Cool, Cool San Francisco

By John Waters, Publisher

Late last month along the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park, it had already hit 110° Fahrenheit. The really hot season of May and June is upon us. This is a time of year when many Brewster County residents seek a respite from the heat and travel to cooler places, at least for a month or two.

When temperatures in Brewster County can and do regularly reach 115-119°, why not plan an escape to the beautiful City by the Bay, San Francisco?

San Francisco is kept cool throughout the year by Pacific Ocean currents. The average high temperature in May is 62.7° F. Although any month of the year may bring in fog off the ocean, May is one of the sunniest months; for me, a former resident of the city, I think this is perhaps my favorite month there.

Enjoying cooler temperatures in a wholly different place, and, this year, helping to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge (May 26-May 28) sounds good, doesn’t it? Also in San Francisco, you can travel on one of the world’s most unique modes of transit, the fabled cable cars. This year, the cable cars celebrate their 100th anniversary of service.

The great city of San Francisco is home of the Beats, Hippies, Dot-commers, Gay rights activists, and scads of other important cultural groups, and a supreme melting pot of ethnicities from all over the world. A bastion of great literary, musical, and artistic talent, and known well for its nose-bleeding hilly streets, its location on the Pacific and the Bay, for Golden Gate Park, for Fisherman’s Wharf, for Alcatraz, for withstanding earthquakes, for more history than you can cram in your head in many weeks, the city never allows for boredom. And the good news is that it’s entirely possible to explore this great place without having to spend lots of money.

First, if arriving by air at either Oakland (OAK) or San Francisco International (SFO) airports, you can easily take the inexpensive, fast and reliable BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit system) trains from the airports. The trip from SFO to downtown San Francisco takes less than 30 minutes and costs $16 round trip ticket.( BART also serves travelers throughout the Bay Area, including both of the airports and other Bay area cities, such as Oakland, Walnut Creek, and Berkeley, home of the University of California.)

Getting around the city by foot and public transportation is fun — and fascinating. A bonus: it is almost impossible not to overhear at least five or six languages on any bus, streetcar, or cable car.

The MUNI, the city’s transit system, dates back to the San Francisco Municipal Railway, the original operator of the iconic cable cars. MUNI operates buses and streetcars within the entire city. A three-day, unlimited-use pass costs just $21, and a seven-day pass is $27. Both include use of the cable cars, which (without a pass) cost $6, one-way.

Another great value, at $69, is a CityPASS, which includes a seven-day MUNI Passport, admission to the California Academy of Sciences, a one-hour Bay cruise, admission to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, to the Aquarium of the Bay and to either the de Young Museum or the Exploratorium. Culture ops a go-go.

I’ve always considered San Francisco to be the most walkable city on earth — urban hikes, I think of them. Coupled with a transit pass, hiking miles through the city is a great way to get a feel for this place. Writer and environmentalist Gary Snyder wrote in 1995: “When we of the fifties and afterward walked into [San Francisco], walk was the key word. Maybe no other place in urban America has such a feel of on-foot: narrow streets, high blank walls, and stair-step steeps of alleys and white-wood houses… laundry flapping in the foggy wind from the flat-topped roofs. Like Morocco, or ancient terraced fertile-crescent pueblos.”

Having a car in the city can be useful, but it is expensive and — as in most urban areas — a hassle (particularly on such steep hills). Plus, you will likely never meet someone while driving. Leave the car at the airport, at home, or at the Amtrak Station but get yourself, to Oakland or San Francisco and take the BART into the city.

San Francisco has some fabulous expensive hotels, none of which will be explored here. There are hundreds to choose from and a quick search on websites such as or can help you find these, or more affordable accommodations.

Perhaps my favorite hotel is the San Remo, located in the city’s historic North Beach neighborhood, on Mason Street. Built by banker A.P. Giannini, after the 1906 earthquake that devastated much of the city, the San Remo provided free shelter and food to those rebuilding the city.

In 1989, the San Remo’s current owners Tom and Robert Field followed Giannini’s generosity and provided free accommodations to those displaced by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The hotel is a throwback to an earlier time; rooms have neither telephones nor TVs. The beautiful hallways are decorated with antique furnishings and hanging plants. None of the rooms have individual bath facilities; shared baths are available, in European style.

North Beach is San Francisco’s Italian neighborhood (as well as an original Gold Rush-era bawdy epicenter) and features numerous Italian restaurants, many of which are located along Columbus Avenue. Located at the San Remo is America’s oldest Italian Restaurant, Fior d’Italia.

About a five minute walk from the San Remo is Vesuvio Café, at Columbus Avenue and Jack Kerouac Alley, “Home of Bohemia and Intelligencia, by the Bay.”

“In the spiritual and political loneliness of America in the fifties you’d hitch a thousand miles to meet a friend,” wrote Gary Snyder. Founded in 1948, the watering hole became a hangout for Beat writers, including Jack Kerouac, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who founded and now, in his 90s, still owns the thriving City Lights Books, just across the alley). Vesuvio Café is at 255 Columbus Avenue. It has no phone number. Besides it’s a bar; why call?

The interior of Vesuvio, including dark wood and tiled floors, is a place where I can imagine someone years ago saying “what happens in Vesuvio, stays in Vesuvio.” Many framed photos and documents adorn the walls, including my favorite that reads: “Beware Pickpockets and Loose Women.” For about $5 for a pint of Anchor Steam, you can sit back and enjoy both the history and the present in this place, as well as learn why the bar’s website says: “Vesuvio attracts a diverse clientele: artists, chess players, cab drivers, seamen and business people, European visitors, off-duty exotic dancers and bon vivants from all walks of life.” I haven’t heard the term bon vivants for a long time — maybe when I last lived in San Francisco?

Nearby is Caffé Trieste, an Italian coffeehouse that brought espresso to the West Coast in the 1950s. This was where I first had espresso on the West Coast.  The Beats and would-be Beats have long congregated here, too. Music has been a part of Trieste almost forever, and it still happens most Thursdays and Saturdays. The café bills its entertainment as San Francisco’s longest performing act. Caffe Trieste, 601 Vallejo Street, 415-392-6739.

Near Downtown: Saigon Sandwiches at 560 Larkin Street, several blocks north of Market Street serve a mean, Banh Mi, Vietnamese for a French baguette; in these little sandwiches the culinary occident meets the Orient. On a Banh mi thjt nurong fresh cucumber, cilantro, carrots and dakon are shredded and placed on a baguette along with a choice of roasted chicken, pork, or tofu. The combination, with a bit of Sriracha sauce, makes for one of the world’s best sandwiches. At Saigon Sandwiches a Banh mi costs just $3.50 (yes, $3.50) and is prepared only to-go.  Saigon Sandwiches/Banh Mi Siagon 560 Larkin St 415-474-5698. Open 6 am to 6 pm.

Then there’s The Mission, long the bastion of the city’s Mexican and Central American Communities. In the mood for an El Salvadorian pupuseria, a Mexican taquería or maybe authentic Chilean fare? Go to this ‘hood. And now there is also Vietnamese, Indian, Pakistani cuisine all around, too. The Mission has dozens of very good and inexpensive restaurants.

For an incredible selection of Chilean empanadas, Venga Empanadas on Valencia is fantastic. On my last visit, I brought home a box of several varieties including the Five Pepper Manchego, and A California Veggie made with baby spinach, Napa cabbage, carrots, mushrooms and raisins—for $3.75 each. Venga Empanadas 443 Valencia, open daily. 415-552-5895.

The Zeitgeist, a bicycle bar/beer garden is not to be missed. With over 60 brews on tap, this is a beer lover’s delight. Many of the bar’s patrons ride their bicycles to the Zeitgeist and hang them up on racks in the backyard-style beer garden adorned by dozens of picnic tables. The vibe is cool and laid back — what else would it be?

(On a recent visit to the Zeitgeist, while sipping a Steelhead X-tra India Pale Ale out in the garden, I suddenly noticed that the patrons were almost-entirely 20- and 30-year-olds, and decided to call my wife Marlys, back home in Alpine, to leave this urgent message: “I’m at the Zeitgeist, and I’m the oldest person here. No, wait: I think I’m the oldest person in the Mission. No, I think I’m the oldest person in San Francisco.”)

Zeitgeist is at 199 Valencia and Duboce. It opens at 9 am and closes really late. I don’t think I’ve ever called a bar, but you could.  Their number is 415-225-7505.

For a drink and a bit of history, located in the heart of the city’s über-gay Castro District is Harvey’s, a great bar with a story. Originally opened in the 1970s as The Elephant Walk, the bar was frequented by Harvey Milk, a gay activist who was elected city supervisor in early 1978. Milk was the first openly gay politician elected in the United States. In late 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were shot and killed by fellow City Supervisor Dan White. (For those of you interested in this story, I recommend the film “Milk,” starring Sean Penn as now-revered Harvey, directed by Gus Van Sant.) Today, Harvey’s has numerous historic photographs of Milk throughout the bar/restaurant. It has a very diverse crowd — even including people older than I am.

Harvey’s is at 500 Castro and 18th Street. Full bar and beer on tab, plus pub food. 415-431-4278. Again, they are “open early” and close “really late.”

Brandy Ho’s, at 4068 18th (and Castro St.) serves up fantastic Hunan cuisine. I first ate Hunan food at their Columbus Avenue location, in North Beach, almost 30 years ago and have been coming back, ever since. The spicy eggplant at $8.75 is superb.

I should note, there are so many more, equally wonderful neighborhoods in the city: the Haight, the Sunset, the Inner and Outer Richmond, Noe Valley, Nob Hill, Chinatown, etc. which space simply does not allow me to discuss here. Anyway, I want to leave plenty for you to explore on your own.

Ah, but what about the Golden Gate Bridge, you say?:

In prep for the celebration of the Golden Gate Bridge’s 75th Anniversary, a little history of the bridge is in order.

The idea to connect San Francisco and Marin County was discussed and dreamt about for decades. But the reality of fierce winds, tremendous ocean currents and water five-hundred feet deep was deemed too daunting to bridge. The original proponent of the bridge was Joshua Norton, who after having gone mad, annointed himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.” If San Francisco has a post-Gold Rush patron saint, Emperor Norton might be it. As emperor, Norton issued many decrees, including one in 1869 to build a bridge across the Golden Gate passage. (Another included making it a misdemeanor to refer to the city, ever, as “Frisco.”)

In 1919, the City of San Francisco recruited engineer Joseph Strauss to build the bridge. Strauss hired two engineers Charles Ellis and Leon Moisseiff who would later — by the American Society of Civil engineers — be called the “technical and theoretical brains” behind the bridge. Strauss pushed for the bridge and faced opposition from environmental groups and from ferry operators protecting their monopoly on bay crossings.

In 1928, the Golden Gate Bridge and Transportation District, was formed, a special district consisting of most northern California counties. By 1932, the district needed to sell $32 million in bonds to finance the bridge. Strauss now had another formidable task: raising money during the worst economic contraction in the nation’s history, the Great Depression.

But Strauss knew exactly who to turn to: A.P. Giannini, the banker who built the San Remo Hotel, and who’d also started a Californian bank, originally called the Bank of Italy. After a name change, it gained fame as the Bank of America. Under Giannini’s tutelage, the institution would turn into a statewide, nationwide and later an international powerhouse.

According to Californian historian Kevin Starr, after Strauss made his pitch to Giannini to finance the completion of the bridge, the financier responded: “We’ll take the bonds — we need the bridge.” After agreeing to finance the bridge, Giannini asked Strauss how long the bridge would last, to which Strauss responded, “Forever.”

On May 27, 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge opened at 6 am and 18,000 pedestrians proceeded to cross the mile long span.

Almost exactly fifty years later, on May 24, 1987, pedestrians gathered to cross the bridge. City officials had planned for an estimated 75,000 people to show up for the anniversary. Instead, they were faced with a crowd of 800,000.

This year, for safety reasons, festivities will be held off the bridge along the waterfront in San Francisco — from Fort Point to Pier 39. Due to safety concerns there will be no bridge walk.

But I propose that no visit to San Francisco is complete without a walk across the bridge. Although the bridge is closed to pedestrians on May 27, it will be open for walking the rest of the year.

If you plan to walk the mile across the bridge, know that it is a great urban hike; across the bridge and back takes about an hour—and it can be very, very, cold. Be sure to bring plenty of warm clothes. This often applies to a visit the whole Bay area. Think of a cold day in Brewster County in January. Then add a whole lot of dampness. You might be unsurprised to learn that an entire industry of sweatshirt vendors exists if you (like so many surprised Californian Dreamers before you) do find yourself cold.

Walking northbound from San Francisco you will experience great views of the rugged and majestic Marin Headlands, with the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the expanse of San Francisco Bay and the East Bay cities of Berkeley and Oakland to the east. Returning back to the city, you will enjoy great views of San Francisco, including the downtown skyscrapers. Be ready to be buffeted by blasts of cold Pacific air but also to enjoy the sweet smell of the ocean.

For a personal account of the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge celebration in 1987, which saw 800,000 people crowd to the structure, see related story here on our website: Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge….

How to Get There from Here

Amtrak serves Brewster County and stops in Alpine several times a day, westbound, and several times a week, eastbound. The Sunset Limited train, from Alpine to Los Angeles, takes about 20 hours. In Los Angeles, travelers can transfer to The California Zephyr for a day-long trip up the Bay Area. A recent check of fares at shows tickets cost about $350, round-trip.

Several airlines, including Southwest, American and U.S. Air fly from El Paso, to both San Francisco and Oakland. Fares vary widely, but both United and American currently offer fares of about $310, round trip. A recent advance purchase fare of $250 round trip was found on Southwest Air.

Travel information about the city:

Golden Gate 75th celebrations:

Staying at the San Remo: (415) 776-8688

Suggested reading: Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge by Kevin Starr













ABOVE: Inside North Beach’s Vesuvio’s, a long-standing bar, and “Home of Bohemia and Intelligencia, by the Bay.” (Marlys Hersey, photo)












ABOVE: The historic San Remo Hotel on Mason Street in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood is a relatively inexpensive place to stay and central point  from which to explore Fisherman’s Warf, Columbus Avenue, Chinatown, or from which you catch a cable car, bus, or street car to other points. North Beach has dozens of Italian restaurants, many bars, brew pubs and a variety of restaurants offering many other types of ethnic foods.












The 4,200- foot long Golden Gate Bridge is one of the world’s longest suspension bridges. Walking across it is a great thrill, but be prepared for chilly breezes as you walk across the entrance to San Francisco Bay. The bridge gets repainted every year by a crew of thirty-three people the color Golden Gate International Orange, according to the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District. its color is a mixture of magenta, yellow, and black; the bridge district says the color is not proprietary and reveals the mixture publicly on its website: (Marlys Hersey, photo)


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