header
graphic
facebook twitter linkedin
rss feed news

Deep Culture Travel:

Neighborhoods of San Francisco

by Karen Misuraca, published in San Francisco Magazine

Her past and her future determined by a vast sheltering bay, San Francisco has welcomed all comers from Spanish conquistadors to Mexican settlers and the fortune seekers of the Gold Rush. From around the world they sailed through the Golden Gate. They stayed and they prospered, building bright-painted Victorian mansions and modern skyscrapers, sleek hotels and charming cottages. Speaking a cacophony of languages, Europeans, South and Central Americans, Mexicans, Pan Asians, and Pacific Islanders maintain their traditions and their own deliciously vibrant communities across the steep, wooded hills and in the sunny valleys of the city. The architectural treasures, the cuisines, the celebrations and the unique personalities of today's many neighborhoods are waiting to be discovered.

Downtown and Union Square

Legions of date palms and terraced gardens create a pleasant retreat on Union Square in the heart of the city's shopping, hotel and theater zone. Mimes and musicians, and crafts and flower vendors, enliven the wide sidewalks, which are lined with art galleries and designer boutiques. During the holidays, Macy's, Saks and Neiman Marcus engage in "window wars" with their spectacular displays. On Post Street, Gump's is a treasure house of Asian antiques and jade and pearl jewelry. Versace, Polo Ralph Lauren and more emporiums of haute couture fill the airy and ornate, four-story Crocker Galleria; tuckered shoppers rest in the leafy roof garden. A short walk away near the Cable Car turnaround, curving escalators offer a birds-eye view of nine levels of chain stores in the San Francisco Shopping Centre, anchored by a flagship Nordstrom's. In Maiden Lane, a narrow alleyway of small, tasteful shops, the Frank Lloyd Wright design of a gift gallery echoes the spiraling interior of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Afternoon tea is taken in Michael Mina, in the lobby of the Westin St. Francis Hotel, a rococo, Renaissance Revival-style hostelry which has stood for over a century on Union Square. Around the corner, audiences flock to big Broadway musicals in the theater district, and to Tony award winning dramas and musical comedies presented by the American Conservatory Theater in the elegant Edwardian-style Geary Theater.

South of Market (SOMA)

Once a warren of rundown warehouses, SOMA, from Market Street south, is now a gleaming arts, hotel and commercial quarter alive with restaurants, artists' lofts and nightclubs. At its hub, and adjacent to the sprawling, underground Moscone Convention Center, Yerba Buena Gardens is a green sanctuary of broad lawns, a sculpture garden, a moving waterfall tribute to Martin Luther King, and outdoor cafes. Families spend time on the upper terrace, called The Rooftop, in the playground, the ice arena, the bowling center, and the visual and performing arts center, Zeum. At street level, gilded animals twirl on a 1906 Charles Looff carousel. Art lovers head for the soaring, modernist San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Across the way on Mission Street, the dazzling orange-hued Mexican Museum will soon open, along with the new Contemporary Jewish Museum, in a 1907, Willis Polk building. A massive glass wall on the edge of the Gardens, Metreon is an entertainment marketplace with an I-Max theater, high-tech games, restaurants, shops and Maurice Sendak's delightful "Where the Wild Things Are" play space. From concerts to dance performances to the Italian Chalk Art Competition, more than 150 free events comprise the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, between May and October. Among new five-star hotels in the SOMA district are the Four Seasons and W San Francisco; as gold-leafed and glamorous as it was in 1895, the Palace Hotel welcomes guests to the famous glass-domed Garden Court. Gaily-painted vintage streetcars ply Market Street on the F line, from Market and Castro to the bay, and along the Embarcadero to the wharves.

Financial District/Jackson Square

The tallest in a gleaming forest of 20th century high-rises flanking the eastern waterfront, the 853-foot-tall Transamerica Pyramid is a symbol of the financial and banking center of the West that was established in the mid-1800s when gold and silver was discovered in the Sierra foothills. The templelike Pacific Coast Stock Exchange was founded in 1882, the Federal Reserve Bank rose in the 1920s, and, primarily in the 1970s, the five towers of Embarcadero Center became a six-block powerhouse complex of offices, hotels, restaurants and shops connected by elevated walkways and garden terraces. One of the annual events held at the foot of the Center, in Justin Herman Plaza on the palm-fringed Embarcadero, FallFest, in October, features noted chefs, wineries and culinary-related activities. Mid-November through December, the Plaza becomes the Kristi Yamaguchi Holiday Ice Rink. Walkers, cyclists and baby strollers share the salty air and the sea breezes along the Embarcadero, one of the grandest waterfront promenades in the world. A few blocks away from the bustle of the Financial District, in the Jackson Square Historic District are rows of pre-1906-earthquake red brick buildings on narrow streets shaded by London plane trees. Within genteel shops are rare European antiques and objects d'art, and thousands of books in the West Coast's premier architectural bookstore, William Stout's. Annually in March, music, spirits, lectures and special exhibits are enjoyed at the Historic Jackson Square Art and Antique Dealers Promenade.

SBC Park/South Beach

A 253-foot-tall monolith at the foot of Market Street, the Spanish-style Ferry Building anchors the Port of San Francisco, a major trade gateway to the world. Every Saturday morning the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market attracts thousands of shoppers who browse the glass-enclosed atrium arcade and the outdoor vendor's stands, tasting locally-grown produce, artisan cheeses, seafood, teas and wines. Carrying commuters and sightseers, as they have since 1898, passenger ferries depart for cities around the bay. In the shadow of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, with the best view of any ballpark on the planet, SBC Park is home of the San Francisco Giants. Some home-run balls end up with the fishes in McCovey (that's Willie McCovey) Cove, where a flotilla of avid fans in dinghies grab the souvenir baseballs, often hit by slugger Barry Bonds. Beyond the bridge around the waterfront, once a grubby industrial port area, South Beach is now a stretch of new condominiums, brew pubs and cafes. With an Olympic-sized indoor pool and water views from the workout rooms, the updated, circa 1920 Embarcadero YMCA is one of the top health clubs in the country; sharing the building, the Harbor Court Hotel offers YMCA privileges to guests—drop-ins are welcome, too. New Year's Eve along the Embarcadero is festive with fireworks over the bay and a huge dance party at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco.

Nob Hill

The only mobile National Historic Landmarks, clanging cable cars trundle up and down steep Nob Hill, once called "Snob Hill", topped by mansions built by silver barons who financed the transcontinental railroad, opening the city to a gilded age. The 1886 neo-classical James Flood mansion is now a private men's club; next door, guests from the surrounding hotels, and residents walking their poodles, stroll snug Huntington Park, where dolphins and ephebes play on a replica of the curvaceous Tartarughe Fountain in Rome. Medieval-style stained-glass windows glow above the great nave of the French Gothic-style Grace Cathedral. Marble, gilt and glamour characterize a clutch of five-star hotels on the hilltop. The opulent Big 4 restaurant in The Huntington recalls the halcyon days of the notorious railroad tycoons, Huntington, Crocker, Stanford, and Hopkins. Revelers sip Blue Hawaiis in the rainforest-themed Tonga Room at the Fairmont, while romance ensues on the 19th floor of the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins in the Top Of The Mark sky-bar. Guests arrive beneath a Tiffany-style stained glass dome and Baccarat chandeliers in the Renaissance Stanford Court.

Russian Hill/Upper Polk

Famous for "the crookedest street in the world", a brick-paved, switchbacky, narrow roadway with stunning views, Russian Hill is a green and gardeny neighborhood. The fictional site of Barbary Lane in the "Tales of the City" TV series, Macondray Lane is the reward at the top of a creaky wooden stairway leading to a cobbled and wooden byway lined with shingled Edwardian cottages, ballast stones from sailing ships, and riots of trees and flowers. The hidden staircase is one of more than 300 throughout the hilly city connecting dead end streets and picturesque neighborhoods. On upper Chestnut Street, art students and tourists share a sunny courtyard with a fountain and a gull's-eye city view at the San Francisco Art Institute Café, where food is hearty and cheap. In a Spanish-style, 1920s building designed by the architects of the City Hall, the art school is the oldest in the West, and notable for the Diego Rivera Gallery. Locals sunbathe (or, fogbathe) in tiny Alice Marble Park at Greenwich and Larkin; and in Ina Coolbrith Park, named for the state's first poet laureate. Among architectural treasures are the 1870s Freusier Octagon House at 1067 Green Street, and, at 29 Russell, a cottage where Jack Kerouac lived and wrote. On the flank of Russian Hill, Cafés and shops cluster on Hyde Street between Jackson and Union; and Francophiles meet around Polk and Green at a bistro, a café-boulangerie, and at several French-influenced gift and home decor shops.

Chinatown

Upturned pagoda roofs and dragon-bedecked lampposts on Grant Avenue signify health and wealth in Chinatown, which grew up when thousands immigrated here from China to build the city and the railroads during the Gold Rush. A labyrinth of narrow alleys is crowded with small trading companies, fragrant herb shops, tea houses, mysterious Buddhist temples, fortune cookie factories and souvenir emporiums. Herbalists scurry from drawer to drawer, scooping powders, roots and bits of dried plants, twisting them into pieces of Chinese newspaper for their customers. In a Julia-Morgan-designed building, the Chinese Historical Society of America displays 19th century artifacts, parade dragons and a fishing sampan. Across the street from the community's gathering place, Portsmouth Square, the Chinese Culture Center is a small, impressive museum of antique pottery, musical instruments and the gold-adorned costume of an empress. Ten Ren Tea Company offers steaming samples of fifty varieties of green, jasmine and black teas. A meal of Chinese food is a must, in a noodle shop or a dim sum restaurant where patrons choose from carts that clatter by each table, loaded with small plates of stuffed dumplings and savory bites. The Chinese New Year Festival will celebrate the Year of the Rooster in February, 2005, beginning with a flower fair, a carnival and a street fair, culminating in a spectacular nighttime parade of fire-breathing dragons—one is 201 feet long with 100 people beneath—popping firecrackers, giant puppets, and marching bands.

North Beach/Telegraph Hill

In the heart of Italian North Beach beneath the towers of the Romanesque Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Washington Square is an outdoor meeting hall and social center, where Chinese practice tai chi, Italian grandpas sit on park benches, and artists set up their easels. The rich smells of Graffeo coffee, meatball sandwiches and homemade focaccia waft down Columbus Avenue from family-style restaurants, pizza joints, bakeries, delis and more than a dozen coffeehouses where patrons sip cappuccinos and waiters sing opera. Tucked away on the mezzanine of a bank, the North Beach Museum exhibits fascinating old photos documenting early days when fishermen from Genoa and Sicily lived in "Little Italy" in the 1880s. The 1950s Beat Generation—Ginsberg, Kerouac and other anarchists and literary types—congregated at City Lights Booksellers, still owned by poet guru, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Tourists and locals flock to the jazz and comedy clubs and to the long-running comedic satire show, "Beach Blanket Babylon" at Club Fugazi, an irreverent review of pop culture and current events by costumed actors and singers in preposterous hats and outrageous costumes. On top of Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower is an 210-foot tall Art Deco-style memorial to fire fighters decorated with l930s murals of early California; the view from the top is of the entire north Bay Area. Those in the know take the bus up the hill, returning to North Beach by way of the rickety Filbert Street steps past mansions, pre-earthquake cottages and gardens. Beginning with the blessing of the animals, the North Beach Festival in June heralds Italia with arts and crafts, live music, arte di gesso (Italian street chalk art), pizza tossing, food and drink. October, 2005, will see the 137th Italian Heritage Parade, the nation's oldest Italian-American parade, colorful with handmade floats, appearances by Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella, open-air dining, music and dancing.

Fisherman's Wharf

Local chefs meet the fishing fleet as catches of Dungeness crab, sole and salmon are unloaded on the docks of Fisherman's Wharf. Tourists love the clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls, and nibbling on "walkaway" shrimp cocktails as they amble the waterfront boulevard past marine supply and souvenir stores, seafood restaurants and steaming crab pots. Kids love the spooky Wax Museum of 300+ celebrities and historical figures; the Ripley's Believe it Or Not! Museum, and Musee Mechanique at Pier 45, a where 200 antique games are free to play and the WWII submarine, U.S.S. Pompanito, is tied up. Sightseeing boats depart from the piers for cruises around the bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge and to Alcatraz, "the Rock", the notorious former prison where Al Capone and "Machine Gun Kelly" spent their leisure time. The city's famous street performers hold forth on the sidewalks and at Pier 39, a two-level village of shops, restaurants and entertainments where elegant gondolas and ponies glide around a double-decker Venetian carousel, sharks swim by in UnderWater World; and hundreds of wild sea lions perform on K Dock. 40,000 tulips bloom at Tulipmania in February, and in late November, local choral groups sing and a lighted tree is illuminated at the multi-ethnic Holiday Harmony celebration. At the nation's only floating National Park, the Hyde Street Pier, open for inspection are a Scottish square-rigger and antique vessels of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Knot tying, sail-raising and sea-chantey singing are part of the fun.

Ghirardelli/The Cannery/Anchorage Shopping Center

Salty air, views of the bay and sidewalk amusements draw shoppers and diners to three waterfront shopping arcades. A huge brick chocolate factory from the late 1800s, Ghirardelli Square is now a warren of shops and galleries in terraced gardens. Chocoholics dig into sundaes and fresh candies at the old-fashioned Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop; the Chocolate Festival takes place in September, and the gala Tree Lighting Ceremony in late November. Among 130-year-old olive trees and blooming flowers, the BOO! Halloween Festival, an organic farmer's market, and special events take place in the courtyard of the multi-level Cannery, once a Del Monte fruit cannery that now houses 30 shops and restaurants and the new, nautical-themed Argonaut Hotel. A short walk from the Cable Car turnaround, dozens of shops, a brewpub and outdoor entertainment are attractions at the Anchorage Shopping Center. In October, a crowd assembles on the parking garage roof at the "Blue Angel Bash" to watch the U.S. Navy Blue Angels squadron perform a breathtaking air show over the bay during Fleet Week. Quieter pursuits are picnicking on the small beach at Aquatic Park and strolling the long, curving Municipal Pier.

Civic Center/Hayes Valley

Symphony, ballet and opera halls, a French High Baroque Revival-style Civic Center, and one of the largest museums in the world devoted to Asian art are all clustered, along with Federal and State buildings, around United Nations Plaza. Gowned glitterati arrive in limousines for the opening of the opera season in September, and the San Francisco Ballet in the spring, at a Baroque Revival jewel, the War Memorial Opera House. Splendiferously flood-lit at night, the golden-domed City Hall underwent a recent $300 renovation to spruce up the marble, filigreed iron and gilt decorations and the 4-story rotunda where ceremonies are held. Charismatic Michael Tilson Thomas—nicknamed "MTT"—leads the San Francisco Symphony in glass-walled Davies Symphony Hall. In an elaborate 1917 Beaux Arts-style building, around an sky-lit inner courtyard and grand marble staircase, the Asian Art Museum exhibits 6,000 years of art and artifacts, luminous Chinese jades, serene Cambodian Buddhas, Islamic manuscripts, Japanese armor and thousands more riches. On weekends, storytellers mesmerize kids with Asian myths and fairytales. Within the museum, café Asia is a serene indoor/outdoor environment for snacks and tea. Tucked behind the Civic Center beneath the trees on the 500 block of Hayes Street is a blizzard of one-of-a-kind shops, galleries, a wine merchant, a coffee purveyor, booksellers, French bistros, and elegant eateries. Shoppers throng to the Hayes Valley Holiday Block Party in early December for special sales and exhibits, operatic carolers, and seasonal libations. Among architectural highlights in the Western Addition west of Van Ness Avenue are the Julia Morgan-designed Zen Center on Page Street; Victorian cottages on Lily Street behind the Center; and a glorious Queen Anne-style home at 251 Laguna Street at Rose.

The 5-story Peace Pagoda towers above Nihonmachi, or Japantown, consisting of three square blocks of 40 or so shops, restaurants, theaters, galleries, and the Japanese-style Radisson Miyako Hotel. Shoppers discover 19th century woodblock prints, huge bags of rice, kimonos, and silken apparel created by local designer, Mariko Sawada. Kinokuniya Bookstore sells art and architecture books and a hundred different fashion magazines. Hungry sightseers find Maki in Japan Center to be a near-perfect replica of a Tokyo restaurant, serving signature wappa meshi—rice steamed in bamboo baskets and topped with fish, meat or vegetables. Locals and visitors take their turns at the karaoke microphone at Sachi Cocktail Lounge, and plunge into deep ceramic soaking tubs for an authentic Japanese bathhouse experience at Kabuki Springs and Spa. A parade of colorful floats and costumed dancers glide beneath clouds of pink at the Cherry Blossom Festival in April, when karate and other martial arts, and Japanese gardening and food are showcased. More than fifty films are shown at the International Asian American Film Festival at the Kabuki movie theater in March; and traditional Noh and Kyogen dance, drama and storytelling is presented throughout the year. The blood-racing percussion beat and striking poses of Taiko drummers create drama at the Nihonmachi Street Fair in August.

Haight-Ashbury

Rapidly approaching gentrification, the once hippified Haight, of 1960s "Summer of Love" fame, is chockablock with vintage clothing stores, internet cafés, trendy galleries and shops. Some of the larger Victorian mansions are now luxurious bed-and-breakfast inns, notably the Archbishop's Mansion Inn, crowned by a 16-foot-tall stained-glass dome; and the Victorian Inn on the Park, a Queen Anne beauty built in 1897. Site of the Haight-Ashbury Street Fair in June, the Upper Haight, from Stanyan to Masonic, is upscale, where everything from fishnet bodysuits to stiletto heels and all-the-rage Babyphat accessories can be found. The Lower Haight, Divisidero to Webster, remains a diverse, alternative-style neighborhood with music shops and nightclubs, tattoo parlors and tie-dyed T-shirt and retro punk shops. The shop called Costumes on Haight is the best place in town to rent Halloween getups and outfits for Mardi Gras and Carnival. Movie fans love the Red Vic Movie House where they can lounge on sofas, munch on organic snacks and watch cult and independent films. All you need is a giant veggie burrito at All You Knead diner; or fish tapas at Cha! Cha! Cha!, a wildly colorful Caribbean restaurant famous for barbecued pork quesadillas. On a hill near the panhandle of Golden Gate Park, the high vantage point of Buena Vista Park gives great views of the Haight and the city.

The Fillmore/Pacific Heights

Built during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, thousands of gabled, turreted, gingerbread-trimmed Victorian mansions are the "Painted Ladies" of San Francisco, lovingly restored, in hilly Pacific Heights and along the streets of the Fillmore District.

The 4-block-square green aerie of Alta Plaza Park rises in terraces to a ridge surrounded by hundreds of vintage mansions designed by such renowned architects as Bernard Maybeck and Willis Polk. Across from the Spreckels Mansion, a French limestone palace built for a Gold Rush magnate, residents, their dogs and children love the lawns, the pines and eucalyptus in Layfayette Park. Cottage Row on Baker Street is a sweet circa-1890 streetscape in lower Pacific Heights, nearby the Ortman-Schumate house at 1901 Scott, an ornate Italianate landmark from the 1870s. About 200 shops between Jackson and Bush streets are chic boutiques selling pricey antiques, French birdcages, elegant housewares, and vintage and designer apparel. In this city of more than 3,000 restaurants, the Fillmore District offers a New Orleans-style oyster bar; the "gastronomia" and trattoria Vivande Porta Via; patisseries, Italian coffee houses, and cafés on every block. The Fillmore Auditorium is remembered by Baby Boomers for its hard-rock heyday of the 1960s when the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead were headliners. Today's hall presents such bands as the Jefferson Starship and local stars Boz Scaggs and Santana. The best of Bay Area talent is presented on three outdoor stages before huge crowds at the Fillmore Jazz Festival in June.

Union Street

West of Van Ness Avenue between Russian Hill and the Presidio, fashionistas replace milkmaids where dairy cows once drank from freshwater springs, hence the name, Cow Hollow. In the 1600 to 2200 blocks of Union Street, within a gloriously over-decorated procession of Victorians are stylish shops, art galleries and restaurants.

Identical circa-1870 houses at 1980 Union are charming examples, today housing Extreme Pizza and Bar None, a popular watering hole. At 2164, a century-old barn is now a florist shop. A slow-strolling window shopper will come across flower-filled courtyards and hidden gardens, wrought iron fences and gaslights. Old roses and lavender scent the English gardens around an Edwardian mansion, now the Union Street Inn. At Union and Gough is a small museum of decorative arts and historic documents, the Octagon House, built in 1861. Next door, petite Allyne Park is a place to rest one's feet and one's credit cards from overuse. Another Cow Hollow historic site is the Public Library on Green at Octavia, modeled on a Roman basilica, with a terra cotta glazed stone exterior. The former Vedanta Temple at 2963 Webster Street, built in 1905, combines Colonial, Queen Anne, Moorish and Hindu influences in an architectural extravaganza. The Union Street Arts Festival in June is a fun-filled day of music, street performers, art and craft booths, a waiter's race, food and wine. Neighborhood bars and pubs are popular with the singles set, especially around the legendary "Bermuda Triangle" at Greenwich and Fillmore.

The Marina

Joggers, Frisbee tossers and babies in strollers congregate on the city's front lawn, Marina Green, which is bordered by a gallimaufry of yachts and sailboats on one side, and a stately lineup of Art Deco, Moderne and Mediterranean Revival homes on the other. On the 4th of July, the Green is filled with people watching hundreds of flag-flying sailboats, motor yachts, ferries and often, an aircraft carrier, while they wait for the fireworks show. Just above the Marina on the Great Meadow at Fort Mason, Grammy-winning artists and acoustic roots players from around the world perform for thousands on warm September days and nights at the San Francisco Blues Festival. In a nearby neighborhood park, a flamboyantly reddish-orange, classical Roman-style temple, the Palace of Fine Arts is reflected in a lake swimming with swans. A remnant of the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, when a newly rebuilt San Francisco , the Palace is now the Exploratorium, a funhouse for young science and technology buffs. West of the Marina beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, swords, cannons, and costumed docents recall the Civil War era at Fort Point National Historic Site, often misty from waves crashing under the massive girders of the bridge. A bayfront walking trail meanders alongside Crissy Field, a restored marshland where nature lovers watch the seabirds and visit the Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center. Young, hip denizens of the Marina District frequent the small gourmet groceries, cafés, sushi bars, yogurt shops and pizza joints on Chestnut Street. They flirt over the baby carrots at the Marina Safeway and hang out at popular at Cozmo's Corner Grill and the sidewalk tables at Grove Café.

Sacramento Street/The Presidio

A sweep of woodlands, coastal bluffs and beaches in the northwest corner of the city, the Presidio was occupied by Spanish and Mexican armies, then the U.S. Army until 1994 when it became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The magnificent park is threaded with quiet roads and paths for walking and biking. Rangers leads tours of the museums and relics, from Civil War barracks and pre-earthquake Victorians to Spanish cannons. Once the privileged playground of the Army, the Presidio Golf Course, now public, has a new clubhouse and restored fairways and greens. Baker Beach stretches a mile along the western shore, with stunning views of the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands. Just south of the Presidio on Sacramento Street stands an armada of shops and small businesses servicing classy Presidio Heights, where designer-clothed residents furnish their fancy Victorians with antiques and garden ornaments from neighborhood purveyors. The Urban Pet supplies rhinestone collars and custom-made sofas and chairs for Fido and Fluffy, and croissants and baguettes are snapped up at Boulangerie Bay Bread. A block or so away, Laurel Heights on California Street caters to the elite with French pastry at Fantasia Bakery and Confections, and cookware and cooking lessons at HomeChef, owned by gastronomic guru, Judith Ets-Hokin.

Golden Gate Park/Richmond District

A steamy, dreamy jungle of exotic trees, plants and flowers thrive in a monumental Victorian greenhouse shipped around Cape Horn from England in the 1870s. The Conservatory of Flowers is among the many historic attractions of Golden Gate Park, one of the world's largest and most beautiful urban preserves. Built in 1871, it stretches nearly four miles to the sea in a wide swath of meadows, forests, gardens and lakes, incorporating such magical retreats as the oldest public Japanese garden in America, a fantasy when the cherry trees and azaleas bloom, or when red maples blaze against the red-painted pagodas in the fall. Built in 1895, the Temple of Music is the site of free outdoor concerts and festivals, and "Opera in the Park" performances in the summertime. Gourmet food from the city's top chefs, beer, wine and live music bring crowds for the annual "A La Carte A La Park" in Sharon Meadow in August. At the park's western edge, within the terra cotta-tiled, Willis Polk-designed Beach Chalet is a museum of the park with vivid Depression-era murals and mosaics; and a brew pub and restaurant upstairs, with lovely views of the sea and Ocean Beach, a mile-long ribbon of sand. The Coastal Trail is a breezy footpath tracing rugged cliffs from the Golden Gate Bridge through the Presidio and Sea Cliff, a tony residential enclave. The trail wanders through Lincoln Park to Land's End, a picturesque promontory above the ruins of the Sutro Baths, nearby the historic, recently renovated Cliff House restaurant. Within this greenbelt, bronze lions guard the Bronze lions guard the Palace of the Legion of Honor, which shelters 4,000 years of ancient and European art; El Grecos, Renoirs, Flemish tapestries and a roomful of Rodins are among the highlights. Golfers brave winds off the ocean at Lincoln Park Golf Club, laid out in 1910 when surrounding Richmond District residents were trading in their horse-drawn carriages for Model Ts. Today, reflecting a large Asian and Pacific Islander population, a "New Chinatown" has emerged in the Richmond along Clement Street from Arguello to 25th Avenue. Glossy roasted ducks, ginseng, mangoes and star fruit are on sale in the groceries; old records, flowers and books in small shops. Family-owned restaurants may be Chinese or Japanese, Thai, Persian, Vietnamese or Burmese. Sweet Delite sells coconut and taro-flavored tea shakes with tapioca balls at the bottom that customers slurp up with a fat straw.

Upper Market/The Castro

Flying rainbow flags from renovated Victorian mansions, the Castro is inhabited primarily by gay and lesbian population proud of the undeniable joie de vivre of the gay life in San Francisco. The shopping district on Castro Street between 17th and Market is the capital of kitsch, from quirky housewares, fashion-forward apparel and erotic dolls to X-rated greeting cards. A Castro institution, Cliff's Variety sells plumbing supplies, hammers and nails, feather boas and false eyelashes. The entire neighborhood turns out for the Castro Street Fair for swing dancing and Latin rhythms, food and beverages, with profits going to local charities; and, the Castro is ground zero for the biggest annual event in the city, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Parade in June. Nearly half a million spectators watch marchers, and motorcycle and float riders in wild, weird, sometimes scanty regalia from leathers to ball gowns. Castroites are movie fans, flocking to vintage films at the Art Deco-style Castro Theater, where the Silent Film Festival, the Jewish Film Festival and the International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival take place. Restaurants and confectioners' shops are among the best in the city, notably the noisy, trendy supper club, Mecca; Hot 'N' Hunky, for hamburgers; and Joseph Schmidt Confections for chocolate truffles.

Noe Valley

An island of quaint and calm, the urban village of Noe Valley seems disengaged from the rest of the busy city. Inhabited by young families and professionals on the move, the neighborhood's bistros, coffee shops, and bookstores are frequented by satisfied locals who sit on the porches of their Victorians and watch battalions of moms and strollers pass by. The best shopping is on 24th Street from Douglass to Church. Fashion mavens and soccer moms buy workout wear at See Jane Run Sports; retro kitchenware at Nifty Vintique, artisan cheese at 24th Street Cheese Company, and organic produce at the weekly Noe Valley Farmers' Market. One of many gourmet ghettos in the city, Noe Valley is the place for big, fat burgers at Barney's and for the inventive price fixe menu at Le Zinc. Irish expats convene at the quintessential pub, The Dubliner. In a redwood replica of a English Gothic country church, the Noe Valley Ministry has a Presbyterian congregation and a lively schedule of art shows and public events such as poetry readings; and guitar, opera and jazz concerts, making it one of the most unique and intimate performance venues in San Francisco.

Mission District

More than 200 vivid, whimsical, wall-sized murals are dramatic slashes of the Latin American spirit in the Mission, a suncatching valley below Twin Peaks, which has always been home to immigrants. On 16th Street past Mission Street, and on Mission between 15th and Cesar Chavez Street are salsa dance clubs, little groceries, sidewalk fruit stands, and inexpensive restaurants, with a sprinkling of avant-garde art galleries on side streets. The food is legendary—pane at Domingues Bakery, fresh tortillas at Casa Sanchez, frozen fruit bars at Latin Freeze, and the tacos and carne asada at La Taqueria, for nearly three decades on Mission Street, a standout in a community where taqueries are omnipresent. Thousands turn out in ethnic garb for big annual events: Cinco de Mayo and Carnival, the city's Mardi Gras celebration on Memorial Day weekend. The nightlife is fun and friendly in dance clubs and cantinas lively with Latin, Brazilian, Cuban and Caribbean bands—beginners come early for free dance lessons. In an Indian village five days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the first mass was celebrated within the four-foot-thick adobe walls of Mission Dolores, now the oldest structure in the city. Built in 1918, the Spanish colonial basilica next door stands by a lovely little cemetery where lie the Mexican, Spanish, Indian and Irish builders of the city.
 
home    articles    books    iPhone apps    golf travel blog    email Karen

©Karen Misuraca, all rights reserved.
Web development: Sonoma Web Design