San Francisco, Part 1

I often refer to myself as a crazy cat lady, and I freely admit that I chose my hotel in San Francisco because it has a cat in residence. I did also base my decision on sensible factors, such as location – I picked an old-fashioned family-owned inn conveniently located two blocks from Union Square, with shops, restaurants, cable car stops, Chinatown and North Beach/Little Italy all within walking distance. Online reviews were very positive, and there were other appealing features such as free wifi, coffee, orange juice and hot croissants every morning, and freshly baked cookies in the afternoon.

When I visit a city where there’s a wide choice of accommodation I usually choose a hotel that’s 4 stars or more, with room service and onsite restaurant (even better if I’m a member of their loyalty program), but I couldn’t resist the charm of The Golden Gate Hotel – Pippin the ginger cat sealed the deal.

And so after leaving Santa Paula, I flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco via Delta Airlines. It was a short flight (1.5 hours), and in economy class we each received a drink and a snack pack of crackers, dip and vegetables (looking around me, the vegetable selection seemed to be random – I had carrot sticks, celery sticks and sliced radishes).

I arrived mid-afternoon and took a cab from San Francisco International Airport to The Golden Gate Hotel. It’s a 4-storey Edwardian building, with external fire escape and an antique birdcage-style elevator with a metal gate you slide open/close every time you take a ride.

The Golden Gate Hotel The Golden Gate Hotel. There’s a laundromat right next door but I washed my clothes in my bathroom.

I had hoped Pippin would be sitting at the front desk when I arrived, and to my delight, he was. To be honest, he didn’t seem to like me when we first met, looking at me with an expression I could only describe as feline disdain. He watched as I spoke with the receptionist and he allowed me to pat him, but clearly, I was more thrilled to meet him than he was to meet me. I’m pleased to say that the hotel’s human staff members gave me a warm and friendly welcome.

Pippin doing his best Grumpy Cat impression Pippin doing his best Grumpy Cat impression. That’s OK, mate. We all have our cranky days.

My plans for my first night in San Francisco were:

  • Check in at hotel and freshen up (it was at this point I realised I’d left my soap behind in Santa Paula – luckily, I could walk to Walgreens and get what I needed)
  • Go on the San Francisco City Guides walking tour I’d signed up for
  • Go to Sam’s for a hamburger (dinner)
  • Since I’d be in the vicinity (via the walking tour), take photos of red-light district neon signs (my interest was strictly photographic!)
  • Find way back to hotel

Easy!

I had booked a queen bed room with private bathroom (The Golden Gate Hotel offers rooms with private or shared bathroom). My room was neat and clean, probably on the small side for a couple, but just right for a solo traveller like me. The TV in the corner looked like a toy, with a tiny screen to squint at while lying in bed (I was too busy most days to spend much time watching telly anyway). My window looked out onto Bush Street; there was a little street/traffic noise which didn’t bother me or affect my sleep. There are no coffee making facilities or fridge in the room. The wifi was easy to connect to and reasonably fast.

It was tempting to lie down but I had things to do... The bed was comfortable; it was tempting to lie down but I had things to do…

The gorgeous design of the bed head The gorgeous illustrations on the bed head

The old photographs line the corridorsOld photographs line the corridors.

The antique elevator I felt a little apprehensive the first time couple of times I used the antique elevator but it worked perfectly throughout my 4-night stay. Pippin is known to ride up and down the elevator as he pleases.

Pippin's face says 'Oh no, not you again' I bumped into Pippin on my way out – his face said ‘Oh no, not you again’.
I still thought he was a cutie, stink-eye and all, and was confident we’d be friends by the end of my stay.

The parlour smelled like freshly baked cookies The parlour smelled like freshly baked cookies every afternoon.

DSCF9531Cable car on the corner of Powell and Bush Streets

It's a wok band!A wok band at The Wok Shop on Grant Street in Chinatown

DSCF0593Vesuvio Cafe, Columbus Avenue – founded in 1948 by Henri Lenoir, a hangout for the Beat Generation writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The City Lights Bookstore opposite was another of Kerouac’s haunts. The Beat Generation Museum is nearby.

DSCF0594Vesuvio wall along Jack Kerouac Alley, formerly known as Adler Place. This alley connects Grant Avenue, Chinatown with Columbus Avenue. I’m a big fan of Kerouac’s novel ‘On the Road’, so it was a thrill to be here.

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North Beach by Night walking tour

I had signed up online for a free San Francisco City Guides walking tour called North Beach by Night – all about ‘the other side’ of North Beach history, taking in the lurid tales of its bars, bordellos, beatniks, and the early days of San Francisco’s gay scene. We learned about the Barbary Coast, established during the California Gold Rush in the mid-19th century, a red-light district known for gambling, prostitution and crime – the adult entertainment clubs along Broadway today are a reminder of those ‘wild west’ days. We also learned about destruction and rebuilding of the area following the San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906.

North Beach seems a strange name for this bustling city neighbourhood, but a long time ago, there was an actual beach here. It’s hard to imagine.

Walking tours are a great introduction to a city and a good way to get your bearings (and I always enjoy walking) – I was glad I’d made the effort to go along on this one. Reservations for the City Guides tours are not necessary – you just turn up at time and place advised by the schedule. Around 20 people turned up for this tour, American and overseas visitors. It was certainly interesting, and our guide Rory knew his stuff. The tour lasted a couple of hours and at its conclusion, we each received a list of information resources/suggested reading.

San Francisco has extremely steep hills. I walked up many of them. San Francisco has some extremely steep streets. I walked up and down many of them.

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DSCF9580-2The Jazz Mural by Bill Weber on the New Sun Hong Kong Chinese restaurant building on Broadway

Sam’s

Sam’s is on Broadway, up the street from the red light district. It looks grungy from the outside, with a shabby old A-frame sign on the sidewalk. It’s open late. The word ‘PIZZA’ is more prominent on Sam’s neon sign than ‘HAMBURGERS’ but this is definitely a burger joint. Inside, it’s cluttered – the walls are busy with signs, photographs and posters, and there’s ‘stuff’ piled on the shelves and counter tops – stacks of cups and pizza boxes, and bags of burger buns. The old cash register looks like the A-frame sign’s scruffy cousin.

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It's not a big place...

DSCF9616I wondered how long those bottles of wine had been sitting up there…

There were two blokes working behind the counter, one stacking supplies, the other serving. It felt silly to ask if either was ‘Sam’, so I didn’t. But I asked if it would be all right for me to take photographs, and they smiled and said that would be fine.

I ordered a double cheeseburger, fries and a Diet Coke.
“If you made your drink a beer, that would be the Bourdain Special. Did you see the show?” He pointed to the sign: “The Anthony Bourdain Special – Double Cheeseburger, Fries, Beer – $13.99”.
“Yes I saw the show. That’s how I found out about you.”
“Where you from?”
“Perth, Western Australia.”
“You came all the way from Australia to eat here?” He was impressed, and pleased.
“Yep,” I replied. “It’s my first night in San Francisco.”
“Really? Well, welcome to San Francisco!”

Taking my order Taking my order

He poured my drink and began preparing my food, dropping a wire basket of fries into the deep fryer and slapping a couple of beef patties on the grill.

My fries came first, served on a paper plate, crisp and golden, too hot to pick up with fingertips. Along with my fries, a little story: “I went to Australia to visit my brother last year. We went to the beach and I got really sunburnt. All over, red like a lobster. But I love Australia. Friendly people. Hope you enjoy your burger!”

Fries Fries

The crackers and dip on the plane were so long ago. The double cheeseburger was simple but executed perfectly – two incredibly juicy beefy patties with melted cheese, shredded lettuce, thinly sliced red onion and tomato on a plain old sesame seed bun. Anthony Bourdain proclaimed it one of his top three burgers in the world. I thought my double cheeseburger was excellent – definitely in my all-time top 5 burgers.

Double cheeseburger Sam’s double cheeseburger

I was soon joined at the counter by hungry baseball fans who’d just been to the Giants game. We grinned at each other, happy fellow burger eaters. I didn’t have anything to add to the post-game analysis, but I listened to the discussion as I ate. The seedier late night crowd would drop by later on, but I’d be fast asleep in bed by then.

Time to go. The burger, fries and drink (with free refills) cost me US$13 plus tip. I put my camera back in my bag, said good-bye and headed back to The Golden Gate Hotel. There were lots of ‘regular’ people walking around at night – I stayed alert the entire walk back to the hotel, but I felt safe enough.

Mentioned in this post

Golden Gate Hotel
775 Bush Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
United States

  • I stayed for 4 nights in a queen bed room with private bathroom at US$190 per night plus 16.25% city hotel tax.
  • Read Pippin the cat’s blog: Pip’s Album.
  • Pippin’s got two sisters, Patsy the French bulldog and Cookie the golden retriever but I didn’t meet either of the girls during my stay.

San Francisco City Guides Walking Tours

Sam’s
618 Broadway Street, North Beach
San Francisco, CA 94133
United States
Cash only

My solo USA trip (2014) – about this series

I travelled alone to the United States from late July to mid-August. This trip covered California, Wyoming and Colorado. The primary reason for the trip was to attend a couple of workshops, one on hot air balloon photography and the other on photographing wild horses and cowboys. I also caught up with an old school friend.

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  • Kasey Eve Maloney

    Great Post! I went to the states earlier this year, and out of all the places I visited, San Fran was my favourite. These pictures make me want to go back ASAP!

    • Cheers, Kasey. I had a great time in San Francisco and would love to return for another visit. I loved the character of the place, how easy it was to get around, and of course, the food.

  • Nicole Jackson

    My dad used to live in Richmond, California and he worked as a bus driver in San Francisco. It’s a great place to visit. Did you get to the wharf to see the seals?

    • Yep, I saw the seals – I posted a pic on Instagram (I think you’ve forgotten :)). Ah well, at least we got to catch up later in the year.

  • I really enjoyed visiting San Fran back in 2011 – I felt like it was really artsy, a little funkier and with a lot more substance than other cities in California (LA, I’m looking at you). Didn’t go to Sam’s though!

    • Yes, definitely artsy and interesting. Sam’s was great. If I been in SF for longer, I’d have gone back for another burger.