San Francisco

In October 2014 I visited the beautiful city of San Francisco. And now, finally, I’ve written up my notes on my holiday!

An introduction

The city of San Francisco sits by one of the world’s best natural harbours. Originally settled by the Ohlone people, the first Europeans to visit belonged to a Spanish exploratory party in 1769. A follow-up expedition five years later led to the establishment of military and religious settlements (and, inevitably, the conversion of some 10,000 of the Ohlone). The settlement was called Yerba Buena (an alternative spelling of hierba buena, which means “good herb”) after the plant of the same name that grew in abundance there. Following occupation by US troops during the Mexican-American War in 1869 the name was changed to San Francisco.

In 1906 a huge earthquake estimated at 7.8 on the Richter scale, plus the fires that followed, destroyed about 80% of the city. Another major earthquake, this time a “mere” 6.9, struck in 1989, and severely damaged several of the city’s freeways and delayed Game 3 of that year’s World Series by a week.

In the 1950s San Francisco was an important part of the Beat Generation – Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, survived the resulting obscenity trial (covered well in the film Howl), and is still going strong today. In the Sixties it was The Place To Be for the blossoming counterculture, with thousands flocking to the Haight-Ashbury district in 1967 for what became known as the Summer of Love. The city gave birth to many influential bands such as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, and promoter Bill Graham established some legendary venues there.

More recently, Godzilla fought and destroyed two MUTOs (along with much of the city’s skyline) in Gareth Edwards’ wonderful reboot of the long-running kaiju series.

So that’s the very much abridged and plagiarised history out of the way. Now on to my holiday…


Getting there

I don’t like to be late, so I’d ensured I was in plenty of time for my flight by staying the night at Yotel Gatwick. It’s a fairly uneventful place, although their bodywash (which contains sage, eucalyptus and echinacea) leaves you smelling like Christmas stuffing.

My early arrival meant that I had plenty of time to just hang around at the airport, and at Dublin too. A pity, then, that patience is one of the virtues I lack. But two things helped me to maintain my cool. One was a Confucius quote at Dublin Airport: “Respect yourself and others will respect you”. The other was a Shakespeare quote in Aer Lingus’ inflight Boutique magazine: “Better three hours too soon, than one minute too late.” Timely reminders that being in a rush is not particularly good for the soul. Perhaps I should have had a pint of Guinness at 10:34am like the two guys beside me at the airport cafe, but I’ve never had a drink before a flight and didn’t see the need to start now. Patience, grumbling patience, and eventually my flight came around.


The holiday

Saturday in San Francisco was a bit of a blur after the long flight. After meeting up with Vanessa at the airport we rode the BART to Montgomery, quickly losing count of all the Starbucks and Walgreens between there and the Chinatown gate on the way to the hotel (the Hotel Des Arts on Bush Street)… Actually, this is the spot where the female MUTO makes her nest in Godzilla, which was a suitably exciting moment for the G nerd that I am.

The Dragon Gate entrance to Chinatown

The Dragon Gate entrance to Chinatown

The hotel itself is a delight, at the heart of the city and decorated throughout with the work of local and international artists, but after such a long day we were both too tired to appreciate it. And so Saturday turned into Sunday, and after a burrito and horchata lunch at Tropisueño (ah horchata… if only England would embrace you…) it was off to Chinatown for a wander. Four jets (the Blue Angels, I found out later) kept roaring by, doing loops and things:

The Blue Angels (click to enlarge)

The Blue Angels (click to enlarge)

Having downed a watermelon freeze with tapioca at the Sweetheart Cafe we went and got the bus to Haight-Ashbury. To be honest I was more than a little disappointed. Sure, the ’60s were a long time ago but I had hoped that there would be some residual energy there. Instead it was rather aggressive and depressing. I’d hoped, as Hunter S Thompson observed in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, to see “the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” That mark, sadly, was long gone.

Even my photo of the famous signposts is depressing...

Even my photo of the famous signposts is depressing…

The Piedmont Boutique legs

The Piedmont Boutique legs

Still, we hung around long enough to get some ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s and then went to Amoeba Music. Residing in a former bowling alley it’s a rather cool record store:

Yes, they probably do have that record you're looking for (click to enlarge)

Yes, they probably do have that record you’re looking for (click to enlarge)

After that we took a little wander in Golden Gate Park. Lots of weed in the air, and we sat on a hill and watched as a jam took place. The weather was glorious (and stayed that way for the entire trip).

We’d booked tickets to go to Alcatraz, and so Monday morning saw us taking an historic F streetcar to Fisherman’s Wharf. The ferry to Alcatraz Island offers great views of the city.

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(click to enlarge)

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Approaching Alcatraz (click to enlarge)

Approaching Alcatraz (click to enlarge)

The jail tour was incredible, with the audio tour recounting the thoughts of former inmates and officers. The last prisoners left in March 1963, with the prison officially closing a few months later. In the 29 years that Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary, 34 prisoners tried to escape. All but five were accounted for. Three participated in the same escape – using dummy heads – in June 1962, immortalised in the Clint Eastwood film Escape From Alcatraz. On display at various points on the island were installations by Ai Weiwei as part of his @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz collection. This included With Wind, featuring a rendition of a “traditional Chinese dragon kite […] to reference a stark contemporary reality. The artwork features stylised renderings of birds and plants that are icons for nations with records of violating human rights and civil liberties.”

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

Another sobering exhibit was Yours Truly in the cellhouse dining hall: “This artwork aims to encourage a global conversation, letting prisoners of conscience know that they are not forgotten. You are invited to choose a postcard addressed to an individual prisoner and write any message you wish.”

In 1969 a group of Native Americans claimed Alcatraz for “Indians of All Tribes”. In an occupancy lasting almost two years they called attention “to the plight of Native Americans” and made “a stand for native peoples’ fundamental right to their cultural identities”. Several reminders of their occupancy remain:

After a couple of hours on the island it got windy and the fog literally rolled in, obscuring the mainland. Deciding we’d served long enough on Alcatraz we go the ferry back and took a post-tour jaunt to Pier 39 to watch the sea lions being lazy and smelly. Then we walked to Coit Tower which sits atop Telegraph Hill. Completed in 1933 it’s named after Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a “wealthy eccentric and patron of the city’s firefighters“.

The Transamerica Pyramid on the left, and Coit Tower on the right

The Transamerica Pyramid on the left, and Coit Tower on the right

The views from Coit Tower’s summit are wonderful:

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(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

We then decided to check out the famous Lombard Street. It was only six or seven blocks away, but they were steep blocks! It was worth it though, a fantastic thing to see:

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(click to enlarge)

We couldn’t resist having a wander over to Saints Peter and Paul Church (just for the address: 666 Filbert Street), before heading to dinner at Curry Leaf. After filling up with Chana Masala, Sag Daal, Gulab Jamun and Mango Lassi we decided against walking back to the hotel and got the Powell/Mason line cable car instead.

End of the line (click to enlarge)

End of the line (click to enlarge)

The next morning we decided to buy MUNI 7 day passports to save scrabbling for change every time we wanted public transport. Google suggested Dot’s Printing & Stationery in Chinatown was closest, so off we went. The kind lady in Dot’s said Google was wrong, and that we weren’t the first to be misled. She pointed us in the direction of the Visitor Information Center at Union Square, and all was well. We took a ride to Japantown so I could check out Godzilla DVDs in the mall, but the selection was not good so instead we had frozen yoghurt with various sprinkles (mine consisted of Reeses Pieces, Jelly Belly, mini cookies – not the best combination). After the mall we took a bus to Fort Point and then walked across the Golden Gate Bridge (all 1.7 miles of it)… and back! The views were incedible, the wind strong!

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Spectacular (Snapseed-edited) views (click to enlarge)

Spectacular (Snapseed-edited) views (click to enlarge)

Contemplating the long walk back!

Contemplating the long walk back!

After finally making it back across we caught the bus into the city centre and got the F streetcar to Fisherman’s Wharf for dinner. An ad for Cioppinos caught our eye, so we dined there on pizza and sangria.

On Wednesday we took the F in the opposite direction all the way to the Castro district to have a wander.

The hills around the Castro are ridiculously steep. Each morning you wake up with aching calf muscles from the day before. The postal workers must be fit.

Yet another hill (click to enlarge)

Yet another hill (click to enlarge)

We walked through Buena Vista Park and then on to Golden Gate Park to visit the Japanese Tea Garden. The oldest public Japanese garden in the United States, it’s a beautifully serene place to visit, and the little cafe had some lovely teas. We had genmaicha (popcorn tea – green tea with roast brown rice) and hojicha (a smokey tea roasted over charcoal), and some cookies.

Bronze Buddha, cast in 1790 in Tajima, Japan and presented to the Garden in 1949

Bronze Buddha, cast in 1790 in Tajima, Japan and presented to the Garden in 1949

Shinshichi Nakatani was commissioned by the Japanese government to build the Drum Bridge for the 1894 San Francisco Midwinter Fair

Shinshichi Nakatani was commissioned by the Japanese government to build the Drum Bridge for the 1894 San Francisco Midwinter Fair

I couldn’t resist taking a short detour to look at the former Jefferson Airplane house at 2400 Fulton Street:

After that we wandered along Haight Street. I bought a lovely throw at Ashbury Tobacco Center and then we stopped for burritos and soda at Zona Rosa. In the evening we hailed the Powell/Hyde cable car (ding ding ding!) and rode to the end of the line, then got the F back.

Thursday morning and we took a cable car to the Cable Car Museum where, amongst other things, we squashed some pennies and saw the cables that drive the whole system. We then walked to Good Vibrations to check out their Antique Vibrator Museum. Check out Macaura’s Pulsocon Blood Circulator:

After the buzz of the museum we went for pizza at Piraat. Baseball was on, as it was everywhere. I still can’t get into the game, but never mind. Then we went to the Century Theatre to watch St. Vincent starring Bill Murray. It’s a good film, sweet but with depth. And also very, very hilarious.

On Friday we explored Jackson Street, and encountered this sharp drop at the junction with Octavia Street:

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

After that we went to Fresca (a “Nouveau Peruvian Cuisine” joint) in Pacific Heights to try out their desserts. I had the $8 three scoop ice cream (dulce de leche, lucuma, vanilla) while Vanessa had the picarones. Expensive, certainly, but filling. To burn off the calories we walked to Alamo Square to check out the Painted Ladies:

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

From there we went to the Asian Art Museum. We got cheap entry because it was an hour before closing, but we managed to cram a lot into that time.

An ancient Ganesha statue at the Asian Art Museum.

An ancient Ganesha statue at the Asian Art Museum.

After leaving the museum we rode the N all the way to Ocean Beach and watched the sun setting on the Pacific. What a wonderful thing to experience. The only way to top that was by going for burritos and soda at the (now apparently permanently closed) Taqueria El Castillito. I love burritos. You might have guessed.

Sand! I'm used to Brighton's pebble beaches (click to enlarge)

Sand! I’m used to Brighton’s pebble beaches (click to enlarge)

Saturday. The last full day… We caught the L all the way to the end of the line to go to San Francisco Zoo, and arrived just in time to see the penguins being fed! 55 penguins, and the keepers know them all. We also petted and fed some goats and saw many wonderful beasts. Pretty much everything, in fact.

After a really long wait for a return train (five went by towards the zoo before one came back) we returned to the Asian Art Museum to see all the Buddhist and related art we missed the day before. Then Starbucks paninis, then the F (a REALLY vintage streetcar) to Cioppino’s for more pizza and sangria, then back to Pier 39 for the Saturday evening fireworks display!

Afterwards there was a really long wait and queue for a return F, so we went and got one last cable car instead. Phew!


The negatives

San Francisco was mostly brilliant, but I can’t leave without mentioning the ridiculous levels of homelessness, drug abuse and mental illness that I witnessed in this city. All at far worse rates than any other city I’ve been too. Several times there were incidents close to us that threatened to explode into violence I’ve been fortunate to have never witnessed before. There are a lot of mental health issues, a lot of people who simply cannot look after themselves. And yet one street north from the guy openly shooting up on the sidewalk there were suits with lanyards and $900 tickets attending the Dreamforce Gala, organised by Salesforce, with special guests Tony Robbins, Hilary Clinton and Bruno Mars. And, yes, I know Dreamforce raises money for charity, and I’m not anti-business anti-capitalist, but the severity of the contrast still shocks. I don’t have any answers and I wouldn’t pretend to, but surely whatever system of government we have in the “civilised” West should be actively taking care of those who just cannot help themselves?

From The Haight-Ashbury Guide & Map, page 13: “In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act cut federal funding to programs to assist the poor. Social programs that had been established by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society suffered major setbacks. Many public institutions for people with psychological problems were shut down. This was a major cause of the chronic homelessness we know today.”


Going home

We got up very early on the Sunday to pack, because we wanted to get to SFO in plenty of time for Vanessa’s flight to LAX. Things seemed strange as we walked to the BART station – some streets were blocked off (although we just shoved the barricades aside and walked through), and we discovered the Nike Womens Marathon was starting soon. Then we discovered the BART station was closed. Thinking it was because of the marathon we hailed a cab. The driver told us that BART doesn’t open early on a Sunday, and surely the hotel had told us that? No, we replied. He was a cool driver and got us to the airport in plenty of time. We’re eternally grateful that we ended up having to take a cab because Vanessa’s flight was an hour earlier than thought. Our original journey plan would have been pushing it really too close for comfort!

Having plenty of time before my own flight I took the opportunity to check out the When Art Rocked exhibition at the airport. Lots of classic concert posters from the Sixties. Very cool stuff! While flying over Hudson Bay the captain alerted us to the fact that the Northern Lights were visible from the starboard side. We were queuing to have a look. A breathtaking end to a wonderful holiday!


Some videos

Turning around at the end of the line:

Going uphill (ding ding ding!):

Going downhill (oh so noisy):


An interactive map

I thought I’d make a custom Google map so you can see the places we went to. Click on the place markers for further information – web links, pictures, etc.




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