Plenty still to love in the city by the bay

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Glenda C. Booth

Tourists ride one of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars, shown high on a hill overlooking the bay and Alcatraz island, which is now a National Park.
Photo © Lee Pius

“I left my heart in San Francisco,” Tony Bennett crooned over the airwaves and on record players in the 1950s.

For a city that has survived the Gold Rush’s ups and downs, the Beat generation, hippies galore, dotcom’s boom and bust, the agony of AIDS, persistent homelessness and devastating earthquakes, one has to ask, what is there to love? The answer: lots.

For one thing, heart sculptures — locally-produced artworks created for an annual fund raiser for San Francisco General Hospital — brighten many city spots, in a nod to Bennett’s memorable song.

Exploring the city

This 49-square-mile city is built on 43 hills and surrounded by water on three sides. Tourists love to pack into the famous cable cars that rumble up some of the city’s steep hills. (Bennett rhapsodized, “Where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars.”)

Andrew Hallidie invented and launched them in 1873 as a safer mode than the horse-drawn tram that had careened down a hill dragging the horses with it in a horrific accident. The cars jiggle along at 9.5 mph on 17 miles of track.

This San Francisco tradition is well worth the long lines and the sardine-style experience. If you’re really into cable car mechanics, try the Cable Car Museum and learn why Rudyard Kipling marveled at them in the 1890s.

Union Square, downtown’s heart since 1850, is home base for high-end shopping and many hotels. It hosts a daily mélange of office workers, street musicians, shoppers, some homeless souls and a heart sculpture featuring a scenic panorama of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The square is the setting for rallies, movies, art fairs and bands. A monument honors Admiral George Dewey’s Manila Bay victory during the 1898 Spanish-American War.

Nearby is the oldest Chinatown in the U.S. The official entrance, the pagoda-topped Chinatown Gate, features lions, dragons and fish that symbolize wealth and prosperity. Today, this 24 square block warren has five Zip codes, 12,000 residents and swarms of tourists souvenir shopping. It’s a great place to sample Asian treats like dim sum, roast duck and barbequed pork, as enticing aromas of incense, ginger and briny fish waft through the narrow streets.

At a little tucked-away enterprise called the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley, workers hand make 20,000 fortune cookies a day from scratch — a tasty far cry from those cellophane-wrapped, tasteless wannabes. On the street, naïve tourists are often invited to do some Cantonese bargaining. 

A row of Victorian houses lines San Francisco’s Alamo Square, which offers a panoramic view of the city’s skyline.
Photo © Frederic Prochasson

Few city halls symbolize love, but San Francisco’s Beaux Arts city hall does. The site for the country’s first gay marriages, today it’s the setting for around 38 such ceremonies a day. On the free tour, docents point out the rubber disks under columns that help the building endure earthquakes. The dome rises 307 feet, and San Franciscans love to boast that it is higher than the U.S. Capitol’s dome.

Unfortunately, the Board of Supervisors’ chamber, lined with hand-carved Manchurian oak, is the site of a gruesome act — the 1978 assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay elected official in California.

Flower power lives on

Meandering around Haight Ashbury, you can easily conjure up 1960s images of Janis Joplin, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and Jerry Garcia hanging around, probably in a fog (and not the city’s famous fog that rolls off the Pacific Ocean). Frequent sightings of orange, turquoise, lime green and hot pink hair, not to mention variously pierced body parts, still give the area an anti-establishment feel.

Mysterious aromas intermix with those of the waffle cones baking at Ben and Jerry’s ice cream store in this neighborhood. A sampling of Ben and Jerry’s flavors: Hazed and Confused, Cherry Garcia, Chocolate Therapy and Low-eco Footprint.

In other funky shops, you can buy ruffled 1960s bellbottom jeans or sequined hot pants. There are much-loved stores like Head Rush, Skunk Funk, Liquid Experience and Pipe Dreams, hawking tattoos, body piercing, vintage clothing and antique oddities.

For 48 years, new and return customers have loved Decades of Fashion, featuring clothing for men, women and kids, some designed by owner Cicely Hansen. The store is jam-packed with vintage duds, organized by decade from the 1940s to the 1980s, including items like furs, plumed hats and silk stockings.

“Fashion repeats itself,” Hansen believes. After all, styles like the dropped waist and a-line skirts of the 1920s (think Downton Abbey) came back in the 1960s.

The Loved to Death shop offers Victorian mourning jewelry. People back then snipped a lock of the deceased’s hair to make jewelry.

The Haight’s residents’ fondness for their beautiful Victorian houses is evidenced by how meticulously the homes are lovingly painted and restored.

Treats on the waterfront

Fisherman’s Wharf is a popular waterside hotspot, especially for local eateries. Boudin Bakery has baked the city’s famous sourdough bread for over 160 years. Customers swizzle clam chowder in sourdough “bowls,” and watch bakers at work from a 30-foot observation deck.

The Buena Vista Café serves 1,500 to 2,000 Irish coffees a day, importing one-third of all Irish whisky that enters the U.S. One bartender touted, “We don’t stint on the alcohol.”

While on the indulgent track, don’t miss Ghirardelli’s premium chocolate, a city institution since 1852, loved for sweet, chocolaty treats like the sea salt caramel sundae, Painted Ladies and the Earthquake. Take home some individually wrapped squares for those you left behind on this trip.

From the shoreline, you can admire the famous Golden Gate Bridge, a structure held together by one million rivets that can withstand 100 mile-per-hour winds.

San Francisco is loaded with museums. One of the newest is the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which opened in 2008 to honor the diversity of the Jewish experience. A “non-collecting institution,” the only permanent thing is the architecture, designed by Daniel Libeskind, who believes that buildings should live and breathe. Libeskind created a contemporary extension to a 1907 power station, a design based on Hebrew letters, with a metallic blue exterior skin that changes color depending on the time of day or one’s viewing point.

There’s no shortage of entertainment in San Francisco, but you haven’t seen a hat until you take in Club Fugazi’s zany “Beach Blanket Babylon,” a musical spoof of popular culture in which the performers wear gigantic hats as Snow White searches for her Prince Charming, encountering Darth Vader, Vladimir Putin and some of today’s political figures along the way.

From prison to National Park

Alcatraz is the flip side of love, at least it was. A maximum-security, federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963, it once held some of society’s most violent offenders. Today, it’s a national park of historic gardens and structures (though it also features “The Hole,” a solitary confinement cell).

Rangers describe to one million visitors a year the daily life of “the worst of the worst” in what was “the most feared federal prison in the U.S.” “You were a number, not a name,” one prisoner said.

Today, Alcatraz is loved for its gardens of 120 plant species, and for seabirds like snowy egrets and oystercatchers. Remember Burt Lancaster as “The Birdman of Alcatraz”?

San Francisco beat out Paris, Rome and Manhattan in Bennett’s song, where his love waited “above the blue and windy sea” and where the “golden sun will shine for me.” It still does.

If you go

The Visitor Information Center (, 415-391-2000) at 900 Market St. has free guides, tour options, maps, event listings, hotel reservations and a multi-lingual staff.

Driving here is challenging, but the city’s municipal rail/bus system (the Muni) offers convenient public transit.

Of course, San Francisco has the full range of lodging choices. Staying near public transportation is a good practical approach. Consider the Holiday Inn at 50 8th St. near City Hall. Rates start at $201 a night. See or call (415) 626-6103.

Major air carriers fly to and from San Francisco Airport (SFO). United has a non-stop from Reagan National Airport and several from Dulles International for around $340 round trip in October.