By Lee Foster
(Update Note: My ebook SF Travel & Photo Guide: The Top 100 Travel Experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area has been released for $3.99 on Amazon at http://amzn.to/2qS9QtG. The ebook parallels my app on this subject available for $3.99 from Apple http://apple.co/2ow44IC and Google http://bit.ly/2o9sWKJ. See an announcement of the ebook on my website at http://bit.ly/2qXg8Zf. The app has also been announced on my website. I have answered some questions about the app. The app works on smart phones and tablet devices, but not on laptops or desktops. The ebook can be read on all devices.)
I am releasing here the content in this new travel ebook/app in ten alphabetical “clusters.” Each cluster will have 12 sections of the total 120 in the ebook/app. This is alphabetical release 6 of 10. Other clusters released now include: cluster 1 cluster 2 cluster 3 cluster 4 cluster 5 and cluster 6.
This release on a website will not have the full functionality of the app structure, including its Google maps showing you contextually all the subjects around you. The ebook version is convenient because you can carry the content around with you in one small package and not require connectivity. The 10 releases on this websites will show the text and photo of all the items, the full “SF A-Z” content listings, but will not be able to present, as the app and ebook do, all subjects in a clickable Table of Contents menu as grouped in an area (such as Embarcadero) or in the themes/subjects (such as Culture/Museums). However, after the 120 subjects are released, I will post the Table of Contents Outline and will post each of the 120 items individually to give a “website ebook” approximation of the app and ebook.
So, here is the seventh release:
SF A-Z, Alphabetical cluster 7 of 10:
Japanese Tea Garden
The Japanese Tea Garden, southwest side of the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park, was first built for the Midwinter Fair of 1894.
Any time is good for a visit. May is especially congenial because then the cherry trees, azaleas, and other blossoming plants are at the peak of their spring petal exuberance.
Five acres of sculpted landscapes with bridges, ponds, miniature mountains, and bonsai greet you.
You Best Shot: A still life photo of a miniaturized and stylize landscape or a blossom explosion can be a fitting photo here. Get some images also of yourself among the delicate visual textures, such as maple leaves that change colors with the seasons.
Stroll the gardens for a nominal fee and meditate over Japanese ideals of design, emphasizing tranquility and harmony.
From spring to autumn, the Tea House also offers a $25 Tea Ceremony, available by advance phone reservation, 415-752-1171.
The gift shop features green tea, plus imported ceramics for sake and tea enjoyment.
The Japanese Tea Garden is characterized as the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States. After the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, which included a Japanese-style village, park superintendent John McLaren reached an agreement with Japanese landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara to manage the site.
The Hagiwara family lived here and developed the site until 1942, when they and 120,000 other Japanese Americans were evacuated to internment camps. Other individuals took over the facility from that point forward as concessionaires, managed by the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Commission.
If You Go:
Area: Golden Gate Park
Address: 75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco, CA 94102
Jeremiah O’Brien WWII Ship
The restored and operational WWII Liberty Ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien, open to visitors every day at Pier 45, is a military history treasure.
The O’Brien is the only unaltered Liberty Ship still in existence and fully functional, able to operate, exemplifying the 2,710 Liberty Ships constructed to win the war. Many of those ships were built in Richmond, across San Francisco Bay.
After being built in just 56 days in Portland, Maine, at the height of the war frenzy, the O’Brien made seven WWII cargo runs and participated in the 1944 Normandy Invasion.
Your Best Shot: A horizontal view of the outline of the ship, at dockside or out on the water, with good light on it, can be a pleasing photo.
After its WWII service, the O’Brien ended up, as did most of the Liberty Ships, in a “mothball” fleet. The Bay Area fleet is located in Suisun Bay. Gradually, many of the mothballed ships were sold for scrap, but fans of the Jeremiah O’Brien felt she might serve a higher purpose, so they kept moving her to the back of the list for scrap.
Hundreds of volunteers, thousands of volunteer hours, and millions of donated dollars created another future for the vessel—as a living memorial on San Francisco Bay to the WWII Liberty Ship. The vision was that she would be operated as the National Liberty Ship Memorial. That goal was achieved in 1979.
In 1994, the O’Brien made an incredible nostalgia voyage back to Normandy for the 50th year celebration, managed by sailor veterans in their 70s. The O’Brien was the only large ship in the 7,000 vessel fleet for the invasions still operational at the 50th celebration.
Today the O’Brien welcomes visitors in San Francisco and steams out around the Bay several times a year for special occasions, with the public invited aboard.
The website has all the details for a visit or excursion on the Bay.
If You Go:
Area: Fisherman’s Wharf
Address: SS Jeremiah O’Brien, Pier 45, Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco, CA 94133
Joie de Vivre/Kimpton Boutique Hotels
The lodging options for a visitor to San Francisco continue to proliferate.
There are the great landmark hotels, some celebrated in this presentation, such as the Westins, Hyatts, Hiltons, Marriotts, Ritzs, and iconic locals, such as the Mark Hopkins. Anything iconic is likely to be bought up, so the Mark Hopkins preserves its name, but the hotel website alludes to it being an InterContinental.
With the small hotels, there are some feisty individual owners who manage their properties like celebrity chefs handling restaurants. They do not seek the marketing energies of a group. However, there are clusters of boutique hotels with several individual locations, such as the Joie de Vivre group and the Kimpton group.
Your Best Shot: A cozy room, maybe with a view, and maybe with you in it, will help celebrate your San Francisco lodging adventure.
Add to this the new reality of the “sharing” economy, meaning Airbnb for lodging and Uber ready to get you there affordably.
The sharing economy opens up some remote lodgings options. For example, you could hang out nightly in Pacifica with ocean-side tranquility, south and west of San Francisco, including fine dining at Nick’s and Moonraker, knowing that your Best Western beachfront property is only a $12 Uber ride from the Colma BART Station. (See my Pacifica write-up.)
If you are a visitor to San Francisco, your lodging choices have never been greater.
Below are details for an example of one boutique hotel, the Vitale, in the Joie de Vivre group. Vitale puts you within sight on the Ferry Building, close to a walk on the Embarcadero waterfront, near the Bay Bridge lit up at night, and steps away from Bayside restaurants such as Waterbar.
If You Go:
Address: 8 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94105
Kayaking Tomales Bay
One action adventure to consider in the San Francisco region is kayaking on Tomales Bay. The water is fairly calm and Blue Waters Kayaking is an experienced operator with safe, guided day trips.
All kinds of routine and unusual outings are offered in the course of a year, including “bioluminescence” paddle trips and overnight camping. See their website (below) for details.
Tomales Bay is famous for its oyster farming. Your kayak outing may proceed past some of these farming operations in the water.
Your Best Shot: There’s nothing quite like the magic of a horizontal photo close-up of a kayak in open water. Get your guide to take a photo of you in adventure mode, out on the water in a kayak.
Blue Waters Kayaking has their operation in Inverness on the west side of Tomales Bay in the Point Reyes area.
If out exploring in the Point Reyes area, whether kayaking or not, consider proceeding up the west side of Tomales Bay beyond Inverness to Hearts Desire Beach and Tomales Bay State Park (http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=470). The Northern California ocean waters are always chilly, but Hearts Desire is likely the warmest place you will find in this stretch of the Pacific if you want to swim without a wetsuit.
Tomales Bay State Park also has an interesting tree, the bishop pine, which requires that its cones be singed in order to germinate. When forest fires are suppressed, this tree can’t reproduce itself.
The info below is for Blue Waters Kayaking.
If You Go:
Area: North to Marin County
Address: 12944 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Inverness, CA 94937
Lands End/Outlook NPS Center
Lands End is a scenic terrain at the northwestern edge of San Francisco, offering superlative views of the ocean and the Golden Gate.
The National Park Service has opened a Visitor Center there, called The Outlook, to inform you about the trails and terrain.
The area features nature, historic shipwrecks, and a glimpse of San Francisco’s past, such as the ruins of the Sutro Baths, said to have been the gala place where boy-met-girl in the era before the Great Earthquake of 1906.
Your Best Shot: Photos are possible of you hiking at Lands End from an elevated view with the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
One good source of info about Lands End is the Parks Conservancy website. This group supports all the entities in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). See their Lands End presentation at
When in the area, make the handsome Lookout Visitor Center (680 Point Lobos Ave) your first stop, for brochures and information. Then head out for a walk or enjoy a meal at the fabled, adjacent Cliff House restaurant.
The trails show the results that loving attention from dedicated naturalists can achieve. Native vegetation has been planted and “invasive” non-native plants have been removed. There has even appeared a wild river otter, nicknamed Sutro Sam, in the pools at the ruins of the former Sutro Baths.
The views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County are a special treat as you walk the trails at Lands End. There are opportunities for private moments of reflection and enjoyment while immersed in the natural beauty of the landscapes and seascapes appearing in front of you.
A memorial to the USS San Francisco, a WWII cruiser vessel, indicates that the ship took 45 hits and sustained 25 on-ship fires during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942.
If You Go:
Area: Northern/Western Oceanfront
Address: 680 Point Lobos Ave, San Francisco, CA 94121
Lee’s Top 10 SF Experiences
My recommended Top 10 SF Experiences tend to coincide with my vision of treasured iconic views.
Here are my recommendations. Your time is valuable. I’ve been watching the scene for decades. These are places I will gladly revisit to savor the nuances of The City and region.
Each of these subjects has its own write-up in my presentation.
Alamo Square Victorians. This park offers fine views of Victorians with the modern city in the background.
Cable Cars/Cable Car Museum. Go to the museum, also called the Cable Car “Barn,” to see the amazing innards of the cable car system.
Chinatown Walking Self Tour. Enjoy the architecture Maybe locate some red lanterns strung across the street on Grant Ave.
Coit Tower and the Crookedest St. Coit Tower is a legacy salute to the firefighters after the 1906 Quake and Fire. Photograph the outside with the Christopher Columbus sculpture in the foreground. Be sure to see the WPA murals inside. Take the elevator to the top. West of you is the Crookest St, a quirky zigzag attraction in itself.
Conservatory of Flowers. This Victorian greenhouse includes an ever-changing outdoor floral tribute in Golden Gate Park. Flower beds occupy the foreground. The lacy white Victorian structure is in the background.
Transamerica Pyramid from Coppola’s Zoetrope Bldg. This is a great view of old North Beach architecture juxtaposed against the newer downtown. See my write-up for the exact location.
Fort Funston Hang Gliders. You’ll find this lyrical sight on bluffs at the southwest side of The City.
Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point. The south side view of the famous attraction is the main place for encountering the Bridge and perhaps walking out on the structure.
Baker Beach/Golden Gate Bridge. This is my single most favorite view in The City, with the waves crashing on the beach and the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. This is a great afternoon light experience.
Muir Woods. Don’t miss the unforgettable and iconic towering redwoods to be seen north of San Francisco in Marin County.
Live Theatre in SF
The Lion King at the Orpheum Theatre (1192 Market St) was my last experience of live theatre in San Francisco. That was a special treat. There is nothing quite so compelling as live theatre, amidst a sold-out audience of more than 2,000 people, watching what is purported to be one of the highest-grossing theatrical performances of all time.
Your Best Shot: It is not considered appropriate behavior to try to photograph at a live theatre event. But sometimes the cast meets the public after the performance in the lobby, and photos are then welcome. For example, at the Lion King, the cast was collecting donations for an actors’ charity in the lobby after the event. Selfie photos with the actors or shots of the actors were welcome.
As I write this, Hamilton is the current rage. New rages will follow. Follow the website for SHN (see below) to keep abreast of many current theatre offerings. SHN is a main organizing entity for major live performances. On their website, you can see current performances at the Orpheum Theatre, Golden Gate Theatre, Marines Memorial Opera House, and Davies Symphony Hall.
What are some further options for theatre in San Francisco?
ACT (American Conservatory Theatre, http://www.act-sf.org) is another major player, focused on developing the acting skills of its artists.
One only-in-SF event is called Beach Blanket Babylon (https://www.beachblanketbabylon.com). This is a long-running local satirical and humor event, focused on the national and local political and cultural scene. The performance is known for its outlandish costumes, especially hair pieces and hats.
Regionally, the Berkeley Rep (http://www.berkeleyrep.org) is a major resource of thought-provoking theatre.
Check out also what Cirque du Soleil (https://www.cirquedusoleil.com) is currently offering in San Francisco or the Bay Area. I’ve been fortunate enough to see several Cirque shows, mainly in Las Vegas, and from each I have emerged with a greater sense of the joy and wonder of life.
The info below is for SHN, a main theatre ticket organizer, and one on its major venues, the Orpheum Theatre.
If You Go:
Area: Civic Center
Address: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94102
Local SF Travel Information/Insight
San Francisco is one of the most congenial places on earth to visit. A visitor deserves the best possible information when making a decision to explore in San Francisco.
Three competing sources of information vie for the consumer’s attention. Some consumers will check all three. Others will favor only one.
First, professional travel writers, such as myself, assemble our objective information and insights and try to rise above the noise. For our services, we request payment, or we require that the consumer endure ads. Ads are the engine driving most magazines and newspapers. My travel writings and photos have appeared over the years in all the leading U.S. travel magazines and newspapers.
Second, crowdsourced content for free is a new model. Many gifted amateurs like to express themselves. Their reviews are given freely to their peers. Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google Reviews, etc. are examples. Some travelers will not venture beyond these sources. The system can be gamed, of course, with fake reviews meant to give overblown praise or do damage to competing travel providers.
Third, the great tourism organizing entities put forth their presentations on behalf of their dues-paying members. That is the main point of this section. For San Francisco, there are two major such entities, both of which do an elaborate and credible job to promote their constituencies.
For The City itself, there is San Francisco Travel, more precisely http://www.sftravel.com. Their website on the wonders of SF is among the most robust in the business. They also maintain a Visitor Center at Hallidie Plaza, Powell and Market Sts, a good place to stop for a map, guidance, and brochure information as you explore. Their mandate is to promote equally everyone who pays dues to the organization, allowing some oxygen to remain for the professional travel writer, who can be more selective.
Your Best Shot: The lively area at Hallidie Plaza around the Visitor Center can excite photo energy. The street looks down on the Plaza. The Cable Cars are making a turn-around. There are street musicians as well as citizens offering eternal salvation. There is never a dull visual moment around Hallidie Plaza.
For the State of California, there is a major promotional entity, Visit California at http://www.visitcalifornia.com. They too have an elaborate website, as befits one of the great destinations on earth. They do outreach to the world. They also maintain a Welcome Center at Pier 39, a good stop especially if you envision traveling around northern CA.
The info below is for the San Francisco tourism authority, with its outreach Visitor Center on Hallidie Plaza, corner of Powell and Market Sts.
If You Go:
Address: 900 Market St, Halidie Plaa, Lower Level, San Francisco, CA 94103
Main Public Library
San Francisco’s main public library, at 100 Larkin in the Civic Center area, represents imaginative public architecture, a refreshing approach. The building is owned by the people and all people are welcome here.
The main feature is the immense atrium interior, which has a certain cathedral-like grandeur, appropriate for this temple of literacy.
Your Best Shot: Aim your camera wide-angle at the ceiling to capture this interior landscape, a fitting shrine to the sacredness of the word.
The library has been and will be the subject of controversy, as have all great libraries, probably going back the magnificent library of Alexandria, Egypt, in ancient times. I have seen its lovely resurrected and modern state, with its décor being letters of various alphabets.
I remember when the SF library opened in 1993. Many citizens were upset because the library was selling or giving away many of its books. Wasn’t the library meant to be the keeper and collector of books? Well, yes and no. The visionary leaders of the library had another perspective. Their view was that the modern library was an “information retrieval” place, and the information was not just in the books. It was also in and accessed by the bank of computers at the library from a (then) new source, the Internet. Little did the library leaders know how visionary they actually were.
Today the library is enmeshed in another controversy, doing its best to serve modern social needs. I remember going to the library for an event, at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning in winter. I arrived a few minutes early and was surprised that there were a couple of hundred other citizens ready to enter. I gradually realized that these were homeless people who had left their night shelter in San Francisco and were seeking warmth for the day.
Probably Andrew Carnegie could never have imagined, when he endowed thousands of American small town libraries, including the one in Mankato, Minnesota, where I grew up, that in 21st-century San Francisco one of the public library’s main functions would be as a warming site for the homeless in winter.
If You Go:
Area: Civic Center
Address: 100 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94102
Mark Hopkins/Top of the Mark
The InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel is a classy, smaller grand hotel within the stratosphere of San Francisco’s grand historic properties.
Your Best Shot: At the Top of the Mark, make a dusk/night shot of some aspect of the SF skyline, with and without you in the image.
The Mark Hopkins occupies a special Nob Hill location. Hopkins flourished in the California Gold Rush, selling vegetables and hardware, along with another hardware seller, Leland Stanford. Hopkins did well and set himself up in Sacramento. He then became one of the “Big Four” who arranged the building of the railroad across America.
Hopkins built his mansion on the choicest property in San Francisco, a hill name Nob Hill. The term “nob” was a somewhat sarcastic word for the “high fallutin” types, the 1%-ers of their day. They were called “nabobs.” They lived on Nob Hill. All went well for Mark Hopkins’ mansion until the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. The grand mansion burned to ashes.
The Mark Hopkins Hotel was built on the property. It still has a multi-star feel to it, classy and old San Francisco. Take the elevator to the top, the Top of the Mark, to enjoy a drink and/or dinner, while surveying the glorious urban landscape of San Francisco. The appearance of The City will change from light to dusk to dark, depending on the hours you are there and the time of year.
You can dance away the night on the hardwood-floor area and sympathize with the thousands of sailors who did their last dance here, with their beloved, glancing out for a final view of SF, before shipping off to WWII in the Pacific.
If You Go:
Address: 999 California St, San Francisco, CA 94108
Franciscan priest Junipero Serra built his Mission Dolores, formally called Mission San Francisco de Asis, in 1776. The mission still survives today and is the oldest building in San Francisco.
This landmark is a masterpiece to contemplate and perhaps add to your collection of photos of significant San Francisco architecture. Consider the primitive times and resources with which this edifice was erected.
The marvel is that this mission building did not get shaken down by periodic California earthquakes. Seismic shakes led to the demise of many other missions in the 21-church chain.
Good morning light falls on the mission façade. Missions were generally built to face east to catch early sunlight and warmth, encouraging attendance at worship functions.
Your Best Shot: Besides the simple and chaste exterior, the painted ceiling interior and ornate altar make a tasteful photo. Sun falls on the front of the Mission in the morning.
The ceiling and altar of this church is a glimpse into the highly developed world of art and music that characterized several Franciscan missions in California. Many early reports about the missions talked about the impressive levels of choir music attainment that was achieved by the local Native Americans. This church interior must have been a magical place for the neophytes, as the Indians were called by the Franciscans.
A gift shop and small garden adjacent to the mission are also worth perusing. In the garden you’ll find a statue honoring Junipero Serra, a grave marker for the first mayor of San Francisco, and a reed house illustrating the 18th-century dwellings constructed by Indians around San Francisco Bay.
If You Go:
Address: 3321 16th St, San Francisco, CA 94114
Price: Donation requested
Montara State Beach is a major and lovely beach park as you proceed south from Pacifica along the coast on Highway 1 in San Mateo County.
If you want to make a leisurely walk on a beach in a totally pristine environment, Montara is a great choice.
An afternoon-to-sunset walk here is as good as it gets, bathing you in the glow of the late-day light before the sun drops below the horizon.
Your Best Shot: The golden afternoon sunlight on Montara Beach can provoke a memorable photo. Consider an image of the objective setting, meaning the incoming waves on the tawny sand with the bluff cliffs in the landscape. Then put you and your entourage into the scene, celebrating life.
Parking at two small lots at Montara can be tight. Scrambling down the cliffs to the beach can be problematic.
Beyond a beach walk here, the watery neighborhood going south has treats in store for you.
Just south, the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve (http://parks.smcgov.org/fitzgerald-marine-reserve) offers some of the finest tidepool experiences you will encounter along the entire Northern California coast. Study the tide timetables to arrive there at low tide if possible.
The Point Montara Lighthouse (http://www.norcalhostels.org/montara) is located on a rocky promontory. Montara functions today as an all-ages hostel offering inexpensive accommodations along the coast, with the Pigeon Point Lighthouse the next great hostel option going south.
Lunch or dinner at a seafood restaurant in Princeton-by-the-Sea (see my write-up) can be part of your adventure.
The info below is for Montara State Beach.
If You Go:
Area: South to San Mateo Coast/Bayside
Address: Montara State Beach, Montara, CA 94037
Note from Lee:
Aside from this ebook/app, I publish other books/ebooks about San Francisco and Northern California. One is titled The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco. My main book/ebook on Northern California is Northern California Travel: The Best Options. Those volumes, including some more on California, can be seen on my Amazon Author Page. My further books on Northern California are Back Roads California and Northern California History Weekends. One of my California books, Northern California Travel: The Best Options, is now available as an ebook in Chinese.