Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon boasts being the world’s longest running musical review, and once you decide to dismiss the stupidity of the premise – Snow White’s search for her Prince Charming – you become completely enchanted with the quality of the musical performances, the costumes that would make Ziegfeld jealous (the hats are spectacularly outrageous), the choreography, and yes, the satire.
This isn’t expressly a political satire, though all your favorite political figures are zinged. Beach Blanket Babylon is really more of a spoof of popular culture, iconic brands, hot celebrities. And though the musical has been playing here in San Francisco since 1974, sections seem as if they were written just the week before, they are that timely.
In a phrase, it’s a hoot that carries you along with abandon as if you were riding a tube through rapids. Just suspend disbelief, sit back and enjoy the ride.
A mind-boggling statistic that would seem to make the show eligible for inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records, Beach Blanket Babylon has already had more than 16,000 performances and has been seen by six million people who come to the delightful theater at Club Fugazi in the North Beach district from around the world. The show doesn’t only spoof celebrities, it draws its share to its audience: HRH Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles and Camilla the Duchess of Cornwall as well as some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
Beach Blanket Babylon (whatever basis in plot that title originates from seems to have been erased with the sands of time) follows Snow White as she finds herself in various locales around the world in search of her “Prince Charming.” (I can only imagine that way back in its history, these locations had more relevance to the plot.)
Our favorite bit was Donald and Melania Trump and the Trump family (done as the Von Trapp Family from “Sound of Music”). The incredibly long and varied list of characters that get their share of ribbing include Vladimir Putin, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Adele, Hamilton, Kellyanne Conway, Darth Vadar (Steve Bannon), Barack and Michelle Obama, Taylor Swift, Prince, Ivanka Trump, Bernie Sanders, Kim Kardashian and Kanye, Hillary Clinton and Bill, Oprah and the San Francisco Giants.
But the main reason that this show has survived all these years is the astonishing quality of the performances and yes, witty lyrics, and FABULOUS costumes (and hats!) that makes you wonder why they don’t spend a few bucks on a smarter, more updated unifying gag.
It all began on June 7, 1974, when Steve Silver produced a small show in the back room of the Savoy Tivoli Restaurant in San Francisco. There were 214 seats crammed into a tiny space. The floor was covered with two tons of sand; a lifeguard tore tickets at the door and sprayed the backs of people’s hand with Coppertone®. (Now I know where the title comes from!) For $2.50, the audience was entertained by a 45-minute show with four main performers, a chorus line of hula-dancing middle-aged housewives doing card stunts, a band dressed as poodles, one lighting man on top of a lifeguard stand manipulating Folger’s® coffee can lights and a whole lots of laughs.
The show was to run for six weeks. That was more than 40 years ago…
After a brief stint in the fall of 1974 at Club Olympus, Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon opened at Club Fugazi, a really beautiful theater that makes you think you are back in 1890s San Francisco, where it has been running since. The show became an expanded version of the Tivoli and Olympus shows, with more characters, grander sets, a larger cast and what was to become a trademark of the show, bigger hats!
This show is everybit a showy, elaborate display – you can’t believe they can get that many performers doing complicated choreography (and in those hats!) on an intimate stage. The musicians are fantastic, too.
Tickets range from $25 – $155 (based on performance date and seat location) and can be purchased online at www.beachblanketbabylon.com, in person at the box office or by calling 415-421-4222. All performances take place at Club Fugazi, 678 Beach Blanket Babylon Blvd. (Green St.) in the heart of San Francisco’s North Beach district. Shows perform on Wednesdays, Thursdays & Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 6 & 9 p.m., and Sundays at 2 & 5 p.m. (Due to liquor license restrictions, persons under 21 are not admitted to evening performances. (Minors welcome at Sunday matinees.) Valid photo I.D. is required.
Club Fugazi happens to be in North Beach which has some of the best Italian restaurants in San Francisco (and is one of San Francisco’s oldest neighborhoods). We thoroughly enjoyed our dinner at the casual and moderately priced Baonecci Ristorante – pasta with truffles, eggplant Parmigiana; Tagliatelle ai Funghi Porcini (Fresh homemade eggs pasta Porcini Mushroom, Garlic, Olive oli, Fresh Italian Parsley) and Pizza Rustica (San marzano tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, gorgonzola cheese, salame toscano, arugula (reservations recommended, Baonecci Ristorante, 516 Green St, San Francisco, CA 94133, 415-989-1806).
It is quite amazing to me that just 35 minutes drive from downtown San Francisco, the fabulous urbanized city with some of the tallest structures man has devised, are the Muir Woods, with some of the tallest and most ancient trees Mother Nature has produced.
The peace, the serenity, the sheer awe and majesty envelopes you from the first steps into the national forest.
There are many tour companies that make it easy for tourists to visit, as well as various means to get you there on your own (but if you use Uber, you have to be aware that there is no cell service there).
I took Extranomical Tours’s Muir Woods Expedition which offers an excellent program, well organized, and that gives you some extra added treats: a stop in scenic Sausalito and another stop for a “unique” view of the Golden Gate Bridge (in fact, an unusual vantage point that most tourists would never have), as well as an animated, well informed guide (Jake on the tour I took), who points out the sights, relates San Francisco’s history and gives good historical and naturalist background to prime you for your visit to Muir Woods National Monument.
The Extranomical tour to Muir Woods begins with a pick-up at convenient locations – I was picked up at the Hyatt Regency Embacadero, in a smart van (flooding has wiped out part of Highway 1, so you have to take a small, winding road up to the entrance which the big buses they normally use can’t take).
Jake, a filmmaker originally, is our guide and gives pleasant commentary on the drive that orients us well when we arrive.
Muir Woods is a national monument, established on January 9, 1908 by President Roosevelt using his powers under the Antiquities Act, to protect an old-growth coast redwood forest from destruction.
Jake explains us how these woods were saved from lumbering and development by William Kent and his family. Redwood Creek contained one of the Bay Area’s last uncut stands of old-growth redwood, Congressman William Kent and his wife, Elizabeth Thacher Kent, bought 611 acres for $45,000 in 1905. To protect the redwoods the Kents donated 295 of the land to the Federal Government and, in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared it a national monument. Roosevelt suggested naming the area after Kent, but Kent wanted it named for the pioneering conservationist John Muir responsible for saving Yosemite as America’s first national park.
Since Muir Woods is a national monument, Jake can’t escort us through and we pay our $10 fee to enter. But he has oriented us well and tells us the best way to explore in the two hours we have here.
Two hours proves sufficient to get the highlights of Muir Woods and hike the most popular trails (there are numerous hiking trails, some of which hadn’t opened yet for the season). The main trail is paved, flat, and can accommodate wheelchairs. This trail puts you at the base of these mammoth trees so you can the full appreciation of just how massive they are (and how small you are). You find yourself constantly craning your neck to see to the top.
And when you walk in, you do feel like you are entering a cathedral – that craning of the neck to see the treetops making an arch over the narrow path, as if looking up at the high arching roof of a Gothic cathedral like Notre Dame.
Indeed, perhaps because it is so close to San Francisco and offers such a contrast to a congested urban area, Muir Woods is very much a “cathedral” – there is even a Cathedral Grove, with a sign that says “Shhh… Quiet Refuge.”
You hear birds, the gurgling of the Redwoods Creek that flows through.
You feel small, a speck in time and space.
You feel grateful to man who saved these woods.
You are overwhelmed by the sense of awe and majesty, from your first steps through the wooden threshold.
The trees, as if elders, range in age from 400 to 800 years – that means they were already well on in years when Columbus first discovered the New World – their height up to 250 feet.
These aren’t as thick as the famous Giant Sequoias which are further inland; but these coastal redwoods are the tallest trees in the world. Even more remarkable because they grow from a tiny seed that bursts from a small pine cone that is heated by fire.
In the light gaps beneath the redwood trees are red alders, California big leaf maples, tanoaks, and Douglas fir. The forest floor is covered in redwood sorrel, ferns, fungi, duff, and debris. Wildlife includes the endangered coho salmon fingerlings that live in the lovely creek that flows through, Pacific wren, woodpeckers, owls, deer, chipmunks, skunks, river otters, and squirrels.
You walk among old growth coast redwoods, nurtured in the fresh water of Redwood Creek and by the fog.
I cross the fourth bridge over the Redwood Creek and take the Hill Top trail back -a narrow dirt path at a higher elevation – which gives a different perspective.
The Visitor Center at the Muir Woods entrance has exhibits and a vast selection of literature and information on Muir Woods. A cafe and gift shop is also located near the park entrance.
There are other ways to get to the Muir Woods on your own such as using a bus service (though it is temporarily out while they repair Highway 1; and if you use Uber or ride-share, you need to pre-arrange a pick-up because there is no cell service). Coming on your own, you can organize your visit to miss the busiest crowds during midday (best to arrive before 9 am or after 4 pm). The park opens every day at 8 am and closes at 8 pm (after March 18).
Muir Woods is open 365 days of the year, though hours vary with the season.
Muir Woods National Monument,1 Muir Woods Rd. Mill Valley, CA 94941, 415-388-2595.
The advantage of the Extranomical Tour is certainly the convenience of the pick up, plus the enhanced experience of a brief stop at Sausalito and (on our trip) the Presidio for jake’s “unique” view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Jake gives us a narration about the history of San Francisco and points out attractions on our way (like the tunnel, recently renamed for comedian Robin Williams, which is painted with a rainbow).
Extranomical Tours also includes a visit to Muir Woods National Monument in other tour offerings, such as one and two-day trips to Wine Country; and a trip that combines Muir Woods with Sausalito and Alcatraz.
The weather is overcast on the day I have set to do that iconic bike ride along San Francisco’s waterfront, over the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito and on to Tiburon. But that doesn’t stop me or several thousand other visitors to this engaging city. I just throw in some rain gear along with water and snacks.
I set out for Blazing Saddles, which has the largest bike fleet in California and some nine locations throughout San Francisco.
The company’s main location is at 2715 Hyde Street, ideally located in Fisherman’s Wharf, and just a block and a half from the start of the National Park Bike Path. This path takes riders on a beautiful, car-free bike ride along the bay, passed the Marina, through historic Fort Mason, and over to the Golden Gate Bridge, which is where most of the riders go.
Blazing Saddles has been in business over 30 years – it is the original “Bike the Bridge” company – but now has some new offerings, including a new electric bike model that was custom-made for the company, the Electric Blazer, and a free mobile app.
The new “e-Blazer” was customized for Blazing Saddles and they say is the lightest electric bike. The bike looks like regular bike (the battery is on the luggage rack on the back rather than where your legs are). It would be exceptional if you were riding San Francisco’s hills.
But a consideration for me, as the Blazing Saddles person explains, is that e-bikes, can only take the Blue & Gold ferry line from Sausalito or Tiburon to Pier 41, which has somewhat more limited service than the Golden Gate Ferry (which goes into the Ferry Building at Embarcadero – so I see that my last time back from Tiburon (where I am trying to get to) would be 4:15 pm and it is already noon.
I decide not to take the e-bike but to take a regular bike, which is lighter and easier for me to get on/off, and soldier through the hills, starting with Fort Mason (made it!), then the ramp up to Golden Gate Bridge (made it!).
The weather may be overcast, but I get to see that wonderful scene of the Golden Gate Bridge half-shrouded in San Francisco’s famous fog, a scene that changes moment to moment, it seems.
It is 8 miles to Sausalito – that takes about 1 ½ hours (you won’t just be riding over the Golden Gate Bridge, you will want to sightsee, stop for photos, and also have to keep stopping for pedestrians). Plan to spend time – at least an hour – in Sausalito which has really wonderful shops, galleries, eateries and scenic views, even if you are planning to continue the ride to Tiburon. (I have spent time in Sausalito a few days before on my way back from Muir Woods with Extranomical Tours.)
It is 10 more miles between Sausalito and Tiburon, which should take another 1 ½ to 2 hrs.
Blazing Saddles does an excellent job of preparing you – showing a 2-minute video of the route along the waterfront through the Marina district, up over Fort Mason (a strenuous hill) to the ramp up to Golden Gate Bridge (also strenuous hill), then down, down, down, into Sausalito.
They also give you a ticket for the ferry which you don’t actually pay for unless you use it (saves time and anxiety to buy the ticket at the ferry but I notice that the Blue & Gold lets you buy the ticket on the ferry, also). When I get back, I pay Blazing Saddles $11.50 for the ferry (the same amount as you would pay directly to the ferry). Their map/brochure even gives the time schedule for the ferries.
They tell us we should return the bikes by 7:30 pm or else call. They supply quality helmets, a lock, a pouch and luggage rack, and an excellent map (which also shows points of interest along the routes) and take care to properly fit the bike. (Blazing Saddles offers an all-day guided tour out of the 2715 Hyde Street location, departing 10 am and 1 pm, that includes the all-day Deluxe Comfort bike rental for $55/adult, $35/child).
I had really wanted to see the ride to Tiburon which is mostly on a bike trail but partly sharing the road. But once you get under the highway and go along the highway on the service road, the sign to the bike route (for Bike Route 8) to Tiburon is confusing (everyone else I met on the line to the ferry made the same mistake) – when actually, all you have to do is follow the service road maybe ¼ mile more and turn up on Belvedere Road, for a much more pleasant ride (just a few hills) which soon connects to a very nice bike trail (Bike Route 10).
I made the mistake of not biking out to Mill Valley’s Old Mill Park, where you get to see the Coastal Redwoods, and then connecting to the Bike Route #8 – which is the way Blazing Saddles recommends to go (I was in a hurry to get to Tiburon).
The weather does not cooperate, but fortunately I have prepared for rain.
Eventually you connect with Route 10 which is a dedicated bike trail along the water into Tiburon.
Even with getting lost (involving riding up three major hills in the residential area and stumbling upon the beautiful Audubon sanctuary (until a very nice man stopped his car and pointed out the route to me), I still get to Tiburon at 3:55 pm. There is not nearly as much to visit as in Sausalito, so I basically walked up and down the street in the “historic” district where the shops are and still made it to the 4:15 pm ferry for the fun 35-minute scenic “cruise” back to San Francisco’s Pier 41 at Fisherman’s Wharf, stopping at Angel Island and passing very close to Alcatraz on the way. There were a gazillion other bikes – a huge slew with the Blazing Saddles emblem – and the ferry people are extremely efficient in loading and unloading the bikers.
Besides this most popular Bike the Bridge ride (average 3 hours for the full 22 miles into Tiburon), other recommended routes include Bike the Parks (San Francisco’s bike route system connects Union Square and the “Wiggle” to the famous Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, 15 miles averaging 2-3 hours; the Marin Headlands Loop (from the north side of the Bridge, follow the coast west on Conzelman Road, out towards Point Bonita and Rodeo Beach, 10 miles, 2-3 hours; and “Conquer Mount Tamalpais, which would take you to Muir Woods National Monument, 15 miles beyond Sausalito, for a 5-6 hour trip – the elevations to Mount Tamalpais at 2,574 feet, make this especially challenging.
Indeed, San Francisco, despite its hills, is one of the most bike-friendly, welcoming cities anywhere (and if you get tired, public buses and the BART subway system accommodate bikes).
Blazing Saddles has a score of different road, hybrid and mountain bikes and types, starting at $8/hour or $32 for a 24-hour day; the best bike for biking the Bridge is a deluxe comfort hybrid, $9/hr, $36/for a 24-hour day; the e-Blazer ranges from $48-88.
Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals and Tours, 2715 Hyde Street, San Francisco, CA 94109, 415-202-8888, www.blazingsaddles.com
Maritime National Historical Park
Besides all the marvelous tourist places – souvenir shops, eateries of every stripe – there are some excellent attractions at Fisherman’s Wharf, such as the Exploratorium and the Aquarium and most especially the famous and fabulous Cable Car (expect long lines of about 30 minutes but totally worth it; along the cable car route, there is the Cable Car Museum which is free and SO fantastic).
The end of Fisherman’s Wharf is the start of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and the Visitor Center which is free and fantastic (located in the Argonaut Hotel building). Here you experience the sights, sounds and textures of the city’s seafaring past, beginning with the Native Americans who lived here before the Spanish arrived. There are hands-on activities and exhibits that describe the Gold Rush, shipwrecks, and development of San Francisco. On view is the lens from the Farallon Lighthouse. There are many historic vessels along the Hyde Street Pier, where park staff volunteers lead programs where you get to participate (school children can even overnight on historic vessels). The Maritime Museum is in the Aquatic Park Boathouse building (also free). (San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, 94123, 415-447-5000, www.nps.gov/safr).
I stop in on my way to picking up the bike from Blazing Saddles, and the exhibit gives me an excellent foundation for appreciating what I will see during the ride.
It’s also where a few of the marvelous San Francisco cable cars begin and end – be prepared for a 20-30 minute wait on a line but it is so worth it and is an excellent way to either arrive at Fisherman’s Wharf or finish off the day. The one-way fare is $7. (Locals can’t get on so it is almost exclusively tourists who ride the cable car.)
Pier 39, which is celebrating its 39th anniversary in 2017, is a tourist mecca with scores of fun shops and restaurants such as the Hard Rock Café (especially fun during this Summer of Love celebration, we noticed live music going on; also, check out the autographed Grateful Dead guitar, a painting of Jerry Garcia by Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane, Jerry Garcia’s bomber jacket, Jimi Hendrix’ jacket and one of the last photos of Janice Joplin, www.hardrock.com/cafes/san-francisco/).
This trip we enjoyed dinner at the Pier Market Seafood Restaurant, heralded for its New England clam chowder, Mesquite-grilled seafood, and lovely setting with views of the Bay, waterfront and resident sea lions.
Pier Market Seafood is one of the Simmons family’s restaurants in San Francisco (Fog Harbor Fish House, and Wipeout Bar & Grill are the others), offering menus that showcase all sustainable seafood offerings aligned with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” guidelines.
“We undertook this transition based on a commitment to best practices, even in the absence of any specific demand from our customers,” Scooter Simmons commented. “It was important to our family and everyone in our company to do the right thing and lead by example. There are surprisingly few area restaurants that have made this choice.”
Three generations of Simmons’ are a part of the history of San Francisco’s hospitality industry. Warren Simmons was the creator and developer of PIER 39, which opened in 1978, and his son, Scooter, daughter-in-law, Nancy, and his grandchildren, Nicki and Ryan, now work running the four Pier 39 businesses still owned by the family.
Menu highlights include garlic roasted whole crab, fresh seafood cioppino, mesquite grilled lobster tail, red curry steamed mussels, and Anchor Steam battered fish and chips and Pier Market’s award winning clam chowder.
In addition to the sourcing of sustainable ingredients for all seafood dishes the menu reflects seasonality, the use of local purveyors, generous portions, and moderate (“non-tourist”) pricing (mains are priced from around $11 to $30). Pier Market Seafood offers a diverse selection of libations including a wine list that emphasizes California vintages and handcrafted classic, contemporary and signature cocktails, plus intriguing non-alcoholic beverages including a strawberry basil nojito.
The selections are wonderful for sharing, especially the starters like sourdough garlic bread, garlic fries (crispy fries tossed with fresh garlic, herbs and topped with parmesan cheese); Crispy Scallops (house-breaded and served with roasted jalapeño aioli); fried calamari coated with sweet & sour sauce; crab cakes, a house specialty, served with a Cajun rémoulade; clams steamed in garlic, butter and white wine; steamed mussels prepared with onions and peppers in a red curry coconut broth.
The restaurant is also very proud of its Cioppino, a classic San Francisco dish, a tomato based seafood stew with fresh fish, mussels, clams, shrimp and crab served over pasta ( for a few dollars more, they remove the crab from the shell).
The menu offers tremendous variety and selections – meats to salads, sandwiches, pastas – and the ambiance is casual, pubbish, perfect after a day of sightseeing. The restaurant serves until 10 pm.
One hour free validated parking in an easily accessed and conveniently located garage adds to the allure of the dining experience.
(Pier Market Seafood, Pier 39. San Francisco, CA 94133, 415-989-7437, piermarket.com/).
For more help planning a visit to San Francisco, contact San Francisco Travel. 415-391‑2000, www.sftravel.com.
I arrived at the Green Tortoise Hostel in the bright sun of the afternoon and didn’t think anything about the neighborhood – it seemed busy. I actually had missed that little item about “adult entertainment clubs” in the welcome letter they sent. So when I arrived back in the evening, there were the giant neon signs that turn a neighborhood into a living canvas.
I went out exploring, finding lovely restaurants, beautiful street artwork and discover what a culturally rich, vibrant neighborhood North Beach is – San Francisco‘s Little Italy (lovely Italian restaurants, including the Fior d’Italia, which claims to be America’s oldest Italian Restaurant, dating from 1908 (2237 Mason St, fior.com) and the stomping grounds of the Beat Generation.
This was the neighborhood where poet Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac lived – and just a block up from the Green Tortoise is the Beat Museum.
“The Beat Museum is dedicated to spreading the spirit of The Beat Generation, which we define as tolerance, compassion and having the courage to live your individual truth.
“The Beats, as in beaten down and beatific, were a collective of writers, artists and thinkers that congregated in 1950s San Francisco.”
The Beat Museum is home to an extensive collection of Beat memorabilia, including original manuscripts and first editions, letters, personal effects and cultural ephemera, originally colleced by Jerry Cimano, who made his money in Corporate American and first opened the Beat Museum in 2003 in Monterey.
The museum was moved to North Beach, – “the epicenter for Beat activity during the 1950s” – in 2006.
“We are dedicated to carrying on the Beat’s legacy by exposing their work to new audiences, encouraging journeys—both interior and exterior—and being a resource on how one person’s perspective can have meaning to many.”
Even if you don’t visit the museum (which is behind a curtain), it is marvelous fun to peruse the shop crammed with books and items associated with the Beats, even an old car.
By my third day in San Francisco, I am more comfortable getting around on public transportation, and I’ve set my sights on visiting Golden Gate Park. My smart-phone app offers a few alternatives, so I ask the Hotel Whitcomb’s concierge, who recommends taking the 71 Bus to 9th Avenue, and then, because I also want to ride the cable car again, taking the same bus back to Powell Street & Hyde, where the cable car begins its route.
The 71 Bus proves to be a great sightseeing tour – going along Haight, through the famous Haight-Asbury district. What a trip!
Gorgeous Victorians line the boulevard – then you come to the center of Haight Ashbury – a riot of 1980s color, fonts and patterns; clever shop names (Love n Haight); head shops, music shops, famous record store. I’m surprised by how beautiful this section of San Francisco is.
The bus driver is so helpful to me and sensing my enthusiasm, and gives me some tips on seeing the park. She tells me where to get off, suggests where to go (as does another passenger who looks right at home in Haight-Asbury), while another rider offers his own suggestions – namely, it’s easy to get lost and stay on the path.
Golden Gate Park is an enchanting oasis in the midst of a bustling city. And if it calls to mind New York’s Central Park or Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park, there is a connection to those parks’ designer, Frederick Law Olmstead, who prepared one of the early designs, according to a historic marker.
Hayes Valley was the only location that was sheltered from the extreme conditions of the coast. He also was adamant that City Park should not resemble the popular English-style ‘pleasure garden’ but should be planted with native and other Mediterranean style species that could thrive in an environment with little water. (How prescient – now that California has had to impose water restrictions for the four-year drought).
Olmstead was not the designer but was a mentor to William Hammond Hall, the engineer chosen to survey and design the park. Hall began difficult task of taming the ever-changing sand dunes that dominated most of the area (hard to believe when you see this lush vast space now) – doing research, experimentation, trial and error and applying precedents from Europe. He was close to succeeding when he was forced to retire and chose his successor as Park Superintendent, John McLaren, to finish Golden Gate Park.
“In the beginning, three-quarters of the park was covered in ocean dunes, but were soon blanketed with various tree plantings. By 1875, the area bloomed with close to 60,000 trees, such as the Blue Gum Eucalyptus and the Monterey Pine. Four years later, 155,000 trees were placed over 1,000 acres of land. In 1903, the Dutch Windmills found their home at the western end of the park with an initial duty to pump water and life throughout the park.”
Hall designed the roads and pathways with curves and bends “to discourage fast horse-and-buggy drivers, and to shelter visitors from the wind. Walkways were kept away from roads, and low spots (dells) were planted with shrubbery and plants to attract birds and small wildlife to delight visitors.” The effect is magical.
Golden Gate Park is San Francisco’s largest park – 3 miles long and half-mile wide, spanning 1,013 acres (making it larger than Central Park) – and is one of the most visited in the country.
It is not just an oasis of forests and lush gardens, ponds and lakes, and even wildlife (there is actually a paddock with bison next to Spreckels Lake), but is the city’s cultural heart, where some of its most important museums and attractions are located. These basically grew up over time: the Japanese Tea Garden that is so enchanting originally was part of the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. The San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum was planned as early as the 1890s, but planting did not begin until 1937 due to lack of funding. The De Young Museum was first built in 1921 and has since undergone complete renovation, re-opening in 2005.
The art museum is just across a huge plaza from the California Academy of Sciences. Other attractions in the park include a carousel, playground and children’s quarter.
I find my way to Stow Lake and begin to stroll around it and am immediately overwhelmed seeing a waterfall. This is Strawberry Hill –a picturesque island in the middle of Stow Lake – and the sight of the Gold Gate Pavilion, a Japanese Pavilion that opened 1981. They are all the more picturesque with the paddle boats and row boats.
I come to a stone bridge that takes me onto Strawberry Hill so I can walk to the pavilion and up to the waterfall.
There are bike rentals, Segway tours, and you can easily spend a full day or many days here and because there is so much to do inside, it is a great place regardless of weather.
SF’s Public Transit: More than a Great Way to Get Around
I get back on the #71 Bus (you can use your ticket for a free return if you get back on before the time stamped), getting another splendid tour of Haight-Asbury, on my way to Powell & Market, for another cable car ride. Even this ordinary bus provides a sensational sightseeing experience (and you get to chat up with local people).
You absolutely shouldn’t rent a car in San Francisco (the traffic and road ways are difficult, especially with the streetcars and cable cars; also you can spend an hour looking for parking and spots are mostly limited to two hours on the street at $1 an hour).
But the public transit system in San Francisco is more than clever, it is fun, and figuring it out (like Tokyo’s subway system), feels like a triumph.
There are these marvelous, colorful streetcars from the 1930s and 1940s that were purchased from around the world, not to mention the cable cars which are more than tourist rides but real transportation (San Francisco is the only city that still has cable cars on its streets), plus regular buses and even a subway.
Indeed, the streetcars and cablecars are quite literally “San Francisco’s Museums in Motion”: “No other city in the world can match San Francisco in offering such extensive regular transit service with two types of vintage vehicles.”
“The Cable Cars, invented here in 1873, dominated the city’s transit scene for more than 30 years, but were almost extinguished by the 1906 earthquake and fire. They soldiered on through two world wars as a quaint relic (even then), survived misguid3ed politicians in the late 1940s, were wounded in a follow-up assault in the 1950s, but endured it all to become a worldwide symbol of San Francisco. Their history is a fascinating amalgam of technology, politics and passion.” (see www.streetcar.org).
What is so fascinating to me is that the cable cars are completely mechanical, run by huge winding wheels at a central powerhouse (which you can see at the Cable Car Museum), that pull a steel cable at a constant 9 mph through a trench beneath the tracks. The car latches onto the cable with a grip that works like a giant pair of pliers. (Cable Car Museum, 1201 Mason Street, San Francisco, CA 94108, 415-474-1887, www.cablecarmuseum.org).(See: A day in San Francisco touring its past: Plucky cable car exemplifies its grit).
In 1888, electric streetcars became practical, and could travel two to five times faster than the cable cars. They run on tracks like cable cars, but generally draw electric power from overhead wire. The first streetcars came to San Francisco in 1892 and following the 1906 earthquake, replaced cable cars as the main transit mode on all but the steepest hills (where the cable cars still proved most effective). From a peak of 50 lines that operated in the late 1920s, streetcar service waned, and by 1982, the last five lines went into a subway beneath Market Street. But neighborhood and business leaders mounted the Historic Trolley Festival in 1983, bringing vintage streetcars from around the world to run on Market Street, and the F line became permanent in 1995.
The city acquired the popular 1930s and 1940s cars from cities around the world and the cars have the names of the cities they come from (Milan, Italy; St. Louis). It is marvelous to see the different street cars.
My last ride on the cable car ($6 one-way), on the Powell-Hyde line, proves the best. By luck, experience and speed, I get to the position standing on the running board at the very front of the car – which lets me hold my camera steady while I hold on with the other hand. The views are spectacular (there is a stop just above Lombard/Crooked Street).
The city maps mark out the different routes for the various transit systems – but it takes a bit of familiarization to feel comfortable. So start out with the concierge to give you directions and use googlemaps on smart phone, and soon enough, you figure it out (the app even tells you when the next bus is coming).
You can buy various tickets – for a day or multi-day – which can pay off, at the Visitors Center.
I get an all-too-brief glimpse of Mission District when we go to dinner at “Hogs & Rocks,” which bills itself as San Francisco’s first ham and oyster bar. It is a delightful bistro/tapas-style restaurant that invites conversation over sharing small plates of the most unusual food, flavor and texture combinations created by rising star Chef Robin Song. For example, bone marrow prepared with dried fig, rhubarb, onion on toast, as well as “large plates” like a delectable heritage pork (potato puree, cabbage, horseradish and mustard).
The San Francisco Travel Association is the official tourism marketing organization for the City and County of San Francisco. For information on reservations, activities and more, visit www.sanfrancisco.travel or call 415-391-2000. The Visitor Information Center is located at 900 Market St. in Hallidie Plaza, lower level, near the Powell Street cable car turnaround.
A day devoted to exploring San Francisco’s past, and how this improbable city came to be began with Hudson Bell’s Fern Hill Walking Tours’ Classic San Francisco, which offered a brilliant orientation to the city. We end the tour with a ride on the California cable car line. Just a couple of blocks where Bell’s walking tour ends, back at Nob Hill, is the Cable Car Museum.
Even more than the Golden Gate Bridge, I believe, the cable car defines San Francisco – it is fact, the only city where cable cars still operate as more than just a tourist ride and an essential part of mass transit system. But as I soon learn, the cable cars survive in spite of repeated attempts to replace them altogether. It is quite literally the Little Train that Could – a technology that was invented here in the 19th century which still proves the best to tackle San Francisco’s hills. The cable car is what made San Francisco livable.
Located in the historic Washington/ Mason cable car barn and powerhouse, the Cable Car Museum, which opened in 1974, is so much more than a museum. It lets you look at the actual workings of all four cable-car lines – gigantic wheels, gears and pulleys and cables, moving underground constantly at 9 mph from this central powerhouse. You even get to look under the street to see the “sheavers” doing their painstaking work.
The deck overlooks the huge engines and winding wheels that pull the cables. Downstairs is a viewing area of the large sheaves and cable line entering the building through the channel under the street.
You can see the marvelous mechanical devices – grips, track, cable, brake mechanisms, tools – detailed models, and a large collection of historic photographs.
You sit in an open car to watch a fantastic video (apparently, produced by GE in the 1980s, when the cable cars were saved from being completely removed), that explains how the cable cars work and the history.
You come away with extraordinary respect and admiration for the cable car engineers – how physical, all the things they have to watch, since they are in essence driving in traffic and have to be careful of cars and pedestrians in the way. Most interesting of all is how the engineer literally let’s go and the car is in free fall as it goes around turns or crosses over the cable for another line.
These aren’t simple, archaic machines at all – It is an ingenious, completely mechanical system: four cable lines, each a closed loop, occasionally crossing each other; sheaving machines that change the cable direction; hundreds of smaller sheaves are under the streets (like pulleys). The huge winding wheels we see here at the powerhouse pull a steel cable at a constant 9 mph through a trench beneath the tracks. The car latches onto the cable with a grip that works like a giant pair of pliers.
The video shows how the engineer drives the cable car, gripping and releasing the cable, how the cable car is actually in free fall when it turns the corner or crosses another cable.
Considering all that stress on the cables of lifting those cars, full of passengers, up those steep hills, don’t the cables fray and break? The cables are actually totally replaced every few months.
My admiration for the invention – and the engineering and how the people who operate them – skyrockets.
The cable car was invented in San Francisco by Andrew Smith Hallidie. Hallidie’s father was an inventor who had a patent in Great Britain for “wire rope” cable. Hallidie immigrated to the U.S. in 1852 during the Gold Rush. He began using cable in a system he had developed to haul ore from mines and in building suspension bridges.
The story goes that he got the idea for a steam engine powered, cable-driven – rail system in 1869, after witnessing horses being whipped while they struggled on the wet cobblestones to pull a horse car up Jackson Street; the horses slipped and were dragged to their death.
Hallidie entered into a partnership to form the Clay Street Hill Railroad, which began construction of a cable line on Clay Street in May of 1873. tested the first cable car at 4 o’clock in the morning, August 2nd, 1873, on Clay Street, in San Francisco.
There was a move to replace the cable cars, but after the 1906 earthquake and fire, there was too much to be replaced, so the system was restored.
After the 1906 earthquake and fire, there was a move to replace cable cars with the electric streetcar, perfected in1888 by Frank Sprague. Street cars had become the vehicle of choice for city transit – requiring only required half the investment to build and maintain, and could reach more areas and was quicker. But the cable cars were still able to traverse the steep hills better, so some of the lines were rebuilt. However, as the streetcars improved, even those lines were in jeopardy.
By 1947, the lower operational costs of buses prompted Mayor Lapham to declare, “the city should get rid of all cable car lines as soon as possible.”
But that idea met with huge community opposition. Friedel Klussmann founded the Citizens’ Committee to Save the Cable Cars. There was an international outcry to save the cable cars, which just about everyone appreciated defined the city.
“It would be like Paris without the Eiffel Tower, New York without the Statue of Liberty, London without Big Ben,” an international newspaper screamed.
But by the 1970s, the system was deteriorated. The system was shut down from 1982-4 to be completely rehabilitated. reopening in 1984 in time for the Democratic National Convention that was held in the city. San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein (now US Senator) cut the ribbon.
San Francisco is now only place that operates cable car on streets.
The museum houses three antique cable cars from the 1870s. The Sutter Street Railway No. 46 grip car & No. 54 trailer and the only surviving car from the first cable car company, the Clay Street Hill Railroad No. 8 grip car.
The museum also offers a vivid exhibit with historic photos and commentary of the Great Earthquake of 1906 – you really appreciate the devastation, which makes how San Francisco came back from that all the more remarkable:
At 5:12 am, the equivalent of 6 million tons of TNT – that’s 12,000 times the impact of the 1945 atomic bomb of Hiroshima – struck. The city shook for 40 seconds, then a 10-second pause and 25 seconds more. It left a 200 mile long, 20-40 mile-wide path of destruction along the San Andreas Fault, from Salinas Valley to Fort Bragg.
But that wasn’t the worst – fire broke out April 18, burning for three days. All the water mains, from Crystal Spring reservoir into the city, were broken, so the firefighters had nothing to fight with. The three days of fire caused six times the devastation of London’s 1666 fire.
City Hall was in ruins. The Palace Hotel burned late on April 18 (from which the opera singer Enrico Caruso fled, to the St. Francis where he had breakfast).Russian, Nob and Telegraph Hills burned down to bare earth. The Wharf, North Beach, financial district were desolated. The district known as “South of the Slot” (because of the Market Street cable car slots down the street) burned block after block of tenement and industrial buildings.
The Mission District burned to 20 th & Church streets, where, miraculously, water was available.
But many of the cable car lines that survived the earthquake and fire fell victim to modern rebuilding, with the construction of electric trolley lines – the electric streetcar.
When you consider the strain on hoisting these cable cars up and down the hills, I can only imagine the wear and tear and what would happen if any snapped at any point. I learn that the cables that pull the cable cars around day in and day out are completely replaced every few months.
There is a fun gift shop and a small cafe inside (across the street from the cable car museum is a great cafe to get refreshment).
Free admission! Open daily (except 4 holidays), 10-6 April 1-Sept. 30, 10-5, Oct 1-Mar 31.
The visit to the Cable Car Museum only enhances my appreciation for the cable car, and during my visit, I take about four different rides.
The Powell & Hyde route is supposed to offer the steepest hills, and I take that from Market Street to Fisherman’s Wharf. (It has a stop right above the famous Crooked Street /Lombard.)
Riding on the outside, standing on the running board and holding on with one hand as you try to take photos with the other! Disney doesn’t have a ride to compare.
It is quite thrilling, especially when the cable car comes within inches of the returning cable car (wave to the people!), or traffic that buzzes along side. The views are fantastic.
I’m impressed with all the gears the engineer operates, the physical effort it takes, and how he has to watch out for pedestrians, cars that drive into the lane, the riders hanging off (like me), the riders who want to get on, watch the traffic lights and the signs painted into the streets.
Returning, I gauge the long line to get back on, so go over to the Powell & Mason line, at Bay Street.
I’ve calculated just right and for my last ride, I am in the exactly right position: riding outside, in the front, so I can rest my camera and hold on with one hand.
Half the seats are outside, and you face out, not front.
People hail the cable car along the route – if they can get on – and it’s not just tourists who use the cars but locals. The California line tends to get fewer tourists and more commuters.
Historic John’s Grill
A perfect way to cap off our sojourn into San Francisco’s history is dining at Historic John’s Grill, located toward the Market Street end of the Powell Street Cable Car ride, just up from the ferry building in Union Square (it’s also walking distance of the theater district, museums, shops and the city’s historic hotels, the Westin St. Francis and The Drake).
John’s Grill has been a San Francisco institution since 1908 – just after the earthquake – a favorite of politicians, detectives, journalists and generations of San Franciscans. The interior is a masterpiece of original period furnishings, with wood-paneled walls and its historic photographs reflect a colorful century of San Francisco’s history. The restaurant also is the home of the Maltese Falcon, the precious statue made famous by detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, who worked next door and would frequent the restaurant. Hammett used the restaurant as a setting in his famous Sam Spade stories: “Sam Spade went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, sliced tomatoes … and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when…”
There is a whole atmosphere to John’s Grill – there’s live jazz nightly from 6:30 to 9:30 pm on the second floor, but the music fills the main floor restaurant also. (The third floor of the townhouse is a banquet room accommodating 100).
You must go up to the second floor where there is a sort of “museum” to the Maltese Falcon – actually more of an exhibit case, with the statue, copies of Hammett’s books. (John’s Grill is the headquarters of the Dashiell Hammett Society of San Francisco, founded in 1977 by William F. Nolan, a biographer of Hammett, and Jack Kaplan, a director of Pinkerton’s. they created the “Maltese Falcon Room” and guide “Hammett Walks” around the city).
A steakhouse that evokes the machismo of Sam Spade, everything we ordered was fantastic (the rib eye steak was perfection with a peppery accent, as was the Jumbo Prawns Dijonnaise, sauteed with mushrooms, wine, garlic and dijon cream; broiled seabass in a roasted garlic beurre blanc; and a seafood cannelloni- crepes filled with crab, shrimp, baby spinach, cheese, mushrooms with a sherry cream sauce.
The restaurant is known for its Chicken Jerusalem (sauteed with artichokes, mushrooms and creamy white wine sauce) and Oysters Wellington (prepared with creamed spinach, smoked bacon, baked in a puff pastry and served on a bed of sherry cream) .
We start the meal with a selection of appetizers – fresh oysters, Maine lobster ravioli, Moules a la mariniere (mussles with garlic in an herbed light cream broth).
Hotel Whitcomb is the perfect accommodation for this sojourn through San Francisco’s history – it is, indeed, one of the Historic Hotels of America members in San Francisco (historichotels.org).
For several years following the earthquake of 1906, it served as the City Hall (1912-1915) – (“City Hall” used to be etched in stone above the entrance) – and has been a hotel since 1916.
When you walk through the front doors of the landmark Hotel Whitcomb from bustling Market Street, you find yourself in an elegant boutique hotel with high cathedral ceilings and lovely interiors of early 19th century and Edwardian architecture.
The opulent lobby features Austrian crystal chandeliers, Tiffany stained glass domes above the front desk and also in the piano bar, polished Italian marble columns and floors, Janesero wood paneling, polished brass fixtures, and fresh flowers accentuates the hotel’s Victorian style that is remarkably calming. 1940s music is playing.
Located on Market Street, across from the Orpheum Theater, the hotel is surrounded by trendy Soma and Hayes Valley restaurants, shops and attractions, walking distance to many of San Francisco’s historic sites, steps away from Civic Center, the theater district, or ride the cable car to Union Square, the financial district, Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and The Moscone Center.
The hotel’s 460 beautifully-appointed guestrooms and 12 parlor suites deliver a luxurious hospitality experience with modern amenities and good value. The Penthouse Governor’s Suite offers marvelous views of San Francisco.
Other conveniences: there is a Starbuck’s Coffee right in the lobby, a fitness center, an internet cafe, a business center, high speed wireless internet (free), a gorgeous ballroom to accommodate meetings and weddings, and a lovely dining room.
There is also a very interesting Asian art museum and gallery, plus “Hall of History” with display cases of artifacts and memorabilia from the hotel’s and the city’s past.
San Francisco is an improbable city. Its high, rolling hills rising straight up from the water should have discouraged settlement. Walking up, up , up and around these hills you see just how outrageous it was for anyone to contemplate building homes in such concentration here. Just driving is like a theme park roller coaster ride. And the cable car is better than any theme park ride.
Any practical real estate developer would have shunned such an uninhabitable place, more desert wasteland than anything else. But the city burst into being – a demonstration of what money, ingenuity, grit and determination can achieve.
It has proved an incubator of innovation and creativity – the cable car, the fortune cookie, denim jeans, television (attributed to Philo T. Farnsworth in 1927), the city even birthed Rube Goldberg – the same ingredients that foreshadowed Silicon Valley.
San Francisco is fascinating and perplexing, but where to start? For the visitor, this isn’t an easy place to uncover once you get passed the most obvious attractions of the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf and have a ride on the cable car.
I appreciate all of this after a most pleasant walking tour with Hudson Bell, the proprietor of Fern Hill Walking Tours.
I walk up to Huntington Park on Nob Hill from the Hotel Whitcomb (appropriately, a historic hotel that in fact served as City Hall after the earthquake, and a member of Historic Hotels of America), for my journey back through San Francisco’s history with Hudson Bell who has a new company, Fern Hill Walking Tours.
“Up” is the operative word because most of the mile is straight up San Francisco’s legendary hills.
When we meet by the fountain in the park, which is surrounded by elderly people doing Tai Chi, Hudson lays out the itinerary for his “Classic San Francisco” tour. It ambitiously traverses Nob Hill, Chinatown, Russian Hill, Jackson Square, North Beach, Telegraph Hill, The Embarcadero, and the Financial District– in other words, we will get to experience a large portion of this vibrant city. His route highlights San Francisco’s oldest neighborhoods while telling the story of the city’s transformation from a tiny Mexican trading post to “the Emporium of the Pacific”.
During the four hours (with a lunch break), we cover five miles, and lest San Francisco’s hills seem a barrier to a walking tour, Bell strategically hops on San Francisco’s distinctive public transportation (he provides a transit pass), which is a treat in itself. I appreciated the tour as a newbie, rather intimidated by how to tackle San Francisco, but it also is most satisfying to seasoned San Francisco travelers and even locals. Indeed, by the end, I feel completely comfortable continuing my exploration of the city, even unraveling the mystery of its public transportation. In fact, I had no sense of time at all – the time really flew by.
Bell is a seasoned guide – working for others for three years – and brings a distinctive approach to his own company than most of the other scripted and pre-packaged tour companies. I love the way his storytelling unfolds as we come to a particular building or site, summoning the spirits of the people associated with places and events (Mark Twain, William Tecumsah Sherman) and the various movers and shakers of the city whose names now emblazon streets and towering structures, and especially, how he will distinguish between historic facts – Bell is the historian for the Nob Hill Association as well as working on a book about Fern Hill (the neighborhood’s original name) – popular legends, and myths that are more dubious.
Bell brings you to places you might not have thought to go – points out structures that you wouldn’t have appreciated, brings you to “streets” that are quite literally hidden, more walking paths than actual streets. The structures hold the stories of the people who built them, lived or worked in them, where events took place.
His commentary inspires more questions from me, and he is like a patient parent trying to quench my curiosity.
His itinerary is brilliantly laid out logistically, weaving together the different neighborhoods. He brings me to places I never would have thought to visit because of my limited time – like Coit Tower (atop Telegraph Hill, it seemed too much trouble, but Bell cleverly hops a bus to the top, and then I saw what was inside! and the walk down brings you to small “streets” that are really walking paths).
Hudson pulls out a map from 1854 that shows Nob Hill (Fern Hill in those days where we are standing and points out that it was not only one of the oldest neighborhoods in San Francisco but was the westernmost part of the city after the Gold Rush of 1849 (the first house was built that year by Benjamin Brooks, from New York). That flat part we see today (Fisherman’s Wharf and the Marina District) – simply did not exist. The flat part is man-made from landfill, atop a virtual armada of sunken ships, abandoned when passengers and crew raced to the gold fields to seek their own fortunes, combined with rock and grit blasted from the hills, to such an extent, houses collapsed.
Originally, the Bay area was home to the Ohlone Indians, the first Europeans were Spaniards who settled the Presidio and Mission in the 1700s (my biggest regret of my all-too-short visit to San Francisco was not seeing the Old Mission). It was a base for military and for Catholic missionaries intent on converting the Indians. French and British traders came in the 1830s. Yerba Buena (as San Francisco was first known), was a trading post with 300 people.
It hastily became a US territory in 1847 after Mexico’s defeat in the Mexican-American War. Coincidentally (or was more like insider trading, I wonder), gold was discovered in 1848.
In 1849, after the find had been validated, the population exploded, from 700 to 20,000 in just months.
By the 1870s, Nob Hill (nob means “dirt”) became the popular neighborhood for the wealthy.
All around the park are the buildings – monuments, really – to the early founders who built their mansions and the city with their own fortunes from mining, railroads, shipping and finance – quite literally the stuff of America’s emergence as a global industrial power.
Just across the street from Huntington Park where we are standing is the gargantuan mansion of James Flood, who made his fortune in the Nevada silver mines (it reminds you of Vanderbilt’s Newport “cottage,” The Breakers) – in fact, this was his “cottage” rather than his main home. it was one of the last built before the earthquake (one of the few built of stone, rather than wood), and one of the few that survived the three days of fire that consumed the city after the earthquake. These days it is the Pacific Union Club.
Across the street from James Flood’s mansion, is the Fairmont Hotel, built by Fair’s daughters, it was nearing completing when the earthquake hit. The structure survived, but the interior had to be completely redone and for this, they turned to the first woman architect and engineer, Julia Morgan, who was innovative in using reinforced concrete to withstand earthquake (she also designed Hearst Castle). The hotel opened in 1907.
Fairmont Hotels are luxurious but this makes New York’s Plaza, The Pierre and Waldorf=Astoria look like poor cousins in comparison. What is more, it is actually tasteful. The artwork and artistry, architectural features and interior design are simply breathtaking. But one of the reasons Hudson brings me here is to point out a wall of historical photos and plaques that tell the story of the city’s movers and shakers. (And in 1945, the hotel was the site for negotiations establishing the United Nations; President Harry Truman signed the United Nations Charter in the Garden room in 1945).
Among the hotel’s attractions was the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, a historic tiki bar opened in 1945. It features a bandstand on a barge that floats in a former swimming pool, a dining area built from parts of an old sailing ship, and artificial thunderstorms (it is no longer open to the public but there is a photo of it).
We walk passed the “Cirque” room, a cocktail room reserved for special occasions, with stunning murals of circus performers on gold, and passed the hotel’s garden where they grow herbs for their restaurants.
He brings me to a hidden garden to look at the view and imagine the city 100 years ago. He points out the Presidential Suite where so many presidents, including Obama had stayed.
The Fairmont is just across the street from another San Francisco landmark: the Mark Hopkins Hotel, built on the site of the “crazy” opulent mansion (because his wife wanted to outdo the rest). The hotel was built on the site in 1923 and is famous for the Top of the Mark, opened in 1930, the highest place in San Francisco to get a drink (but not the first rooftop bar).
Across from the Mark Hopkins, Hudson points out four townhomes because they were built by Willis Polk, a key architect after the earthquake (he also redesigned the Flood Building).
Before we leave Nob Hill, he brings me into the Grace Church, on the other side of the park – a monumental building, but now on closer examination, they look familiar and I see the golden doors match the Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” on the Baptistry of San Giovanni in Florence, Italy. It’s not a coincidence – Hudson tells me that two copies were made in 1942 when it was feared the Nazis would destroy them.
Inside, the church -the third largest cathedral in the US – is decorated with magnificent murals and stained glass.
Walking around, he points out the stones outside the church which predate the earthquake and fire.
Chinatown: Home of the Fortune Cookie
Our next stop is Chinatown – one of the few times we see literal gaggles of tourists. It is to Bell’s credit that he does not pass up Chinatown, probably one of the most touristic attractions in the city, because you would miss so much of the story, but he offers what I think is a more interesting take on this part of the city.
Chinatown is the original part of the city, is the oldest Chinatown in the US and second in population to New York City’s.
He points out the Tin How Temple, the oldest traditional Chinese temple in US, dating from 1850.
This is an exceptionally popular area for tours – the tiny street is jammed with groups, all headed to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie factory, “the last place to see old-style preparation of fortune cookies,” he says, “they even have ‘adult’ fortune cookies.” The sweet smell fills the alley. All of us line up for our turn to enter the tiny, narrow shop for a quick peek to see how a woman takes the freshly baked thin cookies and fills with a fortune and folds it. You can only take a picture if you pay 50c or buy something (a bag of cookies is $1, a bottle of water is a $1 – well worth it) only get a few minutes because of the line of people wanting to come in – pass around a sample of the cookie from the “rejects.”
Hudson tells me there are many fortune cookie “creation” myths – but the one he feels most credible is that they were created for the World’s Fair held in Golden Gate Park, by the Chinese who adapted a traditional Japanese cookie by putting a fortune inside.
We go through Jackson Square where the oldest building building in the city stands– “a freak survivor of earthquake/fire,” and to the section of the city that was so popular with writers. We go by the building which housed the “Golden Eva” newspaper where Mark Twain worked, undergoing renovation.
Nearby is the Bank Lucas Turner & Co., the city’s oldest commercial building, built in 1853 by William Tecumseh Sherman (who became the famous Civil War General). It’s now the 472 Gallery. Hudson points out how brick buildings used to have iron windows which proved fatal in a fire, and how they have been retrofitted to survive an earthquake.
We walk across Balance Street – a tiny little stump street that I would not have noticed at all, except that Bell points out that it was probably named for a ship that was sunk – very possibly under the street today – one of hundreds of sunken ships that provided landfill to expand the city.
We walk down Pacific Street – infamous for being the place where so many sailors were shanghaied to be crew for ships.
He takes me through Russian Hill – named for the Russian traders and the Russian American Company. At one time, the only thing here was a graveyard with headstones etched with Cyrillic letters. He points out some marvelous homes.
Here you appreciate how impossible this city would be to build homes – it must have taken a fortune to cut streets through rolling hills.
He explains that in 1847, when the area became a US territory, the “mayor” hired Jaspar O’Farrell to survey and create a street plan of what he expected to happen over time. The grid did not take into account San Francisco’s hills. But after the 1849 Gold Rush, there was a literal rush to build, and it was funded by the newly minted millionaires.
He takes me on “streets” that are really cobblestone walking paths lined with gardens – to get a feel of what “old San Francisco” was like.
We come down to the edge of North Beach, where Hudson stops at a delightful Mediterranean restaurant, North Beach Gyros (415-655-9665, 701 Union Street, www.northbeachgyrosf.com) for lunch.
Checking his app for the bus schedule (this is the trick of offering such a marvelous walking tour of San Francisco), we have but a few minutes wait before we hop the bus up to Telegraph Hill (others are huffing and puffing to get up there), to visit Coit Tower. This affords probably the most spectacular, 360-degree view of the city, but what is inside is what captures my attention: Depression-era WPA-sponsored artists created spectacular murals depicting the full spectrum of San Francisco’s everyday life in the 1930s.
This is Telegraph Hill. It was from here that a signal man would see a ship with flag of country and had a pole with flags and signals so someone down in Merchant’s Exchange would know what ship was coming. Later, there was a telegraph to send the message.
When a mail ship came in, the entire town would turn out as if it were a holiday. But when container shipping became the norm, the shipping business moved to Oakland.
Today, San Francisco has revitalized its dock to accommodate massive cruise ships, and there are two in port today.
We walk down from Telegraph Hill on Filbert Street (steep, twisting staircase, no cars) – one of the most magical walks, with a public garden on the sides. He takes me down one “street” that is still a boardwalk.
He points out where the hill was literally blasted apart for the material for landfill.
“San Francisco is the worst place in Bay to found a city but was a great launching place to the gold fields,” Bell says. “None of vegetation we see today [like palm trees and lush flowering gardens] is native. As beautiful as it is, William Tecumseh Sherman said of Yberra Buena in 1847, the year after California became a US territory, that it was a hell hole. Parts of Nob Hill would fluctuate by 15 feet a day because of wind and sand.” (I ask where he got that from and he said by reading newspapers from the 1850s. I’m impressed.)
At the bottom of Filbert is Levi’s Plaza, named for Levi-Strauss company (which has its headquarters right there on the waterfront) – it was here that the company made famous for denim jeans began.
Here, we wait for a street car. San Francisco may be famous for its cable cars, but it is also the last city to run street cars. And, like everything else, it does it with flare – using colorful cars from the 1930s and 40s, painted to look like the city they came from (they even have the city’s name on them, like Milan, Italy and St. Louis).
We get off at the Ferry Building – the original gateway to the city (like Ellis Island and Grand Central rolled into one). Passengers came into Oakland and ferried to San Francisco before the Golden Gate and Bay bridges were built. “They were the first commuters. This was most passed through gateway in the world.” It was designed by Arthur Brown Jr. and is the largest structure built over water.
Bell has another surprise for me: at Powell & Market Street, we get on the famous cable car, a perfect cap to this marvelous tour through San Francisco’s history (this, Bell says, is an added treat, subject to time considerations and how long the wait).
“Classic San Francisco” is offeredMonday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday (10 a.m.-2 p.m.), geared for people 13 and up ($48/adult, $38/teen – well worth it).
Another program that Bell offers is “Parks to Pacific,” a five-hour tour that celebrates San Francisco’s transformation from sand-duned wasteland to city of world-renowned parks and recreation. On this journey, you’ll be park hopping from downtown to the Pacific Ocean, plus experiencing many singular neighborhoods in-between. While the tour can be variable, the route generally includes Pacific Heights, The Golden Gate, The Presidio, Lincoln Park, Ocean Beach, Golden Gate Park, Lands End and the Sutro Bath Ruins.
Hudson Bell, Fern Hill Walking Tours, San Francisco, www.fernhilltours.com, [email protected], 415-305-7248.
Next: San Francisco History Day itinerary continues: