LOCAL GUIDE: San Francisco's
Text and photo by Koren Capozza
Fisherman's Wharf, sourdough bread and the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco's real charm lies in its quirky local underbelly.
San Francisco's loose
coalition of independent fiefdoms or unique neighborhoods each possess their
own character, unique attractions and lore. Inside these neighborhood
districts, the pulse of San Francisco is most audible. From the Castro to North Beach, the Mission
to the Haight, the city is a patchwork of diversity and hidden treasures. Alter
your viewpoint slightly, get local and discover a whole new city.
UNUSUAL ATTRACTIONS Some of the most unique
attractions of San Francisco are found deep inside the neighborhood districts.
After you've seen the main tourist attractions elsewhere in the city, check out
these unique, unusual and very local finds. THE CASTRO The universal capital of
"Gay Nation," the Castro caters heavily to the homosexual male crowd that tends
to hang out here. The district hops with revelers all night and hordes of
shoppers all day.
You'll know you're in the
right place when you see the towering rainbow-colored flag, the Castro's emblem
of gay pride. Campy outfits, wigs and bare skin are more than welcome here. But
the Castro's cafes, shops, and other unique attractions also make it a good
stop for the straight crowd. Cafe
of the Castro's flagship hangouts, Flore offers a pleasant flower-draped patio
where the crowds come to see-and-be-seen.ð A frothy cappuccino is a perfect way to end a day of cruising the
Castro. Coffees, light fare and desserts are also worth the wait. The Castro Theater
429 Castro St.
a flick at this beautiful, 1930s Spanish colonial movie palace. It's worth a
visit just to see the classic baroque design, organist who plays nightly and
extra- large screen. Castro
Douglass and 19th
in a quiet residential neighbor, this 35-foot slide is a gas for kids and
adults alike. The neighborhood is also known for its cutesy cottages and
gorgeous flower gardens.
Chinatown is legendary: it's the largest Chinese community outside of Asia.
Though this neighborhood is flooded with tourists and shops that cater to them,
the food is great and elements of authentic Chinese-Americana can still be
found. Chinese Cultural Center
750 Kearny St., 3rd Floor
excellent first stop before checking out the sites, the C.C. center offers
tours of Chinatown and hosts an historical museum that documents the often
difficult history of the Chinese in the West. Outdoor
and just plain bizarre gifts abound in the sidewalk tables lining Chinatown's
walkways. Take some time to examine the exotic animals and off the wall
imports. Grant Street has the best wares. Buddha Bar
lacking in square footage is compensated for with character. Buddha's
bartender/part-owner Mark is a Chinatown legend who willingly wallows in pathos
after a few drinks. Surprisingly, there are few Buddhas to speak of at Buddha
Bar, save the portly, hapless proprietor himself. Li Po
916 Grant St.
lit, dressed up with a flower-laden Buddhist altar, red carpet and stools, Li
Po is a low-key lounge true to its neighborhood. A balanced mix of Asians,
tourists and after-work drinkers hang out here.
premium on space in S.F., few people can afford to have a backyard. Golden Gate
Park is everyone's garden by default. And what a yard it is--four miles-long
and a half-mile-wide, this natural wonderland in the heart of the city includes
Dutch windmills, bison, botanical gardens, mountain biking paths and ocean
beach. Bison Fields
Off MLK drive just before the Polo
Few people would guess that the buffalo
roam in the heart of northern California's biggest city--but indeed they do.
These stoic beasts have been in the park for over 30 years and graze in a vast
paddock near the west end of the park. Roller Skater's Forum
Off JFK Blvd @ 12th
San Francisco's Venice Beach, this is
where bygone 70s-era roller-kings and queens now strut their stuff. A few stunt
jumping roller bladders and BMX bikers are also in the mix on some Sundays. Beach Chalet Brewery and Restaurant
1000 Great Highway
This restored beachfront building offers
stunning views of the Pacific, especially at sunset. Microbrews and seafood
appetizers are the best bet. Downstairs is the Golden Gate Park Visitor's
Center (415) 751-2766.
Deadheads and the Jefferson Airplane are vestiges of a bygone era. Today, the
Haight is no longer living in the Age of Aquarius, and the hippies have been
ousted by increasingly prohibitive housing prices. Still, a few mementos of the
free-love days remain. Buena
Haight Street @ Buena
labyrinth of trails crisscross this hilltop park. In the summer when the fog
rolls in, Buena Vista has an eerie feel; cypress and eucalyptus groves are
draped in mist. Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic
558 Clayton St.
(415) 487 5632
get a sense of what the Haight-Ashbury movement was all about check out this
completely free community clinic, which has delivered health care to the
general public since the 1960s. Given the increasingly expensive price of
health insurance, Haight-Ashbury Clinic is a God-send to San Francisco's poor
considered a grungy, rundown and unsafe district, the Mission has been
overhauled to attract money-spending crowds. Unfortunately, the district that
was once a haven for activists, artists, students and immigrants is being
gentrified rapidly as renters willing to pay up-market prices move in and
neighborhood regulars are pushed out. Still, the Mission is distinctly Latino,
and many counter-culture and community organizations are fighting to keep it
18th and Dolores
hub of the Mission District, Dolores is where all of San Francisco's varied
residents converge. The lamp-lit tennis courts are a favorite of the Yuppie set
while the expansive soccer field is working class Latino territory. A dog park is staked out for pets from all
over the city, and the upper hillside is the Castro zone, known as the "Castro
Beach," where residents sunbathe daily. Don't miss the view at the corner of 20th and Church, where at sunset, the city looks like a golden Babylon bathed in
soft sunlight. Precita
Eyes Mural Arts Tours
25-year-old community arts project offers walking tours of 75 of the city's
outdoor murals. Many of the murals have political themes and depict issues of
concern to the Latin American immigrant community. Tours are Saturdays and
Sundays at 1:30 pm. Mission
6th and Dolores
a hot afternoon, the cemetery in the rear of this Jesuit mission built in 1776
offers the perfect respite. Trees shade stone benches and gravestones show that
most of the buried died between 1776 and 1900. Casualties of the Gold Rush, the
first mayor and the first governor of San Francisco are also buried here. NORTH BEACH
little taste of Europe on the edge of the U.S. West Coast, North Beach is
cappuccino and beret country. Artistes galore, bookstores and outdoor sidewalk
cafés define this district. The best way to experience the neighborhood is to
café-hop along Columbus Avenue, where mind-altering espresso is the main draw. Caffe Triest
nerve center of North Beach activity and the once-favorite hangout of the Beat
poets. The espresso drinks are rocket
fuel. Go easy.
The Steps of Rome
348 Columbus Ave.
A classic North Beach venue where the camieri are straight from Roma and the food is typical Italian trattoria fair.
The exuberant staff often break into song and dance when a favorite Italian pop
tune hits the radio. Tosca
242 Columbus, (415)
Italy is the theme here complete with old-school espresso steamers, jukebox and
red vinyl booths. An excellent place to chatter away the evening.
lots of it. MOMA and Yerba Buena are world-class museums that merit a solid
day. New nightclubs and bars have recently flooded the SOMA neighborhood,
chiefly a business district. Soak up some culture and then vegetate in the
nearby Yerba Buena gardens. San Francisco Museum
of Modern Art (MOMA)
151 3rd St.
MOMA has made a name for itself since opening in 1995. Cutting-edge artists are
often featured here, including the newest innovators in multimedia/digital art. Abstract,
unusual and avant-garde tend to be the standard fare. Caffi Museo in
the lobby has legendary espresso and one of the sunniest perches for afternoon
tea. Yerba Buena Museum
701 Mission St.
the street from MOMA is an urban oasis of greenery and fountains. Weekend
afternoons the gardens come alive with free outdoor live music. The museum
often has exhibits that appeal to California sensibilities. One recent example:
The History of Surfing Exhibit. Behind the cascading waterfall in the middle of
the park is a glass-paneled memorial to Martin Luther King. Flower Market
6th and Brannan
the heart of the city's gray warehouse district is a vibrant corner of wildlife
and color. Flowers grown throughout the state and world are featured here in a
two- block market. Everything from Venus Flytraps to bamboo to rare orchids is
for sale. ACTIVITIES San Francisco has a wealth
of natural attractions, most of them centered along the coast. And since the
weather is almost always sunny, there's no excuse to stay inside. From hiking
in Marin to hang-gliding at Ocean Beach, there are plenty of favorite local
outdoor activities and outiftters to help you take advantage of one of the most
beautiful coastlines in the country. A Walk Along the Coastal Trail
the forested coastal trail from the Cliff House to the Golden Gate Bridge, and
take in the breathtaking views of the bay and Marin headlands. In spring and
summer the trail is lined with a kaleidoscope of wildflowers. Bring a
California wildflower guide and marvel at the abundance of foliage. Start at
the parking lot just above Cliff House and head north. Canoe the Bay
California Canoe and Kayak
Spend a day with docile sea otters, sea lions and, if
you're lucky, gray whales. The calm waters of the bay are ideal for kayaking
and canoeing, and on warm days, the temperature is pleasant well into the
evening for moonlight paddles. Bolinas, Marin
up Highway 1 on the Marin coast for unbelievable views of the shoreline. Bolinas, a tiny 60's hippy town, is a great
stop for lunch/dinner as well. Surfers and Haight-Ashbury refugees abound.
Don't be surprised if the sign directing traffic to Bolinas is nowhere to be
found--Bolinas residents are reclusive and would prefer to stay as far away
from fast-paced San Francisco influences as possible. Marin Headlands
Francisco's backyard of sorts, the Marin Headlands are located just across the
Golden Gate Bridge to the west and offer not only the best views of the city,
but also a wealth of outdoor activities. Bird watching, hiking, mountain
biking, horseback riding and more are all fair game at this glorious national
recreation area. Don't miss the Marine Mammal Center, a ward for injured or
abandoned seals (cute little buggers) and sea lions. Hang Glide Ocean Beach
gliders can take the plunge off of Ocean Beach dunes into the Pacific Coast
wind. The timid can watch on the viewing platform nearby or head off to the
Fort Funston Environmental Education Center nearby (415) 556-8371 Windsurf Lake Merced
The San Francisco School of Windsurfing
equipment or take lessons on this picturesque urban lake. Stop in for a beer at
the boathouse bar afterwards, and enjoy great views of the lake. LODGINGS San
Francisco has no shortage of charming inns. Forego the blasé hotel room option
and go for a cozy bed-and-breakfast experience instead.
444 Columbus St. North
charming North Beach favorite was a Beat Generation hangout in the 50s. Small
rooms and bathrooms, but one classy perk is the free sherry in the lobby in the
evenings. $119/ double, credit cards welcomed.
The Inn Above Tide
30 El Portal Sausalito, CA
This inn has amazing views of San Francisco Bay. Special packages are available that
include massage and champagne. $200-400/ double.
The Willows Bed and Breakfast Inn
In the heart of the Castro District, Willows is charming and
cheap. Antique furniture and cozy interiors make you feel like a guest in
grandma's cottage. Breakfast is served every morning. $82 - $120/double.
2438 Mission Street
1875 Victorian manor recently restored to its former glory. Located in the
center of the Mission District. $79-109/double.
Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center
Shoreline Highway, Sausalito, CA
A Buddhist meditation retreat and organic farm in the heart
of Marin, Green Gulch is a lovely place to disappear for a weekend. Group
meditation workshops, speakers and gardening classes are available. The center
is also a short 20-minute stroll from the beach. Day visitors are welcomed on Sundays.
You can also use GoNOMAD's handy directory to find California budget hotels.
San Francisco's culinary
diversity reflects the variety of cultures that have settled here. From seafood
to Latin American steak to vegetarian and Asian fusion restaurants, a visitor
could spend weeks eating through the options. Here are a few local favorites:
705 Divisadero St.
Serves up authentic soul
food in a walk-in barbecue atmosphere.
475 Polk Street
Dungeness Crab in huge quantities. Try the
roasted or wine and butter steamed varieties.
1801 Haight Street
One of San Francisco's best, yet most reasonably
priced restaurants. Don't miss the mussels or garlic prawns.
Empress of China
838 Grant Avenue
Chinatown landmark that recreates imperial Chinese decadence. Dim Sum and
regional Chinese specialties offered daily. The rooftop dining room/lounge has
views of Telegraph Hill.
Franciscans are passionate about their trademark hefty and cheap burritos. One
resident even put together a web site www.sfburrito.com that reviews the city's tacquerias one by one.
16th and Valencia
Fort Mason, Building A
Located near the sailboat launch in Marin,
this famous restaurant was a pioneer in gourmet vegetarian cuisine. If you like
veggie, this is the place. All ingredients come from Green Gulch Organic Farm
Almost any month of the
year, there's an eclectic event going on in the city: it's part of what makes
SF such a great place to visit. Winter is quiet, but throughout the spring,
summer and fall, the city's neighborhoods heat up with street fairs and
local events and festivals worth traveling for include the Castro's Halloween
Parade, a madcap creative scene with men in Carnival-regalia, 19th -century madams with white powdered wigs, pharaohs and slaves. You name
it: the mixed gay/straight crowd revels in costumes of wild imagination.
San Francisco's Chinatown
is the THE place to celebrate the Chinese New Year. As the
largest Chinatown in the US, the January parade works hard to live up to the
title. It's noisy, it's colorful, it's unavoidable. The festivities paralyze
downtown for the day with firecracker salvo and wandering puppet dragons. If
hunger strikes, top notch Dim Sum is rolling all day throughout the district.
of course, San Francisco International Film Festival is a must-see.
Started 43 years ago, this April cinema-fest is America's oldest film festival
and features more than 200 films and videos from more than 50 countries.
Entries include new films by beginning and established directors and the awards
ceremonies often see renowned honorees join the festivities. Tickets are
relatively inexpensive and screenings are very accessible to the general
public. Screenings are at the AMC Kabuki 8 Cinemas, at Fillmore and Post
streets, and other locations.
San Franciscans are
incessant whiners about their city's weather. Mark Twain is said to have quipped that the
coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. It's true: summers are cool and windy. But
the upside is that the temperature fluctuates minimally year round (average
temperature is 57 degrees F). The warmest and driest months of the year are
August, September and October. November to March can be wet and windy, so bring
warm clothing and rain gear for all seasons.
major U.S. and many international airlines fly into San Francisco. Amtrak and
Greyhound also serve the city.
Francisco is an easy city to get around. Walking, trolley cars and local buses
are the most inexpensive ways to see the city close up. Taxis are readily
available, but pricey.
you plan to stay within the city limits, a car is unnecessary and navigating
the unmarked one-way streets, congested traffic and parking may turn out to be
more hassle than it's worth.
you are going to venture to towns beyond the city limits, renting a car is a
good bet.All the major U.S. car-rental
agencies have branches at the airport and in town.
are thousands of ATM machines located all over the city and in each
neighborhood. Most accept all bankcards and credit cards. Banks are open 9-5
cheapest way to get online is through the public libraries (Main branch is at
Larkin and Grove streets in the Civic Center district, also in Chinatown at
1135 Powell St., and in North Beach at 2000 Mason St.) The only drawback is
that you have to get on a sign-up sheet and wait your turn. It's usually not
worth the hassle when you can get Internet access for the price of a cup of
coffee at one of several cybercafes:
498 Sanchez St. (Castro)
On the same block as Chat
51 Grant Ave.
Offers free access to clients. Alter
your return date or inquire about your next vacation to get a free 15 minutes.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
San Francisco is, for the
most part, a very safe city. The Tenderloin district near downtown should be
avoided, especially at night. South of Market is a little dicey past Howard
Street and towards the waterfront, and the Mission district near South Van Ness
Avenue and Folsom is often overrun with prostitutes and drug addicts. Use
caution in all neighborhoods at night.
The following health
resources are available to the traveler.
San Francisco General Hospital
(throughout the city)
The city also has an excellent health clinic that's open to the public.
San Francisco Today
San Francisco Station
San Francisco Gate
San Francisco Convention
and Visitors Bureau