|Tour One: Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach
Start your tour at Union Square, a block of palms, neatly trimmed
shrubbery and flowers in the center of commercial downtown. The square
takes its name from violent pro-Union demonstrations held there in
1861 as the Civil War brewed. In the center of the park, the Dewey
Monument, a 97-foot Corinthian column topped by a winged victory statue,
commemorates Admiral James Deweys victories in the Spanish-American
War. Look in any direction and you will see upscale department stores:
Neiman Marcus, Macys, and Saks Fifth Avenue all line the square. Cable
cars roll by on Powell. To the east, in front of the St Francis Hotel,
foreign flags tell you which heads of state and other dignitaries
are presently staying in its VIP suites.
Once you've gotten power shopping out of the way?with allowances for
a side trip with insistent kids to Toy PalaceF.A.O. Schwarz (down
Stockton Street from Niemans) head east on Geary to Grant Avenue,
turn right and visit the Emporio Armani Boutique. Entering this imposing
granite edifice, formerly?and appropriately?a bank, you can satisfy
your appetite for the latest Italian fashions, and for lunch the Emporio
Armani Cafe is good enough to warrant a trip even if you're strictly
a Brooks Brothers type.
Heading up Grant away from Market Street halfway along the next block
you'll cross Maiden Lane, a charming two-block pedestrian passage
lined with precious boutiques and galleries. Maiden Lanes upmarket
appeal belies the disreputable origins of its name. In Barbary Coast
days, this is where prostitutes plied their trade. The building at
140 Maiden Lane (between Grant and Stockton) was designed by Frank
Lloyd Wright. Its curving ramp is supposedly a precursor for Wrights
Guggenheim Museum design. You can't miss Maiden Lanes cafes'the tables
spill out into the middle of the street. If you didn't grab a snack
at the Armani store, this is a good place to do it.
Continue up Grant to Post. At the corner you'll find Shreve &
Co., San Franciscos stately, stuffy answer to Tiffanys (the San Francisco
Tiffany & Co. store faces Union Square at Post). We'll take a
little detour here'turn left on Post and head up the block to the
flagship store of cookware cataloguer Williams-Sonoma, and make a
point of visiting Gumps across the street. A San Francisco institution,
Gumps offers a beautiful, expensively eclectic collection of gifts.
Art glass, Asian art, and antiques are specialties of Gumps. Don't
miss their museum quality jade. During the Christmas season, the elaborate
displays in Gumps windows attract an audience by the tens of thousands.
If you haven't bankrupted yourself yet, go back to Grant, turn left,
and walk past the outsized Banana Republic, and through the Dragons
You'll quickly notice the pagoda-style roofs and other romantic
architectural embellishments that tell you that you're in
Chinatown. As San Francisco began to rebuild after the
earthquake and fire of 1906, the Chinatown merchants
association, in a move to ease restrictions and discrimination
on the Chinese population, proposed making a tourist attraction
out of the area. From 1906 on through the 1920s, the "chinoiserie"
facades you see today were either tacked on to existing
buildings or drawn on to the plans of new ones. The idea was a
hit. Quickly, the pleasantly exotic New Chinatown supplanted its
former opium- and vice-ridden image. Hundreds of thousands of
tourists began to visit and spend money in Chinatown, as
millions have continued to do today.
For a look into the inner Chinatown, walk the three blocks past the
Dragons Gate to Sacramento, turn left, and then walk up the hill half
a block to Waverly Place, the scene of a bloody battle between Chinese
tongs in 1879. The buildings on this two block-long alley feature
some of the most elaborate and fanciful facades in Chinatown. Walking
there in the evening, you may hear the strains of Chinese music drifting
out from the Tin How Temple above you. Its open to visitors seven
days a week until 4pm.
At Washington Street, where Waverly Place ends, turn left and
walk up the few yards to Ross Alley, once known as the
"Street of the Gamblers," with 22 gambling dens to its
credit. Walking back to Washington, stop at Sam Woh, if you're
hungry again. Sam Wohs was the infamous domain of the late head
waiter Edsel Ford Fong, who would greet cowering diners by
telling them to "sit down and shut up!" Equally
disagreeable service continues in this tradition. The foods not
great, but locals love to go to Sam Woh for the abuse.
Walk back downhill to Grant Avenue. From the corner you can look
Washington to see Portsmouth Square, the cultural center of
Continue along Grant to Pacific, taking in the babble of
hundreds of conversations in Cantonese, and the smell of dozens
of Chinese bakeries. At seafood stores, you'll see fish, frogs,
and other live creatures in crowded tanks, awaiting selection by
discriminating shoppers. If you didn't just eat at Sam Woh (and
still have an appetite after looking at the frogs), head up
Pacific to Asia Garden for dim sum. There you'll find a
cavernous dining room where two dozen ladies push carts of dim
sum, assorted dumpling-like treats paid for by the plate.
At Broadway, turn right, and right again onto Columbus Avenue. A few
steps will take you into poet Lawrence Ferlinghettis City Lights Bookstore,
a shrine of Beat culture. The store features a collection of literature,
poetry, and avant-garde theory and criticism, some of it published
under the City Lights label, which you just don't find anywhere else.
Vesuvios bar, on the other side of Kenneth Rexroth Alley; the Tosca
Café, across Columbus; and the Cafe Trieste, across Broadway on Grant
Avenue, are all former Beat hangouts. Each can boast of having ejected
Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, or other Beat luminaries from the premises
on at least one occasion.
Proceed on Columbus across Broadway past the many cafes, trattorias,
and delis which make up heart of Italian North Beach. Stop and have
an espresso. As you cross Green Street, you'll notice that the street
signs say "Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard," in honor of
the funny and colorful revue that has been playing down the block
at the Club Fugazi seemingly forever.
At Columbus and Union, walk across Washington Square Park to the Church
of Sts Peter and Paul, the site of Joe diMaggios first wedding, to
starlet Dorothy Arnold, as well as his funeral. Even if you're not
a baseball fan, however, the graceful church is worth a visit.
If it feels like its snack time, and if you're an Italian frame
of mind (as you should be by now), head into the Liguria Bakery
up the street at Filbert and Stockton. Heres what they
sell?focaccia (pizza bread). Choose from tomato, onion, and
plain, and the proprietor will wrap it up in plain paper for you
and tie it with string.
We'll save the climb to Coit Tower for our next tour. For now, take
your focaccia and saunter up Filbert to do a little shopping among
the wonderfully funky and eclectic stores of Upper Grant Avenue. Stop
into Quantity Postcards and check out its outrageously bizarre collection
of postcards and curiosities.
Tour Two: Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower
We'll begin this tour at the corner of Union and Stockton. Those
wary of the steep climb to Coit
Tower should stay put and wait for the #39 Coit bus. If you
feel you're in good shape, however, set out on foot on Stockton
(stopping, if you want, to carbo-load at the Liguria Bakery, or
across the street at Mamas) and turn right on Filbert. At Grant
Avenue, turn left, and trudge up the steep hill to Greenwich.
Turn right on Greenwich, head up the hill and take the steps
around the palm garden at the top of the street to Coit Tower
Boulevard. Pause for breath.
Carefully cross the street (theres no crosswalk here) and continue
up the rocky steps on the other side. Follow the path past Pioneer
Park to Coit Tower. Once you've met your friends who've taken the
#39, walk around the parking plaza, taking in the spectacular panorama
from Nob Hill past the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, and the East Bay towards
San Jose and the south. The large statue of Christopher Columbus in
the middle of the plaza stands on the site of mechanized semaphore
flags that once sent messages to ships in the Bay, giving Telegraph
Hill its name.
Coit Tower was dedicated in 1932, part of the bequest of Lillie Hitchcock
Coit, and a memorial to her beloved San Francisco firemen. Since being
pulled out of a burning building as a child by the men of Knickerbocker
Company No. 5, the wild and irrepressible Coit bore an abiding affection
for firemen. She often rode with them on their busy rounds to the
fires that were so frequent in Barbary Coast San Francisco, her hair
streaming in the wind as she hung on to the engine.
The towers 210-foot height is boosted by the 220-foot hill on which
it sits, and can easily be seen from almost any point on the Bay.
Designed in an Art Deco style by the same architect who created City
Hall and the Opera House, debate rages to this day about whether or
not Coit Tower is supposed to look like a fire hose.
Inside the lobby are restored murals created under the aegis of
Roosevelts Works Progress Administration, depicting the
industrial, agricultural, and intellectual history of
California. Supervised by painter Diego Rivera, these are
masterpieces of the social realist school. (See if you can pick
out The Daily Worker and other leftist publications at a
newsstand in one of the frames.) The $3 elevator ride to the top
of the Tower will give you an even more panoramic panorama of
San Francisco and its surroundings, including a great view of
the Financial District and Union Square.
Once back on ground level, walk back down Coit Tower Boulevard to
Filbert Street and the top of the Filbert Steps. Steps were made necessary
on the eastern face of Telegraph Hill when large chunks of the hillside
were blasted away for landfill to create what is now much of the Embarcadero,
Financial District, and Fishermans Wharf. Pretty chrysanthemum bushes
crowd the upper Filbert Steps in the spring and summer. Cross Montgomery
Street and pause a moment in front of the apartment building at 1360
Montgomery. Its handsome, art-deco bas-relief treatment commemorates
the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition. This building has
been featured in at least two films: the Bogart-Bacall classic "Dark
Passage," and, more recently, the forgettable "Nine Months."
Continue down the steps onto the boardwalk of the Grace Marchand
Gardens, some of the most entrancing hillside landscaping in the
world. A riotous profusion of flowers shoots up from a tumbling
bed of moss. An incongruous flock of parrots, South American
conures that descend from a group of domesticated escapees,
screech from the trees overhead. Local cats watch with interest,
especially when the conures get intoxicated from eating
To your left are clapboard cottages built by 19th century sea captains.
Stroll down tiny Darrell Place or jewel-like Napier Lane. The Filbert
steps become reassuring steel and concrete as they traverse the rugged
bottom of the hill, until finally you find yourself at sea level at
Sansome Street, a stones throw from the Green Street studio where
Philo Farnsworth invented television. Turn right and walk two blocks
to Green to see the plaque, on your right, commemorating his achievement,
and then head east on Green into Levi Plaza, corporate headquarters
of the Levi-Strauss Corporation. Treat yourself to lunch or dinner
at Il Fornaio, one of the citys better Italian restaurants.
Tour Three: SoMa, SF MOMA, Yerba Buena Center, Metreon
Begin your tour of the exciting and dynamic new area south of Market
Street at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 Third Street,
closed Wednesdays). Built in 1995 on a design by Swiss architect Mario
Botta, the museums striped cylinder has become a local landmark. Even
more interesting inside than out, dizzying catwalks take museum goers
through the heart of its daring study in light and space, and are
at least as noteworthy as the museums permanent collection. The San
Francisco MOMAs strong suit has long been its photography holdings;
important works by Ansel Adams, Carier-Bresson, and Stieglitz making
it one of the strongest photography collections in the country. The
temporary exhibitions, like 1998s huge Calder retrospective, draw
huge crowds. If you are in San Francisco for a convention or other
event at the Moscone Center, its just around the corner.
Above the Moscone Center, whose business end is underground, is the
successful Yerba Buena Center complex. Planted atop Moscone Center
North are the 5 1/2 acre Yerba Buena Gardens. A large, beautifully
arranged collection of plants from around the world which give onto
a reflection pool, which in turn overflows in a waterfall over the
Martin Luther King monument below. The adjoining Yerba Buena Center
for the Arts features a two-story gallery with temporary exhibitions,
often of multimedia works or large kinetic sculptures, as well as
a screening room with a frequently-changing schedule of experimental
and documentary films. Jazz and other musical and theatrical works
are presented in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater.
Yerba Buena Center continues across Howard Street, over Moscone Center
South, with plenty to offer if you have kids in tow. The brand-new
Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center features a year-round,
indoor skating rink, a handsome and airy facility with a glass wall
onto the skyscrapers downtown. Open skating, figure skating lessons,
and hockey leagues rotate throughout the day. Skate rental is available,
and a cozy, family-friendly bowling alley is fun too. Next door is
the Zeum, an imaginative childrens technology museum, where kids can
try their hand at video production and learn about the frontiers of
computer science. In front of Zeum, an antique carousel rescued from
Golden Gate Park spins merrily in a glass enclosure over Howard Street.
Across Howard Street you can see the back end of the imposing Metreon,
Sonys four-story, sixteen-screen entertainment megalith. Colored like
one of Sonys Vaio computers, but considerably larger and more angular,
it houses 16 movie screens, including one IMAX screen, (all with steeply-banked
chairs and plenty of leg room), childrens attractions based on Maurice
Sendaks "Where the Wild Things Are" and Peter MacCaulays
"The Way Things Work," a deluxe food court catered by some
of the citys better restaurants, a H.E.A.R. CD shop (filled with listening
stations) and, of course, Sonystyle, a Sony store.
Photography buffs will want to make a point of crossing the street
from the Metreon/Yerba Buena Center and going to the Ansel Adams Photography
Center at 250 Fourth Street when it re-opens later this year. In the
meantime, the Cartoon Art Museum, at 814 Mission, is a real delight.