Tag Archives: Chinatown

24 Hours in San Francisco

I visited San Francisco in 2001, during my first visit into the US, when it was the final stop during our cross-country drive all the way from Florida. It was a bit of a crazy trip, on a ludicrously low budget, and the route was the result of a compromise among all five of us. Someone wanted to visit New Orleans, another person wanted to see the Grand Canyon and someone else Las Vegas. For my part, I wanted to visit San Francisco. So we went.

And that’s how, after 10 days and well over 5000km of driving, we finally approached the famous city. Luckily (and totally unplanned), we approached it via the impressive Bay Bridge which offers one of the best vistas of the downtown SF. The Bay Bridge, connecting SF with Oakland, is a real marvel of engineering and an attraction in itself, especially for anyone interested in engineering and impressive construction. The bridge consists of two major crossings connecting each shore with a natural outcrop located mid-bay that is part of the city of San Francisco. The Western crossing lies between Yerba Buena and the rest of San Francisco and it is composed of two complete suspension spans connected at a center anchorage. It is also a double-decked bridge and, driving into SF, you travel on the top deck which guarantees some really splendid views.

We were driving in the late afternoon, just a short time before sunset, so the view was as good as you can get. Especially amazing was the fog from the Pacific rolling over the hills and approaching the city. It looked like a massive wave trying to engulf it.

Entering San Francisco via Bay Bridge you drive right into the center, literally on the rooftops of the buildings. It feels crazy. Our plan was to spend the night camping north of the Golden Gate so we had to leave the freeway and cross the city on the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. It was evening rush hour and driving and navigating was a nightmare. As a geographer and map enthusiast, I was responsible for the navigation. I was trying to follow our progress and plan the route on a tiny inset map of downtown SF in our USA road atlas, but it wasn’t easy and I still feel sorry for my driver friend who had to follow my messy and usually late instructions. Fortunately we reached the world famous bridge without a scratch or getting seriously lost.

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the icons of San Francisco, California and probably even the whole USA. For me, crossing it was probably the climax of our journey, which in itself wasn’t short of landmarks by any means. However, it was getting dark and we had to find some campground, so there was no time for admiring the views. Using the same battered road atlas, we were trying to locate campsites in the Muir Woods National Monument when we got lost. The seriously hilly Marin County lies just north of San Francisco, right across the Golden Gate Bridge, and is covered by a really chaotic web of narrow and curvy roads leading to many of the most expensive houses in America. I still don’t know how we finally managed to find the campsite in total darkness.

When we got up the following morning we had the chance to experience the famous dense fog which so often appears in the Bay Area. I have to say that our forest campsite looked really magical in such circumstances, with rays of light beaming between the massive trees and illuminating fog in some really crazy ways.

Soon we were crossing the Golden Gate again on the way back into San Francisco. Opened in 1937 it is in my opinion still one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. Actually, I think it is probably one of the most beautiful man-made structures ever built. I know it sounds a bit exaggerated but I really love this bridge and so will you once you see it yourself, especially on a beautiful sunny day.

A short time later, after leaving the car in some ugly parking structure, we finally started our exploration of the city. And what a fantastic city it is. You simply can’t beat its location. Surrounded by water on three sides, it contains around 50 hills within the city limits. It is also second-most densely populated large city in the United States after New York City. And for all that we had only one day.

With such a short time available the best option was simply to walk around without much plan, to immerse ourselves in this eclectic and diverse city. It turned out to be a great idea and I had a really good day.

I started my tour in Chinatown, which is the densest part of this already dense city. It is also the oldest Chinese district in North America and the largest Chinese community outside Asia. You can easily become immersed in a microcosmic Asian world, filled with herbal shops, temples, pagoda roofs and dragon parades. It is an absolutely tantalizing experience and time passes quickly when you are in Chinatown. It is also a great place to get some cheap but delicious food. I spent a big part of the day exploring this crazy and colourful place.

But San Francisco has so much more to offer. Right next to Chinatown, in a neighbourhood called Financial District, is located one of the most iconic skyscrapers in the US, the Transamerica Pyramid. Built in 1972, this 260-meter building is also the tallest in San Francisco. Don’t worry, you won’t miss it due to its four-sided pyramid shape, which is in fact so unique that it was only recently that the Shard building in London adopted a similar design.

Heading north, I entered another interesting neighbourhood, the North Beach, which has historically been home to a large Italian population. Nowadays, due to white flight, and gentrification, the neighbourhood has seen its native Italian American population rapidly shrink but it still retains an Italian character with many Italian restaurants, cafes, and bakeries that line Columbus Avenue and Washington Square. Here I also visited a lovely small bookshop, full of maps and travel books, but it was so long ago that I can’t remember its name or location. I was trying to find it on the internet, but to no avail. Maybe it closed like many other small independent bookshops? That would be sad.

We kept walking around the city for hours. Other points on our route included some of the San Francisco piers, right next to the spectacular Ferry Building, located at the Embarcadero, which offers great views of The Bay Bridge, and a steep climb to Russian Hill. And I really mean steep. It is so steep that one-block section of Lombard Street consists of eight tight hairpin turns. They are necessary to reduce the hill’s natural 27% gradient to somehow more of a manageable angle. In general, walking in San Francisco involves a lot of climbing due to all these hills. Many streets are so steep that they even have steps rather than simply walkways.

By the end of the day we were all exhausted. All this climbing really got into our legs and it was time for us to leave. We left the spectacular city of San Francisco less than 24 hours after initially crossing the Bay Bridge and started our 5000 km long drive back to Florida.

And if you ask if it was worth driving around 10000km in total to see it, I can definitely and loudly say yes.

12 Hours in Manhattan

For most people the city of New York is one of the major destinations in the US, but for some reasons I was never particularly drawn into it. Still, as it was on our way back to Boston, we decided to give it a go.

We spent the night in one of the countless and totally indistinguishable suburbs of the great city. Here it makes sense to point out that such suburbs are home to majority of the metropolitan New York population. All the hippy and cool folks of Greenwich Village, East Village or SoHo are actually far less representative New Yorkers than people working in McDonald’s in Bronx or driving delivery vans on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. Anyway, we had only one day and decided to get the most out of it.

It was Sunday morning, about 9am, when our frenetic 12 hours in Manhattan began. We entered the island of Manhattan via George Washington Bridge which is located in its northern part. To be honest it is far less spectacular approach than some of the others but it didn’t really matter as we quickly made our way towards one of the highlights of the city, the Central Park. Well, to be honest, it wasn’t really quick at all because we had to park our car first. And it is not an easy task in NYC, even on a Sunday morning. Anyway, we finally managed to squeeze it into one of the smallest and most claustrophobic underground parking garages I have ever seen in my life. However, located on the 96th street, it was just minutes from the park. But before we managed to reach the park, we unexpectedly got caught right in the middle of some street party. The road was closed to traffic and, even on an early morning, full of people enjoying themselves. I later learned that it was probably Annual Upper Broadway Autumn Festival. Or maybe not? It doesn’t really matter, it was fun.

Finally we reached Central Park. Here I have to admit that I absolutely love it. I find this perfectly rectangular bit of tamed nature, located right in the middle of one of the most densely populated cities on earth, absolutely fascinating. Whenever I looked at the map of Manhattan I always wanted to visit it.

Covering 843 acres (341ha) of almost entirely landscaped land it was designed by the renowned landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. If you ask me he did an amazingly good job. The park looks really natural in its appearance and it is much more heavily wooded than for example Hyde Park in London. In places it might be sometimes possible to forget that you are really in the middle of a teeming metropolis. But on Sunday, around 11am, the whole park was full of people and you would knew you were in the city. They were jogging, cycling, rollerblading, skateboarding or just walking, with or without dogs. It seemed to me that New Yorkers are quite an active bunch of people.

We leisurely crossed the park, stopping here and there to admire some of its quirky monuments, like for example Alice in Wonderland or Polish King Jagiello. Finally we reached the Columbus Circus in the south-western corner of the park. Here you can see sharp contrast between the greenery of the park and concrete, steel and glass jungle of Midtown Manhattan, which is one of the densest and tallest parts of the city. In this part of town you can also find such architectural icons like the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building or Rockefeller Center. I would love to visit all of them but unfortunately we only had time for a quick lunch in the slick and modern Time Warner Center, before continuing in our quest south.

Important stop in Midtown was Times Square. It is so well known that there is no much point to write about it. I can only say that it did confirm all my preconceptions. It is crazy busy, noisy, bright, and colorful, somehow seducing you like a brash city girl. For anyone familiar with London comparisons with the Piccadilly Circus are unavoidable. Well, Times Square feels busier and noisier. Its massive screens and neons are larger and brighter than the ones in London and there are many more of them. It is simply bigger and lauder, like many things in America.

From the full-on extravaganza of the Time Square we kept walking south, sometimes on Broadway, sometimes venturing into some small side streets of Greenwich Village or East Village. In the 1960s these neighbourhoods were the real bohemian heart of the cultural life of New York. They are now almost totally gentrified and horribly expensive places to live, but it is still nice to walk their relatively quiet streets and admire the well preserved buildings. Also here, at the corner of 12th Street and Broadway, is located my favourite shop in New York, the Strand Bookstore. One of the largest used bookstores in the world, it is claiming to have 18 miles of new, used and rare books. It is also an incredibly messy and fascinating place where chaos seems to be the rule. I could spend hours there but unfortunately it was already late afternoon so we kept going south before reaching the World Trade Center site. At the time of our visit it was one huge building site and the scars of the attacks were still visible.

As I was travelling with person who is mildly obsessed about all things Irish we couldn’t skip the Irish Hunger Memorial. Located on the banks of the Hudson River, near the Battery Park City, it is an interestingly landscaped plot, which utilizes stones, soil, and native vegetation brought in from the western coast of Ireland and contains stones from all of the different counties of Ireland. From the nearby esplanade you can get clear, even if a bit distant, view of one of the New York City landmarks, the Statue of Liberty. It was just before the sunset so the view we got was especially spectacular.

By the time we got the famous Brooklyn Bridge it was already dark so we only had enough time to reach its midpoint before returning to Manhattan. The iconic bridge offers great views from its centerline walkway located above the traffic. In my opinion it is well worth visiting, but you have to take to account that I am a bridge and road enthusiast.

The last places we visited in New York, were neighbouring Chinatown and Little Italy. Nowadays Little Italy is really little and getting smaller with every year. By contrast the Chinatown is growing and gradually taking over the streets once inhabited by the Italians. They were busy and booming places, even on a late Sunday evening. There was in fact Feast of San Gennaro celebrations going on that evening and it was impossible really to know where the Little Italy ended and where the Chinatown started. We had a really good evening wandering among the stalls and sampling some delicious Italian-American food before settling for some Chinese takeaway.

It was about 9pm and we were by now exploring Manhattan for about 12 hours. We were dog-tired and it was time to head back to our car. As it was well over 10 miles away we had the chance of using the world famous New York subway system, which offers fast trains and even air condition. As a Londoner, used to small, slow and hot trains, I got seriously jealous.

We finally left Manhattan probably about 10 or 11 pm just after nearly crashing into some dodgy characters in northern Harlem and our day in the NYC ended.

It was crazy hectic day and that’s probably why I enjoyed it so much. Of course it is impossible to visit NYC in one day, that is just silly and stupid idea, but even a few hours can give you a taste of what to expect when you come back later for longer. Because you will come back, so will I.