I recently spent some time in San Francisco. I know I have declared myself a New York Girl, but I wanted to show the West Coast some love. I hadn’t been back in quite a while, and after this trip, I felt the need to offer some helpful advice to anyone who may be considering a trip to the City By The Bay (you’ve got the song in your head now, don’t you? You’re welcome.)
First, let’s discuss parking. There isn’t any. You will see cars lining the streets…but they never move. I suspect they are all abandoned vehicles from the last big earthquake. Those random “empty” spots? Look closely…there is a faded color on the curb. Really doesn’t matter what color – it translates to “expensive ticket”. Oh? There’s a sign, you say? Let’s read it, shall we? “You may park in this spot…on days that begin with “W”, but not between 6 and 8 a.m. because of street cleaning, and not in the month of October because of baseball. And between 7 and 8 on Friday night, you must deposit $35 in the meter, but it’s free on Sunday…maybe.” I kid you not. Don’t ever have a drink and try to figure out these signs. Wear your glasses. Ask a friend. Or, better yet, park in Nevada and Uber over.
Now let’s talk hills. There are parts of the city that are one continuous hill. In every direction. The Flat-Earth folks have clearly never visited San Francisco. Drink water, eat bananas, massage your calf muscles, and don’t wear heels. If there’s an up, there must be a down you say? Oh, sure there is. Go to a bar, have a drink or two. Leave the bar. Your final destination will inevitably be downhill. There’s no shame in turning around and backing down a hill. Also, you will see many people sleeping in doorways, on curbs, and in the street. These are not homeless people. These are people who either couldn’t make it up earlier, or down later. If you have a banana, protein bar, or bottled water, give it to them.
I am typically not a fan of doing the touristy stuff. But here, a lot of the classics are covered in tourists…so just jump in and do it. Eat seafood at the Fisherman’s Wharf, wave at sea lions, ride the trolley, walk along the piers, marvel at the bridges and buildings and take lots of pictures. Set aside a day for doing nothing but looking at graffiti.
Pay attention as the city has changed. The new “Salesforce Tower” is now the tallest building in San Francisco. Some dude thought that a giant dildo-shaped structure would enhance the skyline. It doesn’t. It is ugly, and it is tall, and I grumbled about it more than I should have. Even the SF Chronicle described it as a “1,070-foot shaft” (go ahead, look up a picture of it. I’ll wait)… so I’m not alone.
The people have changed as well. In many districts, hipsters have replaced hippies. Ignore them…it’s not always about the people. Go ahead and visit Nob Hill, the Mission District, the Marina District and Pacific Heights. Enjoy the breathtaking views. Take pictures of crooked streets, parks, and houses that haven’t changed.
But move along to other neighborhoods. Because sometimes it IS about the people. The dead people. Join them for a day in North Beach. Ghosts of musicians, authors and artists are having coffee at Caffe Trieste, haunting the aisles of City Lights Bookstore, and drinking at Vesuvio Café. Find an outdoor spot, pull up a chair, order an espresso, sit in the sun, tilt your head back, close your eyes, and breathe in. Then, breathe out and open your eyes. Not everyone is dead. A Banksy mural on the corner of Broadway and Columbus will remind you that artistic activism is alive and well.
By now, you probably have to pee. I’m going to give you the best travel tip ever…so go get a pen and write this one down. T&T Café on the corner of Broadway and Grant. This little gem, located on the border between North Beach and Chinatown is home to the cleanest, most spacious and good-smelling bathroom in the city. Now, it costs $2, but it’s worth every penny. If you are a paying customer, it’s free. I recommend the Lemon Sorbet (their “new” flavor. I kind of feel bad that it took 165 years for lemon flavor to make its way to Chinatown, but it’s here now, and it’s delicious!), but the key to the bathroom is hooked onto a very large plastic lid, and it’s kept dangerously close to the ice cream, so there’s a bit of risk involved. I say it’s worth it. (Also, the irony of the “T&T”/”TT” connection was not lost on me.)
Unlike Manhattan, San Francisco is not a 24-hour city. Californians, it seems, need their beauty sleep. But if you find yourself in need of late-night nosh, let me recommend two finds: Orphan Andy’s in The Castro. It’s open 24-hours, has an amazing vibe, good coffee, yummy waiters, (and food), and is in a great location. Visit around midnight and enjoy! And Ryoko’s in Nob Hill. Open from 6 pm until 2 am – I also recommend going after midnight. It’s the sushi equivalent of a speakeasy, and includes a street-level bouncer, (doorman), a DJ, awesome sushi, drinks and fun atmosphere.
Final travel tips: Fifteen miles takes an hour to drive. Everything is more expensive… don’t bitch, just deal with it. Amazing coffee can be found everywhere – skip Starbucks. Cross all bridges, twice if you have time, and by foot at least once. Look both ways while crossing the Bay Bridge. Kites are on one side, and AT-AT Walkers (container cranes) at the Port of Oakland are on the other. Look back at the city from every angle. I can’t think of any other city that has more angles. If you drive up a hill and think you have the best shot, drive higher. Repeat. Dress for wind, rain, fog, cold and hot… layers are best, a scarf is good, and a jacket with a hood is necessary. Wear sensible shoes, tie your hair up and ditch the makeup. Drive and walk the steep city hills, even if it’s out of your way. The cleanest bathroom stalls are the ones with the broken doors. Don’t worry, you’re never going to see those people again. There are benches everywhere. Stop. Sit. Take it all in. And if you stop to watch a street performer, leave a tip.
And finally, if a one-legged Buddhist Monk slides a bracelet on your arm and blesses it, go ahead and sign his peace book and give him $20. Of course, he’s not a Buddhist Monk. But he is one-legged. And you did receive a bracelet…and a blessing.