As you drive north from the Golden Gate Bridge on Hwy 101, it seems like Sausalito to San Rafael is one long stretch of city. The same goes for Rohnert Park/Santa Rosa/Healdsburg farther north in Sonoma County. But in the middle of those two areas, with open pastures stretching for miles from the city’s edges, sits Petaluma.
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.
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.
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.
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.
SF Giants FanFest
Roam the outfield like Hunter Pence or meet all-star new edition Andrew McCutchen at the Giants FanFest at AT&T Park. The all-day event features a Q&A, autograph session and kids zone. You can also tour the stadium press box and clubhouse, and maybe sprinkle a little magic pixie dust to erase all memory of last year’s disastrous season. Saturday, 2/10, 10am-3pm.
Chinese New Year Mini Parade
The actual Chinese New Year is not for another week (2/16), but you can get a jump on the festivities, and avoid the massive crowds, at this kick-off mini-procession for the Year of the Dog. Lion dancers, stilt walkers, drummers, walking puppets and local politicians are part of the procession that starts at St. Mary’s Square, rolls through Chinatown down Grant Ave, and ends up at the Flower Fair on Washington. Saturday, 2/10, 10:15am.
SF Beer Week Battle of the Bands
Beer, live music, food trucks, outdoors on a (partly) sunny day. Say no more. This kick-off event to SF Beer Week, and sponsored by Anchor Brewing, features a variety of beers from long-time SF brewery, including limited releases and latest creations. Meet the brewmeisters, choose from over 10 food trucks and rock out to local music at SoMa StrEat Food Park. Saturday, 2/10, noon-4pm.
Randall Museum Grand Reopening
High atop the hill in Corona Heights Park between the Castro and Haight, the often overlooked Randall Museum has gone through a major $9 million renovation and is finally ready for its grand reopening. The museum has always been about free hands-on nature and science for kids. And now you can explore the high-tech STEM lab, geology/seismology exhibit and live animal enclosures with natural habitats. The celebration also features live entertainment, and a model train exhibit. Sunday, 2/11, 10am-3pm.
Ski Bus to Tahoe
Great idea, Sports Basement! Everyone loves hitting the slopes in Tahoe, but no one likes the long boring drive. Enter the sports outfitter with a $75 roundtrip bus that picks you up at its store on Bryant St., or in Sunnyvale, and whisks you off on its luxury liner to Squaw Valley or Alpine Meadows. Take a nap, wake up for included breakfast, snacks or drinks, and enjoy a solid 5 hours of skiing or snowboarding. Saturday or Sunday, 2/10-11, 6:30am-8pm.
stARTup Art Fair
One of the cooler art events in the city (though that’s something of a tallest pygmy contest with the dearth of art culture in SF), the fair is now in its third year at Hotel Del Sol on Webster St. in the Marina. Over 50 artists participate in the take-over of individual rooms and the courtyard pool area of the hotel, with artists conversations and a seminar on women in art. 4/28-30, Fri 7-10pm, Sat noon-9pm, Sun noon-7pm.
King’s Day Celebration
There’s a Dutch community in San Francisco, apparently. Because each year at this time they gather round the Murphy Windmill in Golden Gate Park to celebrate King’s Day, the biggest event of the year for Nederlanders. Flea market, music, beer garden, food trucks, kid’s games are all part of the fun, as well as typically nice weather this time of year. 4/29, Saturday, noon-5pm.
Dancing in the Park
The 10-day event that is Bay Area Dance Week culminates this weekend with various workshops and free performances. Dancing in the Park is one of the highlights, with some 30 top Bay Area dance troupes and schools performing in the band shell next to the de Young Museum. 4/29, Saturday, noon-4:30pm.
Caesar Chavez Day Parade
The largest event honoring the late labor and rights activist, the parade begins at 11am and makes its way from Dolores Park and ends at a street fair at 24th between Treat Ave. and Bryant St., which features a car show and plenty of food. 4/29, Saturday, 11am-6pm.
“Summer of Love” Block Party
It’s been 50 years since San Francisco became famous for hippies, tie-dye and psychedelic drugs during its famous summer of love in 1967. The festivities for what promises to be a summer of events kick off with a block party on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley with free concerts from 60s cover bands, food, crafts and kid’s games. 4/29, Saturday, noon-5pm.
San Jose > San Francisco. At least according to the US News & World Report. Their recent list, ranking the best 100 cities to live in the country, put San Jose at number 3 and San Francisco at… 16. No one has ever considered San Francisco vs San Jose a great debate, and I doubt few of even the most dissatisfied SF residents dreams of life in the South Bay. And of course, these list-makers pick and choose from a wide range of criteria in their estimation of good livin’.
But still, all this list making made me cast a critical eye on how the two cities compare, and not simply dismiss SJ out of hand as a vast suburban wasteland like most SF residents do. And I ended up mostly shining a light on what SJ is all about (vis a vis SF), since the pros and cons of life in SF are fairly well documented.
First of all, I’m probably not writing this, and SJ wouldn’t be the 3rd largest city in the state, if not for one overzealous city manager (Dutch Hamann) who in the 1950s and ‘60s went on a dubious mission to expand San Jose into LA by the Bay. The city was a tenth the size, both in area and population, when Dutch set out to annex every town and hamlet within shouting distance of city hall, helping popularize a phrase along the way: urban sprawl. Besides straining public services, the unmitigated growth and lack of planning had an effect on a variety of city amenities still felt today. By comparison, SF has long been stingy when it comes to growth and development, the last 5-10 years aside.
That’s the backdrop. But for purposes of comparison, I looked at some of the criteria I believe are important for the typical urban dweller attracted to life in the Bay Area. Diversity is one of those things. Both cities are fairly diverse, but San Jose even more so, with Hispanics and Asians each making up roughly a third of the population, while whites are just over a quarter. In San Francisco, nearly half are white.
But that only tells part of the story. San Francisco has a rich tapestry of ethnic communities that date back well over 100 years, including Italian, Russian, Scandinavian, Spanish/Mexican, Irish, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino; though most of those groups are now diffused throughout the Bay Area. San Jose in its formative days mostly attracted farming and ranching types, whether Japanese, Spanish/Mexican, Portuguese, Italian. For latter-day diversity, the winner is San Jose, with sizeable Indian/Pakistani, Vietnamese and Ethiopian/Eritrean communities.
Why is this important? For one, food! One advantage I’ll give San Jose and the South Bay: they have far more and better neighborhood ethnic eateries. On the other end of the food scale, and other than Manresa and Adega, the restaurant and foodie scene in San Jose can’t hold a candle to the variety and innovation in SF. The City also easily wins in the coffee, beer and cocktail bar category. San Jose has some options, but they’re just too few and far between. Relatedly, the culture, arts and entertainment options in SF are much greater. There’s way much more to do and see, whether that’s museums, performances, events, etc.
And in general, SF is a much more interesting place to live, has a fascinating history, and is far more attractive both in the natural (hills, bay, parks) and built environment (beautiful Victorians, walkable neighborhoods). It’s one of the most charming and enchanting cities in the world. By contrast, SJ is mostly flat and nondescript, Long Beach without the beach. Its poor planning dating to the days of Dutch has led to areas in the city where housing abuts light industry, too few business and retail options, and an overabundance of that bane of suburban existence: strip malls. Plus, unless you live and work in downtown SJ, you pretty much need a car to get around.
So why would anyone choose SJ over SF? This gets to another demographic issue with SF. At times, it seems everyone living here is a single, white tech worker between 18 and 35, a post-college Logan’s Run bubble, a #fakecity. Kids? Old people? Working class? You have to search the outerlands to find any regular people of the kind that make up a typical community.
Which is obviously what San Jose is about. There might be more community spirit in SF, but there’s more community in SJ, where you probably know your neighbor’s first name. The reasons anyone would leave SF for SJ – house with a yard, non-mystifying school system, easier commute to Silicon Valley offices, affordability, safer, cleaner, parking – are why it might rate on a list of livability. People with families are more vested in their communities, connected through their kids’ schools, and motivated to make things better in their town (versus packing up and moving to Portland).
So if you find yourself exiled to San Jose, look on the bright side: parking! Plus, it’s less than an hour’s drive to San Francisco.
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San Jose mural tour
Join the 13-mile guided tour through San Jose’s (flat) streets and get the low-down on some of the city’s most iconic historical murals. Pedal through downtown, Japantown, Mayfair, East Side and Gardner neighborhoods. Saturday, 3/4, 10am-2pm.
Soul Food Fest
Now in its 37th year, the Soul Food Fest & Block Party at Bayview Hunter’s Point features live music, vendor booths, and a mouth-watering array of down-home cooking of soulful delights. Enjoy ribs, fried chicken, red beans and rice, sweet potato pie and much, much more. Saturday, 3/4, 11am-6pm.
Moldova, that small eastern European country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, celebrates spring, love and friendship right here in San Francisco at Danilov Restaurant. Live music, dancing and of course lots of Moldovan fare is on tap. Saturday, 3/3, noon-6pm.
White Elephant Sale
One person’s trash is another’s treasure at the huge White Elephant Sale in Oakland. Search through 19 departments for quality used clothing, furniture, household goods, music, books and assorted items you’d find at your typical garage sale (x 100). Saturday and Sunday, 3/4-5, 10am-4pm, 33 Lancaster St., Oakland.
Onesie Pub Crawl
People of legal drinking age will be stumbling around Fisherman’s Wharf in onesie pj’s for the World’s Largest Onesie party, all in the name of fun (especially if it evokes (ostensibly) ironic hints of childhood). Hey, I don’t wanna grow up either. A potentially huge crowd, so come early. Saturday, 3/4, 6pm-1am.
Presidio Community Day & Grand Opening
The opening of the Presidio Welcome Center is the reason behind an all-day extravaganza of performances, ranger-led walks and family fun activities. The full slate of performers includes lion dancers and taiko drummers, with food trucks on hand. Under construction for a few years, the renovated former guard house dates to 1900, and will include interactive exhibits and information on the Presidio. Saturday, 2/25, 10am-4pm.
Hayao Miyazaki-inspired art show
Famed Japanese filmmaker and animator Hayao Miyazaki is the mastermind behind beloved animated films such as My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo and Spirited Away, inspiring a generation of artists and animators. Over 50 artists have contributed works for an exhibit in honor Miyazaki, ranging from prints to sculptures and paintings. Dress as your favorite Miyazaki character, and remember Saturday is the last day. Saturday, 2/25, Spoke Art, 816 Sutter Street, SF.
Mardi Gras Second Line Parade
If you can’t make it to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, you can get a tiny taste of the annual Crescent City party buffet in North Beach. Hurricanes, cajun fare and a second line band (North Beach Brass Band) marching through the streets and Washington Square Park from North Star Cafe to Tupelo’s is all part of the festivities. Saturday, 2/25, 2pm.
Lucha Libre Art Show
No wrestling is scheduled at this Lucha Libre-inspired art show, though maybe by the end of the night you’ll get a few art geeks to don their masks for a tussle. 30+ artists will have their works on display, and free drinks and music. Saturday, 2/25, 6-9pm, Wonderland SF, 2929 24th St.
Oscar Parties Everywhere
It’s the Academy Awards time and Oscar parties are happening all over the Bay Area. The Black Cat, Novela, the Balboa Theater, and The Knockout are a just a few venues hosting Oscar soirees. Jimmy Kimmel is this year’s emcee, so maybe a few laughs, along with probably lots of politically wrought thank you speeches. Sunday, 2/26, various times.