Today its difficult to realize that all of San Francisco east of Montgomery Street rests on rocks and dirt from the hills that now cover the fleet of abandoned ships that carried the 49ers west, for California looks ahead, not back, and hose new to the state often seem dreadfully ignorant of its history. No place is this more true than San Francisco.
One route to a better appreciation of Bagdad by the Bay is William Camps classic San Francisco Port of Gold. Another route to understanding runs through the California Historical Society. Even the exceptional San Francisco Library offers keys to unlock the past and the realization that the comfortable stayed home. Those anxious to improve their lot came to the city by the Golden Gate.
Certainly, San Francisco has warts. Traffic downtown moves the same speed as it did when horses drew freight wagons -- they double parked in those days too -- and flatlanders find the hills challenging. . Its expensive. Its crowded. Some neighborhoods arent safe after dark. But its also exciting, incredibly scenic, ethnic and totally endearing. Its no accident that it ranks at the top of Americas favorite cities.
If youre a first time visitor, take a Gray Line or other half-day tour, or drive the 49 Mile Drive. A quick look at Golden Gate Park, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Chinatown, North Beach, the Haight-Ashbury and Fishermans Wharf lets you see whats where. Mark your map for later return on foot. Then invest a day east of Van Ness -- you may need two if you walk slowly!
Start with Union Square and try Gumps for oriental gear, Nieman-Marcus for excess, Dunhills for mens do-dads, Saks or Magnins for womens gear and enough other fine shops to eat up an entire day for the shopping impaired.
However to understand and enjoy San Francisco best "think ethnic" and get out of downtown, for its not a melting pot; its more of a stew. Grant Street centers Chinatown even though the laterals and parallels that have fewer tourist shops offer better prices. Stop or dim sum, the "point and taste" meals where you pay by the plate -- on side streets like Alder place where youll find the Chinese Historical Society of America and upstairs restaurants to where Chinese eat. Then continue West.
Cross Broadway and, with the obligatory look at Big Als and memories of Carol Dodas silicon splendors you find yourself in North Beachs Little Italy. Bocce, wonderful cafes where you can read the Sunday paper while the waiters sing arias, and a host of affordable family restaurants make the walkers day. If its Sunday its time to relax. Try an expresso from a time before they were stolen by Starbucks, or line up outside a Washington Square bakery to buy baguettes or "dark bake" bread to go with your cold cuts from Molanaris deli on Columbus.
If youre frisky pick up the makings of a fine picnic at one of twenty Italian delis and head up the hill to Coit Tower that one wag suggests "contains all the lousy spaghetti sauce in town thats piped downhill to cheap restaurants. History buffs will want to check on Mrs. Coit who fought fires and smoked cigars. The murals and the elevator ride are recommended. The views fine and free!
Intellectuals might want to brouse City Lights Bookstore in North Beach thats spanned intellectual era from the Beat Generation through the Hippies to today, or down an expresso in the Trieste Cafe. Feet tired? Times up? Head west and catch the cable car.
Otherwise keep walking. Follow the cable car tracks or the Muni Bus line down to Fishermans Wharf, the Cannery, Cost Plus, Pier 39 and more chances to shop until you drop. Dont worry about whats where, wander and explore. Eat on the fly. A Crab Louies traditional, and best in the winter months; ablaones a must at least one time -- dont ask the price -- and seafoods the choice. If you get there early, try Scoma's just off the wharf.
To work off all that sour dough bread and butter, walk out on Muni Pier to take a look at Alcatraz -- a nice spot to visit if you have more time -- otherwise check the Hyde Street Piers historic vessels that run from lumber schooners to side wheel ferry boats, or chug down the waterfront to Pier 39 and its two-story merry-go-round.
Tired yet? If its still light catch the last boat tour on the Red & White or Blue & Gold fleet for a quick run on the bay as the sun sets behind the Golden Gate.
After a day like this you may want to sit out the evening even though San Franciscos opera, ballet, theatre, jazz, flamenco or rock clubs and much, much more beckon. A bus back up Van Ness takes you to the delights of City Hall, the Opera House and our favorite boutique hotel just off Van Ness, the Inn at the Opera where Pavaroti stays. However, you may want to leave this area for another day and substitute few hours at a street front table at a cafe on Broadway or Vallejo or Columbus Avenue offer world-class people watching too.