Fog Lines – San Francsico, Day Trippin Downtown

"My City by the Bay"
I have a lot to say about San Francisco, and by God I will, but let's start with downtown day trippin...

Tony Bennett left his heart here, it was the epicentre of the Gold Rush, the Hippie movement and several earthquakes, the city invented denim jeans and fortune cookies, and it ranks 4th in the world in terms of number of billionaires living within the city limits (Wazzup Zuckerberg). San Francisco is like no other American city, if you haven’t been here yet... why the hell not!

Muni Bus-ted!

I get a lot of visitors, so the first thing I do is pretend I’ve forgotten most of my English (I like to shout loudly “I speak AMERICAN now, I’m not understanding you”) and point them in the vague direction of the nearest bus. Nooo, I don’t do that, not yet.

Day one, I bring visitors straight into the city, San Francisco is only seven square miles with a meagre population of 800k. However, it is the 2nd hilliest city in the world (after La Paz in Bolivia where people get nose bleeds getting their groceries). So walking from A to B is not always the easiest option. I don’t have a car, I have a push bike (I know, I’m a disgrace).  I wish I could say the SF municipal transport system, nicknamed ‘muni’, was super efficient, it’s not but it’s all we’ve got.
Paddy's day in SF or St Patrick's version of the Popemobile

Whatever neighbourhood you’re staying in, there will be a bus that will bring you downtown, the fare is 2 dollars (not bad). I like to get off on the corner of O’Farrell & Powell, you can walk up Powell St to UnionSquare and watch the cable cars jaunt past with excited tourists hanging out the side. Interesting things to note about the cable cars; you HAVE to take a ride on them, unfortunately the queue to board one can take two hours, they are the world’s only ‘mobile’ national monuments,  and San Franciscans like to claim that they “climb halfway to the stars” (that’s a technical inaccuracy but I’ll let it slide).

Union Square is actually quite small but it’s surrounded by nice hotels, flagship brand name stores, Saks 5th Ave, Neiman Marcus and Macys. The St Francis Hotel (which is super posh) was the site of a scandal dating back nearly a hundred years (I’m catching up on my gossip, slowly). Fatty Arabuckle, for those of you that don’t know, he was a silent movie star and was huge in all regards. Anyway, he threw a party in the hotel as a farewell to the stage and as the story goes during the swing of things, he squashed a guest to death!

Union Square is also home to the Levi's flagship store. Back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s when you bought a pair of jeans in the store you could put them on, get into an in-store hot tub and allow the jeans to famously ‘shrink-to-fit’, how cool! There is a pillar in the square with the statue of a lady on top; they used an unknown actress as the model for the statue. The statue shot her to fame and she became the most sought after bachelorette in the city. When pressed by the press on the subject she supposedly said “I would prefer to be a darling to an older man then a slave to a younger one”. Not surprisingly, she married an older millionaire living in SF called Spreckels who had earned his fortune in the sugar industry. The press went to town on this news and labelled him her ‘Sugar Daddy’. (Is everyone making a mental note to retell this story, I did!).

If you have money coming out of your eyeballs and want to continue with some upmarket shopping, take a stroll down Maiden Lane, Post St, Grant Ave, that all lie east of Union Sq. They have all the posh shops you could want (Chanel, Hermes, etc). If you’re not trying to smother yourself in a Chanel or Armani suit and choke on a Hermes scarf, continue east a few blocks until you hit Market St. They say SF’s downtown shopping area is the 4th largest in the US, after New York, LA, and Chicago. It definitely doesn’t feel that way to me, I can’t imagine someone coming to SF purely to shop. That said, city zoning laws prevent too many chain stores so there are lots of boutiques instead which have an appeal of their own.

Market St essentially divides the city, the area below Market is called SoMa (South of Market). This is where the ball park is, lots of gorgeous new apartments, a kind of London Docklands feel, like it’s undergoing a regentrification, having once been a more industrial side of the city. There are some museums down that way, but if you don’t know where you’re going you could end up in the Mission, a grungy area with a lot of homeless and down-on-their-luck. It is however home to some of the city’s best eateries (The Foreign Cinema) and craziest psychos (dude outside any cinema).

If you hang out in London's Shoreditch area then you'll be at home in the Misson's Valencia St, where there are lots of quirky offbeat stores and inexpensive cool restaurants. I am told there is a green building somewhere in the SoMa/Mission area that has no carbon footprint (Personally, I think it was stolen and some crazy is trying to sell it on a sidewalk near you right now!).
In case of tsunami, go to Ferry building and hang off this pole

If you look towards the end of Market St you will see the Ferry Building. This is the famous port of San Francisco that you may remember from movies and it’s where commuters and tourists catch ferrys to the beautiful Sausalito, Marin County, etc. You can take a stroll down to the building which will bring you through the financial district (known as "the Wall St of the West").

The reason the financial district in San Francisco is so significant is largely thanks to the 1849 Gold Rush (hence why the football team are called the San Francisco Forty Niners). When gold was found in the California hills, SF went from a population of 200 in 1846 to 36,000 by 1852. That, my friends, was what they called a ‘boomtown’. Wells Fargo bank, for example, had their first branch in SF in 1852 and its role was to provide stagecoaches to ferry people and gold safely across the western plains. (I couldn’t even get them to give me a credit card, where was my stagecoach, eh? I had to get the friggin muni home!).

Side of funghi with your burger?

Back to the Ferry Building, I love pottering around in there, I work very close to it (that’s not a way of saying I work on the ferrys!)so I’ve lunched there a few times with friends.  It’s full of artisan shops selling things like homemade honey, San Francisco sourdough bread, fancy chocolates, funky fruit, posh delicatessens and lots of places for lunch or a coffee.
Peace out on Pier 7

Close beside the Ferry Building is Pier 7, which I think is a great little secret. It’s called the fishermans pier so it’s usually fairly empty except for a few seagulls and anglers. I like to stroll down it sometimes, gaze out over the bay and remember what an awesome city I have the good fortune to live in.

If you wanted to get back to Union Sq (maybe you want to catch the hop-on-hop-off bus which leaves from the square every 15 mins) you can obviously put one foot in front of the other and walk back, or you can board a streetcar. You’ll notice that some of the streetcars have names other than San Francisco painted on the side – Manchester, Wellington, Melbourne, etc. The reason for this is because said streetcars arrived in SF as part of a vintage exhibition many many years ago. The city thought they were totally adorable (or something like that) so in true Americano fashion they just bought them and now run them on their streets. I like riding the streetcars, the 1940s of it all. 

Before we leave Market St behind us I have two more things to say about it, one - it has a massive Westfield Shopping center (between 4th and 5th St), and two - that’s as far west on Market as you need to go. Don’t bother going beyond 6th, trust me, I cycle the length of Market on my way to work and parts of it are nasty. However, you may want to visit the Civic Center (plaza area that includes City Hall, auditoriums and museums) which is around Market and 7th St, maybe see it as part of the hop-on-hop-off bus tour. I have yet to go inside any of the impressive buildings so my knowledge is limited, I know City Hall won an award for best toilets in the city!

So you’re back in Union Sq, you’ve riden the streetcar, you’ve nosed around the Ferry Building, you’ve skidded through the financial district, you’ve got your Hermes scarf, maybe you’ve seen a museum in SoMa, you’ve definitely seen some “characters”, now you’re hungry.

Go into Macys, the lifts (or ‘elevators’, depending on how you pronounce ‘tomato’) are to the side, go straight up to the Cheesecake factory (sandwiches, burgers, salads, desserts, they are all there, proper American fare). After lunch go down a couple of floors to Starbucks and grab a seat that overlooks the square, great people watching while you quaff your latte (mind your Hermes scarf doesn’t dip into the froth!).

I have tons more touristy tips on San Francisco, stay tuned...

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  1. More Touristy tips please....I know your not a big drinker anynore but someone very close to you is well known to like a pint of Guinness from time to time. Bar recomendations please, particularly those bars that may have decent grub and not overloaded with the sports jacket clientele

    1. Hey Morgs, cool bars in SF downtown = Bourbon and Branch & Local Edition. Dive bar on Polk St = The Hemlock Tavern. Hipster bar in North Beach = Vesuvio. For pub grub there's the Irish Bank pub and Foleys (both downtown).

  2. More!!! I have a healthy interest in food and I like a drop of jar on occassion. Visiting any new city, I find that lunch and early evening pint is always tricky - where to go that is not full of tourists or suits, which is not super pricey or fastfood garbage.....

    I knwo you do not drink much anymore but rumour has it your better half achilles heal is a few pints of black stuff. Any pub grub recomendations welcome


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