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Destination Guide

 
 
Tour One: Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach
Start your tour at Union Square, a block of palms, neatly trimmed shrubbery and flowers in the center of commercial downtown. The square takes its name from violent pro-Union demonstrations held there in 1861 as the Civil War brewed. In the center of the park, the Dewey Monument, a 97-foot Corinthian column topped by a winged victory statue, commemorates Admiral James Deweys victories in the Spanish-American War. Look in any direction and you will see upscale department stores: Neiman Marcus, Macys, and Saks Fifth Avenue all line the square. Cable cars roll by on Powell. To the east, in front of the St Francis Hotel, foreign flags tell you which heads of state and other dignitaries are presently staying in its VIP suites.

Once you've gotten power shopping out of the way?with allowances for a side trip with insistent kids to Toy PalaceF.A.O. Schwarz (down Stockton Street from Niemans) head east on Geary to Grant Avenue, turn right and visit the Emporio Armani Boutique. Entering this imposing granite edifice, formerly?and appropriately?a bank, you can satisfy your appetite for the latest Italian fashions, and for lunch the Emporio Armani Cafe is good enough to warrant a trip even if you're strictly a Brooks Brothers type.

Heading up Grant away from Market Street halfway along the next block you'll cross Maiden Lane, a charming two-block pedestrian passage lined with precious boutiques and galleries. Maiden Lanes upmarket appeal belies the disreputable origins of its name. In Barbary Coast days, this is where prostitutes plied their trade. The building at 140 Maiden Lane (between Grant and Stockton) was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Its curving ramp is supposedly a precursor for Wrights Guggenheim Museum design. You can't miss Maiden Lanes cafes'the tables spill out into the middle of the street. If you didn't grab a snack at the Armani store, this is a good place to do it.

Continue up Grant to Post. At the corner you'll find Shreve & Co., San Franciscos stately, stuffy answer to Tiffanys (the San Francisco Tiffany & Co. store faces Union Square at Post). We'll take a little detour here'turn left on Post and head up the block to the flagship store of cookware cataloguer Williams-Sonoma, and make a point of visiting Gumps across the street. A San Francisco institution, Gumps offers a beautiful, expensively eclectic collection of gifts. Art glass, Asian art, and antiques are specialties of Gumps. Don't miss their museum quality jade. During the Christmas season, the elaborate displays in Gumps windows attract an audience by the tens of thousands.

If you haven't bankrupted yourself yet, go back to Grant, turn left, and walk past the outsized Banana Republic, and through the Dragons Gate.

You'll quickly notice the pagoda-style roofs and other romantic architectural embellishments that tell you that you're in Chinatown. As San Francisco began to rebuild after the earthquake and fire of 1906, the Chinatown merchants association, in a move to ease restrictions and discrimination on the Chinese population, proposed making a tourist attraction out of the area. From 1906 on through the 1920s, the "chinoiserie" facades you see today were either tacked on to existing buildings or drawn on to the plans of new ones. The idea was a hit. Quickly, the pleasantly exotic New Chinatown supplanted its former opium- and vice-ridden image. Hundreds of thousands of tourists began to visit and spend money in Chinatown, as millions have continued to do today.

For a look into the inner Chinatown, walk the three blocks past the Dragons Gate to Sacramento, turn left, and then walk up the hill half a block to Waverly Place, the scene of a bloody battle between Chinese tongs in 1879. The buildings on this two block-long alley feature some of the most elaborate and fanciful facades in Chinatown. Walking there in the evening, you may hear the strains of Chinese music drifting out from the Tin How Temple above you. Its open to visitors seven days a week until 4pm.

At Washington Street, where Waverly Place ends, turn left and walk up the few yards to Ross Alley, once known as the "Street of the Gamblers," with 22 gambling dens to its credit. Walking back to Washington, stop at Sam Woh, if you're hungry again. Sam Wohs was the infamous domain of the late head waiter Edsel Ford Fong, who would greet cowering diners by telling them to "sit down and shut up!" Equally disagreeable service continues in this tradition. The foods not great, but locals love to go to Sam Woh for the abuse.

Walk back downhill to Grant Avenue. From the corner you can look down
Washington to see Portsmouth Square, the cultural center of Chinatown.

Continue along Grant to Pacific, taking in the babble of hundreds of conversations in Cantonese, and the smell of dozens of Chinese bakeries. At seafood stores, you'll see fish, frogs, and other live creatures in crowded tanks, awaiting selection by discriminating shoppers. If you didn't just eat at Sam Woh (and still have an appetite after looking at the frogs), head up Pacific to Asia Garden for dim sum. There you'll find a cavernous dining room where two dozen ladies push carts of dim sum, assorted dumpling-like treats paid for by the plate.

At Broadway, turn right, and right again onto Columbus Avenue. A few steps will take you into poet Lawrence Ferlinghettis City Lights Bookstore, a shrine of Beat culture. The store features a collection of literature, poetry, and avant-garde theory and criticism, some of it published under the City Lights label, which you just don't find anywhere else. Vesuvios bar, on the other side of Kenneth Rexroth Alley; the Tosca Café, across Columbus; and the Cafe Trieste, across Broadway on Grant Avenue, are all former Beat hangouts. Each can boast of having ejected Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, or other Beat luminaries from the premises on at least one occasion.

Proceed on Columbus across Broadway past the many cafes, trattorias, and delis which make up heart of Italian North Beach. Stop and have an espresso. As you cross Green Street, you'll notice that the street signs say "Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard," in honor of the funny and colorful revue that has been playing down the block at the Club Fugazi seemingly forever.

At Columbus and Union, walk across Washington Square Park to the Church of Sts Peter and Paul, the site of Joe diMaggios first wedding, to starlet Dorothy Arnold, as well as his funeral. Even if you're not a baseball fan, however, the graceful church is worth a visit.

If it feels like its snack time, and if you're an Italian frame of mind (as you should be by now), head into the Liguria Bakery up the street at Filbert and Stockton. Heres what they sell?focaccia (pizza bread). Choose from tomato, onion, and plain, and the proprietor will wrap it up in plain paper for you and tie it with string.

We'll save the climb to Coit Tower for our next tour. For now, take your focaccia and saunter up Filbert to do a little shopping among the wonderfully funky and eclectic stores of Upper Grant Avenue. Stop into Quantity Postcards and check out its outrageously bizarre collection of postcards and curiosities.


Tour Two: Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower
We'll begin this tour at the corner of Union and Stockton. Those wary of the steep climb to Coit Tower should stay put and wait for the #39 Coit bus. If you feel you're in good shape, however, set out on foot on Stockton (stopping, if you want, to carbo-load at the Liguria Bakery, or across the street at Mamas) and turn right on Filbert. At Grant Avenue, turn left, and trudge up the steep hill to Greenwich. Turn right on Greenwich, head up the hill and take the steps around the palm garden at the top of the street to Coit Tower Boulevard. Pause for breath.

Carefully cross the street (theres no crosswalk here) and continue up the rocky steps on the other side. Follow the path past Pioneer Park to Coit Tower. Once you've met your friends who've taken the #39, walk around the parking plaza, taking in the spectacular panorama from Nob Hill past the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, and the East Bay towards San Jose and the south. The large statue of Christopher Columbus in the middle of the plaza stands on the site of mechanized semaphore flags that once sent messages to ships in the Bay, giving Telegraph Hill its name.

Coit Tower was dedicated in 1932, part of the bequest of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, and a memorial to her beloved San Francisco firemen. Since being pulled out of a burning building as a child by the men of Knickerbocker Company No. 5, the wild and irrepressible Coit bore an abiding affection for firemen. She often rode with them on their busy rounds to the fires that were so frequent in Barbary Coast San Francisco, her hair streaming in the wind as she hung on to the engine.

The towers 210-foot height is boosted by the 220-foot hill on which it sits, and can easily be seen from almost any point on the Bay. Designed in an Art Deco style by the same architect who created City Hall and the Opera House, debate rages to this day about whether or not Coit Tower is supposed to look like a fire hose.

Inside the lobby are restored murals created under the aegis of Roosevelts Works Progress Administration, depicting the industrial, agricultural, and intellectual history of California. Supervised by painter Diego Rivera, these are masterpieces of the social realist school. (See if you can pick out The Daily Worker and other leftist publications at a newsstand in one of the frames.) The $3 elevator ride to the top of the Tower will give you an even more panoramic panorama of San Francisco and its surroundings, including a great view of the Financial District and Union Square.

Once back on ground level, walk back down Coit Tower Boulevard to Filbert Street and the top of the Filbert Steps. Steps were made necessary on the eastern face of Telegraph Hill when large chunks of the hillside were blasted away for landfill to create what is now much of the Embarcadero, Financial District, and Fishermans Wharf. Pretty chrysanthemum bushes crowd the upper Filbert Steps in the spring and summer. Cross Montgomery Street and pause a moment in front of the apartment building at 1360 Montgomery. Its handsome, art-deco bas-relief treatment commemorates the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition. This building has been featured in at least two films: the Bogart-Bacall classic "Dark Passage," and, more recently, the forgettable "Nine Months."

Continue down the steps onto the boardwalk of the Grace Marchand Gardens, some of the most entrancing hillside landscaping in the world. A riotous profusion of flowers shoots up from a tumbling bed of moss. An incongruous flock of parrots, South American conures that descend from a group of domesticated escapees, screech from the trees overhead. Local cats watch with interest, especially when the conures get intoxicated from eating fermented berries.

To your left are clapboard cottages built by 19th century sea captains. Stroll down tiny Darrell Place or jewel-like Napier Lane. The Filbert steps become reassuring steel and concrete as they traverse the rugged bottom of the hill, until finally you find yourself at sea level at Sansome Street, a stones throw from the Green Street studio where Philo Farnsworth invented television. Turn right and walk two blocks to Green to see the plaque, on your right, commemorating his achievement, and then head east on Green into Levi Plaza, corporate headquarters of the Levi-Strauss Corporation. Treat yourself to lunch or dinner at Il Fornaio, one of the citys better Italian restaurants.


Tour Three: SoMa, SF MOMA, Yerba Buena Center, Metreon
Begin your tour of the exciting and dynamic new area south of Market Street at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 Third Street, closed Wednesdays). Built in 1995 on a design by Swiss architect Mario Botta, the museums striped cylinder has become a local landmark. Even more interesting inside than out, dizzying catwalks take museum goers through the heart of its daring study in light and space, and are at least as noteworthy as the museums permanent collection. The San Francisco MOMAs strong suit has long been its photography holdings; important works by Ansel Adams, Carier-Bresson, and Stieglitz making it one of the strongest photography collections in the country. The temporary exhibitions, like 1998s huge Calder retrospective, draw huge crowds. If you are in San Francisco for a convention or other event at the Moscone Center, its just around the corner.

Above the Moscone Center, whose business end is underground, is the successful Yerba Buena Center complex. Planted atop Moscone Center North are the 5 1/2 acre Yerba Buena Gardens. A large, beautifully arranged collection of plants from around the world which give onto a reflection pool, which in turn overflows in a waterfall over the Martin Luther King monument below. The adjoining Yerba Buena Center for the Arts features a two-story gallery with temporary exhibitions, often of multimedia works or large kinetic sculptures, as well as a screening room with a frequently-changing schedule of experimental and documentary films. Jazz and other musical and theatrical works are presented in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater.

Yerba Buena Center continues across Howard Street, over Moscone Center South, with plenty to offer if you have kids in tow. The brand-new Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center features a year-round, indoor skating rink, a handsome and airy facility with a glass wall onto the skyscrapers downtown. Open skating, figure skating lessons, and hockey leagues rotate throughout the day. Skate rental is available, and a cozy, family-friendly bowling alley is fun too. Next door is the Zeum, an imaginative childrens technology museum, where kids can try their hand at video production and learn about the frontiers of computer science. In front of Zeum, an antique carousel rescued from Golden Gate Park spins merrily in a glass enclosure over Howard Street.

Across Howard Street you can see the back end of the imposing Metreon, Sonys four-story, sixteen-screen entertainment megalith. Colored like one of Sonys Vaio computers, but considerably larger and more angular, it houses 16 movie screens, including one IMAX screen, (all with steeply-banked chairs and plenty of leg room), childrens attractions based on Maurice Sendaks "Where the Wild Things Are" and Peter MacCaulays "The Way Things Work," a deluxe food court catered by some of the citys better restaurants, a H.E.A.R. CD shop (filled with listening stations) and, of course, Sonystyle, a Sony store.

Photography buffs will want to make a point of crossing the street from the Metreon/Yerba Buena Center and going to the Ansel Adams Photography Center at 250 Fourth Street when it re-opens later this year. In the meantime, the Cartoon Art Museum, at 814 Mission, is a real delight.

Doug Gorney