By Lee Foster
Visitors coming to Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco may leave their hearts in the city and region. Locals have already left their hearts here. Affection for the area is widespread.
This raises the lifetime question: What are the Super 50 Travel Experiences in San Francisco and the Bay Area for the occasional visitor or the lifetime bucketlister?
For me, I have been working on my list now for some time, appropriately 50 years. And I am beginning to form some firm opinions on the subject.
In 1965 this Minnesota boy, after graduating from Notre Dame, came out to Stanford to do a graduate program in Literature and Writing. Eventually I launched my career doing books and journalism, both writing and photography. Much of my work has been in travel reporting.
I have been looking at the territory. Based on my 50 years of field research, here is my list of 50 Great San Francisco and Bay Area Travel Experiences, for Super Bowl 50 or any time. You might like to sample some of these adventures.
You can find more details on these subjects on my website at www.fostertravel.com (using Search) and in my books/ebooks about San Francisco/Bay Area/Northern California. The books/ebooks are The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco, Northern California Travel: The Best Options, Back Roads California, and Northern California History Weekends.
My list of recommended travel experiences:
San Francisco Area
-1. Stroll Baker Beach on the west side of the Golden Gate in the two hours before sunset. If the day is sunny and balmy, you will likely see several hundred naked San Franciscans frolicking at the Bridge end of the stroll. An immense container ship may pass before you as it heads through the Golden Gate.
-2. See the Golden Gate Bridge from the south end Vista Point or the north end parking lot. Your options include walking out onto the Bridge or bicycling across. You can rent a bike at Fisherman’s Wharf, ride over to Sausalito, and return on the ferry. Tour the Civil War era fort, Fort Point, below the south end.
-3. Walk the paved path through Crissy Field from the Marina Green west to the Golden Gate Bridge. Savor one of the most glorious urban outings on the planet. This reclaimed military air base is now the launch point for sailboards. Migrating birds now rest in the restored tidal estuary.
-4. Relax at the outdoor café in Union Square to absorb the heart of San Francisco. This is the focus of the City’s upscale shopping district, and many of the art galleries are located a block north of Union Square on Sutter Street.
-5. (You’ll have to come back after Super Bowl for this one.) Rejoice at the brand spanking new SFMOMA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as it re-opens on Third Street on May 14, 2016, after a thorough remodel and rebuild. See the new display space for the celebrated Fisher Collection acquisition, which required the transformation of the institution.
-6. Witness the classic beaux-arts architectural beauty of City Hall, at Civic Center Plaza, and then duck into the Asian Art Museum to appreciate the Pacific-leaning perspective that has enriched San Francisco since the time of the Gold Rush in 1849. Asian presence assisted SF to achieve multi-cultural tolerance.
-7. Hang out at Fisherman’s Wharf, see the classic fishing boats, be amused by the highly-inventive street artists, and eat Dungeness crab at Alioto’s #9 or a bowl of clam chowder in a hollowed-out sourdough bread loaf at the Bistro Boudin bakery/restaurant.
-8. At the Hyde Street Pier, glimpse the past on San Francisco Bay at the National Park Service’s engaging museum, corner of Hyde and Jefferson, with its re-creations of the 19th century San Francisco. Amble out on the pier to see the Alma, a hay scow, and the Balclutha, an 1886 square-rigger trading vessel.
-9. At Pier 39, meet the Sea Lions that have been protesting with a peaceful swim-in now on the sailboat slips for the past 26 years. Then get acquainted with all the denizens of the Bay at Aquarium of the Bay, including tiger sharks and a giant red octopus.
-10. Get out on the Bay for a luxurious view from the water of the Golden Gate, skyline of San Francisco, and entire Bay scene. Take one of the tour boat options, such as Blue & Gold or Hornblower. Most excursions will take you out beyond the Bridge and back along Alcatraz prison island.
-11. Leave from Pier 33 for the National Park Service’s favorite prison Island, Alcatraz. Access is from Pier 33 only by the allowed vessel out and back. Walk the sobering scene with a park service guide or on your own. And be happy Ancestry.com does not list that your relatives spent quality time on the island.
-12. Expand your science horizon at The Exploratorium on Pier 15. Nowhere on the planet will you find the wonders of science more adroitly presented for all ages. The Exploratorium aims at revolutionizing learning about science, art, and perception. A Thursday “After Dark” Party is for adults only.
-13. If the day is clear, get your Uber driver to take you to the elevated Twin Peaks lookout in the central part of the City to gaze back at Downtown and the whole shebang. The panoramic view sweeps from the west at Golden Gate Park to north and the downtown skyline, then east to the Bay Bridge.
-14. Attend one of the major San Francisco celebration parades each year. (You’ll want to return to San Francisco for these.) Consider the exotic Chinese New Year event in February, the zany Bay to Breakers running/walking extravaganza or the sensual Carnaval celebration in May, and the rambunctious Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender happening in June.
-15. Walk exotic Chinatown. Hike north the length of Grant Avenue, from the gate at Bush Street to the end at Broadway. Then walk a block west, and turn south on Stockton, strolling back to Bush. Stop at Yee’s Restaurant, 1131 Grant, for a quick meal of roast duck.
-16. Meditate over North Beach’s Italian legacy. Pause on a bench in Washington Square. Have a cuppa java at Caffe Roma, 526 Columbus. Take home a loaf of bread at the Italian French Baking Company, 1501 Grant. Browse Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus.
-17. Enrich yourself in San Francisco’s Financial District by walking past the Bank of America Building, 555 California, and the Transamerica Pyramid, 600 Montgomery. Insist that these building names should never change. Then lunch at Tadich’s Grill, 240 California, one of the City’s first restaurants, from 1849.
-18. Indulge in cameo icons that make San Francisco special. In North Beach, take the elevator to the top of Lillie Coit’s Tower, celebrating Christopher Columbus and a phallic appreciation of firemen. Gaze west to the Crookedest Street, Hyde and Lombard. Make that twisty street your next stop.
-19. Admire the 1930s Works Progress Administration murals that gave employment to artists during the Depression and left San Francisco with visual treasures. Besides murals at the indoor base of Coit Tower, see WPA art at the Rincon Annex (a former post office) and at the Beach Chalet, Golden Gate Park.
-20. Meander the innards of the beloved Ferry Building, foot of Market. Glance up at its clock tower as you enter. Food purveyors will seduce you with California wine, cheese, and olive oil. Browse the lively independent bookstore, Book Passage, and savor a local-oysters lunch at Hog Island Restaurant.
-21. Transport yourself around the heart of San Francisco on the historic F Line Trolley Cars (F Line runs from the Embarcadero to the Castro) and the Cable Cars, which you can board anywhere along the lines, not just at Powell and Market. Take in museums to each system at 77 Steuart and 1201 Mason.
-22. Appreciate the great Victorian architecture that remains in San Francisco. About 14,000 buildings survived the Fire and Quake of 1906. More than 28,000 structures perished. Start at Alamo Square, see Victorians and the skyline, then visit the Haas Lilienthal House. For a self-guide tour, Search “Haas” on my website.
-23. Immerse yourself in Golden Gate Park, John McLaren’s brilliant American urban design, paralleled only by Central Park in New York. Start a visit at the Conservatory of Flowers, where the exterior floral displays, managed by McLaren’s spiritual descendants, show an evolving seasonal joy in flowers.
-24. Savor culture at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. The De Young is the City’s main repository for classical art. The American Art and the Oceanic Art collections are among the prize holdings. See the view of Golden Gate Park from the Observation Floor at the top of the Harmon Tower.
-25. Marvel at the progressive thinking embodied in the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, an all-ages science-presentation facility that satisfies visitors. The sod roof catches the rainwater, rather than waste it in the sewer. Delight in the tropical rain forest and the white alligator.
-26. Sip tea and steep yourself in the Land of the Rising Sun at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. The Tea Garden actually opened for the Midwinter Fair of 1894 and somehow survived the dark era of Japanese internment in WW II, emerging as a venue symbolizing tranquility and garden design.
-27. Hike the ever-better Land’s End trail on the northwest and northern side of San Francisco. Start with a map and info at the National Park Service facility, the Land’s End Lookout, at 680 Point Lobos Avenue. Hike around the area or even all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge on the Coastal Trail.
-28. Succumb to nostalgia over a lunch of grilled scallops at the landmark Cliff House, 1090 Point Lobos Avenue. Glance out at the pinnipeds and birds on Seal Rock. Find yourself (in a painting on the stairway) among the beautiful young women and men bathing at the respectable Sutro Baths here in the 1890s.
-29. Soar like a raptor while watching the Fort Funston Hang Gliders sail past you. Ocean breezes hit these low cliffs on the west side of San Francisco and bounce up to lift the spirits of birds and humans alike. Stand on the outdoor cliff-side platform to witness the parade and breathe in the bracing ocean air.
-30. Make the statuary acquaintance of mission-founder Junipero Serra in the garden at his Mission Dolores, from 1776, oldest building still extant in the City. Serra’s complicated legacy promoted soul-searching after his recent elevation to sainthood. Observe the lovely painted ceiling and the altar treasures inside.
-31. While in the Mission District, proceed to Precita Eyes Gallery to buy a self-guide map (or better yet a guided tour) of the hundreds of Murals in the Mission. Many of the murals depict the joy, sorrow, and imagination of modern Mexican Americans. Pause for lunch at one of many bustling taquerias.
-32. Walk the gay Castro neighborhood, festooned with rainbow flags, and stop in at the classic Castro Theatre, 429 Castro. Prep for your adventure with a look at Sean Penn’s movie Milk, about Harvey Milk, the San Francisco Supervisor who was the country’s first elected openly gay official.
North from San Francisco
-33. Drive ascending Conzelman Road in the Marin Headlands, immediately north of the Golden Gate, to get three views of the Bridge and the City. First is Battery Spencer, the massive gun emplacement from WW II. Next is Mid-Hill, the road pullout with the classic views. At the top is the Hawk Hill panorama.
-34. Peruse the village with a view, Sausalito, on the north side of the Bay. Walk the shoreline path of Sausalito to enjoy dining and shopping. The view is of the San Francisco skyline. Ferry transport over and back is possible. Pop singer Janice Joplin reportedly enjoyed the view from the Trident Restaurant.
-35. Relax with shrimp and beer on the outdoor deck of Guaymas Restaurant in Tiburon, a small village on the north side of the Bay, accessible by ferry. For Tiburon, wear your walking shoes and stroll bayside to its former railroad terminus, now a museum, or along Richardson Bay to the Audubon center.
-36. On Angel Island, accessible from Tiburon, make a bracing walk around the perimeter, showing views of the Golden Gate, San Francisco, and the Bay. Camp out to wake up to these unsurpassed visions. The Immigration Station museum portrays difficulties Asian immigrants faced entering the U.S.
-37. Become mesmerized by towering old-growth redwoods at Muir Woods, north of San Francisco. Coast redwoods are the tallest living things on earth. Muir Woods boasts an exceptional selection in Cathedral Grove. Arrive early morning to beat the traffic. Walk the creek bed to look up at arboreal splendor.
-38. Get sand between your toes at Point Reyes’ Limantour Beach, easily one of the most beautiful beaches in California. Walk for a mile along this tawny sand masterpiece. Other Point Reyes attractions are the rare tule elk and the Earthquake Walk, showing earth pulled apart in 1906.
-39. Catch the spring wildflower explosion in mid-March at Chimney Rock in Point Reyes. The spectrum of lavish color, from blue Douglas iris to golden poppies, will be abundant. Other choice locations for the wildflower enthusiast are Mt. Diablo State Park in the East Bay and Edgewood Park on the Peninsula.
-40. Sample choice Cabernet wine at Sonoma’s Buena Vista Winery, one of the first wineries in California. Pioneer winemaker Agoston Haraszthy started the wine industry here. See also in Sonoma the Spanish Mission, soldier barracks, plaza, and home of the Spanish/Mexican leader, Mariano Vallejo.
-41. Realize that Sonoma and Napa are wine worlds unto themselves, competing for your palate. Explore Napa by driving north along Highway 12, perhaps stopping to taste at icons (Mondavi, Inglenook, Beringer). Drive back south on the east-side Silverado Road to savor the full beauty of the vines.
East from San Francisco
-42. Catch the early morning ferry from Oakland’s Jack London Square to San Francisco. Witness the brawny Port of Oakland container shipping vitality and then observe the morning light shining on the Bay Bridge and the skyline of San Francisco as you reach the Ferry Building.
-43. Greet author Jack London, local boy who made good, at his statue in the Jack London Square dining, shopping, and entertainment complex on the Oakland waterfront. Good options here include Yoshi’s for jazz music or maybe kayaking the Oakland estuary with California Canoe and Kayak.
-44. Immerse yourself at Oakland’s Museum of California in three aspects of the Golden State. Separate levels portray the natural environment, art-and-portrait representations of California, and the human culture that has flourished here, from the time of the Ohlone Indians to today.
-45. Take a guided tour of the University of California, Berkeley, one of the major educational institutions in California. Or do a self-guide tour with a map. Details are at 101 Sproul Hall. Primarily a graduate student environment, UC innovates its way in many research fields, led by its roster of Nobel Laureates.
-46. Sample the cultural life of downtown Berkeley by taking in a theatre performance at the Berkeley Rep. A major new museum, the UC Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), opened in January 2016. Gather restaurant, near the new museum, is an example of cutting-edge California cuisine.
-47. Satisfy your palate in Berkeley’s “Gourmet Ghetto,” the stretch of Shattuck Avenue between Cedar and Rose. Here Alice Waters has her landmark Chez Panisse restaurant. Across the street is the noted cheese-lover destination, the Cheese Board Collective. Around the corner is the original Peet’s coffee.
South from San Francisco
-48. Acquaint yourself with the Leland Stanford Jr University, a memorial that Leland and Jane Stanford set up after losing their only child, at 16, to illness. “The children of California will be our children,” they said. Visit the Cantor Center to see Yurok Indian artifact and walk the Inner Quad, the first buildings.
-49. Get yourself up to nanosecond speed at the Silicon Valley’s three great tech museums. Start at The Tech in San Jose, an all-age facility where a kid can design rollercoasters. Proceed nerdily to the Computer Museum, portraying your recent past. Satisfy your inner geek at the Intel Museum.
-50. Wander the glorious San Mateo Coast to savor the Pacific. Find walkable beaches, such as Montara, lovely in late afternoon. See the most impressive lighthouse on the California coast at Pigeon Point. Bellow back at a two-ton bull elephant seal at Ano Nuevo to celebrate that his species didn’t go extinct.
That’s my list. Obviously, it is idiosyncratic. Faced with the opulent possibilities of joyous travel in San Francisco and the Bay Area, many wonderful choices have been overlooked. Feel free to nominate your favorites as a comment or with an email to me ([email protected]). It’s OK to alert me to my most grievous omissions. I will proceed eventually with the Next 50 to get up to 100, and then meander onto 100 Top Northern California Travel Attractions (Beyond the San Francisco Bay Area). This won’t happen overnight.