I have two big wishes for my visit to San Francisco (yes, I know they are cliched): to see, really see, the Golden Gate Bridge and to ride the cable car. I get to achieve that in a day oriented around San Francisco’s maritime heritage.
I walk from the Green Tortoise Hostel in North Beach, a colorful district which retains its “Beat” Generation and Little Italy roots, down toward Fisherman’s Wharf, to the Bay City Bike rental shop. (which happens to be just where the Powell & Mason cable car starts).
The best way to experience this relatively flat (though not entirely flat) waterfront area is on a bike, which offers those incomparable views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and all the bustle of Fisherman’s Wharf, the Marina district, and the Presidio (San Francisco’s original Spanish center), at a perfect pace and from a perfect perch to really enjoy all that is about you, and with the freedom to stop and really look around.
I pick up my rental bike at Bay City Bike’s shop at 501 Bay Street (right beside where the Powell-Mason cable car starts). It is a very fine shop with new equipment (in fact, my helmet has just come out of the box). The bikes come equipped with a pouch, water holder, a handy map on the handlebars, bike lock and helmet. Before you set off, they give you a wonderful orientation to the route and what you can expect (where the hills are, where to turn off to Alexandria Road to go down to Sausalito). You can even purchase a ferry ticket at the shop, but since I am not sure I will be taking the ferry, or ride back (which means riding back up a steep hill for 2 miles from Sausalito), I decide to wait (you can purchase a ticket at the ferry (you can purchase a ticket at a kiosk or pay onboard).
It is one of the most delightful bike rides you can take anywhere- almost entirely on dedicated bike path (but it is also exceptionally popular, so expect many other bikers and walkers).
It’s just a couple of blocks from the rental shop onto the bike path that takes you through Fisherman’s Wharf, and the National Maritime Historic District, passed Ghirardelli Square, the Marina District, through Fort Mason (that’s an uphill climb, but what a view!), along the water through the Presidio/Crissy Field to an overlook that gives you a breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge in its full glory, and then over the 1.7-mile span of the Golden Gate Bridge itself, where there are dedicated paths on either side (only one side is open at a time, and there are specific hours).
Going over the bridge makes it my own – no longer a photo image. I love being on it, looking at the historic plaques (it is the same exhilarating feeling as riding over the Brooklyn Bridge).
The Golden Gate Bridge, which opened on May 28, 1937 at a cost of $35 million. I could never understand why it was called “Golden Gate” when it is red, nor (as I learn) was it named “golden’ for the 1849 Gold Rush, which put San Francisco on the map. Rather, it was named for the strait that connects San Francisco Bay with the Pacific Ocean. I learn later at the National Historical Park Visitor Center that the strait acquired the name “Golden Gate” from James C. Fremont, who wrote, “To this Gate I gave the name of “Chrysopylae”, or “Golden Gate”; for the same reasons that the harbor of Byzantium was called Chrysoceras, or Golden Horn.”
Indeed, the only real reason that San Francisco became a city at all was this proximity to the Pacific, and most of the waterfront area was created on the skeletons of the hundreds of wrecked ships, abandoned as passengers and crew raced to the gold fields, and with landfill blasted from the hills.
From the bridge, you ride down for two miles (you can veer off to go to the Bay Area Discovery Museum) into the charming village of Sausalito. (I decide then and there the ferry is the best option back.)
It takes me about 2-2 1/2 hours to ride the eight miles to Sausalito (I stop often for photos), where it is delightful to stroll around, visit the exquisite galleries (the Kokopelli Gallery is my favorite) and eateries.
If you choose, you can continue biking 8 miles further to Tiburon – or if you choose to ride back from Sausalito (I am cautioned) – but there is that steep two mile ride up to the Bridge.
Or, you can do what most people do and take the ferry boat back from Sausalito. There are two ferries and I take the one that goes back to Fisherman’s Wharf.
The 30-minute ferry boat ride is a fun sightseeing tour in itself – it stops at Angel Island, a state park now which used to be an important entry point for immigrants and had a role in the Civil War and World War II) to pick up the bikers and hikers; and gives you great views of Alcatraz Island and of course, San Francisco’s skyline. (The ticket is $11.50 and well worth it – you can buy the ticket at the bike rental shop, or at a kiosk or pay onboard.)
Bay City Bike has five locations in San Francisco, a selection of equipment, including e-bikes, and a variety of guided and self-guided tours (Explore the City, Golden Gate Park, Marin Headlands-Muir Woods).
Bay City Bike Rentals and Tours, 501 Bay Street (at Fisherman’s Wharf), 415-827-2453, www.baycitybike.com (opens daily at 8 am).
Palace of Fine Arts
I get off the ferry at Fisherman’s Wharf and continue my bike ride back through the historic district, back along the marina, back to the Palace of Fine Arts which I had passed before.
From a distance, it is an interesting but not memorable structure that seems out of place to its surroundings. But when you get close, you realize it is not a singular building at all, but these giant, amazing colonnades winging a rotunda, decorated with stunning reliefs and statues, overlooking a pond.
In fact, the “palace of fine arts” isn’t a palace at all, but rather, what’s left of an exposition building that dates from the 1915 World’s Fair (the reason that 1915 is in lights on the Ferry Building, marking the centennial of the exposition).
Bernard Maybeck, the architect of the Palace of Fine Arts, designed it in the Beaux Arts style, modeled after the ruins of Roman Parthenon. “He believed that all great cities have ruins,” I am told inside the exposition building where the California Historical Society (calhist.org) has an excellent exhibit underway, “City Rising,” about the fair.
These columns were built for the exposition, but because they were only intended to last the two years of the fair, were only constructed of plaster, faux travertine and chicken wire. There are even a couple of the original statues that were saved, pocked with holes, where you can see they are more like props for a movie set.
Just about everything was taken down from the fair – indeed, the entire Marina district of homes was put up where the fair grounds were (the fair was built on landfill). But no one had the heart to tear down the columns. By the 1960s, they were coming apart, and in 1965, a Marina District resident funded a project to replace them with stone columns.
You absolutely forget where you are when you stand at the base of these towering columns.
The colonnade and rotunda are just outside the exposition building where inside is a fascinating exhibit presented by the California Historical Society, “City Rising.” The exhibit, on through Jan 10, 2016, is about San Francisco and the 1915 World’s Fair (the Panama-Pacific International Exposition): “a critical event that shaped the San Francisco we know today: a city undaunted by tragedy, audaciously innovative, and rising to meet the challenges of the day.” (Another exhibit is at the California Historical Society, 678 Mission St., through Dec. 6, 2015, ppie100.org).
The hall is also a great respite – with sitting areas, restroom, cafe. (Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon Street).
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park Visitors Center
Definitely take time to visit the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park Visitors Center, which offers fascinating exhibits and artifacts, superb videos that trace the maritime history of San Francisco (a perfect complement to Fern Hill Walking Tours’ Classic San Francisco and the Cable Car Museum).
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park is located on the edge of San Francisco Bay in the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood and can be visited year-round.
Begin at the Visitor Center (Phone: 415-447-5000), located at 499 Jefferson Street (Zip Code: 94109) at the corner of Hyde Street. There, Park Rangers will help you plan your visit.
From the Visitor Center, cross Jefferson Street to Hyde Street Pier and visit the park’s collection of floating historic ships. Here, you can also see magnificent views of the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge.
From Hyde Street Pier, take a short stroll across the park to the ship-shaped Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building (this is being restored now but will house additional exhibits).
There is also the famous Ghirardelli Square, where the chocolate company is located (and offers tours).
Fisherman’s Wharf – despite Cannery Row (a nod to John Steinbeck and the brick structure’s earliest origins as a cannery, then warehouses, today shops and cafes) – is more or less a theme-park re-creation, with shops and restaurants and such, but it is wonderful fun to wander around.
Hard Rock Cafe San Francisco
The Hard Rock Cafe, right on Fisherman’s Wharf at the entrance of Pier 39. is a wonderfully entertaining dining experience, offering a fun, lively atmosphere, tasty “all-American” food, hand-crafted beverages, amidst a museum-quality collection of Rock legend memorabilia. Each of the Hard Rock Cafes likes to feature music of its own area, and here, in San Francisco, the Grateful Dead is in the spotlight, and instead of sports on TV screens, there are music videos playing.
I take a “tour” to more closely inspect the memorabilia decorating the walls: BB King’s Electric Guitar; the Beatles’ Derby Hats, Carlos Santa’s electric guitar, a painting of Jerry Garcia by Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship; Janis Joplin’s cape; Jimi Hendrix’ jacket; an autographed black hat of Michael Jackson; an autographed guitar from Journey, a San Francisco-bred band inducted into the Bay Area Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and James Taylor’s guitar. The most expensive single item I’m told is an autographed electric guitar given to Jason Becker, a guitar virtuoso who was diagnosed with Lou Gehring’s disease, by Eddie Van Halen (estimated to be worth between $20,000-$30,000).
What is surprising for a place that is so much a part of a tourist destination is the quality of the food. The menu has all the fun, comfort items foundational to American pub fare, and the preparations and quality of the ingredients are excellent.
We start with (what else?) the Jumbo Combo, a collection of its most popular appetizers: Signature Wings, Onion Rings, Tupelo Chicken Tenders, Spinach Artichoke Dip with Parmesan flatbread and bruschetta (particularly delicious, this is toasted artisan bread topped with herb cream cheese and marinated Roma tomatoes and fresh basil, served with a drizzle of basil oil and shaved Parmesan).
For the main, I go with the Cowboy Rib Eye, a 28-day aged 16-oz bone-in rib eye steak, perfectly prepared.
There are a variety of smokehouse favorites – hickory-smoked ribs, barbecue chicken, and a combo, a grilled Norwegian Salmon – sufficient variety to satisfy any palette or diet.The Hard Rock Cafe isn’t just a tourist place, the fine dining, fun atmosphere and beautiful setting brings you back over and over.
The location at Pier 39 also is near some of the most breathtaking views of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco Bay, and the gorgeous city skyline. We leave the restaurant just in time to take in a magnificent sunset from the skyway just outside, to the Golden Gate Bridge
Get to the restaurant early and enjoy the Sea Lion Center (sealioncenter.org) and the Aquarium of the Bay (aquariumofthebay.com) just next door.
(Hard Rock Cafe San Francisco, Pier 39-Beach & Embarcadero Streets, SF 94133, 415-956-2013, hardrock.com).
Green Tortoise Hostel – Living the San Francisco Vibe
It is rare to stay in an accommodation that makes you smile constantly or that imbues you so completely with the spirit of a place. That’s the Green Tortoise Hostel, in the North Beach section of San Francisco.
There is no better way to immerse yourself in San Francisco ‘vibe’ – it literally embodies the spirit of San Francisco.
From the outside, the Green Tortoise Hostel is a modest wood-framed Victorian building that somehow escaped destruction of the earthquake and fire.
Don’t be discouraged by the glass door that looks pretty institutional, or the sign that tells you the door is locked after 7:30 pm and you have to be buzzed in or the steep staircase to the lobby floor or the warning “no visitors!”. Once you present you enter the lobby area, the trepidation fades away and you feel like you are part of something special.
I am immediately pleased by the beautiful architectural features that hint at the glorious past of this building.
Hostels always have a special personality and this one is particularly special. A sign on the “ballroom” (apparently, once a restaurant) invites you to partake in free vegetarian dinner on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights (Pasta Primavera, Mexican taco night, and Curry, rice and salad; come at 5 pm if you want to help cook, dinner is 7-ish), and a day-by-day list of activities: free sangria, pool tournaments, pub crawls, $5 dinner nights, dinner crawls (Sunday: 4 North Beach restaurants, $9.95), and outings to popular San Francisco events like the San Francisco Beer Olympics), and even tours (Saturday: Redwoods & Pt. Reyes bus trip, $40).
I get my key (handing over a $20 cash deposit; I can rent a towel for $1), walk through the lobby, through the computer/lounge area where there is a pleasant sitting area (they even have drink holders in the chair), and climb another set of steps to a narrow, labyrinthian set of hallways.
I’ve booked a “standard private room” (you can also book a shared room). It is small but not claustrophobic – clean, a queen-sized bed (very comfortable), a sink, a flat-screen tv (but only accesses a video library). It is most pleasant. (The rate, $131 was comparable or less than Air BnB.)
The main difference with an actual hotel is that you don’t have a private bathroom – this is European style. But that isn’t really a problem, either. There are five bathrooms on the floor – each clean and comfortable, one person at a time.
The biggest surprise is on the main floor: The Ballroom. You can see how this was once a very grand place –the stained glass, the intricate moldings in the ceiling which may have been gilded at one point but now is coated in peeling brown paint. It used to be a restaurant and hotel, I am told and has been a hostel since the 1970s. Now, it is charmingly faded from that glory (though not decrepit, with colorful new carpeting and such), as you would imagine if the proletariat overtook the bourgeoisie.
The ballroom is where you can help yourself to free breakfast every morning 7:30- 10:00 am—bagels, cream cheese, jams, fresh fruit, make your own eggs, organic oatmeal, coffee, tea, hot chocolate and OJ;
(you wash your own plastic dish when you are finished). There is also a refrigerator where guests can keep their food, or take from “shared” items.
During the day, people can hang out in the ballroom, like a giant lounge – there is a small stage and some musical instruments. The ballroom is open until 2 am.
There are more surprises here: the hostel offers a sauna (dry) on the second floor accommodating up to six people at a time –you can check it out for 1 hour (free).
They have an arrangement with Dylan’s Bike Rental to rent for $21 for 24-hours (a discount from the $30 rate), and the hostel provides a bike storage room, as well as lockers where you can stow your stuff.
Before I arrived, I received a confirmation letter describing the place quite honestly saying:
- We are a comfortable backpackers hostel in North Beach with European style accommodations made up of shared and private rooms.
- Our median age of guest is between 20-30 years of age, but we welcome all ages.
- Our hostel is about community and creating a social experience. Our guests are made up of travelers from around the globe.
- We promote ourselves as a PARTY hostel, so we welcome all guests to participate in our nightly events.
- All our bathrooms are shared along the corridors, but private use (no en-suite bathrooms in the rooms in any of our buildings).
- Our reception is on the 2nd floor and there is no elevator, only stairs to all the rooms (rooms are on 3rd and 4th floors).
- Unlike traditional hotels, we do not provide sheet changes daily.
- We are in a vibrant neighborhood full of beat generation history, cafes, bars and restaurants.
- There are several Adult Entertainment clubs on the next block and the area can be noisy on the weekends and in peak season.
All of this proves absolutely true, and just adds to the experience.
The owners of the hostel (who also own a hostel in Seattle) also operate Green Tortoise Adventure Travel, offering trips as short as a day trip to Muir Woods & Wine Country, to as long as a month, via a specially outfitted 36–passenger coach that converts from seats in the daytime to sleepers at night (a rolling hostel). The trips are designed around “appreciation of nature, tolerance, cooperation and self direction.” There are itineraries to Baja, Pyramids and Playas, the Yucatan, Yosemite, a National Parks loop, Alaska (415-956-7500, 800-867-8647, www.greentortoise.com).
They also book Alcatraz tours (which actually get booked up weeks in advance) and other sightseeing trips.
Green Tortoise Hostel San Francisco, 494 Broadway St, San Francisco 94133, 415-834-1000, 800 867 8647, www.greentortoise.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/sanfranciscohostel.
Plan your visit: The San Francisco Travel Association is the official tourism marketing organization for the City and County of San Francisco. For information on reservations, activities and more, visit www.sanfrancisco.travel or call 415-391-2000. The Visitor Information Center is located at 900 Market St. in Hallidie Plaza, lower level, near the Powell Street cable car turnaround.
Next: The Beats of North Beach and other Cultural Highlights of San Francisco
Walking tour tells story of San Francisco’s improbable rise as a great city and slideshow
A day in San Francisco touring its past: Plucky cable car exemplifies its grit and slideshow
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