HOW TO DRIVE IN SAN FRANCISCO: DON’T

If you are planning on driving in San Francisco, don’t. Really. Really and Truly. You won’t like it. It will be frustrating and expensive and will waste valuable vacation time. And you’ll be clogging up roads I drive on and be baffled and I may honk at you which will embarrass me if I’ve met you on a private tour the day before. The GPS won’t help, because everyone else unfamiliar with San Francisco will use it too and you will all be clogged on the same road. And the Magical GPS Goddess won’t help. She doesn’t live here and gives half-ass directions because she doesn’t care about being accurate and really doesn’t care about you. And she’s usually drunk.  Plus we have hundreds of Uber and Lyft drivers who don’t know their way around staring at their phones and double parking adding to the already insane congestion.

The Magical GPS Goddess also doesn’t keep track of the many, many sudden and capricious road closures and detours which plague our city. We are both building at a breakneck pace and digging up the street at a snail’s pace. This means at any given time a street will be closed but the Magical GPS Goddess doesn’t know that, and she’ll tell you to drive down one. But you can’t. And neither can anyone else. So you’ll all sit in the intersection baffled as to what to do until someone honks at you (possibly me) and you sudden lurch forward or make a dangerous and idiotic u-turn and be confused until the Magical GPS Goddess slurs her drunk instructions of “Rerouting.”

We are a small city and have good public transportation. Consider getting a MUNI passport, available at most drugstores. It is a deal, and gets you unlimited rides on all public transportation, (including the cable cars), and if you need to go somewhere a little out of the way, a taxi is great. By the way, if you have kids, riding public transportation, especially the streetcars, is like an amusement park ride. They’ll dig it, especially if you’re on one of the underground trains going through a tunnel and they get to stand in the front near the driver.
Save the money you would spend on a rental car and parking for public transportation and wine bars.

Short version: don’t drive. No one will like it, especially you. Well, maybe especially me, but you a lot.

Staying outside San Francisco to Save Money? Don’t. It won’t.

I’ve had guests tell me they are planning to stay at a hotel outside San Francisco to save money. Unless you’re getting a significant break, say $150 bucks a night, it’s not going to be worth it. And if the difference between a moderately priced room in the city and one near the airport is $150, enjoy the cigarette burns in the carpet, low water pressure, and sharing the mattress with bedbugs. That amount you’ll save to stay in a reasonably decent hotel outside the city is between $50 and $80.

There are many reasons people think staying outside the city at cheaper hotel makes economic sense. All but one reason is wrong, and even that reason which might justify staying near the airport instead of San Francisco proper is suspect. If you have an early morning flight which requires that you’re up before the crows, maybe, maybe it makes sense. Other than that, it’s a bargain as false as a payday loan.

Often the decision will be considered because the travelers have a car. They are on a road trip, and the hotels near the airport have usually free parking, whereas hotels in the city will charge up to $60 a day to park. But if you drive into the city it is going to cost about that much to park in a garage for the day. Because a significant source of the city’s revenue is from parking violations, getting a spot on the street is risky. The signage indicating where and how long you can park is confusing as the fine print on a refi document. Driving in the city is not for the uninitiated, and don’t think “But I have GPS.” The GPS goddess doesn’t live here, doesn’t like you, and is usually drunk.  Getting in and out of San Francisco, and in the city itself, is a nightmare because of the thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers clogging the roads like Paula Deen’s arteries.

What about leaving the car at the hotel, and taking public transportation into the city? If you’re taking an Uber, Lyft, or taxi, a round trip is going to cost as much, if not more, than parking in the city. Public transportation is cheaper, but not significantly so.

Even if the savings in money pencils out, and it won’t, but if you’re willing to justify saving $30 day, you’re going to pay with the time and hassle it costs to commute.

At an outside hotel, the first thing that greets you in the morning is the mediocre breakfast. After that disappointment, instead of being able to walk outside and start having fun in the city, you have to get to the city. That’s going to take 30 minutes, providing you go between 10am and 2pm and after 8pm at night and even then that’s only if the travel angels take pity on you, which they won’t, because they’re getting hammered with the GPS Goddess. So assume at least 45 minutes to an hour each way. That’s a lot of time commuting when you could be relaxing. And if you’ve booked your private tour with me, I charge extra for a pickup outside the city, and the clock starts when at the hotel. That can get pricy, and that money can be spent on better things like food and wine bars.

If getting into the city in the morning isn’t a trial, and it will be, going home at night will give you plenty of time to regret you’re spending the last hour of your vacation day on a freeway instead of in a wine bar. Do you really want to spend the day exploring the city, having a nice dinner, a couple of drinks, and at the end instead of a pleasant walk back to your hotel, you have to somehow schlep back to your airport lodging and all the disappointments it contains and is surrounded by.

Staying outside the city makes no sense. The money you might save is spent on crushing your soul. Save your soul, enjoy yourself on vacation, and stay in San Francisco.

MONTESACRO: It’s pinsa, not pizza, and you want it

This SF Insider Tip takes you down a bright alley off a sketchy street that even some overly nervous locals ridiculously avoid.  Montesacro is a restaurant worth seeking out–I often recommend it to my private tour guests staying near Union Square.  It serves pinsa, which if you haven’t had it, you want it.

A pinsa is a Roman flatbread, made with rice, soy, and wheat flour, and leavened for at least 72 hours. That makes a difference, as the result is much easier to digest than typical American pizza.

Roman pizza--Insider tip with private tour San Francisco.

But easy digestion is not the reason to go to Montesacro. All the food is simple, delicious, made with top quality ingredients, many imported directly from Rome. Montesacro is named for an area outside of Rome, and the interior makes you feel like you’ve stepped into one of its neighborhood restaurants.

Roman pizza--Insider tip with private tour San Francisco.

There is an interesting wine list, many of which are little known Italian imports, and offer a chance to drink something outside the usual Zin and Cabs. Tell your server what style of wine you like, and at what price. and they will make several suggestions.

Reservations are usually a good idea, but they do hold space for walk-ups.

You will probably have to walk past some of the local folks who live and hang out on 6th street. They’re not going to hassle you. Remember, they’re poor, not dangerous.  It’s their neighborhood, and they see people like you all the time, whether you’re going to have pinsa from Montesacro or Pho Bo from Tu Lan (the celebrated Vietnamese place on 6th St/Market You’ll probably walk by it.)

MONTESACRO

510 STEVENSON ST (at SIXTH STREET)

SAN FRANCISCO

415-795-3040

Why you need a map when visiting San Francisco (or any other city)

I never visit a city without a map. I rarely use my GPS. I admit this would have been useful in Tokyo, where everyone gets lost, even people who live there. But tracking down locations via the Magical GPS Goddess also means I would have not had the experience of discovering unexpected places. Get a map for your private tour of San FranciscoAs I always tell my private tour guests, when you use a map, you get a sense of place. You learn how the city is laid out, and where sites are located compared to each other. Look a map, and you can see that Coit Tower is about a 20 minute walk from Chinatown, and Chinatown is on the edge of Union Square. Golden Gate park is on the western side of the city, next to the Haight Ashbury.

You don’t learn this by punching in a location, and having the blue dot direct you. You only learn what is on that path, and not where that path is in relation to the rest of the neighborhood or city. Plus you’ll be staring at your phone and not observing what is around you.

A GPS has its place in travel. If you’re hideously lost, it helps. But unless you find yourself in a strange wilderness (which means you’re probably in the Presidio), use a map. Ask directions of people on the street. Travel is about experience, and you lose some of that adventure by allowing the Magical GPS Goddess to lead you by the nose.

Get a map. Ask directions. Occasionally get lost. That’s how to experience San Francisco.

Amelie–Lively Wine Bar with Great Selection of Wine and Cheese

Seek and ye shall find.

It is easy to stick to favorite restaurants and bars. It makes the decision making process easier, especially after a long week and all I want is a glass of wine in a comfortable place with no surprises to price or atmosphere. What I tend to forget is that the usual places I love were at one time new discoveries.

I discovered Amelie a few weeks ago. It was a night my wife and I were searching for a good glass of wine and some good cheese. We started at a place in the Financial District (or the FiDi, as it is known to those who are very busy and overscheduled and to prove it to us lesser mortals must use an acronym at every opportunity.  By the way, “San Fran” drives me up the wall as well. But that’s another post. Anyway….) which was way overpriced for both the wine and the cheese plate. The portions on the cheese plate seemed to come from scraps tossed onto board as the waiter rushed by the kitchen, and wine, while good, not worth the price.

Great wine bar--private tour San Francisco

Here’s a rule of thumb I share with my private tour guests: if the wine menu doesn’t have at least one glass of wine under $10, consider going somewhere else. If nothing is under $15, run like the wind. You can get good wine all over the city that won’t bust your budget.

Undaunted I searched for “best cheese plate” and Amelie came up as a favorite several times.  And with good reason. It is a lively bar with a large selection of wines by the bottle and glass. The Monday night we were there the special was a bottle of wine and a cheese plate for $35. A steal. The wine was earthy with some spice, not the fruit bomb that is woefully common these days, and the cheese plate had proper portions, not the insulting dainty servings that are far too common.

The attention to good wine and food served at a reasonable price may have something to do with the French atmosphere of Amelie, and the staff, who are also international. They take good wine and food as a birthright, as an indispensable part of life. I couldn’t agree more.

Ameie 1754 Polk Street  (at Washington Street)
Open Seven Days a Week 5:30pm – 2:00am
Happy Hour From 5:30 – 7:00

(415) 292-6916

Check out the wine list

Castro Theatre–A Grand Movie Palace

One of the questions I often get from my private tour guests is “What to do at night?” After a day of seeing the sites and having dinner, people often just go back to the hotel to crash and watch TV.

Instead of watching TV, why not go to the movies? And go to the movies in style.

Castro theater--private tour San Francisco

The Castro Theatre is a rare experience. A gorgeous Art Deco movie palace, built in 1922 to not only show films but to lure people out of their homes to bask in ornate beauty for the price of a ticket. Few of these movie palaces exist anymore, and even fewer with a full Wurlitzer Theater organ, complete with silent film sound effects. The organ rises out of the floor and is played at night before most screenings.

Movie Palace--private tour San Francisco

The Castro screens an eclectic variety of films: second run, indy, foreign, vintage. There are also sing-alongs where lyrics are projected on the screen. Sing-a-long “Grease” and “Moana” are recent offerings,and every year their is the sing-a-long “Sound of Music.”

Visiting a city is about experiencing what you can’t back home.  And I’m going to bet that your city doesn’t have a movie palace like the Castro. And if it does, go and compare our palace to yours.

Deco movie palace--private tour San Francisco

If you’re staying downtown, getting to the Castro Theater couldn’t be easier on MUNI. 3 lines, the M, L, K/T underground trains go to the Castro District, so you never have to wait more than a couple of minutes, and the Castro street station is just across the street from the theatre. Getting back downtown is equally quick and easy.

The Castro Theatre

Hotel Biron–Small Wine Bar and Art Gallery

My wife and I have a standing date on Friday night, known as the Wine Hour, even though it lasts longer than that. The Hotel Biron is one of our favorite destinations to mark the end of the week.

Hidden wine bar--private tour San Francisco

It has a rotating wine list with 50 wines or so wines, about of those available half by the glass. The pours are generous, but unless you’re going to sample several different wines (which I endorse) , tell the bartender what sort of wine you like, ask for a taste, and if it is good, buy the bottle. The glass to bottle price at the Hotel Biron makes it a deal. There are 5 glasses to a bottle, so if your group, (or just you) are going to have at least three glasses, get the bottle. You can cork the leftover and take it with you.

The Hotel Biron is one of those places off the tourist path–although it’s conveniently located near Hayes Valley (a favorite stop for my private tour guests who like to shop). It is a small, brick lined place that is not on a main street and doesn’t have a big sign blaring its location. It also doubles as an art gallery with shows by local artists. The last time I was there the one piece I really wanted had already been spoken for. Fortunately, there was wine to ease my pain.
Wine Art--private tour San Francisco

Hotel Biron

45 Rose St., Near Market and Gough 415-703-0403

www.hotelbiron.com

INOVINO–a neighborhood wine bar easy to get to from downtown

Hidden gem discovered on private tour San Francisco If you’re staying downtown, there are many good reasons to hop on the N-Judah street car and take a quick ride to Cole Valley, and the Inner Sunset. There you will experience San Francisco neighborhoods that most visitors miss, and restaurants and wine bars locals love. A private tour is about seeing the city like a local, and discovering hidden gems, and I love telling guest about the neighborhood gem that is Inovino.

Get off the N-Judah at Carl and Cole. Inovino is steps away. Inovino is an intimate restaurant that has simple, good food, and large selection of wine. The happy hour (from 4-6 weekdays, 3-6 Saturday and Sunday) is one of the best deals in the city.

Francesco, the owner knows his wine and has a extensive and interesting list. He created a restaurant where the neighborhood loves to hang out. Is is where my wife and I have our weekly Friday night “wine down.” This is the sort of place you go home and brag about finding.

Inovino, 108 Carl St., 681-3770

The key to a great time in San Francisco—Just Ask.

Don’t know what bus or street car to get on? Confused about the best way to get to Union Square? Want to find the best wine bar in the neighborhood? The best way to get an answer is to ask someone.

Just ask--how to get the most out of your private tour of San Francisco

People love sharing their knowledge. Think about it: how often in your daily life does  someone ask for your opinion or expertise? And how much fun is it when someone does ask, and you get to share your information?

The most common question concerns directions. If you’re confused, ask someone. (By the way, get a better map than the crappy one you got at the hotel. See my post about this.) They will be glad to give you the best way there. This also applies to getting on the right bus or streetcar. San Franciscan’s love to help with public transportation. It’s our main topic of conversation, right after restaurants. For fun, next time you’re on a bus or streetcar, ask advice about the best way to get somewhere. You’ll have five eager people getting involved in the discussion, and agreeing on the best way, or offering you a couple of alternatives.

The asking rule also applies to places to eat, drink, or sites to see. My wife and I were recently in New York, and weren’t having luck on The Google Machine coming up with an answer to the question that is usually first on my list: Is there a good wine bar in the neighborhood? (Yes, the Google Machine is an option, and I use it all the time. But human beings are better.) So I asked the people staffing the front desk at an art gallery. They gave me detailed descriptions of 3 wine bars in the area, explaining the differences in food, atmosphere, and selection. And best of all, they were so happy to share their knowledge of local watering holes.

You can also use the ask trick if you want to know about shopping or something interesting to do in a neighborhood.

Shy about approaching someone? So am I sometimes. I make myself get over it. Just start the conversation with “Excuse me, I wonder if you can give me advice about…………..?” Remember, they want to help, and love being asked their opinion.

Guests on their private tour ask me a lot of questions, and I encourage them to keep that up after the tour is over. Ask more, and you’ll see the city like a local, meet a local, and make the day of a local. Asking will enhance your experience of San Francisco.

The Homeless, Panhandlers, and your safety in San Francisco

When I’m taking people on a private tour, a frequent question has to with the homeless, panhandlers, and safety.
First thing: you’re safe here. San Francisco is a safe city. No one wants to hurt you. No one wants to mug you. No one wants to hassle you or deliberately make you uncomfortable. (Well, sort of. More on that later.)

Let me address crime. The biggest problem is property theft, and most of that is breaking into cars and stealing what is on the seat. If you’re not driving (and you shouldn’t–it’s a freaking nightmare for newcomers to drive in San Francisco) then nothing will be stolen out of your car.

You do have to be aware of hanging your purse or backpack over a chair in a restaurant. People will take the opportunity to dip into it. Also on a crowded bus or streetcar.

Thieves want your stuff. They don’t want to hurt you–it’s too much trouble, and calls attention to them. Why should they hurt someone when if they’re patient an open back pack will offer an easily picked wallet? If you use common sense, and make it difficult for a thief to take your stuff, they’ll find someone else who’s purse or backpack is temptingly unattended.

San Francisco has homeless people and panhandlers. The homeless, many of whom should be in treatment, are trying to survive on the street. They don’t want to bother you. By the way, know want to know the fastest growing segment of homeless? Female military veterans.

Panhandlers (who are also usually homeless) will ask for spare change. You can ignore them, smile and say “Sorry,” or give them change. But whatever you do, they are not going to hurt you. Don’t be afraid of them.

Occasionally, if you are near Union Square, you might find yourself on or near a sketchy street. There might even be someone who looks like a drug dealer or prostitute. This might make you uncomfortable, and rightly so, but you’re not going to be hurt. They know you don’t want what they’re selling and won’t bother you.

Last year, my wife and I were in Barcelona, made a turn and found ourselves on a sketchy street. The people on the street knew we did not want whatever drug or degridating sex thrill they had to offer. Since we had obviously turned down the wrong aisle, the most we got was an eye-roll. Uncomfortable, sure. Dangerous? Not at all. Same in San Francisco.

So, to sum up, you’re OK here. San Francisco is a city, and has the whole range of city people. Some may be people you don’t experience back home. But honestly, you’re going to be hassled more by a drunk fratboy or a tech bro with an overblown sense of entitlement. They will be openly rude to you, shove you out of the way in the crosswalk, or steal your seat at a bar, and are going to ruin your day more than than some poor panhandler.

Coit Tower-a gift of public space.

One of the reasons I love Coit Tower is that its purpose is public space. It doesn’t have what is generally considered a practical purpose, such as a conduit for commerce or a city building for storage or business.  It was built with seed money from Lily Coit who left a third of her estate to San Francisco “to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved.”  Coit Tower has much to offer the visitor. Coit Tower as seen up close on a private tour of San FranciscoFrom the parking lot, there are views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Russian Hill, and Alcartaz. Inside the tower are murals from the 1930’s PWA project. Custom private tour of coit tower library mural

Here’s an insider tip: if you need a bathroom, there are art deco toilets inside don’t stand in line at the toiler kiosk outside. All are free.

A $7 elevator ride takes you 15 stories above the city. Coit Tower view from the top on the custom private tour of San Francisco

The line to get up to the top can be long and daunting, especially during holidays, summer, and weekends. Either go early or later in the day to avoid what can be a 45 minute wait. Getting down from the top can be difficult as well, as the elevator only holds 7 people.

If you don’t get out and go inside while on your private tour in the convertible MINI Cooper,  you should make it part of your day when you visit North Beach. After coffee in the the morning, take one of the many staircases on the Western (North Beach) side up to the tower. Then take another staircase back down to North Beach for lunch and a glass of wine.

A must see for Star Wars fans–and you can’t see it from a big bus

I have learned that it is impossible to tell a Star Wars fan just be observation. Sure, there are those who proudly display their fandom with t-shirt and hats, but most big fans don’t announce it. So I ask my guests how big a Star Wars fan they are. Some may not have a personal light saber, at least on them at the moment, but a fan is glad to announce their loyalty. And if they are a fan I make it a point to take them to Star Wars treasures.

George Lucas’ digital empire—The Letterman Digital Arts center, which includes Industrial Light and Magic and Lucas Film is located in the Presidio. The LDA center doesn’t offer tours of any kind, but they do not leave fans without a reason to drop by.

In the courtyard of the complex is a statue of Yoda, which is available for a photo op 7 days a week. If you’re in town Monday through Friday during business hours, visitors are welcome to come into the lobby. On display are a collection of Star Wars memorabilia, including a life size Boba Fett and Darth Vader costume.

Big buses are not allowed in the Presideo. Vans are not allowed to pull up in the parking lot.  But a custom private tour in the convertible MINI cooper can go everywhere, even right up to the Star Wars treasure house.

yoda as seen on the custom private tour of San Francisco's Presideoboba fett as seen on the custom private tour of San Francisco's Presideo

The InnerFog–a neighborhood wine bar next to Golden Gate Park

I love New York City, and New Yorkers are quick to tell me I’m correct in this assessment because New York, not the sun, is the center of the universe, or at least the only part of the universe that matters.  I will then concede that when it comes to theater, art, fashion,  pastrami, tall buildings, and corrupt real estate barons, New York outshines San Francisco. But when you want a decent glass of wine under $10, San Francisco doesn’t win, because to win would be to assume there is competition. There isn’t. You can’t get a glass of wine in New York for under a sawbuck unless it can also be pressed into service as nail polish remover. When it comes to wine under $10 a glass, New York City just can’t produce a dog for the fight. There’s no contest. (By the way, I would be glad to be proved wrong on this, so anyone out there who would like to offer up a contender for good, inexpensive wine in NYC, the comment box is open.)

The InnerFog at 545 Irving in the Inner Sunset is one such wine bar that New York lacks. I love showing guests the Inner Sunset on their custom private tour, as it is off the usual path, next to Golden Gate Park, and it is easy to get to especially if you’re staying downtown. Take the N Judah, get off at 7th Ave, and it’s right across the street.

The InnerFog is welcoming anytime, but the happy hour deals convince you you should get off the sidewalk and get inside.  From opening each day (currently 5pm Mon-Wed, 4pm Thurs-Sun) until 7pm Friday you can get good wine for only $7 a glass. The happy hour wine changes every few weeks. Currently I like the Tuscan Sangiovese , but whatever they have whenever you will show up there will be satisfying.

If you can’t make it for happy hour, come anyway. The wine list is well catered and reasonably priced. They have craft beer on tap if that’s your beverage. There are small snack plates if you’re hungry. Art by locals artists. Knowledgeable staff. A friendly group of regulars. All the usual suspects and amenities you want from a neighborhood wine bar.

If you want to brag that you’ve gone off the beaten path and discovered a local’s place in San Francisco, head to the InnerFog. You’ll not only get good wine at a good price, you may win an argument with a New Yorker.

inner fog--a favorite place to be dropped off after a custom private tour of San Francisco

The 16th Ave tiled steps — beautiful views, beautiful mosaic, and off the usual tourist path

Since January of 2003, neighborhood volunteers and artists have transformed a drab western hillside staircase into a beautiful and inspiring creation of public art. It was, and continues to be a community project, bringing over 300 people together to enhance this neighborhood. Each of the 163 steps are decorated with a tile mural. Though the city had little to do with the stairs, other than giving permission, a stipend, and staying out of the way, since they are on city property they are for the enjoyment of everybody.

But appreciating the beauty of the tiles is just part of the fun. Climb the stairs and there you get an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean few visitors experience.

Big Tour buses are not allowed in the neighborhood, and it is located just far enough away from Golden Gate Park that few people bother to make the trek to discover the 16th Ave. steps. But for the adventurous willing to walk the 10 blocks it is worth it, and will be one of those experiences to brag about back home. Of course, if you don’t want to walk, I can take you there on a custom private tour as well.

16th ave tiled steps as viewed from the MINI Cooper custom private tour of San Francisco

16th ave tiled steps view from the custom private tour of San Francisco in the MINI Cooper

The Audium–a true “only in San Francisco” experience

From the beginner traveler adverse to public transpiration to the seasoned globetrotter who will quickly turn up their nose at any site, attraction or event that has popular recognition, thinking, falsely, that only the obscure and unheard of offers a true experience of a city, a common manta is to find the “only in (fill in city here)” experience. In San Francisco there is a reason the usual attractions, such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower are worth the time and effort to seek out.  Every city has singular landmarks (ie, the Eiffel Tower, the Roman Colosseum) that deserve the time and annoyance of dealing with crowds.

But everyone wants to find those truly unique and sometimes odd experiences and sites. Some make more of an effort to find them than others, but even those travelers who check off a list of greatest hits would accept an invitation to something “only in—-”

That’s why you should visit the Audium. There is nothing like it anywhere else. There. I’ve told you about it. Now go.

Get dropped at the audium after your custom private tour of San Francisco

You sit in a room surrounded by 176 speakers. The lights go out, and in the pitch dark you are immersed in audio compositions consisting of music, and sounds both natural and man made. The complex orchestrations use the speakers as another instrument to give the sounds direction and motion. You could hear birds flying across the room, while violins are first playing to your sides, then overhead, accompanied by the thrum of machinery or the ticking of clocks.

audium- a one of a kind experience with a unique custom private tour

To describe it does not do it justice. The Audium must be experienced. There are only three shows a week, every Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:30. Doors are at 8pm, and it good to arrive no later than 8:15. Some tickets are usually available at the box office and are $20, cash only. As the shows often sell out it is recommended that you get advance tickets at City Box Office.

The performance lasts about an hour, so if you don’t like it you haven’t blown your whole evening. But you’ll like it.

So go. Not only will it be nothing like you’ve done before, you will have experienced something that you cannot experience anywhere else.

The Best Margaritas in the Universe are in San Francisco

A few years ago I was in Edmonton, Alberta taking time off from giving private tours in the MINI to be a part of the biggest and oldest Fringe Theater festival in North America. I, or rather my alter ego, Sebastian Boswell III, was invited north to perform. Sebastian is a master of “mental mysteries and physical wonders” such as mind reading hammering a 4-inch nail in his nose. Yes, really.

One night after the show, Mrs. Boswell and I found the El Cortez, which boast an extensive tequila menu, and variations on margaritas, that, frankly, took liberties with the purity of a margarita and featured concoctions that were more at home in a Tiki bar than a Mexican restaurant. In their heart they do know and appreciate tequila, and it was proved by the Tommy’s Margarita on the menu, named in honor of Tommy’s Mexican, home of the best margarita’s on Earth.

Tommy’s Mexican out at 24th/Geary is one of those off the beaten path places that you’ll love, and be able to boast about visiting when you get back home.  tommy's -- the best margarita on the best custom private tour of San Francisco

While the restaurant is good, the real draw is the small bar serving up 100’s of different tequila. I wish I could say I appreciated them, but I don’t. I look upon the shelves packed with bottles and brands most people, especially me, have never heard of, and realize it is my shortcoming that I lack the curiosity to explore.  I have the same attitude toward beer. I’m know there are delights and subtle wonders to discover, but I’ll never know. It is my narrow devotion that wine is the alcohol I appreciate and am attempting to gain knowledge of.  I can hear you say “Why does it have to be one or the other?” It doesn’t.  It’s not you tequila, it’s me. So I don’t stray from what I like which are the house margaritas. I could be more adventurous, but I am happy with their perfection, made with quality tequila and fresh limes–no premixed stuff.

For those who want to explore, Julio, the son of the owner and genius behind the bar, literally, will gladly walk you through the many brands and their subtle distinctions. If you are truly devoted, he offers a Master’s Degree in Tequila.

The restaurant is big, but the bar is small, because its original inception in the 1960’s was a comfortable holding place while waiting for dinner. Get there early if you want to be sure you get a seat. Neighborhood regulars, and people who come to San Francisco regularly and make it point to trek out to the Richmond district and will settle into stool for a good chunk of the evening, even though food is not served at the bar after an early hour. But even if you don’t get a seat the atmosphere is friendly and you won’t mind standing.

Julio, (pictured) is the mastermind behind creating “The Greatest Tequila Bar on Earth.” He has been featured in numerous magazines and television show. If Julio is there when you are, he will treat you like a friend and long time regular.

julio--a person as unique as a custom private tour of San Francisco

It’s out in the little-visted Richmond district (out in the Avenues, as we say), but easy access from down town on the 38 Geary bus. And you’ll want to take public transportation, because you should never drive in San Francisco anyway, but especially after enjoying the best margaritas you’ll ever have. Of course I can drop you off there after your private tour, but I won’t be drinking, at least until I get the MINI back safely in the garage.

http://tommysmexican.com/

Cheap food (and water) on Fisherman’s Wharf. Don’t be a sucker–be like a local.

This is a rule everywhere in the world: get 2 blocks off the main tourist street, you find local treasures. I’ve experienced this in Lisbon, Manhattan, Paris, Rome, Barcelona, London, and Edmonton, Alberta, just to name few.
Yes, Edmonton gets tourists. People from Red Deer and Athabasca need to vacation too.

Fisherman’s Wharf, like any other tourist destination in the world, has overpriced food and even more overpriced water. A bottle of water will set you back $2 if you’re lucky, but more likely $3 or more. And the restaurants are, for the most part, over priced and mediocre quality.

Fortunately if you walk 2 blocks off the wharf and the main drag of Jefferson St, you can save money and eat better. And experience the major tourist destination like a local.

At the corner of 401 Bay St. at Mason, there is a Trader Joe’s. For 29 cents you can get a bottle that would cost ten times that much on the wharf. You can also buy sandwiches, salads and snacks.

Trader Joes north beach where guests of the San Francisco custom private tour of stock up

Shop like a local at Trader Joe’s

cafe franciso where I often pick up people for their custom private tour of San Francisco

Hang out like a local at the Cafe Francisco.

Cilantro restaurant a favortive of the custom private tour in San Francisco

Eat like a local at Clinatro

If you want to sit down to eat, there is the Cafe Francisco (2161 Powell at Francisco). No only is the food good and reasonably priced, it is a local’s hang out.

Down the block at 2257 Mason at Francisco is the Cilantro Taqueria , which serves up great burritos, tacos, and other Mexican food.

So after you’ve enjoyed the highlights of Fisherman’s Wharf, which are few and quickly appreciated, walk a couple of blocks and experience the city like a local.

The importance of a good map, and why you should get your nose out of your phone.

Whenever I travel, where ever I travel, I always buy a map before I go on the trip. They are an essential tool to discovering a city. And being overdependent on our smart phone is making us dumber.  Just Google “Are Smartphones making us dumber?” And if you do it on a cell phone you enter a world of meta self reference.

I look up stuff on my smartphone all the time. Movie times, articles, and social media. But I draw the line at using it for directions and a substitute map.

Walking a city with your face in a phone means you miss observing a neighborhood’s architecture and culture. It also makes you focus on the destination, not the journey, which, if you believe the trope, is the opposite of travel. Google (even on your phone) “It isn’t the destination it’s the journey” and you will be awash in heartfelt memes asserting this.  Despite the infusion of saccharine, there is a truth there and you don’t get it from depending on directions from your lying phone.

The phone is not the only culprit in hijacking your best experience of a city. There is also the lousy free maps.

When I walk the streets of San Francisco I see dozens of visitors clutching their hotel issued maps looking confused. I stop and give them directions, and assist in deciphering their crummy map.  Hotel maps suck. They’re free and still overpriced. They’re printed on cheap paper and tear after a couple of uses. And they’re difficult to read. But the main reason they’re terrible is they don’t have a street index.

Private tour San Francisco

You need an index to look up streets and places and generally get around. Also, a laminated map will last much longer than a paper one.
I’m a fan of the Streetwise Maps. They’re easy to use, and have public transportation information as well as streets and sites. I used them all over the world and my wife and I navigated the cities with ease.

private tour San Francisco

We also get lost occasionally. It’s worse when depending on the phone, because we all tend to give it an undeserved level of authority.  Outside of Lisbon the phone lead us to the wrong train station and wrong train. We ended up having the type of unexpected adventure that travel is supposed to be, involving the kindness of strangers pointing us in the correct direction. Colorful story aside, had we had a map, we would have got on the right train, and got lost in Lisbon. Which we did anyway. Getting lost is an important element of good traveling.

So when you come visit San Francisco, get a good map. You’ll be glad you did. And you can give directions to people with crummy hotel maps.

San Francisco’s Original Shoreline

What is San Francisco didn’t used to be San Francisco. We’re a small city; 7 miles by 7 miles (give or take.) The story of San Francisco always involves land: how to use what little we have, and how to get more of it.

This map shows the original shoreline. Soon after the Gold Rush in 1849, Yerba Buena Cove got filled in with abandoned ships and became the Financial District. The Marina lies on top of debris from the 1906 Earthquake and Fire.

So when you walk on the two flattest parts of San Francisco, you’re walking over the 2 major events in San Francisco history.

original shoreline

Inner Sunset—the hidden neighborhood next to museums in Golden Gate Park

Most visitors to San Francisco make it out to East end of Golden Gate Park. Aside from it being a beautiful place to stroll, there are museums, gardens, and other attractions. The Conservatory of Flowers (a world famous example of Victorian greenhouse architecture, upper right corner of the map), the Academy of Sciences, the DeYoung Museum, and Japanese Tea Garden  (located around Music Concourse Dr.) are most popular destinations.

But unknown to most visitors is that they are on the edge of neighborhood that has a lot of great restaurants and interesting shops. The Inner Sunset is just a 5 minute walk from the museums along Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. to 9th Ave.

MINI Cooper Tour map of Inner Sunset

Along 9th Ave. you’ll find Misdirections (one of the few brick and mortar magic shops left), Ebisu (my favorite sushi restaurant), and Hotei (Japanese noodles). Turn left at Irving, and within a few blocks there is Amazing Fantasy comic books (8th Ave), Inner Fog (great wine bar, between 6th and 7th), the Crepevine (good and inexpensive food, especially for breakfast and lunch, between 7th and 8th) and several coffee shops. If you’re around during lunch, drop into the Wolly Pig for great sandwiches, (at Hugo and 3rd.) Turn right at 9th and Irving, and down the street (between 11th and 12th) is San Tung, where people line up for the amazing chicken wings.

Those are just some of the places to discover in this neighborhood. And after you’re done exploring getting back downtown is a snap on the N Judah.