“It seemed like a matter of minutes when we began rolling in the foothills before Oakland and suddenly reached a height and saw stretched out of us the fabulous white city of San Francisco on her eleven mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness in the late afternoon of time.” — Jack Kerouac, On the Road
San Francisco. The name just rolls off your tongue. The city is mesmerizing, night or day. I’ve never met a person who didn’t fall in love with this vibrant metropolis. I apologize for the traveler’s cliche of quoting Jack Kerouac, but his quote really describes what it’s like to view San Francisco for the first time. I mentioned in my last post that I had too many favorite places to visit. Many of them are popular, some are lesser known. So, I’ve decided to compile a list of my favorite places to visit in San Francisco. Put on your good walking shoes because there’s lots of hills!
SAN FRANCISCO’S BEST VIEWS
Twin Peaks: San Francisco’s Best View
There’s no bad view of San Francisco. In fact, there’s no real bad view of any city. One of my favorite challenges is photographing unique perspectives of cities. However, there are places that are famous for a reason. Twin Peaks has unobstructed views of the San Francisco skyline because of its location at the city’s geographical center. But man, is it windy up there! Dress warm because it feels like you’ll be blown off the hill.
Baker Beach: Brace the Breeze
Baker Beach sits in the Presidio of San Francisco. We visited after driving back over the Golden Gate Bridge into the city. The mile-long beach itself lies at the foot of the cliffs of the Golden Gate. It’s not a place where people spend their time swimming; with dangerous tides and rough currents, you’d do well to avoid the water unless you’re an experienced swimmer. However, the beach provides panoramic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands.
When we reached the shoreline, fog had overtaken the top of the bridge, and storm clouds were threatening to unleash their power. A light rain had already started, and the wind was whipping around us. No wonder there were so few people. I took advantage, spending my time climbing the rocks and getting different views of the Golden Gate. When a storm is brewing, that’s my cue to rush in with my camera.
ARCHITECTURAL WONDERS OF THE CITY BY THE BAY
The Golden Gate Bridge
Let’s just address the elephant in the room: San Francisco is known world-wide for its legendary Golden Gate Bridge. The Golden Gate was once the largest bridge span in the world (4,200 feet), covering the Golden Gate strait between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Built in 1937, this bridge is now one of the most internationally recognized symbols and attracts millions of visitors every year. Leon and I made the drive across this bridge when we visited Sausalito for an afternoon. The Golden Gate is best seen from Battery Spencer’s Fort Baker site, which offers close views of this architectural wonder. It’s easy to park, and if you go at the right time it is relatively devoid of other tourists. However, I should point this out: Battery Spencer is windy. Just check out my hair in the pictures below.
Palace of Fine Arts: The Golden Heart of San Francisco
The Palace of Fine Arts rose from the ashes, so to speak. After San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, the city commissioners wanted to show the world that San Francisco had survived despite recent catastrophic events. They won the coveted prize of showcasing the World’s Fair in 1915, raising 4 million dollars to host the Panama Pacific International Exposition which celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal. The exposition included a showcase of 11 palaces from all over the globe, as well as thousands of artistic displays. On opening day, February 20, 1915, more than 250,000 visitors walked through the doors of the completed Palace of Fine Arts. Today, the Palace of Fine Arts is seen in countless films, photographs, and weddings.
I didn’t know this place existed before I visited San Francisco. My mouth dropped the first time I saw it. I’d never seen anything like it before in my life. Surrounding a private lagoon with willow trees framing each wing, the palace’s rotunda looked like a crown set upon architectural royalty. Leon surprised me after dinner by driving to the Palace of Fine Arts at night. I squealed with delight, and immediately pulled out my tripod. (It really is the little things, guys.) I was standing in front of San Francisco’s golden heart. No one else was around. Just me and the palace. We got along grand.
Coit Tower: Check Mate
Confession: I didn’t actually go inside Coit Tower. I know, I’m a terrible person to recommend something that I didn’t actually try. But this place is so crowded! I didn’t want to wait on the line, I just wanted to enjoy the view. There I said it, sometimes you can’t see everything.
I included Coit Tower because, let’s face it, it’s looks really weird. It reminded me of a chess piece (a rook: I had to look it up). I saw this building from multiple places throughout the city: from the top of a restaurant in Chinatown; from the top of Lombard Street; from the foot of the building itself; and while taking off on a ferry to Alcatraz from Fisherman’s Wharf. It stands out among the millions of homes dotting the San Francisco hills and leaves you wondering why someone would create a building that starkly contrasts the rest of the city.
City Hall: Historical Hub of San Francisco
I normally don’t bother with City Halls when I visit different places. They never seem that interesting to me, and I tend to avoid governmental buildings. However, San Francisco’s City Hall was different. This palatial building stands out among the rest, peaking from behind the buildings and street corners like it knows something you don’t. Civic Center Plaza sits right in front of City Hall, where you can see residents enjoying the outdoors, holding cultural events, and even performing Tai Chi on a nice day. (Yes, Leon did join one of these groups for some Tai Chi.)
City Hall is memorable for a tragic event that occurred to one of San Francisco’s heroes, Harvey Milk. Sadly, both Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Milk’s opponent, Dan White. Milk was the first openly gay elected official in the United States and is now a San Francisco icon. City Hall had statues erected in honor of both men, who fought to change the face of San Francisco’s politics for decades to come. When I visited, I was lucky to witness several same-sex marriages being carried out in City Hall. Revel in its architectural space, and breathe in the history when you visit.
NIFTY FRISCO CULTURAL INSPIRATION
Haight-Ashbury: Frisco’s Colorful ‘Hood
If you’ve visited San Francisco before, you’ll notice that it has many colorful homes. Most of them can be found in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, which is also home to San Francisco’s artistic community. In 1967, Haight-Ashbury was booming with psychedelic music and began attracting people of all ages and backgrounds who wanted to be part of the “summer of love.” People painted these homes in the brightest of colors as they wanted to send messages of love and creation. Free love, drugs, and rock n’roll took over the city.
Unfortunately, the neighborhood couldn’t cope with the sudden influx of people and its infrastructure began to collapse. Buildings began to decay. By the fall of 1967, the “revolution” abandoned Haight-Ashbury and left it burdened with drugs and homeless people. Eventually, the wealthy bought up these homes and Haight-Ashbury is now home to boutique stores and expensive cafes. Shop owners try to keep the spirit of the 60’s alive, and cultural events are held around the neighborhood. However, the Haight will never be forgotten for its musical and artistic influences in the 20th century.
Chinatown: A Little Piece of the East in San Francisco
According to Google and various guide books and Wikipedia, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the “largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest chinatown in North America.” When you walk through the dragon gates, you really felt like you’ve stepped into a different era. I’ve never seen a Chinatown filled with so many authentic shops and restaurants.
A small community within a large city, this place is a world in itself. Chinatown has its own identity. Places of worship and social groups are popular among this neighborhood, and locals continue to speak in their native languages. If you want to find a good place to eat, follow the locals. They don’t bother with the tourist venues. We literally stalked a few people before we settled on a place with some of the best Chinese food we’ve ever had.
SAN FRANCISCO’S LIGHTHEARTED PLEASURES
Exploratorium: Science at its Best
A hub of science, the Exploratorium has everything that has ever been studied in some way, shape, or form. We visited by using our San Francisco CityPASS, which was totally worth buying. (You get to see a lot of cool things in the city for a discount with that pass.) Located at Pier 15 in the Embarcadero, the Exploratorium is a combination of science, art, and human perception all showcased in one museum. It’s fascinating. We went to the roof to see dozens of solar panels, watched sea life moving about in their tanks, and read about the Megalodon. (Don’t know what that is? It’s was a GIGANTIC SHARK that could swallow ships whole. Grown men can stand inside its jaws.)
Conservatory of Flowers: A Natural Escape
Not much to say about this place except that it’s often overlooked. It’s a shame because I found it very relaxing. Butterflies flit and float throughout the gardens, and the conservatory is home to dozens of flower species. The building itself is a Victorian design and provides a safe space where people can interact with one of nature’s greatest gifts. Street performers play music on sidewalks, and people lounge about on the green. It’s wonderful, and a perfect escape from the bustling city life.
SWEET ESCAPES FROM THE CITY
Alcatraz Island: Darkness on the Edge of San Francisco
It may have been a mistake to include Alcatraz Island under my “Sweet Escapes” category since most of its inhabitants were actually trying to escape from the island. In the 19th century, the island was used as a military base. Eventually, city officials built a federal prison which remained open from the 1930s-1960s. Alcatraz is infamous for the failed escape of 6 inmates, leading to the Battle of Alcatraz during which 2 guards and 3 of the escapees died. Since then, Alcatraz has been referenced in various films and pieces of literature. At one time, Alcatraz was home to some infamous names like James “Whitey” Bulger and Al Capone. Due to its high cost of maintenance, the prison was eventually shut down in 1963. The National Park Service currently maintains its upkeep.
It was eerie to walk through its halls. I could feel the ghosts of its inhabitants lurking around its corners. My skin kept standing up when I read about its history. But one of the things I found most sadistic about Alcatraz wasn’t the isolation cells or the history of its inmates. For some reason, I found the setting of Alcatraz most bothersome. The prison is located on an island, just over a mile away from San Francisco. Inmates who were allowed outside faced a view of their freedom dangling in front of them just out of reach. A well crafted punishment if there ever was one: to taunt a prisoner with the proximity of their freedom it probably very hard to bear.
I recommend visiting if Alcatraz’s history interests you. The NPS still maintains the prison’s gardens. In fact, the prisoners themselves were responsible for laying the groundwork. And the views of the city skyline are amazing. It’s included in the CityPASS, so make time for a visit.
Sausalito: San Francisco’s Escape
Sausalito really is a San Francisco treat.
Situated in Marin County just across the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito is a small community of wealthy and artistic people, including authors Isabel Allende and Amy Tan. Million dollar homes sit atop the rolling California hills. Houseboats form their own community and sit in Sausalito’s marinas. In fact, Otis Redding wrote “Dock of the Bay” while sitting on a houseboat in Sausalito.
If you’re looking for a brief respite from the bustling San Francisco city life, Sausalito provides a good escape. We spent an afternoon strolling along the waterfront, splurging on expensive espressos and gawking at all of the mansions. You can take a ferry, bus, or walk/bike across the Golden Gate Bridge. Leon and I drove across the bridge in our rental car, which made us feel like we were really “going somewhere.”
If you’re disappointed that I didn’t include Pier 39 or riding a cable car, boo hoo. They were expensive and a bit overrated. Yes, I had some clam chowder in Fisherman’s Wharf, and yes it was in a sourdough bowl. But man was it expensive! By all means, visit these places, they’re worth seeing at least once. They just weren’t memorable for me during this trip. In fact, a memory that really stands out to me is picking up a piece of pizza and trekking up the steep hills to eat it on the hood of our rental car. San Francisco is a special place and you should treat it as such. Research all of these places and rearrange them into your perfect trip. Luxuriate in the little things. Enjoy what this golden city offers you.
BONUS: SAN FRANCISCO CINEMA, a.k.a. MY FAVORITE FILMS
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