San Francisco: Vintage yet Vibrant

/ San Francisco
San Francisco: Vintage yet Vibrant

Cable Car on Hyde Street with Alcatraz in the background (Photo: San Francisco Travel Association)

A vibrant and unique city on the West Coast of United States, San Francisco is a delight, not just for the first-time tourists, but also for the repeat visitors.
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Over the last few years, I have been to San Francisco thrice, with March 2023 being my latest visit. And, I will always be ready and eager for many more meetings with this ‘city by the bay’ for the rare charm it holds, which makes it one of the unique cities of the world. Interestingly, each of my arrivals into San Francisco has been on a bus from Sacramento, the capital of California and hence everytime my first glimpse of the city came to me through the windows of the Greyhound entering the city through the magnificent bay bridge, presenting San Francisco’s skyline instantly, including its historic Fisherman’s Wharf building and its large water front.

The lively Pier 39 (Photo: San Francisco Travel Association)

As most of the city is settled on different hills, the streets in most parts of the city rise sharply or tumble suddenly, with the bay appearing and disappearing frequently. Even though geologically, it may be similar to a few other American cities like Seattle which is also rather hilly, what sets San Francisco distinct and unique is its vintage architecture, brightly coloured homes, built predominantly in Victorian style. Strolling down its streets or even passing through them on its famed trams or cable cars, as the locals call them, I have often wondered if I were not really in an amusement park?

The cable cars are almost as famous as any other attraction in the city and they have regularly featured in many hit Hollywood movies for decades and no visit to San Francisco can be complete without a ride in these. It is said to be the last manually operated cable car system in the world, which surprisingly, still operates exactly as it did on August 2, 1873, when its chief engineer, Andrew Hallidie, a British immigrant, showed the way to the first car down the Clay Street.

Palace Hotel’s museum and the Garden Court (Photo: Rameshinder Singh Sandhu)

Once they ran all over the city. However, today the service is through three lines, which pass through the liveliest neighbourhoods, taking in some of the most scenic routes, offering some enthralling bird eye views. The routes also end up covering the most popular points, be it Lombard Street with many hairpin turns or the museum dedicated to the cable cars on Mason Street, which is free to visit and is closed on Mondays. It is a practical museum, as it is also the operational nerve centre of cable cars, where so much engineering goes on all the time, besides being home of pictures, history and some of the earliest cable cars.

Unlike the trams that are powered through cables above them, the cable cars in San Francisco are powered through the cable under the street, and one can clearly hear it moving while standing next to the tracks. Once these cars were pulled by horses but as they struggled, especially when going uphill, it led Hallidie to come up with the idea of powering them through electricity, leading to today’s cable cars.

Golden Gate Bridge (Photo: San Francisco Travel Association)

The cable cars are not just means of transportation or sightseeing. They are also great places to meet people as I have found on each of my trips, that cost USD 8 per ride.

Just like any where else in the world, walking is yet another great way to tour the city. One of my best experiences here was walking to Lombard Street. On my way up to the street, I was advised to take a break in front of painted ladies, as the locals call the colourful row of homes built in Victorian and Edwardian styles. “There’s a park in front which will also introduce you to San Francisco’s skyline,” I was told. I was glad of the directions and the guidance as both the sites presented picture perfect views. Joining several visitors and locals, carrying picnic baskets, I lounged there for nearly two hours.

Lombard Street’s most crooked block between Hyde and Leavenworth streets present yet another magnificent view. The street, within 200 m, has eight hairpin bends. It is so unique and charming that it is frequently featured in films. True enough, walking along, I saw a public notice about a film shoot that was going to be held there and it duly apologised to the residents for the inconvenience.

I came across film shooting notices also on the tables of the iconic Garden Court, an all-day restaurant and café at the historic Palace, a San Franciscan landmark on Montgomery and Market Streets.

Opened in 1909, it is considered as one of the most beautiful public places in the world. Its large glass ceiling was created with 72,000 individual pieces of glass and its chandeliers boast the finest Austrian crystal. I was so captivated instantaneously that I decided to have a coffee at the Garden Court to capture an indelible memory of the stunning site. The Palace is now run as a luxury hotel, part of Luxury Collection Hotels group.

“We keep getting film crews and they never want to miss the Garden Court,” a waitress told me, with a slight hint of an Italian accent. “To get to know the history of the hotel, you should visit our museum in the lobby,” she added.

After my coffee, I decided to take her advice and went to the lobby where pictures, old advertisements, menus, old keys, and many historical facts told me so much more about this fascinating place. Since 1975 there have been 19 US Presidents that have visited the Palace and 13 of them stayed for the night in the Presidential Suite. Many celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin and Frank Sinatra have also been here.

The painted ladies are a major attraction (Photo: San Francisco Travel Association)

As the film shooting was scheduled the following day, I returned to the Palace the next day for another cup of coffee. The crew was already set up, with several cameras, lights and other gizmos. But instead of a big film, it was a documentary on famous hotels around the world. Nonetheless, I was thrilled to be part of the actors and we were told to be natural and not look at the cameras.

After the film shoot, I went straight to the water front, a short walk away. My destination was Pier 39, which is truly San Francisco’s Times Square. It is also from where ferries leave for Alcatraz prison and sea lions are its most famous residents, which started arriving here after the earthquake in 1989 and now it is their permanent home. On every trip, I make it a point to visit this site for its festive spirit, where one can shop, dine, take rides, and enjoy an array of street performances.

Next on my itinerary was the Golden Gate Park, which is spread across several acres and home to many museums and gardens. Finally, I reached the most famous landmark of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge. It looked even more magnificent than in the numerous films where it has been featured. The bridge has a pathway for pedestrians and cyclists and I would not have missed the walk for anything. From high above there, with a strong wind blowing, I looked down occasionally, to see huge container ships, ferrying

goods all the way across the Pacific Ocean, perhaps from China. There is a small museum about the bridge and its history and it has interesting tidbits of information. For instance, I was surprised to learn that it was a bridge that almost never got completed due to the inclement weather. After a four-year struggle, the bridge did finally open in 1937 and I can say the world remains thankful for that till date.


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