How does one see a city as diverse as San Francisco in only one day? You can’t. We did try our best, though. Today we were headed into the city proper, so Laura pulled out the guide books and picked the top three things she wanted to see/do in the city today. We managed to hit all of those, and then some.
The weather was nearly perfect – clear and in the 70’s. We lingered at the hotel so that the morning rush hour traffic cleared, then headed north once again. We stopped at one of the scenic overlooks on I-280, but only paused a bit. The view was of over-priced houses clinging to hillsides, so we didn’t hang out long.
Our first stop was the San Francisco Mission. Having grown up in California, Laura loves visiting the old Spanish missions that dot the state. Since we were disappointed at San Juan Bautista yesterday, we decided that this would be our first stop this morning. We drove straight to it and found free parking on the street without too much searching. We took that as a good sign.
The mission sits right next to a much larger basilica. Most visitors look at the larger, more ornate church and confuse that with the mission, bit it is the smaller adobe structure. The mission was built in the late 1700’s, and is the heart of the city. Built to honor Saint Francis of Assisi, the mission is the source of the city’s name.
The interior of the mission is very ornate. There are carved altar pieces, and the ceiling has a geometric pattern reminiscent of the original native tribes.
From the mission sanctuary we entered the basilica. The original mission survive the 1906 earthquake, but the basilica did not. It was rebuilt in 1918. The interior was just as ornate as the exterior. The lights were dimmed, so sunshine poured through the stained glass windows. The glass was rich in red tones, and bathed the church in a warm light. Catholicism is a visual religion, and this church reflected that in just about every square inch with pictures and carvings of saints and other biblical scenes.
From the basilica we entered the historic cemetery. The headstones attest to the fact that California was originally a Spanish settlement. Many of the older stones are in that language. The cemetery is small, but is a peaceful place, with flowers and statuary. It was a nice place to linger for a bit.
From the mission we ventured further downtown, and got lots experience negotiating the hilly streets of the city. Once again my mind flashed back to movies of San Francisco, especially of car chase scenes over these impossible streets.
Our guide books suggested avoiding the Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, so that’s where we headed. We figured that a tourist trap area would be the best place to find a tour, which is what we wanted, then we could venture to other parts of the city. Of course, with a place that popular, parking was neither simple nor free, but we managed.
After getting our bearings on the waterfront, we got a bite of lunch on the main tourist drag. Laura and I shared to small pizzas – one with a dungeoness crab topping that we want to try to recreate back home. The rest of the street is lined with T-shirt shops, “artists” offering caricatures, and all manner of opportunists that tend to collect where there are large numbers of people.
The mission visit was item number one on Laura’s list. Item number two was a Duck Tour. These tours use WWII vintage amphibious craft, or “ducks”, so that they can cruise both the city streets and the waterfront. Most major cities that border a river or other large body of water now have these types of tours. I had taken one of these in Philadelphia and thoroughly enjoyed it, even as silly as it might sound.
At 2:00 we boarded our duck, along with a large group of eighth graders from a local school on a field trip. We were all issued quackers, which the students tried out with a vengeance. Laura was beginning to have second thoughts. Once underway, however, the kids settled down, and things got better.
The tour took us through the Italian and Chinese sections of the city, then through downtown proper. Our guide was quite well-versed, albeit a bit culturally insensitive. Near AT&T Field, home of the Giants, we entered the bay. Our tour took us along the waterfront for just a bit. However, sine we could only cruise at about 5 MPH, the water portion of the tour was just a token to prove that the craft was, in fact, amphibious.
Safely back on dry land, Laura decided she wanted to visit Ghiradelli Square, home of the famous chocolate. Most of the square seemed to be under construction, and the only thing related to chocolate seemed to be the two small Ghiradelli shops on either end of the square. We got a couple of samples just so we could say we had some chocolate.
In the square was a large wine cellar that was having a tasting. We decided that would be a good diversion. Laura and I decided to split one flight of five samples, ranging from a light chardonnay to a heavier shiraz. I must admit that I don’t have a well-developed palate, so I can’t sense the “overtones of plum” or other things people say they taste and smell. I just know what tastes and smells good to me. Despite my inexperience, I enjoyed the tasting, and we found two types that we noted for future reference.
The third and final item on Laura’s list was a visit to Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. To get there, we boarded one of the historic street cars. Here was another lesson to be learned. San Francisco has some beautifully crafted street cars and trolleys. Some are made in Italy, some in Germany, and some in the US. These run on the more level streets of the city and are enclosed. In addition to their appeal to tourists, they serve as transport for regular commuters.
The cable cars, on the other hand, are open air cars designed to climb the steep hills of the city. A cable assists the car by pulling it up the route. These only run in straight lines up and down the hills. There are only two routes left, and these are incredibly crowded, with long lines waiting for a ride.
As we road the street car (not the cable) we overheard several talking about this, thinking that they were, in fact, on a cable car. Oh well.
The street car that we took headed in the wrong direction, although we didn’t know it at the time. We could see Coit Tower, but I kept thinking that we were facing a might long hike whichever way we went. We decided to get off the trolley and try to find a better route.
Laura and I walked along several of the streets, but they all seemed to turn away from Telegraph Hill. Finally, I found a set of stairs heading upwards that appeared to be public. I figured they would only get us closer. The stairs were steep, and there were lots and lots of them. They wound through beautiful gardens between expensive homes on the hillside. Laura wasn’t sure we would make it, but wanted to keep going. Finally, we reached the top of the hill and could see that the tower was close.
At the tower, we paid the entrance fee and took the elevator seven floors up to the observation platform. The views of the city were simply stunning. The wind whipped around at that height, and I was glad for plexiglass shields.
We were exhausted from the climb up, and really wanted an alternate route down. We just missed a city bus, and decided that we would climb back down the same set of stairs. With gravity with us, it had to be easier.
Finally down, we walked past Levi’s Plaza and their corporate headquarters to the Embarcadero. We caught a return street car back to the Fisherman’s Wharf area.
Dinner was at one of the Italian seafood places that line the waterway. It was a relaxing end to a very active day. We bailed our car out of parking, then headed on back for the evening.