One of the world’s most fascinating cities… 24 hours… what do you do?
I found myself in this predicament recently when I traveled to San Francisco. I had the choice to sprint through the city and see the sights listed on a travel guide — Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, The Embarcadero, Golden Gate, Alcatraz Island, Haight and Ashbury, Chinatown, The Presidio, The Exploratorium. The list went on. I had a decision to make: I could quickly make my way around the city to each point of interest, snap a fast photo, and then zoom off for the next one on the list. Take thirty minutes to enjoy the famous clam chowder in a bread bowl at Pier 39? Ugh, I wish! Or I could spend the day, sun up to sun down, getting to know one area in particular. The options are endless when it comes to the 49-square mile City By The Bay and I would have loved to do it all, believe me! But I am also attracted to the intimacy of understanding a neighborhood like a local. As tough as a decision it was, I chose the latter. I wanted to feel San Francisco as best I could – authentic and real.
As a teenager, I breezed through Chinatown without the ability to understand its beauty yet. Always inspired by Los Angeles’ Chinatown neighborhood, I knew I wanted to really explore the area. My hotel was a quick shot to Chinatown and easy walking distance to the North Beach district, a part of the city I had yet to explore. North Beach sits adjacent to Chinatown, both on the northeast side of city. To say I was excited to explore this community would be an understatement. I strapped on my camera, laced up my converse, and took to the streets without the anxious rush to sightsee.
I started my morning with a cold brew coffee and veggies on toast at The Station SF. To be honest, what initially drew me in was a sign for Blue Bottle, a local coffee roaster I love. But once I was inside, I became a quick fan. In addition to slinging my favorite coffee, they serve cold-pressed juices and food made from scratch daily. The atmosphere was cool and laid back — the perfect way to start any day.
Vesuvio Cafe, a North Beach joint since 1948, is a world-renowned, historical monument to the Beat Generation, jazz, art, and poetry of San Francisco in the ’50s and ’60s. North Beach was the center of the historic Beat Generation, a subculture led by a group of authors and poets that influenced and explored American culture in the 1950s. The core group of authors – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs – met in New York in the ’40s and found themselves back together in San Francisco in the 1950s, persuading a non-comformative movement and leading spontaneous creativity. In the 1960s, the literary works of Ginsberg and Kerouac influenced the hippie and larger counterculture movements. Kerouac would frequent Vesuvio and today, you can still feel the erratic, mad-hatter, creative energy.
If you ever find yourself in Chinatown without a place to eat, go to House of Nanking. Scratch that, if you ever find yourself in San Francisco, go to House of Nanking! The food was so delicious I wouldn’t/couldn’t/didn’t stop eating. The vibe caters to efficiency; I shared a table with five others, under a sign that read “watch your head” and next to a crate of fresh vegetables peeking out from the kitchen. Service was quick and to the point. There’s no time to waste here! Some might say the dining experience here is bizarre and loud but I think it’s a brilliant stop-off while adventuring through Chinatown. I’ll say it one more time: House of Nanking is the real deal. (Go there.)
If there’s one thing you may notice walking through the neighborhood, it’s the Transamerica Pyramid, the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco. The pyramid is covered in crushed quartz and gives off an undeniably picturesque light at sunset. Pictured next to it is the Columbus Tower, or Sentinel Bulding. The copper-green flat-iron shaped structure was finished in 1907 and straddles the North Beach, Chinatown, and Financial Districts. The building initially housed an infamous local politician is now owned and occupied by film director Francis Ford Coppola and his businesses.
Remember when I was talking about the Beat Generation? Well, if you haven’t noticed already, I am fascinated by it. I am working my way through Mania, a history book of sorts that tells of the outrageous lives that influenced this particular cultural revolution, written by Ronald Collins and David Skover. So you probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that I nearly flipped out in excitement when I saw a sign for The Beat Museum. The exhibition is chock full of memorabilia, rare copies of books, personal journal entries, photos, letters, and records. I walked through the space dumbfounded and mesmerized. Inspired and in awe. The shop directly outside of the museum was a gritty reflection of what life may have been like back then. Records were everywhere, books were piled high in bathtubs and boxes, journals sat quietly on old tables, and vintage posters hung on the wall. Truly fascinating, indeed.
On my way out of the city, I stopped to catch the view from the opposite side. San Francisco, you are magnetic. I am hypnotized by your history, your imaginativeness… your raw beauty. I’m glad I decided against the touristy must-sees and rather soaked in all of the magic of the North Beach and Chinatown communities. It was a 24 hours for the books.
+ What would you do if you only had 24 hours in a city?
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