Category Archives: travel San Francisco Bay Area

A Brief Neighborhood Guide to San Francisco: The Upper Haight

(Note: This is part of my San Francisco neighborhood guide to be published individually, then in its entirety at completion. As a result of the ongoing business restrictions during the pandemic, some of the restaurants and retail businesses mentioned may close with no warning.)

Besides its location as the gateway to the treasures of Golden Gate Park, the Upper Haight is just a fun place to hang out and explore, a daily carnival that packs a lot into its seven commercial blocks. (Is there a better/livelier neighborhood event than the annual Haight Ashbury Street Fair?) It’s famous cross street (Haight-Ashbury) has been

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A brief neighborhood guide to San Francisco: the Mission

(Note: This is part of my San Francisco neighborhood guide to be published individually, then in its entirety at completion. As a result of the ongoing business restrictions during the pandemic, some of the restaurants and retail businesses mentioned may close with no warning.)

The Mission Just south of downtown, the culturally rich Mission is the epicenter of all that’s hip and happening in San Francisco these days. Not surprisingly, its demographic skews young, or young at heart – a youthful presence that began growing sometime in the 1980s (especially on Valencia) alongside what was, and still is, the city’s Mexican and Central American community.

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A brief neighborhood guide to San Francisco: Chinatown

(Note: This is part of my San Francisco neighborhood guide to be published individually, then in its entirety at completion. Also, as a result of the ongoing business restrictions during the pandemic, some of the restaurants and retail businesses I talk about in the guides may close shop with little warning.)

Chinatown The most iconic neighborhood in San Francisco is also the oldest Chinatown in North America (est. 1848) and largest outside Asia. When I used to visit San Francisco during my time away, I would stay at the SF Plaza, a basic old hotel on the corner of Bush and Grant. It’s right next to the Dragon’s Gate at the entrance of Chinatown, and it was fantastic, grabbing a morning coffee at Café de la Presse then wandering

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A brief neighborhood guide to San Francisco: North Beach

(Note: This is part of my San Francisco neighborhood guide to be published individually, then in its entirety at completion. Also, as a result of the ongoing business restrictions during the pandemic, some of the restaurants and retail businesses I talk about in the guides may close shop with little warning.)

North Beach Like the perfect picture postcard of San Francisco, there’s no mistaking what city you’re in on a stroll through North Beach, and why it’s so popular with visitors. Another reason: its supreme walkability, one of the best in the city (despite four lanes of Columbus Ave); there’s something interesting at every turn. It’s also the most traditional and

established of San Francisco’s neighborhoods – residents have lived here for decades and Italian families for generations – and with the richest history. From the Barbary Coast to the beats, jazz to punk rock, the North Beach scene was instrumental in all of those eras. It’s also home to the first club in the U.S. to go topless (The Condor). Back then, if you were young and hip and seeking excitement, you went to North Beach. Yes, these days it’s a tourist magnet, but it’s not ‘touristy’, and anyway the tourists bring some bustle, and stay mostly to Columbus Ave and the Italian eateries along it. Venture off the main drag and things quiet down a bit, and that’s where you’ll find some of the quirkiest shops in the city, especially along Grant Ave. (or could until recently). The family-run coffee shops and cafés might not be hipster favorites, but there’s no better place to nurse a cappuccino and watch the city pass by. Caffe Trieste is not only filled with characters – on both sides of the counter – it’s the OG of west coast coffeehouses, while Caffe Greco would be my daytime home if I lived anywhere near the area. The same holds for some of the city’s best and most colorful old-school bars, like Vesuvio’s, Mr. Bing’s and The Saloon (the city’s oldest bar and best for live blues). And while restaurants along Columbus are often dismissed as tourists traps, they can be a fun and truly Italian experience (e.g. playful banter with the maître d’). You’ll find the city’s best old-school Italian eateries in North Beach, and the best pizza (Capo’s and Tony’s). Washington Square (state’s oldest park), Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower, Saints Peter and Paul Church, City Lights bookstore, exquisite architecture (the Malloch Building), fantastic views, North Beach has a lot to offer and tops my list as the best neighborhood to visit.

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Weekend getaway: Santa Cruz

For someone who’s never been to California, the city of Santa Cruz is most likely what they imagine. Endless sunshine, miles of sandy coastline, surfers, hippies, old VW vans, legal weed, grungies and skateboard/street punks. More than any other Bay Area city or exurb, Santa Cruz embodies that classic California vibe – something like chilled-out surfer or stoned-out hippie – but mostly a contented attitude that comes when living within biking distance of the ocean is all that matters. It’s a beach town first, college town second, with blue-collar roots and hippie/yoga aspirations, the kind of place Cheech and Chong might retire to, or Jeff Spicoli would flunk out of if he ever got in.

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Weekend getaway: Pacific Grove

When Bay Area locals talk about getting away for a weekend in Monterey, they’re usually referring to the Monterey Peninsula and its sister cities of Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel. Visitors to the area typically bounce between one highlight to the next (mostly in Monterey), and may not pay much attention to differences. But believe it or not, each of these bordering towns has a distinct character about them. Monterey is the big sister with the most activity and biggest attractions, while Carmel is the old-money sophisticate with rows of high-end shops, galleries and wine bars on its leafy main drag.

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Weekend getaway: Healdsburg (and a bit of foodie history)

If you’re looking to spend a weekend exploring Sonoma wine country, consider making Healdsburg your base of operations. It’s easy to get to (minus any traffic woes) just off Hwy 101 about 10 miles north of Santa Rosa, so just enough removed from the small city sprawl, car dealerships and office parks of that area. Yet it still has all the conveniences and amenities you might need, and enough small town charm to make it feel like a proper country getaway from the city.

The biggest reason of all: it’s located at the intersection of three wine regions – the Russian River AVA, Dry Creek AVA and Alexander Valley AVA.

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Weekend getaway: Roaring Camp railroad & big trees

I’m not a train person, per se. I don’t show up to train events in an engineer’s hat and overalls draped with pins and patches of past train glories. But I do appreciate the romanticism of old steam engines and the bygone eras they represent. Plus, those old engines are something of a marvel, the way their parts have to work together just so or the whole thing doesn’t move, or worse, explodes.

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Things to do on Thanksgiving in the Bay Area besides eat turkey

Maybe you have a deep aversion to turkey and cranberries. Or your guests decided last minute they wanted to visit family in LA after all. Or the last thing you want to do is sit around arguing politics with your crazy republican uncle on your first holiday off since labor day.

Take heart, there are plenty of fun and interesting things you can do on Thanksgiving day (and weekend) that don’t involve eating turkey in tense family environments. And because everyone else is ensconced in said traditional activity, you can have your choice of alternate activity in the Bay Area to yourself. Here are a few suggestions:

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California Academy of Sciences
I’ve been to the Academy a half-dozen times, and I’ve yet to get inside Morrison Planetarium. Why? Because tickets (yes, you need a separate ticket) are always snapped up by the time I get around to asking. Because I’ve yet to visit the Academy when you’re not standing three deep behind a crowd of people trying to get a peek of the jellyfish tank. A new ’Tis the Season for Science exhibit opens the day before, complete with snow and live reindeer. The museum is open from 10am to 3pm on Thanksgiving day, which is prime turkey binging/football watching time.

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Muir Woods National Monument
You know where else is insanely crowded, all the time? Muir Woods, one of the most popular outdoor attractions in the Bay Area, which means if you don’t get there early to snag one of the limited parking spaces, you end up walking something like two miles to the entrance. So while everyone else is mixing up their cranberry sauce (I guess if you add enough sugar, anything is edible), you can simply stroll through front gate and enjoy a hike through majestic old growth coast redwoods of this spectacular primeval forest. Open 8am – 5pm.

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Thanksgiving Sunrise Celebration
Didn’t the Thanksgiving story they told us in school involve Indians? To honor what we were taught about that day, join with our Native American brothers and sisters for the Indigenous Peoples’ Annual Thanksgiving Sunrise Gathering on Alcatraz Island, which is part of San Francisco Ohlone Territory. The event marks 524 years of Indigenous resistance, with presenters, drummers and dancers. It starts early, like 4am early, but how often do you get to see the sunrise on Alcatraz?

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Volunteer
This is what the holiday is, or should be, about: giving thanks for what we have, and sharing what we have with others, even if it’s just our time and goodwill. There’s seemingly no shortage of people in need in the Bay Area, unfortunately, and Thanksgiving is a big day in the nonprofit community, who rely on volunteers for help. Here are just a few opportunities for volunteering: Meals on Wheels delivers food to seniors, a Thanksgiving Day Block Party is planned for the Tenderloin, the San Francisco Food Bank is giving out food, Glide Thanksgiving Meals, Little Brothers: Friends of the Elderly, Salvation Army Meal Delivery, Project Open Hand, and SPCA Holiday Windows at Macy’s.

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Monterey Bay Aquarium
When’s the last time you made it to Monterey for a visit to one of the world’s premier aquariums? Thanksgiving is a great time for a local road trip down south on lightly trafficked roads, avoiding both weekday commuters and weekend beach-goers that normally clog up Hwy 17 to Santa Cruz. You also won’t have to elbow your way to a glimpse of the sea otters during feeding time. Open 9:30am – 6pm.

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The Movies
Take your pick. There’s the Kabuki in Japantown, or the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, and all the other cineplexes sprinkled around the Bay Area that are open on Thanksgiving. The blockbusters showing now include Arrival, Doctor Strange, and the Harry Potter-ish Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. You might want to avoid evening showtimes, since the turkey eaters start to venture out of their houses at that time looking for something to do.

Journey to the Lost Coast

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Homestead on the edge of Ferndale

Warning: a trip to the Lost Coast may result in the searching of real estate listings and local job sites. But unless you know your way around the teat end of a goat, how to efficiently and safely operate a chainsaw/backhoe/tractor, and are fine with five restaurants and three bars within a 40-mile radius of your home, then please think twice about pulling up stakes and moving five-plus hours from the city. Continue reading Journey to the Lost Coast