Saturday, October 13, 2012

San Francisco

Hello from San Francisco, California! I flew from JFK airport direct to the San Francisco via Jet Blue with my parents. After the long six hour flight, we were ready to get into the city (especially since Jet Blue doesn't have any real food, just junk food! Yuck!). We dropped off our bags at the Hilton and headed straight to China Town. It is exactly how you would imagine it- tacky, touristy, and not terribly Chinese. However, it's famous in San Francisco, so it's a must on your first trip there. There are a lot of junky shops, but my mom and I were hungry, so we stopped in a restaurant that had a teeny-tiny balcony, just enough space for a two person table. It was nice to sit in the sun and have some steamed dumplings, spring rolls, and a Thai iced tea.

 Afterwards, we headed to the Top of the Mark, a swanky bar/restaurant on top of a famous hotel. The building is a skyscraper on top of a hill, so the restaurant has a spectacular 360 view of the city. It's very pricey, but for one drink you can have a seat by the windows facing the sunset. They are also famous for having a cocktail list of 100 different martinis. I had the California Sun: Smirnoff Orange, Cointreau, lime, and a splash of cranberry. Delicious!
California Sun

The view from the Top of the Mark

That night we went to dinner at the Trattoria Contadina, a delicious Italian restaurant. The pasta is fresh and delicious! Everything on the menu is excellent. It's a very small place, so you need a reservation!

The next day my mom and I went to Alcatraz. Going to Alcatraz is pretty pricey ($30/person), however it's a must-see if you're going to be in SF. The ticket includes a free 15 minute video by the Discovery Channel going over the history of the Rock (as it's famously called) as well as a 45 minute audio guide tour of the prison. The video is worth it- see it before seeing the rest of the island. Then, head up to the prison. On the way, keep an eye open on your right for a self-guided tour brochure (I'll go over that in a second). The audio guide to the prison is great. It walks you through the entire prison going over the history that occurred in the very spot you're standing in and it includes real voices of former inmates and guards. Quotes and information are sprinkled throughout; cells and offices are decorated to look as they did when they were occupied.

During our visit, we were lucky enough to be there when they were having a guest lecturer in the dining hall of the prison. Mark Brown, author of Capone, gave a talk on Al Capone, one of Alcatraz's most famous inmates. I learned many interesting things: Al Capone played the mandolin and wrote music in Alcatraz; when he was a prisoner in Atlanta, J. Edgar Hoover himself investigated allegations that Capone was able to smuggle in drugs and money to the prison (no proof was ever found); Capone received hundreds of letters and presents, though he was only allowed to receive mail from designated friends and family, so most of the letters were burned and the presents were donated to charity without his knowing it; Capone was cited as a good worker while in Alcatraz and worked in the library; while in Alcatraz, just months before finishing his sentence in Alcatraz, Syphilis hit Capone's nervous system, causing him to go insane; doctors treated his Syphilis by giving him malaria, which nearly killed him; because of his mental instability, it is believed that he was brought to serve his final year in prison (for a charge of contempt of court) at Terminal Island wearing a straight jacket.

As I mentioned, grab the brochure. It provides you with a walking tour map and descriptions, following along the different gardens on the island. What's amazing is that before Alcatraz was used by humans, it really was just a rock with no plant life whatsoever. Now, it is full of trees, plants, flowers, and shrubs. The gardens are quite beautiful and at one time were started and maintained by the prisoners. When you do the self-guided tour, it takes you around the prison and to finish up you cross into the recreation field. Here you can see the baseball field and stadium seating that the prisoners could hang out in; at the top of the stadium seating they could actually see San Francisco.
The view from the Recreation Field

A cell

Mark Brown's lecture

A rose garden below the prison overlooking the bay
Two hours later, we headed back to the mainland and over a few blocks to Pier 39. Pier 39 is a tourist spot with shops and restaurants, a view of Alcatraz, and a spot where tons of sea lions lay in the sun. The pier looks like it's right out of Disney, with colorful signs featuring different themed shops and restaurants vying for tourists' attention. Since it was the middle of the week and the middle of the day (3pm), we were able to snag a spot at the Seal Cafe/Neptune's Restaurant, a large restaurant with floor to ceiling windows. It's expensive, but well worth the view if you get there at an off-time like we did (or if you're lucky at other times). We had the back left corner window, meaning that we had a beautiful view of Alcatraz to our left and the sunning seals to our right. The food was also good, albeit very expensive. We had the seafood bisque and the Neptune's salmon fish & chips, both of which were delicious.
The seals


That night we went to the Clock Bar in the Westin St. Francis hotel for some fancy cocktails. I would highly suggest to the ladies to get the Tequila Mockingbird cocktail. Afterwards, we headed to La Mar, a Peruvian restaurant that apparently can be found in NY and South America as well. They had amazing seafood, particularly the cheviche, and empanadas. It’s located in a restored pier building, which makes it a historical landmark and gives it an urban chic look. 

The next day we headed to the Haight-Ashbury, which is an interesting neighborhood today. Famous for being a center for gay sociopolitical history in the US, emblemized by the film Milk, today it is a combination of touristy and counter-culture. The many quirky shops and boutiques reminded me a bit of St. Marks in NYC. Walking down towards the Golden Gate Park, you'll pass many cool shops and cafes- be sure to stop in!

Walking towards the park at the end that is similar to Central Park, you'll find a lot of young, dirty hippies, what we call in New York "wookies" or "wooks." They lay around at the front law of the park, playing music and lounging in packs in their dirty blankets with their long, messy dreads, hairy bodies, and scary looking dogs. It could be quite an intimidating scene for those of us from other regions of the country who don't always see this side of life. However, just walk on by. They're not looking to cause trouble, just to renounce worldly possessions and enjoy a simple, semi-communal life without "normal" shelter.

In Golden Gate Park
This rectangular portion of Golden Gate Park is part of Golden Gate National Park, which is the largest urban national park in the country and two and a half times the size of San Francisco. Golden Gate Park is a really awesome part of San Fran. There is an art museum, science museum, monuments, beautiful nature walks, a Japanese tea garden, and more. We hit up the De Young art museum, which was having two exhibitions. 

One was the Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance, which was an amazing highlight of the famous male ballet dancer. There were unbelievably gorgeous costumes on display, with video to boot. Plus, we happened to just arrive as they were beginning a free tour, so we go to hear a little bit about the context of the different opulent costumes. One of the best displays is a whole wall with tons of different female costumes from a ballet he was in, but they were lightly veiled by a screen that had video from the ballet being artistically projected onto it. Unbelievable. 

The other special exhibition was titled A Taste for Modernism. It's a selection of major works from the William S. Paley Collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Paley was a founder of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), but also a dedicated philanthropist and patron of the arts and purchased the foreign works despite their lack of popularity here in the US at the time. "Particularly strong in French Post-Impressionism and Modernism, the collection includes multiple works by Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, as well as significant works by Edgar Degas, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, Andre Derain, Georges Rouault and artists of the Nabis School such as Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard." I personally love post-impressionism and it was nice to have this collection highlighted (I may have already seen it in New York, but don't remember it by it's collector!). The extra cost ($20 total) for these special collections was well worth it.

Afterwards, we headed to the Japanese Tea Garden. Around 1894, the World's Fair was held in Golden Gate Park. The Japanese Tea Garden was thus built for the Fair and still stands today. For $7 you can see the decently sized and well cared for gardens. There are beautiful examples of miniature trimmed trees, waterfalls, and Japanese structures. There is also an area where you can purchase tea (slightly overpriced and nothing fancy, but on a cold day can definitely be worth it!).

Since we were freezing, we headed back to the hotel to rest. That night we went to an Asian fusion restaurant called The House. The appetizers were delicious and more "traditional" Asian food (dumplings, salmon rolls... and oysters!), while the main course had a lot of fish and red meat (vegetarians be warned: not much selection here). They had a nice beer list and I was able to have Chimay, a great Belgian beer I used to love to drink when I was living in France. Afterwards, we hit up the 150 year old bar just across the street, called The Saloon. The bar itself has a beautiful wood facade and there are some gorgeous stained glass windows as well. They were bumping with live blue grass and blues and the drinks were strong and cheap. I would definitely recommend a stop here!

Up next: Redwoods and wine!

PS: Please let me know what you think of the new look to the blog!