We left our hotel on Bush Street and headed east towards the financial district. It was a crisp clear December morning and to our surprise, few people were out on the streets. We felt lucky to have the place to ourselves. We continued as far as Grant Avenue, where the three banks of floating green tile roofs indicate the entrance to San Francisco’s Chinatown.
It was a funny experience to walk through the area in such a quiet state. It is the largest Chinatown in North America and is usually teeming with tourists and local merchants. One of the few signs of normal life was a modestly sized walking tour group. They rounded a corner across the road from us and their leader announced matter of factly that they would now be going into a shop to sample tea.
This wasn’t our first visit to San Francisco, which is why we only passed through Chinatown but if it’s your first time, I can recommend spending some time in this area, visiting souvenir shops, tea houses and food shops. Chinatown comes alive at night so it is also a great place to come for dinner.
We turned right on Jackson Street, passing the Great Star Theater and catching our first glimpse of the Transamerica Pyramid skyscraper. It’s not possible to visit the building but it strikes a unique outline on the Chinatown horizon. Just in front of the skyscraper and equally as arresting is the Sentinel Building. Also triangular in shape, it has beautiful rounded window bays bound together by broad copper frames that now have a green patina. Film director Francis Ford Coppola rescued the building in the 1970s, renovating it and installing Cafe Zoetrope and his own business in other parts of the building so that its legacy could live on a little longer.
Another landmark establishment is close by at 255 Columbus Avenue. The bar that is now forever associated with Jack Kerouac opened in 1948 and became a home to a number of Beat Generation artists, writers and musicians. The artwork on the outside of Vesuvio’s Bar is difficult to ignore, as is the bare-bottomed sign hanging above its doors.
While the urge to stop at Zoetrope was strong, and would have been for Vesuvio too had it been a little later in the day, we continued on as we wished to try out the coffee at Caffe Trieste at 601 Vallejo Street. Just off Columbus Avenue and on the cross street of Grant Avenue, Trieste is off the main road on a quiet street but people obviously know that this is the place to come for good coffee. They also have giant cakes and pastries although a few items in the display case looked like they were past their prime.
All the tables at Trieste were taken, even the few outdoor benches, so we ordered lattes to go and continued on along Columbus, turning off onto Stockton Street which took us all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf.
The Embarcadero is a long curve that runs from a small park by Ghirardelli Square all the way to the Ferry Building at the end of Market Street. We made an early lunch stop at Boudin for a sourdough bread bowl full of white clam chowder and then headed east and south along The Embarcadero.
There is a lot to explore along the 19 or so piers that stretch out from the Bay Bridge. The piers around Fisherman’s Wharf target souvenir hungry tourists and there is an opportunity to see a colony of sea lions, usually found sunbathing on Pier 39. You can usually smell them before you see them.
We walked on passing signs advertising boat trips. Tours to Alcatraz leave from Pier 33 and unless you scare easily, it is a tour well worth doing. The pier numbers descend by odd numbers only (even numbered piers are located south of the Bay Bridge) and eventually we reached Pier 1 and the Ferry Building. The Marketplace inside the old building is a tall, grand, slate blue building that looks not unlike an iconic train station (www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com).
Inside are rows of well appointed stalls selling everything from Scharffen Berger chocolate to Cowgirl Creamery cheese to organic skincare products. Recommended stops are Blue Bottle for coffee and if you like mushrooms, there is a dizzying array at Far West Fungi. Just before Christmas, the Marketplace was incredibly busy and seemed like a great place to pick up party snacks and last minute gifts.
From here we said goodbye to the bay and took the Muni all the way to Golden Gate Park and the De Young Museum but if you want to take things at a more leisurely pace, the route we walked can easily take up a full day