Tour de Force in San Francisco
This is the “grand tour,” the bucket list, the “if this is your first visit,” you will want to be sure you see everything you possibly can. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes, dress in layers and selfies are encouraged. Enjoy!
Start your grand tour of the West Coast’s first major city South of Market, an eclectic mix of historic architecture, major museums, galleries, outdoor sculptures, performance spaces, cafes, restaurants, terraced gardens and dramatic bayfront vistas. Begin with breakfast at the elegant Palace Hotel (Market and New Montgomery; 512-1111) in the soaring, glass-roofed Garden Court.
A block away is St. Patrick’s Catholic Church (756 Mission St.), a landmark 1851 Gothic Revival red brick building, a classic anachronism among its modern neighbors. The most recent is the Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission St., 655-7800), a metal-clad structure whose form, says architect Daniel Libeskind, is based on the Hebrew word l’chaim, which means “to life.”
California Historical Society (678 Mission St.; 357-1848) is a treasure-laden repository of materials that document the state’s development. Its offerings are vast: a 5,000-piece fine arts collection; 35,000 books and pamphlets; 3,700 maps, posters and broadsides; 3,500 unpublished letters, diaries and manuscripts from Gold Rush miners, settlers and businessmen; 450,000 photographs; and 43,000 film and glass plate negatives. Exhibits are open 12pm-5pm, Tuesday-Sunday.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (701 Mission St.; 978-2700) and its six-acre gardens occupy an entire block, home to three art galleries, a 750-seat theater and a 350-seat multiuse forum. In the gardens, amid quirky sculpture, the city presents free plays and festivals.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 Third St.; 357-4000), established in 1935 as California’s first museum of 20th century art, was reincarnated in 1995 by architect Mario Botta. The museum will be closed for renovation until early Spring 2016. Because they are expanding, they have placed some temporary art exhibitions in the Financial District for the public to view (Howard Street between Third and New Montgomery).
The Embarcadero Promenade, renamed Herb Caen Way after the Chronicle columnist, offers history, architecture, public art and splendid waterfront views. The Ferry Building was the city’s transit hub long before the Golden Gate and Bay bridges were built in 1937. Ferries still carry people to Alameda, Oakland, Vallejo and Tiburon, but the building now is an upscale marketplace. Open daily, several dozen food specialties and restaurants line the indoor hall. Local chefs and San Francisco food lovers fill their baskets at Saturday’s huge, 120-stall outdoor farmers’ market, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and at smaller markets on Tuesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. South of the Ferry Building, piers are even-numbered; north odd-numbered. Walking south toward Pier 40, note the Promenade Ribbon, a 2.5-mile-long sculpture. Along the way are pieces of history in the Interpretive Signage Project — a plaque with a circa 1913 panorama of the area, a yellow and black illustrated pylon depicting the dangers of sailing. At 10 Pier 40 is grassy South Beach Park and sculptor Mark di Suvero’s 60-foot stainless steel sculpture, “Sea Change.” For waterfront refreshment, stop at the Java House (495-7260). Like Red’s Java House farther down at Pier 30, it dates from the days when shipping was big here and each pier had its own Java House.
South Park is a tranquil square surrounded by stately, restored Georgian houses that in that 19th century were the homes of cattle kings, state senators and other powers. Today, South Park is a mix of private homes and small enterprises. At the south end of Jack London Alley, at Third and Brannan, a plaque on the Wells Fargo building marks the birthplace of the famous writer.
“The Powell, Jackson and Hyde” has been called the world’s most famous ride. Decide for yourself after you take the Hyde Street cable car from Powell and Market over Russian Hill to the end of the line at the city’s north shore.
The Buena Vista Cafe (2765 Hyde; 474-5044), BV to locals, is a treat for breakfast and famous for Irish coffee. The original red brick factory buildings of Ghirardelli Square, a turn-of-the-century chocolate factory, were converted to a restaurant and upscale shopping complex in the early 1960s. See some of the original chocolate-manufacturing equipment at the Ghirardelli Ice Cream Parlor (900 North Point; 771-4903). Nearby, The Cannery (2801 Leavenworth; 771-3112) is another business landmark turned shopping haven.
The Hyde Street Pier, with historic ships like the 1886 Cape Horn square rigger Balclutha, is a must-see for history buffs and sea lovers. Docked just east, at Pier 45, is the 441-foot WW II Jeremiah O’Brien. This last unaltered Liberty ship is boardable 359 days a year and makes annual cruises in May and October (reservations 544-0100).
Get back on the Hyde Street cable car and get off at Lombard to walk down the crookedest street in the world. Continue down Columbus Avenue to Washington Square, a green block in the heart of North Beach, which retains much of its original Italian quarter character, especially the restaurants and cafes, such as Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe (566 Columbus; 362-0536). Dominating the square are the twin spires of 21 SS. Peter and Paul Church.
To get to Coit Tower (Telegraph Hill, tours:10am-6pm; 249-0995), climb steep Telegraph Hill starting at Filbert Street, or take the #39 bus at Washington Square. Designed by Arthur Brown and completed in 1933, the tower and surrounding Pioneer Park offer an unparalleled panorama. Coit Tower’s interior is covered with WPA frescoes of California working life.
Bustling North Beach gets busier nights and weekends. Restaurants and cafes for after-dinner espresso and dessert line Columbus, upper Grant Avenue and the side streets. Stop in at Beat-era San Francisco watering hole Vesuvio Cafe (255 Columbus; 362-3370), and end your day browsing City Lights bookstore (261 Columbus; 362-1901), established in 1953 by Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Golden Gate Park • Lincoln Park • Lands End
Golden Gate Park, landscape architect John McLaren’s 1870 master work, features 1,017 acres of grassy dells, gardens, lakes, wooded trails, botanical gardens and museums.
The Japanese Tea Garden (752-1171), opened in 1894, is the oldest public Japanese garden in America. Serene and lush, the garden turns spectacular in early spring when the cherry trees are in bloom. Hostesses in kimonos serve tea and cookies at the Tea House. Two new buildings flank the Music Concourse: the de Young Museum with its soaring, twisting tower (750-3600) and the California Academy of Sciences (379-8000), a planetarium, aquarium and natural history museum in one state-of-the-green-art building. At 1 p.m. on Sundays, April through October, the Golden Gate Park Band plays free concerts at the Spreckles Temple of Music in the concourse. It has performed in the park since 1882. The San Francisco Botanical Garden (Ninth Avenue and Lincoln Way; 661-1316) comprises 70 acres of succulents and California native plants, a redwood trail and the Garden of Fragrance for the blind with labels in Braille.
The limestone Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park at the city’s northwest end (863-3330) overlooks the ocean, Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands. It displays an extensive collection of French painting and sculpture, period rooms and has much Rodin and many Achenbach Foundation prints. Also at the edge of the city, at 48th Avenue, is Lands End. There, a trail meanders through lush greenery and along cliffs, offering breathtaking ocean views. Stop where the trail narrows unless you’re a strong walker with sturdy shoes. Stop for a drink or full meal at the Cliff House and watch the pounding surf below and birds and seals at Seal Rock 400 feet offshore.
Top off the day downtown in Union Square with dinner at the Redwood Room in the Clift Hotel (495 Geary; 775-4700), Scala’s Bistro (432 Powell; 395-8555) and the Grand Cafe (501 Geary; 292-0101). The nearby theater district features American Conservatory Theater (415 Geary; 749-2228), Curran Theater (445 Geary; 551-2000) and Marines' Memorial Theatre (771-6900). Down on Eddy Street is EXIT Theatre, home of the S.F. Fringe Festival and much experimental work.
Elegant Nob Hill is a compact area of first-class hotels, a historic mansion, Grace Cathedral, and a working cable car barn. Start down below with breakfast at Sears Fine Foods Restaurant (439 Powell; 986-1160), known for its Swedish pancakes and generous portions. Head up California Street to Mason. The Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel is on your left (1 Nob Hill; 392-3434), the Fairmont Hotel (950 Mason St.; 772-5000) and the Flood Mansion (now the exclusive Pacific Union Club) on your right. Across the street is the The Scarlet Huntington Hotel (1075 California St.; 474-5400). At Grace Cathedral, seat of the Episcopal bishop of California, notice the Rose Window, the Doors of Paradise (full-scale replicas of the Ghiberti doors in Florence) and, in the courtyard, the Labyrinth, which offers only one route to its center, a trial-and-error journey that is said to cleanse the spirit (1100 California St.; 749-6300).
The Cable Car Museum (1201 Mason; 474-1887) has a collection of vintage cable cars, memorabilia, historic photographs and a room for watching the complex system of cables in operation. Old St. Mary’s Church (California and Grant Avenue), California’s first cathedral, was built in 1886. Across the street in St. Mary’s Square is sculptor Beniamino Bufano’s stainless steel and rose granite statue of Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen.
Grant Avenue, Chinatown’s central artery, runs for eight blocks from Bush to Columbus. This bustling community spokes out into nearby streets, all crammed with gift shops and restaurants for visitors and food markets for neighborhood residents.
To get to the Civic Center, an architectural blend of contemporary and Beaux Arts buildings, walk to Market and take any bus or an F-Line historic streetcar. Most of the fleet’s 28 multihued, lovingly restored cars were built in the ’40s and ’50s but one dates from 1896. Get off at Eighth Street for United Nations Plaza, which commemorates the 1945 signing of the U.N. charter in the nearby War Memorial Opera House. On Wednesdays and Sundays, the plaza is the site of the colorful Heart of the City Farmers’ Market, its abundant seasonal foods reflecting the cuisine of the many Southeast Asians and Filipinos living nearby (1 Dr Carlton B Goodlett Pl.; 701-2311).
A block west is the gilt- and copper-domed City Hall, built in 1915. Facing it is the 1894 Pioneer Monument, symbolizing California settlement and one of the city’s largest historical statues. The old Main Library now is the Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin, 581-3500), the largest museum in the United States devoted exclusively to Asian art. Its pan-Asian collection spans 6,000 years.
The interior of the new Main Library (Larkin and Grove; 557-4400), light and spacious, contains notable public art works: “Constellation,” a five-story wall of lamps inscribed with authors’ names; murals of catalog cards annotated in different languages by local readers; and the conical “Fantasy and Functional Stairway.” For lunch or a beverage, stop by the Library Cafe.
In front of the modern Louise Davies Symphony Hall (Van Ness and Grove) is the bronze “Large Four Piece Reclining Figure” by British sculptor Henry Moore. Tour Davies Symphony Hall and nearby War Memorial Opera House (301 Van Ness; 552-8338) Mondays 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Herbst Theater, in the War Memorial Veterans Building, 401 Van Ness, is currently undergoing seismic retro lifting and upgrades and will be closed until Fall 2015.
At the War Memorial Opera House, the S.F. Opera (864-3330) season extends from September through November with Summer Opera in June. S.F. Ballet (861-5600) productions begin in December with “The Nutcracker” and run through early May. The San Francisco Symphony (864-6000) performs at Davies Symphony Hall from fall through the spring, plus summer concerts.
Pacific Heights • North Waterfront
Pacific Heights, just west of Van Ness Avenue from Post to Pacific, is an architectural museum of 19th century mansions. Some of the more noteworthy: the grandiose 1886 wood-gabled Haas-Lilienthal House (2007 Franklin), home of the Foundation for San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage (441-3000); 1896 Whittier Mansion (2090 Jackson); 1890 Eastlake-style house (2027 Pacific); the cluster of 1890 Queen Anne houses (2019, 2021 and 2023 Pacific); 1894 Queen Anne-Colonial Revival house (2000 Pacific); and 1859 Octagon House (2645 Gough), designed by a physician who felt an eight-sided house was healthier. Fort Mason (Laguna and Bay; 441-3400), originally a U.S. Army installation, today is a vital cultural center, a venue for special events and fairs and home to nonprofit organizations, the Magic Theater, Museo Italo-Americano and SFMOMA’s rental gallery. The Palace of Fine Arts (Bay and Lyon; 563-6504), designed by Bernard Maybeck as a temporary building for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, is situated in a small lush park with a man-made lagoon. A short bus ride away is the elegant, 1.7-mile single-span 66 Golden Gate Bridge, as stunning in fog as clear weather.
For calendar information and local expert recommendations on all of San Francisco’s arts and cultural activities, visit www.sfarts.org which features more than 1,000 arts events in its database along with curated arts highlights and feature articles. SFArts.org is accessible on iPads, iPhones and other mobile devices.
Explore 10 self-guided tours designed to immerse visitors in San Francisco’s culture, rich ethnic heritage and world-class art.