San Francisco

Time to hit the road and explore the SF’s environs!

For the independent traveler, here are quite a few choices.  If you’re so inclined and on a budget, you may rent a bike and paddle away (yes it can be done!)- just make sure you have the stamina to climb up the hills.

OR you can do it the leisurely way and just book a day tour. There are quite a few choices and most of them are very easy to book. If you’re staying in a hostel as I was, then you can just grab some brochures at the literature stand  (for sure they’ll have one) and just give them call.

If you’d rather, also go to the Fisherman’s Wharf (one of SF most touristy spots) and just book at the tourist info center.

You’re choices will inevitably be as follows:

1. Napa Valley Winneries

2. Yosemite Park

3. Muir Woods /Suaslito

4. Monterrey/Carmel

I chose number three because  a.) I’m not a wine person.  b.) Yosemite takes the whole day and c.) I have no idea what to see in Monterey/Carmel.

For US$48.00, I booked myself half-day tour to the last patch of Red Woods in the SF area – the Muir Woods National Park.

Said to be the tallest living creature in the planet, the Red woods make for a very interesting day trip outside SF.  Our bus took us the entrance of the park and from there, it was pretty much on your own for the next hour-and-a-half,  enough time to explore the inside.

Once inside, the weather was noticeably cooler and the air more crisp.  A natural stillness pervades the surroundings broken only occasionally by the delightful shrieks of  little children.  Nature really has way casting her spell and making us realize how we’re always connected with her.

It’s really amazing how these trees can be over a millennium old. This particular was  has her life story which states that she was born over 1,100 year ago! Just think, she was a baby when the Tang Dynasty ruled China, when Europe was in the Dark Ages, when the Khmers were building Angkor, ha, when the United States was terra incognita! Oh, the Philippines too.

They can be enormously big too,  it’ll probably take 3 people with their hands outstretch to totally hug its trunk!

Tip: The trail is laid out in such a way that it doesn’t end where it starts -or where your tour bus will probably park- so you if you think you’ve been overwhelmed enough, then turn and walk back to the entrance.

Heading back to the city, one stops at the town of Suasilito, the favored address of SF’s old rich and moneyed class.  We pass through through this stretch of boat houses along the way. It made me wonder, is this how the other-half of San Francisco really lived?  Oh well, live and let live!

Suasilito’s main drag, the name which escapes my memory. It is dotted with little mom-and-pop stores selling a wide variety of brick-a-bracks (things not nessarily I would buy) but it made for a nice stroll. Oh, and there’s a popular burger joint on the strip.

What was supposed to be a highlight af the trip – the requisite souvenir shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, well  this…! Turns out that that day just happened to be the one when SF decided to a fog show. Drat!

Tip: Before you join any of these half-day tour tours (w/c includes the GG Bridge), check out the weather forecast!

The tour ended with the driver playing  the unofficial city theme song  ‘I Left my Heart in SF’ as we passed through the foggy bridge and I admired its faint Deco details.

The view from the post cards look so much better.

Muir Woods/Suasilito Day tour – $48.00 damage, includes pick up and drop off, entrances, tour. Food and drinks not included.


Not quite on the regular tourist trail definitely worth every step getting there!

A visit to the San Francisco City Hall was definitely an architectural highlight of my visit to the city. Commanding an imposing presence with its stately Beaux-Arts style architecture, this stunning building is the centerpiece in SF’s Civic Center.

I went there to check out the San Francisco City Museum but turns out that it has moved elsewhere. They do welcome visitors unlike the public buildings in Manila which are heavily fortified and for most part, lack half the aesthetic qualities of this building.

How do you instill civic pride among the citizens?

Upon entry, one is immediately drawn to the huge expanse and soaring interior of the structure.  The city government provides for a free (and may I add, superb!) guided tours inside. I was lucky enough to chance upon a tour by one of the volunteers- a very pleasant old gentleman whose names escapes my memory.

The tour led us to the various rooms and discussed about the overall history of the building. Did you know that SF once had a gay mayor who was assassinated inside the building?

Compelling stories indeed.

SF City hall in miniature.

Looking down from the grand staircase. When I arrived, there was a wedding shoot, I would not actually be surprised if this place turned out to be most popular place to get married, I mean, apart from the obvious required legalities involving civil rites, who wouldn’t want to have their wedding photos taken with such rich, cathedral-like interiors?

A worms eye view of the  is soaring dome ,supposed to be higher than that one of the US Capitol in Washington D.C.

Ever on the prowl for Filipiniana, I spot this little remnant of Manila in the adjacent room to the Mayor’s office.  Cool. Maybe our city hall officials can learn a thing or two in terms a urban management from our sister-city across the Pacific?

Finally, at the end of the tour,  our guide suggests that we watch the city council in action and I sneak inside this ornate chamber,  slip our guide a $3.00 tip and just suck in the finely carved panels in the ceiling.

A great tour indeed.

On my first day in SF and with nothing better to do, I decided to take to one of the city’s steep inclines: the Telegraph Hill.

Located just behind the Italian quarter of North Beach where I was staying, this charming residential district right beside Chinatown is also home to many of the city’s famous Victorian houses.  A peaceful area to wander around (if you like climbing hills) but I had a goal: go up the hill to the Coit Tower

The view from street level and Coit tower looming at the top.  Still flat…

Until you reach end of the road and suddenly, it rises up to a 60degree incline (!)  This is the part where your leisurely walk becomes a huff and puff climb.  Walking these hills is not a joke. It takes serious stamina and determined feet to climb up all the way.

Note the cars parked on the left side, I’m still amazed at how San Franciscans have mastered the skill of parking on an incline!

In between the climbs, you are rewarded with this view of the Financial District.

Finally, my goal. I’m not really sure why this tower was built but I heard somewhere it resembles a fire hose’s nozzle which, somehow, it really does.  Actually, the only reason why I huffed and puffed my way is because of its Art-Deco architecture.  Being an Deco enthusiast, I just had to see it.  The murals inside are supposed to be superb but I only saw part of it since it was closed.

And to top it alll, this view of the Golden Gate Bridge on a nice clear day!

Worth the climb I say if you have time to kill and don’t mind burning a few calories.

Bring water though.

I missed it the first time back in 1994 and I wasn’t about to miss it out again.

If Manila has  Corregidor and New York would have Liberty/Ellis Island, then in SF, every tourist brochure  would say that you have do the Alcatraz.

Not that Im a big fan of prison camps but of course, there’s a lot to be said about the tourism marketeers of SF in trumpeting this island and making it one of the ‘must sees’ attractions in the city.

And so off I went and booked a ticket.

Tip: If you have limited time in SF (read: you want to cram in all the sights), then I suggest that you take the night tour. Its about $6.00 more expensive than the day tour but makes sightseeing time more efficient if you don’t fancy clubbing out at night.

In a nut shell: Alcatraz holds the notoriety of being the most toughest prison camps in the US. It was also the setting for the 1996 Nicolas Cage/Sean Connery nuclear action movie ‘the Rock’ which saw terrorists annihiliating SF from the the island.

There’s no missing the island (quite literrally) and given SF’s geography, you’re always within a street’s eye-view of island.  Alcatraz calling!

Here’s my first view from the ferry.

Note: the waters of SF Bay can be incredibly choppy (like that of Manila’s going to Corregidor) , the difference however is that it get’s biting cold in SF. There was a group of kids who opted to stay outside the covered area of ferry and I was almost tempted to do so until I saw them getting spashed all the way by the wind and waves.  Stay indoors, it takes only 20 mns from the ferry to the island.

My first view.  Wind was biting cold.

And I had no jacket.

I thought it was SUMMER in the city!

The island tourist infrastructure is very well develped.  Upon arrival, one is greeted by a guide who in turn leads the tour group (always a BIG one) to place where they can get their pre-recorded headsets . Very well narrated I must say. Here’s a view of the main cells.  Eeriily quiet without the hordes of tourists.

Until the next batch arrvies.

Obersvation: The island was crawling with Pinoys. Our guide was Pinoy.  The one who handed me my head set was Pinoy. The security who was roaming around was Pinoy. And fellow who manned the cash register was Pinoy.

Funny, I think I was only Pinoy tourist.

A view inside one of the cells.  This size reminds me of a studio-type condo unitit I checked out a few months ago, only that was a bit bigger.

the toilet (?)

the isolation room if you ever found yourself not behaving. Shudder.

Ironically, one of the best views of SF can be seen from Alcatraz. Pehaps a way of tormenting it’s inmates?

One of my favorite parts of the complex was the dinning area, then apparently the most dangerous area in the island. Yes, according to our guide especially when you have hundreds of America’s most hardened crimminals together at lunch time all wielding knives and forks with perhaps with an axe to grind to the guards or their fellow inmates!

Makes sense.

At the end the sign says it all.

An interesting tour.  Worth the US$31.50 (morning tour $24.00) for its well thought of recreational experience.  If it’s your first time to SF, you’d probablly have to do it unless you really dont dig crimminal history.

Tip: the pier (number 5?) where the ferries are is in a relatively obscure part of part of SF so if you take the night tour, best to get a taxi back to where youre from.

Of course everybody says they love San Francisco.  A city whose image has been splashed at every tourist brochure and travel agency poster for as long as I remember. And what’s not to love?

a. Rolling hills – lots of huffing and puffing!

b. Supposedly great weather -I found this questionable

c. Romantic atmosphere-in a Hollywood sense

d. Diverse cultures – to  a certain degree

And so with these post-card images in mind, I headed out to the city by they bay. My goal: to as much hills as my feet can take me in three days.

Naturally, since I do walking tours in Binondo, I had to do a WOK in one San Francisco’s biggest tourist draws: Chinatown.  And so on my first day I signed up for a walking tour (US$42.00) at a leading tour outfitter called WOK WIZ who lead us through ins and out of this historic neighborhood.

In a nutshell, Chinatown is one of the oldest places in San Francisco having been founded during the early days of the gold rush which turned the city into a rollicking, cash-rich boomtown (think Silicon Valley in the pre-dot com bubble burst).

Let me WOK you through:

The part where most of Chinatown is located — all 24 square blocks- is in a ‘relatively’ flat part of the San Francisco, meaning the hills are easier to walk around  as compared to the more steep parts around the city. Most of the streets intersect each other in a chessboard pattern with the two main roads being Grant Avenue  (tourist strip) and Stockton Avenue (market street)  being parallel to each other. Both are about a kilometer long (i think) and everything in between is considered part of the neighborhood.

Pretty compact and, to the first time visitor, quite BIG.

Grant street- heart of tourist Chinatown. Chock full of Chinoiserie in its most disneyfied form. Think Golden Gate posters, cheongam-shaped champagne wrappers , oversized cloisonne jars, Chinese shoes,  screaming ‘I LEFT MY HEART IN SAN FRANCISCO’ tshirts- a good introduction really to the tourist frenzy of the neighborhood.  And if you ask me, the place to get cheap post cards if your so inclined to send one.

For architecture buffs  (like me), the side streets of Chinatown has perhaps one of the most eye-catching and kitschiest arcthitecture in the city with Chinese details (authentic or otherwise) flaunting their colors and their details seemingly to attact the attention of the passers-by.

There is a certain symmetry in the streets of Chinatown. Almost all buildings have kept their 19th cenutry (?)  height which is three stories.  Still very human-scale and not overpoweringly diminishing.


How San Franciscan can you get with this?

And the grand daddy of San Franciscan chinoiserie architecture! This three storey bank building which used to house the telephone exchange.

I think it looks Japanese.

Our little group with our guide in a red hat to the left in a place called Ross Alley, which if memory serves me right, is called ‘Ku-Lu-Song’ in Cantonese. Then I saw the Chinese characters 呂宋, suddenly and a eureka moment ! Lu-Song is the Chinese name  from where Luzon derives its name from!  It was said that a lot of the Chinese who went to the Americas came from the Philippines. The Manila connection perhaps?

After about 2 hours of walkabout, we ended at a local restaurant where we had a sit down lunch of noodles, dimsum and the like. Here’s a  last bite of the tour with chef Shirley Fong-Torres; local San Francisco celebrity, founder of WOK WIZ tours and coincidentally also the brother Ben Fong-Torres former editor of Rolling Stone Magazine.

Overall, I have mixed reviews of this tour, on one hand, it was a good introduction to SF Chinatown, the guide was perky (enough) to get my attention for a moments and having grown up in the neighborhood certainly helped with a lot of insider stories.   However, I think it would have helped if there was more flow in the overall conducting,  some parts (like the tea shop visit) was interesting but quite dragging. It was sometimes hard listening to guide given all the noice.  And there was also a sense of ‘exoticizing’ everything, why else would you let the group in a store selling live snakes, turtles and what not?  Perhaps because it was a Caucasian group?  Maybe its just a different perspective.

All told, I found SF Chinatown to be a very interesting place to wander around. A totally new experience from our own Binondo whose Tsinoy character is so totally different from her other version across the Pacific.