Tag Archives: Transamerica Pyramid

San Francisco 4th time lucky

San_FranciscoFor a long time I had a problem with this city even though, on the face of it, it is one of the most attractive places in America, if not in the world. But my visits here were always somehow spoiled.

The first one was in 2001. It was at the end of a long, trans-continental drive and we only had a few hours before we had to start our journey back to Florida. I did enjoy it but it was hectic and we were overwhelmed by so many sites on that crazy trip that it was hard to properly appreciate the city. You can read more about that visit here.

Next time I travelled to San Fran was in 2004 when with my mates we were driving along the Pacific Coast. This visit was even shorter than the first one, literally just an overnight stop in a dingy hostel in the downtown before heading out further north. Nothing to write about.

The third time I arrived in the Bay Area it was in 2009 during my long trip around the national parks of the American West. It was a glorious Saturday in June, I had three more days before my return flight to London and I was full of excitement. However, ludicrous crowds of tourists around Embarcadero and in the neighbouring areas quickly annoyed me enough to send me driving into the deserts. I stayed in the city less than 3 hours.

Finally in 2013 came my, so far, most fulfilling visit to the Bay Area. For a start we decided to fly to San Francisco directly, rather than arrive at the end of a long drive from somewhere else. Flying to SFO offered us a fantastic aerial view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge and the downtown. From the plane window we could fully appreciate the city’s fantastic location.Golden_Gate_from_air

This time we also carefully selected our accommodation. We didn’t want noisy hostels in downtown or motels in some distant suburbs from where you have to drive for hours but we didn’t want to spend on expensive hotels either. Of course San Francisco is a rather expensive place to stay but we got round it by booking a hotel in Berkeley on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. This pleasant city is dominated by the oldest campus in the University of California system which gives it a very nice vibe. Most importantly, it only takes 22 minutes on the fast BART train to reach the Embarcadero station in San Francisco, way less than my daily London commute. All that meant that we could leave our Camaro at the hotel and head straight into town with ease.

Ferry_BuildingWe started our tour from the San Francisco Ferry Building. Built in Beaux Art style it was finished in 1898 and its 245-foot clock tower was designed after the Giralda bell tower in Seville. It is a very impressive structure indeed. A few ferries still use it as a terminal but most of the building is nowadays converted to shops and offices. Still, I could easily imagine it being busy with thousands of ferry passengers which disembarked here daily before the Bay Bridge was built. From the neighbouring wharves we could admire the impressive span of the Bay Bridge itself. It is a fantastic bridge, if you ask me, and one of my favourites. It looked absolutely stunning in the early morning sunshine with some lingering fog and mist. Bay_Bridge

From the ferry building we walked through the Financial District admiring its varied architecture (including the iconic Transamerica Pyramid) heading towards the Telegraph Hill and a site which I always wanted to see but somehow never managed to during my previous trips, the Coit Tower. Built in 1933 it is a 64-meters tall Art Deco structure made of unpainted reinforced concrete. Inside, at the base, there is a small exhibition and a gift shop but the most interesting aspects of the interior are the murals. They showcase some strong leftist and Marxist ideas and depict life in California during the Depression. Workers of all races are shown as equals, often in the heroic poses of socialist realism. Coming from Eastern Europe I always find this sort of art particularly fascinating. In the 1930s art in America had some elements really resembling the socialist art of Soviet Union.Coit_Tower

But what is best about the Coit Tower is the views from the top. Being located on a tall hill the monument offers a much better panorama than its modest height would suggest. Some of the sites visible include the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, the Bay Bridge as well as most of the densely built-up downtown San Francisco, including the Chinatown, Financial District and North Beach neighbourhoods.

After coming down we headed to North Beach. I was trying to find a small map shop which I visited during my first trip in 2001. After asking in a few places we learned that the shop shut a few years back. Pity. Now, as we were in the historic heart of the city’s Italian community, we treated ourselves to a tasty pizza in one of the local restaurants.

Cable_Power _HouseOur next attraction involved catching a ride onboard one of the historic cable cars. First we walked to the Cable Car Museum in Nob Hill. What is unique about the place is the fact that it is not only a museum but also a working cable power house that powers the cables running under the streets of San Francisco which still pull the famous trams. Visitors are able to view the working heart of the power house from an overlooking gallery as well as descend below the junction of Washington and Mason streets in order to view the large cavern where the haulage cables are routed via large sheaves out to the street. I found it an absolutely fascinating place, a living and working piece of history. From the museum we caught one of the trams running towards the waterfront. It was a fun ride as the tram was quite full and we had to stay on the steps outside holding fast as the tram hurtled down the hill towards the bay.SF_Tram

The Fisherman’s Wharf area was packed with tourists, so we headed west along the coast.

Our first stop was a bit inland, the Place of Fine Arts, and it was well worth crossing the busy road to get to it. The monumental structure was built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition and is one of its only few survivors. It avoided demolition after the exposition but it was not build from durable materials (it was effectively made of wood and plaster) and it was collapsing by the 1950s. It was finally rebuilt of steel and reinforced concrete in the 1960s.

Built around a small artificial lagoon, the Palace of Fine Arts consists of a wide pergola around a central rotunda and resembles giant ruins of some ancient Roman or Greek temples with all the columns and “classical looking”sculptures. It is an absolutely stunning and photogenic site. No surprise that it is very popular as a setting for photo shoots and weddings.Palace_of_Fine_Arts

The weather was fantastic so we decided to walk all the way to the Golden Gate. The coastal path is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and it is a really pleasant trail. Finally, over 8km from the Ferry Building, we reached our furthest destination that day, the Fort Point National Historic Site. There was a fort in the narrowest point of the Golden Gate since 1794 when the Spanish built a castillo. However the bulk of the current structure comes from the second half of the 19th century when the US Army built a new fort.

What makes it a really spectacular place is the location: directly underneath the approaches to the Golden Gate Bridge. In fact the fort faced destruction at the time of the construction of the bridge but chief engineer Joseph Strauss redesigned the bridge to save the fortress. The end result is rather stunning. I love the juxtaposition of the 19th century brick and stone buildings of the fort dwarfed by the 20th century steel structure of the bridge. The Golden Gate Bridge is another of my favourite bridges and it was great fun to be able to admire it from this unique perspective. After driving across it some years ago, and later viewing it from the nearby hills, this time I had a chance to examine its elaborate underside.Fort_Point_2

From the Fort Point we headed back to downtown, stopping for a beer in some nice bar before finally reaching San Francisco’s colourful Chinatown after dark. I visited it during my first trip to the city and ever since then this one neighbourhood is one of my favourite parts of it.Chinatown We decided to finish our day by enjoying some tasty Chinese food in one of the affordable local restaurants. The food was great and the views from the window even better.

That was the last point of our one-day visit to San Fran and, as I mentioned already, it was my most enjoyable one so far. Hard to clearly explain why but it probably helped that this time I knew what I wanted to see (and managed to do it) and also wasn’t distracted by the usual first impression awe and confusion. I guess that is the advantage of repeat visits, especially to big cities. I had a similar experience with New York City. My second visit there was more fulfilling than the first one. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy visiting new places but returning to some destinations simply offers a different, more insightful, perspective.

So, where should I go back to next? Seattle? Portland? Chicago? Or maybe Detroit? View_from_Coit_Tower

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.