THE BEAUTY OF THE USA: SAN FRANCISCO, Bahar Sinem Özkesici Ünal | 07.06.2016

San Francisco is a city familiar to many of us from the TV drama “The Streets of San Francisco” and any number of  American action movies. If you ask me, it’s reminiscent of Istanbul with its uneven streets, cosmopolitan population, cable cars resembling our Beyoğlu tram and its bridges bisecting the landscape. As it was 1998 when I first came to the city, I was greatly surprised to find it almost the same as it was back then, with only a few changes to be seen. The cities and streets in our country change so fast that we feel like a stranger when we visit a city we haven’t seen for a couple of years.

If you choose not to rent a car in San Francisco, I strongly recommend that you buy a 7-day Muni pass ” for public transport. People generally use the cable car to access central parts of the city and this costs $7 without a Muni pass. If you consider that, as a tourist, you may need to use the cable car quite a lot, buying a card represents a considerable saving over a week. You can also use this card for other public transport options such as the bus, tramway, and subway. If you prefer to rent a car, then make sure you pick it up at the airport, as the price for a city center collection is 2-3 times higher. 

The Americans call San Francisco the “most beautiful city of the US”. I agree that it’s the most beautiful city in terms of urban landscape, climate and nature, culture and art activities. Thanks to the Gulf Stream coming from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, the climate is never too cold here and you can actually see the warm current in the vapor that drifts across the streets. As the climate is warm, the city also has one of the highest homeless populations in the USA. When you see these people you’ll be grateful for your own life and recognize the stark contrast between real-life USA and its public image.

There are so many places to go and things to see that appeal to everyone, that I’ll confine myself to the most popular. First of all, I recommend that you stay somewhere central for easier access, and Union Square fits the bill. We stayed at a hotel on California Street in the Nob Hill neighborhood which was directly on the cable car’s route, so we had no problems at all in terms of transport. For Turks like us, one of the problems abroad is breakfast. If they don’t serve breakfast at your hotel, then you can have it in almost every café where you see the word ‘breakfast’ on the table. In these cafés you can try waffles and pancake generally accompanied by American style maple syrup and a variety of marmalades; or omelets are another option (if you like your egg a bit runny then order sunny side up). Remember that Turkey is the only place in the world where you can get a genuine Turkish breakfast with all its rich variety, so you’ll have to make do abroad. :)

Let’s start the trip with Fisherman’s Wharf, which is my favorite place. It’s a very touristy area where beach-side entertainment and the food & drink venues meet. You can easily get there by taking the cable car from Union Square. At Pier 39 you can watch the sea lions, buy souvenirs from the tempting boutiques, enjoy a seafood feast, wander around the Aquarium of the Bay, learn chocolate making at Ghirardelli Square, or visit interesting museums such as Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.

You must try the blue crab particular to the California coasts and the Clam Chowder soup served with sourdough bread. You don’t have to go to top class restaurants to try all of these. The fast-food style snack bars that you see on the streets sell a variety of cooked seafood and are clean and inexpensive.

If you want to eat somewhere different, I recommend the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant inspired by the movie Forrest Gump. The shrimp varieties served here are amazing, particularly the coconut shrimp). But try and make sure you know the movie before you go… The waitresses will ask you questions about it and you have the opportunity to win a prize. :) Generally, the answers are hidden in objects within the restaurant. If you’re not a fan of seafood, then I recommend In-N-Out Burger which is a chain of burger restaurants based in California. And why not try Boudin’s sourdough bread;you can see how it’s baked and buy a loaf to take home (it keeps for ages). The Hard Rock Cafe is a great place for a cold drink or coffee, and if you happen to be there when there’s live music playing, that’s an added bonus.

Before leaving Fisherman’s Wharf, don’t forget to stop by Ghirardelli Square located further along the shore, which is home to a time-honored chocolate factory, now a museum and open to visit. At the boutique stores where the Ghirardelli chocolates are sold, you can try chocolates with different flavors such as hot pepper and sea salt.

As action movie lovers well know, the famous zig-zagging Lombard Street where pursuit scenes are generally shot, is also located in San Francisco. You pass in front of this en route to Fisherman’s Wharf by cable car, and I strongly recommend you take a break there and have a souvenir photo taken.

The ideal place for a 360-degree view of San Francisco is the Coit Tower, which is an observation tower built in the early 1930s and located in the Telegraph Hill region. This is one of the places you must see. After visiting the art gallery located at the entrance to the tower, you can go up in the lift and enjoy the awesome cityscape.

One of the best places to take a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge, which is one of the oldest suspension bridges in the world and iconic of San Francisco with its distinctive red color that has remained unchanged since it was built in 1933, is the Presidio National Park.

In this huge park, you can visit the Palace of Fine Arts Exploratorium. The building is designed in ancient Roman style, although it isn’t that old, and you can rest, relax and take some fabulous, memorable photos in the gorgeous surrounding park. By the way, the Golden Gate Bridge is open for pedestrians as well, so you can walk across it if you like.

You need to allocate a day for the Golden Gate Park, which is one of the national parks located in the city. In the park, you can see a wide variety of plants and trees divided into regional categories. For example, if you won’t have chance to go to the Muir Woods region and see the huge redwood trees particular to California, then you can see them here. End the day by visiting the Modern Arts Museum in the park.

The street featuring the colorful, steep-roofed and gorgeous houses that you see in postcards and movies is located in the Alamo region. These houses are called “Painted Ladies”. San Francisco is a city famous for the beauty of its houses and you’ll see that the historic, Victorian-style houses are restored and inhabited on this street.

The second largest Chinese neighborhood in the world is Chinatown located in San Francisco since 1889. Historically, Chinese immigrants coming by ship were not accepted in the city and were kept on Alcatraz Island. And after they were accepted into the town, they settled in this neighborhood. When you enter the neighborhood, the scents peculiar to the Far East, plates bearing Chinese text, and the Chinese population will make you forget you’re in the US and feel as though you’re actually in the Far East. For Chinese food lovers, the restaurants are both affordable and clean.

After leaving the Chinese neighborhood, you come to Broadway Street and the parallel area adorned with Italian flags, which is of course the Italian District. You can take a break in the retro-style Italian cafés and drink Italian coffee in this neighborhood. The historic Tosca café, artistic graffiti on the walls, Broadway Street (North Beach) where the cabaret theaters line up and the Macchiarini Steps famous for their steepness are among the attractions in this region.

One of the structures that forms the silhouette of San Francisco and became the symbol of the area is the Transamerica Pyramid. This building is located in the business region in the Chinese neighborhood where the skyscrapers are concentrated, and can be seen from almost anywhere in San Francisco due to its size and triangular structure. Considering the year it was built (1969), it really is a beautiful work of art both technically and esthetically, and doesn’t have the “concrete jungle” feel of ordinary skyscrapers.

There are many wonderful restaurants, quality cafés, and entertainment venues in the Nob Hill region, an area favored by the young. Grace Cathedral, which you will see going to Chinatown from California Street, is not old but is the largest cathedral of this neighborhood. Its most striking feature is the labyrinths laid out on the floor both inside and in the gardens.

When you go direct from the cathedral to the shore, the Ferry Building greets you at the port. In this stunning 1950s historical building with its clock tower, you can visit boutique shops serving homemade local treats and, if you’re there on a Sunday, wander around the market located behind the building. From the excursion point next to the Ferry Building, you can see the Oakland Bay Bridge and cityscape, and take a ride on the colorful, historic tramway.

AT&T Park, where the stadium - the “temple” - of the famous San Francisco Giants baseball team is located, is a must-see place for aficionados.

Union Square is like the “Taksim Square” of this neighborhood. It is the most central area of the city and home to numerous and varied boutiques, shopping malls, restaurants and even an ice rink in the central square. It is a glittering, colorful - especially at night - and convivial area with people dancing and playing music. You must try the famous cheesecakes made by the Cheese Cake Factory a chain of restaurants located on the top floor of the Macy’s building. But if you don’t want to queue for hours, go on a weekday morning when it’s not so crowded. 

Haight-Ashbury is the region where the “Daisy Kids” hippy movement first started, and the residents here still embrace the hippy lifestyle. Here you’ll see unique and individual people that you won’t find anywhere else,  but if you want to take photos of them, give them some money and be sure to ask their permission. And be careful with your wallet.

Anyone who’s seen the movie “Milk”, which tells the life story of Harvey Milk, the homosexual mayor of California, knows that San Francisco is the first place in the world to recognize homosexuals and grant them rights and freedoms. The Castro region is the movie’s location and is a fascinating neighborhood full of colorful buildings and streets with a high percentage of homosexuals. Even the pedestrian crossings are colorful. Every year, the world’s largest traditional gay pride parade and celebration is held here. This colorful place is not to be missed if you’re a keen photographer.

We’ve looked at all the major attractions in the city center so now let’s go a little further afield. Alcatraz Island, home to the harsh prison that features in several movies and where notorious criminals such as Al Capone were incarcerated, is a must-see. First opened in 1861, the prison was decommissioned in 1963 and is now a museum. You can buy night or day tickets from several travel agents and wander around listening to the interesting tales of escape by the convicts. The convicts who escaped from the prison were either torn to pieces by sharks or died of hypothermia before they reached the coast. The island, which you can see from almost any hill overlooking the sea in San Francisco, still has an eerie and mysterious look on account of its history.

What about spending a sunny weekend in a pleasant town on the seaside? If this is your kind of thing, take the ferry or bus from the Ferry Pier and go to Sausalito across the Golden Gate Bridge. This is a wonderful holiday town surrounded by beautiful houses. There are restaurants on the seafront, cafés, and boutiques selling souvenirs in the center. The seafood restaurants are especially famous. And, if you have a car, you must go to Muir Woods and take a stroll among the immense Californian redwood trees. Some of these trees are the width of a room and look as if they could pierce a hole in the sky! There are organized trips to these woods but they may prove a little expensive. You can pay $70 for a tour whereas the parking fee is normally $7.

If you still have time, visit Oakland, Jack London’s hometown. You can get there from San Francisco by train, bus or ferry in 1-1.5 hours. A small industrial town, it still has much to recommend it. Go to the sea front, look at the world through Jack London’s eyes from Jack London Square and try to imagine why the author who lived in misery for all his life committed suicide when he finally became famous.

As shopping and outlets have become a tradition in the US, let me give you some information on this aspect. First of all, there are no Premium Outlets in the city center or the area around San Francisco. The closest one is in Livermore which is 2 hours away. Apart from the outlets, the city center offers any number of big-name stores. You can buy famous brand products at budget prices at Marshalls and Ross on Market Street in the Union Square neighborhood. For general needs, you’ll find Walgreens and Rite Aid stores almost anywhere.

Have a good holiday.

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Özlem Şakiroğlu


Bahar Sinem Özkesici Ünal