Hard to believe, perhaps, but there is more going on in the Bay Area this coming week than football, endless chatter about football, football-themed drinks at swanky football parties and people donning oversized football jerseys showing allegiances to their favorite football teams.
You’re heading to Santa Clara for Super Bowl 50, sure, but have a little perspective. Nearby San Francisco, epicenter for the pre-game fan experience and home to “Super Bowl City,” is widely hailed as one of the world’s top travel destinations, so it’d be a crime bigger than a 15-yard penalty for spearing to hole up within the NFL’s designated red zone and miss out on The City’s many charms.
All the old favorites are waiting – Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, the Golden Gate Bridge – but may we suggest a modified itinerary, one that will still be touristy fun but also give you a feel for San Francisco, its history, its whimsy, its diversity?
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The Presidio: Even freed from the Army’s constraints and cradled in the nurturing bosom of the national parks system, the Presidio can still feel like a forbidding place, daunting in its sweep and confusing with its row upon row of almost identical militaristic structures.
But this 1,500 acres of prime real estate near the Golden Gate Bridge commingles the commercial and the historical, with the old military bachelors quarters now morphed into the Inn at the Presidio, a boutique hotel, and the Civil War-era Funston House into a guest cottage rental. The Presidio Trust also has turned an erstwhile mess hall into The Commissary, an upscale eatery that opened last spring to rave reviews.
You can get culture by visiting artist Andy Goldsworthy’s outdoor sculpture, Spire, and later repair to the Disney Family Museum to learn about Uncle Walt’s early, pre-theme-park years. The newest attraction, though, is the Presidio Officers’ Club, by most accounts the first building constructed in the city by Spanish colonists in 1776, a few weeks before Mission Dolores was propped up. It features a gallery, museum, restaurants and a ballroom.
50 Moraga Ave. (at Arguello Boulevard, Main Post of the Presidio); www.presidio.gov; paid parking ($1.20 per hour) is available on the street and in lots on the main post.
The Dungeon: We know what you’re thinking: Just what Fisherman’s Wharf needs, another tourist trap. Yet, when the attraction is provocatively called “The San Francisco Dungeon,” and its promotional come-on promises, in the words of artistic director Kieran Smith, “gripping, dark and twisted tales of San Francisco from 1849 to 1907,” even the terminally jaded are tempted to give it a look-see.
It’s fast-paced and frenetic, part house of horrors, part dinner theater, part open-mike night at the improv. This much is certain: You won’t be bored.
You begin by being greeted by the leering Col. Jack Gamble, who lures you into a creaky mine-shaft elevator – “The Box of Doom” – and warns that “the San Francisco of old can be a dangerous place.” You soon find yourself back on Kearny Street, where Barbary Coast gangs reigned. Snarling at you is the leader of the Hounds, Sam Roberts, in full vigilante dress uniform and sporting a bushy mustache not seen since the ’70s on Castro Street. On it goes. Eventually, of course, the presentation winds up where every San Francisco tourist does – Alcatraz.
145 Jefferson St., San Francisco; $22-$32; 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m daily; sanfrancisco.thedungeons.com
GLBT History Museum/Tenderloin Museum: To truly know San Francisco, you need to delve into its neighborhoods, and two of the most historic and historically oppressed are the Tenderloin and the Castro. Both the Castro (one of the nation’s first predominantly lesbian, gay and transgender districts) and the Tenderloin (home to the homeless and working-class minorities) have recently opened museums charting their struggles.
The GLBT History Museum has made it its mission to educate and inform visitors about both the big events in the history of the movement, such as Supervisor Harvey Milk’s assassination, and the intimate, everyday plight of generations of people oppressed and even incarcerated based on sexual orientation. The museum rotates exhibits from its vast archives, which includes 80,000 photographs, 5,000 posters, 500 oral histories, 2,000 hours of footage and sound recording belonging to its owners, the GLBT Historical Society.
A short MUNI bus ride away is the Tenderloin Museum, featuring archival photos, footage, recordings and yellowed newspaper clippings, augmented by artifacts from famous fan dancer Sally Rand and ticket stubs from the Blackhawk Jazz Club. It presents the Tenderloin’s past as far richer than just a tawdry hub of gambling, drug use, porn and prostitution. Families have long lived here, churches long thrived, its sense of community evident in its embrace of all ethnicities.
GLBT History Museum: 4127 18th St., San Francisco; 11 a.m.-7 p.m, Monday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday; closed Tuesdays; glbthistory.org
Tenderloin Museum: 398 Eddy St.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday; $10; tenderloinmuseum.org
The Magic Bus Tour: Return to those heady days of the 1960s – peace and love, man – on a bus tour like no other. They put flowers in your hair, hand out tabs of “acid” (actually an innocent breath mint), tell riders about the Dead and Janis and point to the spot where members of the Jefferson Airplane swore they saw a white rabbit. In addition, they roll down the bus shades and show swirling, morphing psychedelic images mixed with classic tunes and video montages.
It is, put simply, a trip.
It actually gives a decent history of The City in its Beat, hippie and pre-digital days. That doesn’t just mean it will stop at every Haight-Ashbury spot where Jerry Garcia lit a doobie. No, the bus is tricked out to the psychedelic max by a celebrated multimedia artist whose work has appeared at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and MIT’s Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. The vision was to create a rolling, faux-lysergical interactive museum in which the bus windows could project images of the past at the precise locations where they took place decades ago.
280 Geary St. (Union Square); 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; $50 (adults); $40 (seniors and students); magicbussf.com
City Lights Books /Green Apple Books: Perhaps no other U.S. city can boast a funky, history-besotted indie bookstore that’s considered a must-see for travelers from Bodø to Beijing.
No less than the worldly travel writer Pico Iyer has mused, in a recent Los Angeles Times essay: “If San Francisco’s great tradition is the overturning of tradition, City Lights is one of its essential monuments.” Home to the Beats (Ginsberg, Kerouac, and poet/publisher/owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti), City Lights offers an expansive collection of new books, many from independent presses and small publishers.
Farther afield, in the Richmond District, is Green Apple Books, named the Publisher’s Weekly 2014 Bookstore of the Year. Books, new and used, are crammed into every conceivable cranny and nook, accessed by creaky stairways and cracked tile floors, yet the vibe is warm and inviting, not at all claustrophobic.
City Lights Books: 261 Columbus Ave.; 10 a.m.-12 p.m. daily; www.citylights.com
Green Apple Books: 506 Clement St.; 10 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily; www.greenapplebooks.com