A quiet day in San Francisco

Today was Memorial Day across the US. In my mind this is something similar to Anzac Day in Australia, which means a lot of places are closed for the day. Earlier in my trip I had thought it would be a good day for Alcatraz, but unfortunately I left it too late to book and there weren’t any tickets left. Instead, I decided to check out a few places and just see what was open. It was an overcast morning which, combined with the public holiday, made for a quiet and sleepy day in San Francisco.

For breakfast I went back to Kate’s Kitchen, the cafe that had a wait the day before. I was hoping that, being a Monday, there would be no queue this morning. When I arrived there were a couple of people waiting out the front, but I added my name to the list anyway and about 5 minutes later I was seated. Something I found in general was that when you’re by yourself it’s a lot easier to get into places!

It was a cute little cafe, with quite a homey feel. I had a short stack of pancakes and a coffee, and was sooo full by the end that I was glad I didn’t get the tall stack! It was only two pancakes, but they covered the whole dinner plate and were super thick. They were covered in bananas, walnuts and maple syrup and while I was eating, the waitress came over and refilled my coffee as well, so I had more than enough to eat and drink.

A traffic box, painted to fit in with the scenery

After breaky, I wandered down to the Castro District. The day before, the lady in the hotel had asked if I’d been down there so I thought I should check it out. The Castro Theatre, a cinema built in the 1920s, is on the main street. It was closed when I was there so I couldn’t go in, but it was a beautiful old building from the outside. There are also a lot of shops and cafes and it was quite a pretty strip. If I hadn’t already had breaky, it would’ve been a good place to stop and eat. I spent a little while walking around, then made my way back to Market Street and caught the street car to Downtown.

Castro Theatre
Castro Theatre

I got off the street car near City Hall, wanting to check out the building. I had also read that there are free tours every couple of hours, so I was hoping to join one of them if I was there at the right time. Unfortunately when I got there it was closed because of the public holiday. I walked around the gardens, where there was a small group of people gathered seeking signatures for a petition.

City Hall
City Hall

From there I walked around the back of City Hall to the San Francisco Opera. Given City Hall was closed, I didn’t really expect to get in here either, but wanted to take a look since I was so close. As expected, the building was closed except for the ticket box. While I was there, I found a perfect place to take a photo – I cast iron gate with lots of places to hang a camera!

City Hall, taken from the gates of the Opera House
City Hall, taken from the gates of the Opera House

My next destination was Chinatown. I was a few blocks away from the street car, so I thought I’d just walk there. I started along Golden Gate Avenue, and as I walked there were more and more homeless people on the street, and places offering quick loans and housing support attracting some unsavoury looking people. I didn’t feel very safe, so turned the next corner back towards Market Street. Once there I decided to keep walking rather than waiting for the street car. It’s quite flat along there, so it wasn’t really a problem – until it started raining.

I went into the a shopping centre for shelter, and found a cafe where I stopped for a coffee until the rain started to clear. I had packed my umbrella, but didn’t really feel like walking in the rain.

Once it stopped raining, I walked up the main street through Union Square and on to Chinatown. As I went past the cable car stop I saw the queue was even longer than the day before. It made me realise that I had done really well to go to the stop further down the road to avoid the queue.

San Francisco has a strong Chinese past, with many Chinese migrants arriving in the 1850s during the California Gold Rush. As such, the Chinatown area is very large, the main strip stretching 5-6 blocks along Grant Avenue.

China Town gate
China Town gate

I walked through the gates, and browsed some of the shops. There were a lot of places selling wood and stone carvings – some were very small carvings, while others were larger statues and decorations. There was some amazing work, particularly the wood carvings. There were also a lot of souvenir shops selling postcards, key rings and cheap tshirts. I bought a couple of post cards, then continued onwards.

There was a short walking tour in Lonely Planet, so I was roughly following that and another walking tour from the Trip Advisor app on my phone. Between the two I found quite a few things to look at. I walked through Old St Mary’s Square where homeless people slept by the playground, and on to the Chinese Historical Society Museum…which is only open from 12-5pm Tuesday to Saturday.

Chinese lanterns hanging over the street
Chinese lanterns hanging over the street

Around the corner from there was Ross Alley which, according to Lonely Planet, featured in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom! I don’t really remember the laneway from the film, and should probably watch it again, but it was very narrow with balcony’s looking out from apartments. There were clothes hanging from windows and balcony railings, and kitchen noises and smells coming from restaurants backing onto the laneway.

As I walked along, a man came up to me and said “hello” then asked where I was from. I told him Australia, then he asked if I knew a few people. I hadn’t heard of any of them, and according to him they were Nobel Prize winners from Australia and other people he assumed, as an Australian, I should know. Apparently he used to be a teacher which was why he knew of these people. He asked if I’d been to the fortune cookie factory (I hadn’t, but that’s where I was heading) then told me there was a great bakery around the corner.

I thanked him for telling me about it, then he said, “I’ll take you there now.” I didn’t really know how to get rid of him, so figured I might as well follow him to the end of the laneway and see how far the bakery was. I felt quite safe because there were other people around, including a few other tourists. It turned out the bakery was only a couple of shops away, so I stopped in a bought a really yummy coconut bun. The lady gave me two for a dollar, so I gave the second to the man. After that I told him I was heading back to the fortune cookie shop, and we said good bye.

Back in the laneway I popped into the factory which is a narrow building with three or four workers making fortune cookies. There were bags of cookies for sale on the wall, and another man was giving free samples of wafers that hadn’t been folded into fortune cookies. It was really interesting to watch the lady folding the cookies as quickly as the  big rotating wafer press was baking the wafers. In the few minutes I was watching she probably folded a full tray of cookies. I took a sample, then continued on my way.

A worker folds hot wafers into fortune cookies
A worker folds hot wafers into fortune cookies at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie factory

It was time for lunch at that point, so I found a Vietnamese restaurant and had a really yummy beef ball pho. It was a typical good value family restaurant, and reminded me of some of the cheaper Asian restaurants back home. I was really happy with my choice!

A few blocks from Chinatown is the Cable Car Museum. It’s actually located in the powerhouse which powers all the cables across the city. The car barn is also next door, where the cable cars are stored when not in use.

It was a great little museum, with information about the history of cable cars and how they work. Apparently, before the cable car there were horse drawn carts which were used to transport people in San Francisco. One day, while going up one of the steep hills a carriage rolled backwards down the hill dragging the horses to their death. After witnessing this the inventor of the San Francisco cable car came up with the idea as an alternative to horse drawn carriages. There’s more information about it on the museum’s website, along with some details on how the cable cars work.

Cable car powerhouse
Massive pulleys power the San Francisco cable car network

Below the museum you can see the massive pulleys which power the cables. There are four different cable car routes in the city, and each of them has a set of wheels in the powerhouse to pull the cable. The cables run under the road between the cable car tracks, and the cable car operator uses a lever to grip onto the cable and pull the cars along. It was really fascinating to see how it all works, and very impressive to think there are hundreds of miles of cable under the ground powered by just these four sets of wheels pulling the 26 cars on the network.

After that I decided to catch the cable car from just around the corner to get up the hill to Lombard Street. Lombard Street is quite well known because it’s so steep that the road zig zags down to the bottom to lessen the incline. Unfortunately I had to wait almost 45 minutes for the next cable car. I think something had happened further up the line because they’re supposed to come through about every 10 minutes. There were a couple of people waiting at the stop, and a few left to find alternative transport. Just as I’d given up and decided to walk down to the street cars, the cable car came! I was at the next stop so just waited there for the car, then jumped on board.

I was really glad to get the cable car because there were some great views looking out over the hills towards the water (also, the street car would only have taken me closer to the hill, not to the top). At each intersection I could see between the buildings and get a glimpse of the ocean, or the bridge, or rolling hills covered with small town houses. It was a really good ride.

I got off at Lombard Street, along with almost everyone else on the cable car. At the top of the hill there were police directing traffic because there were so many people wanting to drive down the street! It was really quite funny because people were stopping halfway down to take photos, and the police were yelling down the hill for people to keep moving. Others had their cameras out filming their descent. The street is lined with houses, and I’m not sure how the residents manage the traffic and flow of people that no doubt continue all day every day.

At the top of Lombard Street
At the top of Lombard Street

Before heading down the hill, I walked around the corner to George Sterling Park, where Lonely Planet said there were great views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Given the weather I wasn’t hoping for much, but wanted to check it out since I was so close. As I expected I couldn’t see out to the bridge, but I can see how it would be a great lookout on a clear day.

I went back to Lombard Street and made my way down the windy street. It’s really beautiful, with hydrangeas planted in each of the bends and a neat hedge lining the footpath. The houses are nice too, each 2-3 storeys with amazing views. At the bottom of the hill another group of police officers were directing traffic. It’s a one way street which helps to manage it, but with all the cars going down there’s a constant flow of traffic.

Looking back up Lombard Street
Looking back up Lombard Street

I made my wait to Coit Tower after that, stopping in briefly at the Art Institute along the way. There wasn’t a lot to see at the Art Institute, with a small local exhibit on display showing artwork produced by disadvantaged kids.

Coit Tower is on top of Telegraph Hill, which is very steep! There’s no street car so I had to walk it and towards the top there were about 50 narrow steps to get up to the tower. The tower is named after Lillian Coit who left some of her estate to San Francisco to beautify the city. The tower was built with her money.

Coit Tower
Coit Tower

You can catch a lift to the top of the tower, but since it was so foggy and cloudy there wasn’t much point in buying a ticket. Inside the base of the tower are murals depicting San Francisco workers back in the 1930s, including office workers, construction workers and farmers. They were very interesting paintings stretching right around the walls.

View from Coit Tower
View from Coit Tower

I wasn’t far from the water, so I thought it could be worth heading to the pier for dinner before going back to the hotel. I looked up directions on my phone and followed the map, only to find that it was taking me down a really narrow path with lots of stairs along the back of what seemed like houses and apartments. It was really bushy and I worried that I’d end up in someone’s backyard or have to turn around and go all the way back. Fortunately after almost 10 minutes of stairs and downhill paths I came out at the end of a dead-end street behind some shops (probably not an ideal location, but definitely better that someone’s yard!).

The windy path from Coit Tower
The windy path from Coit Tower

At that point, it started to rain and it was about 6.30pm and beginning to get dark. Being a public holiday all the shops nearby were closed, and with the rain I didn’t want to walk over to the pier, especially since I’d have a chance to go there after Alcatraz the next day. Instead, I waited at the street car stop (I was back on Route F!) and went back to the hotel. I went upstairs to drop off my things, then went back out to find somewhere for dinner. I found a restaurant called Chaz Maman and got a seat at the bar where I ordered a delicious veal with creamy mushroom sauce. It was a really nice meal, and the barman was quite friendly, having a chat with me while I waited for my food.

After that I made my way back to the hotel, quite ready for bed. It had been a relaxing day, but there had been a lot of walking so I was pretty tired.

Posted from San Francisco, California, United States.

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