Walking Insbruck’s Vibrant Maria-Theresien-Straβe (Street)

Maria-Theresien-Straβe (Straβe is pronounced strah-say, translates to ‘Street’) of Innsbruck, Austria, is a vibrant, colorful place. It is the commercial heart of the city with a multitude of modern shops, restaurants and the place to people watch.

The Maria-Theresien-Straβe is partially an extension of Altstadt (Old Town) as pedestrians can freely move from the narrow streets of Altstadt onto the expansive Maria-Theresien-Straβe.

This busy street is actually in two sections: the first is a plaza and absent of traffic, the second section allows automobiles and street trains.

The plaza allows for people to dart from various shops or sit under large umbrellas and enjoy a meal. The plaza is freckled with tourists, locals, jet-setters, backpackers, people walking their dogs, high-fashion-short-skirted women, tour groups, kids entertaining the tourists to try to make a few Euros, an elderly man playing the violin – also trying to make a few extra Euros, and families with baby carriages out for a walk…just to name a few of the folks. An unknown number of languages are heard in the plaza; people are visiting from all over the world. Who is a local, who is a tourist?

Some teenagers walk down the street and dart into a modern shopping mall located on the plaza, they looked American but I soon realize they are local kids wearing the same styles and ‘fashion’ of baggy pants as American teens. The mall is immaculately clean, bright, with music pulsing from the various stores. Many of the stores had photos in their windows of healthy, sexy looking people wearing revealing clothes and styled hair, laughing, and apparently enjoying life (wearing the clothes of the store of course). The mall was a close copy of the one where I live in the States, only smaller. I briefly explored but felt uncomfortable at the sterility and mono-culture offered by the mall. I returned to the plaza area. Note: Bathrooms are at the mall.


Fiakers, horse-drawn carriages, occasionally roll through the plaza; the sound of the horses’ hooves clicking on the street’s cobbled surface as it passes. A taxi driver slowly drives through the crowd and pulls up to a restaurant and picks up a couple. Taxis, delivery vans, and emergency vehicles seem to be some of the few vehicles that are allowed. A bike whizzes by going too fast through the crowd – it dodges in and out missing people before disappearing around a corner. Some people mutter under their breath about that incident.

For all of the people who are here the plaza is surprisingly clean and free of trash.

Near the center of the plaza is a centuries-old column called the Annasäule. It was erected in 1706 on Saint Anne’s day to commemorate the Tiroleans defending their lands against the Bavarian and French troops. The Madonna stands upon the column. Nearby, a modern raised reflecting pool might encourage mental contemplation, but during the day the outside edge of the pool is mostly used by people to sit, talk and contemplate the many people walking past.

The plaza was recently created around 2008. I remember this area from previous visits when the entire street had cars and street trains. Seeing it now with just people, while welcome, felt odd. The new plaza space allows for more open space and movement, but also for more people and tourists. The city gained a great deal by having a bustling place to shop, dine and just hang out; but it lost something important – I am not sure exactly what. I asked a lifetime resident about the new cobbled plaza area and what they thought of it. The response was interesting, “What is good for the tourists is good; it’s not always so good for the people who live here.”

The Triumphal Arch at Night
The Triumphal Arch at night. A view from the opposite side, looking through the arch down the Maria-Theresien-Straβe.

The evening is my favorite time to visit the plaza area. The intensity of the day has diminished and the people visiting seem more relaxed. Some of the restaurants are still open and more locals seem to be out. The noisy bustle of the day has quieted and the street has more of the old feel I remember. In the late evening, the light in the sky can be a cobalt blue as the mountains hide the setting sun and the city looks painted as the lights play gently on the historic churches and buildings in the area.

Moving from the plaza to the second section of the Maria-Theresien-Straβe the street trains and automobiles return. The street continues on in a southward direction but with a slight bend to the west. Here are more restaurants, sidewalk seating and a few other stores like outdoor sports shops. Here you can see to the end of the street; all the way to a large, white-stone, Romanesque style arch over the street that is at least 17 meters high. This is the Triumphal Arch and has graced the city for several centuries. Cars heading south have the pleasure of driving through the arch, while those driving north drive to one side.

Maria-Theresien-Straβe gets its name from the Empress Maria Theresia, she was the only woman ruler during the Habsburg dynasty.

Escape the Crowds at Innsbruck’s Hofgarten

The Hofgarten in Innsbruck, Austria, is a quiet and lovely place to escape the tourists of nearby Altstadt (Old Town). This large public garden was once created for Imperial rulers but today offers a quiet place for everyone to collect their thoughts, relax and enjoy being in this beautiful place.

Fiakers at the HofgartenA fleet of Fiakers (Horse-drawn carriages) were queued under large shade trees at the edge of the park waiting for tourists. On slow days it is common to see nearly a dozen horses queued, while during busy days the Fiakers do not have to wait long for eager tourists to climb aboard.

The driver at the front of the queue tried to politely entice my family (in German) to join him and his horse for a ride around the city but we politely declined as our destination was the park itself. A few minutes later he asked another family about a ride, they clamored aboard and the horse trotted away.

We entered the garden by passing through a tall gate held in place with high and thick perimeter walls. Inside the walls were manicured lawns, lush trees, flower patches, and wide pathways.

Near the center of the park was a large white structure. Some people had gathered, most were middle-aged or elderly. Some of the crowd members stood but most sat on benches. Everyone quietly watched several men standing at the edge of a large chessboard built into the ground. Each playing square on the chessboard was about a third of a meter wide and the largest chess piece was about half a meter tall. A good number of pieces lay at the sides of the chessboard – the battle must have been intense. Just a few pieces remained on the chessboard and the opposing Generals carefully contemplated the strategy and tactics of their remaining chess armies; only moving their pieces once they had calculated all possibilities.

We left the chessboard and explored the rest of the garden passing a small pond. People were courteous and quite – enjoying this peaceful place in the middle of a city.

Above the trees, in the distance, gigantic mountains that stretched into the clouds surrounded this urban park and the city of Innsbruck.

The Power and Beauty of Innsbruck’s Hofburg

The Hofburg (Court Castle) in Innsbruck, Austria, is a majestic sight. The building elegantly conveys beauty while projecting the presence of Imperial power. Originally completed in the year 1500 by Emperor Maximilian I, it underwent refurbishment in the mid seventeen hundreds when it gained many current features. Today, the Hofburg is used for concerts, government social events, and a place for curious travelers to explore.

Inside the Hofburg are a number of rooms featuring the furniture and possessions of Imperial family members who resided here at different times over the centuries. In addition to being an extravagant home, the Hofburg also reinforced the presence and power of the Austrian State. The Giants Room where social and state events would be held is an example of this; it is a large freestanding Renaissance-style room without columns, massive chandeliers hang from the ceiling, multi-colored and interlocking marble designs accent the floor, oversized portraits of the Imperial family members hang on the walls and an impressive almost three-dimensional painting on the ceiling dominates the heavens.

The Hofburg is beautiful, regal and elegant. It showcases how the über-elite lived in extravagant comfort and opulence. It also hints at how servants who worked in the palace lived. In one section a small, cramped and dimly lit room that was scarcely furnished sat adjacent to the larger Imperial ‘bathing’ room. Here the servants waited patiently and quietly until they were summoned.

While the building itself was impressive my ‘take away’ from the Hofburg was that the Imperial family members who lived here, in a way, lived in a microcosm. Actions related to politics, war, the economy, and marriage assisted the goals and ambitions of one Imperial family. Many State decisions were likely made in a comfortable setting, with the warmth of a fire, with an abundance of food and surrounded by servants. While I appreciated the visit I was glad to step out the main door and return to the Republic of modern Austria – and the many rich experiences, choices, and opportunities that can be enjoyed by all individuals. …Oddly, my first thought was to find some ice cream.

One such enjoyment is the free live performances that are held in the evening in the Hofburg’s courtyard. In summer (July) local orchestras, musicians and traditional folk music groups are scheduled every evening to play in the courtyard. The courtyard is surrounded by the elegant Hofburg and the majestic building provides an audiophile’s dream of a clean, elegant and imperial setting for enjoying live music. I greatly enjoyed the presentation by an orchestra one evening – it was truly a treat. Arrive early for better seating.

Another nice treat is the Rennweg, the street that stretches in front of the Hofburg. Here are great opportunities for photos, sightseeing, theater, and seeing one of the many Fiakers (horse-drawn carriages) that meander through Innsbruck’s streets.

Visiting Innsbruck’s Hofkirche (Court Church)

A very curious place to visit in Innsbruck, Austria, is the Hofkirche (Court Church). The Hofkirche houses the tomb built for Emperor Maximilian I and is ringed by 28 ornately crafted bronze statues that stand 2 to 2.5 meters high. These tomb guardians represent the Emperor’s ancestors and his heroes of antiquity, including King Arthur.

Looking upon the HofkircheThese statues were cast with magnificent detail and some have facial expressions with such workmanship that when the light is just right you have to look twice to make sure the statue did not blink.

On top of the cenotaph (the Emperor’s Tomb) in the center of the Hofkirche is a kneeling Emperor Maximilian. He is surrounded by the cardinal virtues of justice, fortitude, temperance, and prudence. Maximilian is kneeling in the direction of the church’s alter. Below are ornately carved wooden pews. It is common to see visitors to the church sitting in the pews, or kneeling in prayer. The church itself is surprisingly bright with lances of natural light shooting in from the windows. The light plays well with the dark statues and alternating black/white diamond pattern inlaid into the floor.

Looking in the direction of the alter along one row of statues.Construction on the tomb began around 1500 and took more than 80 years to be completed – long after the Emperor’s death in 1519. Perhaps the most curious item about this ornate place is that the Emperor is not buried in the tomb. This slight oversight in the original plan does not diminish the artisan craftsmanship, metallurgy, stonemasonry, or stone carving skill that helped to create this amazing place and is considered Innsbruck’s “most notable work of art.” (Innsbruck, the City Guide).

Visitors to the Hofkirche should begin their visit with a short video followed by an immersive presentation that highlights the life and legacy of Emperor Maximilian I.

Amazing detail can be seen on each of the statues.We purchased our tickets and walked into a pleasant courtyard. There a docent-led us into a small room. The wall included a number of paintings featuring the Emperor. The docent selected the language of the program (German, English, Italian, and Spanish that I saw, possibly more are offered) from a small device in the wall then left the room. The lights darkened and a presentation began about Maximilian’s early life and sections of the wall illuminated when being discussed. Then a section of the wall opened and we were beckoned into a dark chamber with a giant globe at its center. This part of the presentation focused on one of Maximilian’s favorite sayings, “He who does not make his monument in his life is not remembered after death and will be forgotten with the toll of the bell.” An unseen booming voice speaks and highlights Maximilian’s work, patronage of the arts, wars, marriages and ultimately his legacy, which shaped European events for centuries. The lighting and sections that open on the globe help to emphasize the words of the disembodied voice. Then another section of the wall opened and we are enticed into a third chamber that is dark and playing calming monastic songs. In the far part of the chamber is a painting showing the dead Emperor, at the edges of the chamber are white linen forms that resemble the shapes of the statues that we will later see. Additional history and story are given by an unseen voice and the program concludes. As it does loud bell tolls… the sound of a latch opens and a door opens and we step into blinding light. I suspect the desired effect was to simulate a ‘going to the light’ experience. Once my eyes readjusted to the light I looked over ten meters or so and the docent was inviting another small group into the first chamber. It was only a few steps to the Hofkirche and to see these ornately crafted bronze statues. The presentation was fun, educational and took about 15 minutes to complete.

When visiting plan thirty minutes to an hour for both the presentation and the visit to the Hofkirche.

A 360 Degree View Over Innsbruck

A must see in Innsbruck’s Altstadt (Old Town) is the Stadtturm (City Tower).

It is great to walk up the 148 steps as they wind along the inside edge of this great tower. At the lower levels, the walls are scrawled with decades of visitors’ comments. Some of the steps are worn looking from thousands of visitors over the years; other steps clang with the sound of footsteps as unseen visitors above return. The stairway is narrow in places and sometimes you have to wait for others to come down or up the stairs.

At the top is a small door and you need to duck your head to the exit, when you raise your eyes you are overlooking all of Innsbruck – at 31 meters over the city it is a magnificent view; below are rooftops, umbrellas from sidewalk restaurants and people moving in all directions.

The Stadtturm was built approximately in 1450 and had a tapered form, but it collapsed in the 16th century. The tower was rebuilt in the 1560s in the ornate Renaissance style we see today.

View from the Stadtturm. Looking down onto the Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof).
View from the Stadtturm. Looking down onto the Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof).
Overlooking Part of Innsbruck's  Altstadt (Old Town)
Overlooking Part of Innsbruck’s Altstadt (Old Town)

A Little Known Story About Innsbruck’s Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof)

Visitors to the Alpine city of Innsbruck, Austria, can expect to see the Goldenes Dachl (The Golden Roof). The Goldenes Dachl is the center of Altstadt (Old Town) and the historic center of Innsbruck.

The name is derived from the 2,657 gilded copper shingles that adorn the top of this structure built around 1500. The effect is radiant when light shines upon the roof; it continues to impress visitors 500 years after being built by Emperor Maximilian I.

I won’t go into the life of Emperor Maximilian I, but here is a little about his legacy; Maximilian greatly expanded the House of Habsburg, through wars and marriage, and helped it become one of the most important royal houses in Europe thus greatly influencing European history for centuries after his death.

Today, most visitors just look at the Goldenes Dachl, take a photo and move on to the next sight. But, the curious should peek inside the Goldenes Dachl Museum (Golden Roof Museum) to learn more about Maximilian I and the 500-year history of the Goldenes Dachl. Inside this museum are some great photos, including photos of Innsbruck during the early 20th century prior to and during World War II (it was here I was reminded about a story I heard back in 1996 during a pervious visit to the city). The story involved the people of Innsbruck encasing this beautiful building in a protective bunker during World War II, yet little is mentioned today about this act of preservation. The story might be known to natives, but it is rarely mentioned to tourists.

During World War II Innsbruck suffered from both occupation by Axis powers and aerial bombing from the Allies. In the mid and late war years, the city was slammed on multiple occasions from Allied bombs which devastated the nearby railroad yards and many surrounding buildings. The Altstadt area also received bomb damage. To protect this treasure, the people of Innsbruck encased the Goldenes Dachl in a thick bunker to protect it from damage. At the War’s end the bunker was removed; amidst the surrounding ruins of war the preserved Goldenes Dachl shown brightly and became a symbol of hope during Innsbruck’s rebuilding.

Shown below is an image taken in 1945 showing bomb damage with two-meter deep rubble piles; the rectangular bunker can be partially seen in the left of the image, note the horrific gouge in the top front. The color photo is from the same vantage point taken in the summer of 2011; it shows the Goldenes Dachl and Altstadt area alive with visitors.

Original 1945 Photo Source: Goldenes Dachl mit Luftchutzmauer, Friedrich Nickel, 1945, schwartz-weiss Negativ, Sammlung Walter Kreutz KR/NE-3486.
Source Book: “zur Stadtgeschichte Innsbrucks,” page 120, Ingrid Bubestinger and Gertraud Zeindl.

Discovering Innsbruck’s Altstadt (Old Town)

If you visit Innsbruck, Austria, you will likely visit the picturesque Altstadt (Old Town). Altstadt is the heart of the city and provides visitors and locals with a collection of medieval buildings, historic hotels, and modern restaurants. The main thoroughfare is cobbled, clean and offers a myriad of respectable side alleys to explore.

The old town is over 500 years old and the buildings that have been constructed throughout the centuries are maintained to retain their beauty and flair. There is great historical significance here and several insightful museums are hidden in various nooks of the old town (more on this in other posts). Altstadt has another purpose – to provide tourists with what they want: a centrally located, safe, colorful and non-intimidating place to visit.

In the time required to eat a very leisurely lunch, enjoying a coffee and just hang out (OK – 3 hours) at a cafe it is possible to see a dozen different tour groups parade by; each group with 30 or 40 participants taking in the sights, snapping pictures and chattering before being rushed off to the next destination bypassing much of Innsbruck itself.

Experiencing Innsbruck’s old town at different times during the day, and over multiple days is a fun way to learn more about the people of Innsbruck. Winter is a wonderful time to visit, but this article will cover visiting in the summer. Here are some discoveries made about the Altstadt over a month during the summer.

Altstadt in the Morning During Summer:
The streets are mostly empty of tourists. The sky is overcast but clearing. The light is soft and colors on the sides of buildings appear to be waking up. Delivery vehicles are parked outside shops to restock supplies before the tourists arrive later in the day. A healthy looking local woman jogs by then is quickly followed by a man on his bike. The sound of tables and chairs being unlocked is heard, then followed by the clank of being quickly placed on the cobbled streets in front of restaurants. Several a-frame-boards on the sidewalk offer breakfast, one entices people to an ‘American style’ breakfast. Some folks are sitting outside enjoying the morning with a coffee. The coffee is served in a ceramic cup on a saucer – never in a paper cup.

Altstadt in the Afternoon During Summer:
The streets are busy and packed with tourists. A woman who is part of a tour breaks away from the group; she is wearing a newly bought Dirndl, a traditional dress, and is staring up at the ornate buildings – she seems curiously out of place. She is so fascinated by the sights and almost bumps into a man who is walking his dog. A number of languages are being spoken by people in the crowd: German, English, Italian, Hindi, Japanese, Spanish, but quickly the voices seem to intertwine and blend together. A group of Scouts (both boys and girls) wearing colorful red shirts walk by. The uniforms were casual, yet pressed and well maintained. Tourists snap photos in front of the Golden Roof, the centerpiece of old town. Several silver-painted humans appear as statues on the street, they are only occasionally moving and surprising unsuspecting tourists. The smell of cigarette smoke is heavy in the air. People look at trinkets displayed outside a shop and dole out money to buy a memento of their trip. The smell of cooking is in the air and people are packed at tables that line the streets eating a variety of items, but mostly pizza. A bike zips in and out of the crowd and whizzes by almost clipping me. An older person says something in German to the rider as he is passed. A baby cries because he is tired and the Mom picks him up. People walk by with shopping bags under their arms. Many tourists are wearing basically the same type of commercial t-shirts, branded tennis shoes and bulky shorts, with the exception of their respective language, it is at times hard to tell who in the crowd is an American and who is European.

Altstadt in the Evening During Summer:
The pavement is wet from late afternoon rain. The sky appears a cobalt blue as the sun has long since set behind the towering mountains that loom overhead. Historic buildings are washed in beams of light and are beautiful to see. Some of the tables from the afternoon seem to have been stored for the night, but most of the tables closer to the Golden Roof are filled with late-night diners. Cigarette smoke is still prevalent but less than in the afternoon. The human statues have disappeared and some of the storefronts appear to be quiet and dark inside. Backpackers walk by heading to some unknown place to stay. People walk a little more slowly, some are arm-in-arm. More locals seem to be on the street. A woman in the topmost story of a building looks down on the crowd and continues to ‘people watch’ for about an hour. Children with dark features dart to and fro playing and some women wearing veils talk quietly among themselves at the side of the street. Occasionally the sounds of Middle Eastern and South-east Asian languages come from the back restaurants as the businesses close down. Some German-speaking teenagers are hanging out, smoking and looking bored, they are dressed as though they just stepped out from an American mall. One comes up carrying a skateboard, saying something dryly, then all walk down to the bus stop.

Innsbruck's Altstadt (Old Town)
Innsbruck’s Altstadt (Old Town)
Innsbruck's Altstadt (Old Town)
Innsbruck’s Altstadt (Old Town)
Innsbruck's Altstadt (Old Town)
Innsbruck’s Altstadt (Old Town)
Some amazing gelato we found in Altstadt
Some amazing gelato we found in Altstadt
The Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof)
The Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof) is the centerpiece of Altstadt and probably the most photographed building in Innsbruck. Note the street artists picture on display at the lower right – it is Michael Jackson.

The Rare Art of Tirol’s Heumandl – The Man of Hay

When visiting the countryside of Austria’s Tirol keep an eye open for the “Heumandl” or the “Man of Hay.”

At first glance, this two-meter (7 feet) tall shape looks like a person standing in a farm field. When many of these shapes are together they appear like an amassed army ready to march into the village beyond.

But, look closer, these forms are actually stacks of freshly harvested hay.

A Heumandl begins with a skeletal form, called a Hiefler. The ones I saw were made of wood and had a 2-meter tall center staff that supported two sets of four ‘branches.’ Each branch group was about one-quarter and three-quarters of the way up the main staff.

At harvest time when the grass is about half a meter in height, it is cut and stacked on the Hieflers to dry. After the grass has dried it is collected and stored. During the cold wintertime, the cattle and animals can enjoy the bounty of this summer harvest.

The locals mentioned this form of harvesting hay is becoming rare; more and more it is an infrequent sight to see.

This photo was taken in July near the village of St. Sigmund im Sellrain, about 20 km (13 miles) northwest of Innsbruck.

Savoring the Experience at Eugene’s Farmers Market

The Lane County Farmers Market–

  • Traces its history back to 1915
  • Features over 85 growers and producers
  • Offers produce that is often less than 24 hours of being harvested

The market has a long history of providing jobs and locally produced food for the community.

blog-2011-05-26-img-01During a springtime road trip through Oregon’s Willamette Valley, I was offered a delicious opportunity to experience local and farm fresh food while visiting Eugene. Over the years of traveling in Oregon I had always found myself returning to the Eugene area, yet once again I was finding my time limited. I decided to make the best of those few hours and visit the local farmers market.

It was a Saturday morning and I walked about 15 minutes from my motel to the corners of 8th and Oak Streets. The evening before there had been a gentle rain giving the sidewalk and surrounding buildings a pristine sheen. The air was cool and moist but there was gentle warmth that hinted summer was near.

Ahead was a bustle of activity; there was a small city of tents, cars were being unloaded, people were milling about, and I could hear the music. A woman passed me; she was carrying a large cotton bag that had been stuffed with greens, the vegetables were so abundant they appeared to be surging over the bag’s edge.

I had arrived at the downtown Farmer’s Market, officially known as the Lane County Farmers Market. As I walked up to the first grouping of booths I could not deny the abundance of colors: a color pallet of orange from the carrots, a gradient of white to green from the asparagus, and the rosy red blush of turnips. Nearby was a grouping of dark leaves that sprawled across several displays, each bunch was vibrant and sturdy – it was a small forest of salad.

A man passed by, he carried a flat filled with produce and presented it to a woman behind their display. The farmers were surprisingly healthy looking with pink cheeks, and well-defined statures. Mostly, though I noticed their smiles; it was obvious they loved their work.

The time was now mid-morning and the market was just starting to kick into a higher gear. Everyone was lively and embraced the good ‘vibes’ of the morning air.

A dark-haired girl gently swayed her head to the melody she crafted with her violin. The open case at her feet welcomed donations from her milling audience.

There was a table covered with a red checkerboard cloth, upon it was a small display of eggs, each egg had a slight, yet distinct variation from the next; some were tan, others were red, some were speckled. As I observed them a woman wearing a sun hat came up, plunked down her money and spoke to the owner by name, she wanted 2 cartons. The scene reminded me of a cowboy swaggering up to the bar of an old saloon. The owner reached into one of the coolers, that was behind the table, and gave the woman 2 dozen fresh eggs.

A wood-fired pizza oven gently puffed a thin trail of smoke into the sky; it was still being warmed in preparation for lunch.

A waft of aromatic goodness and a sizzle from an iron skillet was seductively compelling. I peered over splashguard of a booth’s display; a man had just added several types of veggies and garlic to a masterful looking egg creation. It appeared as though this dish could rival a similar meal from a high-end restaurant.

Finally, my eyes and tummy got the better of me. I had to sample some of this amazing food, but I was in a quandary, of the amazing choices what should I eat? Finally, I decided, and then I ate well.

Afterward, I stepped through a well-worn door and into the red-bricked and cozy Park St. Café; one of the neighboring locally owned businesses.

I enjoyed a delicious cup of coffee, read the paper, and watched the market unfold until it was time for me to return to my motel and grab my bags. For several minutes I had noticed a family outside the window, a curious child was at their side, the parent’s were carrying bags full of bread and vegetables. They appeared to be waiting for someone. I tipped the cup and savored the last few rich drops, both of coffee and of my time at the market. The family started to smile and they welcomed some friends who had just arrived, giving warm hugs to each other. As I sat the cup down, it was decided. This was a place where I wanted to spend my time.

The market has a long history of providing jobs, and locally produced food for the community; but look deeper, it’s the embodiment of a connection to the land, to friends, and with neighbors.

To learn more visit:

Ten Tips for Walking San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail: Part 7 of 7

The Barbary Coast Trail is roughly 4 miles in length and takes visitors through several of San Francisco’s colorful neighborhoods while exploring the city’s past and present. Here are 10 helpful tips for saving time and money on the trail:

1. Take a Map.
An excellent map is the “Walker’s Map of San Francisco,” by Pease Press Maps. It can be purchased at many bookstores and vendors in San Francisco. The map shows the Barbary Coast Trail route as well as many other great walking trails in the city. I found the map to be very durable even after heavy use and multiple trips.

2. Read Before You Go.
A good reference book is “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail,” by Daniel Bacon. It approaches the trail with a good deal of back-story. My copy of the book was published a few years ago but it is still a great reference. Read up a little before you go so you can identify where you want to spend more of your time.

3. Where to Find Bathrooms?
If you are starting your trip near the Old Mint in the Downtown area you can make a pit stop at the Westfield Shopping Center at the corner of Market and 5th near the Powell Bart station exit. Along the trail, you can always find facilities at storefronts, restaurants or small eateries. Many of the facilities at restaurants and eateries are for ‘customers only’ so you might need to buy something or at least offer a couple of dollars as a donation.

4. Take the Cable Car Like a Local.
San Francisco is known for cable cars. People queue up near a cable car turnaround waiting for their opportunity to experience riding on one. During weekends and especially in the summer these lines can be very long. Ride on the cable car early in the morning or late in the day to experience fewer people. The cable car system is part of the city’s public transit service and (if a cable car has room) will make stops along the route to pick up passengers. It is possible to walk a couple of blocks up from the cable car turnaround to one of these stops and flag down a passing cable car. Where you sit on the cable car is important: as you board sit in a seat in the open section, or if you like a bit of fun – stand on the outside railing. Inside the cabin, it can be a bit claustrophobic and you miss some the colorful antics and comments of the conductor. It is also a treat to stand on the back of the cable car.

5. Take Bart & CalTrain into the City.
Driving in downtown San Francisco can be very stressful and parking very expensive. If possible take the BART (the Bay Area Rapid Transit) system. It is a great way to get around much of the Bay Area and takes you directly to the beginning of the trail near the Powell Street Station. If you’re driving from the south (up to the peninsula) park at the Colma Bart Station. It is a clean place to park and does not have the grungy feel as the neighboring Daly City station. Parking at the Colma station on the weekend is free and access onto the freeway is close. Always check online for changes to parking fees routes, etc. The CalTrain runs along the western peninsula from San Jose to San Francisco. It is a good way to get into the city but you will have to the take a surface tram or walk, once you arrive in San Francisco to get to the start of the trail on Market Street. Walking the mile or so up to Market is much safer than it used to be and is ok in the daytime. The area has been greatly gentrified over the years and walking during the day has never been an issue for me.

6. Dude, Spare Some Money?
Panhandling does exist in San Francisco and you might be asked for money. Aggressive panhandling (when someone is belligerent and gets in your face) is not as common as it once was in San Francisco, though it can still occur. You are more likely to have your money ‘taken’ at a cheesy t-shirt stand in a touristy area than by a criminal. Be prepared to see a homeless person shuffling down the street or someone crashed out in a doorway. As with any big city, crime exists but I have never had any issues while walking on the Barbary Coast Trail.

7. Take Supplies: Water, Munchies, and Some Small Bills.
Bring some water, munchies and some extra cash with you. You will want to stay well hydrated and keep your energy up. Even after a short time, the best of us can become grumpy when we are hungry. Keep a couple of one-dollar bills in a buttoned pocket or somewhere that you can easily access as emergency cash, like if you need to use the bathroom facilities and need to offer some cash to a store owner. Several banks are along the trail’s route, but fees associated with ATMs can be expensive.

8. Shop Around Before You Eat.
SF has some excellent places to eat; but you still want to choose wisely, the problem isn’t finding a good place to eat, it is trying to figure out which of the many good places to eat. Along the trail are restaurants to satisfy every taste.

9. Avoid the Crowds.
San Francisco is a popular place for tourists. The mild climate makes the city a destination year round but summer is the busiest time. You will always find crowds but if you can visit mid-week or during the wintertime, you can have many of the attractions to yourself. I actually enjoy exploring in the wintertime. The cooler weather keeps most people away and the clear skies after a rain make for the most stunning views.

10. A Day Trip Suggestion.
The Barbary Coast Trail can be ‘walked’ quickly in as little as 4 hours and can really be explored if you have several days. However, if you have just one day I suggest starting your exploration early in the morning; being on the trail by 8 a.m. is ok. This allows for poking around different stores, people watching and enjoying the sights. You can easily spend several hours walking through Union Square and Chinatown. Enjoy some tea in Chinatown and continue past Portsmouth Square to the Wells Fargo History Museum to learn about the Gold Rush (note: only open during weekdays). Continue past the Trans America Pyramid along the old coastline and the Old Barbary Coast area. Around lunchtime, grab a sandwich at Molinari’s deli in the North Beach neighborhood. If you need a coffee, the nearby Caffe Trieste, offers some good coffee and sells some lunch items as well. Work off lunch by climbing up to Coit Tower and enjoying the views of San Francisco. As you walk down to the waterfront check out the sea lions at Pier 39. A lot of places at Pier 39 will be selling bread bowls filled with Clam Crowder – avoid this temptation and hold out for some crab later that day. As you leave the sea lions you might be tempted to catch a ferry and visit Alcatraz Island – I would suggest making this a separate trip. Continue down the waterfront to the World War II vessels and check these out. Just beyond this area along the trail are vendors who sell Dungeness Crab – grab a bite to eat at one of these vendors. Check out the Hyde Street Pier and climb aboard the myriad of old-time ships. If you need a snack the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory is nearby, but one dessert can easily feed several people and you might have to wait sometime for a table. The Hyde Street Cable Car turnaround is a few feet away and the line for a ticket has generally shortened by the end of the day. The Cable Car ride back to Powell Street is about 15 to 20 minutes and will take you back past Union Square to the starting point.

Read more about the Barbary Coast Trail:

Part 6: Northern Waterfront
Part 5: North Beach
Part 4: Barbary Coast
Part 3: Gold Rush City
Part 2: Chinatown
Part 1: Downtown

Walking San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail – The Northern Waterfront: Part 6 of 7

The Barbary Coast Trail is roughly 4 miles in length and takes visitors through several of San Francisco’s colorful neighborhoods while exploring the city’s past and present.

This section of our walk along the Barbary Coast Trail begins at Pier 39 along San Francisco’s Northern Waterfront. Pier 39 is a haven for tourists. It is a fun place to see but be careful to manage your time – it is easy for time to quickly pass and there is a great deal in the area to experience.

At the northwestern side of the pier is the boisterous ‘barking’ California sea lions. These pinnipeds ‘haul out’ on the docks to sun and rest. During the winter months, it is possible for the population to reach as high as 600! During this visit, roughly 150 or so sea lion residents were enjoying this bay-side property. From a distance, the sea lions look cute and cuddly, but some of the males can reach weights up to 850 pounds and 7 feet in length! The sea lions have proven to be a revenue generator for Pier 39 attracting thousands of onlookers each year. We enjoyed watching their rest as well as antics including two juveniles playing tag; one wound dive into the water quickly followed by a friend, a second later the first would bolt from the water landing on the pier. The friend would join him and the two would playfully wrestle then chasing each other again. After having our fill of sea lions we walked down the Embarcadero passing colorful and sometimes flamboyant street vendors who sought the attention and tips of admiring tourists. In the distance, we could see our next stop, the USS Pampanito.

The USS Pampanito is a submarine that served during World War II and today welcomes visitors. During the War the Pampanito patrolled the South China Sea sinking six enemy ships and damaging four others. Sometimes her crew was subjected to long hours, depth charges and near misses by torpedoes. Visitors have an option of using a handheld device to help guide them through the sub and learn more about this vessel’s story. I was fascinated to see a tiny galley that was roughly 8 feet long and 5 feet wide, it served 4 meals a day for up to 80 crew members!

My daughter enjoyed the torpedo rooms with polished metal and gigantic sized torpedoes on display. The smell of diesel and oil permeated the air in the sub and I could only imagine how great the smell must have been more than sixty-five years ago.

This was a good visit, but as I entered the mess I remembered a visit eleven years earlier when – as I entered the same room – was greeted by four elderly men who had served about the Pampanito during the war. They were warm natured and jovial about talked affectionately about their service, but also with great respect. It was easy for them to laugh one minute, then have a strong emotional and reverent tone in their voice the next. I do not know if any of these men still return, but the presence of those who served aboard the USS Pampanito during the war still lingers here.

Our next stop was just a few steps down the pier to the Liberty Ship ‘SS Jeremiah O’Brien’ – and it is a treat! This is a wonderful place to play and learn about US History. We stayed an hour and a half and still did not see it all.

A Liberty Ship is a cargo vessel built during World War II to supply forces in Europe and in the Pacific. The Jeremiah O’Brien was one of 2,751 ships that were built for this purpose. The O’Brien served at the battle of Normandy and in the far Pacific, but this ended in 1946 when she was made inactive and ‘mothballed’ with scores of the other ships. Years later she was chosen for restoration and sailed away from the mothball fleet under her own power. Hundreds of volunteers worked tirelessly and returned the O’Brien to her former glory. In 1994 the restored Liberty Ship sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and returned to the Normandy beaches of France to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of D-Day. The O’Brien is only two of such Liberty Ships that remain.

I enjoyed the labyrinth of walkways and ladders in the four-story-tall engine room. The kids loved patrolling the sky and defending the ship against imaginary aircraft with the revolving anti-aircraft guns on deck. These giant guns still pivoted on their turrets, powered by hand cranks and the grit and energy of youthful kids. At the back of the O’Brien, we found an inactive artillery shell that must have weighed 80 pounds and was about 30 inches long. The best part of our visit was the lack of crowds.

Continuing down the waterfront check out the sidewalk cafes and crab vendors who will serve up some cooked Dungeness Crab.

The next stop was the Balclutha, a square-rigged sailing ship (also shown at the top of this article) that evokes a time when white sails powered giant wooden ships over the waves. The interior has been restored and offers a glimpse into the cargo and life of the time. It also introduces you to the cramped crew quarters and the small, but luxurious Captain’s quarters. While on the main deck look for an empty cage as it is the beginning of a scavenger hunt of sorts. One sailor’s old journal talked about pigs getting loose during a voyage and how difficult it was to locate and capture them. This scavenger hunt barrows from his journal entry – your job is to try to find the wayward pig, Sowclutha, she is somewhere aboard. Other historic ships are moored in the area and offer other opportunities to explore some great vessels.

Everyone was ready for a snack so we visited Ghirardelli Square for a quick bite of ice cream. Afterward, we bought Cable Car tickets for a quick trolley trip back to the start of the Barbary Coast Trail at Market and Powell Streets.

>> Read my Ten Tips for Walking the Barbary Coast Trail.

Reference: “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon.

Walking San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail – North Beach: Part 5 of 7

The Barbary Coast Trail is roughly 4 miles in length and takes visitors through several of San Francisco’s colorful neighborhoods while exploring the city’s past and present.

The North Beach District has deep Italian roots and this influence imbues the culture of the area.

Columbus Avenue is the major thoroughfare through North Beach, it is lined with restaurants, coffee houses, and a bookstore name City Lights, the first stop on our exploration of this section of the Barbary Coast Trail.

City Lights is an excellent bookstore packed in a small space. Here you can find secluded nooks and squeaky staircases that take you to hallowed areas where free speech is cherished. In the mid-fifties, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti published a work by author Allen Ginsberg named, “Howl”. In 1957 the written work was deemed ‘obscene’ by the U.S. Government and confiscated by officials. A legal battle over free-speech ensued; later the Court ruled in favor of the author and Mr. Ferlinghetti. In modern times, such a poem would not raise eyebrows, but in the 1950s this short literary work was ground zero for the national debate on censorship. You can find copies of Howl and an interesting book titled, “Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression,” upstairs in the small and quiet poetry room. Also on the shelves are a number of books from Beat poets and writers. At other levels of the bookstore, you can find titles that both challenge and expand the perceptions of the reader. Kids will enjoy the wonderful cave-like section of the basement that houses the children’s books.

Continuing up Columbus Ave. is Molinari’s Delicatessen.  They have mouthwatering sandwiches too; grab a number as you enter the store, grab your choice of bread from the bread bin and place it on the counter when you place your order. (Note: They do make a great vegetarian sandwich that you can customize with no cheese, just ask for an extra topping in its place). It might take a few minutes for them to call your number but it is worth the wait. We have never been disappointed here and are always impressed with the quality of service, friendly staff, and excellent sandwiches. Several sidewalk tables and chairs are just outside, you can sit and enjoy some great food while you people watch. We finished half a sandwich and packed the rest for later. Now, coffee was needed, but where to go? Unlike other places in the city, in North Beach you will not find the typical cookie-cutter coffee stores; the community fiercely defends local businesses and does not welcome national chains. This was fine because I wanted a genuine cup of coffee with character and knew just where to look. In two minutes we stood outside a small coffee house called Caffe Trieste.

Caffe Trieste opened in 1956 and has been a fixture in North Beach ever since. Opening the door your nose is greeted with the pungent aroma of coffee. The tables and chairs are clean but show the wear of many patrons. The dark colors of the interior warm the senses and provide a home-like atmosphere. At the counter, I placed an order for two coffees for my wife and cocoa for my daughter. In a minute several earth colored cups topped with white frothy milk foam were placed in front of me. An aromatic cup of cocoa quickly joined the coffees. In the back of the coffee shop, my family sat among cramped tables that are inlaid like an old Italian mosaic. Some of the tables were very colorful and our cups gently rocked from the slight imbalance of the tiles. My daughter dug into the whipped cream that floated on her cocoa and she offered some to both of us – the whipped cream was real and very delicious. A juke-box filled with CDs played several selections that included: opera, jazz, folk, blues and the deep sensuous voice of a woman singing in Italian. A couple sat next to us and conversed. As they finished their coffee one glanced at the time – in shock stated to her friend they were late. They both grabbed their jackets and left. The experience was comforting, unpretentious, but mostly the experience was like the coffee …genuine.

North Beach has a number of side streets to explore but on this trip, we returned to the main thoroughfare, Columbus Avenue. Our first stop was the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi to see the three-quarter replica of the original chapel built by St. Francis called, La Porziuncola Nuova. It is a beautiful reconstruction of the chapel located in Italy and honorably pays respect to the San Francisco’s namesake, Saint Francis.

We continued down Columbus exploring the shops, bakeries, restaurants and coffee houses. We also stopped outside Club Fugazi. If you have the opportunity to see a performance here of Beach Blanket Babylon it is a fun experience. The show is known for pop culture and political spoofs and for the gargantuan sized headdresses worn during the show – which can feature the entire skyline of San Francisco. At Washington Square take a peek the St. Peter and Paul Church before heading up to Coit Tower and Telegraph Hill.

The walk to Coit Tower offers great views of the North Beach, but it is steep. One hill was so steep that grooves had been etched into the sidewalk to allow for foot traction. Autos that parked on the street could only park perpendicular to the curb, this was to reduce the risk of an out of control car on the steep grade. Climbing the steep terrain you appreciate the 495 feet to the summit of Telegraph Hill. Some folks drive to the top and during busy times of the year making the trip by car or tour bus can be a real headache. If you can, make the walk.

Crowning the top of Telegraph Hill is the fluted body of the 210-foot tall Coit Tower. Set against the sky it resembles a solitary Roman column overlooking the city. When we arrived at the tower we were surrounded by the cool shade of trees. We rested on a green lawn that overlooked downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge to catch our breath. Then we walked to the opposite side of the tower to enjoy views of the rest of the bay. Here the trees had grown and a number of people were clogging the best viewpoints making viewing difficult. We made a trip to the top of the tower.

We entered the building and were greeted with colorful murals along the walls of the lobby. The artists were influenced by the times of the Great Depression and the artwork reflects this time. The murals can be viewed for free, but you need to pay a small amount to visit the top. We made a quick ride to the top of the tower and were greeted with the most inspiring view; our eyes enjoyed a singular and delicious vista of many miles that included the immense San Francisco Bay and the sights of Alcatraz Island, the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, the rugged Marin Headlands, Angel Island State Park and the waterfront – the next section of our trip along the Barbary Coast Trail.

After our visit to Coit Tower we made several detours exploring the fun, but strenuous, Filbert and Greenwich stairs. This allowed us to get our heart rate up and work off that sandwich and coffee. These stairways curve along the steep eastern face of Telegraph Hill to secluded gardens, small walkways, old Victorian and art-deco buildings. After these side trips, we walked down the western side of the hill to rejoin our original path.

Just ahead were more vistas of the northern waterfront and the next section of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail.

>> Continue with Part 6: The Northern Waterfront

Reference: “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon.

Walking San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail – The Barbary Coast: Part 4 of 7

The Barbary Coast Trail is roughly 4 miles in length and takes visitors through several of San Francisco’s colorful neighborhoods while exploring the city’s past and present.

San Francisco’s original Barbary Coast was a once hive of opium dens, brothels, bars, and gambling houses.

It was along the waterfront that some of the bawdiest establishments catered to an unsavory mix of rough and tumble sailors and miners. This place was so lawless that it was named after the pirate-infested ‘Barbary Coast’ from Africa’s northern coastline of centuries past. From the time of the Gold Rush, the Barbary Coast remained a fixture of the city until it ended in 1917 with societal and police crackdowns. Today, quiet streets and upscale businesses only hint at its tawdry past.

My exploration of this section of the Barbary Coast Trail began at the Redwood Park located near the Transamerica Pyramid Building. Just across the street, Hotaling Alley caught my attention. The alley follows the original shoreline and the pavement have been designed to represent waves lapping a shore. Adorning the sides of the street are antique lampposts and curious looking hitching posts each topped with a horse head. These are actually bumpers to prevent autos from backing into potted trees, but they artfully pay respect to a time when this area was the location of the Hotaling Stables.

At the end of the street is the beautifully decorated Hotaling building. It was built in 1866 and for a good many years “housed the largest liquor repository on the west coast.” The thirsty saloons of the Barbary Coast demanded whiskey and this warehouse gladly provided it. In 1906 San Francisco was devastated by a large earthquake and a firestorm burned much of the city. All looked lost for this part of San Francisco, but just before the wall of fire reached the Hotaling building the wind shifted and the warehouse of whiskey was saved. Some in the country suggested San Francisco was being punished by divine retribution for its sinful nature; in response, the following was penned –

“If, as they say, God spanked the town
For being over frisky,
Why did he burn the churches down
And save Hotaling’s whiskey?”

Today, this doggerel remains as a plaque outside the old whiskey building.

Turning onto Jackson St. I returned to the path of the Barbary Coast Trail. A minute later, at the corner of Montgomery Street, I looked at an unassuming building of granite and brick. Here was the old Bank of Lucas and Turner and Company. It was constructed in 1853-54 and had an unusual first manager named Mr. Sherman. Mr. Sherman already had a history in California but it was the time he served in the Union Army during America’s Civil War that would immortalize him. Mr. Sherman would later be known for the ‘March to the Sea’ and oversee the burning of Atlanta, Georgia. History knows the man who worked here as General William Tecumseh Sherman.

I returned to the Hotaling Whiskey warehouse and just past it was the old Ghirardelli Building. It is here that in 1865 a process for storing chocolate was discovered that allowed it to be easily stored and shipped long distances. This discovery made Ghirardelli Chocolate a household name. Also at this location is a quiet alley called Balance. The alley can be walked in about 25 steps; its length matches a ship’s hull that is buried beneath. The Balance had sailed around the horn of South America and made several lengthy ocean voyages, but in 1849 it was moored here and abandoned as the crew headed to the goldfields. The ship quickly became part of the growing fleet of ‘ghost ships” that was anchored in the bay and later became the foundations for the buildings in modern San Francisco. All that remains of the Balance today is a street sign.

At the end of Balance is the quaint looking Gold Street. Gold Street is quiet now but during the Gold Rush, this place was likely swarmed with miners who had brought saddlebags full of gold to be weighed and tested for purity. Here the first Assaying Office was opened during the Gold Rush. One can only imagine the fortunes and dreams that were realized or lost on this tiny street. Today, a small plaque at the back of an upscale club marks the location of the old Assayer’s Office.

We followed the inlaid sidewalk markers identifying we were on the Barbary Coast Trail to the tree-lined Pacific Street. Here we passed a number of old brick buildings where sailors and miners once found entertainment and drink. Although this place is very different now some of the stories of that time remain; one such story involves sailors and miners being “Shanghaied.”

Shanghaied means to be kidnapped and sent to sea. The most notorious person involved in this unscrupulous business was Shanghai Kelly. His henchmen, known as ‘runners,’ would befriend unsuspecting sailors who had newly arrived from a voyage and likely had a pocket full of money. The runners would bring the sailors to Kelly’s bar for drinks, laughter, and the promise of female companionship. At some point, the sailor would be given drug-laced whiskey, once the drugs took effect the wobbly sailor would be whacked on the head and knocked out cold. The story goes that Shanghai Kelly would pull a lever opening a trap door in the floor – the unconscious sailor would instantly disappear. Underneath the bar, among the pillars of the wharf, the unconscious sailor would be relieved of his money, taken to a sailing vessel, and sold to an unsavory captain. The next day the sailor would wake to find that he had been kidnapped, penniless, was far out to sea, and likely working for an ogre of a captain…possibly sailing to Shanghai, one of the most distant ports in terms of travel time. If the sailor was fortunate and survived the harsh round-trip voyage, poor food, cramped conditions, and hard labor then he might just return to the Barbary Coast several years later.

Another story involves Shanghai Kelly having a ‘Birthday Party’ in which he invited 100 of the Barbary Coast’s most desperate to join him for a bay cruise to ‘celebrate’ his birthday. At some point during the cruise, all of the guests were given opium-laced whiskey. After the ‘guests’ were unconscious Kelly’s ship delivered new crews to three vessels that were waiting to set sail. Kelly ended his party returning home with a full purse and 100 men departed the party bound for an unwelcome ocean voyage.

Make sure to make a stop at the art store at 555 on Pacific Ave. You can recognize it by the ornate decorations and lighting on the outside. This is the old Hippodrome, the bawdy center of the Barbary Coast. Today, it is a fantastic art store with newspaper articles on the inside wall about its past. There is also an old Prohibition tunnel.

The vibrant North Beach lay just ahead, it was home to the beatniks, Italian food, great coffee, a famous bookstore and colorful theater.

>> Continue with Part 5: North Beach

Reference: “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon.

Walking San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail – Gold Rush City: Part 3 of 7

The Barbary Coast Trail is roughly 4 miles in length and takes visitors through several of San Francisco’s colorful neighborhoods while exploring the city’s past and present.

San Francisco was created by the American Gold Rush.

Gold was discovered by James Marshall, January 1848, at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. The event was not well known until that March when an industrious man named Sam Brannan entered a sandy lot of Portsmouth Square in San Francisco and waved a bottle of Gold Dust over his head and cried out, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” In true entrepreneurial fashion Mr. Brannan, prior to his announcement, had stocked up on picks, gold pans, and shovels to sell to the newly energized populace who wanted to be miners. Within two years after his announcement, the small city of 1,000 exploded 20 times – to a population of 20,000!

Today, standing in the Portsmouth Square among the bustle of humanity surrounded by cement and steel buildings it is hard to imagine that on this location in 1848 one man’s announcement about gold ignited a worldwide migration of people to America.

The square has a number of plaques that are worthwhile to find, some include: In 1846 the U.S. Marines first raised the Stars and Stripes over San Francisco; the marines had disembarked from the USS Portsmouth and christened the square with the name of their ship. Also, this place was the location of California’s first public school, constructed in 1848 – the same year Sam Brannan made his announcement about gold. Also here is a marker dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, who often visited here to overlook the bay. Possibly some of the characters in his books were inspired by the sailing ships and the salty characters who sailed upon them.

Leaving Portsmouth Square I headed south just a few steps to Commercial Street. Commercial Street had a long history of business. One of the early establishments here was a branch of the Hudson Bay Company, a fur trading business that was involved in exploring North America during the 1600-1700s as well as California in the early 1800s. While walking down the street look for a little green space; this small area marks the location of Emperor Norton’s Imperial Palace, an eccentric character endowed with the title, “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico” who for decades charmed locals. He was so beloved by the city that it is reported his funeral was the largest in San Francisco’s history. While here also check out the Chinese Historical Society and the Pacific Heritage Museum. The site of the Pacific Heritage Museum was the original location of the US Branch Mint. It was here that gold from the Mother Load was housed from 1855 until 1874.

Walk to the end of Commercial Street to the corner of Montgomery and observe the topography around you, it’s really flat. Now, instead of cement at your feet imagine a sandy shoreline, deconstruct the buildings, move the people away, and un-pave the streets.  In front of you is a bay with several dozen wooden sailing vessels anchored in the shallow waters. Why then is the shoreline located 3/4 of a mile from where it is today? To find out walk to the Wells Fargo Bank History Room – a treasure box for those curious about America’s Gold Rush history.

As you enter the glass doors it is hard to miss the refurbished Abbot-Downing “Concord” Stagecoach – the same kind you see on the Wells Fargo TV commercials. You can get up close and see the details in the woodwork. It is hard to believe that 9 people could have been stuffed inside – and another 9 on top! At the history room, you can also see beautifully crafted precision scales for measuring gold, solid gold nuggets, treasure boxes and photographs from the Gold Rush time.

Kids can ride a Pony Express exhibit and have their photo taken as the newest Pony Express rider. On this exhibit, they have a mochilla, a unique looking saddlebag designed to fit over any saddle and that could be easily transferred between riders. The mochilla could carry up to 20 pounds of mail in four pouches. People often do not think of San Francisco as being on the Pony Express route, but it was the final destination of many of those letters. It is amazing to think that these letters made a 1,966-mile journey by horseback from Missouri to California in just 10 days!

Upstairs you can sit in the body of a stagecoach and listen to an account from a rider who traveled by stage to the west coast. Just listening to this audio makes a person very appreciative of our modern conveniences. Also upstairs are a number of letters and photos from the mid to late 1800s. I personally enjoyed a drawing called the “Birds Eye View of San Francisco” (shown with the abandoned ships in the foreground) which illustrates the hundreds of ‘ghost ships’ that choked the waterfront of San Francisco. Here is why the shoreline is not where it used to be; as the ships anchored in the bay hundreds were abandoned as sailors jumped-ship and traveled to the gold fields in search of fortune. As the number of ships grew this ‘graveyard of ships’ became new real estate and created the foundations of buildings, wharves, and streets as the city grew to fill in the shallow bay, entombing the ships that brought so many to these shores.

Leaving the museum and walking just a few short blocks back on Montgomery, past Commercial Street to the corner of Clay Street is the Transamerica Pyramid Building. Make a quick walk up Clay Street to view a plaque marking the final station of the Pony Express.

At the Transamerica Pyramid Building look up and appreciate the unique architecture of this 48 stories tall skyscraper. It’s hard to imagine that during the Gold Rush, as the bay lands were filled, a building called the Montgomery Block once stood here. It was reportedly a hangout for famous names as Mark Twain, Jack London, and Robert Louis Stevenson. One story about this place tells how Mr. Clemens (Mark Twain) met a hulky and red-headed firefighter who intrigued him and the two became friends. The firefighter was named Tom Sawyer.

On the eastern side of the skyscraper is a lush area known as the Transamerica Redwood Park. It is a pleasant oasis of trees, fountains, and greenery in the middle of the city. Enjoy a sculpture of six children running and playing called, “Puddle Jumpers.” The sculpture’s message about jumping is reinforced by nearby frogs which are in honor of Mark Twain’s book, “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

Keep an eye open for a marker about two saloon dogs who were inseparable friends. They were named “Bummer and Lazarus” and the two roamed freely in the 1860s.

The park was a good place to rest before continuing on with the next section of the Barbary Coast Trail – into the heart of the old Barbary Coast. Today, an area of upscale establishments and businesses, it was once a place of “too many men, too much gold, and too little civilization.”

>> Continue with Part 4: Barbary Coast

Reference: “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon.

Walking San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail – Chinatown: Part 2 of 7

The Barbary Coast Trail is roughly 4 miles in length and takes visitors through several of San Francisco’s colorful neighborhoods while exploring the city’s past and present.

At the corner of Grant Ave. and Bush St. stands a portal known as the Dragon’s Gate. It marks the entrance to the Chinatown neighborhood. Sitting on either side are two mythical lions, each about three feet tall, which guard against unwanted spirits. English speakers often refer to these guardians as ‘Foo Dogs.’

Continuing up Grant Avenue a visitor will notice an abundance of the color red on storefronts and signage, the color symbolizes good fortune and joy.

It is easy to spend much of a day in Chinatown investigating the stores and businesses that offer teak, jade statues, colorful fabrics, porcelain, teas, spices, and a variety of foods.

Barbary Cost TrailAt California Avenue stands two pagoda-topped iconic buildings known as Sing Fat and Sing Chong. These buildings were constructed after the earthquake and firestorm of 1906. They were built to reaffirm the Chinese presence in the area after the tragedy.

Across the street is the Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. The cathedral was constructed between 1852 and 1854 just a few years after gold was discovered and San Francisco.  The foundation was shipped over from China. Inside are some informative displays about the building’s history.

Just outside the cathedral, a street musician played “Oh Suzanna” on an Er Hu. This is a curious looking instrument with just a neck and two strings that are played with the bow.

A short distance north on Grant Avenue I made a left turn at Sacramento Avenue making sure to follow the Barbary Coast Trail markers embedded in the sidewalk. At the first right was a colorful street known as Waverly Place.

Barbary Cost TrailEntering Waverly Place today you would not guess it once had a very lurid past with madams, sing-song girls, opium dens, and even open warfare between various criminal groups. Today, the street is adorned with colorful balconies, residences, and businesses. A number of people passed me carrying bags of grocery bags filled with vegetables. A short way down the street were the unmistakable sounds of rhythmic drumming coming from the rooftop of a building. This was the Tin How Temple, the oldest Taoist Chinese temple on the west coast. The drumming was empowering; the large drums beat in unison, changing rhythms as one single unit, the low deep vibrations could be felt in your chest.

Crossing Washington Street and just a few paces away are Ross Alley.  The small and dark alley was slightly claustrophobic. More locals passed by with small bags filled with food items. At the end of the alley, a crowd of tourists had gathered outside a fortune cookie factory. I had to take a look.

The fortune cookie room was long and skinny, and several people worked near an industrial-looking machine. A man greeted people by placing a flat, golden-colored wafer about three inches in diameter in everyone’s palm. These were flat fortune cookie rounds. The commotion of people and boxes made viewing the machine a little difficult, but it appeared to have a number of pancake-like impressions that were turning on a large flat wheel. Apparently, from one side a dough mixture would be dolloped onto the tiny hot mini-skillets which would rotate and disappear into the machine to be quickly baked, on the return trip the baked rounds emerged to be grabbed by a woman and in a quick hand-fold-motion she inserted a small paper fortune to give the cookie its shape.  At this point, another tour group had gathered in the alley and began to pour into the store. I squeezed my way back into the alley. At that moment, a neighboring barber came out of his shop. He greeted the tourists then quickly ducked inside. A few seconds later he emerged with an Er Hu and played several quick tunes. The crowd applauded and he received a number of tips. In a flash, the tour group disappeared in the sea of people on neighboring Jackson Street and the alley was again quiet.

Jackson Street pulsed with activity. It was packed with locals shopping, people talking on cell Barbary Cost Trailphones, trucks honking to get by on the street and storeowners coming out of their shops to talk with customers who pawed through boxes that lined the storefronts. Restaurants in the area had large and colorful pictures of food in their doorways and one store had cooked ducks hung in the window. A woman at the street corner shoved a lunch coupon in my hand and pointed to a nearby restaurant. The images on the coupon looked tasty but I had to continue onwards.

Barbary Cost TrailArriving at Portsmouth Square a large crowd filled the tiny park and there was little room to pass. A speaker was passionately advocating, at times in English and Chinese, for democracy and the freedom of religious practices in mainland China. The gathering was held under the gaze of the Goddess of Democracy located in the Portsmouth Square, a smaller replica of the 33ft (10m) tall statue that was created during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

As the loud event ended and the crowd disappeared back onto the streets Portsmouth Square silently revealed some its old secrets; now stone and metal markers previously unseen became visible. This small patch of space is central to the story of California for many reasons but one is the most significant.  It is here, in May of 1848, that Sam Brannan first showed his gold to a curious crowd. His story of easy money unleashed the American Gold Rush.

>> Continue to Part 3: Gold Rush City

Quoted Reference: “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon.

Walking San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail – Part 1 of 7: Downtown

Walking San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail is a fun and active way to explore this historic and beautiful city. The trail is roughly four miles in length and meanders through several colorful neighborhoods and districts.

You can follow the sidewalk markers along the entire length, but to really unlock some of the stories use a guidebook. I found, “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon, an invaluable tool.

I started the trail at the majestic Old United States Mint located at the corner of 5th and Market Street. This “Granite Lady” is reminiscent of an ancient Greek temple, it is a grand and massive stone building with 6 Doric columns gracing the front entrance. The Old Mint was built in 1874 and at one time “held a third of all the gold reserves in the United States, making it the Fort Knox of the West.” Old MintToday, the great doors of the Old Mint are closed, but the Mint is undergoing a renaissance of sorts and may soon reopen as a premier cultural and historic center for the city.

Crossing Market Street was Hallidie Plaza and the cable car turnaround. The Plaza is named after Andrew Smith Hallidie who is considered the father of San Francisco’s Cable Car system. Here a small section of track turns on a circular disk and allows the trolley to return the way it came. Two empty cable cars were queued along the track, an operator allowed one cable car to move forward onto the turnaround, a release switch was thrown and several operators began to physically push the trolley 180 degrees on the track until it stopped. Then the cable car pulled forward a few feet to a boarding area and a group of about twenty passengers climbed aboard. They were off.

Union SquareJust ahead is Union Square, an open area consisting of several acres. On this sunny day, the square was alive with an art fair featuring colorful paintings and etchings. Everyone was friendly and the artists were eager to talk with prospective customers. In just a short time I heard half-a-dozen different languages being spoken by tourists, it just reinforced that San Francisco is a world-class destination for people from all over the world. At the plaza’s periphery was an outdoor café serving coffee and sandwiches. The cafe patrons were enjoying the sun, working on laptops, reading, or just having a good conversation with friends. Some young kids were playing and jumping off a small ledge into the arms of their parents. Among the visitors was a young man playing a large wooden flute. After a few minutes, he was approached by several young travelers who appeared to be from Europe, he showed them the flute and later showed them several Tai Chi movements. The square was restful and energetic at the same time.

The pleasant setting seemed distant from the controversy of slavery that was passionately debated at this location in the mid-1800s. At that time southern sympathizers were advocating the new state of California secede from the Union and join the southern cause. Thomas Starr King, a Unitarian Minister, and charismatic speaker with “extraordinary eloquence and spellbinding oratory” drew large rallies to the square. His speeches are greatly credited for rousing the public and keeping California in the Union. Union Square takes its name from these pro-Union rallies.

Barbary Coast TrailOn the western edge of Union Square a  large American flag waves over the doorway of the Westin St. Francis Hotel. The hotel was built in 1904 and has been graced by celebrities and the powerful ever since. In 1975 there was a failed assassination attempt of President Ford. There is still a small bullet hole above the hotel’s door.

Dewey MonumentThe centerpiece of the plaza is a large white Corinthian column that rises 97 feet over the square. This is the Dewey Monument; atop the column is the statue of a tall woman holding a raised trident and a wreath, symbolizing the people the monument honors. This monument commemorates both Admiral Dewey’s victory in the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898 during the Spanish and American War and to President McKinley who was killed in office by an assassin in 1901. The woman who modeled for the statue, Alma de Bretteville, has a rags-to-riches story of her own; by being born into poverty and later becoming one of the wealthiest women in the state. Some of her later accomplishment include building the Palace Of the Legion of Honor (a fine art museum in San Francisco) and being instrumental in the creation of the National Maritime Museum at Aquatic Park, which is a destination on the Barbary Coast Trail.

Just east of Union Square is the quiet Maiden Lane.

Maiden LaneToday, Maiden Lane is a clean well-lit street with cafes and outdoor seating. However, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the maiden in Maiden Lane referred to the numerous prostitutes who “naked to the waist hung out of the narrow wooden shanties” in an attempt to entice patrons inside.

Walking through the now gentrified alley, the sound of Italian Opera was in the air. At the corner of Grant Street, a man was standing – his arms outstretched in song. This was the Tenor of Maiden Lane and according to his brochure has performed on the street since 1998. He apparently chose this spot on Maiden Lane because of the acoustics. I listened to his performance for some time. Walking north his voice echoed off the building for several blocks. Listening to such wonderful music was an elegant way to end this section of the Barbary Coast Trail.

Ahead was the ornate Chinatown Gate guarded by two statues, the mythical Chinese lions, called “Foo Dogs.”

>> Continue with Part 2: Chinatown

Learn more about the Tenor of Maiden Lane:
Reference: “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon.

A Peek Inside San Francisco’s Ferry Building and Marketplace

SF Ferry BuildingExploring San Francisco can be colorful and fun experience. But, where should a person start? We decided to start at the beautiful Ferry Building on the waterfront shown in the center of the photo with the spire-like clock tower.

For this trip, we traveled on the underground rapid transit system known as BART, to the Embarcadero Station. As we exited our train we walked to the escalator and were carried several stories up onto busy Market Street. Our first view was the dominating iconic 230-foot clock tower located at the end of the street- this was the historic Ferry Building, a center for shopping and the Terminal for traveling by ferryboat to various locations on San Francisco Bay.

Viewing the century-old structure I was startled by a loud clang. A historic and beautifully refurbished streetcar, stuffed with riders, clamored down the street. On the sidewalk, there was activity and energy: women with shopping bags glided past, well-dressed business folks marched by having conversations via their ear-phones; sightseeing tourists moved slowly and the areas near street vendors became bottlenecks on the sidewalk as they looked at the items for sale. Some of the tourists were being entertained by a person singing on the corner, while others looked curiously at a man making some cool music by using common household items like rubber cans and buckets as percussion instruments.

SF Ferry Building Clock TowerThis artery of shoppers, business people and tourists stopped briefly at a pedestrian crossing. The light changed and allowed this pulse of people to cross the busy Embarcadero street and move toward the Ferry Building at the base of the clock tower.

Inside the building, a mass of people moved in multiple directions; some traveled directly through the building to the ferry boats outside, others grabbed a bite to eat, a few greeted friends, while others just enjoyed the experience.

The building was well lit. Above us was the vaulted ceiling that covered the length of this 660-foot long structure. This Grand Nave was a continuous skylight that allowed sunlight to stream into the shopping stalls below.

Many of the stalls were tiny, but they offered a bounty of artisan and locally produced items. An olive oil company offered samples of tasty herb infused oils, a meat company sold delicious slices of salami, baked bread was being made and sold by the armful, and a local pottery shop marketed beautiful pieces of its craft work. Some families enjoyed hot tea in a tea shop while couples and business associates closed deals over enticing glasses of red wine at a wine bar.

A man walked past, he was holding a sandwich of freshly made bread – the ingredients were precariously stacked – almost ready to explode from between the bread halves with his next bite. The sandwich looked delicious and I could only imagine how it tasted. The temptation was strong but the family decided our desire from such a sandwich could be satisfied on the return trip. We had much to see, though for the rest of that day I thought of that sandwich and how good my own sandwich would taste.

blog_20110226_img3Later that afternoon we returned to the Ferry Building we sought out the sandwich maker. Unfortunately, being the end of the day they were sold out. My tummy voiced a deep sounding and disappointed grumble at hearing the news. My daughter, also feeling hungry, tugged at my sleeve and suggested we buy some bread at one store, meat from another and cheese from a vendor. It was a grand idea. All of us scrambled in multiple directions and returned in several minutes, each with our food treasures. We ate not so much a sandwich but a walking picnic as we explored the back of the Ferry Building and enjoyed some great views of the San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge.

A couple of times during the week outside the Ferry Building a Farmer’s Market blooms and locals can buy locally grown fresh produce, locally grown meats and a host of other goods – but that is another exploration.

As we walked back to the BART station the afternoon sun had created long shadows over the city. The man who had used the household items as percussion instruments still had onlookers and was still going strong as he drummed to his own beat.

Panning for Gold in the Heart of California’s Gold Country

blog_20090708_img1Panning for gold always sounded intriguing, but how does a person pan for gold?

Let’s go exploring in the historic ‘Gold Rush’ country of California to find out.

We pulled off the main highway near Jamestown, California and headed down a patched and bumpy side road. After ten minutes we pulled into the dusty parking area in a field of a private gold panning operation.

The proprietor greeted us as we walked from the car to the creek side. His goulashes appeared to be well used and mud had splotched his blue jeans and shirt. It was easy to imagine that he could have walked out of the 1800s. He introduced us to the history of the area as well as some of the colorful characters who once lived in the area.

We were instructed to grab shovels, buckets, several large strainers and proceed up the creek. It is here that we learned that our mining work would involve four steps: digging, sifting, sluicing and then panning.

A few minutes later we arrived at a small pool in the creek. The small pool was deceptive – it was actually about four feet deep. We waded up to our waists and began working the small rocks and sediment from the bottom of the pool with our shovels. The water in our small pool quickly became discolored from our digging and much of our work was done by feeling the bottom with our hands and shovels.

The rocks and debris were dumped into industrial looking sieves which covered the tops of several large buckets. After several shovelfuls, the sieves were sifted allowing the mud and smaller rocks to fall into the bucket. This process was repeated until the bucket was full. As each bucket was filled with the small rocks, mud, and debris it was carried about fifteen feet upstream to a small open-topped metal box which lay in the main current of the small creek.

blog_20090708_img2This odd-looking metal device was the sluice. It is used by carefully dropping the sediment into the water’s current at the top of the sluice and allowing it to flow over small risers built into the base. The water flowing over the risers disrupts the current and allows any gold, which is much heavier than the surrounding materials, to sink and become trapped behind the risers.

As the afternoon progressed it was obvious the kids had already found their gold – the creek. They explored, played, splashed, looked for crawdads, jumped in the water and just had fun.

Later that afternoon we returned our shovels, buckets, sieves and the sluice. The sluice was ‘cleaned’ by being placed up end in a bucket and rinsed so as not to lose any gold. The result was about two inches of very fine black sandy material in the bottom of the bucket. This concentrated material is what we would use for panning.

But before we panned we had to learn – we filled a bucket with creek rocks and sand and practiced ‘panning’.

Panning involves a series of gentle steps: angling the pan and letting the water rinse the small rocks, pebbles, and sediment. It is definitely an art. In a short time, we had worked through our practice bucket and started on the black sandy materials of our concentrate.

This was the moment of truth – had our hours as miners been fruitful? At first no, then one of the girls asked what something shiny was in the pan. She had found a flake, a small piece of gold! Then both kids had found gold. The adults were starting to feel inferior as we panned but finally each of us found small flakes. And yes, you do start to feel a bit of ‘Gold Fever’ when you see it in the pan.

Carefully, with just the tip of a dry finger, the gold was lifted from the pan and placed in a very tiny jar. Then came the last scoop of the concentrate material from the bucket. It contained several nice small flakes of gold that shimmered in the afternoon sun.

All of us were muddy, wet, sweaty and we needed a good bath at the end of the day. Our family found about $20 worth of gold that afternoon; not a lot of money for our first time panning, but we had a great experience!

Celebrating Food, Family and the Summer Solstice at Live Earth Farm

Where does your food come from? Farmer Tom and his family at Live Earth Farm in Watsonville, California, opened their farm during the Summer Solstice so customers, visitors and the curious could connect with the land and meet the people who grow their food.

Baby GoatThis is a great family outing. Our daughter really enjoyed the goat milking demonstration where she and other children were offered a hands-on opportunity to participate. All of us enjoyed meeting and petting goats, but the star attraction was a very cute three-week-old baby goat that just loved sitting on laps.

Fresh BreadPersonally, I enjoyed the bread making a demonstration in an adobe oven. I had seen the oven filled with red-hot coals earlier in the day but now the aroma of baking bread caught my attention. Several families were helping and learning about baking bread. All of us eagerly watched as a small door on the adobe oven was opened and fresh, hot bread was removed. It was quickly devoured.

That afternoon we occupied ourselves exploring the farm and picking blackberries and strawberries in several fields. We also joined in on a demonstration about cheese making. The kids soon discovered the large hay fort and a large cooler of strawberry juice (the real stuff). Then came the hayride.

Families Picking PeppersFarmer Tom led families on a tractor-pulled haycart through the farm to the upper fields passing peppers, wheat, apricots, and eggplants. More than a ride, this was a hands-on tour of the farm. A favorite for the kids was riding on the tractor and sampling the wheat berries from a ready to harvest field of golden colored wheat.

BonfireAfter the hayride, we sat on a hill braiding garlic and enjoying the day with the longest amount of daylight of the year. The weather was pleasant. From our vantage point, we could overlook several farms and beyond to the green Santa Cruz Mountains. A hawk flew low observing us before returning to higher altitudes.

In the evening there was a potluck dinner followed by a bonfire. The talented marimba band Kuzanga played well into the evening as families danced, socialized and enjoyed being outside. Several kids were amazed that one of the musicians had to stand on a three-foot-tall stool just to play the largest and deepest sounding of the marimbas.

The sun had just set and the evening was cooling. Our family and our friends headed home. All of us were tired yet happy after a full day at the farm. We left with full tummies, our fresh picked berries, braids of garlic and great memories.

Learn more and continue your own explorations of the Live Earth Farm. Live Earth Farm is focused on Community Supported Agriculture where the customer agrees to buy a part of the farm’s organically grown, in-season harvest and in return, the farm commits to growing high-quality veggies, fruits, and herbs. The farm delivers a bountiful portion of the harvest every week to a neighborhood location for pickup by customers