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San Francisco, USA: Comes with its own ups and downs
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
The city is built on 43 hills. Surrounded by 3 sides by the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, the city’s compact 49 square miles crowd the tip of the San Francisco Peninsula. The hub of the Greater Bay Area, San Francisco has a population of about 8.5 million, which makes it the second most densely populated area after New York. The city’s every hill, every up and every down has surprises to delight the visitors no end.
I was a trade delegate at POWWOW, USA’s largest Travel Show. I was to be in San Francisco for 5 days. Whilst most of the time I would be busy at the show, the evenings and some of the mornings presented me with time to explore this beautiful city. Given the city’s geographical location and topography, San Francisco has a pleasant weather all year round… summers aren’t very harsh and winters not very chilly… just what travelers would desire. Bear in mind that very often fog sets in. What appears on the horizon may not be seen the next hour… no wonder San Francisco is also known as Fog City.
On a Saturday afternoon, I landed at the San Francisco International Airport. The fastest and the most economical route to hit the city centre is by the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). Leaving directly from the departure hall, in about 20 minutes I was at the Powell Street Station. One way fare from SFO to downtown San Francisco is $8.10. The Bart serves 43 stations in the Bay Area.
I was hosted at J W Marriott which is located on the junction of Mason and Post Street… just 4 blocks away from Powell Street Station. The distance doesn’t look much, but when one has 2 bags to push, over the hill, it can be exhausting. Anyway, after the tread-mill test, I checked into the magnificent hotel. My room was on the 16th floor that gave me a good view of the San Francisco terrain. Despite my long journey and the 12 hour time difference, I decided to explore the neighbourhood… half asleep.
Much of the city’s action happens around Union Square which was only a block away from the hotel. Being a Saturday, the art market was on. Local artists had their paintings and murals on display. And around the park were hundreds of visitors basking in the afternoon sun with beers in their hands. And in one corner of the park, a wedding group was getting ready to be photographed.
The entire neighbourhood was stuffed to the brim with tourists. And why not? The location had umpteen restaurants, hotels, boutique stores, roadside vendors and malls. You name it and they were all there. Powell Street Station is also the location to board San Francisco’s world-famous Cable Cars. For $5, you can take a one-way ride. In summer times, the lines can get very, very long, as was the case when I was around. There’s a trick to beat the line. Board the Cable Car from the next stop… of course you won’t get space to seat, but who cares. Most of tourists love to take the ride standing on the footboard anyway. San Francisco Municipal Railway known as MUNI offer a one-day ($13); three-day ($20) and seven-day ($26) Passports that allow tourists unlimited travel on buses, trolleys, historic street cars and cable cars. I recommend buying one based upon your travel plans.
I hopped on to one of the Cable Cars heading towards Hyde Street. I hopped down on top of the hill (California Street) and walked back to the hotel soaking in the fun around. It was only 7PM. But that was late enough for me. I crashed for the night with a hope that a long rest will prepare me for the tours tomorrow.
For the next day, the organizers had two tours for us. One, San Francisco Bay Cruise and two, a trip to Alcatraz Island. The cruise would set sail at 12 noon. That gave me the morning to walk the neighbourhood to explore some other streets as well as the China Gate. Just so you know San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest of its kind outside Asia.
I was intrigued to note that almost all buildings had fire hydrants, very prominently placed. I later learnt that San Francisco is highly prone to earthquakes. In fact, on any given day the city experiences over 40 shocks… mild therefore they go unnoticed. Since earthquake can cause severe damage to water pipelines, these hydrants come in handy in emergencies. One would also notice that the older buildings have fire escapes… they are very much a part of the façade.
We took the historic Street Car to reach the pier. These cars along with cable cars are very important features of the San Francisco streets. These street cars were first introduced in 1907. They were refurbished but due care was taken to maintain the original décor. I would certainly recommend a trip in these cars. In about 20 minutes we were at the pier.
The Red and White Fleet, founded in 1892 is a family owned company that offers many cruise options to explore the bay. We were booked on the classic Golden Gate Bay cruise that lasts for an hour. All cruises depart from Pier 43 & half (funny isn’t it?). The cruise costs $24 for an adult and takes you all the way up to the famous Golden Gate. The ship turns back from under the bridge, circles the Alcatraz Island and returns to the pier.
The Golden Gate was once called “the bridge that couldn’t be built,” today it is one of the seven wonders of the modern world. This magnificent span, perhaps San Francisco’s most famous landmark opened in 1937 after a four year struggle against relentless winds, fog, rock and treacherous tides. The bridge links the city with Marin County. While I got the view from under the bridge, visitors can walk, cycle or drive across the bridge.
Talking of Golden Gate Bridge, credit is due to the Bay Bridge, which is located on the Southern side of the bay. This bridge was built a year prior to the Golden Gate Bridge and connects San Francisco with Berkeley and Oakland. Bay Bridge looks very similar to the bridge we so very well know. First timers to the city tend to make an identity mistake. Bay Bridge is two-tiered and carries over 250,000 vehicles every single day!
I had a couple of hours on hand before I could board the Alcatraz Cruise. I thought of exploring the wharf area as also walk to Lombard Street that also has the world’s crookedest street. Be warned that the distance of about a mile from the pier won’t kill you… the steep climb will. Of course, you can take a cab to drive up… but walking on a sunny San Francisco afternoon is fun indeed. The walk offered me a distant but clear view of the Coit Tower and the Grace Cathedral.
Fishing boats, seafood stalls, steaming crab cauldrons and seafood restaurants… and you know you are at Fisherman’s Wharf. This probably is the most visited site by locals as well as the tourists. While the bay has numerous piers all along, Pier 39 takes the cake. The pier bustles with activities. Whilst there, make it a point to walk to the far end, where platforms have been created which are home to wild sea lions.
Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to another San Francisco landmark – the Boudin Bakery. Established in 1849, its sourdough is famous far and wide. The bakery and café has a see through baking facility. It’s fascinating to see how the dough is made, given shape and baked to perfection. The bakery is known for its bread that’s baked in various shapes and sizes as is its clam chowder in a sourdough bowl.
Alcatraz (the name means Pelican in Spanish) Island is a mile and a half from the shore. Alcatraz Cruises offer regular ferries to the island and back. It’s about a 15 minutes cruise. The pier is 33. Alcatraz Island was the site of the first lighthouse built on the Pacific Coast. It was later federal prison for such notorious convicts as Al Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert “Birdman” Stroud. Tour includes a self-guided trail as also audio tours narrated by former guards and inmates. Although the island is so near to the coast, there’s no evidence of any successful escape across the icy bay. The prison was the only one in the federal system that offered hot showers – a luxury designed to keep prisoners from acclimating to cold water!
By the time we returned to the wharf, it was 7:30 PM. The party for the evening would be on at Pier 39. The organizers had booked the entire pier for the delegates… giving us access to all food stalls and bars. While the party was on, I was busy taking pictures of the lovely city by night and in the lovely Aquarium of the Bay – a collection of species found in the San Francisco Bay.
The next evening I had no business engagements. That gave me a few hours to explore further. Since time was limited and I had plans to cover some ground, I took a cab. My first stop was Alamo Square about 3 miles from my hotel at the junction of Hayes and Steiner Streets. Probably, this is one of the most photographed locations in San Francisco. Alamo Square’s famous “postcard row” is indeed a visual treat. A tight, escalating formation of Victorian houses is back dropped by downtown skyscrapers.
It’s a good idea to be friends with cab drivers, especially when you are exploring around. My cabbie, Tehseen, took great interest in my photography pursuits. We drove past Pacific Heights that’s home to stately Victorian Crown hills blessed with glorious views is one of San Francisco’s most prestigious and wealthiest neighbourhoods. I had planned to be dropped down at Marina Green but the driver suggested that I get off at Palace of Fine Arts and then walk around. That was a great idea. My trip from the hotel to Alamo Square to the final destination was $18. I was more than happy to hand over a $20 bill.
Palace of Fine Arts is a stunning Greco-Romanesque rotunda with Corinthian colonnades rising from a lagoon. It was built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Thereafter began my 2-hour walk – from Marina Green all the way up to Ghirardelli Square.
Marina Green is a broad waterfront lawn developed in 1915. This large patch provides a restful place to view the boats sailing out from the San Francisco’s Yacht Harbour. It offers excellent view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Runners consider this one of the best spots for daily workouts. This was evident by scores of walkers, joggers and cyclists that I met as I walked along the breezy shore.
I crossed Fort Mason, a former military installation and port of embarkation is now the HQ of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It’s a large complex used for holding events. I continued walking through the park that circumvented a hill offering spectacular views of the piers below. The setting sun bathed the area in gold.
At the end of the road stood the Aquatic Park and the famous Ghirardelli Square. Visitors to San Francisco would be doing a disservice to own self if they don’t make a visit to Ghirardelli and indulge in one of their many chocolate and ice cream delights. In one corner of the restaurant is the chocolate making factory. Loads and loads of melting and churning chocolate are truly inviting. As much as I wished, I resisted the temptation of indulging in heaps of calories. I quietly walked out envying the folks enjoying their scoops and buckets.
It was past 8PM. For dinner I visited San Francisco’s another famous restaurant McCormick & Kuleto’s. The sea food out there is delicious. Of course, some regular stuff is available too. After a hearty meal, I took the cable car that departs just outside of Ghirardelli Square and terminates at Powell Street Station.
The next evening a party for all delegates was organized at California Academy of Sciences. This is the greenest museum on earth with an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest and a living museum all rolled in one. Entry per adult is $29.95. If you have a day to spare, I certainly recommend a visit to the Golden Gate Park that houses this Science Academy, a Japanese Tea Garden and the De Young Museum.
The next day would be my last day in San Francisco. However, the evening was still available. A farewell party for all delegates was organized at the City Hall located in the Civic Center Plaza – a monumental grouping of federal, state and city structures. The restored City Hall is crowned by a dome taller than the one on the nation’s Capitol. Surrounding the area are Louise M Davies Symphony Hall, the War Memorial Veterans Building, the War Memorial Opera House and the Main Library.
The party went on till late in the night… however I turned back early as I had to leave early the next day to commence a 3-day journey on the Pacific Coast.
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