Alma Spreckels, the colorful wife of California sugar magnate, Adolph Spreckels, posed for this statue that rises high above San Francisco’s Union Square. More on Alma Spreckels
Day One of Away–
Let me begin with a little story about this get away. My Mom always excitedly bragged that my Dad had “whisked her away” for a week-end to San Francisco. That was the equivalent of globe-trotting in our family of 10 kids. My Dad would often mention the trip, as well. So for me, a whisking away to San Francisco was on my list of to do’s with my husband. I had spent 14 days there 3 years ago living at the Powell Hotel while going to tour directing and guide school. It is a fun, gritty, rich and poor city with so many different things to do with in its 49 square miles. So, for a Christmas gift, I had promised my husband a good whisking away. (Why that sounds so Fifty Shades of Grey, I do not know!)
We wanted to have four full days, so we took the 6am flight from SeaTac International. We parked our car at airport overnight parking. I had an Alaskan companion fare that made our tickets about $300. It is a hop, skip and a jump from Seattle – less than a 2 hour flight. Plus, the weather change is another why this get-away is so inviting. Fall and spring offer the best bets weather-wise so our trip was planned to take advantage of early Fall. After a short and uneventful flight (the VERY best kind!), we landed and grabbed a shuttle to Washington Square Inn
a B and B. This is one of 16 properties of the Boutique Inns and B and B’s that Four Sisters Inns operates in California.
Photo courtesy of Washington Square Inn Bed and Breakfast Website.
An easy connection and short ride, we were dropped at the other side of Washington Square Park in the North Beach neighborhood. That meant a walk through the Park. The groupings of Asian elders doing Tai Chi was an interesting sight, each group had their own twist to it. (No pun intended!)
Morning Tai Chi in Washington Park.
The Catholic Saints Peter and Paul Church was imposing and elegant. I took photos and weaved our way through the Park to the B and B, kitty corner from our drop-off. The sun filtering through the leaves and the warmth was a welcome change from Seattle weather. The Park was bustling. We noticed across the street there was a long line for breakfast. We stopped to read the menu and check out Mama’s. We decided to check-in, drop off our luggage and immediately head back to get in line!
The check-in went smoothly. We were relaxed and excited – the weather being an added bonus, a big bonus. I guess I have already mentioned that we are Seattleites, what else can I say? Waiting in line for breakfast while leaning against the wall and taking in the sunshine was pleasant. Wearing sunglasses a treat! The place is small and packed. Some may not want to wait in line. We were willing to do just that especially after peering in and seeing the food. Big plates of great looking breakfast combinations and cute, sunny yellow country-kitchen décor! We were pretty positive the wait would be worth it.
Just get in line at Mama’s…breakfast or lunch!
The menu is extensive. You walk along a bar and see them preparing the dishes. We had decided to go sweet and savory – so the French Toast Trio and classic eggs benedict were our choices. We planned to switch and share half way through, as is our usual practice, when we dine out.
The French toast tasted terrific…the banana bread, cranberry orange bread and the traditional thick cut French bread and fruit were elegantly plated and fun to eat. So many pleasing flavors: the tart cranberry against the citrusy orange, a rich eggy batter with the real butter and sweetness of the syrup made for a special treat. The fresh-squeezed orange juice was great – exactly what you’d expect from a California destination. The eggs benedict was very, very good…not great; but, I am a Benedict snob. Though generous and the hollandaise ample, I like my sauce a more lemony to heighten the flavor of the poached eggs. I considered it splitting hairs by the time I finished licking the plate. For me: tasty, beautiful plating, something out of the ordinary (not on the home menu!); and, good value for the money spent are exactly what I want when I eat out. We loved it! We sent a photo to our foodie daughter in NYC. We made a mental note of the lunch menu; and, decided we would come back. I wanted to see what they did with the Reuben Sandwich! As it turned out, we never did. But, it became the first on our list of things to do on a return visit!
We returned to settle into our now ready room. As is our usual practice, we rearranged the furniture…somehow it makes us feel more at home. The room was not spectacular or very special. I desire a bathtub! And, that was the reason we took this room. There are several others with views, showers or shared baths – check out the room descriptions to get what you want. There were other things we liked about the place though, a lot of them. Location, Location, Location! North Beach is a fun, safe, clean pedestrian-friendly Italian neighborhood. At this B and B the breakfasts were good and casual. They are not rigid about the serving times. We liked that! When on vacation, we do like to get a little more shut-eye than normal! The coffee and tea bar a welcomed addition and always open. A basket of fresh fruit to snack on and a variety of newspapers to read in front of a fire and wooden mantle also welcomed. As I have said before in this space…newspapers and vacations go together for me…in real life and reality not so much! I remember we were in residence here the day Twitter stock went public. Because the Silicone Valley was so close by everyone was abuzz.
The lobby sitting area is small but comfortable and cozy. The staff is so helpful. The wine and cheese happy hour each evening featured local wines. One evening wine-reps came to talk about the selections. The guests gather around for the ample appetizers: flavored salamis, stuffed grape leaves, various specialty cheeses, crackers, and pickled veggies laid out nicely. We had several great conversations with other guests. There were discussions about great restaurants nearby and must-sees in the neighborhood. The restaurant next door was a highly recommended spot. We did not make it there; but, others who did reported back enthusiastically that it was superb…something about the pork chops! The Coit Tower and the Filbert Steps, right up the hill from this location seem to be on everyone’s list. Again, we did not get there. Which for sure seals the deal – we must return! If you did not crave conversation it is not a problem; the other guests are respectful of that.
Typical double-decker Hop-On Hop-Off San Francisco bus.
Photo courtesy of Hop-on Hop-off website.
We headed out mid-morning for the Hop-On Hop-Off Tours. There are several companies doing this in this city. We traveled in the regular red and white double-decker buses with open tops (some enclosed one-level buses). Some of the buses in the fleet are better than others in up-keep and comfort. It is always wise in off-season to talk to the driver before purchasing your tickets. You can usually hop-on at any stop and settle on the fare later. Sometimes, they give great deals. We paid about $58 for four days of all the hop-on hop-off we wanted. Tipping drivers is optional – sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t depending on narration and service.
We planned this as our main transportation besides walking. Not sure of how it would all turn out; but, it worked perfectly for us. The Hop-On Hop-Off came practically to the front door of the B and B; and, we were off. The City tour is great and takes you to all the places you come to San Francisco to do and see – the Ferry building, The Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, Haight Ashbury, Union Square, Chinatown, Alamo Square by the Painted Ladies, Golden Gate Bridge and Park, The Presidio and Sausalito. You can get off and explore any stop and be picked up later. Be warned that you have to be mindful of the pick-up schedule especially the last run of the day.
Our first hop-off was at The Wharf and to the Argonaut Hotel where Sharon, San Francisco local and tour guide/director friend from travel school, had a meet-and-greet gig. After seeing her and making plans for later, we stumbled into a nice surprise: the small National Parks Museum in the hotel complex. What a gem. Cute, cleaver displays, interactive and full of local history. Loved it and it was a freebie…though, really a donation is in order here, in my opinion. I learned about the National Web Ranger Program here and brochures went with me to be slipped in the grandchildren’s Christmas stockings.
Time to hop-on and do the full route: off to the Golden Gate Bridge and Park, Sausalito, the Presidio, Haight-Ashbury, Alamo Square, The Wharf, Embarcadero…all of it…in full sun. Perfect afternoon for sight-seeing. Taking in the big picture of this City.
Hop-Off photo opportunity at the bridge.
By the time we did the full San Francisco route it was getting to be dusk, we hopped-off at our neighborhood stop; and, took time for a walk around the North Beach neighborhood. We checked out the interesting and famous City Lights Bookstore a historic landmark because it became home of the so called Beat Poets. And, because of the 1956 obscenity law-suit over owner, writer, publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti‘s publishing of beat poet Allen Ginsberg‘s poem Howl that dealt with heterosexuality and mostly homosexuality in a very graphic, frank, accepting way. The history is sometimes shocking and the film Howl, starring James Franco, tells the story in a creative also shocking way. Ferlinghetti is still alive at 94.
After a good browse, (there is a lot to look at and ferret out at in this multi-leveled and crammed bookstore) we headed back for a delightful and filling happy hour at the B and B. Sharon, arrived done with her meet and greet, in time to enjoy a few of the appetizers and a glass of wine with us. Caffe Sport was her suggestion for dinner. In this neighborhood and walking distance, it was a favorite hot-spot that has faded a bit in the past couple of years. It is funky and fun inside. That night there was no wait, and the restaurants all around were buzzing. So, we wondered: why no crowd? Too bad for them as it turned out. Italian is always a challenge for me; I am 100% and hard to please because I cook great Italian. But, the food was really wonderful, as was the service. The waiter did a good job of explaining the family style menu. We had three piping hot pasta dishes…and, plenty of each. One was a hot and spicy, plain tomato sauce; one was a white sauce with seafood; and, the third a traditional meat sauce…typical of southern Italian region, really well-executed! The seasonings and depth of flavor in all three very different tasting sauces provided a satisfying and rich meal my Grandmother may have enjoyed! The pasta done right, perfectly al dente, added to the satisfaction we felt with this restaurant. No room for dessert and little white boxes of left-overs in hand we strolled through the neighborhood. Walking leisurely in the warm evening, we watched people tasting and deciding on gelato from an amazing array of flavors in silver tubs, or waiting in lines for late dinners or trying on hats in the local haberdashery. The local scene of North Beach at night is worth immersing yourself in. Our introductory day and evening in this City geared us up for more.
Caffe Sport interior…lots to look at! Family style authentic Sicilian menu.
Photo courtesy of Caffe Sport website.
Day Two of Away–
We awoke at 9ish and went down for breakfast. We had filled out the little menu left in our room the evening before. It was basic breakfast items nothing fancy or outstanding. What was not on the menu was the frittata with fresh veggies offered when we got downstairs. Nice surprise! The juice was fresh. We lingered over our coffee and tea and pastry, exchanged conversation with others at the table. It was a good start to our day. We decided to walk a little out of the way and around the neighborhood to get to Chinatown. This is an old Italian neighborhood especially noticeable when you are off the main streets – small shops where they cobble shoes, or conduct business in Italian. Small
family-run restaurants are tucked in small spaces all along the streets. Kitty-corner from the B and B was the very unassuming storefront of the famous Liguria Bakery. This bakery specializes in fresh-baked authentic focaccia bread. Folks come from far and wide to get a large doughy slab of one (or two) of their specialty flavors wrapped in white paper and tied with string. They were not opened that day. Rumor is: when they are, they sell out quickly. We made our way to Chinatown. This one is the largest and oldest in North America springing up from the vast immigration of male Chinese laborers during the Gold Rush and for the Railroad. These old, established Asian areas, exist in
most big cities, spring from sad history seem to have faded in the past years. But, to my surprise the shops and vendors were fun and interesting. This is a Chinatown that has a large resident population living within its boundaries which makes it alive not just a tourist spot. This is the perfect street to shop for unique stocking stuffers and souvenirs. I find special fragrant soaps, fun candies, and neat jewelry for all my girls. The rice candy is tops on all the kids lists and 99 cents is a great price for a box. I buy a lot, and a whole case of rose soaps so beautifully wrapped in Chinese rose colored paper with a gold seal. Some say you must haggle for bargains here.
Chinatown….lots to look at…delve in for little treasures! I found the neatest earrings just to the left of the bright underwear…go in the tiny shops and poke around!
The street begs to be photographed and I am enjoying this whole experience: picture taking, bartering and buying. I take a bathroom break at Portsmouth Square- the closest public bathroom. So much is going on here, where mainly Chinese is spoken. Lots of gambling games and Chinese men, obviously not being obvious, huddled in little gaming circles…more Tai Chi. Back on the streets of Stockton and Grant there are herbal and Chinese medicine shops…candies are in interesting flavors, ginger being one of them; and, individually wrapped in pretty, intriguing papers. We spend a lot of time exploring, poking around the spices and shelves of odd medicinal looking packages and large jars. We find more exotic interestingly wrapped treats… more stocking stuffers!
This pagoda style building was squeezed between other more modern ones.
We made our way all the way to Union Square. This the core of Downtown – another classic San Francisco experience. Christmas decorations are going up and the ice-skating rick is in full swing. Upscale stores: Niemen Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Louie Vuitton, Gumps and Macy’s line the streets of this Downtown core and we make the rounds. Window shopping is all we can afford. We really wanted to eat under the historic Tiffany glass ceiling in The Rotunda in Niemen’s; but, could not justify the cost and wait. It is a formal dining room and has the look and feel of a time past. Another, next time experience we decide! The Christmas Shoppe near-by of decorated rooms and wonderful holiday things (we could not afford) was so fun to browse.
Union Square decorated for Christmas; the Menorah was being set up.
We walked to the terminus of the Powell Street Cable Car and watched them turn the cars around. Information on the Cable Car system and how to ride them and planning a visit to the Cable Car Museum may be something you want to read about before you go. The crowds were exciting. Many locals and tourists fill the streets. It was a great picture opportunity and typical tourists we could not resist handing our camera over and getting a shot of us proving we had been there. We visited Westfield San Francisco Center with its many shops and stands. I found a case for my old but new to me trusty iPhone 3G…well, two for $25. I had looked everywhere and was pleased to get them finally. So much there! Bristol Farms Grocery is amazing! Ever had a Bearded Papa…gotta do it here! (Or, anywhere…chocolate covered cream puffs with different flavored cream fillings!)
Jon and I typical tourists!
We were hungry and ended up at Lori’s Diner on Mason – an old -fashioned diner décor with a soda fountain. The food was not skimpy, nor was it great, nor was it awful. The salad had a bug in it – ugh! And, the waitress was non-plussed when told about it. It was busy, service was fair. I had dined at the Sutter Street location on my last visit, a couple of years ago, and liked it much better. Bigger more 50’s including cars, booths, more room and better food; but, now out of business.
We were tired and decided to Hop-On again for a ride around town. Every driver has their own twist to the historical and funky facts making no two rides alike. By the time we got back to the Stop One – Fisherman’s Terminal Mason and Jefferson, where the night tour was to begin we were freezing. It was not the warm breezy we had experienced the night before. We Hopped-Off and found San Francisco fleeces for $15 apiece in a shop next to the stop. Cute, warm, souvenirs and jumped back on the bus. We did the night tour and loved it. We were told the Alamo square neighborhood was soon to be dropped because of the noise and inconvenience for the residents; but, we were glad we got to see it. Looking inside those old Victorians with modern life going on in old, ornate, cramped spaces was interesting! The downtown lighting and the Oakland Bay Bridge lit up to celebrate its final remodel, after damage was done to it by one of those California earthquakes, was terrific. The Ferry Building and Wharf were also exciting to see in the lite up in the darkness. The tour guide this time was an actor (and, cheerleader for San Francisco) and had us all laughing, clapping and straining our necks to see everything. It was a fun night.
The Ferry Building at night.
Oakland Bay Bridge lit to commemorate its remodel of over 10 years after earthquake damage.
We were starved by the time we got back to North Beach and cold…so, we checked out a few restaurant menus and finally followed the crowd into the bustling North Beach Restaurant.
It was a total disappointment. Well dressed people eating mediocre food and liking to be conspicuous doing it – it was not our style, nor food. This was an expensive mistake! I had Alfredo Fettuccini – easy enough…right? Not in this case! Jon the mushroom risotto…it was ok. The bread was not good – how can that be? The salad disappointing bland. The food was completely incongruent to the scene. This restaurant was hopping. The owner was out meeting and greeting folks and everyone looked happy. Not us! It was late and the B and B was close by, we did not linger or order dessert. We disagreed with the Urbanspoon reviews on this one!
Day Three of Away–
The third day, my friend Sharon came again and took us to some interesting stops by car. The first was California Institute of the Arts. It is brutal architecture all concrete and cold, modern juxtaposed to its columned, elegant entry. But, Wow! What a view of San Francisco. The Diego Rivera mural was amazing and the art of the students interesting and arresting. I was glad we got to see the students hanging out and the campus. The sun was out and the day warm. Alcatraz in the distance with a veil of fog was so San Francisco. Then, we were off to the Mission District.
Alcatraz, viewed from the California School of the Arts campus, in the distance like a water-color painting through fog.
This area is one of deep history and is struggling through gentrification. It is a hodgepodge of shops, buildings and homes – known for its deep Latino roots and mural art, which was the focus of my friend’s tour that day. We started by exploring the humble Mission Delores. A typical mission church but small and humble compared to others we have seen. The gift shop was full of very typical Catholic religious items not easily found in modern churches today: rosaries and medals of the Saints, statues and religious paintings. Items had a Latino influence. It was fun to browse and explore.
Next, we spent hours wondering streets and alleys and viewing whole painted buildings. It was incredible. This is a district that has had periods of poverty and recovery. If you do not have a local to take you here, I suggest you try a walking tour. We saw some young fellows in the mural alleys who were a bit hopped up and doing drugs. They minded their own business; but, the safety of a crowd is a good idea. I would try to get the BART for transportation here directions, if you don’t happen to have a friend who is a local and a tour guide!
The Women’s Building in the Mission is a spectacular muraled work and resource center.
Two alleys of the Mission are filled with art that tells stories and display wonderful mural works.
We headed back to North Beach, said our good-byes to Sharon; and, were really happy we had the opportunity to see this neighborhood.
We decided to walk to Molinari’s Deli, nosed around the imported items from Italy and took freshly made Italian sub sandwiches back for a warm afternoon picnic in Washington Square Park. We lingered and walked a little – enjoyed the weather and people watching. We decided to try and get tickets to a play; but, it was sold out. We settled on the evening reception at our B and B, some good conversation with other guests; and, planned our last day: packing, checking out, storing our luggage, and getting transportation to the airport – handily arranged by the B and B staff. We were eager for the next day dedicated to Golden Gate Park.
Day Four of Away–
We had our breakfast at the B and B and took care of our business with the desk. Out to the convenient Hop-On Hop-Off and we were off. I had never been to Golden Gate except to drive through and see its vastness and beauty. We were excited.
Our first stop was the Conservatory of Flowers. This is the oldest conservatory in the Western Hemisphere. We love glass buildings; and, being avid gardeners plant displays always interest us. There was much to see. There was a great butterfly garden and an interesting carnivorous plants exhibit.
Plenty of blue sky and sunshine at Golden Gate Park the day we were there. This is the Conservatory of Flowers building.
We spent time wandering the Park to get a feel for it. It was a quiet day, no crowds and another lovely day. We saw this man who balanced on a large hoop as it spun around in patterns. Fascinating!
We watched for an half an hour…spellbinding!
Our next stop was the de Young Museum Café for lunch. Lunch at the cafe was wonderful. Great food…interesting and tasty. The pastry offerings were tempting and we shared 2 choices. Lots to choose from and of high quality. We sat outside basking in the sun and service was great. It was lovely and reasonable prices with food that met expectations.
I loved the de Young Museum. The architecture is wonderful. Modern and exciting to see and interact within. The upstairs 360 degree observatory is amazing. Do not miss it! The David Hockney exhibit was an insignificant collection of his late work done with the aid of mostly Apple technology…much done on an iPad – a great concept that just did not add up to much, for me. Not worth the ticket. The Bulgari jewelry collection, while beautiful and well curated, also was not engrossing for us. Both shows were packed and crowded.
A view of the Park from the top floor of the DeYoung…360 degrees as you walk around.
I would have rather spent time seeing the Museum collection which will have to wait for another trip (that is a good thing!). As will all the other attractions at Golden Gate Park. It is an amazing park and a tourist could spend 2 or 3 days there visiting and enjoying the park. Sculpture in the Park is interesting and John McLaren, park designer and horticulturalist, supposedly did not want on any on the grounds and forbade them when he was there. The story goes when he died they found sculptures hidden in trees and bushes. Today these are a great part of the Park.
A wonderful sculpture the book illustrator Gustave Doré turned to making sculpture in the 1870’s. He devised this large scale ambitious vase 1877-1878. Entitled, La po é me de la vigne, it depicts an allegory of the wine vintage.
We left at about three and headed back to the B and B via Hop-On Hop-Off. We decided to try Tony’s Pizza Napoletana just down the street for a bite before we left for the airport via cab. It was jumping. Long lines, again! We ended up in the bar because of time constraints; and, it was a fun place to spend an hour. Lots of choices, servers ready to give advice and lots to watch from your bar stool. We ordered the calzone, highly recommended and a side of meatballs. It was good but not great! The price was ok and we were happy enough.
It was a fine way to spend our last hour in San Francisco. Like I said at the beginning, North Beach is a fun neighborhood, safe, with lots going on and such a variety of things to do, enjoy and EAT! And, up until the taxi whisked us away from it all we were content to spend time there doing just that.
This trip was all I had hoped for and more. Everyone should enjoy four days away in San Francisco.
Good bye Painted Ladies…we shall return!
Note: All information presented in this blog was correct at the time of publishing and changes are not the fault of the author.