A big storm was forecast for our second day in San Francisco, but so far we had been lucky. Our culinary tour through the North Beach area had gone off without a hitch. Even the sun peeked out here and there. Local food and culture expert Tom Medin who runs Local Taste of the City Tours, provided us with a great introduction to San Francisco and its lifestyle as well as a sampling of the culinary treats on offer in this bustling Italian-flavoured neighbourhood in San Francisco.This three and a half hour tour had not only enhanced our knowledge of San Francisco; the various treats we were offered had also stimulated our taste buds.
How steep is Filbert Street?
We said goodbye to Tom on Washington Square and started heading up a steep street called Filbert Street to explore another San Francisco landmark: the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. Walking up the steep incline I was amazed how people are able to park their cars on these streets. As we continued further up the hill, a beautiful view opened up towards downtown San Francisco, crowned by the Transamerica Pyramid. Through the trees we even got glimpses towards the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge.
View towards the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge
The Coit Tower was built in 1933 at the top of Telegraph Hill with funds that were donated to the city by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a volunteer firefighter and philanthropist. Lillie had been rescued as a child from a fire and held a life-long high esteem for firefighters. The top of the tower actually resembles the end of a fire hose. The structure is 210 feet high and the lobby holds some phenomenal murals. These wall paintings were created in 1933 by a group of renowned San Francisco artists as part of a government funded program to keep artists employed during the Great Depression.
The murals are really stunning. Life size images of themes such as industry, agriculture, science and banking fill the space of the main floor of the Coit Tower. For me one of the most striking scenes includes the depiction of a robbery on a San Francisco street; a few inches away the image of a traffic accident illustrates life in the big city. The murals are very colourful and life-like and present a true time capsule of life in the 1930s.
Industry in the 1930s
Newspaper images illustrate the headlines of the day; paintings of every day people showcase the fashion of this fascinating decade. Many of the images carry a theme of social justice and political commentary of the times. Given my fascination with Art Deco architecture and the 1930s in general, I spent a solid half hour at the bottom of the tower, studying the images. For any arts aficionado, Coit Tower is a great destination, and best of all, the murals on the main floor are free to view.
On the north side of Coit Tower is a viewing platform that provides an absolutely astounding view of the northern shoreline of San Francisco. The Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island figure prominently against the backdrop of the Marin Headlands. From here we started to make our way down the hill, using a narrow set of wooden stairs called the Filbert Steps that took us along a steep descent through a beautiful residential area of San Francisco. The gardens lining this narrow walkway are tended and paid for by local residents, and many of the houses adjoining it can only be reached from the steps.
View towards Oakland from the Filbert Steps
Once we were at the bottom we had reached The Embarcadero, the roadway on the eastern waterfront of San Francisco. This major road actually sits on top of an engineered seawall on reclaimed land. The name stems from the Spanish word “embarcar” which means “to board a ship”. Many piers line the Embarcadero including famous Pier 39 which has become one of the San Francisco’s most popular tourist destinations.
Pier 39 – one of San Francisco’s most popular attractions
Pier 39 today is a popular shopping centre and tourist attraction that holds a large variety of retail stores, restaurants and a video arcade. One of the main attractions is the Aquarium of the Bay which features local marine animals, including 50 sharks of different species. The Touch the Bay exhibit allows you to actually pet a number of animals including bat rays, leopard sharks, sea stars and others.
The vintage carousel
Another popular attraction is the historic San Francisco Carousel which was handcrafted in Italy and features illustrations of famous San Francisco landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the Coit Tower and Lombard Street. Eighteen hundred twinkling lights adorn the carousel, and children can ride on classic moving horses, spinning tubs, swings and rocking chariots.
Sea lions lazing in the afternoon sun
Of course another attraction that cannot be missed are Pier 39’s sea lions. A few specimens of this barking mammal species started to arrive in January of 1990, shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake. Today there are several hundred of them, lazing around on the wooden docks. During the winter there can be up to 900 sea lions, and watching them is a popular activity for locals and travelers alike. We stood for quite a while on the western side of Pier 39, watching the antics of these endearing creatures.
Harbour scene near Pier 39