With a daily direct flight connecting Victoria and San Francisco, the Californian city is an easy long weekend jaunt for West Coasters, even without the draw of the Super Bowl next Sunday.
Cheap seats for the 50th Super Bowl are about $3,200 US each, or you could splurge on a $500,000 luxury box to watch Peyton Manning’s Broncos take on Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers.
No U.S. football game is complete without the traditional pregame tailgate party outside the stadium. Forget the usual hibachis cooking up hot dogs, though: at this Super Bowl, you can fill up at steak sandwich stations or on whole hogs roasted overnight, a mac and cheese bar, meatballs a dozen different ways, and finish off with doughnut bread pudding with brown butter bacon bourbon glaze. The Food Network’s Guy Fieri and Fox sportscaster Erin Andrews host this little shindig, which costs $700 a ticket.
Or you could skip the football madness and explore some of San Francisco’s distinctive neighbourhoods, most just an onside kick away from downtown.
Here are a few that are accessible by public transportation (cable car to some, buses and metro to most) or by foot if you’re a walker. (Remember the hills. Those scenes of airborne vehicles in The Streets of San Francisco weren’t exaggerated.)
Each has its own culture, ambience and San Francisco flavour.
The Ferry Building (especially on market days)
San Francisco is a foodie city and nowhere is that more apparent than at the Ferry Building, especially when the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is on. (The main market is Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., with smaller markets Tuesday and Thursday from10 a.m. to 2 p.m. ferrybuildingmarketplace.com)
Here, Michelin-starred chefs and browsers stand side by side, tasting the bounty provided by the Bay area’s farmers, bakers, butchers, cheese makers, vintners, beekeepers, walnut growers — you name it.
If it’s tasty, it’s here. Samples are generous too, so even if you’re in a hotel with no place for produce, take a sample of Oro blancos. It tastes like a mix of the perfect orange and grapefruit. I know a Seattle chef who loads up his suitcase with these.
The Ferry Building, on the Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street, is itself a great place to wander, even if you’re not a foodie and even on non-market days. (San Francisco has as many rainy days as Victoria.)
It originally opened in 1898, a grand building with repeating interior arches and a clock tower mimicking one in Seville, Spain. The building survived two earthquakes (1906 and 1989), but was long neglected until it was refurbished in 2003, after the 1989 quake caused extensive damage to the Embarcadero Freeway that had cut the waterfront and the building off from the city.
The building’s nave is now lined with shops, cafés, restaurants of all shapes and sizes, specialty grocers and a nicely curated bookstore, Book Passage.
It’s all on the waterfront and a fine place to stare out at the ocean and the Bay Bridge as you taste your way through local cuisine.
Tips: Don’t miss Humphry Slocombe (humphryslocombe.com). This gourmet ice cream shop is named after the two lead characters (Mr. Humphries and Mrs. Slocombe) from the 1970s sitcom Are You Being Served? The owners’ sense of play extends to the flavours (The Secret Breakfast features bourbon and homemade cornflakes; their homemade root beer has rich undertones of ginger and sassafrass), but they’re very serious about taste and quality. It’s smooth, creative and the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted.
Plus, they’re very generous with their tasters.
The Slanted Door (slanteddoor.com) often requires a reservation but a seat at the bar — where you can enjoy the signature claypot chicken or shaking beef — is usually only a short wait. Nice view of the water and also an extensive vegetarian menu.
The Mission District
It’s only in the last few years that La Victoria Panaderia, a 60-year-old family bakery in the Mission District, started having to put descriptive names on their pan dulce. Before that, longtime customers knew the cakes and pastries from their own childhoods or years in the affordable and largely Latin American neighbourhood.
But the Mission district is in flux, with many families and small businesses squeezed out as the area gentrifies. The demand driving prices up (a studio without a dishwasher rents for about $3,000 a month) comes from people who aren’t necessarily looking for big houses or fancy condos. Rather, they love the diversity of the area’s culture and dining, the easy access to public transportation and the nearby green space in Dolores Park.
La Victoria now rents out some of its roomy corner space on 24th Street to pop-up restaurants, and the recipe for their moist macaroons has been written up in Food and Wine magazine as the family business tries to stay true to its roots but evolve in the changing community.
Seeing and learning about this is part of what makes a day in the Mission District so fascinating. It can be apparent as you wander the neighbourhood. Small taquerias on the more traditional 24th Street give way to places like the tasty and trendy Tartine Bakery, with its artisanal breads and hour-long line-ups, within a few blocks. And the Mission now has more restaurants per capita than any other neighbourhood in all of restaurant-rich San Francisco.
But an excellent way to see and understand the changing neighbourhood — and have top-notch food without waiting in any lineups — is via a guided walking and eating tour.
I went with Edible Excursions (www.edibleexcursions.net), which offers three-hour walks in numerous San Francisco neighbourhoods. The walk in the Mission, with its diversity of food and culture, was well worth the $99. We stopped at seven restaurants to taste food ranging from huarache at La Palma Mexicatessen, which grinds its own corn to make fresh masa for its revered tortillas, to house-made pastrami at Wise Sons Deli. Our extremely knowledgeable guide Emunah had us talking to chefs and owners, peering into kitchens and finding out secret ingredients. She shared her extensive knowledge about the history, culture and food of the Mission, and also her insider tips to the ‘hood.
We ended the walk with full stomachs and a much more full appreciation of what is going on in a neighbourhood and community that might not have been readily apparent.
The tour also included a half-hour tour of Balmy Alley, home of some of the Mission’s hundreds of murals. Many of the Mission District’s buildings and alleyways are canvases for these vibrant works of art that cover themes from cultural heritage to pointed social political statements. Edible Excursions works with Mission-based volunteer organization Precita Eyes (precitaeyes.org), which provided the tour and offers many detailed mural tour options.
Tips: Be sure to walk along 24th Street and pop into any one of the many taquerias, bakeries and Mexican folk art shops still existing alongside new restaurants that are trying to retain the culture of the street. It still feels like a real neighbourhood, with kids on trikes and elderly men and women sitting on benches. You’ll hear far more Spanish than English. The burrito was actually invented in the Mission.
Head up to Mission and Valencia streets. Mission is a big city street, with shops jammed into every nook and cranny. Valencia shows more of the gentrification. Auto body shops have morphed into hipster bars, restaurants, galleries or retro clothing stores.
Head up 18th Street toward the Mission Dolores and the Mission Dolores Park. Tartine (www.tartinebakery.com) at 600 Guerrero St. has attained near cult status for its bread and pastries. Pizzeria Delfina (pizzeriadelfina.com) is just up 18th and known for its pies. But on a nice day, pop into Bi-Rite Market (biritemarket.com) on the same block and assemble a picnic to share in Mission Dolores Park (www.sfrecpark.org/destination/mission-dolores-park), a block away. Lovely green space with great views of the city.
Top it off with a visit to Mission Dolores (missiondolores.org), the oldest original intact mission in California. Alfred Hitchcock also used it as the location of Carlotta Valdes’s grave in Vertigo.
A Saturday morning walk along the water at the foot of Fillmore Street is my best of all travel worlds: you’re gazing out at all the touristy things that make San Francisco beautiful in an atmosphere that feels like you’re a local.
To the left of you is the Golden Gate Bridge, across the bay is Sausalito and to the right is Alcatraz, looking a lot closer and a lot prettier than all the movies made it out to be.
This is the Marina District, northwest of the city centre with easy bus connections.
Beside you are San Franciscans running, playing with their dogs and drinking San Francisco’s java of choice, Philz Coffee (philzcoffee.com), from the nearby truck. To the right is the Fort Mason Centre for Arts and Culture (fortmason.org) with theatre, dance, art, music and food. Further along the waterfront to the left are the Palace of Fine Arts and the Presidio, a former military base that is now a park (six square kilometres).
If you’re feeling a bit ambitious, rent a bike and head across the Golden Gate Bridge (more rust-coloured). There are numerous bike rental companies that provide all the gear and it’s a relatively easy ride (remember, it’s San Francisco. Even the bridge feels a bit hilly). Have lunch in the affluent and pretty Sausalito before taking the Golden Gate Ferry back. (goldengateferry.org). The half-hour trip provides arguably the best view you’ll get of San Francisco, taking you to the Ferry Building with its bus and trolley public transportation connections out front.
The Marina District’s Chestnut Street is six blocks of local mixed with chain stores. It’s pricey but still feels like a neighbhourhood, with — you guessed it — a lot of great restaurants.
U2 ate dinner at A16 (a16sf.com) after their San Francisco concert, enjoying the high-end Italian food.
Pacific Catch (pacificcatch.com) is casual, with excellent fresh fish.
Tips: Oddly enough, some of San Francisco’s most affordable accommodations are nearby. Chestnut Street parallels Lombard Avenue, the home of motor motels. There’s a range of motels along this strip and several provide good value. Check out the Coventry Motor Inn (coventrymotorinn.com), which has a few properties in the area for clean, relatively affordable rooms near great areas. And the parking is free.
IF YOU GO
San Francisco’s official visitor website, sanfrancisco.travel, provides comprehensive information on everything from hotels to under-the-radar activities. It is an excellent resource for trip planning.
• Walking tours are a terrific way to learn about a city. San Francisco City Guides (sfcityguides.org) does them extremely well. About 200 trained volunteers lead two-hour tours on everything from Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco to touring City Hall (a stunning building) to hiking in Glen Canyon Park. There are 30 themes. Tours run all year and are free. Any tips paid to the guides go to the San Francisco Public Library.
Guided walks are a fun way to meet people if you’re travelling alone.
Our guide noticed a large increase in locals taking the tours after an article suggested they were a good place to meet that special someone.
• A three-day muni pass for $31 US or a seven-day pass for $40 are good value if you use public transportation. It’s good for public buses ($2.25) and the cable cars ($7 a ride.) (sfmta.com/getting-around/transit/fares-passes/visitor-day-passes)
• The Official San Francisco Visitor Planning Guide gives a good overview of what is happening in the city. (guides.milespartnership.com/sf/vpg/current/)
Kim Westad is a former Times Colonist reporter and freelance writer based in Victoria.