Rajan NS loved visiting San Francisco and when he parted from it, he wistfully sang to himself: “I left my heart in San Francisco”. Take a trip through one of the world’s most beautiful cities and its charming sights with Rajan.
Not many cities in the world conjure up visions of a dreamland. But the captivating city of San Francisco, sprawling on 50 hills on a peninsula lying between the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay on the West Coast of the USA, certainly ranks very high among them.
San Francisco is a veritable ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ for tourists but two spots in it that no visitor would miss are ‘The Golden Gate’ and ‘Fisherman’s Wharf’. So, on my very first evening there I made a beeline to the ‘Marin Headlands’, the promontory on the northern end of the ‘Golden Gate Bridge’, for a panoramic view of the bridge, Alcatraz Island and the sloping streets of the city running down from the ‘hills’ to the San Francisco Waterfront, with Oakland just beyond, and the Pacific Ocean to my right, on the West. The unique ‘International Orange’ colour of the bridge ensures changing hues and contrasting yellow and red patterns of headlights and tail lights of cars moving on the bridge look spectacular. Well-lit ships and boats crisscrossing the bay under the bridge make the sight even more absorbing. And all this acquires a mystical touch too when fog rolls in.
The Golden Gate Bridge
The Bridge, 750 feet tall, 1.7 miles long, and 220 feet above the bay was opened in 1937. Earlier, crossing the bay was only by boat, and later, by ferry. A real feel of the Golden Gate can be had by a leisurely (one hour) walk over it. Climatic conditions around the bridge are such that no two walks over it are ever alike, and often change even as one walks across, with fog, thick or light always likely to sweep in from the Pacific. It gets very cold around the bridge, even in daytime.
Lombard Street – Crookedest Street in the World
Next was a visit to the famous ‘crookedest street in the world’ (sic) on Russian Hill, a ‘one way’, downhill section of just 600 feet on ‘Lombard Street’, in eight very sharp turns called switchbacks; speed limit: 5 mph! There are stairs on either side for pedestrians. Stately Victorian homes line the street with colorful flower beds dotting their fronts. Also on Lombard St stands No: 900, the house of Detective ‘Scottie’, played by James Stewart in the movie Vertigo (1958). Fascinating outdoor scenes in Vertigo were beautifully picturised around San Francisco.
The ‘Crookedest Street’ is all the time awash with cars driving slowly down its slope and tourists taking pictures and enjoying its feel. It could be among the costliest pieces of Real Estate in the world. But, residents of this world famous street may not be very happy about the constant traffic, crowds, noise and pollution which this fame has brought to their doorsteps. Two million tourists reportedly visited this 600 feet street in 2015 and daily visitors in Summer numbers 17,000!
The best way to see San Francisco, and save oneself all the planning, is by taking the, ‘49 Mile Scenic Drive’. This drive hits all the city’s intriguing neighbourhoods, sights and spectacular views.
Japanese Tea Garden
The ‘Japanese Tea Garden’ in the Botanical Gardens inside the ‘Golden Gate Park’ is another special attraction. A semi-circular Drum bridge stands across a pond which, reflected in the water, looks like a full circle. This motif was created in a Japanese village in 1894. A five-storied Pagoda stands at a central prominence, and behind it is a Zen “Dry Garden”, a miniature mountain scene with a waterfall, a small island surrounded by a wavy gravel river winding round islands with bonsai trees and blooming Azaleas. A large bronze Buddha, eleven feet tall, cast in 1790 in Japan, with a serene presence, sits amid Japanese plants in the open. A little further up, a huge Peace Lantern on a granite base is worth a close look. All very aesthetically done.
San Francisco Municipal Pier
The San Francisco Municipal Pier at Fort Mason on the bay, is a gracefully curving, quarter mile long jetty ending in a very large circular platform. The tall ‘Coit Tower’ and ‘Transamerica Pyramid’ form a picturesque backdrop to the hills sloping down to the bay, as seen from the Municipal Pier. A close view of Alcatraz island (the closest from any point in the city) can be had from here. Further up is Aquatic Park, Ghirardelli Square (famous world over for its chocolates), Boudin Bakery, ‘Fisherman’s Wharf’ and Pier 39.
‘Boudin Bakery’, a landmark for its famous ‘San Francisco sourdough bread’ draws crowds who can actually watch French Bread being baked in shapes of Crocodiles, Turtles and Crabs etc, through a floor to roof, 30 feet glass observation window facing the street. Nearby, a character camouflaging himself with a leafy tree branch, hiding behind a garbage bin on the sidewalk, startles unwary pedestrians, with predictable reactions from the latter and providing amusement to passing onlookers. He has been a regular feature here and is even featured on ‘Wikipedia’ under the title, “World famous Bushman”, David Johnson.
The heart of ‘Fisherman’s Wharf’ is its landmark big neon sign shaped as a ship’s helm, with a giant crab at the center, and all the Seafood places around it. The name ‘Fisherman’s Wharf’ was originally ascribed to this neighbourhood in the eighteenth century when Italian immigrant fishermen, later followed by Chinese, were attracted to San Francisco by its Gold Rush reputation. They did not hit much pay dirt with Gold, but struck it rich fishing in the Bay and settled in the nearby area, which today has generally transformed itself into ‘Fisherman’s Wharf’, boasting the best eating places for SeaFood, particularly Dungeness Crabs, and hugely popular with tourists as well as locals.
Pier 39, just beyond Fisherman’s Wharf at the junction of the Embarcadero and Beach Street, next to the ‘Aquarium of the Bay’ is a big tourist attraction with shopping, restaurants, and arcades. It also is famous for the large number of Sea Lions piled upon one another, lolling on the docks in the marina on about twenty large platforms. From Pier 39, one can have clear views of Angel Island, Alcatraz, Golden Gate Bridge and the 4.5 miles long ‘Oakland (Bay) Bridge’, a massive and very impressive bridge connecting Oakland on the US Mainland with the San Francisco peninsula.
One simply must visit ‘Muir Woods National Monument’ in Marin County, across the Golden Gate, on Mount Tamalpais near the Pacific Coast. A special feature here is the ‘cross cut’, a vertically mounted display of the cross section of a Coastal Redwood tree showing its age at different marked points on it, starting with its birth over 1,100 years ago. (They can live 1200 years and go on even up to 2200 years). Besides its botanical and academic value, my interest in this was centered on a very imaginatively picturised sequence from the movie Vertigo, where Kim Novak traces her slender finger over the tree rings marking its age over the years, pretending to recall her previous birth over 100 years ago (saying: I was born ‘here’). I had wanted to do this myself ever since I had seen the movie in 1959.
The Palace of Fine Arts
Fort Point, below the southeastern end of Golden Gate Bridge, is well worth a visit. Close to it lies the Walter S. Johnson Park & Koret Gardens, a 1,500 acre park, where stands ‘The Palace of Fine Arts’ with Greco-Roman rotunda and colonnades.
A beautiful place and a ‘must visit’ place, with ornate buildings and gardens, with geese swimming in a lovely artificial lagoon, all very close to the Presidio. The streets around the monument are lined with architecturally beautiful and tastefully constructed residential houses.
‘Chinatown’ of San Francisco has existed from 1848 and is reputedly “the oldest Chinese settlement in the US and the largest community of Chinese settled outside China”. Also, one of the country’s most densely populated neighbourhoods, barring Harlem in New York City.
Long before San Francisco came into being, the area which is now Chinatown was a village named ‘Yerba Buena’ after the Spanish name of a plant found in abundance there by the Franciscan Missionaries. Yerba Buena itself came up only in 1822. By the year 1850, about 25,000 Chinese arrived here as Gold was being prospected in the nearby Sierra Hills. They settled in this area as it was close to the bay where they landed, cheap as it was on steep hills and not attractive to other locals, and easier for the Chinese settlers to stay and look nearby for Gold, jobs, and small businesses to run. Other immigrants from China, encouraged by signs of these early settlers thriving, also arrived in large numbers and naturally gravitated to this area. It thus became “Chinatown”, just a mile from Fisherman’s Wharf on the Bay.
‘Muir Woods’, in Marin County across the bay and the Golden Gate, and 12 miles from San Francisco, covers 559 acres of which 240 acres are Old Growth Coast Redwood. About 150 million years ago, giant Red Wood covered most of the territory of the California Coast. Sadly now, they may be found only in narrow belts along the coast between Monterey, California and Oregon state.
The ‘Muir Woods Park’ abounds with trees over 250 feet tall and has long meandering paths (the trails stretch 6 miles) between the trees with sunlight and constant fog from the bay playing absorbing visual patterns, lending the park a mystical air. One feels totally dwarfed and humbled by the trees, almost losing one’s sense of proportion (much as Gulliver perhaps felt in Brobdingnag, in Jonathan Swift’s famous book, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’).
I also visited Stinson Beach close to Mount Tamalpais in Marin County across the bay. The drive provides great views of the Pacific Ocean from several overlooks and also from an ingeniously designed boardwalk on the rocks, jutting high over the beach, with a special, circular, fenced viewing platform way out, allowing for a panoramic 180 degree view of the ocean. (A little further into the sea and it could have been like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet standing on the bow of the Titanic).
San Francisco is not only about sights and food places. The city is replete with many museums, places of arts and other interesting and intriguing features. I loved visiting San Francisco and parted from it, wistfully singing to myself: “I left my heart in San Francisco” (a famous song by Tony Bennet).
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