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 8 of 10. Other clusters released now include: cluster 1 cluster 2 cluster 3 cluster 4 cluster 5 cluster 6 and cluster 7.
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 eighth release:
SF A-Z, Alphabetical cluster 8 of 10:
Your best opportunity close to San Francisco to experience mature and giant coastal redwoods, the signature tree of California, is Muir Woods, 12 miles north of The City in Marin County.
(If you don’t plan to leave San Francisco, an impressive second-growth forest of redwoods can be seen in Golden Gate Park at the Botanical Garden. See my Botanical Garden write-up.)
For Muir Woods, if you can, arrange to arrive early, at 8 a.m., when the National Monument opens. You’ll get an uncluttered view of the trees before the crowds appear. Crowds can also mean parking problems.
Your Best Shot: An image of the towering trees, the tallest tree species on earth, can be compelling. You might want to get a vertical shot. Putting yourself in the image can also suggest scale. If you have a tripod, putting your camera on it and then stepping back into the scene can add perspective.
You enter and exit the grove of redwoods on the same single path. Get a good map of the grove at the entrance to study the layout. Elevated paths proceed on the slope-sides adjacent to the main creek-bed path. An elevated perspective from these slope paths allows you to experience and photograph the trees in more striking verticality than on the creek-side path.
The grove is named after the ardent environmentalist, John Muir, who did more than anyone in the 19th century to preserve the American wilderness, especially its large forests.
The tallest of the tall trees in California are not at Muir Woods. The tallest tree is at a hidden location in Redwood National Park, north of Eureka, about five hours north on Highway 101. The exact site of the tallest tree is a closely guarded secret. Naturalists don’t want to see the tree loved to death by fans who might trample its roots.
If You Go:
Area: North to Marin County
Address: 1 Muir Woods Rd, Mill Valley, CA 94941
Price: Park entrance charge, moderate
San Francisco’s Hispanic Mission District enjoys a wall-mural art legacy that parallels the great Mexican tradition of Riviera and Orozco.
The subjects for the San Francisco murals range from the suffering of humanity to more lyrical observations on life. Artistic forms may extend from realism to cartoon animation.
Walk the Mission District murals with a self-guide map from the Precita Eyes Muralists, 2981 24th St. Better yet, take an insider tour with a Precita Eyes guide familiar with these major art installations.
Your Best Shot: The short street known as Balmy Alley has some of the most intriguing murals. Seek out Balmy Alley during your walking tour.
Precita Eyes Muralists is the organizing force behind the mural movement. As founder Susan Cervantes once expressed to me, “A mural is a bridge to the community. The artists communicate with the people. Meetings are held to discuss the issues. The result is a reflection, a mirror of that community.”
A mural walk can be a thought-provoking encounter cataloguing the issues of class struggle, racism, and oppression in the modern world. Murals are the “people’s art,” painted on walls and available to be seen without any charged admission.
The Precita Eyes store sells cards, books, and art copies of some murals. Aspiring artists can take art classes here and acquire their acrylic paints and brushes.
On a mural walk, two particularly dense clusters of murals are along Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley, so be sure to visit them. A dozen taqueria-style restaurants in the neighborhood offer an enjoyable meal and a glimpse at local life after a walk.
If You Go:
Address: 2981 24th St, San Francisco, CA 94110
Price: Moderate, for maps and tours
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) opened anew in 2016 with a striking tower to house The Fisher Collection.
For several years the institution closed so that this major new acquisition could be properly housed.
The Fisher Collection includes 1,100 works gathered over a 40-year period by the Gap founders, Doris and the late Don Fisher. Their collection of art, hailed by critics as one of the world’s foremost private collections of contemporary art, warranted the expansion wing of SFMOMA.
Your Best Shot: Consider an image of one of Alexander Calder’s lyrical mobiles, both alone and with you in the scene. He was the Fishers’ favorite artist. They collected 45 of his works.
Mario Botta’s original design for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art merits a photo in itself from across Third St. A distinctive round front window announces the structure, which opened in 1995. The new tower is behind it.
The institution began in 1935 and was the first museum on the West Coast devoted solely to 20th-century art. The collection included works from Pollock, Diebenkorn, Klee, Duchamp, and California’s own photographic artist, Ansel Adams.
Across Third St lies an outdoor elliptical patch of greenery, the Esplanade at Yerba Buena Gardens. This amenity helps make Downtown San Francisco such a livable aspect of the city. Stroll past an elaborate fountain honoring Martin Luther King and consider lingering at one of the outdoor cafes.
If You Go:
Address: 151 Third St, San Francisco, CA 94103
Price: Admission Charge, moderate
San Francisco and the Bay Area offer travelers some of the most diverse nature and outdoor experiences possible anywhere.
I believe I do not speak with undue superlatives, partly because I have the comparative experience of seeing perhaps 150 of the great nature experiences in the world today. Search a favorite, such as Kenya African Wildlife, on my website at https://www.fostertravel.com and you will see some of my parallel delights in nature.
The San Francisco region has an inherently interesting topography, a mild climate allowing diverse ecosystems, and one of the great river estuaries in the world. The river outflow meets a fecund ocean environment.
This Northern California region has also been a worldwide leader in mankind’s struggle to preserve the natural environment, partly for nature itself and partly for human enjoyment. It is no coincidence that John Muir and the Sierra Club are San Francisco Bay Area entities.
Add to this a further and ironic reality: the U.S. military, in earlier eras, had the power to grab and control the choicest terrain, given that San Francisco, the Bay, and California needed to be protected. When military strategy changed, most of these lands were declared “surplus.” The National Park Service and the California State Parks people stepped forward to manage the assets for all the people.
So, where should you go to experience these best nature experiences in the SF Bay Area? Your time is precious. Here are my suggestions. Each suggestion has its own write-up in this presentation:
Crissy Field, located on the east side of the Golden Gate Bridge, is one of the glorious waterside promenades in the world today. Walk this former air base from the Marina Green to the Golden Gate Bridge, breathing in some of the purest air on the earth.
Baker Beach, on the west side of the Golden Gate, offers you a beach walk and a glimpse, especially in afternoon light, of the Golden Gate Bridge, the green Marin Headlands, and the drama of waves crashing in from the Pacific.
Lands End, at the northwest edge of San Francisco, has its National Park Service Outlook store to assist with information on hiking along this choice terrain, west of the Golden Gate, adjacent to the historic Sutro Baths and Cliff House.
The Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park celebrates the salubrious climate of San Francisco, which allowed the legendary park founder John McLaren to grow so many species of plants from all over the world. Today you can see here a fairly mature second growth redwood forest. The redwood species is the world’s tallest tree species, California’s own coastal redwood, the sequoia sempervirens.
Fort Funston will delight you with lyrical hang gliders catching the thermals off the ocean cliffs. Descend the bluffs to a welcoming beach walk below.
Pacifica’s Mori Point hike will show hikers glorious wildflowers in April and whale migrations along the California coast in winter and summer. The winter migration of California gray whales is well known. The summer migration of humpbacks is new, provoked by an explosion of baitfish populations as ocean waters warm.
Montara Beach presents, especially on a sunny afternoon, one of the most tranquil settings you will find on the California coast, Persistent waves wash up on tawny sand, with bluffs in the background in a pristine setting.
Ano Nuevo can acquaint you with one of the larger mammals you will ever get close to. That species is the northern elephant seal. The males bluster and bluff their way around the beach, controlling the more passive females, who will mate with the alpha winner. This species was harvested almost to extinction for its blubber, but a few survived. Today they flourish. I was there in 1976 when the first pup was born on the California mainland. Saving the elephant seal is an impressive conservation success story of which every Californian can be proud.
Angel Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay, allures with a level perimeter road, good for a day’s outing. If the walk gets too long, you can wait for the perpetual shuttle bus to continue your journey around the island. If you are a backpack camper, you can stay on the island overnight, as I have, and wake up to see dawn on San Francisco and on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Muir Woods, 12 miles north of San Francisco in Marin County, presents the premier tree of California, the coast redwoods, sequoia sempervirens. Walk in the preserved grove to see a landscape saved to approximate its appearance from a thousand years ago.
Point Reyes is a National Seashore along the coast, north of San Francisco. Point Reyes presents a dozen competing nature joys to recommend. If I had to choose one, it would be a walk at Chimney Rock, good all year, but especially in the grand wildflower exuberance that occurs each April.
Caesar Chavez Park in Berkeley is a brilliant example of urban land recycling. When I arrived in Berkeley in the 1970s, it was a garbage dump for landfill. Now it is a rustic bayside park with a circular paved path, an excellent place for an hour walk, with views of the Golden Gate. Recently, I saw there the largest gopher snake of my California hiking experience, perhaps fattened up by the abundance of ground squirrels.
You can’t go wrong with any of these recommended nature outings.
The most select place to live in San Francisco in the late 19th century, before the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, was known as Nob Hill. The elevated neighborhood is located around the present Huntington Park, along California Street, between Taylor and Cushman Streets.
You can go there by taking the California Street Cable Car up to climb the hill. Get off at the summit and enjoy the greenery of this block-square park, bordered by the Mark Hopkins Hotel and other landmarks.
Your Best Shot: Only one great house survived the fire after the 1906 Quake. That was the red-stone James Flood mansion, 1000 California St. Get an image of this Victorian architectural treasure, including some shots of you in the photo. The Flood mansion is now an exclusive men’s club.
Around the square there are other notable structures. The imposing Episcopal Grace Cathedral looms to the west. To the east the Fairmont Hotel stands where James Fair’s mansion once flourished. Collis P. Huntington, another mover and shaker, had a grand house here, but it perished, replaced now by the Huntington Hotel. A block west on California now lies the fancy Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
The fire after the Quake hopscotched through the great Victorian architectural legacy that had accumulated in San Francisco, destroying almost everything right here, but leaving other areas unscathed. The water mains in the city were broken, so there was no way to stop the fire, except, ironically, with dynamite, destroying some buildings to save others.
Pause on a bench in Huntington Park to absorb the scene. A lyrical fountain spews water. Children may cavort on a sandy playground with swings. Dog walkers follow their well-behaved and unleashed pets with discreet plastic bags. In early morning, tai chi practitioners may be pursuing their routines. On the weekend, the park may be hosting an art show
If You Go:
Address: 1000 California St, San Francisco, CA 94108
San Francisco’s North Beach is an iconic Italian neighborhood best explored on foot. Coffee shops and small restaurants, a landmark bookstore, intriguing architecture, and specialty shops, such as bakeries and grocery stores, abound in the blocks around Washington Square, the heart of North Beach.
North Beach is adjacent to Chinatown and could be explored easily after a look at Chinatown. Walk up Grant St through Chinatown to Columbus. When you reach Columbus, start enjoying North Beach.
Your Best Shot: The iconic architecture of the beloved Sentinel/Zoetrope Building makes an interesting photo. Locate yourself at 916 Kearney St, the Sentinel Building. Movie director Francis Ford Coppola bought it and renamed it the American Zoetrope Building after his movie production company. Step across the street and view it with the visionary Transamerica Pyramid building in the background. The juxtaposition of the two adjacent buildings puts the elegant old against the innovative new. Within the Zoetrope building is Coppola’s Café Zoetrope, a fine-dining restaurant featuring wines from his Napa Valley estate.
For coffee, try Caffe Roma (526 Columbus Ave, http://www.cafferoma.com), which serves Italian espresso, roasted daily on the premises. Accompany with Italian pastries or authentic Italian panini. Later in the day the beverage of choice is wine by the glass. The restaurant attracts an assortment of locals and out-of-towners. It has changing art exhibits. You might want to peruse the specialty coffee-roasting equipment.
For culture, browse the famous City Lights Bookstore (261 Columbus Ave, http://www.citylights.com). The bookstore was founded in 1953 by Beat Generation literary luminary Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Go upstairs to a small room called the Poetry Room.
I remember sitting on the floor of this room with Lawrence and others in the late 1960s when I was a young student of literature at Stanford. We would read our poetry and discuss the anxieties of the time. Lawrence had a subtle influence on many. Perhaps it was better to write one poem of your own rather than do learned literary commentaries in academic books ad infinitum.
Ferlinghetti was also a publisher. His most famous publication, beyond his own lucid books, was Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Today you may still find a copy of it for sale on the shelves in the Poetry Room.
The address below is for City Lights.
If You Go:
Area: Chinatown/North Beach
Address: 261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133
Marin County offers some of the outstanding nature experiences in the Bay Area, plus two small towns, Sausalito and Tiburon, that are cultural treats.
A car will generally be required for this exploration, though you could actually rent a bike at Fisherman’s Wharf and bike across the Bridge to Sausalito, ferrying back to SF. Both Sausalito and Tiburon are served by the Blue and Gold Fleet (http://www.blueandgoldfleet.com/) boats from Fisherman’s Wharf.
Each of these Marin County subjects has its own write-up in this presentation.
Conzelman Road on the Marin Headlands provides three special turnouts where you can look back and see the Golden Gate Bridge, the skyline of the city, and sometimes even a huge container ship going in or out through the narrow Golden Gate passage.
Sausalito is a small town with art galleries, shops, and pleasant dining options with Bay views. Strolling and dining in Sausalito is a favorite combination.
Tiburon is a parallel to Sausalito, another small bayside town with fine-dining restaurants at the water’s edge. Tiburon offers many galleries/shops to explore and hosts a small ferry that is the main mode that goes to Angel Island. This island state park presents a level perimeter road where a walk or shuttle ride allows for stunning, fresh-air views.
Muir Woods, 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, is the choice place in the Bay Area to see the landmark old-growth redwood trees of California. This tree species, sequoia sempervirens, is the tallest tree on planet Earth.
Point Reyes is a National Seashore segment of the National Parks Service, 42 miles north and west of San Francisco, perhaps 1.5 hours on the narrow roads. A drive-up-and-stroll on Limantour Beach plunges you into the best of Point Reyes, but the helpful Visitor Center can also suggest many further options.
Kayaking Tomales Bay at Point Reyes is an exciting adventure option. The veteran provider of the service, Blue Water Kayaks, knows how to make a guided kayak tour safe and enjoyable.
North to Marin County is one of the enticing options as a visitor decides what to explore beyond the dense 7×7-square-mile urban expanse of San Francisco.
Beyond the Jack London waterfront and the brilliant Oakland Museum of California, there is a third subject in Oakland of vital interest to travelers.
That could be described as the Oakland Downtown, accessible from the BART 12th Street and 19th St stations.
Oakland Downtown is a diverse, diffuse, and a somewhat complicated subject, but here are some highlights.
The lovely Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, is a celebrated and eminently photographable movie palace. This gorgeous Art Deco masterpiece from the 1930s delights from the outside, with its tiled mural facade.
Your Best Shot: Get a photo of the lovely façade of the Paramount. Go ahead and put yourself in the image for some shots.
Equally beautiful inside are exquisite Art Deco details. Perusing the Paramount takes you back to an era when such movie theaters were indeed flourishing. When built in 1931, the Paramount had the largest seating capacity of any theater on the West Coast. Tours are available (http://www.paramounttheatre.com, 510-465-6400).
At 9th Street, between Washington and Broadway, you’ll see renovation and restoration at work. This Old Oakland restoration consists of shops and restaurants, supplementing the excellent Ratto’s International Market & Deli, 821 Washington Street, a kind of culinary mirror of this diverse city. Around Old Oakland are new office buildings that have changed the face of the downtown. Dedicated volunteers offer architecture tours. See the Visit Oakland website (below) for details.
On the other side of Broadway is Oakland’s vigorous “Chinatown,” but it is more correctly described as an “Asiatown.” Oakland has welcome waves of new migrants from Asia for decades. My son Bart went to a middle school here with kids from about 30 countries, mainly from Asia. Up and down Broadway there are many restaurant entrepreneurs at work. For example, try Izzy’s Steaks and Chops, 59 Grand, for the perfect steak.
Lake Merritt, a 155-acre saltwater lake in the heart of Oakland, is a popular recreation area. Walking and jogging around the lake are popular. Along the edge of Lake Merritt, at 666 Bellevue Ave, you’ll find one of the outstanding public gardens in California, the Lakeside Park Garden Center, covering 122 acres that are intensely cultivated throughout the year. Permanent displays include a Japanese garden and an herb and fragrance garden.
So, put on your walking shoes, get some good info from Visit Oakland, and explore the Oakland Downtown.
The details below are for Visit Oakland, the tourism entity for the city.
If You Go:
Area: East to Oakland/Berkeley
Address: Visitor Center at 481 Water St, Oakland, CA 94607
The Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St, was one of the first museums to present exhibits as environments, such as the American kitchen in the 1940s. Before, most museums displayed static collections, such as seashells of the world.Separate floors cover California Art, California History, and California Natural Science.
Your Best Shot: This is a good place for you to seek out a painting, an artifact, or a creature that inspires you about California, making a photo of the subject and of you with the subject. The outdoor garden also has many visually interesting sculptures.
On the Art floor you can see paintings of California by Albert Bierstadt and photos by Dorothea Lange.
The History floor includes displays of the waves of immigration that enriched California life.
California’s wildlife and ecosystems are presented on the Natural Science floor.
The museum architecture is noteworthy, with the building sunk into the ground, allowing roof gardens on top of each tiered floor.
One of the popular annual shows is the Bay Area Mycological Society’s Fungus Fair, in November, which displays the season’s offerings of wild mushrooms.
There are usually three current shows going, often of highly varied subjects. For example, recent popular shows have been on “Bees: Tiny Insects, Big Impact” and on “Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture.”
If You Go:
Area: East to Oakland/Berkeley
Address: 1000 Oak St, Oakland, CA 94607
Price: Entrance charge, moderate
Ocean Beach is a sandy panorama stretching along the western side of San Francisco.
It starts at the Cliff House and proceeds south, past Golden Gate Park, for about 3.5 miles to Fort Funston. The beach skirts residential areas, known as the Richmond and Sunset Districts. The Great Highway is the road adjacent to the beach.
The beach is flat and spacious, inviting walkers, runners, and dog walkers.
Your Best Shot: If the weather is sunny, this beach can be a scenic panorama for the photographer, especially if there are some clouds floating by.
The size of the beach and its public nature, but without a lot of oversight, allows for some unusual impromptu gatherings of citizens. I once observed there a meetup of more than 250 owners of the dog species known as corgis.
The beach is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, an entity in the National Park Service.
Expect dense fog in summer, but sun can prevail in spring and autumn.
The beach is popular with surfers and swimmers, but there are occasional fatalities when participants underestimate the chilliness of the upwelling ocean or the roiling character of the waves.
If You Go:
Area: Northern/Western Waterfront
Address: Ocean Beach, Great Highway, San Francisco, CA 94121
Pacifica is a peaceful near-San Francisco oceanside location in northern San Mateo County, just south from Fort Funston.
The town offers a potential alternative to lodging in the metropolitan downtown, about 20 minutes away by car.
Turn into Rockaway Beach, the central location. At Rockaway you can enjoy the ocean surf and take a hearty walk up Mori Point hill to see wildflowers and whales in season. Dine on a crab sandwich at Nicks or a boiled Dungeness crab at the Moonraker. Stay overnight and you can be lulled to sleep by the waves.
Your Best Shot: The beach and rocks at Rockaway make a classic sunset shot, with and without you in the image. You can also sometimes catch surfers riding the waves with the sun dropping from the sky behind them.
A five-mile paved path along the ocean takes you north or south around the seaside hills and to new beaches. A Segway provider leads guided outings along this path on these “personal mobility” vehicles after giving you a thorough safety orientation.
One turnout north from Rockaway is the Pacifica Pier, which qualifies visually as an infrastructure repair opportunity. Walk out on the pier to see people fish or throw out their crab nets in season.
All along Pacifica the new nature story is how summer humpback whales now populate the area. The humpbacks pursue the exploding population of baitfish. Winter migrations of California gray whales swimming south from the Arctic to Baja and then back in spring is better known.
If You Go:
Area: Northern/Western Oceanfront
Address: Visit Pacifica, 225 Rockaway Beach Ave, Suite 1, Pacifica, CA 94044
The California Palace of the Legion of Honor art museum rests on a promontory in Lincoln Park, near Lands End in the northwest corner of San Francisco, just north from the Golden Gate Park.
The building, from 1924, suggests a Francophile passion in the San Francisco elite, especially as the city recalled the loss of 3,600 California young men in the fields of France in World War I.
Your Best Shot: Consider a photo of the famous sculpture by Auguste Rodin, called The Thinker, in the courtyard. The sculpture alone and then you with The Thinker are the concepts.
Sugar baron Adolph Spreckels and his wife Alma fell in love with the French Pavilion at San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915.
They wanted to contribute an uplifting cultural and educational institution to San Francisco. The war intervened, but soon after they took up the cause again, with the added aspect of recognizing the war dead.
They commissioned a reduced-size replica of Napoleon’s 18th century Palace of the Legion of Honor in Paris, filling the structure with art and sculptural objects, strongly emphasizing France.
Besides many sculptures by Rodin, the collection has paintings by Degas, Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, Seurat, and Cezanne. Here you can see Claude Monet’s The Grand Canal and Water Lilies.
Temporary shows here and at the other great San Francisco museums are a big attraction. Check what’s on at the three FAMSF (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) venues during your time of exploration. The other two museums are the de Young in Golden Gate Park and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) in Downtown.
If You Go:
Area: Golden Gate Park
Address: 100 34th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94121
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.