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San Francisco gets ready for holidays
article [ Society ]

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by [peruzele ]

2005-11-19  |     | 

San Francisco, California - the city by the Bay or simply “the city”:
Is one of the world’s youngest most visited seaports in modern times.
Without boasting a history that goes back 2,500 years as Barcelona or Marseille,
San Francisco attracts over 16 million visitors annually;
that is much more than Barcelona and Marseille combined
(Barcelona receives 6 million tourists per year, while Marseille, 3.1 million ).
Although San Francisco can trace its beginnings to the 16th century - Francis Drake and the Spanish missioners - it was not
until the Gold Rush of 1849, that the city became a travel destination on the map of North America, in the most dramatic way.
In 1849 alone, more than 80,000 people have made their way to California from every corner of the world,
nearly tripling the territory's population.
Yet, it was not the gold which changed San Francisco’s fame from a Barbary Coast harbor into a prosperous,
cosmopolitan, elegant metropolis, but the human potential, cultural diversity, enthusiasm, and endeavor
of all those who made San Francisco their home.
For a better understanding of San Francisco’s uniqueness among North American cities,
let’s take a virtual tour of a few points of interest which can define it:
Fisherman’s Wharf - the place for fun;
the Union Square – the shopping center;
the Civic Center- San Francisco’s seat of power;
the Financial District – the business center;
North Beach and Chinatown – San Francisco’s cross-cultural experience;
and last but not least,
Pacific Heights - San Francisco’s architectural experience.

We start our tour on the waterfront, at Pier 39 one of the most visited attractions of the Bay Area.
Pier 39 receives 11 million tourists annually.
Here one can dine, shop, sail, watch the sea lions sunbathing at West Marina or visit America's first Under Water Aquarium.
Let's take a ferry for an hour Bay cruise with the Blue and Gold Fleet. We will pass under the Golden Gate Bridge, then head past Angel Island and around Alcatraz.

Synonymous with San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge opened to the public in 1937. Designed by Chicago engineer Joseph Strauss, the 1.2 miles suspension bridge was a world record for 27 years. Connecting the city of San Francisco with the Marin County at 260 feet (80 meters) above water it can withstand winds of more than 200 miles per hour (322 Km).
The towers that support the Golden Gate Bridge's suspension cables have a total height of 227 meters; 153 m above the roadway.
Completed after 4 years of construction at a cost of $35 million, The Golden Gate Bridge can be crossed by car, on bicycle or on foot. The automobile traffic is estimated at 100 thousand vehicles daily. The bridge toll for vehicles is $3 collected when entering San Francisco. The design of the bridge is in Art Deco style, and the distinctive orange color is known as International Orange.
Farther on, the ferry takes us around Alcatraz Island which is only one mile from shore.
Named after the birds that inhabited it (alcatraz is Spanish for pelican), this island is also known as the Rock.
During the American Civil War it was a military fortress for harbor defense, then a military prison. From 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz became a maximum security prison for Mafia criminals. If you like to visit the Rock, take a White and Red Fleet ferry from Pier 41 or 43 at Fisherman's Wharf. Evening cruises offering escorted tours and the Alcatraz Cellhouse audio tour would be probably the most exciting.

After great views of the Bay Bridge we will head back to Fisherman's Wharf via the ferry building. Now we can have a close look at the sea lions at Pier 39's K dock. California sea lions are known for their intelligence, playfulness and noisy barking.
They can be found from Vancouver Island, British Columbia to the southern tip of Baja California in Mexico.
Males can weigh up to 390 kg while females only 110 kg. In the wild they may live up to 18 years, in captivity, 23 years or more. California sea lions can be seen in many costal spots such as Seal Rock. Since 1989 they moved to Pier 39's K dock where they like to rest in groups closely packed together. Since 1990 The Marine Mammal Center monitored and researched the wild California sea lion population which grew to 200,000. Free educational talks on these mammals are giving on weekends.
You can enjoy their view also from the Sea Lion Café while dining by the window.

Just below the restaurant, another relaxing sight - boats at West Marina.

Fishermen Grottos, with grilled fresh seafood or clam chowder in sourdough bread bowl are paving the way along the waterfront.
The opening of the crab season in November is a festive occasion. The Fisherman's Wharf celebrates it, traditionally, with a religious procession and the priestly blessing of the fleet.
Dungeness crab on ice is displayed on the covered sidewalk short before disappearing in the steaming cauldrons which tantalize the visitors. The crab season lasts until June but fresh seafood and fish can be enjoyed here year-round.

We have arrived now in front of the Cannery.
Overlooking the bay the Cannery is located at the foot of Columbus Avenue, where North Beach meets Fisherman's Wharf.
The Cannery was once the largest fruit and vegetable packing factory in the world. Built in 1907 it became later Del Monte Plant; the original red-brick walls and arched passage ways have been preserved. Today the building has three levels of walkways, balconies, bridges and a courtyard with luscious vegetation: shops, restaurants, a comedy club, art galleries, a teddy bear factory and free entertainment daily.
San Francisco is fun mostly all the time. How about a cable car ride ? A cable car works like a detachable ski lift chair. Except the cable that pulls it up hills is hidden beneath a middle track under the cable car. When the cable car makes a stop, it detaches from the cable. The reason cable cars were used in San Francisco (and there were many more lines than exist today) was because the hills were too steep to use horse-drawn street cars or even electric street cars. Another interesting fact about San Francisco's cable cars: They are the only moving national monument in the US.
It's time for a ride downtown. From Bay and Taylor at Fisherman's Wharf, we will now take a Powell-Mason cable car through North Beach, over the Nob Hill crossing the city to Powell station on Market Street. A quick stop by the Visitors Information Center (downstairs) will be useful. Maps in pockets we can now walk on Powell St. for our next destination: Union Square - the shopping center.


UNION SQUARE, between Stockton and Powell and Geary and Post; derives its name from pro-Union rallies held here in 1860s on the eve of the Civil War. Located in downtown San Francisco, Union Square is the place for smart shopping, fine restaurants, theaters, boutiques, art galleries.
In the center of the park stands Dewey Monument, a column capped by bronze with Victory bearing a trident and wreath. This monument commemorates Admiral Dewey's victory over Spain's Navy at Manila Bay in 1989.
The Union Square is bordered by large department stores and hotels. Here we can find among others:
SAKS FIFTH AVENUE, 384 Post, northwest corner of Powell. Round-cornered building. Central area crisscrossed by escalators going up to five levels.
MACY'S CALIFORNIA, 101 Stockton, with its Gothic facade facing Stockton and O'Farrell.
It's holiday season and the square has been decorated for the festival of lights and Christmas; people are busy shopping for gifts.

We will now walk back on Powell to Market Street. San Francisco’s main street - Market street -runs over three miles along eight neighborhoods. We can stroll on this large boulevard’s brick sidewalks flanked by Canary islands palms, take a bus, street car, or a subway train to the Civic Center. Because the classic architecture and cultural events of the Civic Center complex make a trip there worthwhile and rewarding.
We start in the Civic Center Plaza with the first building erected here: City Hall. The original building of 1870 was destroyed during the 1906 earthquake. The reconstruction project was influenced by the new ideal in American urbanization movement of the time known as “The City Beautiful”.
San Francisco City Hall’ s impressive Beaux-Arts style building designed by Paris educated architect Arthur Brown Jr. opened in 1916.
Built in gray California granite with blue and gold burnished ironwork, it was designed in French Renaissance style.
The exterior is if Raymond granite from the foothills of Sierra Nevada. Its dome, inspired by the Dome des Invalides in Paris, is higher than the dome of the Capitol in Washington; San Francisco City Hall being the fifth largest dome in the world.
In 1978 San Francisco City Hall and the elegant buildings of the Civic Center were declared national landmarks.
There are free public tours offered to visitors and one can get a close look at the marbled floor and wall, the grand staircase, and interiors.
Facing the City Hall, on Van Ness Avenue, we find other two buildings designed by A. Brown Jr.: the War memorial Opera House and the War Memorial Veterans Building.
Founded by Gaetano Merola, an Italian of Neapolitan descent, San Francisco’s Opera staged its first performance of La Boheme, in 1923, in the City’s Civic Auditorium. When the War Memorial Opera House opened in 1931 its inaugural performance was another Puccini opera, Tosca.The passage of time and of artistic celebrities like Tito Gobbi, Mario del Monaco, Georg Solti as well as the love for music of San Franciscans made San Francisco’s Opera the second largest opera company in North America.
The building we see in this picture looks quite similar to the War Memorial Opera building. It is the War Memorial Veterans Building housing the Herbst Theatre, an auditorium, galleries space, office rooms for various cultural activities.
The historic importance of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center is marked by such international events as the signing of the United Nations Charter in 1945 (the Herbst Theatre) and the Japanese Peace Treaty of 1951(the Opera House).
Another example of architectural elegance and modernity is the Louise Davies Symphony Hall, pictured here.
It opened in 1980 and it houses San Francisco Symphony.
On Larkin Street, facing the sycamore lines Civic Center Plaza, recently opened the Museum of Asian Art. This former city’s Main Library- another beaux-arts style1917 building- was adapted to host the largest museum in the Western world dedicated exclusively to Asian art and culture.
To return downtown we will take the subway train from the Market Street station(at a walking distance from Larkin St.on Market St.)and get off at Montgomery Station in the Financial district.
San Francisco's Financial District is not just steel and concrete, commercial buildings, office towers, skyscraper architecture;
it is a chapter in America's history, a golden page in California's history.
To me that reads two names, two buildings, two stories: Wells Fargo and Bank of America.
The name Wells Fargo evokes a six-horse stagecoach rushing across the American West loaded with gold. The bank emerged in 1852 in the port of San Francisco, and soon opened business in other cities and mining camps of the West.
It expanded its operations across the nation building a solid reputation in 25 states.
You can visit Wells Fargo History Museum located at 420 Montgomery Street in San Francisco's Financial District.

The Wells Fargo Museum may be entered from either side of the corner of Montgomery and California. On display: documents, a Concord coach, gold nuggets, gold coins, gold dust, mining tools.

If Wells Fargo's history is one success story of a San Francisco-born bank, then wait to hear the success story of San Francisco's banking.
This story takes us back to the dreaded hours that followed the Great Quake and Fire of 1906. The city is in ruins. Among rubble, dust, smoke and desperation, here is a man with two horses and a borrowed wagon. He is Amadeo Peter Giannini, the son of Genoese immigrants, who in 1904 founded the Bank of Italy. Determined to save his bank, he rescues from the ruins $2 million in gold, coins and securities loading secretly his wagon which he covers with vegetables. Next thing he does is to set up shop on the docks in North Beach encouraging people of modest income to save and invest their money. Whether his was business genius, vision, ambition to succeed, pioneer spirit or all put together is less important. The city, and the bank founded by Giannini, soon recovered and consolidated. The Bank of Italy became the first bank for small businesses and individuals, a bank for hardworking people and immigrants. Since 1930 it was known as the Bank of America. Today the Bank of America is the largest bank in the United States and does business transactions with 190 countries.
In this picture you can see the Bank of America International Headquarters (located at 555 California Street) With its 82 storeys it was the tallest building in the city in 1972; today it is surpassed only by the Transamerica Pyramid.
But San Francisco's financial district is not only the place of past stories of successful banks.
Here is an example: California Bank and Trust, a subsidiary of Zion Bancorp(NASDAQ-Zion) the result of a series of recent mergers is the six-largest bank in the state.
Next door an old faithful: Merchants' Exchange Building, second home of San Francisco stock exchange. Designed by W.Polk in 1903, this was the tallest building on the West Coast at the time,
that survived the earthquake and fire of 1906. Today it hosts the Merchants Exchange Conference Center and leading law and internet firms. The historic Merchants Exchange Ballroom splendid interiors have been newly renovated and decorated.

Here is the San Francisco office of the Bank of Guam. The founder of this young successful international bank was Jesus Leon Guerrero vice-president for Bank of America in Guam, who in the '70 had a project of a locally based bank. The Bank of Guam, started in 1972, and in 1982 opened a branch San Francisco(404 Montgomery Street). Over the years it extended its operations in the Pacific islands serving the Republic of Palau, Republic of Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and San Francisco.
With more than 60 foreign banks which maintain offices here, and home to a Federal Reserve Bank and a United States Mint,
San Francisco is, indeed, the Wall Street of the West.
A symbol of it: the Transamerica Pyramid, at 600 Montgomery Street. This steel and concrete futuristic office building, also known as the Spire, was designed by William Pereira as a 260 meters skyscraper. With more than 3,000 windows and 48 floors it offers breathtaking views of the Bay from the Virtual Observation Deck where it has four cameras and monitors broadcasting 24 hours a day.

From Transamerica Pyramid we take Columbus Ave. and at a few blocks walking distance we are in North Beach.
North Beach is a densely populated neighborhood stretching northwest along Columbus Avenue toward Fisherman’s Wharf.

This historic Italian neighborhood known as Little Italy was by the turn of the XX c. a district of fishermen.
We start our stroll at the southern edge of North Beach, on Columbus Avenue and Kearny. Here we are facing a historic landmark – the Sentinel building.
At the time of the earthquake of 1906, the steel frame building was under construction and it survived the fire. From 1958 to 1972 it was called Columbus Tower.
When film director Francis Ford Coppola bought and restored it in the early 70’s it became the headquarters of American Zoetrope Studios. The ground floor houses Cafe Niebaum-Coppola, a restaurant branch of the Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery in the Napa Valley.

Two blocks north on Columbus Ave. at 261 stands another cultural landmark: City Lights Bookstore, founded in 1953
by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Much more than a bookshop and a printing house, City Lights has been the center of radical American movement known as the Beat generation. This year City Lights Bookstore celebrates 50 years of commitment to promoting independent, anti-authoritarian, insurgent fiction and non fiction authors.
If there plenty of food for thought in the City Lights Bookstore, the aroma of garlic in the neighborhood invites us outside to discover one of the many Italian restaurants scattered along the way.
This is how we arrive at 325 on Columbus Ave. in front of The Stinking Rose- a garlic restaurant. This is an authentic San Franciscan experience full of fun and garlic;
if you don’t mind the odor of fresh or roasted garlic, hilarious laughter and a party atmosphere then you should check it out.
Their menu features among others, 40 cloves garlic stuffed chicken, garlic ice cream and as the logo says: “Gilroyan food - we season our garlic with food.”
Gilroy garlic is named after the Californian town of Gilroy considered the world capital of garlic, a place known since 1979 for its annual garlic festival.
After dinner a walk up the street takes us to the right place for washing down all that garlic: Caffe Greco, at 423 on Columbus near Stockton. This is an old Italian favorite place to chat or discuss politics over an espresso, cappuccino, vino.

Across the street – a shrine- St. Francis of Assisi church established in 1849.

Let’s take a look at this Victorian Gothic building dating from 1860 on the site of the parish church that once served the Gold Rush Catholic community.Today a shrine to St. Francis of Assisi with interior murals and a pipe organ, this church, which is no longer an active parish, offers free chamber and choral music concerts and recitals.

Now taking Columbus Ave. up we enter the neighborhood of the Telegraph Hill.
Its name comes from the telegraph station built here in 1956, on the site of the first West Coast semaphore to signal the vessels arriving at the Golden Gate.
We will hike up the steep streets of the Telegraph Hill with charming cottages, exotic gardens, panoramic vistas of the Bay.

The center of North Beach, on Telegraph Hill is Washington Square and its park.
150 years ago, Washington Square was a cemetery, a cow pasture, then a refugee camp after the earthquake of 1906 that destroyed the city.
Washington Square was then among the first public spaces the city government designated for a park area. Good opportunity for us to rest on a bench in this peaceful, green, shaded place surrounded by poplars, and many evergreen trees.

Among them, at 666 Filbert, the silhouette of Sts. Peter and Paul Church.
Also known as the Italian cathedral or the Church of the Fisherman, this neo-Gothic cathedral was founded by the Salesian fathers and consecrated in 1924. Originally a parish church for the Italian fishermen, Sts Peter and Paul church is to this day the departure point of the annual procession towards the Fisherman’s Wharf for the blessing of the fishing fleet, in October.
Masses in Chinese, Italian and English are held here weekly.
As we are at the very street that goes all the way to Coit Tower let’s take a look up and down the street.

We can hike on Filbert Street up or take the MUNI bus #39 that goes every 20 minutes to Coit Tower from Washington Square.
Surrounded by the Pioneer Park - Coit Tower, designed by A. Brown Jr. and dedicated to the city firemen in 1933 - boasts a 55 meters cylindrical tower and interior Art-Deco murals. We can take the elevator to the top of the tower and enjoy a spectacular view of the Bay :Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge, Acatraz and Angel islands.

It will be a genuine San Franciscan experience to explore the Telegraph Hill by taking one of the famous stairways back downtown: Filbert steps, Greenwich Street stairs or Vallejo Street Stairway.
Both the stairs and the luscious gardens around them are maintained by its residents.
This is how we arrive again on Columbus Ave.


Portsmouth Square - the heart of Chinatown
From Columbus Ave. and Kearny we will walk to the Portsmouth Square for yet to discover another cross-cultural neighborhood of the city by the Bay: Chinatown.
If Portsmouth Square is considered the very birthplace of San Francisco - where Capt. Montgomery of the naval sloop Portsmouth raised the American flag in 1846 – Portsmouth Square is also called the heart of Chinatown. Bordered by Grant Avenue and Kearny, Clay and Washington Streets, many historic buildings, the plaza with its park is the scene of morning tai chi practice, elephant chess(Chinese chess) games and children play.
The view of the plaza in this picture is from the terrace of the Holiday Inn hotel that hosts the Chinese Culture Center.
This could be the departure point if you plan to take a walking tour of Chinatown with a docent guide. Their tours include a historical presentation of Chinatown covering culture, art, food, a visit to a temple, a herbal drugstore, the Chinese cookie factory; or the culinary tour with lots of food sampling, tea tasting, tips to buy foods and produce, kitchenware.
Let’s take the oldest street in town, Grant Ave and start exploring Chinatown.
Grant Avenue’s original name was Calle de la Fundacion, and along this street started old Chinatown which was completely destroyed by the fire and earthquake of 1906.The new buildings, temples, and “Chinese architecture” of present Chinatown is something emerged between 1909 and 1929 as another local adaptation of chinoiserie to Edwardian elements. Yet you can find San Francisco’s Chinatown irresistibly attractive if not authentic Chinese. What makes Chinatown genuine though are the various dialects of Cantonese, Mandarin Chinese and other Chinese dialects of tourists, the folk and custom traditions of festivals and holidays, the oriental flavors and aromas and all that art of Cantonese cuisine that you cannot ever resist.

If you are not familiar with Chinese cooking, The Grand Palace Restaurant (established in 1945)on Grant Ave., will sure win your heart with its delicious Dim Sum(a touch of heart in Cantonese) paper-thin wrappings of pork, chicken, shrimp meat steamed in aromatic bamboo baskets. Before finding your seat at a table the rolling carts are bringing to you all the colors, flavors and tastes of these delicacies. For a more seasoned Chinese cooking enthusiast you may wish to try their Sea cucumber with Black Mushrooms.

At the time of my visit in San Francisco, the Chinese community of Chinatown was preparing for their annual festival of spring, renewal, and New Year. Here you can see the joy of colors on the lanterns and the calligraphic “Good Luck “characters of New Year scrolls. Together with dragon dances, firecrackers, papercuts, red envelopes and oranges they make this holiday a feast for all senses that lasts 15 days in China and all Chinese communities around the world.

We arrived now in front of one of Chinatown’s historic landmarks: the Bank of Canton of California, Chinatown branch, on Washington St. between Kearny Street and Grant Avenue. This building is mostly important for being the once only Chinese Telephone Exchange in the United States; the exchange was closed in 1949 when rotary-dial telephony replaced the switchboard operating system.
The Bank of Canton bought and restored the building in 1960. Also here was published in 1847 the first San Francisco newspaper, “The California Star”.

Another street, another bank: here a Bank of America sign, and Gold Mountain Sagely Monastery on Sacramento St. This is a Zen Buddhist monastery founded by Master Hsuan Hua, a Manchurian by birth who since 1962 established the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association and other educational centers in America and the West.

We are at the corner of California Street and Grant Ave. - a familiar spot for San Franciscans and tourists alike. Two pagoda- roofed structures built in 1908.On the one side Sing Fat Building,

Across the street we see Sing Chong Building and the cable car passing by the most photographed place in town.
It’s hard to leave Chinatown, this rather small neighborhood of so much culture, variety, animation, yet second most populated Chinese community in the West, after New York’s Chinatown.

To continue our tour we can catch a California Van Ness Cable Car through the Financial District and Nob Hill to Van Ness Avenue. Let’s go.


If San Francisco so far appears as a city of diverse districts and neighborhoods it nonetheless has its singularity in North America and the world, a unique character as an urban space.
Two things contributed to this distinctiveness of San Francisco: its dramatic natural setting and the barrenness of the land.
The grid pattern of streets over steep hills was quickly and practically established before any trees, groves and amenities of modern city planning could be envisioned.
Residential design and building traditions over the course of a century of development passed through an array of cultural changes: from indigenous chaparral and adobe homes to tents and wooden shacks, to prefabricated houses, brick buildings, to embellished palaces and Victorian mansions, to Art Deco apartments buildings and condominiums.
This is to me the San Francisco architectural experience, present everywhere in the city, yet probably most noticeable and best exemplified in the Pacific Heights domestic architecture.
Let’s start at Van Ness Ave. on California Street, the end of line of our cable car trip.

Lafayette Park crowns the Pacific Heights at 115 meters offering breathtaking views of the Bay and spectacular cityscapes.
Facing the park we notice the Queen Anne style Victorian mansion pictured here in mild tones of yellow. The Queen Anne style can be identified by its steep gabled roof, the rounded turret corner tower, and the front porch usually inside the structural frame.

The style of the Victorian homes in San Francisco it’s rather eclectic and often combines several architectural elements(Carpenter Gothic, Eastlake-Queen Anne, Tudor revival and Edwardian,etc) and construction materials(wood,
stucco, brick or a combination.

If you take a Victorian Historical Walking tour of the Pacific Heights you will hear that the Victorian mansions are referred to as Painted Ladies and described as San Francisco style as long as they combine Old and New World architectural styles and decorative elements: Queen Anne, Tudor, Edwardian, Carpenter, French Revival, Italianate, Stick, Colonial, etc.
San Francisco’ s Victorian mansions display mainly Italianate, Stick or Stick/Eastlake and Queen Anne styles. Italianate homes which appeared in San Francisco around 1880 can be quite ornate, with slanted bay windows and tall narrow doors.

Stick style is known by its wooden strips- horizontal, diagonal or vertical boards ”sticks” - pitched roofs with overhangs, wooden shingles.

The Stick/Eastlake style differs only by including “gingerbread” decorations. These are extra carvings and carpentry which emphasizes the façade.

In this picture you see one of the most intriguing buildings in town: Vedanta temple, corner of Webster and Filbert St. The Vedanta Society of Northern California was founded in 1900 as the highest of the six Hindu systems of religious philosophy.
Built in 1905 by architect Joseph A. Leonard, the temple was inspired by the ideal of inclusiveness of this spiritual order. From Edwardian, Queen Anne, Colonial to Medieval, Oriental style elements this building gives you a sense of universality and aesthetic exotism.

The streets, he hills, the stylish homes, the manicured gardens offer so much charm and visual wonders that before knowing we arrived at the end of the Pacific Heights neighborhood, and at the end of our virtual tour of cosmopolitan San Francisco.

There is still a lot to discover and experience in San Francisco, the city by the Bay. Maybe you wish to see it for yourself.


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