San Francisco: Day One

This traveler and Traveler Five (who accompanied me to St. Lucia last year) headed off to San Francisco and Yosemite National Park this morning. As we were coming from two different directions and meeting at the gate at the airport things got interesting when the security line at Logan International Airport reached amazingly long proportions. For a while there, as the plane was already boarding when I got to the gate, I thought I might be going to San Francisco by myself, but Traveler Five arrived in the nick of time!

Ghirardelli Square

The human history of this port area goes back thousands of years. Early Native Americans, of Ohlone linguistic group, traded with other Native Americans living as far away as Baja California, the Mohave Desert, and the mountainous Yosemite area.

Golden Gate Bridge

Sir Francis Drake and his crew were the first Europeans in the area in 1579. They mapped it named it Nova Albion but the British did not establish permanent presence here. Spain became the European naval super power to establish the first colonies in the San Francisco area. Then known as Yerba Buena and Mission Dolores, the Spanish controlled this important strategic port until 1821, when California became part of Mexico upon Mexico winning independence from Spain.

Detail of Lombard Street

In 1846, the U.S. claimed possession of the area during the Mexican-American War. California was admitted as a state in 1850. But it was the 1848 California gold rush that helped create the city we now know as San Francisco when the population of the area exploded with settlers coming west and Chinese immigrants were brought in to work in the gold mines, and later, build the Transcontinental Railroad. The rich Chinese history of this city is still to be explored in San Francisco’s Chinatown district.

In the 1860’s San Francisco became known as “The Paris of the West.” From the 1860’s to the 1880’s San Francisco transformed into a major city, starting with massive expansion in all directions, creating the neighborhoods we now know as the Western Addition, the Haight-Ashbury, and the Mission District among others. This expansion culminated in the construction of Golden Gate Park in 1887, a park 20% larger than New York’s Central Park. In addition, the city's famous Cable Cars were built around this time, a unique invention devised to traverse the City's steep hills. During this time many writers, including Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Oscar Wilde, spent time in the city.

Street performer, Fisherman's Wharf

San Francisco has been extremely influential on American culture. From the Beat Poets and City Lights Book Store, owned by brilliant poet Lawrence Farlinghetti, in the 1950’s, to 1967's Summer of Love that put Haight-Ashbury permanently on the map of the American mind, and become the center of the hippie movement and the crucible in which the brilliant music of Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and others was created, to becoming an important center in the gay rights movement, San Francisco has permanently etched the American character. This alchemical mix has affected generations of Americans.

Coit Tower, Telegraph Hill

Today, San Francisco is a most walkable and beautiful American city made up of unique neighborhoods. I love how the character of the city changes as you turn a corner and find yourself in a place entirely different in flavor and culture from the street you just turned off of.


So Traveler Five and I arrived mid-day and headed to our hotel in the Union Square area. We headed to Honey Honey Café & Crepery for a most excellent lunch. From there we headed out to explore. We headed “up” Grant Street to Columbus because it’s the “flattest” way to walk toward Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf, as the route runs between the heights of Nob and Russian Hills to the west and Telegraph Hill on the east.

I have to say here that Fritz Leiber wrote a brilliant short novel called “Our Lady of Darkness” that scared the living daylights out of me, and, it being about the hills of San Francisco and most especially Telegraph Hill, I couldn’t help but think about his story as we set out into those very hills…

The gate to Chinatown

Back to reality: We set out, the sun shining, and not a cloud in the sky, though the main gait to Chinatown. We immediately passed a bench with the See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Speak No Evil monkeys on it. This struck me as amusing and cool because I’ve actually been to the temple in Nikko, Japan where the original sculpture exists. If you get a chance go to Nikko do so. It’s an amazing temple complex and the artwork is astounding.

Dragon streetlights in Chinatown

Interesting bank, Chinatown

We continued up and up to the top of the intersection of Grant, Broadway, and Columbus. Here a building covered in washing and amazing murals illustrates the musical and cultural past of the San Francisco. But it’s the sculpture of light up open books on wires that really captured my attention. Look down. The words from the books have fallen all over the sidewalk. Brilliant!

As soon as you turn onto Columbus you are in North Beach, San Francisco’s “Little Italy” or as those of us from Boston kept calling it “the North End.” You suddenly find yourself going from red lanterns, gold flags, and dim sum, to pizza, delis and cannoli!

We also caught a brief glimpse of the famous feral parrots that inhabit the environs around Telegraph hill. These are mostly Red-masked Parakeets. You can hear them more often than you see them as you are walking the city. At least that was our experience.

Bad photo of feral parakeets of San Francisco

My favorite street name ever. It's named after a show.

We walked to Ghirardelli Square. I spent a lot of time studying the sculptures of the Andreas Fountain. It wasn’t the center mermaid that held my attention but the details of the little frogs and turtles surrounding her.

Details of the Andreas Fountain

Then it was into the Ghirardelli chocolate store for…well…chocolate. It’s too bad that the factory is no longer there. They do give you a free sample as soon as you get into the store. This takes the edge off the urge to buy everything in sight for those like me with serious chocolate addictions. You can also get gigantic ice cream sundaes and all kinds of decadent treats there. If you are looking for a chocolate factory tour in San Francisco, since both Ghirardelli and Scharffen Berger no longer produce their chocolate here, you should go to the Tcho chocolate factory on Pier 17. They produce very fine chocolate.

View from municipal pier, click for larger view

We wandered down to Municipal Pier for the view and watched boats and birds go by. I love the squadrons of brown pelicans flying in formation over the bay. We also saw a sea lion bobbing along in the waves just off shore.

Heerman's Gull with Western Gull in background

Then we head down to Fisherman’s Wharf. This is tourist central. Crowded. Bad souvenir shops. There are three things of real interest there though. One is the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park with its tours of ships from various time periods.

Bread sculptures at Boudin Bakery

Yeast at Boudin Bakery

The other is the Boudin Bakery where we stopped in for a snack and a short tour to watch the bread being made. They make really cool loaves in shapes of alligators, teddy bears, and other creatures.

English Execution Game at Musee Macanique

But my favorite thing by far, though, was the Musee Macanique. Located at the very end of Pier 45 in something looking like an old run down warehouse is the most brilliant museum. It is filled with one of the world’s largest privately owned collections of mechanically operated instruments and arcade games from the late 1800’s and 1900’s. Bring your quarters because there’s lots of fun to be had. My favorites were English Execution and Guillotine. And yes, they do exactly what they say. You get to watch little mechanical figures hang or guillotine one of their fellows. Man, did they know how to have fun back then.

View of Pier 39 sea lion area

Female sea lion

We kept going down the wharf area to Pier 39. Here the famous sea lions congregate. They took over this area shortly after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. During the winter they can number up to 900 or more but in the summer they travel south to their breeding grounds. When we were there they were just returning from the breeding grounds. A lot of territorial squabbling goes on and this can provide quite a show for onlookers.


Some sort of male/female interaction

We had dinner overlooking the sea lions and watched the famous fog roll in. Actually, it doesn’t really roll as much as loom and then descend and spread and skulk tentatively and then boom, its there.

City with sea lions in foreground

We took the Powell-Mason Cable Car back to the Union Square area. Cable Cars are interesting in that the cable is the means of locomotion. The front operator uses what is basically a giant pair of pliers to grab a hold of the cable and the cable pulls the car along. The brakeman in the back is responsible for stopping the car. If you stand on the streets were the cable cars still pass, you can feel the vibration of cable moving under the street.