Getting a free ride to the West Coast and back was good enough to begin with but an aerial tour of Yosemite National Park in all its winter glory was completely unexpected. A welcome bonus for sure and the best possible way to start a whirlwind visit to the city of San Francisco!
The 7 am flight out of JFK meant a painfully early start for me but the last hour or so out the window made it all worth while. The National Park followed by the very affluent Silicon Valley stretching from San Jose to SF – palatial houses, golf courses and private air strips – we could see them all!
But SF itself had to wait as we took a BART train straight from SFO Airport to Oakland – across the bay. The big attraction for us there was at Jack London Square – a popular waterfront development full of shops, eateries and vintage ships. But if you’re a rail fan, there’s something far more intriguing than that – one of North America’s last surviving ‘Street Running’ operations.
With Oakland Harbour in close proximity, it isn’t just passenger trains you see charging down the main thoroughfare here – mile long freight trains as well – and what a sight they make! A Ben & Jerry’s Cafe located at a street corner was just what the doc had ordered! We sat out in the sun, sipped on some surprisingly good coffee and watched the never ending parade of trains go by.
The detour into Oakland had its obvious benefits but it would also provide us a grand entry into SF. Regular ferries (Catamarans in this case) operate between Jack London Sq and the Market Street Ferry Terminal in SF and the 20 odd minute ride offers some gorgeous views.
If you strain your eyes hard enough you will be able to discern the storied Golden Gate Bridge in the background but the Oakland Bay Bridge (foreground) is worthy of accolade to. Linking Eastern SF to Western Oakland, this 14 km (8.4 mile) long bridge was built 6 months before the more popular Golden Gate and is made up of double decked suspension, truss and cantilever sections and a tunnel necessitated by the very picturesque Treasure Island which the bridge passes through.
SF has, for long, been at the top of my list of cities to visit in the US and having finally made it there, the 2 biggest draws for me (in my very limited time) were its fascinating and diverse transit system and of course its famed topography. The steep slopes would have to wait just a teeny bit though cause it was transit action from the word GO as we stepped off the ferry!
San Francisco’s nodal transit agency, MUNI operates a fleet of over 60 vintage trams (trolleys or streetcars as they are referred to in North America) on its F Market Street line. The trolleys represent almost every city in the US that ever operated one and 11 cities around the world – each of them painted in their original livery. The one you see in the picture above is the very unique ‘Boat Tram’ from Blackpool, UK. Needless to say this was nothing short of nirvana for someone like me and I was scampering from one trolley to another, clicking away and screaming with excitement – it was playtime 😉
We settled on the less exotic Peter Witt Streetcar from Milan, Italy and made our way down Market Street. Often referred to as SFs Fifth Avenue, Market Street is special for a number of reasons. Being at the boundary of two street grids, it serves as the city’s main axis. It is shopping paradise for anyone with that bent of mind and last but not the least; it is easily one of the busiest transit arteries in the US. Regular buses, electric trolley buses and streetcars jostle for space on the surface while a 2 tier system allows BART trains and MUNI’s light rail to run below the surface. And no matter how far from the waterfront you are, the iconic Market Street clock tower is always within sight.
We alighted at Powell Street and joined a serpentine queue of tourists waiting to board a Cable Car. A little known fact and certainly unique from a railway standpoint – at the intersection of Powell and Market St, 3 different gauges operate within close proximity of each other. While the Trolleys are standard guage, the BART runs on broad gauge (half an inch shy of India’s broad gauge) and SFs Cable Cars operate on a 3 ft 6 in gauge (a tad more than India’s metre gauge!)
Powell St is also the end (or the beginning!) of one of 3 cable car lines in the city and this requires that they be turned. A mundane job for its operators no doubt, it provided entertainment to the flock of tourists waiting in line!
The cable car ride costs 5 USD and is steep (no pun intended!) compared to other modes of transport. But its worth every penny and more and is an absolute must do for every first time visitor – well worth the long wait in the queue! It’s also probably the only public transit system in the US where your officially permitted to ‘hang out’ so to speak! But we got ourselves dress circle seats instead and watched the spectacle that is San Francisco unfold..
Not only does SF offer the most varied forms of transport to its residents, it also offers the most diverse ways to tour the city. Tourists get to choose between the regular open top sightseeing buses (which include a London Transport Bus complete with right hand drive!) to WW2 era amphibious vehicles (becoming increasingly popular in US cities) to bike tours (read cycling), Segway tours, specially equipped Minis and Harleys for tour rental and the most unique of them all – the tiny little GPS guided, talking GO Car!! But even if budget was no bar, I’d settle any day for seeing the city through its transit system. And that’s precisely what we did.
The San Francisco Cable Car system is the world’s last permanently operated (since 1873), manually driven system and is as much a city icon as the Golden Gate Bridge or Alcatraz. It was built with one purpose in mind – to efficiently move people up SFs steep hills. The grip operators have their work cut out for them and their skill can only be appreciated by looking around at the unbelievably steep inclines the cars operate on. Their only respite is at intersections which were designed to be flat and that’s also where they pick up and drop off passengers.
Not a remarkable picture, I agree, but I chose it for very specific reasons. To start with, note the sheer incline on Powell St when compared to the intersection; note the steep descent on California St to the right of intersection and last but not the least, the runner in the pic. He paced our cable car for about 10 blocks uphill and closer to California St, outdid us – to a full round of applause from passengers and onlookers alike!!
Needless to say, SFs steep slopes are workout heaven for anyone who loves the outdoors and in SF, they don’t shy of that fact. Runners and bikers are everywhere and the year round good weather coupled with the city’s accommodating nature, make it all the more attractive. I use the word ‘accommodating’ for good reason. Take biking for example – SF is by far the most bike friendly city I have seen in the US. Bike lanes are everywhere and even if you don’t own one, bike rental shops are a dime a dozen. More importantly, everyone gives way to bikers – motorists included! A far cry from what one is used to in the Big Apple!
In fact, SFs motorists gladly stop for anyone and anything in their path (irritating when your used to the ways of New York!) without the slightest bit of complaint and absolutely no use of their horn! Aggression (the kind that is symptomatic to urban areas) is lacking in general and the folks, friendlier than usual. No doubt this also translates into a more laid back environment all around which made me wonder aloud, how different is this city on a weekday??
After what can only be described as an exhilarating ride, we stepped off the Cable Car at Lombard St in the very pretty Russian Hill neighbourhood. The section of Lombard St between Hyde St and Leavenworth St features 8 sharp turns on an acute gradient and is often referred to as ‘Crooked Street’. It is also believed to be the most winding street in the world and once you’ve seen it in person, you wouldn’t want to contest that fact!
While downtown SF can’t exactly boast of a gleaming skyline (for seismic reasons more than anything else), a lot of its neighbourhoods feature some of the prettiest houses I have seen in urban America. Russian Hill is no exception. What stood out for me was the extensive and tasteful use of wood on the exteriors and the seamless co-existence of diverse architectural styles.
The last major landmark between the Bay and us was Del Monte Square – best known for ‘The Cannery’ which not so long ago was the world’s largest Peach Cannery. The Cannery and the adjacent Argonaut Hotel are impressive red brick structures indeed but the light was quickly fading on us, so a detour to view their interiors, we could not afford.
The Embarcadero (Spanish for embark) is the long promenade that runs from north to east, providing stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Sausalito to name a few. It also hosts a very impressive Maritime Museum and a series of piers that serve the many destinations in the Bay area. We had started at one end of the Embarcadero earlier that day and were back in the evening at another – a full circle if you will!
The Cable Car line that we had deserted briefly, ends just short of the waterfront and right beside Ghirardelli Square (the chocolate by that name is no longer made there!). The Hyde St terminal boasts arguably the most scenic turn table in the world!
The 2 odd mile walk along the Embarcadero is a scenic one no doubt but packed to the hilt with tourists and the kind of place most locals would avoid – akin to Times Square in NYC minus the neon! But every once in a while a clearing shows up – like this bit of wasteland after Fisherman’s Wharf – and Alcatraz Island is suddenly yours to photograph for eternity!
It had been chilly to begin with that morning, then the looming threat of SFs dreaded fog, finally a good spell of warmth and sunshine and then the ultimate icing on the cake – magic hour like no other!
The rest of the evening was spent paying obeisance to The Great Ganesha and his better half, who very kindly drove us through the SF neighbourhoods of Castro, Haight Ashbury and Golden Gate Park, stopping briefly in Richmond for some outstanding and super spicy Schezuan food, carrying on through Lincoln Park past the Legion of Honour Museum and some splendid night views of the Golden Gate, eventually dropping us off to SFO for our red eye back to NY! Phew!!
It was short for sure but every minute was sweet and I came back full of love and affection for the city, vowing to visit there again someday. In my little book, Chicago and Boston would have to take a bow for now but then its always down to that unfair question that everyone asks me – SF or NY?? I think I’ll stick to Nueva York..for now, at least 😉