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So much to discover and experience in beautiful San Francisco

by Mike Cohen

One of the nicest things about visiting San Francisco is that, although the city is “big” in terms of attractions and amenities, it is geographically small – only 49 square miles. Consequently, it is very easy to see and do a great many things in a short period of time.

San Francisco (www.sftravel.com) generated record-breaking tourism numbers in 2016. More than 25.1 million people visited the destination, spending in excess of $9.69 billion. We were there for a week and built our itinerary carefully. One piece of advice right from the start: it can get chilly here so pack accordingly.

Lots to Discover

It is easy to spend weeks in San Francisco and still not experience everything the city has to offer. The Golden Gate Bridge, the most famous bridge in the world, manages to impress even the most experienced travelers with its stunning 1.7-mile span. Approximately 120,000 automobiles drive across it every day. A pedestrian walkway also allows the crossing on foot, and bikes are allowed on the western side. Meanwhile, cable cars have been transporting people around San Francisco since the late 19th century. They run on tracks and are moved by an underground cable on three routes. Their familiar bells can be heard ringing from blocks away. Tickets ($7) may be purchased at the cable car turnarounds at the ends of each route. Each one-way ride will provide spectacular views of the city’s celebrated hills, as well as exhilarating transportation.

Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to Pier 39, a festive waterfront marketplace that is one of the city’s most popular attractions. A community of California sea lions has taken up residence on the floats in the Pier 39 Marina and visitors line the nearby railing to watch their antics. From there it’s a short walk to the San Francisco Dungeon and Madame Tussauds, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and the famous crab vendors selling walk-away crab and shrimp cocktails. Union Square is the place for serious shoppers. Major department stores and the most exclusive designer boutiques line streets like Post, Sutter, Geary, Grant, Stockton and Powell. The Westfield San Francisco Shopping Centre houses the largest Bloomingdale’s outside of New York and the second largest Nordstrom in the U.S.

The entrance to Chinatown at Grant Avenue and Bush Street is called the “Dragon’s Gate.” Inside are 24 blocks of hustle and bustle, most of it taking place along Grant Avenue, the oldest street in San Francisco. This city within a city is best explored on foot; exotic shops, renowned restaurants, food markets, temples and small museums comprise its boundaries. Visitors can buy ancient potions from herb shops, relax and enjoy a “dim sum” lunch or witness the making of fortune cookies.

San Francisco is home to internationally recognized symphony, opera and ballet companies, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art , the Asian Art Museum, the de Young Museum, the Legion of Honor and the California Academy of Sciences – the only place on the planet with an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum, and a four-story rainforest all under one roof.

Do consider purchasing the San Francisco CityPASS, which saves travellers up to 42 percent off combined admission to top attractions. It includes a Cable Car and Muni Bus Passport, good for three consecutive days of unlimited rides on all Muni buses, light rail trains, streetcars, and the city’s celebrated cable cars. Passes, which can be purchased online at CityPASS.com/san-francisco or at any of the CityPASS partner attractions listed above, are valid for nine consecutive days, beginning with the first day of use.

Hop-on, Hop-off Bus

For our first full day in San Francisco it was a no brainer to take the hop-on, hop-off Big Bus tour. You can buy your tickets in multiple ways. Log on to www.bigbustours.com and click on the San Francisco section as this company operates across the globe. Download the free App before you go. In a city like San Francisco, with stunning bays, bridges and hills, this bus tour is the perfect way to sightsee. Overall we were very pleased and hit all of the major landmarks. There are a variety of different packages available, so pick the one that best suits your needs.

Muir Woods and Sausalito

Via Best Bay Tours (https://bestbayareatours.com), we enjoyed an unforgettable experience
to Muir Woods National Monument and the grove of coastal Sequoias (Redwoods) – the tallest trees in the world! A comfortable van picked us up in front of our hotel and what an incredible chauffeur/tour guide we had in charismatic Paul Berman! The Muir Woods tour took us across the Golden Gate Bridge, past the Marin Headlands, and into a magical Redwood forest. On our drive there, Paul explained how this grove of Redwoods was spared from the clear-cutting that went on during the gold rush and then again during the rebuilding and reconstruction of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Once in the grove of Redwoods, we had a special opportunity to walk amongst these beautiful and awe inspiring Sequoia trees by following the creek bed. We spent about 90 minutes in the Redwood grove. The tour then moved on to picturesque Sausalito, where we had a chance to shop, visit art galleries and have lunch all while gazing across the bay at beautiful San Francisco. You have the option of returning with the tour back to San Francisco with a stop in the Marin Headlands, which provides stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco beyond. Or you can stay in Sausalito and spend as much time as you’d like and then make your own way back via the ferry. Tour prices are $45 for children and $60 for adults. This does not include the $10 entrance fee to the Muir Woods National Park.


I have always been fascinated by Alcatraz, once home to some of America’s most notorious criminals. The federal penitentiary that operated here from 1934 to 1963 brought a dark mystique to the Rock as the presence of infamous inmates like Al “Scarface” Capone, and the “Birdman” Robert Stroud helped to establish the island’s notoriety. To this day, Alcatraz is best known as one of the world’s most legendary prisons. A visit to Alcatraz is high on every San Francisco tourist’s list. We booked our tickets via Alcatraz Cruises (www.alcatrazcruises.com), the National Park Service concessioner of ferry service to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Nearly 1.5 million visitors use this service annually. Plan about two and a half hours for your visit. You can stay as long as you like, taking the cell house audio tour, exploring the rest of the island and its historic exhibits, and returning to the mainland. Here is a tip – order your tickets as far in advance as possible.

The California Academy of Sciences

The California Academy of Sciences (http://www.calacademy.org) is home to an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum, and research and education programs, which engage people of all ages and backgrounds on two of the most important topics of our time: life and its sustainability. Based in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, it’s remarkable what is housed all under one living roof. Along with dozens of daily programs on the museum floor, there are plenty of ways to see and learn more during your visit and after hours. You can book a behind-the-scenes tour and get a closer look at the live animals, discover scientific collections, or learn what makes this museum the greenest in the world. Admission is: $34.95 for adults; $29.95 for youth ages 12 to 17, Seniors ages 65 plus, and students with valid ID; $24.95 for children ages four to 11; and free for children ages three and younger. Hours are 9:30 am to 5 pm Monday to Saturday, and 11 am to 5 pm on Sunday.

Dining Out

Dining in San Francisco is an attraction in itself. Known as one of America’s best restaurant cities, San Francisco chefs excel at combining the freshest local ingredients, authentic international flavors and a touch of creative genius. Choose your cuisine – Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish, Moroccan, Indian, Malaysian, Mexican, Greek, Russian or “fusion,” a combination of any or all of these influences.

We came upon the ideal dinner and show combination under the same roof of the Kensington Hotel at Union Square- a fabulous meal at Farallon Restaurant (www.farallonrestaurant.com), followed by an evening at the San Francisco Playhouse and a presentation of the La Cage Aux Folles. The dinner and a show promotion that Farallon has with the Playhouse is a $49 three-course prix fixe dinner. Farallon, founded by famed restaurateur and designer Pat Kuleto and Chef Mark Franz, has been enchanting guests for 18 years. We had an absolutely fabulous dinner. Our server Nancy nicely described the options and paired different wine with our appetizers and main courses. We started off with a large selection from the raw bar: lo b s t er c l a w , Dungeness crab, oysters, clams and prawns as well as tasting of Pacific Coast oysters. I also enjoyed a very unique bowl of soup, the Brodo of Homemade Charcuterie, mussels, mushroom , ortellini, summer corn and pesto. For the main course our party of three feasted on the sablefish, from the Farallon Islands, which came with h i c k o r y ro a s t e d b a b y e g g p l a n t, couscous, figs, almonds and ras el hanout (a yogurt-like topping). The bone dry scallops, with m u s h r o o m s, cherry tomatoes, flageolet beans and arugula pistou got a big thumbs up. So did the flannery filet of beef, with braised scallions, fingerling potatoes and crisp summer peppers. For dessert we opted for the mocha mousse chocolate cookie crumble and lavender Chantilly and the raspberry charlotte with lime meringue, fig compote and citrus tuile. It was the perfect ending to a perfect meal!Reservations for dinner are recommended by phone or Open Table. Info: 415.956.6969

In terms of sushi, there is no question that Ryoko’s Japanese Restaurant & Bar is tops in San Francisco. Located on the border of Nob Hill and Tenderloin , at 619 Taylor, this is a lively basement sushi spot helmed by high-skilled Japanese chefs. There is a dj every night but Sunday. It opens at 6 pm each night and continues serving until 1:30 am. Reservations are not taken here, so prepare to line up. When we arrived at 7:30 pm there were already many people standing along the stairs and out the door. You first must enter the name of your party on a sign-up sheet, but it is truly worth the wait. The manager on duty, Ling, got us a nice table, had us seated and made some helpful suggestions, starting off with a creative cocktail. As for the menu and the evening’s specials, posted on a board behind the bar, she was right on the mark. We shared the beef teriyaki, the grilled whole squid, oh toro (fatty tuna), jumping unagi (eel), spicy scallop, shrimp symphony, crunchy crab (deep fried soft shell crab, cucumber and mayonnaise and the 49ers (crab and avocado with tuna and salmon on top) named in honour of the city’s football team. Everything here is served so fresh.

There is a very historic restaurant in San Francisco called John’s Grill (www.johnsgrill.com). This is one of the city’s oldest and most famous dining establishments, born in 1908, known for its great steaks, seafood, salads and pastas and the price is indeed right. The restaurant was actually a setting in author Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. You will be impressed with the interior, complete with original period furnishings as well as a kind of virtual museum of authentic memorabilia. The dark oak panelled walls are covered with photos of well-known patrons and San Francisco of the past. General Manager Sean Kulanet gave me a personal tour of the restaurant. We were seated on the main level. Little did we realize that there were two more floors and a total capacity for nearly 300 diners. Our party of three each ordered from the table d’hôte. It began with a jumbo prawn cocktail, followed by a choice of either some New England clam chowder or a Jack Lalanne favorite salad for two. It contained seasonal greens, crab, shrimp, avocado, mushrooms, tomato tossed in their famous creamy bleu cheese vinaigrette dressing. We opted for the New York steak and definitely made the right choice. It was perfectly cooked and cut like butter. All beef entrees are served with seasonal vegetables and baked Idaho potato. They have an extensive wine and drink list. I chose a wonderful glass of Chardonnay. For dessert we thoroughly enjoyed the flan (vanilla cream caramel). The restaurant is located at 63 Ellis Street. It is always crowded so call first for reservations at 415-986-3274.

Be sure to experience the Pier Market Seafood Restaurant (www.piermarket.com), located at Pier 39. The family owned restaurant specializes in mesquite-grilled fresh, local, sustainable seafood and fabulous California wines enjoyed while providing bay views of Alcatraz and the Pier 39 sea lions. You can also enjoy dining on their fabulous outdoor patio, perfect for people watching on the Pier. Owned and operated by the Simmons family, who created and built Pier 39, they own three other restaurants – the Fog Harbor Fish House, the Wipeout Bar & Grill and the Biscoff Coffee Corner. We started off with some drinks, a raspberry mojito and a California Dreamin’ (vodka, peach schnapps, orange and cranberry juices, shaken). For appetizers we opted for the clam chowder in a sourdough bowl and salad combo. The chowder was piping hot and when I was done I ate a good part of the bowl; the Caesar salad was tasty. We also had half a dozen shucked oysters served on the half shell. For the main course we turned to their specialties section and selected the crab cake dinner (a large portion of their fabulous crab cakes served with Cajun rémoulade) and the whole Dungeness crab, which comes teamed and served with drawn butter. For dessert we treated ourselves to the warm chocolate fudge cake and the tiramisu.

I can never travel without sampling the best pizza in town. In San Francisco that would be Amici’s East Coast Pizzeria (https://www.amicis.com). There are 10 locations, including two in San Francisco. We stopped at the one at 2200 Lombard, conveniently on the route of the Hop- On, Hop-Off Bus and it made for a fantastic lunch!

Are you looking to do something completely different in San Francisco? We had a wonderful evening on the Hornblower Dining Cruise (www.hornblower.com). With the Hornblower you can embark upon an exquisite brunch, lunch, or dinner cruise, feast on shimmering Bay views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge, and take in that gorgeous city skyline. There is great food, special cocktails, champagne, live music, and the most stunning views in town. We chose a three hour dinner cruise, complete with a four course seated dinner. Our server Lupita welcomed us to our table with some glasses of sparkling wine, summer spinach salads and a basket of fresh bread. We each enjoyed some piping hot tomato basil soup and ordered the herb roasted chicken breast, with risotto cake, seasonal vegetables and lemon butter sauce and the braised lamb shank with parmesan truffle mashed potatoes and seasonable vegetables. Decadent chocolate flourless cake with raspberry glaze topped off one fine meal. You can call 415-788-8866 or email sf@hornnblower.com Monday to Friday.


Mike Cohen can be reached at: info@mikecohen.ca

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