's open (entrance fee charged), and on the bottom floor inside are some very handsome New Deal Public Works of Art Project murals painted in the early 1930's.

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Westin Saint Francis Glass Elevator Ride - Absolutely free, and a blast!  Enter through the revolving doors of the historic building on Powell Street (another survivor of the 1906 quake) and traverse the lobby straight back, past a lobby bar area, and to the right.  Unfortunately The Compass Rose - a classic, old-timey San Francisco bar to the left when you enter - is gone, so you will never again get to see it, but on a clear day from the elevators you will be treated to a vertiginous amusement park ride with views of Union Square, parts of downtown SF, the bay, Oakland and the East Bay hills.  Try to snag an elevator car by yourselves, push the top-most button available and bombs away!

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Get on the Bay - Take the ferry to Sausalito, Tiburon, Angel Island, or to Alcatraz Island for a highly recommended cellblock tour.  Take an hour-long bay cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge and back.  Rent a kayak.  Hell, piece together a Kon Tiki-style raft from discarded branches and twigs; I don't care how you do it, but do it!  Pack a camera, hat, scarf and layers of clothing for the ferry, especially if you want to sit outside as I like, and take some sunscreen just in case.  Unless the fog has TOTALLY obscured the view you will be rewarded with a quintessential SF experience, fresh and salty sea air, and maybe glimpse a sea lion or two, a harbor seal or a pod of harbor porpoise (and by the way, I was kidding about that raft idea).

Aquatic Park and Fort Mason - Save the aroma of steaming dungeness crab, the occasional view of Alcatraz and the bay, and your hub for fishing and watery sightseeing excursions (see above), Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 look like they could be anywheres-ville, coastal tourist town USA, lined with tacky shops and mostly "who cares" eateries.  A quick look-see is fine, I guess, as the area does harbor some interesting San Francisco treats: Boudin Bakery for the legend of sourdough bread; historic Hyde Street Pier and the Buena Vista Bar; the Aquarium of the Bay; Ghirardelli Square; some okay restaurants; and of course the noisy sea lions at Pier 39 when they're in the house.  If you haven't before you'll wanna peek around; but do it and get out, because a little further west is one of my favorite bayside spots, and a short walk on a paved trail over the hill will lead you to another.

The curving concrete pier at Aquatic Park is a bit dilapidated, but the unobstructed views of the bay area are utterly priceless: the Golden Gate, the Marin Headlands, Sausalito and Mount Tamalpais; Alcatraz and Angel Island; Coit Tower and the East Bay, back to Ghirardelli Square, Hyde Street Pier, and part of the SF Financial District skyline.  Fantastic!

Historic Fort Mason District has a whole lot to offer.  The old army piers are home to restaurants (Greens, a long-time vegetarian classic, is the anchor), several art galleries, theatre, seasonal shows and fairs, Octoberfest, a Sunday morning farmer's market, stuff for the kiddies, a slew of non-profits like The Oceanic Society and much more.  On a hill above it all is The Great Meadow: a wide open grassy knoll perfect for frisbee, for relaxing, for a picnic.

Baker Beach - There are plenty of good views of the GGB from inside the bay on the northern shores of San Francisco, but this is without a doubt one of the finest from outside the bay looking back.  Like many northern California beaches it is often windy and is not necessarily for swimming, but it is always dramatic and absolutely worth a trip.  Walk, jog or beach-comb; definitely relax on a blanket and picnic; fire up a grill; watch people, dogs, the nudists on the far north end, wildlife and the sunset.  You can drive, huff and puff on a bike or take public transit (consult MUNI for routes).

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The Ferry Building - After surviving both the 1906 San Andreas and 1989 Loma Prieta earthquakes, and after the insult of being hidden for 35 years by a double-decker eyesore called the Embarcadero (Damn-barcadero) Freeway, the historic Ferry Building underwent a 4-year, multi-million dollar facelift and reopened in 2003.  Since that time it has been embraced by locals and tourist alike.  Get down there and embrace it for yourself (you'll love it), and while you're at it take a stroll south along The Embarcadero to the ballpark and China Basin.

Union Square - In 1995 Union Square underwent a transformation from a dirty and dingy old piazza to a modern, open and clean one.  Although some are critical of the design it is now worthy of a place like San Francisco: the anchor of an upscale shopping, dining and theatre district.  On many afternoons the square plays host to arts shows or musical performances.  Unfortunately it also plays host to lots of homeless people and panhandlers.

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Some of the Neighborhoods

Chinatown - A disgrace it's sometimes so filthy, but you should definitely walk around and take in the community and architecture, shop a bit, and maybe enjoy dim sum.  All the merchants (and the residents) should buck up and clean it up.  If they did it would be even more worthy of a city like San Francisco; be absolutely fantastic, the best outside of Asia (it's already the oldest and biggest).  Make sure your visit includes a stroll to the Dragon Gate entrance at Grant Street and Bush Street.

The Haight - Upper Haight is what you want to see.  Tattoos and body piercing; purple hair, green hair; the faint smell of weed; some hip, funky restaurants, shops and bars; way too many homeless people.

North Beach - Beatnik and Old World Italian central.  Washington Square Park for relaxing and people-watching, Grant Street for shopping and snooping around, Columbus Street for the same, Saints Peter and Paul Church, and home to the musical production of Beach Blanket Babylon (which you should definitely see), plus more homeless.

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Golden Gate Park - You could spend a whole day here, maybe two or three, and maybe a lifetime.  Over 1,000 acres to explore, both outside and inside: The M. H. de Young Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, the Conservatory of Flowers, Stow Lake for one of several, The Japanese Tea Garden, a Dutch Windmill, the Beach Chalet, the Music Concourse, wide open Lindley Meadow for one of several, buffalo!, and so much more to see and do.  On the western edge is the mighty Pacific and Ocean Beach, a long, wide open and flat stretch of sand where you can walk, jog, watch the surfies and beach-comb to your hearts content.

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Hill 88, aka The LoopOkay, so you have a weekend in San Francisco and love to hike, but you didn't rent a car.  Fret not, my amateur naturalist, because on Sundays and selected holidays the #76 MUNI bus makes hourly trips from the city, across the Golden Gate to Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands.  The bus ride alone is worth the price of admission ($2.00 as of this posting, with a 2-hour transfer window for the return trip), as you will get some spectacular views along the way and just visiting Rodeo Beach and lagoon is enough: classic, wind-swept Northern California.  Should you desire and have the cash for another fare back to the city you should take the time to crank out this hike, one of my all-time favorites.  Anytime of year is good, but in spring you will be witness to one of the best (and most accessible) native wildflower displays in the Bay Area.  Search online and consult the map at the beach for specifics, but what you want is the Coastal Trail north to the Wolf Ridge Trail, Wolf Ridge east (don't go down into Tennessee Valley unless you crave more) to the the Miwok Trail/Fire Road, a right on Miwok back down to Rodeo Lagoon, then west back to the beach.  The last bus returning to SF is early (6:30 p.m., I think), even in summer, so check the MUNI schedule.

The Vital Statistics
Distance: 4.8 mile loop
Time: Allow 2 hours at least, especially if you're a newbie, because you'll want to stop often and take in the beauty (and catch your breath)
Ouch Factor: 900 foot elevation gain, most on the first half of the hike, with some steep sections up and down

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Those who live in San Francisco will already be familiar with the information and sights listed above (a few will probably chide me for leaving some of their own favorites out and for some of my opinions), but as I mentioned at the beginning the list is not meant to be all-encompassing or objective.  It will, however, get you out of doors and working up a good appetite for dinner.  And it will definitely turn you on to a small slice of the natural and man-made beauty of San Francisco.

Happy trails!
Peter J. Palmer


  1. I don't believe you missed a thing. The perfect SF to-do list.

  2. Right on Peter - We'll check some of these sites/sights!