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This is an update of a guide to San Francisco originally written for the visiting net.goths attending Convergence 3, back in August, 1997 (Reference ). In practice it seems that it's the people who already live here who are the ones that really find it interesting, but that's the way it goes.
The first thing you should know: don't go to Fisherman's Wharf. You may think that you've got a strong stomach, you may think that you can handle any cutsey, tacky, mindless little thing that popular culture can throw at you, and that you're just going to shrug it all off as amusing kitsch... but why take the chance?
Skirting the edges.
Okay, so you want to ride on a cable car... I can deal with that. Cable cars are cool in their way -- though at $5 a ride they hardly count as public transit any more. Still, it's neat that the city keeps these museum pieces on the road (you understand that cable cars are entirely mechanical 19th century technology... down there in the track there's really a cable being pulled along, and the car reaches down and grabs the cable in order to accelerate. One of the neat touches: When the car is going down hill, it's weight puts energy back into the system). But if you're going to ride a cable car, you don't have to crowd in at Powell and ride the line to Fisherman's Wharf. There's another cable car line that goes cross-town on California up over Nob Hill. It's much less crowded. Why not give that a try?
The California Street cable car line starts near where it intersects Drumm and Market street. It dumps you off in the neighborhood of Van Ness. It can be hard to think of a reason why you would want to be on Van Ness -- but you can see for yourself that San Francisco can be kind of boring, and walk back a block to Polk Street, where there are some good cafes and so on, and if you're feeling adventurous, you could walk down into the Tenderloin... see Northern Expedition #1 below.
Another thing of great import that you need to know is that the Golden Gate Bridge is not in Golden Gate Park. The SF end of the Golden Gate Bridge is in a completely different park called The Presido (which is really a former military base, and the presumed future location of Star Fleet Headquarters). Golden Gate Park is located a bit further south (one end on the ocean, the other end up against the Haight), and while it's a neat place in it's own right, it is difficult to understand why it's called "Golden Gate Park" (Note). (The "Golden Gate" referred to here, of course, is the mouth of the San Francisco Bay which the Golden Gate Bridge spans... it's existence was known from overland expeditions years before ships knew how to find it, which is one reason it figures so heavily in Western/American history and/or mythology, and no the rest of this won't be this pretentious. I hope.)
But all right, so you want to see the Golden Gate Bridge, but you don't want to admit it? Here are two possible ways out of this dilemma:
If you want a nice introduction to Golden Gate Park, try going there on a Sunday afternoon. There's a long stretch of road in the north-east corner of the park (part of JFK drive) that's closed to car traffic on Sunday's, and it fills up with bladers, skaters, bikers, etc. There's even a small group of people keeping alive the dubious art of Roller Disco.
One of my current haunts in Golden Gate park is the Rose Garden, which is further along JFK drive (passed the end of the section that's closed on Sunday's). On the subject of East vs. West: The Berkeley Rose garden has a more elaborate layout, and some nifty views of the bay, but I think I like the smaller, simpler San Francisco garden. It may be my imagination, but I think the roses in SF smell better. My theory is that the ones in Berkeley were bred for appearance over smell.
The Japanese Tea Garden isn't very far south of the Rose Garden... take a look at a park map (there's one near the entrance of the Rose Garden). The hours of the tea garden are 9AM to 6:30 PM or so, and the general admission fee is around $5-- I believe it's free an hour before closing time. The tea house itself is a little crowded at times (it's about as serene and relaxing as a typical ski lodge), but it's still recommended.
(Incidentally, if you're interested in Tea places, there's a discussion of them down in the "Quease Zine" section below.)
If you want to keep rolling on the Japanese tip, on 9th Avenue, on the first block after leaving the park, there are two Japanese restaurants across the street from each other (owned by the same folks, apparently). I like the soba at Episu, moderately priced.
And here's a feature of the park that's easily accessible from the upper Haight, and that few goth types will want to skip: there's an antique carousel, in-doors, over by the children's playground. If you walk straight into the park from the end of Haight, and bear to your left, you should find it with a walk that's about two blocks long.
The Wave Organ mentioned above is a project associated with the Exploratorium, which is highly recommended to all geeks with an ounce of cool in their misshapen cerebellums. This is the country's first interactive science museum, ostensibly for kids... It's built inside an enormous, dark air-craft hanger style building, and it's littered with funky creations that are supposedly designed to give you some sort of hands-on access to some scientific principle, though the actual educational value often seems dubious. On a typical visit, you can:
The place's only flaws are that it's a little expensive for a day pass (they ask $14 for adults, $11 for students), and it closes kind of early (10am-5pm, Tuesdays-Sunday). Note: free admission on first Wednesdays of every month. But if you can get over there early enough, I guarantee you'll get your money's worth out of it.
There's a reference to the Exploratorium site below.
Okay, now let's talk weather. SF is in California, right? So all you need to pack are your bikinis, right? The tourist traps do big business selling cheesy sweatshirts that say "San Francisco" on them to people like you. We're in Northern California, which you hardly ever see on TV. If you're used to the east coast, you're expecting that if it's hot during the day, it'll be pretty warm all night long, but among other things the east coast has the old "Gulf Stream" keeping it percolating, and Northern California has a current coming down from Alaska. It may get hot during the day, it may even be really hot during the day in August (like say, 90 F), but it's entirely likely it could drop down to 50 F at night fall. You're not going to boil or freeze really, but working out a system of layers is a constant problem in this town. (And just to help confuse things a little more: it can be hot and sunny in one part of the city and cool and cloudy in another, so don't just look out the window and think you know what you need to wear.)
With some luck you'll have some night-time fog flowing into town. If you're psyched for some fog, I suggest a midnight expedition up into the hills somewhere. In general, the higher up, and/or the further west you go, the more likely you'll catch some serious fog (I understand that the neighborhood called "Sunset" on the west side of town was originally known as "Fog Bank" before the real estate agents got a hold of it).
So you've got a car with you, and you think you're going to be able to drive around San Francisco? Have fun. It can be done, but San Francisco contains many screw-the-tourist features in it's traffic planning:
It is possible to get from here-to-there in SF by car, but it takes a certain knowledge of where the routes are concealed. No maps seem to indicate these routes (for that matter you're lucky if you've got a map that tells you which streets are one-way). On the plus side, there have been attempts at sticking in tourist-guide signs (like, go this way for Chinatown), but you will notice that there are no signs telling you how to, for example, get from Soma to the Upper Haight.
Here's a quick hint on that one: your instinct may be to drive across Market somewhere and then go over West, and then down to the Haight. Not impossible, perhaps, but it's difficult... it's also nearly impossible to make a left on to Market. So instead, drive toward Market, and try to make a left on to Mission, the major street before Market. Follow Mission down but keep bearing right when it starts to snake around, and with any luck you'll get squirted across Market street going North on Octavia, all set to make a left into the lower Haight.
Drivers in San Francisco are not particularly bad... However, they are inclined to assert their right to swing a U-turn in the middle of a busy intersection whenever the impulse strikes. Also, in general, a car making a turn will always swing as wide as possible in order to use all available lanes. Driving habits in the Bay Area have been grossly corrupted in the last few decades by bastards from New York like myself, but some pedestrians in California evidentally haven't gotten the word, so what the hell, why don't you pretend you're legally required to stop for them at crosswalks. There are a fair number of bicyclists in San Francisco, and you should realize that legally they have the right to take up an entire lane if they feel like it, so don't honk at them if you think they should squeeze over more and let you by. And if you've just parallel-parked, look over your shoulder carefully to avoid swinging your door wide into a passing bicyclist... this is the main reason that most cyclists refuse to squeeze over.
Oh, by the way, forget about driving down the "crookedest" street (Lombard, between Hyde and Levanworth). If you catch it at the wrong time, you could end up waiting in a line of cars for a half-hour just for a 1 minute trip down the hill. If you're going to do it, use your feet.
Parking isn't so bad in SF, unless you're trying to go to the same place that everyone else is on a weekend. Oops, that may mean you, right?
I don't often use parking garages myself, but if you're trying to go to, say, Chinatown on a weekend, they're not a bad idea, especially if you've got a big group in the car to split the costs.
If you want to get by knowing about only one parking garage, this is the one you should probably know about: As you're driving north on Kearney street (which is a one-way street), just after Clay Street, and just before a concrete bridge that crosses the road, you can hang a left into The Portsmouth Plaza Garage. Prices run around $7.50 for 3 hours (though a bunch of restaurants in the area will "validate" your parking ticket, and get you 2 hours for free). Anyway, this puts you in the middle of Chinatown, not far from North Beach, in the neighborhood where it's probably the hardest to find a parking space.
There are some pretty substantial parking garages scattered around in Soma (e.g. on Mission between 3rd and 5th), but I bet you won't need them much, if you just look around a bit for on street parking.
But read the parking regulations *really* carefully. This is revenue for the city, so remember that they're out to get you. Notice that in Soma, most of the "street cleaning zones" start at midnight. The gimmick works like this: say you're going out on a Wednesday night, you park somewhere, glancing at the sign. It says something about no parking on Thursday, so you don't worry about it. But technically, Thursday starts at midnight on Wednesday, so just when the club you're in is warming up, the brown shirts are racing around slapping tickets on the windshields.
Public transit in the Bay Area is great, as long as you're not going to be out after midnight. Ooops. Anyway, if you need to get around inside San Francisco, there are "Owl" bus lines that never stop. If you need to get back outside of the city... check the "Problems After Midnight" section below.
There are public transit maps on nearly every bus stop in SF, but I find them largely illegible, particularly the lines marked in yellow ink, particularly when you're trying to read them at night. Even carrying a flashlight doesn't help much. It also doesn't help much that the transit maps for SF are bewildering in the first place (a tangled web of intersecting colored lines). If you need to do something fancy (and you care a lot about where you're going) you probably need to ask for help from a local... and buy your own transit map at the first opportunity.
A few hints: the 6, 7 and 71 lines run down Market and then turn right on Haight (Some of these bus routes start at different places on Market Street though, so if you're north of 5th street, you won't see all three of these lines.) But none of these run after midnight. On the other hand the N Judah is an Owl line (this is a trolley/light rail type thing, that starts as an underground line leaving from the MUNI subway stations along Market). So you can grab the N any time... get off at the "East Portal" stop and walk north several blocks to find the Lower Haight, or get off at the Cole and Carl street stop, and walk north a few blocks to the Upper Haight. There, now that wasn't complicated, was it?
Here's another fun-with-transit puzzle: Suppose you're in Soma and you want to get to the Mission. Why not take the 14 bus all the way down Mission Street? Answer, because it's really slow, and you can almost walk it faster than the bus will get you there. You're probably better off getting the BART somewhere on Market Street, and riding it toward Daly City/Colma, and getting off at the 16th or 24th Street stops on Mission Street. Scumzoid warning on both of these, though (be careful at night). On the other hand, the last BART runs around midnight, and the 14 is a 24 hour line. Also, I have to admit that the passengers on the 14 have a much more interesting, surreal quality about them.
An obscure Owl line that's a favorite of mine is the 24 that connects the lower Haight, Castro, Noe Valley and Bernal Heights. So if you want to get from the Lower Haight to the Castro without doing a small hike, go to Divisidero and Haight, and catch the 24 going south. There are a couple of stops in the middle of the Castro strip, Castro at Market, and also Castro at 18th.
Incidentally, there's an obvious way of getting between Soma and Noe Valley that you might want to try: the J Church trolley line. The J stops at the underground MUNI stations (as opposed to BART, though they often share the same hole in the ground, which confuses tourists no end) along Market Street. The J turns left and goes above ground on Church Street. It doesn't run 24 hours (so you couldn't use it as an easy way to get to Sparky's at 3am, for example), but it might be a convenient way to run out to Dolores Park in the afternoon, before a stroll down into the Mission.
The MUNI busses/trolleys all cost $1.50 now (no change is made, but they do take bills, and all coins including pennies). The driver should give you a transfer pass that will be good for around 2 hours (though you may win the jackpot and get a "late night special"). So you can get some place by a fancy route with a lot of transfers for a little over a buck, or alternately you can do short excursions where the return trip is free.
The deal with "late night" service, is that if you're riding after 10pm or so your transfer will be good until morning instead of for just the next few hours -- though if you get on at one of the big "subway" stations downtown on Market Street you won't get a "late night", instead they rip you off with a printed transfer that's good for precisely 90 minutes.
Cable Cars are $5 one-way and there's nothing like a transfer pass issued.
Remember that MUNI is essentially an entirely separate system from BART. BART charges based on distance, and for a short trip that stays inside SF it's comparable to a MUNI fare, though you don't get a transfer out of the deal.
I used to think that the cable cars and the MUNI busses were also entirely separate systems, but it turns out that there are day passes that they call "passports" that let you ride around on both busses and cable cars for no extra charge. (Great name, huh? "Passport"? Try telling a German tourist they need to get another passport...). These sound like an okay deal to me (1-day for $11, 3-day for $18, 7-day for $24, as of late 2007)... one or two cable car fares and a few bus rides would cost more than a 1-day pass. You might have to go out of your way a bit just to buy one, though. There's a pointer to a list of locations below: Reference. Worst come to worst, you duck into the tourist hub where Powell street ends at Market... if you go by there, beware the sucking vortex of the Fisherman's Wharf line.
If you do need to get across the Bay late at night, it used to be you'd be in trouble... you're best way across the Bay is the BART train, but the last BART isn't much later than midnight. There's no pedestrian walkway on the Bay Bridge, so you can't walk it either (there have been times when I would have liked to). A cab might cost $30 or so. But as I understand it there is now a bus that crosses the bridge after midnight, it's one of the AC Transit busses: the "800". And it's got one of those racks on the front to carry your bike on it, too. This is a definite improvement. This route starts at Market and Van Ness in SF, and takes you through downtown Oakland and Berkeley. Reference.)
But if you were planning on using CalTrans to go down the peninsula, you could still be in trouble. the last train out of SF is midnight (on Sundays 10pm). There used to be some 24 hour SamTrans busses (e.g. the KX) but they cut back on the hours on those severely.
If you do miss the last train: I recommend just staying up all night. You really only need to make it to 5 or 6 AM or so when transit starts running again, right? The bars close at two, some clubs run a little later, maybe you stop in at an all night diner for a few hours then pick a good hill to watch the sun come up... when I used to do this kind of thing, I'd wind up skipping the first few trains because I'd gotten busy with other things and didn't feel like leaving. By ten or eleven it's sometimes warm enough to take a nap in the park.
San Francisco isn't exactly a "city that never sleeps" (maybe none are, not even New York). (Well, maybe Vegas is, but let's not think about that, please). But there are some 24 hour places scattered around. You'd think that there'd be some in Soma, but I don't know of any except for the (most excellent) Happy Donut (3rd and King).
I'll give you a few recommendations (you may be able to find more through the references below):
Don't forget DONUTS:
And on the late night list (open until 3AM or so):
Some other 24 hour stuff:
What are some good hills to watch the Sunrise from? My personal favorite is Corona Heights (where one can sit in the Devil's Chair, as described in the Fritz Leiber novel, "Our Lady of Darkness"). Corona Heights is near the Castro (not too far from the Bagdad Cafe mentioned above), but getting up top is a little tricky. You've got to snake around the back (north-west) side somehow... Here's a good way to do it: follow 16th St across Market (going passed the Bagdad Cafe). Go Right on Flint. On your left, follow the path that goes up through a fenced gate. There should be tennis courts on your left, and a small rocky cliff straight ahead. Bear right on the asphalt trail, then go right on to a dirt & railroad tie stair case (if you stay on the asphalt you end up in the parking lot of the Randall children's museum). Keep going up to the top... any descent means you've missed a turn.
An obvious one that's also a good one is Telegraph hill (where "Coit Tower" resides) up in North Beach, not too far from the Vietnamese place on Broadway near Columbia. Has a view of both the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge.
On the west side of the Mission, there's Dolores park (its boundaries are Church & Dolores and 18th & 20th). It's not a major climb or anything, but the high end of Dolores park has a really nice view off to the West. And after the Sun comes up, you can get right on the J Church line there.
The energetic &/or the motorized might consider Twin Peaks. Look on a map, to the west of Market street... 23rd street points at it, but the streets get crazy near by it, and off the top of my head I can't say anything more about how to get there, except just keep going uphill. This is the tallest point in the city (the Mt. Sutro Tower is up around there, that red and white triceratop devil you can see from all over). It has some public overlook parking, though this stuff will probably get crowded on weekends.
(Incidentally, Twin Peaks can be accessed by bus, using the 37, starting from Market street near Castro. This is a great bus line, well worth the $1.50 just for sightseeing purposes, but it's not a 24 hour bus: the last run is around midnight.)
I would skip Buena Vista park for these purposes: too many trees to have a good view... and maybe too many people sleeping in the park.
Going for long walks over the residential hills (say Russian or Nob) can be fun.
Another possibility is Bernal Heights park (this is down south of the Mission, it's peak festooned with some sort of weather station/radar dish equipment). You can take the 24 from the lower Haight or the Castro through Noe Valley and across the bottom of the Mission, and then up the hill on Cortland. Get off somewhere on the strip where Cortland levels out, and make a left, follow your nose uphill into the park. Afterwards, you might want to back track to Cortland to see if Progressive Grounds is open.
If you want an idea of the scale of the city, remember that the peninsula is only about seven miles across. There are hills to deal with of course, but you could probably walk from Soma to the ocean in 3 hours. I usually find it takes me something like a half hour to get from Soma to the Mission, maybe an hour to get from Soma to the Upper Haight. Soma to ChinaTown/North Beach is definitely less than a half hour.
I like walking around in San Francisco a lot. You don't particularly need me to guide you around, just pick a direction that looks interesting and do it... the one thing you might want to beware are the "scumzoid" locations, indicated below...
You may be surprised at the quantity of scumzoids on the streets of SF, particularly if you've gotten used to the current state of New York City. The Powers That Be here have not yet found a way to implement their own version of Giuliani's Final Solution, and the Streets of SF are like stepping back in time to New York in the 80s.
A note on terminology: I prefer the broad term "scumzoid" to the popular term "homeless" (or "panhandler" or "drug dealer" or whatever). "Scumzoid" might be criticized as a harsh, dehumanizing term, but this sort of nicety is not the first thing on your mind, as you go walking down a street late at night and you notice someone up ahead screaming obscenities and karate-kicking the air.
(Also, you should realize that terms like "homeless" make a lot of assumptions that may not be true... some of the kids lying around the Haight hitting you for spare change are reportedly commuters from Marin County).
So for now at least, I'm sticking with the term "scumzoid", though I'm always thinking about dropping it (I'd hate to have it picked up by the "clean up the streets", i.e. "death to the homeless" gang).
It's not always easy to quickly describe areas with a high scumzoid factor, but here's a quick list:
But anyway, I don't want to exaggerate the problem too much. You can wander pretty much anywhere in San Francisco at all hours and the odds are that you'll come out safe and sound... in some places you may feel a bit nervous about it, though.
And in fact, quite often someone like me will recommend that you go to these neighborhoods (or at least near them). It's part of the dynamic of urban neighborhoods, the yuppie scum push up the property values, the suburban wannabees put pressure on the cops to clean things up, and yeah, the scumzoids get pushed out, but along with them goes anything resembling "cool" and often anything resembling "character". Sometimes an entrenched scumzoid population is the only thing that can scare away the yups and subs and stabilize the TAZ... for awhile.
In a perverse way, I think the obvious prevalence of what I'm calling "scumzoids" is a testament to San Francisco's civic virtue. Do you think your home town deserves credit because they've succeeding in making them invisible? Have you ever wondered what your local cops are doing to keep your city "clean"?
Let's say you're a hip young geek just arriving in San Francisco, early in the afternoon. Perhaps you're riding under the bay on BART. Maybe you've got plans to be at some clubs in Soma late tonight. Presuming that you're carless, but you're planning on seeing something of the city, what are your options?
If you're coming into the city on Bart, let's look at your options:
"Soma" is a contraction of "South of Market" (an obvious rip of "SoHo" in New York). It refers only to stuff north of Divsion street (obviously, all of the Mission is technically south of Market Street, but it's just called "The Mission", not Soma). There's a trend among real estate scum to call part of Soma near the bay "South Beach", but let's just flush that.
Soma is an industrial neighborhood that's accumulated many discount outlets, night clubs and (increasingly expensive) loft apartments over the years, though it still retains that bleak industrial feel. Soma isn't that big an area really, but the "cool" places are scattered a bit, so you may need to do some walking through apparent wastelands to get from one to the other. So this section is more like an "allow me to point out some things on the map" session, rather than a walking tour or anything like that.
Buried in this neighborhood is that odd little oval you see on the map called "South Park" (between 2nd and 3rd, a few blocks east of Bryant). If you're there in the afternoon you might stop in at the Cafe Centro, but be forewarned that this is the middle of what's sometimes called "Media Gulch" (Wired, Macromedia, etc). It used to be that you'd be surrounded here by people shmoozing about positioning their website with extra whizzy content to suck in big money advertisers and conquer the world. Things are a little more relaxed now.
South Park itself has a set of really killer monkey-bars. They don't build stuff like this any more... little Johnny might kill himself, and little Johnny's divorced parents might sue.
Also on South Park: Pepito's, one of the contenders for best burritos in SF. (Not sure what I'd vote for myself... Azteca's on Church near Market, maybe.)
Let's consider 3rd Street: over on the west (well, really north-west, but you know what I mean) side you'll find some pretty slick things, like the new SF Museum of Modern Art, between Mission and Howard (See reference). Around the corner from the SFMOMA is the small, but not uninteresting "Cartoon Art Museum" (reference). And across the street from SFMOMA is another exhibit space called Yerba Buena (reference), with a small park attached (which has the SF Marriot looming over it, like an irradiated jukebox from a Japanese monster movie).
If you're in need of food in this area, you've got a few options but you'll need to look a little bit to find them:
Moving east on 3rd Street, over on Harrison near third, there's a night club "City Nights", which these days is a place people love to hate, but then it is 18 and over. Reference.
On the other end of 3rd Street, out east, you'll find an excellent example of a funky-but-not-too-sleazy 24 hour donut joint at King street. And further up ahead, 3rd Street will lead you to the dark-hulking mass of the Lefty O'Doule bridge. You're not allowed to climb up on this. Really.
A bit further south, on fourth street at the corner of Bryant, there's a bar by the name of The Hotel Utah. This is a small, funky place with a nice vibe to it, with some decent food on the menu, and an odd balcony squeezed into the tight performance space on the side. They haven't, to my knowledge, booked any live bands there I've wanted to hear in the last year, but maybe that's the fault of my knowledge... anyway, they do a lot of indie/alt rock. Reference.
A few doors over from The Hotel Utah is the once-and-future industrial-goth night club, once the "Trocadero", now yclept "The Glas Kat". Current home to the long-running "Death Guild" (reference) and "Bondage-a-Go-Go" (reference) events.
San Francisco's remaining libertarian bookstore: "Laissez Faire Books" is at 938 Howard St., up on the second floor. This is one block over from Mission, a little south of 5th St. Reference.
And if you're in the need of a hiding place to retreat to, tucked away down the nearby alley by the name of Mary, where it intersects Natoma, is The Tempest -- a bike messenger/punk/metal bar.
I guess at this point I should mention that around 6th Street or so, over to the west by Mission St, there's a serious scumzoid region. This is one of the few places in the city that you really might not want to be late at night. On the other hand, the adventurous might be tempted to go dancing at Club Six at 60 6th Street, and the food at Tu Lanh's has grown on me in recent years: this is a very popular hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese place (warning: not for the MSG adverse). And there seems to be a new wave of hipster bars opening on this strip...
Also, around the corner from Tu Lanh's at 1007 Market Street, you can find the Luggage Store Gallery up on the second floor. The Creative Music series on Thursday night is one of the longest running events of it's kind in the Bay Area.
Back over on Folsom near 6th Street, there's a large well-regarded dance club with a ravey reputation: "1015 Folsom" (Reference).
Just a little further south on Folsom, around Seventh St, you'll find the BrainWash, which may be the best coffeehouse/Laundromat/restaurant/performance space in the country. They've got some pinball games (alas, now only 3 ball games, but they're in better condition than they used to be), good coffee, and decent food (I regret to report that the excellent "Burger of Doom" has been dorked out into California cuisine though), and on many nights live music with no cover charge. Nifty industrial/deconstructionist architecture.
Incidentally, I notice there's a small Hostel across the street from the Brainwash called the Globe, which might be worth a look.
On Folsom at 8th Street is "Leather Etc." Big selection of fetishy stuff. A lot of it is kind of tacky, but if you can find what you're looking for here you'll probably want to buy it here... it'll be the cheapest.
Over on Eighth Street, near Folsom, there's a leather store that I've come to appreciate lately: "Mr. S Leathers" (Reference). This is a pretty gay male oriented placed but it's worth a look even if you're not a pretty gay male. As you'd expect, it's a lot heavier on the boy toys than some place like Good Vibrations, but the really impressive item here is the Black Leather Roses. And now there's an interesting woman's oriented place that's opened up nearby:: "Madame S" (Reference.
If you go West a little, on Howard Street, between 7th and 8th Street, you'll find Stormy Leather, an excellent, very classy fetish oriented store. Reference below. Closes at 7pm.
Back over on Folsom, at 1190 Folsom (between 8th and 9th) You'll find the Cat Club. A medium size place (narrow but long, with a front and back room), which has been home to some industrial-goth events... (e.g. on the first Friday's of the month, there's "Strangelove" -- ).
East of Folsom, at 9th and Harrison, you'll find The Stud, the gay bar that this particular non-gay person is most likely to hang out at. Reference Good pinball machines. And Michael can dance.
Stompers Boots, at 323 10th Street not far east of Folsom Street: Small store with a large collection of men's boots both fetish and practical (if there's a difference). Reference.
And still further south in Soma you get to the 11th street strip, between Folsom and Harrison: the traditional night club zone. The best of them is probably The DNA Lounge (corner of 11th and Harrison), under the direction of ace-geek "jwz". Reference).
Across the street is a small yellow joint called Butter which I've never been to, but has a rep for serving traditional TV dinners in the classic aluminium trays.
Now that the Paradise Lounge appears to be closing, I'm not sure what to pick as second-best club in the area. I'm not a fan of Slims, myself (huge, clean-cut, with near zero personality) though on occasion they'll surprise me and book an interesting band.
I have trouble keeping track of what's going on with the place on the south-west corner of 11th and Folsom (is it still called "V/SF"?), but that would be a possibility.
There are smaller places around like the Holy Cow (ye shall know it when you see it) on Folsom Street near 11th. No (or low?) cover dancing, so don't complain about the music.
One block south of the DNA Lounge on Harrison, at 398 11th Street is "The Eagle", a well-regarded gay biker bar.
If you need some food down there, there's a bunch of restarants around. The italianish place next door to the DNA is okay, and there's various food places over on Folsom street.
The Mission is a traditional Latino neighborhood, colonized by hipsters in recent years, with the yuppie troops slowly bringing up the rear. It's current existence looks like a delicate balance, so catch it while you can...
The older, Latino businesses are clustered on Mission Street and on 24th Street. Much of the newer, hipster stuff coexists one-block away on the parallel street Valencia, though there's a densely packed strip of interesting stuff on 16th street, mostly between Mission and Guerrero.
First, some scumzoid warnings: the 16th and 24th street BART stations (in fact, perhaps all BART stations) get pretty sleazy late at night, and a block away from the 16th Street hipster strip is the 15th street housing project, so when you're down around there, expect to be panhandled a lot. If the scumzoids start to bother you, take comfort in the fact that the people they're scaring away are the people who would like to see a Starbucks on 16th street.
Starting from the 24 Street BART you have a lot of options. You could look around on Mission at the Latino stores: lots of cheap places with stuff like Jesus candles and ceramic angels.
There are also some excellent things off to the east on 24th Street, which a more advanced guide to the Mission would have to include (Philz coffee, the St. Francis Creamery, Pops bar, La Palma Mexicatessen...).
Most likely you'll want to head west on 24th Street, and go over to Valencia Street.
You could keep going up the hill on 24th street (perhaps hopping on the 48 bus), but that will take you into a yuppie limbo known as Noe Valley (though it does have some redeeming features: Reference).
Probably your best option is to head north on Valencia... it's a bit of a walk, between 24th St and 16th St, but it takes you passed some of the best places in SF in my opinon.
But before we get into that, let's look quickly at a few things you can find on the Mission street strip near the 24th Street Station:
Now, some highlights of Valencia Street, between 24th and 16th:
Most likely you'll hang a left at 16th Street, but there also a few items up ahead on Valencia:
Make a right on Octavia, and you'll find the beginning of Haight Street, a few blocks from the Lower Haight strip.
But let's back up to 16th Street and Valencia. It took a bit of walking to get here, but you could have made it here by getting off at the 16th and Mission Bart station. It's also walkable from the south end of Soma, but the distance between 11th and 16th is much greater than you'd think from the street numbers, and the intervening area is a bit of a wasteland.
Some highlights of the 16th Street strip (where you should expect to be panhandled a lot):
And maybe I should mention that there's some stuff on 16th on the east side of Valencia as well. There's another decent used bookstore over there (Forrest Books), another good Taqueria (Pancho Villa) and Esta Noche, one of the few Latino transvestite bars I know of.
Where to from here? If it's before midnight you could head to the downtown area via the 16th St Bart. After midnight, you might need to take the 14 up Mission Street.
If you want a still longer expedition: The Castro area is out west of you (Church Street near Sparky's is only about three long blocks away), or you could charge north several blocks to make a left and travel up Haight Street (on foot or by bus).
To get to the Haight, you'll probably want to ride the 71 bus, which you pick up on Market street (possibly after getting off the BART train at Powell street). You can get off the 71 in the Lower Haight and walk up, but it's probably better to start in the Upper Haight and walk down (with gravity on your side).
Haight street from Golden Gate Park on down to around Buena Vista Park is the region now known as "the Upper Haight"... this is the classic Haight of sixties fame, a rough equivalent of Berkeley's Telegraph Ave. It used to be known by the name Haight-Ashbury, after the intersection at the center of it... where there is now a Gap (the Gap must die), and perhaps more appropriately a Ben and Jerrys. Anyway, the upper Haight still reeks of hippie nostalgia, but the punk invasion transformed the place quite a bit. Some locals like to sneer at the Upper Haight as silly kid stuff or something... but how can you dislike a neighborhood with so many bookstores, not to mention one of the best record stores on the planet?
The stretch of Haight Street between Scott and Webster is the "lower Haight". This is a part of town that experienced a hipster invasion in the mid-eighties that has only been slightly toned-down by yuppie influence.
Both the upper and lower Haight have their share of scumzoid population, though they're much different in character. In the Upper Haight, you've got a lot of street people types (ex-hippies, gutter punks) panhandling away. Down in the Lower Haight, it's more like the local poor black population. Anyway, watch yourself at night, yaddah, yaddah... and in any case, most of the upper haight and a lot of the lower closes up tight at night.
Some highlights of the Upper Haight, from Golden Gate Park on down:
By the way: I've heard it said that the opening sequence in the film "Interview With A Vampire" was set in a house on Divisidero near Haight, but I can't remember which one.
In between the Upper and the Lower, there's a small, interesting strip of things on Divisidero, just a little north of Haight:
One other place you might like to know about is "Jack's Record Cellar", a place that carries a lot of genuinely old vinyl (not to mention shellac). That's at the corner of Scott and Page, one block over from Divisidero, and one block up from Haight Street. (Hours: Wed-Sat, Noon - 7pm). Historical note: Kenneth Rexwroth used to live upstairs from here, this is where he held his Friday night literary soirees that played a key role in the San Francisco Renaissance/Beat Generation literary movements.
And now, for some highlights of the lower Haight, starting at the upper end (going east from Divisidero):
That's pretty much the end of the strip, but why not hang a right on Webster and head south a few blocks... there's some things like that crepes place under the dubious name of the "Squat N Gobble", and further up on the left, you can check out the window display of HStarch Co (136 Webster).
Okay, so where do you go from here? From this end of the lower Haight, you're not far from Market. Keep going down Webster a few blocks, and you're there. You can take public transit from there.
If instead you want to stretch out this expedition a bit, you could walk south-west on Market instead, heading toward the Castro through the Upper Market area.
There is a definite difference of character in Market street, once you head south-west (and a little uphill) away from the phenomenally sleazy downtown/civic center region. Things are pretty slick, but without that dull yuppie sameness that often infects upscale neighborhoods. This is usually called "The Upper Market", and it's essentially on the border of "The Castro".
You might want to save the Upper Market (and the Castro itself) for a late-night expedition, since it tends to run later than most places in the city, but it's a fun afternoon/evening place as well.
The L runs up and down Market 24 hours, so that might be the way to get there. If you're coming from somewhere else, the 24 line might be convenient, it runs down Castro, and you can pick it up in places like the Lower Haight (going south on Divisidero). From the Mission, I might just walk on over... they aren't that far apart (if you follow 16th Street West from the hipster strip by Valencia you'll hit Market Street where the Bagdad Cafe is... and if you follow 18th Street West, that'll take you to the center of the Castro.
Anyway, starting with Church Street a block south of Market St:
Now moving up-hill on Market Street (toward Castro):
The Castro is famous as a gay neighborhood, and yes gay people are obviously around, but they won't throw you out if you're not gay. However, you must stand at attention, and applaud all transvestites.
Starting at Market & 17th St, and working our way south toward 18th (let's keep things brief and skip the bars. You won't have any trouble finding gay bars around here...):
Starting at the intersection of 18th and Castro, you can go anywhere. Don't be too distracted by the crowd off to your left, on the east side of the intersection, unless you're hunting for bear. For some reason they've settled on the goddamn Starbucks as their hang-out (guys: Castro Tarts! Spike's! Sweet Inspirations! Anywhere else...
Out that way you'll find a number of random things like the "Does your mother know?" sex toys store.
And if you push on a few blocks, you'll find the truly excellent Samovar Tea Lounge at 18th and Sanchez Street. (More info below in tea section).
Don't miss the Walgren's drugstore on the corner: it's open 24 hours and stocks a peculiar collection of surreal kitsch, a fair selection of sexual lubricants, and the usual run of snack foods. And yes, I hate big chains (I mean, chain-stores) but I like Walgren's. Making sense of this is an advanced topic which will not be covered here.
If you continue west on 18th Street, there's the 24 hour Cala supermarket , some assorted restaraunts (e.g. Firewood) and so on.
But continuing south on Castro:
If you hang a right on 19th Street, you'll see another good coffee place called Spike's. It's got some outdoor seating on a quieter street just off the strip. Their coffee urns are labeled with caffiene percentages. Open 6:30am-7pm.
And when you need to get out of here... well, like I said the 24 and the L run all night. 19th and Castro is a 24 stop, the L stops back at Market, down the escalator.
But if you're looking for an afternoon walk, you could just head east on 19th street: it skirts the edges of the hills, and takes you into Dolores Park, and beyond that lies The Mission and Valencia Street.
Get off BART at the Embarcadero Station. You should be near the end of the Cable Car line that runs along California Street...
If you've picked up a "passport" you can ride for free (see the Public Transit section above). If the ticket machines are broken (suprise) you can hop on the first cable car, and give $5 to the conductor... note that if you're planning on riding back on the cable car, that will be another $5, and cable car day passes are only a little more than twice the ticket price, so maybe you should just buy a day pass. You could probably even sell this pass to someone else to your mutual profit. But that would be wrong.
When you get on a cable car, you really want to sit on the outside benches, or even better, stand up and hang off the outside of it (the corners are the best). One of the reasons you want to ride this cable car line, and not the Powell street one, is that you're more likely to be able to get whatever spot you want.
You can get off at Powell and transfer to the other line (note: not a free transfer, unless you've got a day pass): at least the wait will be shorter than it is at that zoo down at Powell and Market. Though personally I just recommend staying on the California Street line, and riding up Nob Hill.
The trouble with the California Street cable car is that once you get off at the end of the line, there isn't all that much there. But you can backtrack one block, and poke around on Polk street... there are a some cafes and bookstores in the neighborhood and just north of California you will also find one of the highly recommended "See's Candies".
You might want to ride the next cable car back, possibly to the corner of Kearney and California, where you can pick up the "walking tour" version of Northern Expedition #2, described below.
Or you could ride down Van Ness on the 49 bus, and start looking around in the Mission, or you might even consider diving down into the "Tenderloin" (see below).
The current state of the Tenderloin: Once it was famous for homeless and streetwalkers, now the streetwalkers are pretty much gone (with the possible exception -- I dunno why -- of trannies), and things are looking a bit more "cleaned up" in places, particularly on the Polk Street edge (which I've heard called "the Trendyloin"). Some gentrification is chewing away at the edges of this neighborhood but it's not going to turn into a beige blob any time soon -- one nice thing about public housing projects: it's politically difficult for real estate profiteers to sweep it aside when it's inconvenient.
One difficulty about this is that the Tenderloin -- with the exception of the Polk Street corridor -- is very much a grid of scattered points of interest. Strolling down Polk Street is the only obvious "walking tour" route. So let's start with that...
And actually, as long as we're doing the Polk Street strip, let's start with the end up north of California, though this is not the "Tenderloin" by anyone's standard:
At this point, I don't think there's any obvious order to take things. Unlike many a neighborhood in SF, there's no one linear main drag in the Tenderloin, things are scattered around.
If you hung a left at the Lush Lounge on the corner of Post, you'd go by Divas (a tranny place, if I remember right).
There's a place called The Magazine at 920 Larkin near Post that does an amazing job with the niche market of back issues of porn magazines. It has a very respectable wood-paneling look about it, and it's not unusual to see upscale Nice Girls wander in, take a quick look around at the largely male clientele, and do a quick retreat.
On Geary street, between Polk & Larkin, is a huge Scottish bar by the name of Edinburgh Castle. You can get some serious british style fish and chips there (though really they're made by some chinese folks at a small place around the corner at 932 Larkin, "The Old Chelsea"). They often have live music upstairs, in one of the diviest of all divey performances spaces in the city, rivaling Kimo's for the throne.
One block over from Polk, at Geary and Van Ness is Tommy's Joynt, a classic carnivore oriented place (SF's answer to Katz's in NY). Open until 2am.
On O'Farrell, between Polk and Larkin, you'll find "The Great American Music Hall", an old place with a really beautiful, ornate interior that you'll want to check out, given half a chance. The booking has been getting better in recent years: check their schedule (reference below).
Some trivia about this place: if you go around back (in the alley called Olive's), you can see a faded sign painted on the back that says "ELANCO's". Dashiel Hammett had his "Continental Op" character stop in here once for a bowl of clam chowder (see "The Dain Curse").
At the corner of O'Farrell and Polk you will find the capitol of the Tenderloin: the O'Farrell Theater, a monument to the efforts of local sleazemeisters the Mitchell brothers (though one of them is dead now, killed by the other one). I must confess that I've never actually been inside the O'Farrell Theater, but I plan on getting to it one of these days, in spite of the high cover charge ($20 early in the afternoon is the cheapest rate). (Reference below).
Back on Larkin, if you go south one block, at the corner of Larkin & Ellis you'll find "Vietnam II", another Vietnamese place that gets good reviews (I haven't been there yet). Hours: 8am - Midnight.
Phoenix Hotel - Eddy and Larkin. A constant stream of rock band tour busses infests or enlivens the scene here. I like the sculpture scatterd around the pool area.
Saigon Manh Mi - 560 Larkin. Tiny, hole-in-the wall place reputed to have great vietnamese sandwiches.
Deco Lounge - 510 Larkin. Art deco gay bar, with "play space" downstairs.
Lafayette Coffee House - Hyde between Eddy and Turk. For the devotee of what I like to think of as the Misunderstood Diner.
509 Cultural Center - 509 Ellis between Hyde and Levanworth. No regularly scheduled events are happening here just now as far as I know, but this is a neat little art center that's worth keeping an eye on. reference.
On Ellis, near Hyde, there is a tree.
Altaturka - 869 Geary Street, between Larkin and Hyde. Nice, inexpensive middle-eastern place.
Golden Era, 572 O'Farrel near Levanworth, Tenderloin - Excellent vegan vietnamese/chinese food, evidentally run by some kind of asian mormons. You can pick up free religious propaganda at the door. Nifty, ornate, roccoco chese interior. Open 11am-9pm, but note: closed Tuesdays.
Love - west side of Leavenworth, north of O'Farrell. Thrift store. Literally a hole-in-the-wall. Don't blink.
Kayo Books - 814 Post, between Hyde and Leavanworth. Excellent paperback/pulp book store, with heavy emphasis on kitschy oddities.
Cafe Royale - Post and Levanworth, next to Kayo. Bar that also does coffee, food. Jazz performances, sometimes. A class act.
Argonaut - 786 Sutter, between Jones and Taylor. Midway between "used books" and "antiquarian". A setting for Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (for which they changed the name to "Argosy", I know not why).
Meridian Gallery - 545 Sutter, between Mason and Powell upstairs over a greek deli (with a few net terminals in the back). There's a really nice Friday night music series going on here, creative music with the emphasis on the delicate and subtle side. (Okay, so this isn't exactly in the Tenderloin... you don't want to tell someone you went somewhere near Union Square on purpose, do you?)
Shalimar - 532 Jones. An old favorite, a cheap indian food place.
Naan & Curry - O'Farrell between Jones and Tyalor, around the corner from Shalimar. *Another* great, cheap indian food place. Slightly hipper atmosphere, better music, maybe better food (though opinions differ).
Internet Cafe - O'Farrell and Taylor. Has a touch of a funky, international atmosphere about it.
Glide Memorial Church - Taylor and Ellis. The sunday morning R&B ceremonies are popular. Ostensibly a methodist church, but the sermons tend to spend a minute on a God, and a half-hour on "social justice".
ACT - Geary between Taylor and Mason. The heart of San Francisco's baby theater district. There are a bunch of late night diners in the area, such as --
Pine Crest at Geary and Mason. 24 hours. A fine example of the Misunderstood Diner.
Let's call that it for now. More later... stay tuned. Or not.
Get off around the Montgomery Street Bart. Your mission: find a way into the admittedly touristy, and yet still cool in it's way, Chinatown/North beach zone. The trouble is that you've got some rather dull downtown office buildings to your north. You can go the west, but that will take you through Union Square, a yuppie department store hell which is too horrible to contemplate. I presume all you cool, ironic hipsters will want to laugh at the tourists that like to walk through the gate into Chinatown, at the intersection of Bush and Grant. So head off to the West on Sutter, and make a right on to Grant street. You'll know when you get there.
Just before the gate, you might like to take a look at the lobby for the Triton Hotel, 432 Grant near Bush... some nice recycled scrap metal furniture and so on.
I suggest making a detour of a few blocks: when you get to California, make a right and head west to the intersection of Kearney and California. Study the building at 580 California, on the north-east corner. This is my favorite office building in the city. Climb the steps of 601 California (the south-west corner) to get a better view, particularly in the reflection off of that brown office building across the street. Highly recommended.
You can continue up Kearney through Chinatown, but everyone needs to walk the length of Grant street once. So how about going north on Kearney for just a block, then hanging a left to head back over to Grant?
I like the stores on Grant Street. Sure, there's lots of touristy junk here... and maybe it's all touristy junk really, but out in the bins on the street, at various times, you can find neat things like cheap bamboo flutes, wooden snakes, chirping cricket toys, "Bang bang snappers", and so on, and inside there are jade-like statuettes, ceramic this and thats, and perhaps best of all, inexpensive silk outfits, sometimes ethnoidal, sometimes not.
And here and there you may catch a glimpse of the "authentic" chinese-american culture, which to outsiders like myself will perhaps always remain essentially unknowable...
There are also, of course, an innumerable number of Chinese restaurants, which I will (for once) not try to enumerate. Here are a few suggestions, though:
Anyway, pick a place at random, if you feel like it... there are a lot of good ones. If you're not feeling too adventurous, you might want to restrict yourself to places with restaurant reviews in the windows... (there are a lot of publications that do reviews, and if a place hasn't managed to score one good review over the years, maybe it's got problems).
But all right, once you've had your fill of Chinatown, work your way up Grant street to Broadway. You're right on the border of Chinatown and North beach (and not far from the downtown business district, for that matter... that structure looming at the end of Columbus is known as "The Transamerican Pyramid", though I believe Transamerica sold it awhile back). North beach is nominally an Italian neighborhood, but to people like us, (whatever it is we are exactly), it's probably most interesting for it's history as a beatnik hangout. (There's a historical Reference below.)
Here's a few of the more "beat" places you might want to look at:
One other thing you may have noticed already is that North beach contains the semi-official Red Light district for San Francisco. There's a bunch of "exotic dance" places scattered around the area, which I'm afraid I know very little about... except that the hungry <i> on Broadway by Columbus has the best name, and the Lusty Lady on Kearney near Broadway has a quasi-feminist reputation... it's supposed to have female management, with a reputation for treating their workers well (it's one of the first of such places to unionize), which I would guess would translate into a better attitude, and a better performance... except that their classified ads are always calling for women who have no tattoos or piercings. What fun is that? On the other hand, the place is open 24 hours...
(Oh and note the rather bland sign, on the rather bland place called the Condor, at the corner of Broadway and Columbus. For ages and ages, this sign was a tacky cartoon of a topless woman, with two red light bulbs for nipples. Now the Condor isn't even a topless bar any more. Some day, some day, I really hope that people will stop destroying everything in the world that is not featureless and boring...)
Also, on Broadway, next to the hungry <i>, there's the Beat Museum, which is probably worth a look on a "free admission" night.
Take a look at the places on Columbus if you feel so inclined. Skip the Stinking Rose, it sounds better than it is. I like the canoli's at Mara's Italian Pastry at 503 Columbus.
Some distance down Columbus is a great, highly recommended chocolate place called "Truffles Inc": 754 Columbus Ave, (415) 421-4814 (reference).
But on to the next problem: how do we get you up onto Telegraph hill? This is another standard tourist destination, but it's not a bad place: a hill with a view of the bay that stretches from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge. There's a bus that goes up there, that I've never used (the 39), but I guess you could pick it up going north on Stockton, somewhere above Union, say around Filbert). Some people drive it, but on a typical day there's a long wait for a parking space up there. I recommend just doing the climb on foot... much less hassle, more interesting views, and if the exercise gives you problems, it's perfectly valid to stop suddenly and say "Look at that squirrel!" and force your friends to wait for you for a minute.
This is the way that I almost always climb Telegraph hill: go up Kearny, all the way to the end, at the corner of Kearny and Filbert. Off on your right, there's a stair case that might look like it goes up to someone's house, but it's a public thoroughfare that goes up to the top of the hill (keep an eye out for staircases like this as you wander around San Francisco... pedestrians don't always have to follow the same routes cars do). There's a sign here that says something like "Stairs to Coit Tower".
Once up there, you might consider paying to ride the elevator up Coit Tower. This is the best way to get a view of the city itself from Telegraph (you can walk around behind the tower, but there are some trees in the way on that side). It's also a good place to contemplate the stupidity of tourists... look at how desperate they are to figure out a way to throw money off the top of the tower. If it wasn't for fools like this, they might not have had to put plastic barriers over the windows.
To get down off of Telegraph, I suggest looking around the east side of the hill (the Bay Bridge is on your right when you face east). There are paths that lead to some nifty staircases that go down the steep side of the hill (the most famous one being the Filbert Steps, that come out on Filbert Street, but there's at least one other one, that I think comes out on Greenwich).
When you're ready to get out of this neighborhood tucked away between the hill and the bat: I'd probably walk it... (there's a path that winds through a park out to the Embarcadero, i.e. the bay) but if you've been following the route I've laid out, you've done a lot of walking already today. Here's a good cop out: take the 42 bus south on Battery street (you can probably pick it up around Filbert and Battery). This runs until around midnight. The 42 goes over to Market (and in fact crosses it, following first street out into Maritime Hall territory).
If you end up going *near* the Wharf, you can still do yourself a favor and stay out of the core: consider Pier 39 as the extreme tip of North Beach, if you take the Powell Street cable car line out to where it ends on Hyde street, make a *left* turn (and whatever you do skip the Ghiardelli's trap) , and head through the aquatic park, and go up over the hill side trail to Fort Mason Center.
Fort Mason Center is an old WWII era military supply base (You know, Liberty Ships, Henry Fonda's "Mr. Roberts", etc), long since re-purposed as a convention center plus. "Plus" includes the famous "Greens" vegetarian restaurant (with a very reasonable coffee/food take-out counter, Note: this is near some convenient benches outdoors right on the docks); a good used books store, and the "Long Now Foundation" offices, with a small museum attached.
There's one problem with this scheme of just skipping the Wharf: you'll miss the Museé Méchanique and their collection of antique music boxes and arcade attractions. They relocated into the middle of the wharf area, on pier 45. The original electro-mechanical music (reference).
Okay, way up top I was talking about things like Baker Beach, the Wave Organ, the Exploratorium and so on... all of which are way out west compared to the neighborhoods I've been focusing on here.
One thing I should add to the list of Things Which You Should Not Miss If You Have Time: Way out on the north-western corner of San Francisco is the Cliffhouse, which might just be a tourist strip-mall from hell, except that the views from the balconies are genuinely spectacular (and if the Camera Obscura is open, it's well worth the admission price).
If you walk off into the ruins of the old Sutro Bath (north of the Cliffhouse), you will find yourself in the setting for one of the scenes in "Harold and Maude". This is where Harold fakes his first homicide, and throws Maude down into a hole, though I have yet to figure out exactly where the hole itself was.
Here's some ways to get to all of these places by public transit:
Lee Baldwin (firstname.lastname@example.org) suggests the "Palace of Fine Arts" at night, which is right next to the Exploratorium:
anyway, i mean the place behind the museum with the huge dome & all the columns, subtly lit at night. it's just the perfect place for a swirl of black clad goths at night. when i was there in May, there was a bat circling the inside of the dome, eating the moths attracted to the lights. it was one of my favorite places...The Exploratorium and the Palace of Fine Arts together make a great industrial-gothic pair. So try this for an extended expedition (which would work best on a Wednesday, probably):
In general, Berkeley is not exactly my field of expertise, but I can tell you a few things about the place.
The Berkeley Bart station is actually quite conveniently located for going to the UC Berkeley campus area.
If you walk west a little bit from the Bart station -- though note the excellent "Comics Relief", and the respectable "Other Change of Hobbit" on Shattuck -- you'll come to University Avenue. If you hung a left on University Ave, you'd find:
If you go EAST a few blocks from the Bart station, you will get to the corner of Shattuck and Bancroft. Making a left there and going north on Bancroft about a third of a mile will take you to the beginning of the Telegraph Avenue strip (the center of the weirdness). That's probably the fastest way to get there. But if you've got any time to risk getting lost, you'll probably rather wind your way there through the Berkeley campus itself. If you go straight north from the Bart station (or just follow University Ave north) you'll encounter the base of the campus itself. If you look around, you'll see some campus maps posted near the entrance. To get from where you are to Telegraph, you want to find your way through "Sather Gate", and exit on the path just north of the Student Union building. If all else fails, follow the sound of the drums.
What's there on Telegraph? A lot of stuff, too much for me to list. Don't get so distracted by the scene that you miss these places:
It's a bit out of the way, but a more than honorable mention goes to "Dark Carnival", a science fiction/fantasy/whatever bookstore that is probably the best in the area. It's on 3086 Claremont, at "The Uplands", near "Woolsey St" (which is between the major streets of Ashby and College: that can be confusing if you don't remember that these three streets form a triangle). For more information, see this reference
If you start down in the Mission at 24th Street and Valencia (by Muddys), if you head up the hill on 24th street, you will eventually land in the somewhat problematic neighborhood of Noe Valley. The temptation is to write this off as an upper-middle-class yupster baby-carriage hell, but actually it's not as far gone as places like Union Street or Chesnut Street, and it certainly has some saving graces.
On Church street, a few blocks south of 24th is Lovejoy's, a pretty authentic British tea place which also sells antiques (and yes, the title is an intentional reference to the books by Jonathan Gash)... though it's gotten quite a bit more prissy in recent years, and they now have a somewhat obnoxious *per person* (not per table) minimum charge.
Along the 24th street strip, there are a few independant bookstores, (the Phoenix and the Tattered-Cover -- though that's now re-located around the corner on Castro), and a really good newstand/magazine place.
There's also a good bagel place, Holey Bagel which does a better job than Katz's on pumpernickle.
Several blocks up 24th Street, on your right you'll find "Global Exchange", a non-profit fair-trade import store. Ethnic stuff, with the goal of getting more of the money to the original artists out in the ethnicities...
And a few blocks after that, a little before Diamond, there's the excellent "San Francisco Mystery Bookstore" on the left (new and used books, though unfortunately it's completely lacking in cats).
A good way out of Noe Valley would be to grab the 24 hour 24 bus at 24th and Noe, which you can ride over the hills to the Castro or the Lower Haight. Alternately, you can take the J downtown from Church and 24th.
The 24 hour donut place at 24th and Church is pretty good by the way. Too bad the J isn't a 24 hour line... but walking over from the 24 line on Noe isn't that big a problem.
If you're coming from the Oakland airport, it's not supposed to be too difficult to take a bus to the Oakland Coliseum BART station: reference.
If you're coming into SFO (San Francisco International), There are a number of ways to get into San Francisco:
There's more transit information down there in the references.
A lot of people like Oakland, because it's a "real" kind of town... San Francisco and Berkeley are a little stronger on fantasy than realism. I don't know as much about the place as I'd like, but anyway, here's a few recommendations:
Some of the best avant-jazz, new/creative music in the Bay Area is happening at "21 Grand" these days, a medium size place located at 416 25th St at Broadway, Not far from the 19th Street BART station between Broadway and Telegraph.
If you go a half dozen blocks away from Broadway, heading south (on 10th, 11th or 12th, I don't think it matters) you'll get to the Oakland Museum, which is pretty cool by me. Some more information is down in the references on museums.
Jack London Square is in Oakland around Lake Merritt. Personally, I can't imagine why I would go to Jack London Square, except to go to Yoshi's (jazz with sushi), and I'm not often interested in Yoshi's variety of traditional jazz (though every so often they surprise me and book something really interesting). More info in the reference.
But the one thing that really does draw me over to the East Bay these days is their creative/new/improv/unpop scene, which seems as strong as (or stronger than?) the scene in SF. The superb Beanbenders series (Reference) is no longer active, but the east bay folks (who I increasingly think of as the Mills College Mafia) are keeping the faith in a number of places. If you take a look at the calendar at the bayimproviser's site, you'll probably notice a number of east bay locations: Reference.
The topic at hand is San Francisco cuisine in general. Here's what I want to cover:
While "authenticity" sounds nice in theory, I'm afraid that I rarely have "authentic" taste buds: "authentic" often seems to be a synonym for "really greasy" (e.g. with Chinese food or Mexican food). I make no apologies for preferring food that doesn't instantly coat the inside of my stomach (and/or generate heartburn, and/or induce headaches).
And anyway, the way that new cuisines are created is by adapting the traditional to new circumstances, and concerns about "authenticity" can just get in the way. Ideally, I want to see a little creativity in the conception, as well as solid execution (and the lowest prices possible).
But I reserve the right to contradict all of the above when discussing pizza and bagels.
I'm not an expert on Mexican-style food throughout the world, but from talking to other people who've been around more than I have it's slowly been dawning on me that there's something unusual about FriscoMex. There's a sizable Latino population here, and there are many more-or-less "authentic" taqueria's, but the places that I'm interested in are the ones that have gone native a bit. The key options to look for are whole-wheat tortillas and black beans. If those are present, then you can look for interesting "ethnic" touches... There are many contenders, but I kind of like Azteca on Church near Market: I'm addicted to the Chile Relleno burritos, but they also have other interesting things, like their Chicken Mole (chicken in a mild -- and not sweet -- chocolate sauce).
By the way, SF burritos tend to be both huge and cheap. Expect less than five bucks for something that's big enough (or almost big enough) to feed two.
And if there are any non-food uses you find for them, I'd rather not hear about it.
I'm unaware of any bad Thai restaurants in San Francisco. They're all over the place, and any one you see is likely to be excellent, and that's all I'm going to say on the subject.
You do know about Thai food, right? Coconut Milk is the trademark. Try the Tom Ka Gai (chicken soup with coconut milk).
There seemed to be a craze around the area for African food in the mid-80s which unfortunately has died down a bit, but luckily not so much that the good places have closed.
Try the Doro-wat (highly spiced chicken stew), which should be eaten with massive quantities of injera (a spongy, slightly sour, pancake shaped bread). The vegetable dishes are also excellent (I really like the carrot-oriented stews). The theory is that you're supposed to eat with your right hand (the left being reserved for other purposes in some arid climates). You tear off a small piece of injera, and use it to scoop up some food.
A few good places:
Few places in California will leave the vegetarian stranded. But the purist that doesn't want to have to smell victim-flesh will of course find some options in San Francisco... I'm afraid I have trouble thinking of a lot of them though. Here's my list:
I can't say I understand what the difference is supposed to be between California and Nouveau cuisine, but it's hard to miss the fact that CA food is PoMo to the max, and you've got to watch it to make sure that you don't get served pancakes with pink yogurt, walnuts and radishes on top.
On the other hand, along with the mindless recombination of things that were not meant to combine, there's also a tremendous amount of creative work that goes on. (At this point I recommended The Flying Saucer, which is now long gone. What else?)
In the old days, New Yorkers used to like to whine about the impossibility of getting good pizza or bagels out on the West Coast (and you know, I can remember when people used to complain about New York being dirty and dangerous). This is largely a fixed problem, I would say.
There are some excellent bagel places in SF these days. Katz's on 16th in the Mission is my fave, Levy's on Drumm near market is the fave of some other New York types I know. (And incidentally, ask someone from New York some time how they feel about "Noah's Manhattan Bagels".)
A note for the visiting New Yorker, though: nearly all of the locals think bagels should be toasted, and the people at the bagel places are in the habit of toasting them. You're going to need to tell them not to toast, and you may have to tell them emphatically, repeatedly, and even then you should keep an eye on them to make sure.
As for pizza, I'm less of an aficionado of pizza these days, but I think it's safe to say that someone with a New York palette will not be offended by "Escape from New York" in the upper Haight, or on Castro, or by "the Za spot" next to the DNA on 11th Street in Soma. We're not talking Sixth Avenue Ray's here, but I think this stuff is at least okay.
I don't claim to be an expert on SF pizza places (the best in the area that I know of is probably Vito's, way down in the south bay area). You might be able to do better than these... But if someone gives you advice on Pizza places, make sure you find out where they're from. I still can't fathom the California conception of what "Good Pizza" is.
Vietnamese food has long been a favorite of mine. Viet Nam, before it became a chess board for the US and China, was occupied by the French, and the influence shows in their cuisine. The more expensive places (and sometimes just the moderately priced ones) are in the habit of using very fresh ingredients, which are never overcooked the way they tend to be in Chinese food.
The cheaper places (which usually rely on "Pho", or noodle dishes) are admittedly a mixed lot, where you need to order with caution. Something with "beef" in it may really be "tripe", and should probably be avoided... in fact I avoid anything on the menu that doesn't explicitly say what it is ("prawns" are good, "seafood" is a bit scary). Some places over-do the MSG (practice with me now: "No MSG please!"). And if you're a cilantro hater, you might want to watch out for that as well.
I've often wondered why it is that other people seem to have a block on Vietnamese food... I had a theory that it involves some kind of guilt reaction left over from the Viet Nam war, but that seems to be changing, at least in the SF Bay Area. There's been a number of more upscale Vietnamese places in recent years, and it's been a long time since I heard someone make whispered comments about dog meat.
Note for caffiends: Vietnamese coffee is usually served in a drip filter, on top of a small glass with an inch or two of sweetened condensed milk. You can't guzzle it immediately, you've got to wait for it to go drip-drip. Then you stir the coffee layer into the condensed milk. You then optionally pour it over a tall glass full of ice. This opens up a whole new dimension in bean-worship. It is never available as decafe.
Okay, so it's time for one more list:
I've already talked about Sweet Inspirations, a place in or near the Castro, on Market Street. If you've never seen a slice of cake to rich to finish by yourself, you should visit this place to be convinced. The selection changes a lot, and they're fairly creative about it (though sometimes in that silly California way).
But I find that I've only talked obliquely about See's Candy, though. This is a fairly sizable California chain, that apparently hasn't changed their formula in ages. I frequently wander into one of them on impulse, and select a half dozen or so pieces. They always throw in one or two free samples of other stuff (they don't seem to care how small the order is). The total is usually something like $3 for more candy than I feel like eating over the next couple of days.
You'll encounter Sees places all over... I find that most often I wind up going to the one on Market on the north side of the street, between 5th and 4th I think. One of the few bright spots of the "Lower" Market, I suppose. There's also one out on Polk, north of California (near the end of the Cable Car line I've talked about). And there's also one near the Berkeley Bart Station.
Oh, incidentally, many people seem to be fond of the "Just Desserts" chain. I don't think that much of it myself, but if "Sweet Inspirations" does you in, you might look for one of those. There's one on Church street, near Sparky's, right next to the "Muddy Waters" over there.
Okay, so the coffee house thing has caught on and spread nation-wide, and you wouldn't think there's much to be said about it, right?
Most (though not quite all) of the "cool" coffee places are run by members of one arabic family... I've heard the founding member called "Ramsey", beginning with the (now defunct) Horseshoe in the lower Haight, though I'm not sure if that's his first or last name.
This isn't exactly a secret... a bunch of these places have shared names, for example "Muddy Waters" or "Jammin' Java". On the other hand, it's not exactly advertised, either... many of the places have unique, one-off names, like the "Horseshoe" itself. They all carry the same kind of coffee ("Max's Blend", or something like that, and no not "Maxwell House"), and it's all brewed the same way, pouring the liquid through the coffee grinds twice. The second time through may not up the caffeine levels all that much, but it definitely makes it seem stronger.
Usually you can identify a Ramsey-style place by the decor: ultra-cheap, using lots of dark-stained plywood, often in the form of benches against the wall and sometimes used as flooring. And there ain't no goddamn formica.
For me though, these places are identified as much with what they don't make an effort to control as with what they do... the music and the art on the walls all seems to be up to the local staff, and I think this is always a better idea than rigid corporate control of the environment. If all chains were this relaxed and unpretentious, I'd stop complaining about chains.
There's The Japanese Tea Garden, in the middle of Golden Gate Park, roughly around the 12th street area. To find this place you probably need a map of the park: look for one of the posted ones if you don't have one of your own. The hours of the tea garden are 9AM to 6:30 PM, and the general admission fee is $2.50. The tea house itself is a little crowded at times.
The Imperial Tea Court on Powell Street, near Broadway, in Chinatown. A great place, which just does Tea in a few different classic chinese styles, which they will gladly explain to you in depth. No scones, no biscuits, none of that stuff, so think of it as a post-brunch stop. They're only open during the day,
And there's also "Lovejoy's Antiques and Tearoom" for the complete British tea experience, on Church St, in Noe Valley, a few blocks south of 24th St. This place doubles as an antique store (all the furnishings are for sale), and yes, the name appears to be an intentional reference to the books by Jonathan Gash.
"Samovar Tea Lounge" has opened up at 18th and Sanchez. Excellent food and tea in the moderate/moderately expensive range, and while the atmosphere is slick enough for the slicks, it's toned down enough so that it doesn't offend a reverse snob like myself. Cool music, on the slow and trancey side. Monday-Friday: 7am-10pm; Saturday-Sunday: 8am-10pm Reference
The latest trend seems to be American Comfort Food. Slicked-up, slightly over-priced places selling fried chicken or yupped out mac-n-cheese. Myself, I do not find this comforting, but you might take note of a place on Valencia called "Spork" (which occupies a former Kentucky Fried Chicken) and "The Front Porch" down on 29th Street, a few blocks off of Mission St.
If you'd like some pointers from me to real American food, you may have to wait for my long-awaited guide to The Misunderstood Diner.
Oh, and one last embarrassing subject. You've been in town for only two hours, and you're going through net-withdrawal. What can you do?
There are a number of places with coin-operated web terminals that are worth a shot if you're using a web mail account:
The Kinko's chain has net access, and they're open 24 hours. I tend to favor the one at 1967 Market Street, near Duboce.
And there's some new cafes around with some form of net access (at least web terminals). I haven't looked at these places too closely yet:
I've held off on writing this hotel section for ages -- the thing is, I live here, why would I know about the hotels? But I can suggest looking into a few places:
The San Remo Hotel, over on the Wharf side of North Beach: (link). My sister used to like staying at this place. The rooms are small, but the atmosphere is good ("charming", as opposed to slick). Moderately-priced, but remember: shared-bathrooms.
Another thought would be the "Phoenix Hotel" (link), which is the place a band on tour is most likely to stay. You may run into them by the pool. Last I was here (some years back) I thought the rooms were just basic hotel rooms, albiet kitsched-up slightly, but the statuary around the pool area was super-cool (too bad the mural looming over it all has gone away). This is located in a not-too-nasty part of the Tenderloin, with some passible restaurants right there on the corner, and it's only a block off of the Polk Street corridor.
My third thought, is the Adante (link) a few friends of mine stayed here a year ago, and if they had any problems with the place, they didn't mention them. This hotel has a net cafe downstairs: "The 24 fps Cafe". If the line for computers is too long, there's always the Internet Cafe at Taylor and O'Farrell. This is definitely in the Tenderloin, but on the edge of SF's "Theater District", (which in turn is on the edge of Union Square). The less adventurous should probably make a point of entering and exiting from the east. Note: at O'Farrell and Mason is the cheap and yet excellent "Naan and Curry" restaurant, open 24 hours.
If you'd like something way cheap... I might suggest the Green Tortoise Hostel (link). If I read them right, they've got some private rooms with double-beds starting at $65. They're located right in downtown North Beach (or rather, above it, on one of the steep sides of Telegraph Hill). Just a few blocks from Chinatown.
Another possibilty is "the Red Victorian" B&B (aka "the RedVic", not to be confused with the movie theater up the street): link. The rooms start at around $125, and most of them look like the bed room of a hippie teenage girl, but this is in the middle of the Upper Haight zone, which for all it's flaws, can not be confused with Union Square.
And I suppose if you'd like something more luxurious, and aren't too worried about price, my pick would be The Kabuki Hotel (link) in Japantown. As of this writing, the room rates start at $160 a night, but at least you get something for it (e.g. a one day pass at the Kabuki hot springs -- but check the sched to see if your gender is welcome that day) and Japantown is a more interesting neighborhood than Union Square.
If you want to keep looking around, I suggest looking either for hostels (on the low end) or bed and breakfests (on the higher end). There is essentially no reason to consider staying in the big downtown hotels: even if you can spend the money on it, why would you want to hang around with people willing to spend it?
Here's some ways for you to find out about events in the Bay Area, from the privacy of your own web browser:
I was trying to separate Music and Art for awhile, but that's another one of those pointless distinctions... I suppose it's a trend for the some of the more interesting/intellectual music to gravitate toward art venues, because strangely enough they're not so good at upping the take from the bar. (Probably: I should organize this section according to brow-height... that'd probably make more sense.)
Note: The current state of on-line transit information for the Bay Area... could be worse, I suppose. Traditionally, they change their minds about what to name things every six months, so you should expect to find broken links below.
Someone wrote to say that Golden Gate Park in San Francisco is part of the system known officially as the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, which stretches up the coast north of the Golden Gate itself. You could take this as an explanation as to why a park which isn't anywhere near the Golden Gate is called Golden Gate Park. I'd say it points toward a possible explanation... the phrase "Golden Gate" must have had powerful name recognition back when these parks were being set up. Much easier to get congress to fork over money for a great American symbol like the Golden Gate, even if you're talking about something like Point Reyes, which is way out of town.
Funny, it never occured to me that Golden Gate Park was under federal control in any way. In recent years we've had a bunch of local referendum that imply it's under the city's control, for example on subjects like "should they build a parking garage in the middle of the park". (This actually passed, but just barely.)
Some of the few saving graces of Union Square:
More locations could be added to a beatnik tour of the city:
Maybe I should add a "Cheap food" section?
You got a problem with any of this? Send it to: