Three Perfect Days in San Francisco

Three Perfect Days in San Francisco

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  1. San Francisco used to be a romantic getaway, where couples could wander the friendly, clean streets, taking in wondrous views of neo-classical architecture, stopping in to a welcoming art gallery and traipse into one of many exquisite restaurants. Times have changed, unfortunately. The streets are no longer clean and as safe as days of yore; wherever you go you have to step around—and sometimes over—homeless people drawn to the city by its nanny-state welfare policies; and worst of all, these negative changes are reflected by many of the locals, who traded in friendliness for sarcasm and bitterness. Still, the great architecture remains, several good restaurants are still doing business and—if you know where to go—the City by the Bay still has a lot to offer. Just try not to step on any vagrants while you’re there.


     One way to see the sights is via tour bus. However, you will only see what the tour guide wants you to see and many of the more interesting locales in San Francisco are not accessible by bus. Take the tour if you must, but keep in mind that, while rather hilly, San Francisco is compact enough to be a great “walking city.” By which I don’t mean it may get up and stroll up the coast when you aren’t looking, but instead that almost everything is reachable on foot.


    Day One: North and Central San Francisco

      Start off like any tourist and begin your tour in the Marina District. Many art galleries dot this area, so you can aid the digestion of breakfast by walking from one to another and enjoying anything from classic style art, to things so bizarre you’ll wonder how the label “art” applies.


     For lunch, drop in to one of the many seafood restaurants lining the west side of Fisherman’s Wharf, including Tarantino’s (no association with the actor/director Quentin Tarantin that I am aware of; even if there is, gangland murders are rare in the restaurant, at least on weekends), Alioto’s and Fisherman’s Grotto Number 9 (and no, I don’t know the significance of the number 9, nor why a restaurant would call itself a grotto when it is plainly not a cave).


     After a filling lunch, it’ll be safe to pay the neighboring Boudin Bakery a visit without feeling the need to buy everything in sight. Most people rave about the loaf-bowl of chowder, but my advice is simply to buy a round of the best sourdough bread you will ever have. Make sure you buy a stick of butter somewhere and maybe a bunch of grapes, and you have yourself an excellent snack fit for a dozen. If museums and the sea are your things, drop in to the Maritime Museum, which includes a tour of a real submarine, the USS Pampanito.


     Next comes a walk eastward to Pier 39. I don’t really recommend this, as it’s purely a device to lure in gullible tourists, but it’s so popular with visitors you’d ignore me if I said to avoid the place. Try to resist the urge to impulse-buy everything, or even anything, but while you’re there, you may want to take a gander at the many sea lions that have claimed some of the docks as their own.


     In the afternoon, hop on a cable car on Hyde St., west of the wharf, and take it to the corner of Powell and Jackson. This serves two purposes: transportation, and crossing “cable car ride” off your list of things to do. And while you will have to wait in line to board the cable car, the end of any cable car route (which this is) is always the easiest place to board the trolleys, as they remain packed through most of their routes. (And for Christ’s sake, do not call a cable car a trolley while in San Francisco or some local will lecture you harshly on the differences between the two.)


     From the corner of Powell and Jackson, Chinatown is an easy walk, two blocks east. Spend some time perusing the many shops, trying to decipher demonstrations of the cryptic language all around you and maybe get into a staring contest with a dead duck or rabbit hanging inside some window. When the hunger pangs strike, find Sansome Street (runs north-south just east of Chinatown) and step into Henry’s Hunan Restaurant for a trendy but tasty—and spicy—meal.



    Day Two: Central and West San Francisco

      Start your day off with a hearty breakfast featuring world famous waffles or French toast at Sears Fine Food, one block north of Union Square on Powell Street. You could pay less eating at Denny’s or IHOP, but then you’d have to eat Denny’s or IHOP’s food, and no one wants you to do that, especially you.


     Once you’ve had your fill, make your way toward the Golden Gate Bridge, but take a left when you get there and enter the Presidio, one of America’s most famous retired Army bases and home to a national cemetery, an historic airfield and spectacular views of the bay and especially the Golden Gate Bridge.


     At the northeast corner and just outside the Presidio, the Palace of Fine Arts is your next stop, and more specifically the Exploratorium. This hands-on museum of science and industry is a playground for kids of all ages, filled with fun interactive exhibits that entertain while they teach. Be sure to take a turn in the parabolic dishes and have a whispered conversation with a friend dozens of feet away that no one else will be able to hear.


     From there, it’s a short trip to Golden Gate Park. The Pan Handle of the park is only two blocks from the infamous corner of Haight and Ashbury and the park—which is 20% larger than New York’s Central Park (but considerably smaller than Griffith Park in Los Angeles)—extends over 50 blocks from Baker street to the Great Highway and the Pacific Ocean.


     Start your tour of the park in the Japanese Tea Garden. Covering an area of little more than a residential block, you can see pretty much everything in a fifteen minute walk, then enjoy a cup of tea in the tea house. You can make this your lunch stop, too, as they serve several Japanese delicacies such as sushi, bento, udon, miso soup and several snackables that you can construct into a light meal.


     Next, take a short walk along the Music Concourse past dozens of the ugliest trees you’ve ever seen and pay a visit to the California Academy of Sciences.  You can easily spend an entire day exploring all the academy has to offer, but I usually spend all of my time in the Steinhart Aquarium. I have often wished to create a replica of their circular shark tank as my own personal bedroom, so I can “swim with the fishes” every night without the drawback of having to die.


     The rest of the park can take weeks to explore in detail. As you make your way westward, you can walk through the Arboretum, stroll through the Chinese Pavilion, skip your way past Elk Glen Lake and Meadow, do a jig on the shores of Spreckels Lake and take in a quick nine holes at the golf course at the west end of the park.


     After a hike that long and that involved, you’re going to want a big meal of really good food. Fortunately, there’s a place that can provide just what you need right on the Great Highway, just outside of the park, and that’s Beach Chalet Brewery and Winery. If you’re lucky enough to get a window seat—and if it isn’t foggy, which is always a distinct possibility—you may be treated to a great sunset over the ocean as you dine. This is a somewhat trendy restaurant, but the portions are good, and though not cheap, it won’t break the bank as long as you don’t have to buy dinner for a family of eight (and if you do, there’s a Burger King on La Playa Street just around the corner, but half a mile’s walk).



    Day Three: A Short Drive North of San Francisco

      After catching a quick breakfast, head over the Golden Gate Bridge to Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Now, for some reason, San Franciscans try to hide this recreation area from the rest of us, so pay close attention if you want to see it: Once you cross the bridge, stay to the right and exit onto Alexander Avenue. Pretty quickly, you’ll see a sign saying to go left to return to the 101 freeway back into San Francisco. Don’t be fooled!  Follow this sign and swing left, then turn left onto Alexander Ave. You will pass beneath the freeway, then parallel it. If you stay on Alexander, it will return you to the southbound freeway, so turn right onto Conzelman Road—the first and only road you’ll see branching off Alexander.  Keep to the right and this road will take you into Golden Gate National Recreation Area.


    Once you’ve had enough of that, return to Hwy 101 North (by turning left on Alexander) and take the exit for Mill Valley-Sausalito. This will place you on Hwy 1 (PCH), the Shoreline Highway. You will twist and turn through increasingly lovely country, and then come to a sharp 20 mph turn. A road branches off directly ahead of you here; this is Muir Woods Road, and it’s the one to take. It will become Paseo Del Mar Road in time and will take you right into Muir Woods National Monument. When you see parked cars, join them by also parking, and then take a walk amongst the majestic redwoods.


     But don’t spend too much time on your hike; there’s plenty more to see, starting with a return trip to Hwy 1. Turn right and continue to the coast. This gorgeous drive will look familiar if you like old thriller movies, because it’s the same route taken by Tippi Hedren on her drive to Bodega Bay in the movie The Birds. But first, we have another stop to make, at Point Reyes National Seashore. When you reach Point Reyes Station, turn left onto Sir Frances Drake Boulevard. This long and windy road will take you to several vista points along the point (some are seasonal, so plan ahead).


     By now, you must be starving, so return to Shoreline Hwy and head north into Bodega Bay. This town still looks much the same as it did when Hitchcock filmed his classic there, and many of the landmarks remain, such as the restaurant (they serve good fish and chips, incidentally) and the schoolhouse. I advise you to not tease any birds while you’re there; they’re still a little edgy and you never know when they might just go off on you. Instead, pick a seafood restaurant (there are plenty) and take care of your grumbling belly.


     After your late lunch, continue north on Hwy 1, taking in more stunning coastal views, until you take a bridge over the Russian River. After the bridge, turn right onto River Road (Hwy 116). The road lives up to its name, following every bend of the river as it cuts through the coastal range, and will lead you into Guernville. This beautiful little town plays host each May to the Russian River Women’s Weekend, one of Northern California’s largest lesbian events. More importantly (for men and heterosexual women; at least those that imbibe), Guernville is also home to the Korbel Winery. As you leave the town, you can’t miss it on the left side of the road. Drop in for free wine tasting, including several sparkling wines you don’t often see in your local stores, like the pinot noir, blanc de noirs, chardonnay and Riesling champagnes. The winery has a delicatessen, but I can’t imagine you’d have an appetite yet, having gorged on fish and chips only an hour or so earlier.


     Complete your day with dinner north of San Francisco and get off Hwy 101 in San Rafael (exit on Hetherton Street). Turn right onto 4th Street and you’ll have your pick of dozens of restaurants, from fancy to fast food. One of the highest rated of these is Vin Antico, but don’t eat there unless you’re a yuppie who likes to pay too much for his meals. Sure, it’s trendy, but that doesn’t make it the best food around (any place—like this—that automatically adds a 20% gratuity to the bill of any party of more than five people should be avoided at all costs). Instead, keep going down 4th Street until you find My Thai (between B and C streets). With reasonable prices and a versatile menu, this is a nice compromise between fancy and cheap, as it’s a nice place and the food is very highly rated, plus they have a good selection and you won’t have a stroke when you get your bill.

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