San Francisco is one of the most visited cities in North America, yet I’d never had the pleasure of visiting until now. I had less than one day to check it out. Like a good book, I left wanting more.
I rolled into San Francisco in the late afternoon and checked into the one of the coolest places I’ve ever spent the night, the art-deco Ocean Park Motel. With less than twenty-four hours, I wanted to see as much of the city as I could.
The Taraval Street train left from right in front of the motel. Late afternoon sun cast a warm glow over the stucco houses lining the Pacific side of the peninsula as I made my way toward the bay. I hate missing a perfectly good sunset, but exploring the wharf area more than made up for it.
Darkness fell as I walked along the waterfront. Even in the off-season, Fisherman’s Wharf was a chaotic mess of neon, gift shops, and faux street food. Historic ships like the the USS Pampanito, a WWII-era submarine restored to her 1945 specs, made attractive foregrounds for photos of Alcatraz across the bay. Crowds hovered around artists spray-painting the San Francisco skyline on pieces of cardboard, while sea lions lounged on an abandoned pier near the aquarium barking at the passers-by.
The festival atmosphere extended to the hosts of otherwise respectable-looking restaurants as they shouted at tourists like state fair carnies promising the freshest seafood and best service—sometimes arguing with other hosts as they tried to lure potential customers away.
I felt like I sold my soul (and not cheaply) when I chose to eat at one of these places. My suggestion is to eat before hitting the wharf, and giving the finger to the restaurant hawkers.
I ducked off the street to check out the fishing boats on the piers behind the neon signs. One of my favorite things to do when I arrive in any coastal town is to wander around where the working boats are docked. Whether it’s the lobster boats in Maine or the crab ships in Seattle, it’s always amazing to see the equipment that hard-working fishers use to bring us our next meal. Crusty fishing boats didn’t draw the tourists, and just a few feet off the main strip, the only sound I heard was the clinking of rigging against steel masts as the boats swayed in their moorings.
After enjoying as much wharf-side excitement I could handle, I meandered back to the train. I stopped several times to stare at the Bay Bridge, mesmerized by the constantly changing patterns of flashing lights. The spans of the bridge lit up with the images of ocean waves or objects moving between the spans. The coordinated light display was designed by artist Leo Villareal whose other works include installations in the Bleeker Street Subways Station in NYC, and the National Gallery of Art.
I was lucky enough to show up just weeks before the display was to go dormant. The 23,000 foot-long light sculpture will be lighting up the sky again in early 2016.
A spectacular sunrise greeted me the next morning, and I took the short walk from my motel to the beach. I’m always amazed at the amount of energy that the Pacific throws at its coastlines. Waves breaking on the shore, as well as further out to sea created a constant, churning hiss. A few surfers sat on their boards in the swells waiting for the perfect wave. In the white noise of the Pacific, pressing matters became less important, work seemed distant, and the water that bubbled up through the sand where I walked seemed to drain stress away.
I held on to that peace of mind as long as I could after I crossed the Golden Gate, and headed east, away from the Pacific.
What I didn’t do but wish I had:
Alcatraz Night tour – for that “more intimate and engaging Alcatraz experience.” Certainly a better than an intimate experience at any other prison. $45
San Francisco Maritime Park – Hanging out on tall sailing ships? Yes please! And only $5
The Beat Museum – “dedicated to spreading the spirit of The Beat Generation, which we define as tolerance, compassion and having the courage to live your individual truth” with “an extensive collection of Beat memorabilia, including original manuscripts and first editions, letters, personal effects and cultural ephemera”. $8 (They also offer area walking tours.)