Five days in San Francisco

San Francisco is a city I have always wanted to visit. This ambition I guess arose out of Armistead Maupin’s books Tales of the City, More tales of the city and many more (all of which I read); the music of Steely Dan and ‘60s flower power (yes there is a little bit of hippy in there somewhere!).
All through university I spent my summers in the States teaching tennis in the Pocono mountains just north of Philadelphia. These visits allowed me to travel extensively around the States. The furthest west I ever managed to get, however was New Orleans in 1986 with Newcastle university pal Charlotte Corke. We travelled as far as we could on Greyhound buses but eventually got stopped in our tracks by a hurricane and sadly had to return home.
I took myself back to the USA post university to NYC and Boston working as a bike courier (I bought myself one of the first Marin bikes with a short, straight cross bar to allow for fast riding through US city streets and avenues) and a cocktail waitress …. Whilst in Boston the courier company offered me the opportunity to transfer to their San Francisco office. The job was scheduled to start in the November. However I decided not to follow up on the offer as one of the other Boston couriers told me it rained constantly in November / December and that the City was very hilly… I instead stayed in Boston until the December snow and ice prevented me from riding my bike and doing my job. I returned home with a big bag of money, paid off all my student debts (things were a lot different way back then … the debts were a bit more manageable) and got my first full time job as a town planner in private consultancy in London. The year was 1988 and since then I have had in the back of my mind a wish to visit San Francisco. One great aim was to ride a bike down route 1 into San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the City.
This ambition was also one shared by the small blond Treanor one and so fast forward 30 years and our joint ambition has finally been realised and I have to say the journey to and across the bridge and our subsequent stay in the city did not disappoint. Indeed it massively exceeded all our expectations.
Our journey to the bridge saw us approaching the city from the north and as Claire has already mentioned we spent a few days looking down on and imagining SF from Marin City and the Marin headlands. We did some great rides, recommended by local cycle clubs where we viewed the city’s profile from high. This of course increased the anticipation in terms of what SF was going to be like .
The day eventually arrived where we were to ride into the city . We decided to go via Sausalito in order to see the many houseboats that sit in the bay. After lunch in a groovy Mexican shack we got on our bikes to ride across the bridge. The approach road from Sausalito hugs the coast and we had to contend with the most tremendous headwind, which almost blew us of our bikes. Heads down we turned a corner and there it was our first glimpsed view of Golden Gate Bridge … orange, as Claire said not red and shrouded partly in mist. We turned another corner and it disappeared and the wind battered us . We climbed a short hill, turned another corner and there looming above us was the bridge. I of course shed a small tear. After all these years there it was! With the wind blowing very hard we stood with all the other tourists and took the obligatory photos. The sea below looked wild and a group of very brave windsurfers rode the waves in the bay below .
After viewing and photos we walked our bikes to the cycle / pedestrian track that crosses the bridge. Multiple lanes of traffic hurtled past to our right as we began riding and the wind blew hard. We rode slowly alongside the many other tourists walking and riding. It was a pretty intense ride and to be frank not quite as enjoyable as I had envisaged . By the time we got to the other side, however the mist started to clear and the sun came out and we were presented with the classic picture views of the bridge … amazing!
After a few photos we then made our way to our hotel on Bush Street near to Union Square in the Nob Hill neighbourhood. It was during this journey that we learnt that San Francisco is indeed seriously hilly and we had to drag our bikes, luggage and selves up almost vertical slopes. A thought drifted through my head …. how do the less mobile get around this town?
Our home for the next five days: Le Petite Auberge. A small but perfectly formed hotel that styled itself as a small Parisienne town house. Possibly not that SF but it proved to be a perfect respite from the hub-bub of the city. A small lounge, a real log fire and complimentary drinks welcomed us at the end of each day and the staff were super friendly.
So what of our five days in the city? We think probably the best way to describe our experience in terms of what we learnt, what we liked and what we did not like is to summarise under headings. So again and in no particular order:
The neighbourhoods. The city’s core is relatively small and is defined by a number of distinct neighbourhoods, which give the City character. It is also a city that is easy to navigate and orientate due to a simple historic street grid that can be traced back to the city’s early growth. Having said this it proved helpful to understand the city’s topography and to understand how to avoid impossible gradients . … this is absolutely not a city for those who like walking in high heels (or cleats – Jen landed on her butt spectacularly on our arrival). Luckily we’d left the Blaniks at home!
So first of we got ourselves registered with the Ford Bike hire system and then set about discovering the city on foot and by bike. It is evident the extent to which earthquakes have influenced how the city has evolved.
Fave neighbourhoods : Dogpatch and Mid-Market (rejuvinating and growing. Old industrial buildings and warehouses are being regenerated and occupied by small businesses and artists. New interesting housing developments); Mission (San Francisco’s oldest neighbourhood, which supports lots of great restaurants and bars) SOMA (lots to see and do) and Pacific Heights (older and more established and full of older and very beautiful town houses built in the Champagne era of the late nineteenth century).
One neighbourhood that bemused us, however was Tenderloin. Situated at the heart of the city, running between Union Square and City Hall. The area comprises four key east west streets, which appear to have resisted gentrification, even though is bounded by some of the city’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. It is home to many homeless people who appear to live on the streets that comprise the neighbourhood. The authorities clear the streets every morning, hose down the sidewalks and remove rubbish. By nightfall, however the city’s homeless again take their places on the sidewalks. Food and second hand clothes are handed out by volunteers from trucks and various support organisations occupy shop units in the ground floors of buildings.
On further investigation as to what is going on we learn it has a bad reputation and tourists are told to avoid the area. The area’s origins can be traced back to 1800 where prospectors and immigrants moved in because the area was flat…..the wealthier made their way to higher ground. The neighbourhood became known as an entertainment district – both legal and illegal.
During the Gold Rush, the Tenderloin was the spot to spend your money on a night out: at brothels, theatres, restaurants and hotels. From 1907 until the mid ’50s Tenderloin was one of the city’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. But the area’s demise came in the 1950s onwards, when the movie industry collapsed in the city. In addition the city started cracking down on the area’s quasi-legal businesses.
Without foot traffic or business, crime and drug dealing moved in and the neighbourhood was by-passed. However in this ignored neighbourhood many residents found community. Many people who could not find a home elsewhere found affordable housing in Tenderloin’s old hotels.
This accommodation – basically residential hotels have been offering a second chance for recovering addicts, domestic abuse survivors and people getting off the streets. The neighbourhood offered many a new beginning and it is this ‘new beginning’ that the residents found themselves wanting to save – even if it had problems.
There are also specific policy reasons why the Tenderloin has remained relatively affordable and has not gentrified to the same degree as the rest of the city. Apparently there was an aggressive nonprofit acquisition of land when land was relatively cheap and these not for profit organisations have held onto the land, and many of them run affordable housing programmes.
In addition zoning policies prevent high rise buildings. Non residential uses above second floor are also specifically regulated.
The city has also made it hard to get rid of the Single Room Occupancies (SROs) in the residential hotels or their tenants. So the existing low cost housing stock is protected as low cost homes. In addition many of the buildings are historic and are protected.
As a result many people on lower incomes have not been forced out of their homes, which is a good thing. But the area has its problems and it seems more positive investment and social support is needed to help deal with the ever present on street issues of homelessness and addictions. We would hope a city of such wealth and innovation can work constructively with these communities.
The food. This is a city that is serious about its eating. There are many small and diverse neighbourhood eateries spread across the city, reflecting different strands of its cultural heritage. The choice was almost overwhelming and took quite a lot of in depth research to ensure we got a broad taste of the city!
We read a lot and asked the waiting staff in restaurants where they would eat. We thought we also should try and go and check out some different neighbourhoods ….our four fave finds were Al’s Place (Located in Mission, small, buzzy, loud and colourful. Pretty and inventive plates to share, contemporary American cooking); Cotogna (Downtown Italian, rustic feel, cosy, great for Sunday supper and delicious freshly made pasta); The Progress (Fillmore District… we wanted to go State Bird Provisions next door, but it was all booked up. The Progress is the sister restaurant and is every bit as special. Sharing plates and a main event of simply cooked quality plates of meat. Super delicious flavours combining all sorts of tastes and ingredients, but still managing to keep things simple and rustic. Seemed a very local SF crowd and a great space to eat in) and finally Del Popolo (wood fired Neapolitan style pizzas situated in the Nob Hill district. Lovely small laid back space. We sat at the bar and watched many pizzas being constructed and then cooked in a very large and fiery pizza oven. Again simple and all washed down with some pretty delicious local red wines).
We also discovered Jane’s on Filamore and Larkin for breakfast. Delicious and innovative breakfast bowls made of lots of lovely fresh things that are super good for you and quality coffee and ate a delicious ‘Pok’ (new to us, diced raw fish, rice, vegetables in layers and originating from Hawaii) in a ‘Meanwhile’ park in the Dogpatch district.
We also liked the way restaurants and bars built decks into former on street parking spaces. These build outs are used as extra seating and make the streets more vibrant…a bit of that in London would be great (if only planning didn’t have to get in the way).
The only disappointment in the eating department was that we did not have more time to visit many more eateries. The food scene in SF is super vibrant, fresh and exciting. It also felt very local. All the restaurants we visited were very welcoming, no stuffiness, pretense or mega expense. Just people who love food, wanting to experiment, try new things and to share what they are doing with their customers. All very refreshing and I guess very in tune with the whole San Francisco vibe.
Architecture. We wondered and cycled and took in the many buildings old and new. SF is a city that is booming and evolving very fast. Cranes are everywhere and some impressive new buildings are being added to the city’s skyline. In addition older warehouse buildings are being rejuvenated and brought back to life and large swathes of new mixed used buildings are being introduced into some of the neighbourhoods that surround the main downtown area.
Significant investment is also going into the public realm and street planting. Hence, a city that is actually delightful to stroll through or cycle.
Some building highlights included (although there are a many many more….and we only scratched the surface):
– The recently opened Salesforce intermodal transit station and Salesforce tower designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli architects and both of which are the centerpieces of the San Francisco Transit Center District Plan and Transbay Redevelopment Plan.
On further research we learn that these two plans comprise the key implementing documents for the creation of a new neighbourhood that covers some 40 acres at the heart of the City. Together they will help to enable a serious piece of replanning that will deliver around six million square feet of new downtown office space around the new multi level transit centre, 4,000 new homes (1,200 of which will be affordable – state law 35% of all new units in the Project Area must be delivered as affordable to very low- to moderate income housing), 100,000sqft of new retail, 1,000 new hotel rooms, new streets, landscaping and cycle infrastructure and around 11 acres of new public parks, including a 5.4 acre park on the roof of the transit centre.
We were lucky enough to visit the roof top park and transit centre, which have very recently opened. It is a very clever piece of city design which manages to accommodate train and bus infrastructure in a multi level building and to enclose it with buildings and screens such that the transit building itself and the buses and trains are largely hidden from view and the orientation of routes and the use of multi level ramps means that the buses existing and entering the building have little impact on the majority of the surrounding streets and public realm, which is designed with pedestrian and cyclist in mind. Interchange between modes happens inside the building at multi levels and the roof top park can be accessed directly from upper levels of new office buildings and hence although it is high up it still feels like a positive part of the public realm.
Since visiting we have learned that cracked beams in the new transit centre has forced it to close less than two months after it had opened. So our visit on 22nd September may be one of the last for a while!
– The SFMOMA extension by Snohetta in collaboration with EHDD Architecture, which incorporates and renovates the original Mario Botta designed building.
La Cocina, a community kitchen dedicated to helping immigrant women, start their own restaurant business. Located in Mission, the kitchen incubator combines with three townhouses, all designed by Paulett Taggart Architects.
Yerba Buena Center, Mission Street, which includes the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (by Fumihiko Maki, 1993), the Novellus Theatre (James Stewart Polshek and Partners, 1993) and the Metreon, a shopping and entertainment centre (SSWN/ Gary Handel and Associates, 1996).
– The 1948 Circle Gallery, 140 Maiden Lane, which is rumored to be Frank Lloyd Wright’s prototype for the Guggenheim in NYC.
– HAAS-Lilienthal House, 2007 Franklin Street. Queen Anne residence, which has been turned into a museum.
St Mary’s Cathedral, 111 Gough Street., designed in 1971 by architects Pietro Belluschi, Pier Luigi Nervi and McSweeney, Ryan and Lee.
Housing old and new. A morning spent looking at the rows of Victorian town houses in Russian Hill and the ‘Painted Ladies’ along Alamo Square Park is a must. We also enjoyed Lombard Street and China Town. Touristy but fascinating! However we also enjoyed strolling around the new housing developments in Bayview, Dogpatch and SOMA.
Art. The SFMOMA is not only a great building to wander around, it also has some great art to go see. We enjoyed their latest exhibition on Rene Magritte. It looked at his late career, examining his work from the 1940s through to the 1960s and allowed us to view some of his most famous paintings, many of which now sit in private collections. A lovely experience!
Yoga. A big feature of the journey to date has been participating in as much Yoga as possible in order to balance the endless hours on the bike and to stretch the bits that are getting over worked and the bits that are not getting used very much at all.
Yoga is big in SF and hence we were rather looking forward to the experience. We found two great yoga studios in Russian Hill. Both of which took their Yoga very seriously. We managed four sessions of Vinyassa, all of which were excellent. The teachers took time with us and as part of the sessions taught us to improve our postures. So this put us in good stead to take on the next part of our journey through to LA.
So that was San Francisco for us. Not long enough but a good introduction. We will be back, but for now we cycle southwards to LA!

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