Friday, Sep. 26, 2008


I'm a big believer in geographic determinism, and I suspect the clement weather in San Francisco has a lot to do with its pervading buoyant mood. That's why I disagree with the standard observation that San Francisco is the most European of American cities. People smile a lot here. (Do Europeans?) Traffic jams tend to be caused by drivers insisting the other guy go first. (Been to Italy much?) And have you ever seen a place more tolerant of alternative lifestyles? (Greece? Ha.)

Even better for visitors, San Francisco is a manageable size — about six miles square — and the traffic isn't nearly as bad as it is in New York or L.A. So it's possible to do 10 great things in a day, and see most of the city. Here's a one-day itinerary that will take the first-timer methodically through some of the most interesting places San Francisco has to offer.

1. Get Breakfast at Mama's

If you've just flown in from a later time zone, get up early and go to Fisherman's Wharf to check out the sea lions that lounge like giant, stinking dogs, around Pier 39. (This, by the way, is the only thing you should do at Fisherman's Wharf, and only do it around dawn, before the tourists arrive.)

Afterward, head down Stockton St. into North Beach, the formerly Bohemian part of the city. Get yourself a serious breakfast at Mama's, which makes the best breakfast in town; it gets crowded on weekends, so get there early or expect to wait about half an hour. After breakfast, you won't feel like eating again for a days. Time to start walking off the food.

2. Coit Tower

Every great city needs its proud civic phallus — the Empire State Building, the Washington Monument, the Eiffel Tower. At best, they're scenic lookouts; at worst, boring tourist-trap monstrosities. I'll leave it to the architectural critics to appraise the aesthetic merits of Coit Tower, which some say resembles a fire hose nozzle. It gives good views of the city, though, perched as it is atop historic Telegraph Hill (home to sea captains in the days of the Golden Bough) in North Beach. The views aside, you're really here for the murals. Inspired by the social-realism style of the great Diego Rivera, and commissioned by the federal Works Progress Administration, the paintings inside the tower were completed in 1933 and are great fun to look at. Pay special attention to the depiction of the newsstand, because it is so wonderful and bygone.

It's free to get inside the city-owned monument, but if you want to take the elevator to the top to dig the views, it's $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and $2 for kiddies aged 5 to 12. Get here by walking uphill on Lombard Street from North Beach, or take Muni bus 39 from Washington Square Park.

3. The Stairs of Telegraph Hill

You've seen Coit Tower and the city views. Now it's time to take the stairs down — all 400 of them! It's worth it because, along the way, you'll get to see some beautiful houses, gardens and, most times of the year, brightly colored flora. Also, it's all downhill (if I were sadistic, I could have easily made this tour go the other direction). As you walk, keep a lookout for the wild parrots you may have seen in the wonderful documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, which, as the name suggests, is about birds that live on the hill. Walk all the way to the bottom of the hill, then head east toward the Bay, to the Embarcadero, where you can pick up the trolley.

4. The Trolley to the Castro

You won't find better entertainment value in the U.S. for $2. Hop on a historic trolley car on the Embarcadero (you're looking for the F line) and you can ride it all the way to the Castro. Seventeen trolley cars are in service, painted in the colors of the originals from the 1920s and '30s. Rest your weary dogs as you rattle past the Wharf, down the Embarcadero and onto Market Street, one of the city's main thoroughfares.

Hop off at First Street for lunch at Sam's Grill, a classic fish place; they have an authentic sourdough loaf on each table, and they don't serve farmed fish or endangered species.

Get back on the trolley, and take it to the Castro Street station, the end of the line. San Francisco's Castro neighborhood was initially settled by gay servicemen discharged here from the Armed Forces (for being gay) during World War II. Historically, the neighborhood has always been in flux: At the turn of last century, it was known as Little Scandinavia; then it became an Irish neighborhood, until the Gay Pride Movement of the 1960s made it safe for all the ex-servicemen to come out. Nowadays the neighborhood is overrun with fashionable, rich straight people.

Grab a delicious cookie or brownie at Hot Cookie, and view the snapshots of store patrons showing off their Hot Cookie underwear. (Note that neither the pictures nor the baked goods, which are anatomically correct, are for the homophobic.) And next-door is the famous Castro Theater, a pristine, 1920s movie palace that shows excellent art and repertoire films and has a real live Wurlitzer player some nights.

From the Castro, you can walk to the Haight — it's a little less than a mile — or take Muni bus 33.

5. Haight-Ashbury

The birthplace of America's counter-culture, the Haight was Ground Zero during the summer of 1967, a.k.a. The Summer of Love, baby. Hippies used to live here, but at some point the Jefferson Airplane moved out, and affluent yuppies moved in, buying up all the colorful Victorian homes throughout Haight-Ashbury and replacing its head shops with high-end boutiques, chic restaurants and hip cafés. My favorite spot in the Haight is Amoeba Music, which is in a former bowling alley and boasts one of the biggest collections of CDs (new and used) in the world.

From Amoeba, head west a block along Haight Street (please don't feed the panhandlers; there are plenty of social services in San Francisco that provide them food and health care) to its end. Cross the street and you're just inside Golden Gate Park, at famous Hippie Hill, which you'll either love or loathe, depending on your feelings about drum circles and wheat-free pot brownies. (They're legal in S.F., by the way, for people who have marijuana prescriptions.)

6. Golden Gate Park

Before I moved to the Bay Area, I thought New York City's Central Park was the coolest park in the U.S. But it's got nothing on Golden Gate and its million trees. Be sure to visit the Conservatory of Flowers (closed Monday), which is the oldest Victorian greenhouse this side of the Thames, and the carousel on Kezar Drive, both on the eastern edge of the park.

If you're feeling spry, walk to the western edge of the park to check out the herd of bison at the the Bison Paddock, then hop a trolley or bus back east, or call for a cab. Next stop: the Exploratorium

7. The Exploratorium

When I was a child growing up outside of Philadelphia, one of my favorite places in that city was the Franklin Institute, where, among other things, you could walk inside a giant replica of a human heart. As an adult, I get that same feeling, minus the cheesy recording of a pulse, from the Exploratorium (in the Palace of Fine Arts), San Francisco's legendary science museum in the Presidio. Make sure you experience the tactile dome, a pitch-black maze that you have to navigate by touch (it's worth the $20 premium on top of the $15 admission fee); blow the world's biggest soap bubble, as big around as a beach ball; and dissect a cow's eye.

8. The Presidio and the Golden Gate Bridge

The Presidio was used at different points in its 230-year history to house soldiers from Spain and Mexico before it became a U.S. military base. Its armed past notwithstanding, you won't find a more bucolic spot in the city, thanks to its abundant eucalyptus trees and yawning lawns. If, at this point, you want to fortify yourself with a cocktail or dinner, a great place for both is the Presidio Social Club, an urban hipster kind of a joint, which was once an enlisted-mens' barracks. (The Club has one daily cocktail hour, followed by one seating for dinner. If you miss them, not to worry. You can grab dinner later at the Ferry Building.)

From the Presidio, you can walk to the Golden Gate Bridge, which isn't really golden at all — it's more like a rust. (My friend Todd liked it so much, he had the color mixed at a paint store and painted his house with it.) The bridge is an engineering marvel and one of the most beautiful — if it's not too windy and foggy — walks in the country. So beautiful that some people apparently feel compelled to hurl themselves off it. The G2B is the top spot for suicides in the nation, with a person a week, on average, taking a fatal plunge.

9. Ferry Building

The one good thing to come out of the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 was the revitalization of San Francisco's waterfront. The earthquake damaged an elevated highway that cut off the waterfront from the rest of the city; the highway was torn down, opening up the area and transforming old warehouses and docks into yuppie commercial real estate. Case in point: the Ferry Building, which was originally opened in 1898, then renovated and reopened in 2003.

It's a magnificent structure on the Embarcadero, at the foot of Market Street, but the real reason to come here is the food (that, and the ferry to Marin County): There's a fabulous farmers market on Tuesday and Saturday until 2 p.m., and no shortage of great places to eat. For burgers and shakes, definitely do Gotts Roadside, Formerly Taylor's Automatic Refresher. Or, for nouveau Vietnamese, try the Slanted Door, one of the city's favorite restaurants. You can try calling ahead for a table, but I've waited 45 minutes even with a reservation. Your best bet is to eat at the no-reservations bar. Order the shaking beef and the delicious rum cocktail made with essence of clove and fresh nutmeg.

10. AT&T Park

Sure, most cities are proud of their ballparks, but, come on, I think it's a pretty well established fact that none is finer than AT&T Park. You know I'm right. Never mind that the San Francisco Giants are lackluster without Barry Bonds.

If it's baseball season, you owe it to yourself to take in a game. Not to mention that you've never had better food at a ballpark (except maybe at Camden Yards): the garlic fries and Sheboygans (bratwursts with kraut), oh my. If you find yourself downtown at lunchtime and there's a day game, wait a few innings then pay half-price for a ticket from one of the many scalpers standing around pretending to be looking for a friend.

For a late night cup of the best blended French-press coffee you've ever had, go to Philz Coffee nearby.