Rush for the golden city

By Gita Conn, April 25, 2008
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Says the best way for first-time visitors to see San Francisco is just to take the tourist trail

First-time visitors to San Francisco, heads bursting with images from books films countless TV series and the lyrics from so many songs, may not know quite where to begin exploring this most iconic of American cities.

The solution is to swallow your pride and do the proper tourist stuff. To catch the breadth and beauty of this peninsula city, sit on the open top deck of a City Tour bus ($20 for a two-day hop-on, hop-off ticket) as it glides over the Golden Gate Bridge.

Sophisticates may recoil from a recommendation to stay in Fisherman’s Wharf. But, cosseted in the friendliness of a cosy inn, the Wharf has undeniable attractions and is an excellent base for touring the city.

San Francisco excels at transforming its various historic sites into tourist attractions, few more bizarrely than Alcatraz, the federal maximum security prison from 1934 until 1963. Reached via a boat trip across the Bay, one of this must-see attraction’s spookiest aspect is in the clearly audible sounds of life being lived in the city so near yet so remote for its hapless inmates.

Back on the mainland, the Ferry Building — just a few stops on a bus or on one of the city’s trams from the Wharf — is another historic example of rehabilitation.

Opened in 1898, it was the transportation hub for trains from the East, for ferries from the eastern suburbs. Today it has a marketplace, located along the Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street which is bursting with shops, cafes, deli’s, specialist shops and book shops.

Union Square, the imposing heart of the city, is the place for the up-market shopper uninterested in the knock-down prices of Wharf vendors. All the department and designer stores (Vuitton, Gucci, Armani, Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs; Saks, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom) are in the square or in the streets surrounding it while Chinatown is just a few blocks north-west for cheap souvenirs and knock-offs.

While in Union Square, visit the theatre booth where you can buy half-price tickets for the day’s performances. We picked up tickets for a great revue at the Eureka Theatre for just $32.50.

Exiting the theatre, we were accosted by a large lady asking if we would cab-share. Breathlessly, she explained that she had been a judge in the Manischewitz Cook Off at the nearby Hilton. Had I missed a potential scoop? “Naw,” she responded, “South Western kugel won… and it didn’t rate.”

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on Third Street is a must, with visiting exhibitions and permanent work including Matisse, Brancusi, Braque, de Kooning, Duchamp, Kahlo, and many more vying for attention in this palatial five-floor building.

And, within a stone’s throw, on Mission Street in the heart of the downtown Yerba Buena cultural district, the finishing touches are being put to the new Contemporary Jewish Museum. This $80-million masterpiece, designed by Daniel Liebeskind, and due to open on June 8, has been created within the landmark Jessie Street Power Substation, built in 1907.

The design for the 63,000-square-foot building retains many features of the substation, supplemented by a modernist steel structure, partly clad in blue steel panels. It will house a range of permanent and temporary exhibits, plus music, film, lectures, discussions and workshops for children.

Try to explore the recently built de Young Museum in the Golden Gate Park, the largest man-made park in the world. Enter across the meandering cracks, representing the city’s fault lines and created by Andy Goldsworthy, to view the beautifully displayed exhibitions that include American painting, sculpture and decorative art, as well as collections from across the world, and then take the lift to the top of the nine-storey tower for a magnificent view of the city and ocean.

The contrast between modern buildings and those from the Victorian era which survived the 1906 earthquake — in particular the gorgeous “Painted Ladies” terraces — are what give San Francisco its unique landscape.

The city’s neighbourhoods each have their distinctive characteristics, too. Forget Haight Ashbury, which clings unappealingly to its hippie past, and head, instead to North Beach, which still retains a little of its “Beat” atmosphere with bookstores displaying old posters of Martin Luther King (“Free the Press from the Corporate Press”), its tarot and palm-reading stores and its Peachy Puffs girls, clad in very short-skirts carrying trays of candy and cigarettes.

You can have a great night out at North Beach, as you can anywhere in this lively city. After a heavily garlic-infused meal at the aptly named The Stinking Rose, we found Jazz at Pearl’s, one of the few remaining jazz clubs.

With its red-draped walls and a candle on each white-cloth’d table, it has an ambience straight out of the movies which can be enjoyed for the price of two drinks. All that is missing is the haze of cigarette smoke — San Francisco prides itself on being America’s first smoke-free city.

This is also a great city to dine in. While Fisherman’s Wharf is no longer a fishing port, it retains excellent fish restaurants. Allioto’s has an exotic street stall and a three-storey restaurant, with the dishes becoming pricier the higher you go to dine. The view of the Bay, and occasional sighting of seals and dolphins are a reward for paying top price — around $18 (£9.50) for the Petrale sole — on the top floor, though not all the fish is kosher.

Around the corner, the Boudin Bakery, famed for its sourdough bread, offers a tour of the bakery and museum while you sample its fare. Save a little space for the renowned Ghiradelli chocolate sundae.

So venerated is this chocolate that nearby Ghiradelli Square is now an official city landmark — and also transformed into a pretty shopping centre. La Scala, next to the Sir Francis Drake hotel near the square, is another restaurant that supplied excellent grub at reasonable prices.

From here, you can take day trips to Lake Tahoe, Monterey or to the spectacular Yosemite Park, or explore more widely in California.

But whatever you do, after just a few days, you will understand why Tony Bennett left his heart here...

    Last updated: 2:17pm, September 10 2008