The editors of KQED’s Pop blog recently asked coworkers what they would do on a hypothetical last day in San Francisco. It’s a fun exercise, and the station’s staff offered up lots of great suggestions on food, drink and shopping. But when I thought about my own perfect day, it had more to do with the enduring physical aspects of the city that made me fall in love on my first visits – walking its streets, climbing its hills and wandering its neighborhoods, and taking in all the sights and sounds with choice stops along the way.
What would that day look like and what would I do? Pretty much the same thing I’d do with a special visitor in town for the first time, starting with a prayer to the weather gods for one of those golden California days with temps hovering around 70. Here’s how it’d go:
1) Meet in Union Square. There’s nothing like the open plaza of Union Square first thing in the morning to introduce you to the city, unpeopled, freshly scrubbed, the Powell Street cable car clanging by, long shadows from the tall buildings, and a little nip in the air.
2) You won’t lack for breakfast choices, but I’d go light (to save room for later) with a continental nosh at Café de la Presse at the corner of Bush and Grant. It’s a little slice of Europe, which is fitting for the US’s most European city, and the cappuccino and espresso here are top notch and the croissants fresh. Plus, it’s right across from the Chinatown gate, and the cafe’s wall of windows make it a great place for people watching. Or, if weather permits, outdoor seating.
3) Simply step across the street and start your stroll through Chinatown. Sure, it’s riddled with kitschy tourist shops, but the oldest Chinatown in North America (and largest Chinese community outside of Asia) is a living breathing city-within-a-city that’s a vital part of San Francisco’s history (and present). And by visiting in the morning, it’s mostly just you and the local residents – shopping at the produce stands, seafood stalls and Chinese medicine stores, or gathering at various small parks. Chinatown runs for about eight blocks straight down Grant (and also the parallel Stockton) between Bush and Broadway. Some of the buildings and architecture date back to the 1800s, and you’ll find apartments flying the flags of drying laundry from their open windows and fire escapes. Feel free to stop for a tea sample or custard pastry along the way.
4) At the end of Chinatown but just shy of Broadway, cut through Jack Kerouac Alley to Columbus Ave and City Lights bookstore will be on your left. Ground zero for the city’s rich literary heritage, the bookseller and publisher was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who helped launch the careers of Allen Ginsburg and others. The place is what bookstores used to be, a warren of aisles filled with interesting books you can easily lose yourself in. Buy a copy of Howl with its iconic black and white cover, and…
5) slip across the alley to Vesuvio’s. The funky old bar has a history that’s intertwined with the bookstore, with many of those early Beat poets (and present ones too) convening at the bar for a rowdy night of drinking. There’s an upstairs seating area, a glorified catwalk really, but with windows onto the alley and street where you can sip a beer (hey, this is the perfect day, right?), peruse your new purchase, and watch the world walk by below.
6) Once you cross Broadway, you’re suddenly in North Beach and Little Italy. After the beer, you may want a pick-me-up, so stop at one of the many cafes for a coffee and pastry. They all offer great people watching potential, but I prefer the low-key Caffe Greco, or Café Trieste, where Francis Ford Coppola reportedly worked on the screenplay to The Godfather. The place hasn’t changed much in its 50-plus years, which is part of its charm.
7) Columbus Ave is mostly Italian restaurants, cafes and gelato shops, so I prefer to wander the couple blocks of Grant Street. Here you’ll find neighborhood corner markets, hole in the wall bars, burger joints, an antique map store, an Afghani rug store, a record store with actual vinyl, a really curious curio shop, and if you happen to wander through on a Saturday afternoon, stop in at Savoy Tivoli for a beer and a listen to the resident Dixieland jazz band.
7a) From Grant, take a right on either Filbert or Greenwich St., and trek the steep block up to Pioneer Park and the iconic Coit Tower. You can take the elevator up to the top of the tower, or enjoy the WPA-era murals on the first floor, and the lovely views of the bay outside.