architecture everywhere

If you thought the sweeping views from San Francisco’s many hills and peaks were impressive, just take a look at the city itself from afar.  Whether you are coming in off the mighty Golden Gate (see below) or the Bay Bridge, we argue there is no other urban skyline in the entire United States that captures such magic.  Aside from the fog, and the aforementioned hills, you can blame most of that inimitability on a series of manmade structures:  from William Pereira’s unforgettable TransAmerica pyramid to the fire-hose structure of Coit Tower (see below) to the spritely red-and-white striped Sutro Tower that serves as your compass no matter where you are in town.

And yet, there’s much more to this architectural story once you get out your magnifying glass.  Meander through any of the city’s diverse pocket neighborhoods, and you’ll be treated to a delicious mélange of styles and flourishes bold enough to impress even the most jaded of connoisseurs.

We’ll start with the obvious.  Fog City has long been known for its high concentration of regal Victorian homes.  Their beloved status and, in some neighborhoods, dominance is perhaps an emotional response to the tremendous loss the city suffered in the wake of the 1906 earthquake and fire.  Luckily, many of the historic homes in the southern and western neighborhoods of the city were spared from destruction, with some of the most interesting gems dating all the way back to the “Gold Rush” 1850s! 

Those interested in all things gingerbread will probably be swayed to first hit up Alamo Square, and its iconic “Painted Ladies.”  We agree that the view from this park out toward the Financial District is impressive, through the detailing on the famous row of six identical houses?  Not so much.  For a better diet of intricacy, high-tail it up through the Castro and into Noe Valley, where the lion’s share of Victorian homes still remain. (Liberty Street makes for a nice start of your walking tour.)  Be on the lookout for some of the more garish displays of Victorian affection.  The colorful abode at 540 Clipper comes to mind.  (“Oh, no they didn’t!”)

Elsewhere in the city, we adore the grandeur of the Belle Époque flat at 1347 McAllister Street in the Western Addition.  And we bet Queen Anne enthusiasts will froth at the mouth when visiting the Haas-Lilienthal House, originally designed in 1886 by Peter Schmidt.  This gabled manse (listed on the US National Register of Historic Places) operates as a museum for the San Francisco Architectural Heritage society.  You can photograph that splendid “witches cap” roof while traipsing through the Pacific Heights ‘hood.

After the 1906 earthquake, rebuilding of San Francisco began almost immediately.  By 1915, the city was back on its feet, and better than ever, playing host to the entire world at the Pan-Pacific International Expo (see “Palace of Fine Arts” below for more information)!  From this date on, San Francisco welcomed a number of more modern building styles, from Art Deco all the way up to Contemporary.  Some of our other favorite buildings in town include the 1907 copper-topped flatiron Sentinel (designed by Salfield and Kohlberg), Russian Hill’s Bellaire Tower (for its 1930’s Deco mayhem), and the nearby, somewhat spacey 1965 Summit Building envisioned by Joseph Eichler.

Another iconic building worth checking out is the Ferry Building - once the gateway to San Francisco and now the home to the tremendous Ferry Building Marketplace.  Ciao Bella gelato, Gott’s Roadside and Acme Bread Company are just some of the fantastic food vendors housed inside this Award-winning 65,000 sq. ft. celebration of all things culinary.  The building itself dates back to 1898, and at the height of its purpose, was used to usher in more than 50 million ferry riders to the city each year.  Architect Arthur Page Brown fashioned his construction off of a similar clock tower in Seville, Spain, and chances are, his landmark is still one of the first you’ll spot if coming in from the Bay Bridge that decimated ferry ridership in 1936. 

Located nearby in the SOMA district, a more modern addition to San Francisco’s cityscape is the Museum of Modern Art (1995).  While the interior of Mario Botta’s SFMOMA impresses with frolicsome opening night parties of its contemporary collections, his boxy exterior is the kind of building you’ll either love or loathe!  Currently undergoing an expansion, this red brick and black and white granite striped behemoth should be viewed at least once, if only by car.

TransAmerica Building - 600 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, CA  94111 

Coit Tower - Telegraph Hill Boulevard via Lombard Street, San Francisco, CA  94133, (415) 362-0808 ‎

“Painted Ladies” - 710 - 720 Steiner Street, Alamo Square, San Francisco, CA  94117

Haas-Lilienthal House - 2007 Franklin Street, San Francisco, CA  94109,

Sentinel Building - 916 Kearny Street, San Francisco, CA  94133

Bellaire Tower - 1101 Green Street, San Francisco, CA  94109

The Summit - 999 Green Street, San Francisco, CA  94133

SF Ferry Building - 1 Sausalito, San Francisco, CA  94111, (415) 983-8030,

SF MOMA - 151 3rd Street, San Francisco, CA  94103, (415) 357-4000,

California Academy of Sciences

It’s no wonder San Francisco is consistently placed near the top of the list of American destinations most visited by international tourists.  Its dynamic, and often intelligent, attractions truly offer something for everyone.  One spot that has somehow managed to fly under our radar, even after a number of visits, is actually located right in the middle of Golden Gate Park, and we’ve been looking right past it for years!

After a $350 million dollar renovation in 2008, the California Academy of Sciences has re-emerged as one of the most impressive natural museums we we’ve seen yet!  It’s a great place to take the family come rain or shine, since the new design incorporates an entire tropical rainforest inside its three-story biosphere!  The awe-inspiring monstrosity aims to transport visitors from the depths of a jungle floor all the way through its uppermost canopies.  (The illusion is manifested with the aid of live tropical vegetation, intense humidity controls and even a cadre of large wild butterflies!)

We recommend starting your day here and then taking the elevator back down through the rainforest’s levels until you hit water!  You see, as dramatic as the indoor jungle is, the California Academy of Sciences truly shines when combined with the Steinhart Aquarium, the Platinum LEED certified environment below that includes a 212,00 gallon tank, the largest in the world.  Dixon Studios fabricated the massive aquatic adventure to include, among other delights, an artificial coral reef that visitors can virtually walk through!

We loved scouting children’s wide-eyed expressions almost as much as the various sharks, sea turtles and other fantastic undersea specimens that swam just above!  (Set of Drifters tip:  Check your daily program for interactive reef shows that often feature Scuba divers and penguin feeding!)

And how could we forget the exterior of the museum?  The “Living Roof” is truly an incredible engineering feat.  Here, several domed “hills” have actually been covered in multiple levels of rock and soil, making way for over 70 different varieties of grass and other seasonal vegetation.  The immediate impression is almost as if the roof were part of the surrounding natural landscape.  Of course, the cool circular windows and large glass atrium ceiling give the man-made magic away.  Both elements of the “Living Roof” have been designed to respond to exterior barometric and temperature sensors and automatically open and close depending on the flow of indoor/ outdoor temperature changes and humidity levels!  Neato.   

But the California Academy of Sciences is not quite done “wowing” you yet.  Just check out the Morrison (digital) Planetarium.  To be honest, we weren’t entirely sure what to expect once we entered the large globe positioned opposite the “rainforest biosphere.”  Nevertheless, once we nestled into the steep-rowed theater under a giant round screen, we knew the experience would most likely blow us away!  And that it did. 

Utilizing no less than six laser projectors, the presentation of Life: A Cosmic Story humbly flabbergasted us into submission.  Just imagine taking in a 3-D movie without the need of any glasses.  Thanks to the curvature of the massive screen and the positioning of your seat, you almost feel as though you are physically moving through space, or as the case may be, inside the smallest nucleus of a plant leaf.  Crazy.  (Set of Drifters tip:  Associates at the theater warned those with frequent motion sickness that they may want to sit this one out, or at the very least, sit toward the back of the theater were the interactive effect is not as strong.)  We would have loved to have stayed inside the core of our planet even longer, though believe it or not, there was still even more to see!  (Note:  Life: A Cosmic Story is no longer playing at the Morrison Planetarium.  Check the website for current programs, though note the plain old “digital universe” is also devastatingly intense on its own.)

in addition to the standard natural history bones and fossils, visitors to the California Academy of Sciences will also want to check out its two delectable cafes.  The main cafeteria, and swankier Moss Room, are located to the right of the main lobby.  Both eco- friendly and health-conscious, we found them to be the quintessential icing on a San Francisco experience - where all of the containers and food are disposed of either by recycling, composting or washing.  The food selection in the cafeteria is particularly varied, with options running the gamut from tasty well-made coffees and freshly baked cookies to steamed dim sum and Mexican wraps!  Ultimately, this is a fantastic place to start (or wind down) your day, eating, dreaming and checking into nature. 

Part-Aquarium/ part-Natural History Museum/ part-Ecology experiment, a visit to the California Academy of Sciences does not come cheap.  Admission for adults is a whopping $35 USD, while children aged 4-11 get in for $25 USD.  Youths (12-17) pay $30 USD.  And yet, don’t let the expensive entry scare you off.  This is a fantastic place that you won’t be able to get out of your mind!  (And hey, you can find coupons online that’ll knock the price down a few bucks!)  Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

California Academy of Sciences - 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA  94118, (415) 379-8000

Coit Tower & Telegraph Hill

San Francisco’s iconic cityscape is so impressive and iconic thanks to a plethora of towering structures that beckon from all directions (see "architecture" above for more information).  The Castro and Eureka Valley has Sutro Tower, the Financial District has the impossible-to-ignore Transamerica Pyramid, and Telegraph Hill has Coit Tower!  (Telegraph Hill is named a s such since it was the original West Coast location where Morse code telegraphs were sent and received notifying the country of ships passing over the Pacific!)

Coit Tower takes its name from Lillie Hitchcock Coit who donated the highly-coveted land atop Telegraph Hill to help beautify the city.  And beautify, she did.  This stunning Art Deco “building” is noticeable from almost anywhere north of California and East of Hyde.  Designed by Arthur Brown Jr., the unique structure resembles a giant fire hose nozzle, an homage to the firefighters who saved the city after the infamous 1906 earthquake and fire almost destroyed the entire city.

Coit Tower was completed in 1934, replete with fabulous Depression-era Deco murals commissioned by The Public Works of Art Project... you know, back when our country used to support artists!  Now if you plan of visiting this place, there are a few things you should know.  First of all, if you are attempting Telegraph Hill by foot, perhaps on a stroll from adjacent North Beach (?), make sure you are able bodied and have some good walking shoes!  This is a completely steep ascent!  It’s probably best to take the famed “Filbert steps,” though note their runs and rises offer no casual trek to the top!  You can take a vehicle up to the top, though expect parking to be next to impossible!

Coit Tower is open daily from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM.   Admission for the elevator ride up to the top is $4.50 USD for adults and $2.00 USD for children aged 6-12.  Children under six are FREE.  While traipsing around Telegraph Hill, listen out for Mark Bittner’s cherry-headed and two-crowned wild parrots as depicted in the critically-acclaimed 2005 documentary film The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.  Also, this is the perfect vantage point in which to photograph that famous block of Lombard Street across the way.  The short stretch is known as the “crookedest street in the world,” though that record has been contested time and time again.

Set of Drifters tip:  At night, Coit Tower glows like.... well as many suggest, a large phallic symbol!  In fact, Alfred Hitchcock, who featured Coit Tower in several scenes of his classic film Vertigo, has been quoted as saying that he chose the iconic location simply for that connotation!

Coit Tower - Telegraph Hill Boulevard via Lombard Street, San Francisco, CA  94133, (415) 362-0808 ‎


The Haight

Depending on personal political views, and/ or a tolerance level for beggars and body odor, “the Haight” probably means different things to different people.  Back in its first “hey-day” the neighborhood was notable for its high concentration of detailed Victorian and Edwardian homes.  In fact, the most famous of these, the so-called Steiner Street “Painted Ladies,” still stand proudly from their Alamo Square location only a handful of blocks away from the Haight “riff-raff” fray.

After the construction of the Twin Peaks tunnel in 1917, the neighbor- hoods of “The Haight” and Western Addition lost a number of its more “respectable” citizens to points further west.  To maintain occupancy levels, many of the once grandiose manses were transformed into multi-unit properties with rents priced according to their new subdivided square footage.  A drove of bohemians soon moved in to take advantage of the now cheap flats.  And while the area was somewhat falling into a state of disrepair by mid-century, the advance of the hippie movement in the 1960s saw a chance for rebirth in the Haight.  Partly due to its positioning below the Golden Gate Park “Panhandle,” flower children soon arrived from all over the country by the VW-busloads to participate in the free lovin’, free-wheelin’ pursuits promoted by San Francisco’s burgeoning “Summer of Love” music scene and drug culture.  By 1969, the crossroads of Haight/ Ashbury would never be the same again!

Flash forward.

“Hey Man, the original ‘Love Mobile,’” a man once yelled to Set of Drifter Doug upon one of his first visits to the neighborhood in the ‘80s.  (Doug just happened to be driving a turquoise and white 1960 Rambler at the time - naturally.)  Back then, you could surmise there were still some original “hippies” left in the neighborhood.  But these days, while you’ll still likely stumble over a few ruffians begging for money on the sidewalks, the wanna-bes will be doing it outside of American Apparel, Whole Foods Market and other corporate entities lining the streets!  Ugh! 

But we digress.  True, any stroll down this historical thoroughfare will undoubtedly give you some flashes of Janis and Jimi.  And you can still find some groovy boutiques and top-notch second-hand spots willing to shill bellbottoms and fringed suede vests to the next generation of fauxhemians.  (See “goodies” for our favorite Haight shopping stops.)  Of course, if you’re looking for more pertinent connections to the time when flower children still ran the road, you might want to check out Sami Sunchild’s Red Victorian Bed and Breakfast.  The 18-room hotel houses both a quaint (but crowded) cafe, as well as the Peaceful World Center, an educational museum that promotes activities and conversation based on social change.  Though Sunchild’s association with the “Red Vic” traces back only to the late 70s, the building itself is the last remaining true Victorian left on Upper Haight.  Don’t miss it.

Now if you are feeling reallllllly touristy, you’ll just have to snap a photo at the infamous intersection of Haight and Ashbury (now a popular Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop).  Here, a number of shoes continue to be thrown over the telephone wire in homage to the drug-induced yesteryear!  Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Set of Drifters tip:  Are those dirty hobos clogging the sidewalks getting you down?  Why not grab a drink?  We recommend the decadent “cocktail-of-the-month” menu at Hobson’s Choice, a stand-up bar immersed in Victorian elegance, as well as the Moroccan-vibed Zam Zam, cited by Zagat with some of the best “bar atmos” in town.  Keep in mind; the latter only takes cash, so you better hit up the ATM beforehand!

Red Victorian Bed & Breakfast - 1665 Haight Street, San Francisco, CA  94117, (415) 864-1978,

Ben & Jerry’s - 1480 Haight Street, San Francisco, CA  94117, (415) 626-4143,

Hobson’s Choice - 1601 Haight Street, San Francisco, CA 94117, (415) 621-5859,

Zam Zam - 1633 Haight Street, San Francisco, CA  94117, (415) 861-2545 


After dozens of trips to San Francisco and the Bay Area, there was one tourist attraction that had still managed to elude us, Alcatraz.  And yes, even though Set of Drifter Brady lived here for over three years, that rock out in the bay always seemed so far away!  (In truth, Alcatraz Island is only 1.5 miles from the city.  Of course, for the prisoners who suffered here from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, San Francisco was a painful reminder of what they were missing that seemed millions of miles out of reach!)  A good friend once visited town and chose Alcatraz as an option while Brady was busy at work.  She reported at the termination of the day that it was one of the best organized, and most fascinating, tourist excursions she had ever had!  And thus, in September of 2010, it was finally time to see what all the fuss was about.

Procrastinating a bit (see “Set of Drifters tip” below), we finally managed to book a reservation a few days in advance of the gloomy Tuesday morning that would take us to “The Rock.”  Wow, what an experience!  In fact, it was much better than anticipated, but first things first.  After the 20-minute or so ferry ride, itself a great way to get a lay of the land and to recognize the treachery of the waters that separate the former penal colony from the city, visitors disembark on the 22-acre island to hear, from a wise-cracking Park Ranger no less, a quick overview of the island’s storied past.  (Who knew that it once detained unruly Civil War era soldiers in the 1860’s and was home to protesting Native Americans some hundred years later?  And who knew that gardening was such a beloved past-time out here?)

From here, temporary “Alcatraz detainees” can wander around on their own, or take the incredible “Cellhouse Audio tour” that reveals, almost like an onion, each complex layer of the maximum security prison’s controversial history.  Spoken by actual people, and depictions of others, who actually lived and worked here, the stories of convicts, wardens and even family members will literally give you goosebumps!  (Seriously, this is one of the best audio tours we have ever heard!)  The tour starts off in the shower room where prisoners would be cleaned off before entering their new "residence."  The stories continue to unfold both inside and out of the “main house,” its mess hall, kitchen, library, visitor area and more.  One of the more memorable spots within the main house is “the Hole,” the infamous dark cell block where prisoners like “Machine Gun Kelly” and Al Capone were left in solitaire for days without light or human contact!  Oh joy.  Nonetheless, the most interesting aspect of the tour is the same one exploited by many a Hollywood film:  the many attempts by prisoners to “escape” the island.  We won’t ruin any surprises for you if you do not already know the stories, though a number of books on the subject can be found in Alcatraz’s small gift shop.

Elsewhere on “The Rock,” check out the recreational yard encased in a rusted barbed-wire fence, as well as the crumbling residential quarters for support staff and their families.  Their ruinous state leaves no room to support the continuance of suggestions that Alcatraz change gears and open up as a casino!  “The Rock” is certainly an unforgiving and hard place that is whipped by the winds that pass through each and every day.  The island is perhaps made only slightly more appealing by the interesting flora that abounds here, and the pelican population that originally gave it its Spanish name.

Run by the National Park Service, Alcatraz Island is open daily from 9:00 AM until approximately 6:00 PM though that may change depending on the season.  Ferry departure times will be clearly marked upon your disembarkment at Alcatraz.  Admission to the park is combined with round-trip ferry rides from Pier 33.  The fees are $26 USD for adults, $16 USD for children 5-11, and FREE for children under five.  This price also includes the “Cellhouse Audio Tour,” though if you wish not to take the tour (??), you can get a partial refund on the price of your ticket.

Set of Drifters tip:  Now, we know that most people who visit San Francisco for the first time probably put Alcatraz near the top of their list, planning ahead to work out the arrangements of how to get there from the mainland.  Not your “Set of Drifters” of course; we are usually more the “fly by the seat of our pants” kind of guys!  Regrettably, this behavior is not really an option when visiting Alcatraz!  Due to its overwhelming popularity, it is advisable that you book your tour at least a week in advance - unless you feel like waiting around all morning in long queues to buy tickets to board the ferry.

 Alcatraz Island - accessible  via cruises from Pier 33, San Francisco, CA  94123, (415) 981-7625, or

the murals of the Mission

San Francisco’s Mission District is many things to many people, and in the years since Set of Drifter Brady lived in San Francisco, has evolved dynamically.  What was once a run-down neighborhood worthy of avoidance is now one of the most sought-after places in which to reside.  Part of the allure is Valencia Street, a thoroughfare that over the last 15 years has attracted some of the best shopping to be found in the city (see “goodies”).  Of course, the many delicious eateries hidden along the side streets certainly don’t hurt matters either.  They say this is THE place to find the best burrito in all the country!

One of our favorite aspects of the Mission is its many offerings of public art.  The vibrant murals on display here are the result of a mostly Mexican-American community that has endured a multitude of struggles throughout the city’s history.  Artists’ spirited works can be seen all over the neighborhood:  lining random alleyways, on the sides of public buildings and apartment complexes, even on the sidewalks!  The murals are always changing, ensuring that no two visits to the neighborhood will ever quite be the same.

For a tour of the murals, a good place to start is Clarion Alley, a conglomeration of rather impressive (and socially-charged murals) protected by the Clarion Alley Mural Project.  (Set of Drifters tip:  Look for great block parties held here each October.)  CAMP began in 1992, the brainchild of six North Mission residents who wanted to foster a location where artists could create work that spoke to both “social inclusiveness” and “aesthetic variety.”  A wander up and down Clarion will only take about 15 minutes and showcases some of the best modern work in the Mission!

If you are looking for a more structured experience, contact the Precita Mural Arts & Visitors Center to inquire about one of several tour options of the neighborhood.  Ticket prices run about $15-20 USD, but are well worth it.  The operators of Precita are well-versed on both the Mission District’s history and the murals that rose out from its tumult.  As a collective, they strive to educate both community residents and inner city children about the tradition and beauty that emanates from these great modern-day works of art.  In fact, they work with city planners, neighborhood merchants and local artists to ensure more than 40 new murals are created each year!

Strikingly colorful in its own right, Precita’s Visitor Center is open Monday through Friday from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM, Saturdays from 10:00 AM until 4:00 PM and Sundays from 12:00 Noon until 4:00 PM, though tours are relegated to the weekends if not by appointment.  Best to check their website, or better yet, call ahead!

Clarion Alley Mural Project - between 17th & 18th Streets off of Valencia, The Mission, San Francisco, CA  94110,

Precita Mural Arts & Visitors Center - 2981 24th Street, San Francisco CA  94110, (415)-285-2287,

Palace of Fine Arts, the Exploratorium and the Wave Organ

One of our favorite places to simply chill while in San Francisco has always been the Palace of Fine Arts complex and its former star attraction, the Exploratorium.  The picturesque setting of this Marina District spot is simply perfect if you are planning a picnic, or apparently, your next wedding party photo!  The Palace of Fine Arts was originally built as a classic Roman stage by Bernard Maybeck for the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition.  The charming structure, with its impressive dome and curved colonnade, was so well-received that it was retained after the Expo and refurbished for a 1969 reopening that included both a theater and the Exploratorium.  As of April 2013, however, the latter Marina mainstay has relocated to the Embarcadero to fit alongside such tourist-friendly heavy-hitters as Pier 39 and the Alcatraz ferry (see above).  While the Exploratorium is typically known as a place to take the kids, we think it’s a worthwhile attraction for the “big kid” in you as well! 

Encapsulating 600 different exhibits, many of them interactive, the new museum’s 330,000 sq. footage not only teaches elements of physics, electricity and sound, but also acts somewhat like a giant gymnasium with so many knobs, pulleys, wheels and levers to push, that visitors will undoubtedly get a workout for the body as well as the mind!

Whether it’s playing fake electric guitar with the kids, feeling your way in total darkness through the beloved “Tactile Dome” - set to reopen summer 2013 - or entering another dimension via projections, the Exploratorium has so much stimulation on offer that you could visit the place multiple times and never get bored.  (Seriously, plan to spend at least three to four hours here!)  The museum is also ever-evolving which means that no two visits over the years will ever be quite the same!  Your “Set of Drifters” are certainly due a visit to the new digs and are most looking forward to the “San Francisco Bay Observatory” with its expansive views over the water and into downtown.  We’ll be sure to update our blog with our thoughts.  

But wait!  There’s more.  Back out near the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina, you may just want to head out past the madcap exercise brigade to check out the “Wave Organ,” an extension of the Exploratorium located at the Francisco Bay.  Created by Peter Richards, this wave-activated “acoustic instrument” lies adjacent to the Golden Gate Yacht Club.   Richards was a senior artist at the previous Exploratorium, and with sculptor and mason George Gonzales, designed this unique structure as a giant instrument that uses the power of wind and water as its conduit.  (The kids will love this one too!)  Overall, the vantage point from the “Wave Organ” is one of the best in the city, complete with spreading views out to Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge or the city itself.  We really recommend a visit here - despite the blustery winds - if you are in the mood for a little respite and meditation on the rest of your day’s events.  The random harmonics created by this piece of art make for quite an unusual experience!

The new Exploratorium is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM and closed Mondays.  (During the summer, an influx of tourists may change this!)  Admission is $25 USD for adults (18 and older), $19 USD for youths aged 6-17 and FREE for children aged 5 and under.  Set of Drifters tip:  The museum is also FREE for everyone five days a year, including Mother’s Day (though we imagine this would be quite the madhouse)!  Check out the Exploratorium’s updated website for information about other FREE days and their on-going “AfterDark” events.  The Wave Organ has no entrance cost.

Palace of Fine Arts Theatre - 3301 Lyon Street, San Francisco, CA  94123, (415) 567-6642,

Exploratorium - Piers 15/ 17 (Embarcadero at Green Street), San Francisco, CA  94111, (415) 563-7337,

Wave Organ - 1 Yacht Road (located on San Francisco Bay between Marina Green and Marina Boulevard), San Francisco, CA  94123, (415) 397-5673 ‎ 

Japanese Tea Garden

While we wholeheartedly approve it, at times, overseas travel can be troublesome to arrange, and yes, expensive.  For those looking to capture that “international vibe,” there are a few places in America that come somewhat close to envisioning the true essence of far off climes.  One of these is San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden located on the middle of Golden Gate Park only a hop, skip and a jump from the de Young Museum (also worthy of a visit)!

Built in 1894 as the Japanese Village for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, the San Francisco Japanese Tea Garden is the oldest running public Japanese garden in the United States!  Designed originally by Makoto Hagiwara, the grounds boast some rather impressive pagodas and bridges as well as a giant bronze Buddha forged in 1790!  A bounty of over 1,000 exquisitely manicured cherry blossom, oriental magnolia, cedar and cypress trees completes the scene.  (Is it embarrassing to admit that we enjoy gardens?  Who cares?)  The park went through a bit of a rough patch during WWII years when Japanese contributions in America were certainly frowned upon.  Hagiwara’s family was sent to an internment camp and the Tea Garden was renamed the “Oriental Tea Garden” to compensate!  A 1952 renovation cleaned up the space which had fallen into disrepair and reverted the name back to its current moniker.

Of course, what makes the Hagiwara garden in Golden Gate Park so extra special is that it also includes a functioning tea house, the perfect mid-day spot in which to relax, grab a bite to eat or just fill up on some caffeine!  Waitresses adorned in elaborate silk kimonos bring you your green or jasmine tea and cookies to your table, ultimately serving you in one of the most serene settings around!  An adjacent gift shop adds further opportunity for cultural immersion.

The Japanese Tea Garden serves up the goods March through October from 9:00 AM until 6:00 PM.  (Late March is the best time to see the cherry blossoms!)  In the winter months, the hours of operation are shortened to 9:00 AM until 4:45 PM.  Admission costs for the garden are all over the place depending on, among other things, your age, the day of the week and whether or not you are a San Francisco resident!  Expect to pay anywhere from $7 USD to nothing at all!

Japanese Tea Garden (Golden Gate Park) - 7 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA  94118, (415) 668-0909,

de Young Museum (Golden Gate Park) - 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA  94118, (415) 750-3600,

Mission Dolores

Not to be confused with Lake Dolores, the water park playground that is also located in California, Mission Dolores is one of those places that we have always wanted to visit but never managed to squeeze in until only recently.  (And no, Set of Drifter Brady never even made the short trek during the three years he lived in San Francisco while in college!)

While in town en route to Napa Valley in February of 2011, we stayed one night at the Parker Guest House (see “digs”), a charming B&B located only a couple blocks from Mission Dolores.  Since we had about a half an hour to kill before check out, we made the easy decision skip on down and check out this incredible piece of Californian history.  For starters, did you know that Mission Dolores is the oldest still-standing structure in all of California?  This was just one of the fascinating facts we learned while taking the self-guided tour through the original cathedral and its surrounding grounds.

Founded in 1776, the Mission was built both as a place of worship for the Spaniards who colonized California as well as a tool to convert the existing Ohlone and Miwok Native American tribes to their Catholic ways!  (This struggle is well played out in brief tableaus inside the Mission’s small museum.)  The church building itself is rather lovely, particularly from the inside where an impressive white, yellow and red painted pattern covers the entirety of its ceiling.  While the Mission cathedral has survived no less than four major earthquakes and still functions even today as a place of worship, its footprint has certainly been expanded in the 200+ year interim since the building first put San Francisco on the map.  A much larger basilica next door is also worthy of a visit, if only to photograph its many beautiful statues and mosaic tile work.

Carrying on via the self-guided tour, an interesting graveyard lies just beyond the aforementioned museum.  The final resting place of over 5,000 Native Americans, many of whom died once exposed to Spanish invaders’ disease, the cemetery features gravestones dating from 1830 and a replica of an original Ohlone tribal hut.  The cemetery offers a number of great photo opportunities especially since so many prominent folks from San Francisco’s early days are also buried here.  Who knew all of this was lying right in the middle of town!?!?

Mission Dolores is open daily from 9:00 AM until 4:00 PM.  Suggested donations for the self-guided tour are $5 USD for adults and $3 USD for students or senior citizens.  A gift shop that devotes much of its inventory to Catholic amulets, greeting cards and other religious items completes the tour.  Though there are some nice knick-knacks, we did not spend too much time here. 

Mission Dolores - 3321 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94114, (415) 621-8203

walk across the Golden Gate Bridge

They say it’s the most photographed man-made structure in the world.  We’re never quite sure who “they” are, or whether or not their statements are true, but one thing is for certain - San Francisco and its majestic Golden Gate Bridge are forever linked, both figuratively and literally (to Marin County at least).  In fact, we dare you to find a panoramic tourist photo mélange of the city that does NOT include some part of this 1.7 mile long behemoth!  (Truth be told, the main suspension spans less than a mile, but the total construction includes approaches on both sides; this makes it the 2nd longest in America.)

Built in 1937 to bring access to/ from points north, the Golden Gate Bridge celebrated its 75th anniversary with fireworks in May of 2012.  And in those 75 years, you can bet the engineering marvel had seen a tremendous amount of car traffic.  It is estimated that each day over 110,000 vehicles pass over this side of the San Francisco Bay, dubbed the “Golden Gate” by Captain John C. Fremont in 1846.  Yep, the “golden” in the bridge’s title has nothing to do with the color of the bridge (touched up five days a week in “International orange” acrylic latex); Fremont thought the three-mile long strait reminded him of a Turkish harbor in Istanbul called “Chrysoceras,” the translation of which is “Golden Horn.”

It is this exact positioning, with impressive city views to one side, and the breathtaking Pacific Ocean to the other, that has made the Golden Gate Bridge such an indelible “must see,” and for so many from all over the world.  Luckily for them, Depression-era bridge designer Joseph B. Strauss had the foresight to build sidewalks on each side of the bridge.  (He and his team must have realized the location was simply too stunning to reserve solely for cars.)  At present, some 10,000 pedestrians, and over 5,500 cyclists, take the roughly 3 mile round-trip each day!  And while visiting San Francisco, you should certainly be one of them. 

We joined the masses on a lovely day in February 2012, when the wind was kicking, but the sun was still shining.  Our roughly 1 ½ hour journey to the Marin County line (and back) was a wonderful way to get some exercise, earwig on locals’ conversation and just breathe in the impeccable beauty that is San Francisco.  (Along the way, you’ll likely see fog rolling in over distant hills, a few barges, or surfers, passing underneath and, if you look closely enough, dolphins or maybe even a whale!)

Make sure to stop often to take in the prodigy of the bridge itself.  At 746 ft., only 100 shorter than the TransAmerica Pyramid itself, the Golden Gate’s two massive towers are bound to give trekkers reverse “vertigo” from below.  (Set of Drifters tip:  And speaking of “vertigo;” don’t forget that other classic view of the bridge.  The promenade area around the old naval Fort Point was made famous in the Alfred Hitchcock film that starred James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes.  If you have time, drive down for a tour of the Civil War-era balustrade, now a haunting museum, that also affords view-seekers with some rather awe-inspiring moments.)

It’s rare when one of the most iconic symbols of any city also happens to be an “attraction” that you can visit for free, and with relative ease.  Though that may change.  Pedestrian tolls for the bridge were banned way back in 1970, but a Golden Gate Highway and Transportation District deficit is suggesting re-implementation.  If engaged, pedestrians and cyclists will have to pay $1 to soak in the grandiose views.  Check the website links below for the most up-to-date information.

Access to the Golden Gate Bridge is available for pedestrians on the east side of the bridge only from 5:00 AM until 6:30 PM daily (extended to 9:00 PM during the summer Daylight Savings months), while bicycles are permitted 24 hours a day, though with restrictions; see website below for more information on bringing your bike.  Keep in mind, gas-powered scooters and people on skateboards or rollerblades are NOT permitted.  The same goes for all animals, save for registered service dogs.

Set of Drifters tip:  The Golden Gate Bridge was built to sustain wind gusts of 100 mph, with the ability to swing at mid-span as much as 27 feet!  Yes kids, you might want to bring a sweater and/ or hat as it can get really chilly up there.  And even yet, it’s not all a “breeze.”  Parking at the south side of Golden Gate Recreation Area can be a bitch.  There is an extended lot to the north of the main Toll Plaza/ Visitor’s Center - if you can find it!  We ended up parking near the Cranston Battery ruins (accessible via Merchant Road).  This is actually a nice add-on to your visit, as views from this coastal vantage point give you perspective of the bridge set against both the Marin Headlands and the city skyline. 
Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

And for an even better view of the city, extend your trek up to “Vista Point” on the opposite side of the bridge.  You’ll be glad you did, as long as you have brought enough water and snacks for the respite!  Some small food-truck guy could make a killing selling cups of soup out here!  (For even further immersion, drive up to Marin's picturesque Marin Woods - see below for more information.)

Golden Gate National Recreation Area -     located on the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge (along US Highway 101), San Francisco, CA  94129, (415) 921-5858, and

Golden Gate Promenade and Fort Point National Historic Site - located off Lincoln Boulevard (at Long Avenue); take Long Avenue to Marine Drive, San Francisco, CA  94129, (415) 556-1693,

Cranston Battery (technically part of the Presidio’s Fort Scott) - Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco, CA  94129,

Vista Point - located on the Marin County side of the Golden Gate Bridge (along US Highway 101), Sausalito, CA  94965, (415) 921-5858,

Palace of the Legion of Honor

Like we have mentioned before with Alcatraz, at times the only way to experience some of the best parts of the place in which you live is to leave it.  What?  Well, for example, Set of Drifters lived in Arizona for 10 years without ever properly seeing the Grand Canyon!  The reason for the non-visit?  It’s always there, isn’t it?

Similarly, the museum at the Legion of Honor also slipped through the cracks even though Brady lived in San Francisco for more than three years in the late 1990’s.  On a more recent revisit to the city your “Set of Drifters” decided to see what all the fuss was about, partially thanks to their exhibit featuring the “Arts & Letters” of Paris from the Impressionists’ period.  The exhibit was certainly a hit with locals and tourists alike and included some brilliant examples of can-can posters from Toulouse-Lautrec and his contemporaries, among any other works of art.

Elsewhere, the Palace of Legion expands out in all directions and retains some rather impressive permanent collections revolving around European decorative arts, and painting, sculpture and photography.  (The museum was renovated in 1995 with a 42% increase in sq. footage!)  Be on the lookout for a large Russian painting that depicts young ladies getting dressed.  It showcases some of the most impressive detailing we have ever seen.  

We loved both the interior vaulted glass panel ceilings and the exterior French neoclassical facade, originally built by as a replica of the French Pavilion from the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915, itself a take on the earlier Palais de la Légion d’Honneur located in Paris.  Northern California wedding parties also seem to love the picturesque setting.  While we visited in September of 2010, not one, but two different groups were using the courtyard out front, easily likened to a baby version of the famed plaza at the Louvre, for staged photos.

The Palace of the Legion of Honor is open Tuesdays through Sunday from 9:30 AM until 5:15 PM and closed like many of San Francisco’s museums on Mondays.  Admission is $10 USD for adults and $6 USD for “youths” aged 13 to 17 years old.  Children 12 and under are FREE!  While the museum is also complimentary for everyone the first Tuesday of the month, check out local brochures for other potential discounts to this and other museums that are part of the “Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco” family.  Oh, be forewarned, parking here is a bitch!

Set of Drifters tip:  Of course, one of the best parts about the Legion of Honor is its proximity to a spectacular vantage point of the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond.  It’s a view that you do not see very often.  While taking photos here, just make sure to watch your footing as you would not want to slide off down the ravine!  (For more on the Golden Gate Bridge, see above.)

Palace of the Legion of Honor (Lincoln Park) - 100 34th Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94121, (415) 750-3600

taking the 38 Geary allllll the way out to Sutro Heights Park

Sutro Heights Park is perhaps not the first place that comes to mind when considering San Francisco’s many picturesque spots of natural beauty.  Front runners The Presidio, Marina Green, and, of course, Golden Gate Park are certainly worthy of their own visits, but if you would like to experience something a bit different, a trip to this well-manicured garden clinging to the edge of a cliff is well worth the long bus ride on the 36 Geary bus!  (In the process, you’ll also view many “pulsations” of the city that are often disconnected from standard “Top 10 Tourist lists” for the city.  Our Aunt Pat would be so proud!)

Set of Drifter Brady first discovered Sutro Heights Park while scouting locations for Allusions, his 1997 short film project that paid homage to a series of favorite artists and poets.  At the time, the evocative location was in a state of disrepair with the statuary ruins of a former mansion site almost completely engulfed in foliage.  The ruins were left behind after a 1966 fire devastated much of the development dreamed up by former mining engineer and one-time San Francisco mayor Adolph Sutro.  His home and public baths dominated the landscape when built in the late 1800’s and his series of homes built out into the Pacific Ocean dazzled many in their audacity.
These days, Sutro Heights Park is sparkling with beauty.  The same eucalyptus, Norfolk Island pines and cypresses planted by Sutro may still tower above, but now they do so over well-designated paths that take nature lovers up to a an almost castle-like structure platform that overlooks the very edge of the United States.  (The vibe is somewhat akin to the Castell in Barcelona though on a slightly smaller scale.)  The views from here are breathtaking in all directions.  You can even see some of the last remaining windmills from the west end of Golden Gate Park from here.  Add this one on to your trip to the nearby Palace of Legion of Honor (see above).  You’ll be glad you did.

Set of Drifters tip:  While the Cliff House below the Mount Sutro bluff is an institution, reservations must be made days, if not weeks in advance.  We hear the champagne breakfast is a somewhat nice way to spend a Sunday morning, and the inclusion of a “camera obscura” of the Seal Rocks is a neat addition.  Nevertheless, dinner here is overpriced and feels somewhat detached from the history that should otherwise abound from Sutro’s ambitious building projects of yesteryear.  If you are feeling hungry, may we suggest instead a stop off for Japanese food at Japan Center (located on Geary between Fillmore and Laguna)?  We like Isobune for sushi and Cafe Mums for shabu-shabu.

Sutro Heights Park - Point Lobos Avenue/ El Camino    Del Mar, San Francisco,        CA  94121, (415) 561-4323,

Isobune - 1737 Post Street, San Francisco, CA  94115, (415) 563-1030,

Cafe Mums (inside the Hotel Tomo) - 1800 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA  94115, (415) 931-6986,

Wonder Con at Moscone Center

As you may be aware, a multitude of über-comic fans and self-proclaimed sci-fi geeks descend upon any number of conventions throughout the country each year.  Hard core Star Wars and Star Trek aficionados even have their very own themed events to save up pennies and create costumes for.  And yet, the ultimate is, and always will be, San Diego’s Comic Con.  These days, Comic Con is so big that even “cool” celebs and hot movie projects have a hard time muscling their way in the door.

Noting a potential to siphon off some of that moola, San Francisco comic retailer John Barrett started “Wonder Con” in 1987.  In the few decades since, the long weekend of celebration (and shopping) has grown by leaps and bounds, and had become a site of pilgrimage in its own right for fanatics from all over Northern California - and beyond.

Even so, Wonder Con is still much more relaxed and accessible than its predecessor.  Those looking to mingle with their favorite voice actor, or other industry insider, have ample opportunity amidst the 460,000 sq. feet of showroom space.  Most are there to promote their latest motion picture or television release, or squeeze lemons from previous work by shilling autographs and photos.  (During our 2009 visit, we happened to spot over 300 people in line waiting for signatures from Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill in a rare Star Wars reunion appearance.  We suspect involvement in the upcoming Disney-backed films will keep them too busy for conventions like Wonder Con... well, at least for a few years).

Aside from tremendous people-watching opportunities - the homemade cosplay creations here are literally out of this world - we especially appreciated the many different educational forums that were available to Sci-Fi fans and would-be writers/ artists/ filmmakers.  Busy representatives from companies like Lucasfilm consistently offer workshops that cover such diverse topics as screenwriting, set design, animation and merchandising.  (A portfolio review was perhaps the highlight of this event.)

Back downstairs in the main hall, loads upon loads of memorabilia is available - for a price.  From apparel to vintage and modern toys, posters and comics, there is virtually something from every facet of the sci-fi/ fantasy genre.  Whether or not you consider yourself “die-hard” or not, a visit to Wonder Con is one you won’t soon forget.  As our friend, actress Barbara Luna (“Lt. Marlena Moreau” in the classic Star Trek episode “Mirror Mirror”), shared with us, “It’s the most exciting place to be in the world.  You can just feel the energy.  It’s as if this place is just going to lift off at any second!”

Wonder Con usually blasts off every February or March at the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco, though since convention halls are currently undergoing a $55 million renovation and were not ready for this year’s event, Wonder Con had moved down to Anaheim for two consecutive years in 2012.  We imagine it will return to the all-new Moscone Center in 2014, though you may want to continue checking their website for details if you plan to attend.  Tickets usually cost about $20-$25 USD depending on if you purchase them in advance or at the door.  Expect to drop a lot more cash inside once you see how much fun stuff there is to peruse!  Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Wonder Con (held at the Moscone Center), 747 Howard Street, San Francisco, CA  94103, (415) 974-4000 or ‎ (619) 491-2475 and

Muir Woods National Monument (Mill Valley)

We have already told you how lovely the city of San Francisco is... Golden Gate Park easily rivals other competition in cities like London and New York, triumphing over their beauty in many ways.  Still, in Northern California, there is life beyond San Francisco, and luckily for nature enthusiasts, much of it teems with breathtaking milieus that make for excellent day-trip options.

Near the top of this list is Muir Woods, a National Monument preserve located only 11 miles north of the city’s Golden Gate Bridge border with Marin County (see above for more information).  We made a short trek here in September of 2010 while on a sojourn to other communities further north.  After finding our way on the somewhat convoluted route that wanders in and around the Mill Valley community, we noted signs that signaled parking for the popular forest preserve.  Unfortunately, all lots were full on the picture-perfect day that we visited so we had to drive a km. or two beyond the entrance just to find a spot to stash our vehicle.  (Have no fear; many others will be doing the same.)

Once inside the National Monument, we paid a small token fee and proceeded on to the Visitor Center.  From here, various trail options are available, some as long as two hours that take trekkers through Mount Tamalpais State Park and all the way to scenic Stinson Beach.  We chose the Cathedral Grove Loop, one of the shorter trails due to our self-imposed time constraints.  The self-guided trek was replete with signage that advised us on the various flora and its biological success within the region.  The star attraction here is clearly the coastal redwood, a species that boasts an indeterminate growth pattern!  The tallest tree on record stands a staggering 379 feet tall, easily towering over buildings with 30 stories or more!  Set of Drifters tip:  While it was quite a warm autumn day outside, the temperature dropped considerably once we found ourselves protected from the sun under a shade of tall conifers.  Keep this mind no matter what time of year you are visiting and bring along a light jumper even in the warmer later summer and fall months!

The National Monument of Muir Woods was founded in 1908 by President Roosevelt.  The act further protected land that was purchased earlier by the Kent Family who wished to save “Redwood Canyon” from the clutches of the ever-expanding logging industry.  (Thankfully, the general inaccessibility of the area had prevented any previous destruction of the existing sequoias and redwoods.)  Today, sight-seers will be pleased with the combined efforts of Roosevelt and the Kents.  Muir Woods, named after John Muir, the environmentalist who worked tirelessly to help found the National Parks System, is a wonderful spot to take a stroll, watch for woodpeckers, or simply absorb the audacity of Mother Nature.  While bottled water is the only “food source” allowed along the trails, a busy cafe and gift shop is cleverly attached to the Visitor’s Center.  Just remember to NOT FEED THE ANIMALS!
Muir Woods National Monument opens daily at 8:00 AM, but closes at different times depending on the season and available natural light. In the winter months, expect closure at 5:00 PM, while summer months see later hours of operation until at least 7:00 PM.  This wonderful day-trip is entirely affordable, though the rising cost of gas is not included unfortunately.  Entrance for adults is $5.00 USD while children aged 15 and under get in for FREE!  The National Park Service also offers free admission to all on select days of the year.  Check their website for more information.

Set of Drifters tip:  Muir Woods was certainly a highlight of our trip, and looking back on it now, we wish we could have spent a bit more time here.  Unfortunately, we were slowed down a bit on our journey.  There is only one way in and one way out, and depending on the weather, visitors to the destination will be fighting with minions of others hoping to capture the magic light as it filters through the majestic redwoods!  Plan your route ahead of time! 

Muir Woods National Monument - 11 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge along Highway 101; use Highway 1/ Stinson Beach Exit, Mill Valley, CA  94941, (415) 388-2595

architecture in Alameda

Like Phoenix’s downtown, the bedroom community of Alameda, has undergone a bit of a Renaissance over the last decade.  What used to be somewhat shabby former military outpost has since become the haven for upwardly mobile families looking to escape the hubbub of San Francisco.  In fact, those on a hunt for some of the Bay Area’s best examples of Victorian architecture would do themselves a favor by sneaking under the Posey Tube to check out the town’s virtual mecca of Queen Anne-style homes, many lovingly restored to their original grandeur.    

Of course, just like in Phoenix, even the best-oiled of gentrification projects cannot wipe away all of history’s “grime!”  And as you might suspect, that’s exactly the way your “Set of Drifters” like it!  We’re particularly fond of retro-relic signs from decades past that somehow manage to hang onto the very edge of modern society.  And luckily, there seems to be no better place in the Metropolitan San Francisco area to find them than Alameda and its high-concentration of dive bars, diners and other long forgotten structures.  But hurry!  These gems of yesteryear are dying out fast! 

The Pop Inn is now the overwrought Churchward Pub, while one of our all-time faves, T.J.'s “Louisiana Fancy Fine” Gingerbread House (in nearby Oakland), has already been stripped apart and sold for scrap!  We presume other crumbling structures are to follow suit.

Some of our favorite signs we guarantee will still catch your eye are the ones for Ole’s Waffle Shop, the Fireside, Gim’s Chinese Kitchen and the HobNob... though we suspect the latter is a faker, and not really vintage at all!  Many others exist along Alameda’s main thoroughfares of Park, Central and Main.  Why not make a late afternoon out of exploring this quaint little ‘burg?  There’s always shopping at the White Elephant (see “goodies”) and drinks at Forbidden Island (see “sips”) to act as further lures.

Pop Inn/ The Churchward Pub - 1515 Park Street, Alameda, CA 94501, (510) 521-4800,

T.J.'s Gingerbread House (closed) - 741 5th Street, Oakland, CA  94607

Ole’s Waffle Shop - 1507 Park Street, Alameda, CA  94501, (510) 522-8108 ‎

The Fireside Lounge - Alameda, CA  94501, (510) 864-1244,

Gim’s Chinese Kitchen - 2322 Lincoln Avenue, Alameda, CA  94501, (510) 523-2400,

The Hob Nob Eats & Drinks - 1313 Park Street, Alameda, CA  94501, (510) 769-1011,