San Francisco's Marina District
Marina, San Francisco without the tour-buses
By Mary Charlebois
Sail at sunset, or greet the bay at sunrise. Explore an urban temple, or stroll a secret beach.
Listen to an organ powered by waves performs at high tide. Have a long, lazy lunch at a sidewalk café, or picnic by the yacht harbor. Savor dinner in a laid-back bistro, or roam Fillmore at Greenwich for the buzzy nightlife zone.
Tour-bus free Marina is an overlooked, hidden gem with an authentic San Francisco vibe.
Newest terra firma in San Francisco
Marina is one of the newest neighborhoods in San Francisco. Until the early 1900s, it was sand dunes, tide pools, and wetlands. You might say the 1906 earthquake began Marina development. Tons of rock, bricks and earthquake rubble were dumped in the wetlands creating new ground and spurring development.
In 1989, Marina was devastated by the Loma Prieta quake. Fire ravaged the area and poorly supported buildings collapsed as the unstable ground liquefied.
Within 10-years Marina was re-built using earthquake-sturdy construction.
This area of San Francisco is now filled with well-kept streets, pristine vintage homes and modern classics.
Marina’s no tour-bus destinations
In 1915, Marina was chosen for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The exposition grounds and the Palace of Fine Arts were built. Today, this urban temple is the only building left from the exposition. Some of the finest performance and art events in the city are staged here. Audiences are small and the venue is state-of-the-art for theater, music, and dance.
The Palace of Fine Arts’ lagoons, gardens and grounds are home to songbirds, waterfowl, and visiting seagulls. The setting is designed for birding, picnics, photos, strolling or just lazing about on the grass.
At the Marina yacht harbor, Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay form a panoramic background with matchless photo ops. The water level view across the bay is unique to this part of San Francisco.
Stroll, walk or run along Marina Boulevard. Boat lines ping against masts in the marina, ships sound their horns in the bay. Seagulls and songbirds add their soundtrack to this peaceful, unhurried neighborhood.
Listen to the Wave Organ
The Wave Organ is one of San Francisco’s most eclectic public art installations. An acoustic sculpture, it’s a series of cement tubes with one end in the water and the other at listening height.
At high tide, you hear the sound made by water rushing in and out of the tubes. It works much the same way as a pump organ, only with water instead of air. The views here are spectacular, especially from the tiny secret beach.
Level and paved, San Francisco Bay Trail runs along San Francisco Bay and passes through Marina. It’s used by walkers, joggers, and cyclists, but is rarely crowded.
Busy, bright and eclectic, Union and Chestnut Streets are commercial hubs. These lively areas are populated with restaurants, boutiques, and markets. Marina residents shop, meet, greet and dine here.
The Cow Hollow area is one of San Francisco’s oldest neighborhoods. At one-time, grassy meadows, freshwater streams and dairies covered the landscape. Overtaken by progress, cows and dairies moved away.
Step inside a peaceful courtyard where the last Cow Hollow spring fills a gold and blue-tiled pool.
The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin maintains what is believed to be the last spring remaining in Cow Hollow. Delicate frescos depicting the life of St. Mary decorates the courtyard walls. Benches offer a quiet spot to daydream. Located at the corner of Steiner and Union.
Head one block south on Steiner to Green Street and visit St. Vincent De Paul Church. Inside, the architecture is Tudor influenced. St. Vincent’s has an extraordinary wood interior and exquisitely stained glass windows. It rivals any European church. Located at Steiner and Green.
Painted Lady is the nickname for San Francisco’s ornately trimmed and painted Victorian houses. Cow Hollow has more Victorians than most neighborhoods. This district was spared the destruction suffered by other areas during the 1906 earthquake.
Walk up Union’s side-streets and you’ll find impeccably maintained homes built between 1849 and 1915. Today not all have the intricate paint jobs suggested by their nicknames, but all are captivating to view and photograph. Look very carefully at carved details. Some intriguing images are celebrated in wood.
The Golden Gate Valley Branch of the public library is on the corner of Green and Octavia, one block south of Union. The library is free to all. Non-San Franciscans can get a no-cost, temporary library card providing secure access to computers and the internet.
Local and international newspapers are available to read in the library. This is a good place to learn more about San Francisco history.
Eat & Drink
“Any day is a good day for shopping; any night is a good night for partying.” Or so the Marina residents will tell you.
Marina is a beehive of restaurants, bistros, pubs, and cafes. Menus cover every palette and wallet. Dining possibilities range from grab-and-go delis to 4-star fine dining. Marina happy hours are notorious. Mimosa filled Sunday brunches are a guarded tradition.
Some of the best happy hour and brunch spots to try are Eastside West for mac & cheese balls. Find them on Fillmore & Greenwich. Stock in Trade on Lombard, for a pulled-pork and grilled cheese sandwich. Umami’s Sumo Hour for sake and sushi, on Webster off Union. San Francisco icon, Perry’s, for anything on the menu. Perry’s is on Union.
Lunch under $12 is a bargain anywhere these days. When made from fresh ingredients, scrumptiously prepared, served in San Francisco, it’s a prize.
Try one of these places for an under $12 lunch: Tacko’s for fish tacos and lobster rolls, on Fillmore near Greenwich. La Panotiq Bakery Café on Chestnut, serving house-made soups, sandwiches, salads, and pastries. Patxi’s Pizza, (pronounced “Pah-Cheese”) for artisan pizza, salad and house-made pasta, on Fillmore near Lombard.
Buy picnic fixings at Marina Supermarket on Chestnut Street. Take your bounty to Palace of Fine Arts or Marina Boulevard for an al fresco feast.
Marina shops are small, distinctive, friendly and uncrowded. Stroll tree-lined Union or Chestnut, drifting in and out of cutting-edge and classic boutiques. Retailers specialize in useful to bazar. Find fashion, toys, pet care, décor, grooming, music, books, travel gear, kitchen wares, flowers, groceries, smoothies and a whole lot more.
In San Francisco, parking can cost $60 a day and driving is only for the supremely un-nerved. But, if you need a car with you, this area will serve you best.
Easy to get to from Golden Gate Bridge and Hwy 101, free parking (at some hotels) and easily accessible transit, help you do what’s best with a car while in the city; park it and forget it.
Lombard and Fillmore streets cross at the neighborhood center. These busy streets are major north-south, east-west thoroughfares. Muni bus routes crisscross Marina, providing frequent coverage. Get a Muni Passport and you’ll have continual jump-on, jump-off service for exploring, day and night.
Lodging in Marina
Lodging in Marina has one of the best-kept secrets in the city; free parking with your room.
Find welcoming staff, spotless, freshly remodeled rooms, dreamy Tempur-Pedic mattresses, top-quality linens, safe and secure property, and free parking at Coventry Inn, Cow Hollow Inn, Lombard Inn, Cow Hollow Suites and Chelsea Inn.
These sister properties have the same exceptional operating standards and décor. Rates are competitive, especially in winter. Park your car free in secure, covered parking and explore the area on foot or via Muni.
Marina is filled with inspiring scenery, memorable activities, epic history, good eats, lively libations, sensational entertainment, and leisurely shopping. Marina is authentic San Francisco and a no-tour-bus zone.
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Mary Charlebois is a freelance journalist and photographer. Her home base is on California’s Mendocino Coast. She travels by train, plane, bus, boat, shoe sole, and auto. She digs into the culture, people, and history wherever she goes and isn’t opposed to a little adventure along the way.