Thursday, March 6, 2014

San Francisco, California

(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
After a small hiatus from traveling, and a challenging winter in Alaska, I was really looking forward to this trip to San Francisco. And our patience was well rewarded, because the only thing about this trip that wasn't completely amazing was the weather.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
In the week leading up to this trip, Prudhoe Bay had been hit by a cold snap and the temperature dropped to -46 F and with the wind chill factor it was more like -72 F. So Ursa and I had been keeping a close eye on what the weather in California was doing. It stayed in the 70's and beautiful until we finally arrived, then the skies clouded up and it got drab and rainy for the whole week we were in town, which was really unfortunate. But short of the weather not cooperating, San Francisco was everything we had hoped it would be.
The other thing that struck me was the look of San Francisco's residential areas. It very much reminded me of Paris in that all the homes are of a similar row house style, but also they are so very unique from one another. Each home is interesting and different and has so much character that it really gives the entire city, not just the touristy spots, a really beautiful look and feel.

The Sites

The Neighborhoods: We were fortunate to rent an apartment for the week which was located on top of a hill in between two of San Francisco's most iconic neighborhoods: the Castro district and Haight-Ashbury. The house was on the bottom floor of the cutest, historic cottage all done in brick. It was a lovely place, in a fantastic location, and perfectly set the tone for our week in the city.
In 1967's Summer of Love, more than 100,000 hippies descended upon one small neighborhood of San Francisco near the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets and began a social movement that changed America. As I walked around the neighborhood, and got a feel for it's size, it really started to sink in what a cultural crucible this must have become. All within the same 2 blocks of Ashbury Street you had Janis Joplin, Country Joe McDonald, the Hell's Angels, and The Grateful Dead. Just up the hill was Graham Nash, and a few blocks further down lived Big Brother and the Holding Company, just around the corner from the punk band Flipper.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
Today, hippie culture is alive and well and the street is dotted with tie dye couture, head shops, vintage clothing, curiosity shops, and record stores like the well known Amoeba Records.
A short walk down the hill in the other direction from our place one found a very different vibe in the Castro district. While in the Haight, Ursa and I were playing a game we called "Hipster or Homeless?" there was less ambiguity of style sense in the Castro. The residents of San Francisco's famous gay neighborhood took a great deal more pride in their appearance clad in clean white tee shirts, brightly colored skinny jeans, and the most unbelievably awesome coiffed hair ever. The Castro was the friendliest, most accepting, laid back neighborhood that I've ever been in. Everybody treated you like an old friend. It was really wonderful.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
The third iconic neighborhood in San Francisco, that is a must see on everybody's list is Chinatown. Lots of cities have A Chinatown, but this is THE Chinatown.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
San Francisco's Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. I've been in several other Chinatowns in cities like Vancouver, Toronto, and Portland but those all comprised only a few blocks while this one just kept going on and on. And the souvenir shops in those other cities were really kitsch with junk that looked like it was falling apart while it was still on the store shelves. As we shopped around San Francisco's Chinatown we were surprised at how much really nice stuff there was to buy. The most fun we had was buying tea at Vital Tea Leaf where we sat with a really charming and fun couple and talked with the store's owner Ming while sampling sips of dozens of flavorful, nuanced teas.

(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
Golden Gate Park: Far more than just a walk in the park, this park offers a lot to do for the city. First and foremost is the famous deYoung Museum of Art.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
I love seeing museums with bold architecture like the Denver Art Museum, or the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, and the striking tower of San Francisco's deYoung reminds me of those other landmark museums. Inside the museum there were the choices of exhibits that you would expect of a major metropolitan museum, some of which we gravitated towards like the American Paintings, or Decorative Arts exhibits, others such as the African Art, or Art of the Americas exhibits were not to our taste and we skipped over. One artist that we never skip over is Dale Chihuly, whose blown glass pieces have become ubiquitous in most museums across the country, and, increasingly, around the world.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
Across from the deYoung Museum is the California Academy of Sciences which hosts an exciting evening event for adults only called Night Life. We booked the VIP tour which was well worth the extra money considering that not only do you get preferred seating for the planetarium show, a guided tour, and an open bar 'cause who wants to be sober while getting scienced up.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
The high points of the Academy of Sciences are it's completely green roof, the planetarium, it's rainforest dome, and downstairs it has it's aquarium exhibit. But all of that cool stuff belies that fact that the Academy is first and foremost about science, and those things are really just the outreach programs to educate and get the public involved in science. A part of the VIP tour was to go into the labs and ask questions of the scientists on staff. The ones that we talked to were going through the tedious work of skinning, stuffing and categorizing bird species. Not stuffing and mounting the birds like a taxidermist might for a display, but putting them on a pegboard for easy storage.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
The other public destinations that Golden Gate Park has to offer are it's many botanical gardens. We went to two: The Conservatory of Flowers and the San Francisco Botanical Gardens. The Botanical Gardens were laid out nicely, and you could tell that the plants were healthy but, unfortunately, because of the time of year that we were there, there was very little flowering and the gardens were not as impressive. Fortunately the Conservatory of Flowers would be doing as much flowering as you can stand. Their collection of orchids were really impressive.

The Events

A lot of times I focus on just the music scene in a city, but in the case of San Francisco I felt like there was so much culturally to do that to limit the discussion to just music would be a disservice.
One of the great cultural experiences that we had in the city was to attend the ballet. I wish that had some photos of the performance but cameras were not only against the rules, but, frankly would be dangerous for the performers onstage. The program that we saw was separate pieces from three different ballets. The first was from Act II of La Bayadere called "The Kingdom of the Shades", it was followed by a piece written by 80's hair-metal veteran Kip Winger and was really lovely, although maybe a little discordant (which I actually liked the sound of but thought it was a little out of place). The final piece was from Firebird and was very likely the best, most visually beautiful, and most moving dance piece that I've ever seen.
That is not to say that we did not attend any musical events. Our favorite was at SFJAZZ which is a beautiful venue. We saw the Amina Figarova Sextet perform a fantastic set in a beautiful room. The Joe Henderson Lab is a great room for a jazz show. It is surrounded on two sides with windows so as the show is going on you can watch the cityscape drift past. Jazz is like any art, it effects people in different ways. While I like the type of wandering, impressionistic jazz that Amina Figarova plays, it is Ursa's least favorite style of jazz. But even so the skill and artistry of the Amina Figarova Sextet was apparent and even Ursa enjoyed the performance.

(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
The final cultural event that we attended was to go across the Oakland Bay Bridge all the way over to the UC Berkeley campus to attend a lecture by the renowned theoretical physicist Dr. Michio Kaku. A large part of what makes Dr. Kaku such a great lecturer, educator, and writer is his sense of humor, and his ability to bring complex ideas back to popular culture references that his audience can understand. His new book, that he is touring to promote, is titled "The Future of the Mind" and discusses how technology has, and will continue to, unlock the abilities of the human mind. From chips implanted in the brain that can help people write on computers or move robotic appendages (and eventually control exoskeletons) to help the physically handicapped, to the BRAIN initiative which will map all of the neuropathways of the human brain and unlock the mysteries of mental illness. Imagine a world where you surf the internet using your mind, or dangerous jobs like firefighting or astronauts being done by surrogate robots controlled by people's minds far from danger. The future will unlock an exciting new frontier for the human mind.

The Food

(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
San Francisco has a well deserved reputation as a foodie city, and we did our level best to put it through it's paces. But frankly, I got the distinct impression that it didn't really matter so much where you went, because around every corner was another place just as good if not better. I would have had better luck listing places that were not delicious, but unfortunately I never found any. Here are a few choice gastronomic delights from around San Francisco.
For breakfast I was a big fan of walking down to the Castro to a great little cafe called Squat and Gobble which had great omelettes, and breakfast sandwiches. They also were a crepery which I am usually a sucker for, but all of their other offerings were so good that in my several trips there, I never once tried the crepes. Which says a lot.
For lunch, our first choice was the most memorable. It's tough to get good middle-eastern food in Alaska, and both of us were looking forward to a taste of some. And we couldn't have made a better choice than Le Mediterranee Noe. I'm not going to bore you with the details about how great their great combination plate that I ate or the delicious babaganouj that Ursa ate... I'm going to bore you with their coffee. Their coffee was served in the Turkish style by boiling the extremely finely ground coffee grounds with sugar and cardomom and a little water in a small brass container called a cezve. The coffee ends up extremely thick and strong, but not in any way bitter like one might expect. It was spectacular.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
For dinner we had an amazing French culinary experience at Bisou Bistro. Yet one more place in the Castro, it's funny that all of our favorite food experiences were in this same neighborhood. We had the escargot appetizer which stole the show for the rest of the meal, though everything was delicious and the wines that the waiter suggested were spot on. Also there is a great deal to be said for presentation, and Bisou really does plate their food wonderfully. A great choice for dinner.
For dessert we found a place that specializes in a variety of bread puddings called Schulzies. They served their bread puddings like scoops of ice cream, and even had their store set up in an ice cream parlor style. A very cool idea, and delicious.


There is a reason why San Francisco is on the short list of America's great cities. It really has everything; culture, food, sights, history. We enjoyed our time there immensely. At the end of any trip Ursa and I always have a conversation about "I really liked that town, maybe we can get back there some day," or "I wasn't such a fan of that place," but for San Francisco we were in the camp of, "We are TOTALLY coming back here!" This town jumped right to the top of the list of favorite cities we've visited.

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