San Francisco is a really interesting city - so many different areas, each with a distinctive character. Coit Tower, a Bay cruise out under the Golden Gate Bridge and the Presidio were particular favourites, and we had great food in Chinatown and North Beach.
In San Francisco we stayed at the Hotel Drisco in Pacific Heights. We arrived from driving Highway 1 down from Mendocino so came over the Golden Gate Bridge - a great way to enter the city and perfect for Pacific Heights. Here the streets are those on the steep hillside made famous in many movies and TV series. We didn't find any problem driving them - it's good fun - but parking can be tricky, and there are strict rules as to how to park.
The Drisco is a great hotel. Our room was on the ground floor with a huge bathroom and loads of space. The hotel doesn't have its own restaurant but they are quite happy for you to order in take-outs which we did a couple of nights after tiring days exploring. They also have a huge dvd collection of movies and we chose two San Francisco related ones: one had to be the thriller "Pacific Heights" and the other classic Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry". Pizza and a movie after sightseeing on the actual streets - great! One evening President Obama's motercade swept through, right around the corner outside our room window - it took ages and there were hundreds of motorbike outriders.
San Francisco began life as a Spanish mission in 1776 but its boom time came with the gold rush of the mid-nineteenth century when gold was found in the American River. Suddenly, almost overnight, the population exploded as 100,000 prospectors arrived from as far afield as China and South America. The city remained prosperous throughout the latter part of the century but then, in 1906, one of the city's defining events occurred: an earthquake of magnitude 7.6 to 8.3 on the Richter scale struck and caused widespread devastation. Buildings collapsed or were burned to the ground in the fires that raged after the quake and almost 80% of the city's buildings were lost. Though rebuilding proceeded very rapidly, inevitably the event halted the rapid economic growth of the city.
Pacific Heights is an affluent area of San Francisco with streets of beautiful houses - many wealthy people relocated here from Nob Hill after the earthquake.
The Sloss-Lilienthal house on California Street is a beautiful example of Victorian-Italiante architecture which survived the earthquake and fires. It was built in 1876 by wealthy financier Louis Sloss as a wedding gift for his daughter Bella.
Colourful Victorian houses in San Francisco are known as Painted Ladies.
On the south side, off Bush between Webster and Fillimore Streets, is Cottage Row, a line of 19th century clapboard houses set on a peaceful pedestrian strip. It couldn't look more removed from a modern US city.
22 blocks of prime real estate began life as the home for Chinese immigrants during the 1849 Gold Rush. The area was devastated by the 1906 earthquake and was narrowly saved from developers by a consortium of Chinese businessmen who reinvented the area in a deliberate Chinese style. The Dragon Gate on Bush was donated by Taiwan in 1970.
St Mary's Square is on the site of one of the city's biggest bordellos, destroyed by fire in 1906 It has a wonderful statue of Sun Yat-sen - the first president of post-Imperialist China. We had visited his very British-style house in Shanghai and it seemed strange that, half way around the world, we had come across him again. It was here in San Francisco that he plotted to remove the emperor - at 36 Spofford Alley in Chinatown.
Tien Hou Buddhist Temple, dedicated to the Goddess of Heaven, is up four flights of stairs in a narrow building at 125 Waverly Place. It's an impressively colourful and crowded little place which survived the 1906 earthquake. It is jealously guarded but respectful visitors are tolerated. Entrance is free but it's usual to make a donation - I also asked permission before taking a photograph.
Waverly Place is a very colourful street, even in such a colourful neighbourhood it stands out for its decoration.
We had been told by a helpful resident that Stockton Street is one of the most interesting so we made a point of including it in our meanderings and it was well-worthwhile - it's not touristy, just the people going about their daily business. There are a lot of food shops there with their merchandise spilling out onto the street. The cherries looked so inviting I couldn't resist them - at 67c a lb they were about half the price charged in the more touristy areas. I later discovered they were not very sweet.
The people at the Drisco had recommended the House of Nanking to eat in Chinatown, if we could get in. We were lucky and got in just ahead of the crowds. It is consistently voted best by the locals and the lady who recommended we visited Stockton Street also said it was the best. It didn't disappoint, offering far from the standard fare of Chinese food routinely available in Europe. A Bao Bing Wrap was beef in a plum sauce wrapped in very thin pancake, and Nanking Sesame Chicken was sesame chicken in batter with a honey sauce and sweet potatoes - all excellent.
Across from the House of Nanking is the Café Niebaum-Coppola on the edge of North Beach. It's on the ground floor of the Columbus Tower, a green flatiron building completed in 1907 and now owned by Francis Ford Coppola. We went for coffee and dessert after our excellent lunch at House of Nanking. The Zabaglione was good but a very small portion, served with raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries.
The Transamerica pyramid is close by, in the financial district. It's the tallest (260m 853ft) and most easily recognisable building in the city. It was completed in 1972 and the spire - the upper 64.6m (212ft), above the occupied floors - is covered with louvered sheets of aluminium. The two wings accommodate elevators in one and a staircase in the other.
North Beach is the Italian neighbourhood stretching high above the bay and edged with piers. It was the favoured haunt of Beat poets, musicians and assorted rebels in the fifties.
On Jack Kerouac Alley just off Columbia is the famous City Lights Bookstore, established in 1953 as an independent seller of paperback books. It became a centre for poetry reading and attracted the Beat generation of rebellious youth experimenting with drugs and alternative lifestyles. Its best known writers were Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs - both Ginsberg and Burroughs were prosecuted in obscenity trials for "Howl" and "Naked Lunch" respectively. Kerouac's most famous book "On the Road" is a mostly autobiographical novel based on road trips he made with friends. Just across the alley is the Vesuvio Café - another favourite of the Beat Generation. The alley is significantly brightened by the colourful wall murals. The huge mural just north of here, where Columbus crosses Broadway, isn't too shabby either!
We had lunch in North Beach at L'Osteria del Forno 519 Columbus Avenue and it was a superb choice. I had roasted golden beets with a squeeze of orange juice then skewered lamb, roasted potatoes and salad; Andrew a pasta and fagioli soup followed by pasta al forno. With a bottle of Salice Salentino to wash it down it was a very leisurely and enjoyable lunch.
Close by, on the Filbert Street side of Washington Square, is the wedding cake church of Saints Peter and Paul on the steps of which Marilyn Monroe and Joe Di Maggio posed for their wedding photographs - they weren't allowed to marry here as both were divorced.
Filbert Street Steps lead steeply down from Telegraph Hill to Sansome Street. Great view of the Bay Bridge plus, where they cross Montgomery Street, there is a superb Art Deco building at 1360 which was the location for Lauren Bacall's apartment in her film with Humphrey Bogart "Dark Passage".
Coit Tower is north east of Washington Square on Telegraph Hill. It commemorates the San Francisco firefighters and was paid for from a bequest of Lillie Hitchcock Coit who had a huge enthusiasm for firefighting. The bequest also funded a commemorative statue in Washington Square. When the Art Deco tower was completed in 1933, 3000 sq ft of interior wall space was covered with wonderful murals painted by some of the area's most important artists. The theme was "Aspects of Life in California, 1934". Before the tower could be opened in 1934 one of the murals had to be removed for including supposedly Communist symbols. This was the period of the Depression and the project was one of many aimed at giving people work.
Coit Tower is 64m (210 ft) high and views from the observation deck are fantastic.
Russian Hill lies west of North Beach and is the location of one of the most famous streets in the city: impressively switch-backed Lombard Street. The views from the heights of Russian Hill are impressive. South is Nob Hill, the location of many rich mansions until the 1906 earthquake and following devastating fire.
Neither of these neighbourhoods was highly populated until the introduction of the cable car system in the 1870s - the first practical cable car system in the world was installed on Clay Street in Nob Hill. A cable car is one which can grip a continuously moving cable, releasing the grip to stop.
No visit to San Francisco would be complete without getting out onto the water at some stage. We took a harbour cruise with the Red and White Fleet, specifically because it went out and under the Golden Gate Bridge. It's a very relaxing 90 minutes around the bay.
The fabulous Art Deco suspension bridge, completed in 1937, is instantly recognisable. Three principal design engineers were involved in the design: Leon Moisseiff, Charles A. Ellis and O.H. Ammann. However, it was architect Irving Morrow who introduced the distinctive Art Deco design elements in the towers, lighting, etc.
The colour of the bridge is called "International Orange" and was also chosen by Morrow.
The Golden Gate Bridge website has a lot more detail on the construction of the bridge.
The boat circumnavigates Alcatraz Island before returning to San Francisco city. Alcatraz isn't something that was high on our list, though it's very popular with tourists. In 1850 it was a military reservation, seven years later troops were garrisoned here to defend the Bay area. It was a federal prison only between 1934 and 1963, but housed some famous inmates such as Al Capone.
Perhaps the most momentous events are those associated with the occupation by American Indians in 1964 and 1969 to 1971. They wanted to reclaim the island for themselves, having used it for thousands of years. Ultimately they were unsuccessful but the occupations served to bring attention to the plight of the Indians and end the policy of termination of Indian tribes, replacing it with one of self-determination. The National Park Service Alcatraz website has a great deal of information on the island's history.
For some bizarre reason Fisherman's Wharf appears to be the most visited spot in San Francisco - can't understand why, it's so tacky!
One wet afternoon we went to the Aquarium of the Bay on Pier 39. It focusses on the local sea life and there are some fabulous jellyfish, including some beautiful white translucent ones in a cylindrical tank.
The celebrated walk-through tunnels are dark and not as extensive as we'd expected. Even though feeding was taking place and there were quite a few fish, rays and small sharks around there was no feeling that the creatures were actually living in the wild, and the makeshift loudspeaker system was far too loud. I'd much prefer information panels than someone yelling at me! There is no dark and mysterious atmosphere here at all.
Upstairs there are living exhibits in glass cases and small aquaria - some nice colourful starfish and a fine California King Snake.
We didn't have time to visit the historic ships at Hyde Street Pier, home to San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, which I think, for us, would have been much more interesting, nor the second world war vintage submarine USS Pampanito and S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien, one of two remaining Liberty Ships, at Pier 45. Liberty ships were built on a lend-lease basis to replace British ships sunk by the Germans in the Second World War.
The Ferry Building on the Embarcadero has rapidly become something of an institution. It was built in 1898, but boat traffic decreased with the opening of the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge in the thirties and it was overshadowed by a freeway overpass so not a very inviting area. In 1989 an earthquake caused the overpass to collapse and the building then developed as a centre for small, up-market - some might even say pretentious - shops, and a weekend farmers' market. We had very good chocolate, ginger and Madagascar vanilla ice cream here, though.
Just north of Pacific Heights, and within walking distance of the Drisco, is the Presidio. Originally a military outpost built in 1776, this is now a park-like area popular with bird watchers. On the way we went down steep Lyon Street steps - another popular spot but this time with fitness fanatics who run up and down them - some with their own personal trainer and set of weights!
Then on through the peaceful green lawns of the Presidio to the bay, past the Letterman Digital Arts Centre home to several Lucas enterprises. It's a must for all Star Wars fans for the Yoda fountain and one of the building's lobbies, open to the public, which houses Star Wars memorabilia. Crissy Field, once a military airstrip, is now a tidal marsh frequented by wading birds. Down on the shore the beach is a long stretch of sand with waves softly rolling in, populated by runners, dog-walkers and fishermen. There's a fine view of the Golden Gate Bridge - just disappearing into a classic San Francisco fog as we arrived!
This was one of my favourite places in San Francisco. I love the sea and with the beach, friendly people, and iconic bridge, I could have spent many happy hours here.
We walked along toward the bridge for a while before returning along the beach and past the Palace of Fine Arts built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It has some wonderful classical figures sculpted along the roofline of the pillared perimeter.
Union Square is the heart of downtown San Francisco with high end retail and galleries. Here you can see the James Flood building, a 1904 flatiron which survived the 1906 earthquake - and it looks solid enough! Dashiell Hammett had an office here. The Drisco provides a courtesy car in the morning for guests to get here which is very convenient. Not to be missed is the Powell St cable car turnaround at Powell and Market - the cars can't go in reverse so have to be manually turned aorund by the operators.
Nearby, at 55 4th Street, is the striking 1989 Marriott Marquis, just across from the Yerna Buena Gardens, a pleasant green space home to the Martin Luther King jr. Memorial set behind a 50ft waterfall. Right next door is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art - directly behind it when viewed from the Gardens is the neo-Gothic/Art Deco PacBell Building - the tallest in the city when it was completed in 1925 and with some fine decorative elements including stylised eagles on the roofline.
SFMOMA holds a wide collection of photography including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Sebastiao Salgado but we visited particularly to see a collection of photography "The View from Here" which featured some Ansel Adams photographs including "Clouds from Tunnel Overlook, Yosemite National Park, California" - a view we'd seen very recently in our visit to Yosemite. Also particularly liked a Dorothea Lang (Ansel Adams was also a fan of hers) "Filipinos Cutting Lettuce, Salinas Valley, California" and "White Fences near Petaluma, California" by Alma Lavenson. It's impossible to miss Jeff Koons' "Michael Jackson and Bubbles", though neither of us are keen, preferring a large Andy Warhol self-portrait.
But the most impressive building around here, in my humble opinion, is tucked down Maiden Lane. Created in 1948 by Frank Lloyd Wright the V. C. Morris Gift Shop (now the Xanadu Gallery) is a mini Guggenheim.
As you enter through the brick arch you are confronted by a spiral ramp ascending to the upper floor enclosing an airy central space. Contrary to much on the Web, though the Guggenheim in New York was built after the Circle gallery, Lloyd Wright was commissioned to design it in 1943 and drawings of the design exist from this time. The gift shop is thus not a pre-cursor of the Guggenheim. It is more likely that they were conceived in tandem, as the war years interrupted work.
Circles feature prominently in the design, both in the overall shape of the ramp which defines the space, and as decorative elements.
The ceiling is a series of suspended bubbles. All of the fitted furniture inside the building is original and was also designed by Lloyd Wright.
It's a beautiful building and anyone interested in architecture shouldn't miss it.