Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving in San Francisco

A True One of A Kind

San Francisco has always been both worldly yet somehow oblivious to the rest of the world. It ticks along to its own clock. It is incredibly dense (probably why public transit works so well there). It is wonderfully diverse, so it teases us with amazing food. Although its population is under a million, it boasts cultural amenities of a City three to four times its size.

While it is visibly suffering from the same real estate bubble as the rest of California, in many visible respects it seems healthier than ever. A few years ago, when it was booming, I was stunned at the amount of filth I saw in SF doorways. Back then there seemed to be an endless stream of litter in the streets and aggressive panhandling made any visit a lot less enjoyable than it could have been.

During this trip pubic transportation all ran on time (although it seemed like the elevator in every other Muni or Bart station was broken), all of the major streets were pretty much immaculate, and the restaurants were as wonderful as always. Even the bums, while still everywhere, were noticeably mellower almost all wishing a "Happy Thanksgiving" after we rebuffed their shaken cups.

The major museums and the Academy of Sciences have all been upgraded. The plays have always featured major stars and are "Broadway" quality. Lots of San Francisco hotels are posh. And the department stores and boutiques are lovely and very well turned out for the holidays. All in all it was a great place to spend a few days.

Here's a few of Roadboy's tips for visiting the City-By-The-Bay.

1. Don't even think about renting a car. Take Bart from SFO or Oakland Airport. From SFO it was $8.10 and just whisked right past all the choked freeways. It dropped us an easy two block walk from our hotel.

2. Once you are unpacked, buy a Muni Passport. They come in 1 day, 3 day, and 7 day versions. It is good for all buses, the Muni railway, and for the famed cable cars (which alone cost $5 each way!). The MUNI Passport is not good for Bart. Here's another little noticed benefit. If you show your muni passport, the admission price to some key attractions (including the new California Academy of Sciences - Stienhart Aquarium) is discounted $3!

SF's Ancient Cable Cars Still 
Own the Steepest Hills

The Cable Car View at SF's Crooked Old Lombard Street
(Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower is Beyond)

3. Select your hotel carefully. Check to make sure the location works for you. We chose a hotel in the booming South of Market (SOMA), Yerba Buena Gardens area. It was walking distance to both the Moscone Convention Center and the shops and restaurants of Union Square. Read reviews in and consider rolling the dice with Hotwire. We used Hotwire to secure a 4 Star "Union Square Hotel" (i.e. we didn't know what the hotel we were buying was until the transaction was complete). The payoff was the Westin Market Street! So we got a perfect location and "Heavenly" beds for $89 a night! The web rate for the Westin the same nights was $269/night. If you make sure your hotel is close to a Bart and Muni stop you can't lose.

4. Plan some events ahead and leave some time to just bum around. For this trip we planned ahead for a 3 hour segway tour (which was a lot of fun). I also reserved tickets for Beach Blanket Babylon (BBB). I bought the Segway tour via Goldstar Events ( Goldstar offers surplus tickets to major shows and events at 1/2 price. Everyone else on the segway tour paid $70 each. We paid $35. Goldstar does require you join it (which is free). For BBB we bought our tickets on line at their own website. BBB does show up on Goldstar once in awhile for midweek shows, but I have missed seeing the show on two previous trips by not buying in advance and wanted to see it this time for sure. It is a uniquely San Francisco evening of entertainment, both schlocky and a lot of fun.

Segways - A Perfect Way to Tour San Francisco

5. Leave time to explore its fine museums. This is a City where architecture and design are revered. It has examples of the work of renowned international architects, american masters, and its own superb homegrown talent. This is the home of such luminaries as Bernard Maybeck and his protoge Julia Morgan. It is where Timothy Pflueger perfected his brand of Deco. It is where Lawrence Halprin defined modern landscape architecture and Anshen and Allen worked their magic. It later gave us Joseph Esherick (Monterey Bay Aquarium), and William Wurster. Today's San Francisco based architects are still world class.

When I think of it's historic place in international design, I often wonder why San Francisco now seems too timid to support its own super stars and (like seemingly every insecure major metropolitan area) now routinely shops the world to hire whichever Euro-celebrity designer is in vogue. While that has netted the City some interesting, if not out of place, new buildings, such as the new SF MOMA, and the nice, if not stellar, California Academy of Sciences, it has also produced the somewhat less than wonderful renovation to the (formerly elegant) De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. 

Not sure why, but the new De Young somehow reminds me of Mike Myer's old Saturday Night Live "Sprockets" routine.

Old Merges Into New At
The Revamped California Academy Of Sciences / Steinhart Aquarium

Lights to Grow Coral in The Aquarium Below

Penguins Still Frolic

The Foucault Pendulum Still Proves the Laws of Gravity

The Displays Are More Glorious Than Ever
(The Big Sea Creatures - Whales, Dolphins, Otters Are Gone)

A New Rainforest Display is Filled With Birds and Butterflies
One of the Butterflies

A Green Roof Tops Off The LEED Platinum Building

Photovoltaic Solar Cells Provide An Elegant Arcade Over the Entry
(The Sadly Damaged DeYoung Seen Across the Way)

6. Go Exploring and Shop! This is a City where men and women take their clothes VERY seriously. Take time to look at its amazing stores and boutiques. Some of the stores are especially lovely at the holidays.

The Neiman Marcus Christmas Tree 
(Under the Old City of Paris Department Store Dome)

7. Explore public spaces in its historic hotels and office buildings. Two of my favorite public spaces are in the Palace Hotel. The bar has Maxfield Parrish's gloriously huge pied piper painting and who could concentrate on their food when eating in the sumptuous Garden Court Restaurant?

Serving Luminaries Since The Days of The Pony Express
The Palace Hotel's Garden Court

8. Visit San Francisco's gardens and parks, especially its treasure: Golden Gate Park. Taking the time to visit the former Presidio of San Francisco (now part of the Golden Gate National Park) will net rich rewards in views of the Golden Gate. Fisherman's Wharf, North Beach, and Chinatown all offer a feast to the senses. If you are a golfer schedule a round of golf in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge at a public course such as Lincoln or the Presidio.

The Yerba Buena Gardens
Over the Convention Center
SF MOMA is Beyond

9. Eat! Plan your restaurant strategy carefully. You don't want to waste a single calorie on a chain restaurant here. We ate at Sear's Fine Foods for breakfast, enjoyed dungeness crab cakes at the Tadich Grill (a SF favorite  since 1849 - go early - plan to stand in line), and stopped for pizza at the superb Golden Boy Pizza in North Beach (the clam pizza was unbelievable). Consider some dim sum, gelato, sushi, or maybe a Greek dinner at Kokkari.

Expect Lines Everyday at Tadich Grill

While San Francisco's free spirited nature might not be a perfect match for some. If you travel with an open mind and heart, this beautiful City will not fail to reward you with a truly wonderful holiday.

Roadboy's Travels © 2009

PS On a sad note, the Podesta Baldocchi shop on Grant Street (that my Grandma took me to every Christmas) was gone. In its place was a Lucky Clothes store (all thats left is its tell-tale black and white hex shaped floor tiles in the doorway).

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