A handful of classic San Francisco experiences
The Castro Theatre is one of my favorite places in San Francisco. It's been in business since 1922. The 1400-seat auditorium is jawdropping with beautiful murals on all the walls and sweeping staircases up to the balcony. Stepping into this theater really does feel like stepping back in time, even if you're there to see "Tron Legacy." Best of all, before the show (and sometimes during the show for special silent movie events), the Mighty Wurlitzer rises up from under the stage and you're treated to a brief organ interlude by David Hegarty or one of the other organists. (David has been a staff organist at the Castro Theatre since 1978 -- even longer than the Wurlitzer's been there!) Check the schedule and try to attend a singalong event such as the Sing Along "Sound of Music" or "Wizard of Oz": http://www.castrotheatre.com/p-list.html. If you are shy, this could be the cure.
I swear, I am in love with these animals. You may not believe that a flock of birds can have so much personality and verve, but please see the movie "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill", get to know them, and then go on a hunt to find them. A good place to look is Sue Bierman Park near the Ferry Building -- I often see them there towards sunset. It's a quintessential experience of San Francisco to see (and hear) these birds -- especially when they go crazy during Fleet Week!
The bumper sticker says it all: "HOWL if you ♥ City Lights!" City Lights opened as a bookstore in 1953 and was publishing books by 1955. In 1956, they published Allen Ginsberg's Howl & Other Poems (you know, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked"). The store manager was immediately arrested for selling an obscene book and the publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, turned himself in shortly thereafter. In a landmark triumph for the First Amendment, Ferlinghetti was acquitted. Today, you'll want to visit City Lights not only to commune with the Beat history of San Francisco, but also to remind yourself what a real bookstore is all about. For example, there are places to sit. There are books of all descriptions, including rare first editions. Among the remarkable inventory is an assortment of (as the City Lights website calls them) "self-published zines, chapbooks, pamphlets, and broadsides." I'm saving up to buy myself some broadsides. And I don't know about you, but I love a bookstore where the shelf headings include "Class War." Best of all, they are open till midnight every night - insomniacs ♥ City Lights extra much! Go on - make yourself comfortable, smarter, and better at City Lights.
It must be heard to be believed! The Audium began in 1950 and has become one of the most amazing and best-kept secrets of San Francisco. Created by classical composer Stan Shaff, the Audium puts on two shows a week, one on Fridays and one on Saturdays.
Through of an unusual combination of art and technology, AUDIUM's creators, composer Stan Shaff and equipment designer Doug McEachern (who are both professional musicians), evolved the Audium into a 3-D sound performance laboratory. The Audium is the only theatre anywhere constructed specifically for sound movement, utilizing the entire environment as a compositional tool.
At each show Stan takes the helm of the Audium. Equipped with several recorded tracks of found soundscapes from his travels, he uses his custom control desk to take the few lucky listeners into a truly 3-D audio environment like they have never heard. Stan doesn't so much mix the tracks he has brought in for the evening as push them through 3-D space, allowing the sounds to fall on you like a blanket or crawl all over you like massaging hands.
Book your place for this rare experience now: http://www.audium.org/omhpp.cgi?src=what_is_audium.hpp
Perched on top of a cliff, with the Presidio on one side and Ocean Beach on the other, the Cliff House is one of San Francisco's landmark destinations. The Cliff House offers two restaurants, the more casual bistro on the main level and the elegant Sutro’s at the Cliff House on the lower level. Generally speaking the food isn't too bad, but is probably not the reason you're going to make the trip to the farthest reaches of San Francisco. The main attraction is undoubtedly the view: a sweeping Pacific seascape reaching from Ocean Beach to the Golden Gate. Be warned though - betting on the view is a gamble and the winner takes all! At its best this view is frankly stunning and takes my breath away, but on a foggy day (not uncommon) a vast whiteness will stretch out as far as the eye can see. At which point attention must turn to the food.
Downstairs, Sutro's has an accomplished, if slightly stuffy and conservative, menu - offering traditional, well-presented dishes using high-quality ingredients. The service is impeccable if a wee bit stiff, the cocktails and wine list fun. But on those white days I must admit that the meal never seems able to cut through my disappointment about the missing view.
Upstairs, the bistro is a different story. This is a great brunch spot, and is absolutely perfect to take tourists and/or parents as the first stop on a journey of discovery around the many local attractions. A walk on the beach to soak up the ions followed by a hearty brunch is a fairly decent way to start the day. The staff are friendly and the atmosphere is sunny and relaxed. Every meal starts with a bowl of popovers, AKA Yorkshire Puddings, that will probably be a delicious curiosity for the uninitiated. I love to use this place as a starting point for a fantastic walk from Ocean Beach to the Ferry Building.
Oh and one last thing, popovers and Bloody Marys a good breakfast do not make!
San Franciscans can argue all day about the pros and cons of Tadich Grill. Some will swear that they would choose the sand dabs for their last meal on earth, while others might tell you that the food is overpriced. (My favorite online review said, "I've had better thermidor in jail.")
But to me there are two bonafide reasons to pay a visit to Tadich Grill, regardless of these discussions. Number one, it's been in business in some shape or other since 1849, when it was founded by three Croatians during the Gold Rush. Number two, some of the waiters appear to have been there since then. They wear white coats, know the menu inside out, treat you with respect, and flirt with your mother if she lets them. They keep your meal going, but never seem to intrude. They really know their service here. Bonus reason number 3, for those of you who are not convinced by the old-school service idea, is the fantastic old wood-paneled dining room. If you're lucky you can even have your own semi-private "room" from the row that runs down the left side of the restaurant.
So I do suggest that you hit the Tadich Grill. Play along. Drink an old-fashioned. Have the sand dabs. Let the waiter tell you a little about his kids. My only beef is, why no Croatian wines on the wine list?
The bartenders' crisp white jackets charm me every time we visit Tadich's. The classic traditionalism of it makes me weirdly happy as does the fact that those drinks-pouring gents are NOT shy with the booze. You WILL notice the gin in your gin and tonic. Will.
I could wax lyrical about the Exploratorium all day. I could regale you with childhood memories of marveling at my own handprint in their giant pin-table, or hypnotizing myself with a special sensitive plant whose leaves folded up when you touched it, or gazing up at the beautiful dome of the Palace of Fine Arts, the only building left standing in its original position from the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915. I could talk your ear off about how the Exploratorium was originally founded by the wonderful Frank Oppenheimer, a physics teacher and cattle rancher, at least in part as a counterweight to his brother J. Robert Oppenheimer's invention of the atomic bomb. When it opened in 1969, it was the first museum in the world dedicated to teaching children about science through hands-on exhibits -- an idea that has since spread throughout the world to the point that we take it for granted! I could bore you to tears about how well the Exploratorium provides for the curiosity of both children and adults, for example with their innovative performance series, the Exploratorium After Dark.
But as Frank Oppenheimer might say, the best way to learn about something is to experience it. So please get yourself over to the Palace of Fine Arts and do a little exploring for yourself. The museum is moving to new digs in 2013, and I don't want you to miss it in its current incarnation.
No self-respecting visitor to San Francisco would miss a trip on the famous cable cars, but for some reason, the city's assortment of wonderful electric streetcars gets short shrift. Unbeknownst to many people, we San Franciscans are living in the midst of what amounts to an open-air, living museum of vintage streetcars, still run as a proper form of public transportation by MUNI.
Reading a description of the fleet is truly amazing. You might find yourself on the No. 496, an unusually smooth-running tram that dates from Melbourne, Australia, in 1928. I'm partial to No. 1818, a funky wooden tram from 1930s Milan - originally designed by the industrious Peter Witt in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1915! There are also trams from Japan, Switzerland, and England (including one in the shape of a boat that has actually sailed across the Atlantic).
And yes, theatre fans, we do have "A Streetcar Named Desire." (And people don't know about this?!) MUNI currently runs one of these streetcars in the form of No. 952, which dates back to New Orleans in 1923, and which ran on the original "Desire" line. I have yet to catch that one, but if I ever do, I am fairly certain I am going to faint. Perhaps Stanley will catch me!
Alright, those of you who know me know that I have a bit of a thing for high ceilings. It's easy to become jaded about the so-called "fun" of shopping malls and other busy commercial centers, but I want to nominate the gorgeous Emporium Dome in San Francisco's Westfield Mall as a place you can at least catch your breath amid bursts of frantic commerce. According to Wikipedia, the beautiful glass dome design originally dates back to the early 1900s, when it was designed by "San Francisco architect Albert Pissis, one of the first Americans to be trained at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris." The whole shebang was extensively restored and reopened to the public in 2006.
When I'm running errands downtown, I often invent an excuse to pass through the Westfield Mall just so I can spend a moment or two meditating in this wonderful space. OK, it has WiFi too, and they even provide comfy easy chairs - but go early if you hope to snag one - some smart mobile workers camp out here all day! And when you're done, be sure to check out the circular escalator at the other end of the building - two architectural wonders in one mall?! San Francisco, our cup runneth over!
Vermont Street - it's the other white meat. I mean, it's the other crookedest street in San Francisco! Compared to its super-famous compatriot, Lombard Street, Vermont Street has all of the incline and sinuosity and none of the (A) acclaim, (B) postcards, (C) crowds, or (D) pressure to drive down fast. Should you find yourself driving around in Potrero Hill, do make time to wend your way down this precarious and gorgeously wooded hillside. Lombard Street is brick-lined and carefully manicured while Vermont Street feels a bit less meticulously planned out, and personally I found it far more rollercoasteresque, in the manner of a big old wooden coaster than really scares the pants off you with its rickety rattling.
Vermont Street also home to the truly terrifying Bring Your Own Big Wheel event, which I have never had the courage to watch, much less participate in - maybe next year!
I don't know about you, but I motored past San Francisco's beautiful, golden-edged City Hall for months and months after moving to the city, never once imagining that it would be possible to just pop inside for a visit. But this wonderful building is free to enter (although you must submit to a security screen, which is fine with me, especially considering that this is where Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated in 1978). This building is the replacement for the previous city hall, which was badly damaged in the 1906 earthquake. I think it must be one of the most magnificent buildings I've seen in California, especially the central rotunda which resembles a lost national monument from Washington, D.C. They run three free walking tours a day here, and it's worth it for odd tidbits of trivia - such as the fact that Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio got married here in 1954. If you visit today you can see many other couples following in their footsteps (although I hope to a happier ending) - City Hall continues to be one of the most popular wedding venues in the city.
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