In the summer of 1989, when I was 11 years old, my family of lifelong New Yorkers embarked on an epic vacation to California, with stops in San Diego, Los Angeles, Yosemite and San Francisco. The trip was and is one of the highlights of my childhood, but my favorite part was San Francisco. Well, no, my favorite part was waiting in line for an hour at Universal Studios Hollywood to sit inside and have a brief conversation with KITT from Knight Rider, but San Francisco was a close second.
In the decades since, I made it to 38 states and became pretty familiar with California. I had occasion to visit Los Angeles several times and even lived there for a few months while I was doing a college internship, but in all that time, I never made it back to San Francisco, even as I still occasionally thought about that long-ago vacation. When I talked about my favorite U.S. cities, I always wanted to mention San Francisco, but it felt so dishonest. When I saw it, I was a child.
My wife's best friend lives in England, and every year she flies across the pond to visit while I stay home and take care of the kid. She feels a little guilty about this and often encourages me to take my own solo trip, but I'd always been too cheap and protective of my vacation time to take her up on the offer. Last year, though, I was stressed out enough that I decided to do it. I considered various exotic locales, but my thoughts kept coming back to San Francisco.
I'd never done anything like it before -- just me, a terrible rental car, a beat-up pair of shoes and a lousy smartphone camera for six days and five nights in early December. It was a little lonely, but it was a lot awesome. And when it was over, I could finally feel comfortable officially placing San Francisco among my favorite cities. New York will always be my first love, but the City by the Bay is now my easy No. 2. I guess in some ways I'm still 11 years old.
• Video Link
My cheapo hotel, the San Remo: closet-sized rooms and shared bathrooms, but clean and charming and under $100 a night in an amazing location blocks from Fisherman's Wharf. The restaurant is allegedly the oldest existing Italian restaurant in America.
The San Remo is in North Beach, the city's old Italian neighborhood.
Not far from North Beach is Lombard Street. If you know anything about San Francisco, you know Lombard is supposedly "the crookedest street in the world." Actually, it's not even the crookedest street in the city. It's just the best-looking crooked street.
This is Nicolas Cage's house. Not bad, huh?
My hotel was also walking distance from Chinatown, but I drove.
The song "Grant Avenue" from the second-tier Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song
was in my head before, during and after this trip.
A lot of people claim that today's Chinatown is inauthentic. To them I say this: This store has exactly zero signs in English.
On the waterfront, the Ferry Building is home to a pretty amazing farmer's market.
Some San Franciscans hate this bow-and-arrow sculpture, which is fairly new. They are wrong.
More in the same neighborhood:
The Bay Bridge, No. 2 in San Francisco's Big Two:
Obligatory Haight-Ashbury shot:
More in the Haight:
Not one of my better photos, but this was the best food I had in San Francisco, so it must be documented:
I'm not sure these are officially licensed:
And now across to the Castro, the original gayborhood.
The medium of photography fails to capture the sheer magnitude of this flag in Harvey Milk Plaza:
The stunning Dolores Park links the gentrified-forever Castro and the more-recently gentrified Mission District. Mark Zuckerberg lives on an adjacent street.
In the heart of the Mission, still a very Mexican-feeling neighborhood despite the hipster invasion, the legendary La Taqueria made me sick, but I still recommend it.
Golden Gate Park is home to San Francisco's premier museum, the DeYoung.
In the Presidio, you'll find the mind-blowing Palace of Fine Arts.
Also nearby: Baker Beach, which I will forever remember as the place where I was admiring the Golden Gate Bridge when my wife called to tell me she'd been diagnosed with shingles.
If I had to pick a single favorite experience in San Francisco, I might choose to be obnoxious and pick this somewhat under-the-radar attraction: the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps.
Did you think the steps were nice from the bottom? You ain't seen nothing yet.
The Union Square area may have reminded me more of New York than any place I've ever been.
No idea what's going on here:
I don't remember what store this is, but I ducked in for just a minute to take this photo.
And another part of downtown, the vicinity of Yerba Buena Gardens -- an oasis amidst all the bustle -- and SFMOMA.
But as spectacular as San Francisco is, you're seriously missing out if don't leave the city limits. So let's head across the bay to Oakland. This is Jack London Square, the Bay Area's equivalent to Boston's Faneuil Hall or New York's South Street Seaport: a historic gathering place turned into a family-friendly tourist trap that locals avoid like the plague. I liked it. (By the way, I did visit nouveau hipster Oakland, which was super cool, but mostly at night, so no photos.)
And here's some of the history in historic Jack London Square. After Oakland's greatest author died, somebody located his cabin in the Klondike and transported half -- yes, half -- of it back here to his hometown, where it was reconstructed. The other half is still in Canada, I think.
Right next to Oakland -- and I do mean right next to it; I hadn't realized how close its center was to the Oakland border -- is famed counterculture haven Berkeley, home to the flagship of the University of California system. I've had a major thing for college towns for most of my life. Berkeley is the best one I've ever visited.
That's what's over the Bay Bridge to San Francisco's east. Heading over the other big bridge, the Golden Gate, deposits you in Sausalito.
And on the same side of the bridge is a similarly affluent waterfront town, Tiburon:
My longest day trip was to Wine Country, which seemed like a can't-miss destination. It was just me and my rental car, so I couldn't do a Sideways-style vineyard crawl, but I did want to hit both Napa and Sonoma. My chosen Napa Valley town was St. Helena. I didn't visit any wineries there, but I did
drink some wine, including a great varietal that's widely considered not commercially viable and is therefore very rarely seen outside of the region. That's why you have to be there, I guess.
And then over to Sonoma, once the capital of an independent California. One of the town's biggest attractions is Sonoma Plaza, the largest plaza in California. I, however, live in New England, where similar village greens are a dime a dozen.
After meticulous research, I chose Sonoma's Bartholomew Park Winery for my big vineyard experience. Not only is it a winery, it's a sprawling park open to the public. Its wines are only available directly from the winery. Highly recommended.
As much as I love planning my trips, sometimes I like going off the beaten path. On this occasion, having already been to the DeYoung Museum, I decided to skip SFMOMA (the earlier photo was from the lobby) to take a drive about an hour down the coast. It was beautiful, but I was in a moving car, but no pictures until I got to my final destination, Half Moon Bay.
And now we've come full circle. Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower were just around the corner from my hotel, but the Bay Area had so much to see, I didn't make it until the morning I left.
Wait, haven't I posted a Transamerica Pyramid shot yet? Can't end without that.