Poetry in Motion
As cliched but charming as the gondolas of Venice and the double-decker buses of London, San Francisco’s cable cars are a key component of the city’s unique character and the only national historic landmark that moves.
With an unmistakable “ding! ding! ding!” announcing their arrival on sunny and foggy days alike, the cars are a throwback to the late 1800s, when they were the best transportation up and down the forty-three hills of America’s most topographically endowed city. Today they still bustle along at a constant 9 1/2 miles per hour (running by cable, not motor), their three lines comprising the world’s only surviving cable car system.
The Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines begin downtown below the busy high-end shopping area of Union Square and climb to the lofty neighborhood of Nob Hill, one of the city’s most elegant addresses and hilltop home to two of its most important hotels, The Ritz-Carlton, widely considered the city’s (and one of the world’s) best, and the landmark Fairmont. Rebuilt in an extravagant manner after the 1906 earthquake, this was where Tony Bennett gave his first public performance of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” back in 1962. The Powell-Hyde line ends at Fisherman’s Wharf, the famous waterfront tourist destination that still holds on to a good dose of charm. It’s worth joining the teeming humanity just to graze on take-away cracked crab and fish-and-chips from the harborside stands, and gaze at the spectacular views of Alcatraz prison—“The Rock”—and the majestic 2-mile-long Golden Gate Bridge, which you can also traverse for an exhilarating, wind-blasted walk and great views. Who knows who decided to paint it orange, but god love ’em.
If it’s Saturday, head for the nearby Embarcadero and the wildly popular Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, the city’s best and biggest. The vibrant markets of Chinatown are no less remarkable, packed with people (it’s the country’s second largest Chinese enclave), fresh vegetables, and things you didn’t know existed (or could be eaten).
In the heart of North Beach (the most enjoyable neighborhood to stroll around), Telegraph Hill offers some of the best vistas in town, particularly from the top of Coit Tower, where you can see the bay bridges, and islands. You’ll want to amble around Haight-Ashbury as well, a kind of retirement zone for ’60s hippies. Angle yourself atop Alta Vista Park, overlooking downtown, for the postcard view of the “painted ladies”-a row of brightly painted Queen Anne Victorians on the 700 block of Steiner Street. San Francisco’s wealth of architecture is one of its myriad treasures.