Adventures in San Francisco

This journal actually represents activities from three recent weekend trips to San Francisco. I always try to combine visiting the famous sites in outlying areas with sites and events in the city itself.

Adventures in San Francisco

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on July 27, 2002

They call it "everyone’s favorite city," though I’m not entirely convinced. Still, I like San Francisco enough to return for the fourth time since 1985.

The city has that gorgeous bay setting, but it’s not as pretty as it should be. The wires that power the city’s electric buses clog the views everywhere; and some sections, like the Tenderloin and Market Street, are perpetually filthy, even by my compromised New York City standards.

The weather in San Francisco can be tricky. July is generally less clement than March, but then it turns nice again in the early fall. A seemingly pleasant day can turn gloomy if fog rolls in from the Pacific, and nights are usually chilly. If weather is bad during your visit, try driving a couple of miles in any direction. Chances are you’ll be back in the sunbelt.

One of my favorite aspects of San Francisco is that it knows how to throw a party. On my last trip, I ran with 75,000 other runner/revelers in the Bay to Breakers, a costume party disguised as a seven-mile road race from downtown to the ocean. This time, the Folsom Street Fair brought me to the city by the bay.${QuickSuggestions} First timers should allow themselves at least four or five days in the city. Repeat weekend visitors like myself will always find plenty to do here.

Nearby you will find redwood forests, Pacific beaches, and the fabulous wine country. Neighboring Oakland and San Jose have their own points of interest. If you are a bit more ambitious, the Sierras lie about four hours east and Big Sur is a couple hours southward.${BestWay} You won't need a car in San Francisco itself. In fact, parking can be hard to find and is often difficult on the hills. But you will want to have one to visit the many interesting places outside of the city. For the most part, you can rely on the network of subways, buses, street cars and, of course, cable cars to get around town. Soon the BART train network will be linked to the airport, but for now the airport shuttle bus will take you downtown.

The Phoenix Hotel

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on July 27, 2002

Travelers seeking moderately priced accommodations should check into the Phoenix Hotel at 601 Eddy Street. Despite the name, it’s more motel than hotel here -- a redone two-story 1950s-style motor lodge plopped down in the middle of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. The rooms are pretty much standard motel fare with a few nice design touches. The furnishings in my room were adequate (two double beds, a couple chairs and a writing desk), but the bathroom was small.

The hotel has a restaurant/cocktail lounge, but its centerpiece is the courtyard swimming pool, which was painted by artist Francis Forlenza. (The pool-bottom mural is entitled "My Fifteen Minutes.") A poolside continental breakfast -- included in the tariff -- offers the opportunity to mingle with other guests. The Phoenix’s funky-but-chic atmosphere sometimes attracts a celebrity clientele. During my visit a Swedish pop group was staying down the corridor.

The neighborhood isn’t exactly Nob Hill; it’s rundown, dirty and seedy. From the balcony outside my room, I could watch hookers in action at a building one block over. Who needs in-room adult movies when entertainment like this is available? Yet, I never felt unsafe here. And The Phoenix is centrally located (not far from the Civic Center) and provides limited free parking -- a luxury in San Francisco.

I paid just over $100 per night for my double room, a decent value for a room in a major city. If you are willing to trade off elegance for value and funk factor, then the Phoenix is the place for you.

Phoenix Hotel
San Francisco, California, 94109

Folsom Street Fair

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on July 28, 2002

Ever have the urge to be beaten silly with a riding crop by a scantily dressed clown while you are strapped -- naked and blindfolded -- to a polka-dotted St. Andrew's cross in the middle of the street in broad daylight? Then the Folsom Street Fair is for you. What began nearly twenty years ago as a modest gay leather fair has evolved into one of the largest annual public gatherings in the state of California, attracting upwards of 300,000 people.

Held the last Sunday in September, the Folsom Street Fair is still at heart a gay leather fair, but it's appeal has expanded to include anyone who wants to explore (or just gawk at) the fetish lifestyle, including (but certainly not limited to) bondage, paddling, foot worship, and whipping. You'll have the chance to mingle with leather freaks, porn stars, dominatrixes and drag queens. Though gay men compose most of the crowd, you'll find plenty of lesbians, bisexuals, and straight people. In fact, I saw several yuppie couples navigating their strollers through the crowd. Still, this is not family fare, unless you like to do a lot of explaining to the kids. ("Dad, why are they spanking that man?")

The fair stretches down Folsom Street from Seventh to Twelfth Streets, spilling over onto some of the side streets. All along the way are booths for vendors of leather goods, sex toys, and porn videos, as well as for local businesses and artisans and community organizations. Demonstrations of whipping, paddling and spanking attract quite a crowd. (You'll learn the proper way to do it, if you don't already know how.) Some local restaurants set up street-front buffets; I enjoyed some terrific Indian food there. One of the side streets is set up for a dance party, and at either end of the fair there are sound stages where you can hear all types of music: rock, punk, country, show tunes, etc.

Besides oodles of leather wear, you'll also see a lot of skin at the fair -- topless women, bottomless men -- so it is not for the prudish. There are no live sex shows; well, maybe a little bit of public masturbation. But be careful: you can get a ticket for that in San Francisco. The fair costs just a few dollars to get into and runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For the money, it's some of the most fascinating people watching you’ll ever do.

Folsom Street Fair
At the corner of Fifth and Folsom streets
San Francisco, California, 94103
+ 1 415 861 3247

Muir Woods National Monument

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on July 27, 2002

In less than a half hour, you can go from standing amid the skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco to standing in a redwood grove. Muir Woods National Monument, a 594-acre preserve of coastal redwood forest, was established by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1908. This home to thousand-year-old redwoods lies a mere twelve miles north of the city.

Several bus tours to the monument are available, but I chose the more civil option of renting a car. Follow Highway 101 out of the city across the Golden Gate Bridge. After crossing the bridge, pull over at the turnout for a sweeping view of the city and bay. Next, turn onto Highway 1 and look for the signs to the monument. The entrance road is narrow, steep and winding -- don’t try this with a trailer. (Difficult access to the highway spared this grove from logging.) Soon you’ll find yourself at the visitor center where you’ll pay your $3 admittance to the monument.

Though not quite as impressive as their more massive cousins the giant Sequoias, the coastal redwoods are still some of nature’s grandest creations. They are the Earth’s tallest trees, measuring up to 368 feet high with a 30-foot diameter, and are among the oldest, living up to 2,200 years. At one point on your visit, you’ll see the cross section of a fallen redwood. Stop and count the rings as Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak did in Hitchcock’s "Vertigo."

Two-miles of paved paths guide you around the grove. On some sections of the trail where the sunlight streams through, you may feel like you are in a cathedral. Birdlife is abundant here, so keep your eyes open for species such as the delightful Stellers jay. You can exhaust the monument’s trails within an hour or so. For hikers who wish to travel further on, some trails connect into Mt. Tamalpais State Park. Because the monument opens early (8 a.m.) and is so compact, I recommend you make it the first stop on an excursion to either Point Reyes National Seashore or the wine country.

Muir Woods
Muir Woods National Monument
Mill Valley, CA , 94941-2696
(415) 561-4700

Fisherman's Wharf / Pier 39

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on July 27, 2002

I can’t think of a better way to kill an hour in San Francisco than to observe the sea lions that have taken up residence off of Pier 39. Just steps from the clatter of Fisherman’s Wharf, a colony of California sea lions has taken over a former marina. Hundreds of them lie basking on the floating docks.

Sea lions differ from seals in that seals are barkless and have no external ears. Of course, these are wild animals, not trained circus critters, so they won’t do tricks, and it’s illegal to feed or disturb them. Still, it’s fascinating to watch them both for their grace in the water and their social interactions. A sea lion will glide through the bay, pop out onto one of the crowded floating docks, and lumber over his resting colony mates, which then nip at him.

If you get tired of watching the sea lions, just take a look around. Spread before you are the many landmarks of San Francisco Bay: Ghiradeli Square, the Presidio, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Angel Island, and the Marin Headlands. If there was ever a Kodak picture point, this is it. Set the camera on panorama mode and snap away.

Fisherman's Wharf
The Embarcadero
San Francisco, California

John Muir National Historical Site

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on July 27, 2002

After spending three days in Yosemite National Park, I felt obliged to pay homage to its great protector, John Muir, by visiting his home in the Bay-area town of Martinez. Most know Muir from his work as a naturalist, but he also succeeded as fruit farmer. In fact, the small fortune he made from his orchards helped finance his environmental preservation work. Of the more than six hundred acres he once cultivated, only eight remain at the present site adjacent to his three-story Victorian home.

One can easily reach the site off Route 4: exit at Alhambra Avenue, turn north, and be prepared to make a quick left into the parking lot. Your visit begins with a stop in the visitor center, a squat cinder block building that offers several exhibits and a half-hour film describing Muir’s life and times. Next, step out the back door onto the grounds of the estate. You’ll immediately feel removed from the area’s suburban sprawl.

I suggest touring the house before the grounds. You can take the daily ranger-led 2:00 p.m. tour, but if you miss that, spend a dollar in the visitors’ center for the self-guided tour pamphlet. Either will help you better appreciate the features of the house. Paintings and prints of Muir’s favorite places adorn the walls. On the second floor, you’ll find Muir’s bedroom and study. The study annex features a Sierra Club exhibit, which examines Muir’s work in the preservation of Yosemite, Mount Rainier, and other national parks. After poking around the third-floor attic, go up to the bell tower and give the rope a pull. (It’s allowed.) Try to imagine the view as it might have looked in the very early 1900s.

After exiting the house, take a moment at the oval garden in front of the house to sniff the fragrant leaves of the California bay tree. Follow the trail through the orchard and you’ll see a representative sample of the fruits that Muir once grew: apple, peach, cherry, almond, plum, pear, apricot, orange, and lemon trees. (The National Park Service and local volunteers maintain the orchard and donate the fruit to local food banks.) It’s said that the nature-conscious Muir wouldn’t allow workers to harm the squirrels and birds that often went after his cherry trees.

Also on the property is the historic Martinez Adobe, built of adobe bricks around 1849. Muir’s eldest daughter Wanda lived in this building, which now houses more exhibits and Park Service offices. If you bring a lunch, you can enjoy it at the picnic tables behind the adobe. Look out for one other tree here: the giant Sequoia. Muir likely transplanted it here from the Sierras in the 1890’s. While not yet the size of Sequoias that have been growing for centuries, it’s still the largest tree on the property and is hard to miss. Allow about an hour and a half for your visit and remember that the park is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

John Muir National Historic Site
4202 Alhambra Ave
Martinez, California, 94553
+1 925 228 8860

Winchester Mystery House

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on July 27, 2002

Sarah Pardee Winchester, widow of the President of the Winchester Rifle Company and heiress to his fortune, visited a Boston psychic who gave her an odd directive: build a house to appease the spirits of all those who died at the hands of Winchester rifles. So in 1884, she moved to San Jose, California, bought an eight-room farmhouse, and transformed it into a 160-room Victorian mansion with 40 bedrooms, 13 baths, 2,000 doors, and 10,000 windows. Notable for both its architectural interest and for the eccentricity of its creator, the Winchester Mystery House merits a visit.

Not only did Mrs. Winchester attempt to appease the spirits, she also sought to confuse them by building stairways that lead to the ceiling, doors that open onto brick walls, and windows into the floor. (She may have used the windows to spy on her staff.) She also had carpenters install supporting posts upside down.

The superstitious Mrs. Winchester kept a seance room to which only she had access. It was these seance sessions that gave her the ideas for modifying the estate. She incorporated the number 13 into many architectural features: 13 windows in a room, 13 panels in a ceiling, 13 drain holes in a sink. The cobweb motif appears in many areas. Besides being superstitious, Mrs. Winchester was also diminutive. Several doorways were built to her 4’-10" height and many of the stairways feature tiny, low-rise steps.

The on-going construction of the house took 39 years and cost Mrs. Winchester $5.5 million of her $20 million fortune. Many of the rooms were left unfinished, and the 1906 earthquake damaged others. (The quake also took down the seven-story bell tower that once loomed over the house; the highest point now is four stories.) Although several main rooms have been recreated with period antiques, the house remains largely unfurnished, adding to its eeriness.

Sixteen bucks buys you a basic one-hour tour of the mansion. This allows you to see many of the rooms. Afterward, you can take a self-guided walk through the beautifully kept grounds. Audio recordings at stations along the way describe life on the estate, including an anecdote about a truncated visit from Teddy Roosevelt. Other, longer tours are available, but I found the basic house tour sufficient. However, special flashlight tours given on Halloween and Friday the Thirteenths sound like they might be a hoot.

At one time, the estate stretched 160 acres. It since has been reduced to four, but its gardens are an oasis amid the charmless strip malls and suburban sprawl of San Jose. The estate also houses a firearms museum in one of the out buildings. Here you can see the Winchester Repeater, "The Gun That Won the West." And, of course, the tour ends in the gift shop.

Winchester Mystery House
525 South Winchester Blvd.
San Jose, California, 95128
(408) 247-2101

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA)

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on August 9, 2002

I must say that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art failed to impress me during my first visit. At that time, three of the museum's four exhibition floors were closed for installations. The remaining open floor featured artwork from the museum's permanent collection. I saw a few interesting pieces, but not enough to merit a visit on its own. Even at a discounted admission, I was woefully underwhelmed.

However, an Ansel Adams centennial exhibit was enough to lure me back to SFMoMA for a second visit, which proved to be much more entertaining. Not only was the Adams exhibit worthwhile and crowd pleasing, but three other special exhibits also provided considerable interest: a show of California ceramics through the 20th century; a group show of contemporary Latin American Baroque artists; and a modern photography exhibit. They all had me circling around the galleries for a second look. An inventive video installation -- usually not my favorite -- managed to get a reaction out of me, too.

I also took the opportunity to revisit the art I most enjoyed from the permanent collection. To my eye, "The Flower Carrier," a masterful Diego Rivera canvas, remains the best piece here. A painting from Rivera's lesser-known surrealist period and a couple of nice Georgia O'Keefe works also hang in the same gallery. In a nearby room, it's hard to avoid staring at Jeffrey Koons's life-size (maybe even bigger) gilded white ceramic sculpture of a reclining Michael Jackson playing with his pet chimp, Bubbles. Perhaps "disturbing" is the word for it, but it is fascinating at the same time.

SFMoMA also dedicates a gallery to displaying "e art," which is art created on computers for the Internet. This collection -- called -- seemed like a neat idea. You sit at a computer terminal and peruse the art. However, after playing on the computer for a couple minutes, I quickly got bored and returned to the real art.

This second visit also gave me a greater appreciation for the building itself, which was designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta and opened in 1995. I especially admired the catwalk suspended across the museum's fifth floor, the skylit ceilings, and the airy lobby with its sweeping staircases. You can find SFMoMA at 151 Third Street in the revitalized SoMa (South of Market) district. I highly recommend the museum, but my recommendation hinges on the quality of the visiting exhibitions. If something interesting comes to SFMoMA, by all means shell out the ten bucks for admission. If not, save it for another time.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
151 Third St
San Francisco, California, 94103
+1 415 357 4000

Uncle Mame

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on August 8, 2002

You’ve combed through every gift shop on Fisherman’s Wharf and still haven’t found the right souvenir of San Francisco. Or maybe you just want to bring back something more imaginative than a t-shirt, loaf of sourdough bread or bar of Ghiradelli chocolate. Then you should check out Uncle Mame at 2241 Market Street near the Castro district. They sell traditional souvenirs like snow globes and novelty key chains, but how about something different like a boxing nun hand puppet? You’ll find it here. This establishment is well-known in San Francisco for being a purveyor of kitschy gifts, memorabilia and greeting cards. Lots of pop icons are represented here: Pee Wee Herman votive candles (for your Pee Wee shrine); bendable Gumby and Pokey figures; Pez dispensers of all varieties (including some usually only found in Europe); and Charlie's Angels action figures (the original tv cast with Farrah -- not the movie version.) Many of the items here will take you back to your adolescence or childhood (depending on how old you are). If you still can't find what you like, the friendly staff will be glad to help. And even if you don't buy anything, browsing here can be very entertaining; I think I spent about half an hour sorting through Uncle Mame’s amazing inventory. To get an idea of the items available here, take a look at the store’s website.
Uncle Mame
2241 Market Street
San Francisco, California, 94114
(415) 626-1967

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