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Ten Great Trip Tips For San Francisco

Travel editor Neil Sowerby opens up that Golden Gate

Written by . Published on December 13th 2013.

Ten Great Trip Tips For San Francisco

Neil Sowerby has been on a Californian  road trip. He began and finished in San Francisco. Here are his 10 diversions for the discerning visitor to that most glorious of cities...

1 Get High In San Francisco
I left my heart along Barbary Lane and down Filbert Street Steps (almost a song there). That same heart had been pounding in the effort just to reach these iconic San Francisco nooks. It is uphill all the way in the higher reaches of the City of 43 Hills, but you are rewarded with (literally) breathtaking vistas. Take in the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the distant Marin Headlands or Oakland across the shimmering expanse of San Francisco Bay. Always assuming the regular summer fogs are not interloping.

Macondray Lane, Russian Hill %26#8211%3B Armistead Maupin TerritoryMacondray Lane, Russian Hill – Armistead Maupin territory

Macondray Lane

Barbary Lane is actually a fictional thoroughfare – for Tales Of The City, his chronicles of gay life, Armistead Maupin re-cast leafy, laid-back Macondray Lane up on Russian Hill, but he was fooling no one. Macondray, 30 years on feels, like a clapboard country escape in the city, but the rest of this posh enclave is full of other architectural delights and odd little gardens. If your calves can’t take the strain, catch the Cable Car there.

Down The Filbert StepsDown the Filbert Steps

Filbert Street Steps are for real but feel like a fantastical magnolia-draped stage set as they swoop down from Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill to the prosaic modern plaza fronting the HQ of Levi-Strauss, a local icon cut from a different cloth. \Coit Tower itself, built in 1933 as the bequest of a socialite, is a 210ft tall fluted column, Art Deco meets Renaissance. It’s well worth braving the vintage lift to ascend to the viewing platform, but don’t neglect the vivid Depression era murals on the ground level. They’re free.

Coit TowerCoit Tower from two angles and its celebrated murals, below

View Of The Italian Church And Coit Tower From Russian Hill

Depression Era Mural Inside Coit Tower

View Of The Bay, Over Columbus's Shoulder.From Telegraph HillView of The Bay, over Columbus's shoulder from Telegraph Hill

Close with a third great photo opportunity in the heights – the “Crookedest street in the world”. Lombard Street kicks off as the motel-lined main drag into the city from the Golden Gate, but the heavy traffic veers off along Van Ness, while Lombard ascends vertiginously, then plummets in an amazing zig-zag where cars have to – very slowly – negotiate a floral chicane while avoid knocking down the tourist rubberneckers.

Lombard Street, The %26#34%3BCrookedest%26#34%3BLombard Street, "The Crookedest"

2 Lofty Life With The Nobs
One more height, Nob Hill, and ‘that song’ you can’t get out of your head. Tony Bennett first performed “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” in 1961 on stage at the Venetian Room in the legendary Fairmont Hotel – appropriately our hotel base for a couple of nights. The framed sheet music of the song and a black and white shot of the crooner performing it hang in the hotel’s picture-lined Heritage Corridor, which displays a veritable who’s who of celebrity guests and world leaders (the UN Charter was drafted here in 1945).


Fairmont By NightFairmont by Night; below its gilded foyer and The Laurel Room

Fairmont Foyer

Laurel Room At The Fairmont

The Earthquake destroyed all the wooden mansions built by the city’s millionaires. These beneficiaries of the Gold Rush were sarcastically nicknamed the Nabobs – hence Nob. Today the airy district is populated by posh hotels, notably Fairmont’s neighbour, the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins, where we also stayed. It’s worth a trip to the 19th floor and the Top of the Mark sky lounge with its glass-lined viewing wall, 100-strong cocktail list and dancing.

The Mark Hopkins At SunsetThe Mark Hopkins at sunset from our Fairmont tower room

The Fairmont’s equivalent is the subterranean Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar, also open to non-hotel guests. Anthony “Kitchen Confidential” Bourdain, after filming there, famously named it his favourite place in the world – perhaps after one Lava Bowl or Zombie cocktail too many. Easy to do in this tiki bar/Polynesian diner built around a glammed-up 1929 swimming pool that every half hour features a recreation of a tropical storm – and eventually the “Island Groove Band” on a floating stage. Hawaiian shirts are de rigueur to match over-the-top cheesy kitsch that it’s hard to dislike, even if the food is vastly superior at the hotel proper’s Laurel Room.

Tonga RoomTonga Room and the band float into view, below

The Band Plays At Tonga

This, like the rest of the Fairmont, veers toward the formal. Perhaps it’s all those marble columns and classical frescoes and the weight of history. Our room, smart-functional, was up on the 17th floor of the Tower Block with tremendous views again and every 10 minutes the distant tintinnabulation of a Cable Car bell far below on Powell.

Vertigo ApartmentsThe Brocklebank Apartments feature in Vertigo

3 Ding Ding, It’s The Cable Car Coming
The vintage Cable Cars even feature in “I Left My Heart...” – they “climb halfway to the stars”. One of the routes conveniently passes within a block of the Fairmont and surrounding august buildings – such as the Brocklebank apartments, from where James Stewart tails Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and the Pacific Union Club, a sandstone fortress that survived the Earthquake and is now an exclusive private member’s club. The unlovable (to me) Grace Cathedral, built of concrete to withstand ‘quakes is also close. Make your own mind up (its AIDS memorial is moving), then take a left down Mason Street in the direction of Chinatown.


Nob Hill, Grace Hill And Pacific Union ClubNob Hill, the Grace Cathedral and Pacific Union Club

Cable Car MuseumCable Car Museum

Five minutes away down a one in 5 gradient is the free-to-enter Cable Car Museum. Not just a museum where you can see the Cars, mind, but the powerhouse of the whole unique system, which dates back to 1873, though much upgraded and curtailed since. Currently three lines remain with 17 miles of track. The cars are hauled by a looped cable under the streets and guided by a system of grooved pulleys. Part of the kick is the grinding of machinery under your feet as you ride.

Hi ThereHi There; below, the Cable Car crest the hill on Hyde

Uphill For The Hyde Street Cable Car

Great physical strength is still required by the on-board grip men as we noted on our trip down Hyde Street to Fisherman’s Wharf. Jump off at Lombard Street and photograph one coming up the hill. It’s a classic view. We got waved at by visitors clinging on to the platforms. Journeys aren’t cheap (six dollars a go), but it’s a must-do experience...

4 Catamaran Under The Golden Gate
I’m not sure the Wharf is so essential. The Sunday we visited this former fishing settlement, it was heaving with day trippers and San Franciscans. The assortment of piers offers a kind of touristic Gold Rush meets Disneyland. There are good places to eat cheaply (try Scoma), a sealife aquarium, a specialist sourdough bakery, but mostly all the fun of the fair. Plus, at Pier 39, you’ll discover a substantial colony of honking, photogenic sea lions.

Sea Lions Basking At Pier 39Honk, honk – sea lions basking at Pier 39


We dived into Jack’s Cannery Bar at Oyster Pier, partly because of the legend of a sozzled, doomed bear that once frequented the place, but mainly because of a choice of 68 beers. From a fine craft range we drank a holiday favourite, Racer 5 IPA from Bear Republic (no relation) to the sound of a resident afternoon guitarist “deconstructing” the oeuvre of Neil Young.

We enjoyed the beer – if not the music – so much we were almost late for the reason for our Fisherman’s Wharf visit – to catch an Adventure Cat Sailing Charter from Pier 39 (next door to the sea lions). A large catamaran, a small party on board and an utterly exhilarating (and good value) trip ahead. A couple of hours later we had circled Alcatraz, skimmed under the rust-red colossus that is the Golden Gate Bridge, spotted dolphins and pelicans and wobbled thrillingly in the wake of a huge container vessel as it hove from the Ocean into the Bay.

Sailing Under The Golden GateStunning – sailing under the Golden Gate with our cool catamaran crew

Skipper And Mate On The Adventure Cat

All this beneath blue skies and in a mid-November temperature in the seventies. “That song” surprisingly doesn’t mention the Golden Gate, but does include the “morning fog” (and the fog-smothered Bridge does grace the cover of Bennett's I Left My Heart In San Francisco album in 1962). On the last day of our first stint in SF, staying in a chi-chi converted motel in the Marina district we had been woken by the fog horns across the nearby waterfront and breakfasted by the pool in a definite mist. The damp fog sucked in through the narrow Bay entrance is most prevalent in the summer months.

Approaching AlcatrazApproaching Alcatraz; below, trippers about to land there

Trippers Docking At The Prison Island

5 Along The Waterfront
The Marina district is a lovely base in its own right – a flat low-rise grid until across Union Street with its trendy shops, the long, straight roads climb steeply up to Pacific Heights, which boasts pampered pooch-walking parks and beautiful Victorian properties. After one calf-straining expedition to locate a craft beer boutique and the bizarre Vedanta Temple (architecturally blending Hindu, Russian Orthodox and other faiths) we decided we’d hunker close to the waterfront in future.

Vedanta House In The MarinaVedanta House in the Marina district, home to the Hotel del Sol, below

Cool Pool Area At The Hotel Del Sol

The Hotel del Sol is part of a small Californian chain called Joie de Vivre. Its sister hotel in San Francisco, the more central Phoenix, is rock and roll themed. The likes of Johnnie Depp and REM have stayed there, but one guide said “it is a little too close to the Tenderloin (the city’s perennial skid row district) for all but the most self-assured.” No such problems with the child-friendly del Sol, whose towering courtyard palm trees are festooned with fairy lights and whose en-suite colour schemes are just as dazzling.

The surrounding area is full of bars, both serving booze or clipping nails. a 10 minute walk away is the more culturally challenging Fort Mason Center, a converted military base that is home to art galleries, ethnic museums, a good bookshop, a groundbreaking theatre company and an equally groundbreaking vegetarian restaurant, Greens (see Distraction 9). There are historical resonances, too: Fort Mason was where US troops embarked for the Pacific Theatre of War. Just along the coast the Presidio district’s wooded parkland offers a lovely walk to the Golden Gate Bridge (and at its base, Fort Point, where James Stewart rescued Kim Novak from drowning in Vertigo).

Tides Turn At The ExploratoriumTides turn at the Exploratorium

6 Further Along The Waterfront
Fort Mason is to the west of Fisherman’s Wharf; to the east in the direction of high-rise Downtown, is another attractive, rehabilitated dock area. First up is the Exploratorium at Pier 15. Ideally, this “hands-on 21st century learning laboratory” is a place to take the kids. But adults can have fun making playful connections and tactile discoveries about the world around us in the museum’s vast new home by the Bay. And for when science overload kicks in there’s a fabulous sushi restaurant on site – and a cutting edge Peruvian restaurant, La Mar, just along the prom.

Ferry Plaza Farmers' MarketFerry Plaza Farmers' Market; below, one eaterie inside the building

Ferry Plaza %26#8211%3B Hugely Popular Dining Destination

Most peckish folk in this part of San Francisco, though, head for the landmark Ferry Building. OK, the ferries still leave here for picturesque Sausalito and Tiburon and the more rugged social mix offered by Oakland, but inside the main building is an array of foodie outlets, shops and eateries that showcase the finest Californian produce. Twice a week out front there’s a farmer’s market and a cornucopia of street food options. Amazing stuff. A statue of Gandhi cuts a rather solitary figure against the hulking backdrop of the Bay Bridge. It’s worth dropping by at dusk, as we did, to check out the necklace of lights on the newly renovated bridge, which connets with Oakland and Berkeley.

7 North Beach And The Beats

After the Ferry Building feast, I’d resist the mall-like attractions of the Embarcadero Centre and cut straight down Washington Street under the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid building, then up Columbus Avenue to North Beach. Little Italy’s round here; jolly but the food’s generally better just down Grant Street in bustling Chinatown with its rows of roast ducks, mahjong players and, of course, temples.

City Lights - Legendary Book HauntCity Lights - legendary bookstore in North Beach

Ginsberg Howls On At City Lights

FerlinghettiLawrence FerlinghettiThe shrines we sought were very different – City Lights Bookstore, the next door watering hole, Vesuvio, and Cafe Trieste. Beat Country. This is were Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, Neal Cassidy and the rest of that bohemian writing crew hung out in the Fifties.I’m of Truman Capote’s opinion of Kerouac: “That isn’t writing at all, it’s typing”, but can’t deny the Beats their role in 20th century culture,  preparing the path for the Hippies who a decade later colonised Haight Ashbury in the city (a scruffier, less vibrant quarter than North Beach these days).

Vesuvio BarVesuvio Bar; below, the Caffe Trieste

Cafe Trieste %26#8211%3B Francis Ford Coppola Wrote The Godfather Screenplay In Here

City Lights, still owned by Beat survivor, the nonagenarian Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is a superb bookshop for those in search of the finest current reading material, not just the Beat Holy Grail; Vesuvio is a delightfully way-out place to hang loose and Caffe Trieste, where Coppola penned the Godfather screenplay, serves fabulous coffee in seriously unchanged surroundings.

Venture down Broadway and among its topless shows and seedy dives you’ll find the Naked Lunch diner, which doesn’t offer nudity but good daytime cuisine and a cheeky reference to Beat bad boy William Burroughs. Just along the road, he joins the pantheon in the Beat Museum. Not a cash-in but a genuine homage with walking tours, it was rather sweet.

Literary ShrineLiterary shrine to Kerouac and Co

8 Mission Statements

Unicorn At Paxton'sUnicorn At Paxton GateIf North Beach seems all about yesterday, then The Mission is very much about today – well, two separate todays actually, a couple of blocks apart. Valencia Street couldn’t be cooler, servicing the inhabitants of the smart, smart housing to the west with every restaurant trend and fashion statement they can handle (check out thestuffed aninals at home design store Paxton Gate; Mission Street is pound (99 cents?) shop and taqueria central, unapologetically Hispanic. I was going to say edgily, but  the obvious shabbiness is not akin to Tenderloin’s. It’s a vibrant ethnic enclave. Both streets are well worth a visit.

We entered the Mission on the smart side via the Muni Metro tram from Union Square. Our destination: the Mission Dolores, the oldest building in the city. The 4ft thick adobe walls, built by Indians in the 1780s, survived the 1906 Earthquake intact while the adjacent Basilica crumbled and has since been rebuilt.

The Mission DoloresThe Mission Dolores; below, its poignant graveyard

Graveyard At The Mission Dolores 

Yes, we are in Vertigo territory once more. Scottie (James Stewart) tails Madeleine (Kim Novak) there as she lays flowers at the grave of Carlotta Valdez, her doomed ancestor. Carlotta’s headstone was a prop, removed after filming; the real monuments are much more poignant. Tipperary, Longford, Athlone – nearly every Irish county is represented. They fled the Famine, were lured by the Gold Rush and never saw home again. The churchyard is small like the Chapel, with its original redwood beams, but both carry great emotional weight. 

9 You’ve Seen That Postcard Before
It’s so odd when you chance upon a set-piece location everyone identifies with a particular city – picture postcard perfect. Often it disappoints – Alamo Square did not. Out of duty we’d been up to Haight Ashbury to seek out the ghosts of the Summer of Love (the real one in ’67, not that Spike Island impostor of 1990) and found it all tawdry and sad. You can buy vintage gear, check out the use where the Grateful Dead hung out before you were born, even score some dope... so what?

Alamo SquareAlamo Square, much photographed, iconic

Meandering back down gentrified Hayes Street, the pumpkins still hanging on in on the porches a week after Halloween, we came upon Alamo just as the sun went down. A few rows of Victorian residences, but with resonance and a backdrop of distaant Downtown. For a moments in the big pink the soundtrack was Janis and Jefferson Airplane, the fashion statement tie-dye, the scent patchouli. Then we awoke from a hash-scented haze and Timberland-clad young couples were walking their Labradoodles on the sloping green and thumbing their state-of-the-art cellphones.

10 Feed The Inner Man, Man
It goes without saying, San Francisco is a fabulous place to eat and drink. Chez Panisse in Berkeley was the standard bearer for Californian cuisine back in the Seventies and it’s still there, doing an ethnic sustainable take on Med food under its influential founder, Alice Waters. I’ve never been.

Chopping Chicken At ZuniChopping the legendary chicken At Zuni

My favourite places are equally important in the evolution of the city’s cuisine Zuni and Greens. Zuni, I first visited 15 years ago, lured by its legendary whole chicken roasted in its central brick oven. We ordered the same again, with its bread salad and pine nuts, this time and it was still mind-blowing in its simplicity and quality. The cafe, named after a Native American tribe (hence the p0riginal Adobe walls) was opened in 1979 by Billy West at the rougher end of Market and instantly attracted a celeb clientele. But it retains a democratic clarity of culinary purpose.

It was first time at Greens at Fort Mason, though I have cooked founder Deborah Madison’s innovative vegetarian recipes over the years. Her protege, Annie Somerville, works closely with organic producers, in particular Green Gulch Farm, who have a stall at the Ferry Building. Green Gulch, also known as Green Dragon Temple, is a Buddhist practice centre in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition at Muir Beach on the northern coast along Highway One (we would soon start our road trip there). Oriental and Mexican influences colour the purely vegetarian cuisine at Greens, which also benefits from gorgeous views across the docks to the Golden Gate.

Church Key %26#8211%3B Beer HavenChurch Key – greta spot for craft beers

These are the stand-outs, but you can eat well in a variety of cuisines across the city. As for drinking, the ultra-smart Press Club in the revitalised SOMA (South of Market) district, is a fine vinoteca, offering a great wine selection with bargain happy hour offers and quality craft beers, too. Hop heads should check out the amazing range at the unprepossessing Church Key at 1402 Grant Street, North Beach. Less intense, but a classic American beer local with wisecracking service and wall-to-wall televised Gridiron (and Champions League bizarrely) is the Royal Arcade on Sacramento Street, Downtown. A bit like an episode of Cheers – we just kept ending up there to chill.

Watch out for Neil’s further adventures in Napa and Sonoma, Sausalito and Mendocino.

Fact file

How to get there:
Virgin Atlantic flies daily from Manchester to San Francisco, via Heathrow, and is offering return Economy fares from £689.74 per person. For further information contact www.virginatlantic.com or call 0844 2092 770. This fare is available for selected departures during 2013 and 2014. Prices given are subject to change.

Staying there:
Enjoy world-class service in the heart of the City. A stay at The Fairmont San Francisco is an experience to remember! With our San Francisco bed and breakfast package, you’ll enjoy local cuisine and impeccable service. Package includes – one night room accommodation with a full  American breakfast ($38 value pp). The Bed and Breakfast Package at The Fairmont San Francisco starts from $299 per night. This offer is available year-round, subject to availability for more information visit www.fairmont.com/san-francisco.

A more modernistic alternative to the Fairmont would be the Mandarin Oriental, which occupies the first two floors and the top 11 floors of the Calidornia Centre building on on Sansome Street.The view from the top floor suites, so close to The Bay are unbelievable and casnny Aussie sommelier Nicole Kosta showcases the best of California’s new wave winemakers at the hotel’s S&P Brasserie.

Manchester Airport parking:
Neil Sowerby left his car park in T3 Long Stay. Here are all the options:
VIP Valet – drop and collect your car right next to the terminal and get fast tracked through security. Your car is parked on site.
Meet and Greet – drop your car off with staff next to the terminal and collect on your return. Your car is parked on site.
Multi-storey car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ultra-convenient multi-storey car parking right next to the terminal. Park and walk under cover to reach the terminal.
Long stay car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ground surface car park offering free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
Shuttle Park – secure parking at great rates for cost-conscious travellers. Free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
JetParks –  low-cost parking option run by Manchester Airport, fully manned 24/7, parking from £2.99 per day. Visit this link

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