Day 2: Civic Center, Painted Ladies & The Mission
The next day of our 5 days in San Francisco involved a lot of walking but would totally pay off. We started with a visit to the nearby Civic Center, a large and open complex of civic buildings (library, opera house and city hall). Strolling around the civic plaza feels like walking around Rome, as magnificent Classical building are all around you. However, this area is also home to many of San Francisco’s homeless population, a stark contradiction. You can’t really miss the San Francisco City Hall, it’s dominant at the center of the plaza with its gold dome, quite impressive. Completed in 1915, this building was also the site of the 1978 murder of Mayor Moscone and gay activist Harvey Milk.
Next up was climbing Fulton St. towards Alamo Square. This gave us a glimpse of what’s to come – beautiful pastel-colored Victorian houses, that are immediately associated with San Francisco. As you reach Alamo Square, you won’t be able to miss the Painted Ladies, a row of Victorian houses with the city’s skyline in the background – famous from postcards, movies, and television shows.
We then headed back down the hill on Steiner St. and stopped at the lovely Duboce Park Cafe, just across from Duboce Park. This cafe has outside seating and on such a sunny day, after climbing up to Alamo Square, we stopped to relax and catch some sun.
Continue down on Sanchez St. until you hit 16th St. and you’ll probably see people queuing up. This is Ike’s Place, a legendary sandwich place in San Francisco. You can call ahead of time and pick up your choice but queuing up gives you a chance to go over the extensive names on the menu such as the Fat Bastard, Al Bundy, Heath Ledger or perhaps the Menage a Trois. The sandwiches here are fresh and fabulous (and quite filling). I had the Elvis Keith, a delicious combination of chicken, teriyaki and wasabi mayo – on a dutch crunchy bread. Wait for your name to be called and in the meantime, enjoy a complimentary bag of hipster style potato chips. But wait – don’t eat your sandwich yet.
Just a block down the road on 16th St, you can’t miss an impressive classical Spanish basilica. Dwarfed next to it is a tiny adobe church – this is Mission Dolores ($5 entrance) and the 1776 birthplace of San Francisco (or Yerba Buena as it was called back then). This was the first European settlement in the area, on the site of what was then a creek. Mission Dolores also gives its name to one of the coolest neighborhoods to explore in San Francisco – The Mission.
The Mission district is comprised of Mission and Valencia Streets. Though running in parallel, these two streets couldn’t be more different. Mission St. is strikingly Hispanic while Valencia St. is hipster central. This mix of cultures, in a neighborhood that has always been dominated by immigrants, is what gives The Mission its cool flavor and makes for a pleasant stroll. Like Chinatown and North Beach, it’s yet another example of how diverse San Francisco is, in a matter of a couple of city blocks.
We didn’t forget about the sandwiches from Ike’s Place, hard-earned through 20 minutes of wait. We just waited for the perfect spot to have them. That place is Dolores Park, a favorite gathering spot for Mission residents and you can understand why. Dolores Park offers a superb escape from the city, with wide green areas and great city views from the southern end. Along with fellow sunbathers and guitar players, we grabbed a spot on one of the hills to enjoy lunch with a sunny and unobstructed view of San Francisco.
With our stomachs full, it was time to explore The Mission. A good way to head down towards The Mission is via 20th Street. Starting at Dolores Park, this street boasts a great variety of lovely Victorian houses, each with its own unique character. It’s also relatively quiet here, so different from other parts of town. Because there are no famous landmarks here, not too many tourists venture out to this area and it feels pretty local. We stopped at the corner of Mission St. to explore the Hispanic area first, turning left and heading north on Mission. This street feels rough and vibrant: pawn shops, fruit & vegetable markets, tobacco shops, tattoo parlors, Latin music in full volume from passing cars and of course – a great number of taquerias. Though some recommend avoiding certain parts of Mission Street, we didn’t feel unsafe, and its rough atmosphere was quite cool to suck in. We wished we had some appetite left for burritos as some of the city’s best can be found here.
After a few blocks, you’ll see to your right a tiny but colorful alley, lined up with hundreds of murals. This is Clarion Alley. You might also recognize it by the smell of urine as this place is a bit rough. It’s a good spot to cut west through the alley towards Valencia Street and marvel at some of these remarkable pieces of urban art, usually with a political or cultural theme. More on San Francisco’s famous murals in a bit.
At the end of Clarion Alley, turn left onto Valencia St. and San Francisco’s ‘hipster central’. Valencia St. couldn’t be more different than its parallel neighbor. This street is made for walking, filled with good ethnic restaurants with a hipster twist, cafes, boutiques, music shops, vintage shops, and specialty shops. If you’re wondering what’s that funny smell in the air, well it’s probably Marijuana (‘weed’ as it’s commonly referred to). It’s San Francisco after all… The atmosphere here is very pleasant and it’s just fun to explore. A good stop for book lovers is Dog Eared books, with a really cool selection of international titles, second hand, and photography books.
Once at 24th St. and Valencia, make a left and walk towards Balmy Alley. On the way, we stopped for some for cardamon tea at Cafe la Boheme, a really cool spot with a good lite menu – quite popular with youngsters on Macs who seem to be working from here on the next tech startup. Another good refreshment option is Philz Coffee on Folsom St. This place regularly receives top awards for its blends and is very popular.
Just a few meters after Folsom, make a right onto Balmy Alley – the best place to admire the Mission’s murals. It’s a lot more pleasant to view the murals here than on Clarion Alley. Local Latino artists have been painting here since the 1970s, depicting Latino life along with their hardships through this beautiful art. The rising real estate prices in San Francisco have forced many out of the neighborhood and the frustration is vented through art in Balmy Alley.
If your muscles aren’t aching by now and you’re in the mood for another adventure, head back to Folsom St. and keep heading south. You’ll enter the neighborhood of Bernal Heights, a quiet place with a village feel. Its beautiful houses are perched on a steep hill. Residents must either have strong leg muscles or very powerful cars. Continue climbing up Folsom until you reach the entrance to Bernal Heights Park. Trust me, you’ll be rewarded.
Follow the path and soon you’ll be treated to breathtaking views of the city, with the mission below, the bay to your right and the city’s skyline just in front of you. It’s a great spot to sit back and relax after all that walking. You can actually walk around the hill and gain different perspectives and if you’re feeling even extra adventurous, get off the path and climb to the top of the hill (where the radio tower is) for an even better view. What a way to finish off the day! As a tip, watch out for the fog that will probably start to roll back in (just look to the west) around 5-6pm and time your visit accordingly.
After a nice rest, we made our way down and after a stop at Taqueria Can Cun for some ever refreshing Horchata (sweet Mexican drink). The BART conveniently runs below Mission Street and we took it all the way back home.
For dinner, we headed to Le Colonial on Cosmo Place for some French Vietnamese cuisine. Well decorated on the outside, with a lush garden entrance, the interior is just as appealing and colonial in feel with traditional ceiling fans and tiled floor. We started off with some cocktails, The Spice of Saigon and a mojito. For starters, we had some delicious vegetable rolls and for mains – tuna steak and lemongrass chicken in coconut sauce ($100 not including tip).
- The Mission is filled with excellent taquerias and Mexican restaurants. Among them: Papalote, Es Castillito, and La Espiga De Oro. We would have loved to visit at least one of these but we were quite full from the excellent sandwich at Ike’s place.
- Another great spot for a San Francisco view is at Twin Peaks, which commands a great view of the city, just above Market Street. A visit there goes well with exploring the Castro district, which is quite close to Mission Dolores. The Castro is the city’s LGBT hotspot and we were recommended to pay a visit. We simply didn’t have the time and I think this area actually deserves its own day.