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

When I take people out on a private tour, the guests always comment on the hills. But the city isn’t all hills. A rule of thumb is “Because we have 47 hills, if something is flat, it must be landfill.”
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 make more of it.

This map shows the original shoreline. Soon after the Gold Rush in 1849, Yerba Buena Cove was filled in with thousands of abandoned ships. It took an average of 5 months to get here from where ever gold seekers came from,  and they came from all over the world (except Japan because it was isolated at the time) and the during the journey all they could think of was that someone was in the gold country grabbing their gold. The ships were abandoned, scrapped, and with dredging bay and dirt from the hills and became the Financial District.

The Marina lies on top of once was a fresh water lagoon. It was filled in with dredging from the bay and some debris from the 1906 Earthquake and Fire.  It was filled to to be the site for the 1915 World’s Fair.

So when you walk on two of 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 Golden Gate Park, at least the East end of it. Aside from being a beautiful place to stroll, this is where there are museums, gardens, and other sites worth seeing. The Conservatory of Flowers is a world famous example of Victorian greenhouse architecture (upper right corner of the map).

San Francisco Private tour

Nearby are the Academy of Sciences, the DeYoung Museum,

San Fransico Private Tour DeYoung

and Japanese Tea Garden, located around Music Concourse Dr.

But what remains unknown to most visitors is 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 Nopalito for traditional Mexican food.  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. Turn right at 9th and Irving, and down the street (between 11th and 12th) is San Tung, where people line up for the Dry Fried 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.

MUNI Passport–the best deal for cable cars and other public transportation

If you’re planning on riding the cable cars, and you should, the best way to ride is with a Muni passport. It is also the best way to get around on all our public transportation.

Public transportation (a bus or street car) cost $2.50, and is good for 90 minutes of unlimited transfers. A cable car is $7, and is only good until you get off. So a round trip is $14.

Plus, you need exact change on all public transportation. And if you don’t have proof of payment, it’s an expensive ticket.

Save yourself hassle by getting a 1, 3, or 7 day MUNI passport. They cost $14, $22, $28 dollars respectively (the 7 day pass shown is from 2009). Just scratch off the month and consecutive days you want to use it, hop on any bus, streetcar, or cable car anywhere in San Francisco, and ride as long or as short as you like. You can pick them up at many shops (such as Walgreen’s) and MUNI stations.

We San Franciscan’s complain about MUNI, but it actually is a good system, especially Muni Paymentthe streetcars (the F, J, KT, L, M, and N lines), which are speedy.

By the way, don’t drive in San Francisco. Really. You may be a great driver where you live, but San Francisco will have you chewing the steering wheel. Driving and parking in San Francisco is a challenge, even for professionals such as yours truly. We have hills, streets that mysterious become one-way when you least expect it, and confusing maps. Plus parking is a nightmare, and expensive. You’re on vacation! Relax and let someone else do the driving.

Muni Passport 2009

Macondry Lane–one of 670 public staircases in San Fransico

San Francisco has omacondry lanever 670 staircases that are public walkways.

 

macondry lane 2

macondry lane 3

Some, like the imposing   Filbert Street steps, are obviously open to everyone. But there are many staircases that appear as if they are private, such as being part of an apartment building or a walkway leading up to a house. Thus these public treasures, which make San Francisco the special place it is, are passed up or unnoticed by visitors and locals.

One of my favorite staircases is Macondry Lane. Tucked away on Russian Hill, it is a block long walkway with beautiful gardens and landscaping, and wonderful views of the Bay. Guests on Small Car Big Time Tours like to be dropped on at the Taylor St. stairs and get picked up on the other side at Jones.

This is a true San Francisco secret and not to be missed.

Ferry from Sausalito: view the city by the bay from the bay.

Riding a ferry from Sausalito is a popular way to end a tour. After seeing San Francisco, many guests like to cross the Golden Gate Bridge (even more spectacular in a convertible MINI), and spend a little time in quaint Sausalito, then ride a ferry back to the city. You get a view of San Francisco surprisingly too few guests experience.

There are 2 ferries. The Golden Gate Ferry drops you off at the Ferry Building, which is also something you should see. The Blue and Gold Ferry drops off at Pier 41, on Fisherman’s Wharf.

Many people bike to Sausalito, and ride on the ferry tired and sweaty. Fine–if that’s your thing. But the other option is to be driven to Sausalito in style, and dropped off in time for a stroll around Sausalito before getting on what has been called the #2 best ferry commute in the US. (And I don’t know what is #1. Reports vary. Suggestions?)

sausalito ferry

The Mission Murals in Balmy Alley

Block long Balmy Alley is one of the best places to see a collection of murals in San Francisco, and definitely off the usual tourist path. Located in the Mission District, these beautiful artworks contain many different styles and subjects.

balmy ally #1

balmy alley #3

 These are local treasures that even many people who live here don’t know about. So if you visit them, you might see the city better than a local. They are best viewed on foot. Or from a convertible MINI Cooper.

Balmy Alley is located off of 24th Street in The Mission. It is parallel to Treat Ave and Harrison Street between 24th & 25th streets.balmy alley #4

balmy ally #2

Storybook Houses of the Outer Sunset

The Outer Sunset is an area of San Francisco unknown to most visitors to the city. Even residents know little about it, other than it is boarded by the Pacific Ocean on the west, Golden Gate Park on the north, and is usually considered as being the blandest neighborhood in the city.

rousseau #1However bland most of the Sunset is, with rows and rows of look alike houses, there are gems. These quirky homes have a variety of fanciful facades, such as a Tudor, a Spanish style, and Parisian Art Nouveau.

These are the inspired idea of architect and developer Oliver Rousseau. In the early 1930, he wanted to build homes for working class people that had a touch of whimsey and elegance. His ideas and designed were later copied by others.

The largest cluster of these storybook homes is along 33rd to 36th avenues between Kirkham and Lawton streets. If you’re in San Francisco and love architecture, you should make a point to venture out see an area that even most residents of the city are unfamiliar with. Big  tour buses can’t take you there. But Small Car Big Time Tours can.

rousseau #2

1 Kearny: A rooftop oasis, if you know how to find it

There are many POPOS (Privately Owned Publicly Occupied Space) in San Francisco. They include open plazas, indoor areas with tales and chairs, and, everyone’s favorite, rooftop gardens with great views.1kearny_6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the view from 1 Kearny, a beautiful, and perhaps the least known rooftop POPO. It’s a bit of a chore finding it, but well worth the effort. Though the address is 1 Kearny, enter through the lobby on Geary St. Tell the security guard you want to go to the rooftop garden. Inside the elevator is the only sign that lets you know there is a POPO in the building. Go to the 11th floor. Chances are, you will have these great views all to yourself.

1kearny_7-thumb-76x76-704084If you are interested in discovering more POPOS, go the the SPUR website

http://www.spur.org/publications/library/report/secretsofsanfrancisco_010109

You can download a map, and get the APP, showing where all the POPOS in San Francisco are.
These are your spaces. Discover and enjoy them.

 

 

Tony’s Pizza–worth the wait

You know you’re in for some seriously good pizza when the front of the menu proclaims “Respect the Craft.” Tony is a real guy,11 time World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani. It doesn’t take much searching on the web to find hundreds of raves, so I won’t go into a long review, other than to say my favorite is the Picante (found under Classic American.)

They don’t take reservations, so plan to wait either at the bar or somewhere else (they will take you cell phone number and call when your table is ready. Fortunately, since Tony’s is in the heart of North Beach (1570 Stockton at Union), there are a lot of bars and coffee shops nearby.

http://www.tonyspizzanapoletana.com/index.php

 

Ships under the Financial District

This photo shows hundreds of ships in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Cove 1851. The cove isn’t there anymore. It’s now the Financial District. Most of the ships that sailed into the cove were abandoned during the Gold Rush. Some were used as hotels, or shops, but eventually they were scuttled, and filled in the cove.

 

The map shows the original shoreline, and some of the ships that have been discovered during construction in the area.

So when you walk in the Financial District, remember this: under your feet is San Francisco’s Gold Rush History.

The Best Free View in Golden Gate park

Here’s a secret few people know about: the observation deck in tower of the De Young museum (in Golden Gate Park) is free, and open to the public during museum hours. Just tell museum staff you want to go into the tower, and they will direct you to the elevators, which take you up nine stories to the 360 degree glass enclosed observation deck. There are amazing views of the park, the Golden Gate Bridge, and western side of San Francisco—all without an admission fee.

Misdirections: one of the last brick and mortar magic shops

There used to be dozens of professional magic shops in the Bay Area. Now there is only one, but it’s a good one. Misdirections bills itself as “A Real Magic Shop for Real Magicians.” It is fully stocked with dvds, books, tricks, and supplies for the professional, but amateurs can easily find something they can perform with minimal skills. Located at 1236 9th Ave.in the Sunset District close to the Academy of Sciences and the Japanese Tea Garden, Misdirections is definitely worth a visit. Not only because it’s fun, but a real magic shop is a rare experience these days.