Imagine what it¹s like for big-city dwellers. Traveling up here
to Sonoma County ‹ the country ‹ is a change of pace and change of
scenery. But what if you live here?
Then going into the big city becomes the getaway ‹ to something
completely different.
Here¹s a plan for a trip into the metropolis. Most of the travel
is very relaxed. You will soon be immersed in that great blend of
cultures called San Francisco.
You will not go to Fisherman¹s Wharf, or the Metreon. But you
will be back home before sunset.
The cost? As little as $20.
The journey will take you over water, to the heart of the City,
up to the top of Nob Hill, into the real part of Chinatown, over to
North Beach, through a neighborhood of 19th-century brick
buildings, and then a reverse course back home.
It¹s Saturday morning. You may want to put a few things into a
small pack. It could be 90° in Sonoma County, but San Francisco
will be probably be enjoying a wonderfully cool 70°. So wear long
pants and take a light jacket, maybe a little bottle of your
favorite water. A notebook and a street map of SF are further
options. And ‹ very important ‹ some good walking shoes.
Hop in your car by 8:30 or so, depending on where you live, and
drive south on Highway 101. Your first destination is the Larkspur
Ferry Terminal. You¹ll want to arrive at Larkspur by 9:30 at the
latest, in order to park and then catch the 9:40 ferry.
By the way, you could try to get to Larkspur on Golden Gate
Transit buses, but it¹s not easy with the weekend schedule. If the
SMART train ever gets on track ‹ now planned for 2009, if the sales
tax measure passes in November ‹ you will be able to go by rail
from Sonoma County to the Larkspur ferry. That will be great!
About a mile south of San Rafael, take the Sir Francis Drake
Blvd. exit. Stay to the left and turn left. Then go straight until
you see the ferry parking lot on the right.
The beauty of going on a Saturday is ‹ parking. Plenty of it. If
this were Wednesday, you would be driving around for half an hour
looking for a space. It should now be around 9:35, depending on how
early you like to be. Buy a round-trip ticket, which costs
Soon you¹ll be on board one of GGT¹s older, slower ferries (the
bigger faster ones run on weekdays for commuters). But it¹s a
pleasant ride across the bay to San Francisco¹s famous Ferry
Building. Relax, look out the window, read a newspaper. There¹s a
full bar ready to serve you, with snacks and beverages. You may
want to try sitting on the different decks, to see which you like
In a mere 50 minutes, the ferry will arrive at San Francisco.
Follow the crowd off the boat. Right before you leave the terminal
area, you will see, on the right, a little white machine with a big
pushbutton. Stop here and press the button. You will get a free
Muni bus transfer worth $3.
A word about timing. The ferries going back to Larkspur are at
12:30, 2:30, and 4:30. The first one is a bit too soon. For a
pleasant jaunt through the City, you may want to pace yourself in
such a way to make the 2:30 ferry. A longer tour will mean taking
the 4:30 ferry home, or even the 7 p.m. ferry (last boat of the day
on weekends and holidays).
The gigantic Ferry Building is now in front of you, and you know
that you have left the country and entered a great and bustling
cosmopolitan city.
It¹s time to go up to the top of Nob Hill. Make your way through
the marketplace hall of the Ferry Building, full of interesting
shops and stalls, with mostly local and regional vendors. You¹ll
come out to the street, which is The Embarcadero. Walk through two
traffic signals to the other side and now you¹re at the foot of
Market Street.
The Hyatt Hotel is on your right, and the cable car stop is at
the next street you come to, at the corner of Market and Drumm. The
California Street cable cars are bigger and always less crowded
than the better-known Powell Street cars. You¹ll have little
trouble getting a seat. The fare is $5 ‹ that transfer you punched
for won¹t be accepted by the cable car conductor.
For a more authentic experience, try the electric trolley bus
instead. The 1-California line goes up Nob Hill, outbound on
Sacramento Street (and returning via Clay). So turn right on Drumm
and then left on Sacramento ‹ these are short blocks. You¹ll see
the bus stop ahead at Sacramento and Davis. Board with the
³Ferry-to-Muni² half of your transfer and ask the driver for a Muni
transfer, which you might need later.
If you¹ve never been on one of these electric buses, going
uphill, there is only one thing to remember ‹ hold on! Once the bus
is in motion, it¹s a smooth ride up the steep grade.
After 10 minutes or so, as the cable car or bus reaches a
plateau near the top of Nob Hill, at Mason Street, you will want to
get off. If you¹re on the bus, move towards an exit door a couple
of minutes before the stop.
Nob Hill may sound like a ritzy, elitist place. But it¹s
actually a diverse residential neighborhood. It will seem a little
quieter than other parts of the City. Walk over to the Fairmont
Hotel (with all the flags) and enter the beautiful, grand lobby.
You can have a seat and relax. (The restroom is located on the
California Street side of the lobby, across from the gift
Now saunter out of the hotel in a westerly direction and you¹ll
see the rust-colored Flood Mansion. Next to it is a wonderful city
park, with a marble fountain, benches and children¹s playground.
This is Huntington Park ‹ enjoy a few minutes here, as many locals
do each day.
By now you should have noticed Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal
church built in the 1920s. If you like churches, for whatever
reason ‹ religious interest, architecture, stained glass ‹ walk up
the big steps and enter this huge and glorious spiritual space.
Walk the labyrinth. Or just have a seat in one of the rear pews,
and look to the ceiling, 90 feet above. All are welcome here, and
nobody from the church will ask you what you¹re doing.
Leaving Nob Hill is not physically difficult. It¹s all downhill.
So you won¹t be breaking a sweat as you walk towards Chinatown.
Head north a block or two. To orient yourself, look at the Bay
Bridge or the Transamerica Pyramid ‹ north is to your left. Walk
along Mason or Taylor, past Sacramento, Clay, and Washington
streets. Turn right on Jackson.
You will soon be at Stockton Street, which is one of the most
bustling streets in the western United States. Turn left and make
your way along the crowded sidewalks, past small markets of every
type, selling fish, meat, vegetables, noodles, dry-goods ‹ you name
it. You will see ordinary people buying fresh food for their
evening meals. If you¹re there at certain times, you¹ll witness
live fish being taken off a truck and carted into a store, for
quick sale.
This is the real Chinatown, unlike the ultra-touristy Grant
Avenue, which is one block to the east and parallels Stockton.
Now head north on Stockton, cross Broadway, and go to Green
Street, where it meets with the diagonally-oriented Columbus
Lots of options here. A block north is Washington Square, the
cultural center of North Beach. You can sit on a park bench. Up
Green Street, to the east, are lots of cafes and restaurants. For a
quick snack, I recommend ordering a slice at Golden Boy pizza (542
Green St.). Or go farther east a block or two to Kearny, where
you¹ll find lots of Italian joints and Asian noodle houses.
If you like espresso ‹ in the original and thick, non-Starbucks
style ‹ you will want to visit historic Caffe Trieste at Vallejo
and Grant, which in 1956 was the first espresso cafe in the West.
Trieste is in a nice sunny neighborhood (if the sun is out), is
fairly quiet and always a pleasure. Sit indoors or outside.
By now it should be around around 45 minutes before the ferry
leaves, and time to head back to the Ferry Building, a walk that
may take 15-20 minutes. Find Columbus Avenue and head towards the
Transamerica Pyramid. You¹ll see a beautiful greenish building
ahead. This is the Sentinel Building. Construction began before
1906 and was finished in 1907. Its copper sheathing has aged to
give it the distinctive color.
Turn left on Jackson (the street you turned onto before, when
you were higher up on the hill). In a block or two, you¹ll be in a
quaint area of low-profile brick buildings, some of which date back
to the 1850s. This is the Jackson Square Historic District. Look in
the windows of the fine art galleries, tapestry dealers, and
antique shops.
Jackson Street will take you into a newer area, alongside the
rather modern park at Walton Square. Sometimes you¹ll see flocks of
parrots, escapees from cages, roosting in the trees of this park.
It¹s also a favorite spot for starlings.
Where Jackson Street ends, turn right on Drumm. Follow Drumm to
Market Street, where you boarded the bus or cable car. Or cut
behind the ugly gray sculpture in Justin Herman Plaza to The
If you have time, you can pick up some last-minute gourmet items
or souvenirs in the Ferry Building shops. Prices are
Locate the entrance to the ferry terminal, which is on the other
side of the terminal from where you landed. Dig out the ferry
ticket you kept in a safe place, toss it into the hopper and
proceed on board.
As the ferry turns onto its course, settle into your seat, enjoy
the peaceful gray-blue waters, and recall the brief but rich
experience in the City by the Bay.

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