My American Tour, Part 1: San Francisco

August 27, 2012 - 15 minute read -

Introduction

As some of you know, my brother Toby got married in San Francisco at the beginning of May. Congratulations to him and Sera! As I’ve not had many opportunities to visit the US in the past (I’ve only been once before), I thought I would take this opportunity to make a proper trip of it, and so started mapping out what turned out to be not one but two holidays of a lifetime.

In something of a departure from my usual topic, I hope this short series of blog posts will serve as a reminder to me of the good times I had in the US, and jog my memory of all the awesome places I visited. I hope you enjoy reading these posts too!

My tour went as follows:

1 May: Departure and Arrival

I believe the best holidays begin with an early start. Anywhere that requires you to get up before you would normally get up for work must be worth going to, and anywhere that requires you to get up before the sun has been bothered to get up doubly so. As it turned out, I was up at 4.00 to catch a train down to London to catch my flight. In a last-minute change of plan, I had decided to drive myself to work and leave my car there; this turned into a last-minute panic, when I realised that I’d only left 30 minutes to drive to work and walk to the station. And so, on that cold and rainy morning I found myself hurrying over the Cambridge Railway footbridge with three weeks of luggage in tow, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t miss my train. Luckily, all was well: I made the train with a few minutes to spare, and the Piccadilly line connection from Kings Cross to Heathrow Terminal 5 could barely have been smoother.

I met up with Toby and Sera, my family (Mum, Dad and Aunt), Sera’s Mum and a couple of Sera’s friends after checking my bags, and we headed through security. After a stop at Wagamama for some breakfast (they do really tasty omelettes!) we eventually managed to board the plane, a comfortable BA Boeing 747, which would be our home for the next 11 hours or so.

I’d heard a few bad things about BA, so I’ll admit my expectations were quite low. However, they were very good at looking after us throughout the flight, and provided and excellent selection of in-flight films. I managed to catch up on some films I’d recently missed at the cinema, including J Edgar, The Artist, and Hugo.

When we landed in San Francisco, it was 2.30pm local time and 10.30pm body-time. We got through a long queue for passport control, found our bags and flagged down a cab. Unfortunately, Toby and Sera’s pre-booked cab didn’t show up, but they thankfully managed to sort it fairly easily. We went our separate ways: Toby and Sera and their friends had booked an apartment near Alamo Square, whilst I’d booked into the excellent Hotel Rex just off Union Square. This quaint little hotel is done out in Art Deco styling, with a small bar that doubles up as the breakfast room. After doing a little exploration of the room and a bit of unpacking, I went in search of an early dinner with Mum and Dad. The concierge recommended Fino, a lovely authentic Italian restaurant on Post St, just a couple of blocks from the hotel. After a couple of very tasty courses, we realised we were completely shattered from the jet lag, and stumbled back to the hotel for a very early night. The adventures would start for real tomorrow!

2 May: City Tour, Golden Gate Bridge, Dinner at The Cliff House

After waking up a couple of times in the night (an 8-hour time difference is a bitch, however knackered you are when you go to sleep), I headed down to the Library Bar for some breakfast. The Californian-style breakfast proved to be something of a feast: fresh fruit (strawberries, two types of melon, pineapple), yoghurt, tea, coffee, toast, bacon, eggs, sausages, pancakes/French Toast, Californian-style potatoes… I ate like a king every breakfast in California! Also, I discovered by accident that scrambled eggs and maple syrup go together surprisingly well, in moderation. The Californian-style potatoes were also very tasty: roasted up with peppers and spices.

A view of Union Square, San Francisco

Union Square

I left with my parents and my aunt to catch a City Tour bus (same chain as the open-top red buses in London, as it turned out) later that morning, which took us on a good route around the city from Union Square out to the Golden Gate Bridge and back again later. The route took in some of the famous parts of the city, such as Alamo Square, Haight-Ashbury, Golden Gate Park and Bridge, City Hall, etc. It was a windy day (it’s always windy in San Francisco, from what I can tell), and we were on the top deck of the open-top bus without much in the way of warm clothing, etc., so we decided to get off at the Golden Gate Bridge and take some photos:

View of the full span of the Golden Gate Bridge, taken from the San Francisco side

View of the full span of the Golden Gate Bridge, taken from the San Francisco side

View of San Francisco from the far side of the Golden Gate Bridge (pictured)

View of San Francisco from the far side of the Golden Gate Bridge (pictured)

View of the Golden Gate Bridge, from the San Francisco side, featuring the two struts

We returned on the tour bus, and met up with Toby and Sera and their friends after a spot of lunch to see how they were doing. We then returned to the hotel to freshen up and change for dinner; e had booked a table at Sutro’s at The Cliff House, which overlooks the Pacific. The building used to be a public baths, the pools seemingly filled by the Pacific itself. The table was booked for dinner through sunset, and both the food and the views were just stunning.

3 May: Exploratorium, Fisherman’s Wharf, The Aquarium of the Bay, Alcatraz

The following day, we headed out to the Exploratorium, a fantastic hands-on science museum/exhibition on the edge of the Presidio. We easily killed three or four hours there playing with the different exhibits, and some of the most interesting ones were to do with the various behaviours of light in different circumstances (e.g., refracted light, polarised light, etc.). One of the cool things the Exploratorium does is to mix art and science, perhaps because of its proximity to the Palace of Fine Arts, which is right next door.

The Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts, next door to the Exploratorium

At lunchtime, we wandered over to Fisherman’s Wharf, and stopped at the In ‘n’ Out burger there, on the recommendation of Paul Stack. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, given that it’s a fast-food chain, but it was about as far away from McDonald’s as you can imagine, and the burgers were damn good.

In the afternoon, we had a little wander around Fisherman’s wharf, where we encountered some sea lions, and paid a visit to the Aquarium of the Bay, featuring a number of the species that can be found in San Francisco Bay. The moon jellyfish and nettle fish were particularly impressive, and I found Nemo!

Sea lions

Sea lions

Moon jellyfish

Moon jellyfish

Nettle fish

Nettle fish

A clownfish

A clownfish. It may or may not be called Nemo

A blue tang

A blue tang

Anchovies

Anchovies

After the Aquarium, my parents and aunt returned to the hotel, and later that evening, I embarked on a night tour of Alcatraz. I have to say, I was very impressed with this: the audio commentary, featuring ex-staff and -inmates of the prison was thorough and always interesting, if initially a little confusing as I struggled to get my bearings at the start. The tour was immensely atmospheric, as the sun set over San Francisco whilst the tour was underway, and twilight fell on the cellblock.

The Alcatraz cell block at night

The Alcatraz cell block at night

The “shows” put on by the park rangers (Alcatraz falls under the National Parks Service’s repsonsibility) were very informative. I attended two of the available shows: “The Birdman of Alcatraz”, a talk about the life of Robert Stroud and his time at Alcatraz, and “The Sound of the Slammer”, a demonstration of the cell doors. The doors were hooked up to a really interesting manual mechanism, utilising a gearbox and double clutch. From the one console, the operator could opt to open all the cell doors, all the odd/even ones, open only selected cells, or open all but selected cells. The doors were opened and shut using a lever: pull down and push up to open or shut the doors.

Broadway, Alcatraz

Broadway. (That’s really what it’s called.)

A utility corridor between the rows of cells at Alcatraz

A utility corridor between the rows of cells

By the time the boat docked back at Pier 33 in the Embarcadero, I was pretty knackered, so I caught a streetcar back to Union Square and walked back to the hotel.

4 May: The Wedding!

It was starting to look like I was finally over the jet lag, which was a relief: today was the big day, and the real reason I was in the US at all!

In the morning before the wedding I took a trip on one of the cable cars to Telegraph Hill for a trip up Coit Tower with Mum and Dad. The tower was built with money from Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s estate, which had been bequeathed to the city for “beautification”. Lillie Hitchcock Coit was a wealthy socialite, who enjoyed chasing fires with the city’s fire brigade. Built in the art deco style, the tower stands 210 feet tall on one of the highest points in the city. The ground floor of the tower is covered in murals, completed in a semi-cartoon style and depicting aspects of San Francisco life.

A San Francisco Cable Car

A San Francisco Cable Car

An example of a Telegraph Hill residence, near the Coit Tower

An example of a Telegraph Hill residence, near the Coit Tower

Part of the mural running around the base of the Coit Tower

Part of the mural running around the base of the Coit Tower

A view of San Francisco from the top of the Coit Tower

A view of San Francisco from the top of the Coit Tower

A view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County from the top of the Coit Tower

A view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County from the top of the Coit Tower

We walked back down Telegraph Hill via Filbert Street, a stepped walkway down the hill with lots of lovely houses set apart from the city, and found ourselves in Levi’s Plaza, home to the world headquarters of Levi Strauss Jeans.

A cottage on Filbert Street

A cottage on Filbert Street

Levi Strauss & Co. Head Office

Levi Strauss & Co. Head Office

Levi’s Plaza was a really nice green space, with a stream and seating and lots of lovely sunshine, and the office buildings were interesting to look at. It must be great working there.

A San Francisco Street Car

A San Francisco Street Car

We caught a street car back to Fisherman’s Wharf for a spot of lunch at Boudin, a San Francisco Sourdough bread-maker. They have a really interesting museum on-site that delves into the history of the area, as well as the history of the Boudin company and the sourdough bread.

Sourdough bread is really tasty; it has a slight tang to the taste (hence the sourdough name), and is often baked in the French stick (baguette) and bap styles. Boudin’s signature sandwich is a clam chowder bowl, where the bowl is made from sourdough bread.

Running a bit late, we rushed back to the hotel on another street car (as much as one can rush on those things!), and got ready for the wedding. Soon we found ourselves outside the beautiful San Francisco City Hall waiting for the rest of the wedding party to arrive.

San Francisco City Hall front entrance

San Francisco City Hall front entrance

We headed indoors to wait for them, and were again stunned by how beautiful the building was. A number of other weddings were running at various points around the building.

Another wedding party in the foyer, outside the Board of Supervisor's office

Another wedding party in the foyer

Part of the foyer, looking towards the North Light Room

Part of the foyer, looking towards the North Light Room

To the north and south of the central foyer are two Light Rooms, with frosted glass ceilings. The light in here is much brighter than elsewhere in City Hall, and is very warm as well. The North Light Room is home to the Hall’s café, whilst the South Light Room houses some memorials to the architect, the city, and the nation.

With the rest of the wedding party now arrived, we headed up to the fourth floor for some photographs and the ceremony. The ceremony was over surprisingly quickly: we didn’t have any of the hymns, readings, or other items you get with a church wedding, so there was little more to it than the vows. However short it was, though, it was a very sweet and fitting ceremony for Toby and Sera, and I’m hugely proud of my brother :-)

The ceremony: short, but very sweet

The ceremony: short, but very sweet

After the ceremony, the photographer took the happy couple off for some photos and the rest of us went in search of a drink and headed outside to flag down the wedding transport. The bus took us on a bit of a tour around the city, through Alamo Square and Haight Ashbury amongst other places, and finishing up in Golden Gate Park outside the de Young museum and the California Academy of Sciences at the eastern end of the park. The journey was accompanied by a soundtrack of 1960s music, a bottle of Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancs de Blancs sparkling wine, Sofia, and some delicious cake pops (mine was red velvet, nom!).

The wedding transport: a cable car-style bus!

The wedding transport: a cable car-style bus!

The photographer took Toby and Sera off for some more photos around the park, and Mum and I went to see if we could get into the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition at the de Young museum; unfortunately it was too late in the day, so I went for a wander around the immediate area before catching a cab back to the hotel with my parents and my aunt.

A fountain in the plaza between the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences

A fountain in the plaza between the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences

The de Young museum, framed by a palm tree

The de Young museum had on an exhibition of Jean Paul Gaultier whilst we were there

The wedding reception was held in one of the function areas at the wonderful Foreign Cinema in the Mission district of San Francisco. The restaurant’s entrance is styled as a classic cinema, and the lobby area is a long corridor decked out with a red carpet, and as the sun goes down, the outside dining area at the back of the restaurant is treated to a projection of a foreign film to accompany their dinner. Seated at a large table on the upper floor, we were next to the projectors used for the films so enjoyed the fantastic atmosphere and the films at the same time! The food was really excellent too, so I highly recommend it if you find yourself in San Francisco.

5 May: California Academy of Sciences

On our final day in San Francisco, we returned to the eastern end of Golden Gate Park to visit the California Academy of Sciences (CAS). This was a full day out and more than worth the visit! Our day at CAS started with a visit to the Morrison Planetarium, as a show was beginning about 15-20 minutes after we arrived. This is the largest all-digital planetarium in the world, and runs an interesting program of films; the one we saw was Life: A Cosmic Story (trailer), narrated by Jodie Foster.

CAS is divided into a number of sections, based on geography and scientific subject. They had penguins!

Penguins at CAS

Penguins at CAS

The basement of CAS is given over to an enormous aquarium that I sadly didn’t get to peruse as completely as I would have liked (although, having visited The Aquarium of the Bay just a couple of days earlier, I was not as disappointed as I might otherwise have been). One of the best exhibits in the aquarium was this display of Moon Jellyfish:

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And they had a huge tropical fish tank as well, with a large curved wall given over to displaying them:

The tropical fish tank at CAS

The tropical fish tank at CAS

One of the main exhibits at CAS is a large (i.e., three-storey) biodome, which mirrors the makeup of rainforests around the world. As you walk up the ramp and through the levels of the biodome, you experience the flora and fauna at each of the levels of a rainforest.

The biodome at CAS

The biodome at CAS

Lizard!

Lizard!

We rounded off the day with a bite to eat at the Top of the Mark, a bar on the top floor of the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental hotel. The hotel is 17 stories high, and is sited at the top of the hill in Downtown San Francisco. You get some fantastic views over the city from that height, the food was good too!

The entrance to the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental

The entrance to the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental

The front of the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental

The front of the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental

A trio of croque messieurs

A trio of croque messieurs

Green tea tiramisu

Green tea and mango tiramisu

The view out to the Bay

The view out to the Bay

Closing thoughts

I was initially a bit ambivalent towards San Francisco, but it grew on me and I came to appreciate it for the fantastic city it is; I certainly left wanting to go back. The people are so very friendly, and the city is a really wonderful place to be. It has a few run-down areas (the bit of the Mission district I saw was one, and the Tenderloin district is supposed to be the rough bit of town), and a huge problem with homelessness, but it generally feels like quite a safe city, and is a great place to spend some time.