Monday, 19 September 2011

California, Day 2

After a long night's sleep, my first full day in San Francisco started with something I've never done before: breakfast on the patio. San Francisco is currently in the middle of an Indian summer, with temperatures peaking today at a very pleasant 23C.

After a relaxed morning, I headed out about lunchtime to explore the city. I walked the two blocks to the city's main artery: Market Street.

San Francisco has a crazy mixture of grids and ad hoc roads: a grid aligned north-south and east-west extends from the northern waterfront as far south as Market Street, which is aligned northeast-southwest. South of Market Street, another grid aligned perpendicular and parallel to Market Street exists, which doesn't align much with the other grid and makes crossing Market Street by car rather difficult.

Travelling along Market Street, on the other hand, is easy, with a huge variety of on-street trams and buses, as well as two underground railway systems. What's more, all buses, trams, cable cars, and the main underground network are integrated under the San Francisco Municipal Transport Authority, universally known as Muni.

My first port of call was to Hallidie Place, at the intersection of Market and Powell, to use the main tourist information centre. I bought a map of all the transportation routes - the network is pretty complex and changes fairly frequently - as well as a seven-day pass for the whole Muni network, at a cost of $27, which is very good value - for comparison a seven-day  for just zone 1 in London is £27.60.

From there I grabbed some lunch in Subway off Powell and wandered to the nearby Union Square, which probably has the best claim to be the centre of San Francisco: it's an oasis of open space in an otherwise crowded downtown area. I sat in the shade and ate my lunch, watching all manner of locals and tourists go by.

After lunch, I caught one of San Francisco's historic cable cars. San Francisco is home to the only remaining cable car system in the world, where (unlike a funicular railway) the cable cars move by "gripping" a cable in the ground between the two rails, which moves at a constant speed of 9.5mph.

I caught the Powell-Mason line from Union Square as far as the intersection of Mason and Greenwich. I was standing on the outside of the car, holding on to the handrail. It was an exhilarating and novel way to ride around the city, and was much easier than walking for tackling San Francisco's most notable attribute: hills. 

To compare San Francisco to another hilly city I've visited recently, Edinburgh has hills which interrupt the urban sprawl of the city, with the Mound, Calton Hill and Arthur's Seat all jutting up and all unspoilt by modern buildings. San Francisco, by contrast, has for the most part extended right over the hills, and to maintain the grid some of the streets have almost impossibly steep gradients, to the point that some even have steps for pedestrians.

I discovered this for myself after the cable car ride. I was heading for Coit Tower, which sits atop Telegraph Hill, and provides wonderful 360-degree vistas. However, being at the top of a hill, it requires a certain amount of effort to get up there. I had hoped to get a #39 bus up to the top, but it wasn't running this Sunday due to a special event in the area.

I was thus faced with the long walk up the hill. As well as some pretty hilly bits of road (which make many cities in the UK seem positively flat), there were over 100 steps up Filbert Street. After a few minutes, though I made it to the base of the tower.

Even from the base of Coit Tower, the views are pretty spectacular. Once you ride the lift (sorry, the elevator) to the top, however, you are rewarded with just about the best view of San Francisco and the bay area; well worth the $7 for the lift.

To the south is downtown San Francisco, and to the west are the hills of the North Beach suburb. To the north-west is San Francisco's most-photographed sight: the Golden Gate Bridge. Connecting San Francisco to neighbouring Marin County, it forms a vital transport link that saves a very long detour.

To the north, in the bay, you can see the bleak former prison island of Alcatraz, now a well-trodden museum (which I intend to visit later in the week). To the east you can see the Bay Bridge, a double-deck road bridge much less photographed than the Golden Gate bridge but much more important and much busier.

After a good few photos from the small top of Coit Tower, I got the elevator back down to ground level and had an ice-cream while admiring the only slightly less spectacular views from the base of the tower.

I then headed down to the Embarcadero, the eastern waterfront of San Francisco. To get down to sea level, I followed Greenwich Street which, due to the hills, was no longer a road but a long set of steps with pedestrian access to some of the most impossibly-placed houses in the city. After no fewer than 398 steps, I was back at sea level - I'm glad I was going down, not up!

I caught the F streetcar (tram) line round to the Waterfront Park area of Fisherman's Wharf, which was thronging with tourists. I wandered around a little, but decided the area was best experienced when it was a bit quieter, and headed back on the F line to Ferry Plaza.

The Ferry Building stands at the north-east end of Market Street and marks the focal point of the old waterfront: before the Bay Bridge was built, there were nearly as many commuters between San Francisco and Oakland who used the ferries.

Nowadays, with Oakland being the main port for cargo in the area, San Francisco's eastern waterfront is used mainly by ferries offering cruises around the bay, including to the Golden Gate and to Alcatraz.

Until the earthquake of 1989, however, a freeway ran over the Embarcadero, which runs along the waterfront, which was originally going to connect the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge; it was never completed, but the sections that were built were well-used until the 1989 earthquake damaged the Embarcadero section.

Pressure had been growing to demolish the freeway even before the earthquake, and the opportunity was taken to demolish the freeway and restore the waterfront to it's rightful glory. The Ferry Building now takes pride of place in a modern, vibrant waterfront.

Just to the south lies the Bay Bridge, completed six months earlier than the Golden Gate Bridge and now carrying over double the traffic. It connects San Francisco to Oakland, across the bay, via Yerba Buena Island. Given the population in both cities and the volume of traffic using the bridge, it's no wonder that it's been nicknamed the car-strangled spanner.

Its lower deck was originally dedicated to trains and trucks, with the upper deck for cars, but in 1963 the decks were reconfigured with five lanes on each deck, one for eastbound traffic and one for westbound.

The section east of Yerba Buena Island is a steel truss construction, though it is currently being replaced with a suspension bridge to prevent a repeat of the partial collapses suffered in the 1989 earthquake. The section west of Yerba Buena Island, however, is a two-span suspension bridge which was retrofitted immediately after the earthquake. It makes for a decent photo backdrop while at the waterfront.

A short walk away is the San Francisco Railway Museum. Unlike the other Muni rail lines, the F line which runs along the waterfront and down Market Street runs preserved tram cars from all over the world, which were saved and lovingly restored by "a bunch of rail nerds" (the proprietor's words), before being handed over to Muni for use in service.

The museum shows all 50 preserved tram cars: every day a selection of 20 cars are used in service. On my three journeys on the F line today I rode two from Milan, Italy, and one from Philadelphia that had been painted to honour the Boston Elevated Railway. 

I bought a t-shirt and a couple of postcards in the museum, which in spite of its size was really interesting, and the proprietor was really nice and talkative (though I guess when you're self-employed and running a museum it's probably a good idea to entertain your customers as much as possible).

After that, I caught my third and final F line streetcar of the day and headed back to the apartment, where we had some dinner and again retired for a fairly early night.

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