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San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO - Whatever the theme, San Francisco has it all!  Its soul: exquisite taste. Its philosophy: a balance between nostalgia and the avant-garde. Its winning combinations: urban life/architecture/planning, art/design/multimedia, outdoors/sports/well-being and shopping/dining/drinking. And it is suitable for a short or a long stay, with or without kids.

Permanent "dolce vita"

Small in size, nonetheless large in content and quality, San Francisco can be visited in a week, if you want to go through its “postcard” sites, which are of course worth the visit. However, it is an ideal location for a comfortable, long stay away from our Canadian winter.

It is comfortable and indeed ideal for those who hate to fry at 30 degrees Celsius.  The city enjoys temperatures varying between 10 and 25 degrees from January to the end of April.  No snow, although it might rain and fog will certainly be present for a few hours, but the sun will very often come out to greet you.  The dry springtime begins early in March in this city surrounded by the sea and a magnificent bay where sunsets provide memorable experiences. 

Busy feet and on the look out

San Francisco must be discovered on foot.  If you are not in good physical shape when you get there, you will be after a few days… since there is not just the legendary Powell Hill to climb. If you want to pace up and down the city to discover its Victorian and modern architectural beauties, its remarquable cleanliness, its innumerable curiosities and the civic sense of its citizens, you will have to mount dozens of abrupt streets, not always served by a cable car or a trolley bus. 

One question comes to mind, however. Why was a city built in such a hilly region, where architects and engineers would have to call upon all their ingenuity and creativity to ensure that buildings would be level, stable and inhabitable?   It is very obvious that aesthetics have largely taken precedence over practical sense… and those creators must be thanked for that and also for the dramatic views that are provided from anywhere in the city. They are worth the steep slopes and being short of breath! 

In a blink and dashing in/out

Of course, one has to cross the very red Golden Gate Bridge to photograph the elegant row of Victorian houses known as the “Painted Ladies” facing Buena Vista Park, eat clam chowder served in a huge bread bowl on Fisherman’s Wharf, smell and gaze at the colors and scents of Chinatown, skate in Union Square, and be dumbfounded in front of the two streets known as the most twisted and landscaped in the world: Lombard and Vermont, where cars skillfully navigate down.  

Must-sees for the nostalgic fan 

To relive Jack Kerouac’s beat generation, the counterculture phenomenon born in the 50s and described in his most famous book “On the Road”, North Beach and Columbus St. are must-sees. You can visit the still-untouched City Lights Bookstore and the Vesuvio Cafe where you will be offered Kerouac’s favorite drink, named after him - a mix of rum, tequila, lime, orange and cranberry.  If you want to complete the pilgrimage, you must walk by 29 Russell St., and take a look at the house where he lived in the attic.

If you end up on the large square facing City Hall, you will remember that Harvey Milk, the municipal politician fighting for gay rights, was assassinated there; more so if you saw the recent movie in which Sean Penn artfully brought him to life on screen. And if you are lucky, you might even meet the actor at the Tosca Café, which has been open on Columbus Street since 1919.

Flower Power of the Sixties can be remembered on Haight Street, where many boutiques offer vintage clothing and music.  Janis Joplin lived close by at 122 Lyon Street.

Another big star in the 80s and 90s, Robin Williams, lives in San Francisco and can still be spotted in one of the comedy clubs of the city, where he often shows up unannounced. 

The Gay district: emblematic and bustling

The Castro district, the stage of the gay revolution, is still a spirited district, trendy and quite interesting to visit, whatever one’s sexual orientation might be.  With all of its cinemas, bars, restaurants, boutiques and art galleries full of life and creativity, where should we start?  How about at the corner of Castro and 18th Street, called “the Gayest corner in the world.”   

Events? More than you can consume...

Cultural, gastronomic, social or sports, there are more than 650 events planned between January and the end of March 2012.  Everywhere: in Union Square, in the various buildings in Civic Centre, in SOMA, the trendy district of the ’00 decade, in the streets, cafes, parks, galleries, museums, commercial centers, etc…  all you have to do is pick up Time Out in San Francisco to know which one is scheduled during your stay and confront the selection offered… 

With the little ones: nice for grown ups as well

We imagine that if you take your kids along to San Francisco in wintertime, they will likely be preschool aged. The colors of the modern city, as well as its vertiginous hills with their means of transportation from another era will certainly amuse them. San Francisco loves kids and the numerous places and activities created for them are testament to such love.

A few examples: the guided visit on a fire truck or in a Land Rover to experience an urban safari, the only Cartoon Art Museum in America, the Kids’ Bay Area Discovery Center in Sausalito, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, American marine boats open to visitors, the chocolate factory on Ghirardelli Square and the Fortune Cookie factory in Chinatown, sea lions on Fisherman’s Wharf, the non-stop entertainment at Union Square with its ice-skating rink and gigantic illuminated Christmas tree displayed until mid-January, the Wax Museum,  Paramount’s Great America, where they will recognize their favorite movies and meet their heroes SpongeBob and Dora in person, and last, the Safari West Wildlife Preserve where they will meet real savanna animals in nature and take part in a real-life Survivor experience like in the television reality show.

Also worth mentioning is the activity centre for children at the Yerba Buena Gardens. Its 130,000 square feet of greenery and installations offer many choices, including the interactive fountain, the labyrinth, the 100 year old Zeum carousel, the 25 tube slides, the shows at the outdoor theater, the giant xylophone, etc.

Last on the list, yet nonetheless still intriguing, is Alcatraz.  The legendary island prison in San Francisco Bay can be reached by boat and kids will be thrilled to learn that famous prisoners, such as Al Capone, were kept there.  Moreover, they will love the visit on small cars equipped with GPS that indicate where to stop and listen to the audio tour: it’s both amusing and instructive. 

One-of-a-kind shopping

At Satin Moon Fabrics, fabrics by the meter can be found for sewing everything from clothes to curtains, tablecloths to bedspreads.

At March, custom-made furniture that you pick up the same day or a few days after can be ordered. Different styles and dimensions are offered as well as authentic vintage pieces, some dating back to the 70s … and even to the 18th Century.

At the April in Paris boutique, the same rule applies to shoes and leather bags.  They are custom made for you, comfortable and trendy or you can pick up an item displayed in the boutique. 


The natural, surreal and really unclassifiable Paxton Gate boutique is another must-see.  Hours can easily be passed there, if not a whole day.  There is not a single banal object there: they are all unique and extravagant.   In this boutique, opened in 1992 by two landscape architects, everything for the garden and gardening (plant, seed, accessories, furniture, etc.) as well as home decor, books, etc. can be found.  It is truly Ali Baba’s cave, full of treasures to please the gardeners of today and tomorrow.

At Medium Rare Records, you are absolutely sure to find any record, from any artists, from any style and from any era.

The restaurant-cinema Foreign Cinema, located in a warehouse in the Mission District where San Francisco was founded, takes you to France, Italy and Spain.  Urban picnics, as well as seafood plates or creatively seasoned meat are enjoyed while watching movies by Fellini, Cocteau, the Coen brothers and others projected on a huge white wall.  The soundtrack might sound a bit metallic, as it comes out of old drive-in movie speakers…! Other special events are organized, such as auctions of well-known musicians’ instruments.

Restaurants by the hundreds

The food is good, meticulous and original in San Francisco.  All styles and prices exist.  Vegetarians, vegans and those dedicated to organic food will be pleased.  All you have to do is stroll along the streets, experiment and be pleasantly surprised!

We were very pleased by the Luna Park restaurant: by its menu of the day at reasonable prices, for its huge – after all, we are in the United States – mixed salads; for its goat cheese fondue with apples, and its chocolate/marshmallow/cookie fondue; for its happy hour where the 2 for 1 can be split or shared and for its Sunday brunch where the waiters continuously fill up your glass of mimosa or sangria.

Many restaurants give a percentage of the bill or a percentage of their profit to a humanitarian or environmental cause, local or international.  This supports the image of San Francisco as a socially engaged city. We even saw a theatre advertising: “Invite a visible minority person and get 2 tickets for the price of one.”

Have the long walks exhausted you? During a stop at the Ferry Building Market and at XOX Truffles, selecting a few delicacies, such as fine cheeses, organic meats, exotic mushrooms and cayenne/tequila, amaretto or ginger/lemon truffles to enjoy in the intimacy of your room might prove to be an excellent idea. 

Tip: save $60 on the next street over

Ladies, you should be aware that a visit to a hairdresser for the same simple wash and brush will cost you $15 in Chinatown, versus $75 in a salon that is just as small, two streets further up… of course, one has to ignore the décor in the $15 salon… but the savings is worth it, believe me! 

And more...

We cannot forget Little Italy and its Café Trieste, shopping on Filmore Street, innumerable museums, such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the sculpture garden of the Young Museum, the Samovar Tea Lounge and the memorial-fountain dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr at the Yerba Buena Arts Center, the most astounding views from the Intercontinental Hotel lounge on the top floor; the ballet, the Symphonic Orchestra and the Asia Art Museum at the Civic Centre, the weekly fruit and vegetable public market in the heart of the city, the Japanese district reconstituted with its small streets bordered with traditional restaurants, the Golden Gate Promenade and the Presidio National Park along the sea – ideal for your daily strolls or jogging – and the famous Conservatory with flowers that originate from the 5 continents (kids should beware of carnivorous plants that apparently love young fingers…). 

A few lodging suggestions in town

For a short-term stay: the Triton Hotel (eco friendly), the St. Regis (modern luxury) and the Red Victorian (trendy B&B) are proven values, depending on your budget and state of mind.

For a long stay of one month or more: the Web site www.only.apartments.com could prove to be an excellent resource.  It lists apartments and also B&B and other types of lodging. 

Around San Francisco

Contemplative: bistros, cafés and art galleries in Sausalito, along Bridgeway Avenue facing the Bay provide one of the best views of San Francisco.  Moreover, they offer trendy experiences in hamburgers and seafood.  It is indeed very nice to sit, in January, on one of their terraces under heating lamps and wrapped with style in lovely blankets with the logos of those smart establishments.  Both picturesque and luxurious, the houses and streets of Sausalito are good excuses to strollon a lovely afternoon under the sun.

Gustative: Napa Valley’s vineyards can be visited by car or by bus as part of a group, by train and even in a limousine…!  Choices as far as prices, the number of vineyards to visit and duration of the visit are infinite.  Our preference is for a whole day tour in a minivan for 8 individuals with a private guide. It brought us to three different properties: one was an Italian style, one was a luxury French style (Chandon) and one authentic American winery where producers welcomed us in person and proudly displayed their “treasures”.  Apart from the wine tasting, we were allowed to visit the property where lovely art reproductions of the missions that founded San Francisco are displayed.  And why not visit the Rubicon Estate, owned by Francis Ford Coppola? Just gorgeous, apparently!

Regenerative: the village of Calistoga, known as the “Best Spa Town in America”, located north of Napa Valley, a one hour and a half drive from San Francisco, shelters many resorts dedicated to wellness with thermal waters, mud baths and massages. The one that inspired us most was the Indian Springs Resort – after all, the Wappo Native Americans were the first first to exploit thermal waters for wellbeing!  The oldest and most authentic one in the region (1862), its geysers, rose and lavender fields, palm and olive groves constitute an exceptional surrounding. It also offers spectacular views of the surrounding mountains from the rooms or small cottages that are offered for rental.  

Wild:  The Manka’s Inverness Lodge will be a favorite for those who love the wilderness, good food and comfort.  With a view of the water or in the forest, it is a lodge encased in the hills, offering hunting and fishing experiences as well as biking or hiking on the paths of the Point Reyes National Seashore. Everything you will find in its restaurant is planted, grown, fished or hunted on site or a few minutes away.  This is one of the reasons why Food & Wine Magazine considers this restaurant one of the best 50 in America.

You will see small beaches, meet some deer, foxes, migrating birds, flowers and mushrooms. It is a very exclusive lodge with its 4 rooms and 2 cabins! Imagine the tranquility only one hour north of San Francisco.

Close by, in the village of Marshall, you can eat oysters at the Hog Island Oyster Company that also offers guests the use of a barbecue to complete their picnic.

Challenging: horseback riding, sailing, fishing, archery, trapeze, indoor or outdoor skating, tennis, surfing and kite flying are a few of the sports that are widely popular in San Francisco and its surroundings.

Why not see –in real life this time - the views that are already impressive on screen: the sea and rocks of the Monterey Bay and of Carmel Pacific Grove, Yosemite National Park, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, the gold country, Lake Tahoe, and Muir Woods.

And with a bit of luck...

What could bring more luck to you in San Francisco than meeting Vivian and Marian Brown, identical twin sisters and icons of San Francisco? They can usually be seen in Nob Hill, always together, always dressed alike with the same hairdo. If you meet them on January 27, 2012, you will be even luckier, since they will be celebrating their 85th birthday.


Sylvie Berthiaume 

Translation: Christiane Théberge








Martin Luther King Jr Memorial

Lombard street

Neighborhoods Haights

The Painted Ladies 

Cable Car

Ripley's Believe it or not

The Cartoon Art Museum

Vesuvio Cafe


Vineyard in Napa Valley

Triton Hotel

The Red Victorian Hotel

A house in San Francisco

The twin sisters Brown






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