Multi-volume books have been written about all the things to do in San Francisco and elsewhere in the Bay Area. Winnowing to just a few, then, can be a daunting task.
But since Sacramentans probably have already been to all the usual tourist spots – or try mightily to avoid them – we’ve chosen several less obvious options than Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf and Jack London Square.
Hayes Valley Neighborhood,
The tragedy of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake resulted in 63 deaths and $6 billion in property damages. But, as the old macabre joke goes about natural disasters befalling blighted areas, it actually caused millions in improvements to a sector of San Francisco that once rivaled the notorious Tenderloin as areas to avoid. Once the intrusive commuter artery known as the Central Freeway came down and the rubble cleared, up sprouted a real neighborhood – Hayes Valley.
The urban rehabilitation came gradually, starting with upscale restaurants and bars joining the Hayes Street Grill to serve opera and symphony goers, continuing with a steady procession of local stores and boutiques, buoyed by city legislation that banned chain stores from the area, augmented by SoHo-style galleries and artisan craftworks, and lastly centered in 1999 by the greenbelt park that took the space where the Fell Street off ramp once stood.
Now, Hayes Valley has evolved into one of San Francisco’s trendiest neighborhoods – not as well known, perhaps, as outwardly affluent Nob Hill or Pacific Heights, or with the major hipster street cred of the Mission District, but emerging as the hot (haute?) spot to shop and sup for city dwellers and tourists weary of the throngs at Union Square. In fact, you know that Hayes Valley has arrived when it starts getting derided. In this case, the glossy magazine Travel + Leisure chose San Francisco as America’s snobbiest city, citing Hayes Valley as Exhibit A.
The Hayes Valley is an ideal day trip to see real-live newly wealthy young San Franciscans in their natural habitat. You can find them browsing the imported sake selections at True Sake, the first specialty sake store in America, getting fitted for a four-figure custom-made leather jacket at Lava 9, dining on Coffee-Crusted Liberty Duck Breast ($32) and sipping a Ginger Rogers ($9; gin, fresh mint, ginger syrup, lemon juice, ginger beer) at street-side tables at Absinthe, and purchasing an adorable Hannah Heart onesie ($95, pure merino wool) at Fiddlesticks. One thing you won’t find in the Hayes Valley, though, is chain stores. They’ve banned them.
There also may be more restaurants in Hayes Valley per square foot than at any place in the foodie-mad Bay Area, including Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. Certainly, there is ethnic diversity in its cuisine choices. Within a few blocks, you could go German (Suppenküche), French (Chantal Guillon and Chez Mamon), Brazilian (Canto Do Brasil), Japanese (Domo and Nojo) and Thai (Lers Ros).
Temescal Neighborhood, Oakland
How trendy is the Temescal neighborhood, located on Telegraph Avenue, between 51st and 42nd streets, in Oakland? People, 100 deep, line up weekday between noon and 1:30 to buy a chicken sandwich (buttermilk-breaded on a torpedo roll, garnished with jalapeno-flecked slaw from the uber-hip) at Bakesale Betty, run by blue-bewigged former chef at fancy Chez Panisse.
Yes, it sounds too precious, but it’s a darn good sandwich.
Culinary excellence abounds here. High-end restaurants such as Pizzaiolo (helmed by another Chez Panisse alum) and Dona Tomas, draw foodies from San Francisco. But perhaps Temescal’s most celebrated dining establishment is its most enduring, Asmara, an Eritrean restaurant owned by Kesete Yohannes since 1985. Asmara’s success has spawned a dozen other Eritrean eateries in the general area.
How can you be in nature and still be (literally) in the middle of a great metropolis? Take a ferry to Angel Island, the largest, most woodsy of the islands dotting San Francisco Bay.
You can spend all day, taking the first ferry out from Tiburon (Marin side of the Golden Gate Bridge) in the morning and chilling until the last ferry back late in the afternoon. (You also can camp overnight, popular in warm-weather months – whenever those are, in the Bay Area).
For daytrippers, the main attraction of Angel Island is the U.S. Immigration Station, where as many as 175,000 Chinese immigrants were detained for weeks, sometimes months, in prisonlike conditions between 1910 and 1940 as part of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was repealed in 1943. The 1 1/4-mile walk from Ayala Cove to the immigration station on the island’s northeast tip gives you your first taste of nature – eucalyptus and Monterey pine, planted by the Army more than a century ago, rubbing branches with native oak, madrone and bay trees reclaiming their space.
Docents at the immigration station explain the history of Chinese laborers in California, how they first arrived after the Gold Rush, later were put to work building the railroads and, by the time of the implementation of the Exclusion Act in 1882, were seen as taking jobs away from native-born citizens.
Afterward, you can hike to the island’s summit along the North Ridge Trail, leading two miles up to Mount Livermore. Dense with vegetation and not too steep, it leads to the summit, where there are picnic tables. Return via the Sunset Trail, where nonnative trees have been removed to give hikers a great view of the bay. Back at Ayala Cove, picnic areas are plentiful, and the Cove Cafe has outdoor seating. On weekends, the Cove Cantina Oyster Bar opens and offers free live music.
Speaking of islands, Alameda is an oasis attached to Oakland via a couple of bridges. The first Sunday of each month, it is overrun with bargain hunters and antique hounds attending the Alameda Point Antiques and Collectibles Faire, near the decommissioned naval air station.
On other days, though, the pace of Alameda is leisurely and timeless. Ole’s Waffle Shop, which features decor virtually unchanged since 1927, is a popular brunch spot. Antiques and vintage clothing stores that dot the island, as do dive bars and mom-and-pop shops on Park and Webster streets. Ole’s features waitresses with name tags reading “Dolores” and “Maribel” toting up your bill from memory, only occasionally checking with a laminated tax sheet over the soda machine, right next to the row of customers’ baby pictures.
There’s a beach, too, not as popular as Baker Beach in The City, but good enough. The sandy shoreline of Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach teem with history. Once, it was called Neptune Beach, dubbed “Coney Island of the West.” It had an amusement park, bathhouses and bandstands, competitions such as greased-pole climbing, canoe tipping, beauty pageants and tug-o-war. Johnny Weissmuller swam there; fighters Jack Johnson and Jim Corbett boxed there. The place was all the rage in the 1920s. A combination of the Great Depression, construction of the Bay and Golden Gate bridges and the growing popularity of car travel sent Neptune Beach into bankruptcy by 1939.
History is also anchored aboard the USS Hornet, which gives tours and even overnight sleepovers.
Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia
An entire museum dedicated to cubed, candy-coated sugary snacks? Puh-leeze. Why bother with such trivialities when the Bay Area is chock full of impressive and important museums?
Why? Because everyone needs a little whimsy in life. Besides, the museum is about Pez dispensers, more than the candy itself. Examples of every Pez dispenser ever manufactured, more than 900 in all, are represented within two small but tidy rooms, as well as Pez posters, vintage Pez-vending machines, Pez apparel and Pez literature and, of course, the candy itself.
Pez has long been an American pop-culture fascination, combining as it does two archetypal products: candy and toys. And, maybe because it is near San Francisco International Airport, owner Gary Doss’ museum has attracted visitors from Europe and Asia, as well as the large domestic Pez-head population. Even though the dispensers are seemingly made from the flimsiest of mass-produced plastic, they hold up well over time. That could be because most collectors don’t actively use them to deliver candy; rather, the dispensers become objets d’art.
“It’s the silliness of it,” Doss explains. “Pez is almost unequaled in its ability to license such a wide and diverse group of characters. I mean, from ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Hello Kitty’ to the three gentlemen from (the reality TV show) ‘Orange County Choppers, ‘ that’s pretty all-encompassing.”