Monday, December 21, 2009

Things to Do on Christmas Day in San Francisco

At this time last year I wrote about things to do on Christmas day.  Here's an updated version of that post.

Visitors to San Francisco during the holiday season often wonder what to do on Christmas Day. Many attractions are closed, but there's still much to do if you're not unwrapping presents with your family.

Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco's number 1 tourist attraction. The walkway is open from sunrise to sunset.

See Lombard Street, the "Crookedest Street in the World." Visitors flock to Lombard Street to see its gardens and curves. Don't forget that two blocks away is the steepest street in San Francisco - Filbert Street.

Explore Muir Woods, where you can see the Coastal Redwoods - the tallest trees in the world. The park is located about 40 minutes north of San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Visit The Contemporary Jewish Museum where admission is free on Christmas Day. Current exhibits include "There's a Mystery There:  Sendak on Sendak," "Jews on Vinyl," and "As it is Written: Project 304,805." The museum will be open from 11:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. on Christmas Day.

Ride the cable cars. Travel over Nob Hill on America's first moving National Historic Landmark.

Eat. Many restaurants are open on Christmas Day, including a good number in Chinatown.

Take in a movie. Most movie theaters open around noon. If you are planning to go late in the afternoon or early in the evening, be prepared for crowds.

As you can see, there are a number of things to do on Christmas Day. So there's no need to spend the day in your hotel room.

Happy Holidays from Rick at Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Pigeon Point Lighthouse

When taking guests to Monterey and Carmel, I usually stop at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse for a beautiful ocean view. Located about 50 miles south of San Francisco, the lighthouse was built in 1872 and is home to a 1st order Fresnel lens with 1008 prisms. While the Fresnel lens is no longer used, the tower still houses an automated light. Unfortunately, the lighthouse is in need of repair and is closed to the public. However, there are a small museum and gift shop on the grounds that are usually open Fridays - Sundays when the weather is good.

The view of the Pacific from behind the lighthouse is not to be missed. You can see waves crashing upon rocks, harbor seals frolicking in the water or sunning on the rocks, and, if you are lucky, migrating gray whales. In the distance, you can view Año Nuevo Island and Point. When docents are on duty, they usually have binoculars for visitors to use.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse is home to one of Hostelling International's facilities. Here you can enjoy ocean views from their hot tub and stay in private or shared accommodation at very reasonable prices.

If you would like to take a private tour from San Francisco to Monterey and Carmel that includes a stop at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Monday, December 07, 2009

Coffee in San Francisco

San Francisco has a rich coffee history going back to the Gold Rush and the founding of Folgers Coffee in 1859 and Hills Brothers in1878. These companies are now parts of large corporations with their connections to San Francisco only a distant memory. Nevertheless, we take our coffee pretty seriously in San Francisco. While there seems to be a Starbucks on every corner, try some of our local purveyors during your visit to the city.

Peet's Coffee was founded by Alfred Peet in 1966 in Berkeley. Peet was born in the Netherlands and was appalled by the quality of American coffee. When he opened his store, he took coffee to a new level. Today, Peet's is a small chain with locations throughout California and a few other states. You can't walk too far in San Francisco without running into a Peet's.

North Beach is home to many coffee houses where you can get excellent espresso drinks. Two of my favorites are Caffe Roma, 526 Columbus Ave. and Caffe Trieste, 601 Trieste. If you are in the market for coffee beans, check out Graffeo Coffee, 735 Columbus Avenue.

Blue Bottle Coffee is known for its small lots of organic coffee. Espresso drinks and individually dripped cups of coffee are available at the cafe at 66 Mint Street (near Fifth and Mission Streets) and the small kiosk at 315 Linden Street in Hayes Valley.

Philz Coffee offers more than 20 varieties of individually dripped cups of coffee. Philz has four locations in San Francisco: the original 3101 Folsom (@ 24th St. in the Mission District), 201 Berry Street (near AT&T Park), 4023 18th St. (Castro District), and 748 Van Ness Avenue (Civic Center)

Ritual Coffee Roasters is just four years old but offers its hand roasted coffee at 1026 Valencia St. (Mission District) and 1634 Jerrold Avenue (Bayview District). There are also independent cafes that serve Ritual's coffee. To find them, visit Ritual's website.

Of course, there are many more coffee roasters in San Francisco. During one of your strolls through the city, stop and sample one of our local brews. If you would like to take a private tour of San Francisco that visits some of our local coffee shops, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or by clicking here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Winter in San Francisco

The latest edition of "Rick's Tips," Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel's free newsletter of fun things to do in the Bay Area, discusses sights and attractions found only during the winter months. To see the newsletter, click here.

To see back issues of "Rick's Tips," click here.

To subscribe to "Rick's Tips," just send a request by clicking here.

If you'd like to take a private, custom tour of San Francisco, Muir Woods & Sausalito, Monterey & Carmel, wine country, the California coast, Yosemite, and other sights in Northern California, please contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or by clicking here.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Best Restaurants in San Francisco - 2009/2010

The new "Zagat 2010 Bay Area Restaurants" and "The Michelin Guide San Francisco, Bay Area, and Wine Country Restaurants 2010" were recently released. So it's time for Blue Heron's annual summary of the critics' choices for the best restaurants in San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Zagat's list of the five most popular restaurants includes Gary Danko, Boulevard, The French Laundry (Yountville, Napa Valley), The Slanted Door, and Chez Panisse (Berkeley). The top rated for food are Gary Danko, Cyrus (Healdsburg), and The French Laundry with 29 points. Kiss Seafood, Acquerello, La Folie, Masa's, Erna's Elderberry House (Oakhurst, south of Yosemite National Park), Kaygetsu (Menlo Park), Chez Panisse, Sushi Ran (Sausalito), and Coi received 28 points. All restaurants are in San Francisco unless otherwise noted.

Once again, Michelin awarded three stars to only one restaurant in the Bay Area: the French Laundry in Yountville in the Napa Valley. Two stars were awarded to Cyrus in Healdsburg, Coi in San Francisco, Manresa in Los Gatos, and the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena in the Napa Valley. Former two-star restaurants Aqua and Michael Mina lost two and one stars respectively. Thirty-four restaurants in the Bay Area received one star.

The "San Francisco Chronicle" awards four stars to the top restaurants. Current recipients are Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Cyrus in Healdsburg, Manresa in Los Gatos, the French Laundry in Yountville, and Coi, La Folie, Michael Mina, and The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco.

While I have not dined at all of these restaurants, I did return to Gary Danko a few months ago and it remains my favorite in San Francisco.

Come to San Francisco and you'll have a chance to pick your favorite. Be sure to make your reservations well in advance as these top restaurants frequently well in advance. If you wait until the last minute, you may not be able to get a table or may have to dine at 5:30 or 10:00 p.m.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Coffee and Sweets Along the Way to Monterey

The drive from San Francisco to Monterey along the coast takes between 2.5 and 3 hours, depending on how many times you stop for photos. You may also want to stop for some caffeine and sugar to keep the body going. There are two places I recommend.

About 30 - 40 minutes south of San Francisco, you'll come to the town of Half Moon Bay. It has a nice downtown with some interesting shops and a few galleries. At the north end of Main Street, in a small shopping center, you'll find the Half Moon Bay Coffee Company, home of strong coffee, espresso drinks, some yummy pastries, and full breakfasts. To get to HMB Coffee Co., take the left turn off of CA 1 onto Main Street. You'll come to a stoplight at CA 92. Go through the light and turn left onto Stone Pine Road. (You can see the Stone Pine Center and HMB Coffee Co. If you cross the Main Street bridge, you've gone too far.) Turn left onto Stone Pine Road Then turn right into the Stone Pine Center parking lot. The coffee shop is at the far end of the parking lot. Once you've fueled up, continue south on Main Street to see the town of Half Moon Bay. Main Street ends at Route 1 and you can continue south to Monterey.

Closer to the halfway point of your journey is the very small town of Davenport. Don't blink or you'll miss it. On the inland side of CA 1 is the Whale City Bakery, Bar & Grill. As the name implies, you can get sweets, full meals, coffee, and more potent beverages. It's a friendly spot to sit and enjoy a coffee and sweet. If it's a nice day, take your snack outside to the patio. Be sure to check out the surf shop next door.

If you would like to take a private tour from San Francisco to Monterey and Carmel that includes a stop at one of these bakeries, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

One Alley - Two Restaurants

Last post I wrote about Belden Place, a block-long alley with eight restaurants. Less than a block away from Belden Place is Claude Lane. This block-long alley is just west of Kearny running between Bush and Sutter.

Café Claude and Gitane not only share the alley, but also have the same owners as well as both indoor and outdoor dining. Café Claude serves French cuisine and feels like a Parisian cafe. Many French classics such as salade Niçoise and coq au van grace the menu. Café Claude has live jazz from 7:30 - 10:30 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The restaurant is open for dinner nightly and for lunch daily except Sunday. Café Claude features a happy hour from 4:00 until 6:00 p.m from Monday through Saturday.

Gitane serves food with influences from the Basque region of Spain and France and has a more modern feel to it. Here you can dine on chicken or vegetable tajine, paella, and other tasty dishes. It's easy to make a meal by sampling a couple of appetizers. Gitane is open for dinner from Tuesday through Saturday. You can dine until midnight or hang out at the bar until 1:00 a.m.

If you're staying near Union Square, atop Nob Hill, or in the Financial District, both Claude Lane and Belden Place are a short walk from your hotel.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

One Alley - Eight Restaurants

Many of my guests prefer not to make advance reservations for dinner and can't decide what type of food they want. I usually suggest they visit Belden Place, a block-long alley, not far from Union Square and Nob Hill, that is home to eight restaurants. Here you can find restaurants serving American, French, Italian, French seafood, Italian seafood, Mediterranean, and Catalan food. Most of the restaurants feature both indoor and outdoor dining. Don't worry too much about the cold as the alley blocks the wind and heat-lamps keep the tables warm.

As you walk down the alley, friendly staff will be quick to show you her/his restaurant's menu and encourage you to have a seat. Take your time and check out the menus of the restaurants that most interest you. My favorite has long been Plouf as I love mussels and fries. I also have had good meals at Brindisi, B44, and Taverna. I have not yet eaten at Trademark, which is relatively new. Most of the restaurants are open for lunch from Monday through Friday and for dinner from Monday through Saturday. Most are closed are Sunday. For each restaurant's hours, visit Belden Place's website. Belden Place runs between Bush and Pine Streets, just east of Kearny Street.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Peruvian Food in the Mission District

Peruvian food is quite popular in San Francisco and is easily found in San Francisco's Mission District. I fell in love with Peruvian food when I learned that French fries on rice is a staple. A true delight for a lover of carbohydrates.

A good, casual spot for lunch or dinner is Limón Rotisserie, sister restaurant to the more upscale Limón Restaurant. Here you can dine on an array of hold and cold small plates or barbecue chicken. We recently lunched here and had terrific ceviche, a nice green salad, lomito (a traditional stir-fry of steak, onions, peppers, and other spices that is served with fries), and tacu-tacu (Peruvian rice and bean balls). We accompanied our meal with reasonably priced wines by the glass. We saved a little room for dessert so shared a Mil Hojas (thousand leaves), a pastry with mango cream.

The Mission is a great part of San Francisco to visit. You can see interesting stores and lots of murals. So head out this way and stop by Limón Rotisserie for lunch. You'll find it at the corner of 21st Street and South Van Ness Avenue. If you want to take a private tour of San Francisco that includes a visit to the Mission District and lunch at Limón Rotisserie, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Walk for Shoppers

One of the favorite pastimes of visitors to San Francisco is shopping. Here's a walking route that combines two of the City's premier shopping districts, a breathtaking view, a house made famous by a Robin Williams movie, a bit of a workout, and a chance to lunch at a tasty, neighborhood restaurant.

Start your walk at the corner of Geary Blvd. and Fillmore Street. You can get here from Union Square by taxi or by taking the 38 Geary bus on Market Street. Before you start your walk, note the Fillmore Auditorium on the southwest corner of the intersection. The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and other greats of rock and roll played here during the venue's heyday in the late 1960s. On the northwest corner, you'll see the Boom Boom Room, once owned by the famed bluesman John Lee Hooker. On the northeast corner are the Sundance Cinemas and Japan Center, which is home to Japanese stores and restaurants, as well as Kabuki Springs and Spa, where you can get a massage.

Now begin your walk by heading up the hill on Fillmore Street. You'll pass many boutiques, coffee houses, and restaurants. You can see a good listing on If you want to have lunch while strolling along Fillmore, try Pizzeria Delfina at 2406 California Street for great, thin-crust pizza. It's my favorite pizza in San Francisco.

The shopping district on Fillmore Street ends at Jackson Street. Walk two more blocks up Fillmore to Broadway for a great view of the Bay. Turn left on Broadway and walk down the hill to Steiner Street. On the southeast corner of Steiner and Broadway is Mrs. Doubtfire's house. This is the home where Robin Williams and Sally Fields lived in the film, "Mrs. Doubtfire."

Then turn right on Steiner and walk three blocks. You'll now be at the corner of Steiner and Union Streets and at the western end of the Union Street shopping district. Rose's Cafe on the northeast corner has good sandwiches, paninis, salads, and pizzas, and is a good lunch spot. Turn right on Union and you can begin strolling among more upscale shops, restaurants, and cafes. A good listing of shops is available at The commercial district ends at Union and Gough, where you will see the Octagon House on the southwest corner. This museum was formerly a home with eight sides. To return to the Union Square area, hop the 45 Union-Stockton bus.

Don't try doing this walk in reverse as you will find yourself walking up a very steep section of Fillmore or Steiner Street. If you would like to take a private San Francisco tour that includes visits to Fillmore and Union Streets, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or at

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Inner Mission - Shopping

While you're strolling through the Inner Mission, you'll pass a number of interesting shops. My favorite is 826 Valencia, which claims to be "San Francisco's only independent pirate supply store." After all, who wants to shop at a chain pirate store. Actually, the pirate store is part of a program to help children improve their writing and to encourage teachers to get children excited about writing.

Next door to 826 Valencia is Paxton Gate, an interesting garden store. Just up the street at 766 Valencia is the newer Paxton Gate's Curiosities for Kids.

Independently owned bookshops are an increasing rarity. However, three call Valencia Street home: Borderlands Books at 866, which specializes in science fiction, horror, and fantasy books; Modern Times, a progressive bookstore, at 888, and Dog Eared Books, an eclectic bookstore that reflects the neighborhood, at 900. In addition, Adobe Books, which sells both new and used books is nearby at 3166 16th Street,.

Good Vibrations, the legendary sex toy store, is at 603 Valencia Street.

The area is home to a good number of art galleries. One of my favorites is the City Art Gallery at 828 Valencia.

There are many other interesting shops to stroll in and out of. So take BART to the 16th Street Station. Walk west on 16th Street, south on Guerrero, east on 18th Street, and then north on Valencia Street. You can also walk further west to Dolores Street if you want to visit Mission Dolores or Dolores Park. You can easily spend a half day, if not a full day, wondering around the Inner Mission.

If you would like to take a private San Francisco tour that includes a visit to the Inner Mission, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 or

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Inner Mission - Food

I recently wrote about some of the sights in the Inner Mission, one of San Francisco's vibrant neighborhoods. If you're a foody, you'll certainly want to head to the Inner Mission to sample some great food.

You could spend your entire visit eating on the block of 18th Street between Guerrero and Dolores Streets where you'll find Delfina Restaurant, Delfina Pizzeria, Bi-Rite Market, Bi-Rite Creamery, and Tartine Bakery. Delfina Restaurant is one of the best Italian restaurants in San Francisco. The Pizzeria has terrific, thin-crust pizza. Unfortunately, there's almost always a wait to get into the Pizzeria. Bi-Rite Market is home to more gourmet food products per square foot than just about anyplace on earth. The Creamery makes small lots of oh-so-tasty ice cream. Tartine produces some of San Francisco's best pastries. Here too, there is usually a line, and seating is limited.

Range is a small restaurant on Valencia Street producing some of the city's best American food. Little Star Pizza is another great spot for thin-crust pizza. Want to watch on old flick with your dinner? If so, visit Foreign Cinema on Mission Street. Never enjoyed south Indian cuisine? Try Dosa. The neighborhood is full of Taquerias and other small, ethnic places featuring food from Mexico, Central America, India and Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and China. Lastly, there's a coffee shop every 100 yards. For a local roast, try Ritual Coffee Roasters at 1026 Valencia Street.

If you'd like to take a private San Francisco tour that includes a visit to the Inner Mission, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or at

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fresh Seafood Near Monterey's Cannery Row

Recently a guest on a Monterey tour wanted to eat at a place like an East Coast seafood shack after visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Unfortunately, such places are tough to find in Northern California and are nonexistent on the Monterey Peninsula, as far as I know.

Cannery Row has long been known as a very touristy strip of shopping centers selling T-shirts and other souvenirs. The area is not well known for good food. Zagat only lists a couple of restaurants near Cannery Row and neither of these had views or were open for lunch.

However, I found a seafood market, a couple of blocks from Cannery Row, that had a good review for its restaurant on Yelp. While my guests toured the Aquarium, I checked out the Sea Harvest Fish Market & Restaurant. It looked just like the type of place my guests wanted except that it doesn't have a view. We decided to give it a try at lunch and were not disappointed.

When you walk into the Sea Harvest, you'll see an array of fresh fillets lined up in the counter and lobsters swimming in a nearby tank. The decor is simple; lots of seafood posters and fish shaped cake pans and Jello molds. The food is simple, mostly grilled and fried fish. Four of us had grilled fish and all enjoyed perfectly done fish. You can order the grilled fish with rice, a vegetable, and cole slaw; over a Caesar Salad; or on a sandwich with fries. Fried fish comes with chips. We also had some barbecue oysters for a starter.

Next time you are visiting Cannery Row, skip the touristy places on the water and walk to 598 Foam Street for a fresh seafood lunch. If you would like to take a private tour of Monterey and Carmel that includes lunch at the Sea Harvest, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Inner Mission - Sights

The Inner Mission is one of my favorite neighborhoods in San Francisco but is frequently overlooked by visitors. Perhaps the urban grit is a bit too much for some folks. I think a walk through the neighborhood gives you a good feel for daily life for many city residents. Plus there are interesting sights, fun shops, and excellent restaurants.

Where is the Inner Mission? San Franciscans frequently argue over neighborhood boundaries and, more recently, their names. For the purpose of this series of postings, I'll consider the Inner Mission to be the area bounded by Market Street on the north, Church Street on the west, 24th Street on the south, and South Van Ness on the east.

The principal sight in the area is Mission Dolores (aka Mission San Francisco de Asis). This is one of the 21 missions established by the Spanish in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The mission was constructed in 1791 and is the oldest building in San Francisco. You can take a self-guided tour through the old mission. Mission Dolores charges $5/adult and $3/child and senior to enter. Visitors are welcome from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from May 1 to October 31 and to 4:00 p.m. during the balance of the year.

The original mission was built on the shore of Lago de los Dolores. Both the building and the lake are long gone, but a plaque marks the spot on Albion Street, near the intersection with Camp Street, about 1 1/2 blocks from the current mission.

The Mission District is home to hundreds of murals. The most famous may be MaestraPeace on the Women's Building at 3543 18th Street. The mural was painted in 1994 by a group of women and covers two sides of the building. A number of famous and not-so-famous women are depicted. A guide to the mural is available inside the Women's Building.

If you would like to take a private San Francisco tour that includes a visit to the Inner Mission, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Monday, June 08, 2009

Northern California: An Explorer's Guide

This new guidebook, written by San Francisco resident, Michele Bigley, was just released on June 1. It's a great resource for travel in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and all of Northern California - from Big Sur to the Oregon border.

Here's what Michele had to say about Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel, "A wealth of knowledge, Rick takes folks on customized tours of the Bay Area, Wine Country, Central Coast, Mendocino, and even the Sierra Foothills. You tell him what you want and he'll create the ideal trip. He knows more about wine and food than most."

Many thanks to Michelle for the nice review. If you're planning a trip to San Francisco, you can pick up "Northern California: An Explorer's Guide" at most good bookstores.

If you'd like to take a tour with a guide who "possesses a wealth of knowledge," please phone me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me at

Monday, June 01, 2009

Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park

A short walk west of the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park lies Stow Lake. Here families can partake in an array of outdoor activities. The easiest and least expensive is to take a walk around the lake or to the top of Strawberry Hill. During the approximately mile-long walk around the lake, you are likely to see ducks and other birds as well as turtles. If you walk to the top of 430-foot tall Strawberry Hill in the middle of the lake, you'll pass by a lovely man-made waterfall and be rewarded with a nice view of the park as well as the Sunset and Richmond Districts at the summit.

If you want to spend some time on the water and get an up-close look at the birds and turtles, you can rent paddle boats and row boats at the Stow Lake Boathouse. Rentals are available from 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. on most nice days. You can check to make sure the boathouse is open and by phoning (415) 752-0347.

If you want a little more exercise, bicycles and peddle-powered carriages are available for rental at the boathouse. On Saturdays during the summer and on Sundays year-round, the section of JFK Drive closest to the lake is closed to cars making it a nice place for a leisurely bike ride.

Need a quick refresher? The Stow Lake Boathouse sells ice cream, sodas, and other snacks. The food's not gourmet but tastes good after a hike or boat ride.

If you would like to take a private tour of San Francisco that includes a stop at Stow Lake, please feel free to contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 or

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Another Summer of Art in San Francisco

This summer two major art exhibitions will arrive in San Francisco. The first to open is "Georgia O'Keefe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Adams, a San Francisco native, befriended O'Keefe in 1929 and became lifelong friends. This show includes over 100 of their works depicting the natural world. The show opens on May 30 and closes September 7. Past shows by these two icons of American art have been very popular, so I suggest purchasing tickets in advance. SFMOMA is open Friday - Tuesday from 11:00 a.m. - 5:45 p..m. The museum is open from 11:00 a.m. - 8:45 p.m on Thursday and closed on Wednesday.

The second, and even bigger, show will be "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" at the de Young Museum. When Tutankhamun works were last shown 30 years ago, the exhibition was an overwhelming success. Again, buy your tickets in advance to ensure that you'll be able to visit. The show opens on June 27. The exhibition will be open daily from 9:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m. through September 30. From October 1, 2009 through March 28, 2010, the De Young will revert to its usual hours of 9:00 a.m. - 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays through Sundays. On Fridays, the museum will close later at 8:45 p.m.

If you're visiting San Francisco this summer, days can be chilly so enjoy the indoors by visiting one or both of these blockbuster exhibits.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Beautiful Gardens South of San Francisco

Spring is here and Filoli has reopened for the season. This beautiful country estate, located about 30 miles south of San Francisco, is an historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The mansion was built by the Bourn family and designed by famed San Francisco architect, Willis Polk. Construction started in 1915 and the family moved in during 1917. The Roth family purchased the estate in 1937. Mrs. Roth lived there until 1975 when she donated the house and surrounding gardens to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Mrs. Roth was instrumental in making the gardens the world-class attraction they are today.

While the house is interesting, it's the gardens that make this a must-see attraction for flower lovers. If you are a film buff, you might have seen Filoli in "Heaven Can Wait," "Joy Luck Club," the "Wedding Planner," and other films. It was also pictured in the television shows, "Dynasty" and "Nash Bridges."

Visitors may take a self-guided or docent-led tour of the house and gardens. If you wish to take a docent-led tour, advance reservations are highly recommended. Filoli's 2009 season runs through October 25. The estate is open from 10:00 - 3:30 from Tuesday through Saturday. Sunday hours are 11:00 - 3:30. Filoli is closed on Mondays and on most holidays.

If you would like to take a private tour that includes a visit to Filoli, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Italian Food in North Beach & Pacific Heights

In my last post, I talked about the problem finding really good Italian food in North Beach. After my dining experiences over the last week, I feel even more strongly that the best, most innovative Italian food is not in North Beach.

We had dinner at Ristorante Ideale in North Beach, a restaurant we enjoyed many years ago but never returned to over the intervening years. I saw that it was still getting pretty good reviews, so we decided to give it a try again. The experience was quintessential North Beach -- mediocre service and food. When I asked the waiter about a wine on the list, he was clearly unfamiliar with the wines or unwilling to spend time talking with me. He just said that the wine I asked him about was good. This inattentiveness to service was matched when we ordered an appetizer of pear wrapped in prosciutto and marscapone. When the food arrived, the pear was a rock and had no taste. When we complained, the waiter said that the shipment of pears they received that day needed more time to ripen. We wondered why they just didn't tell us that the dish was not available. To their credit, they did not charge us for the appetizer.

The other extreme was SPQR on Fillmore Street in Pacific Heights. The menu is always interesting, but this month the restaurant is featuring wine and food from Calabria. Having never heard of the region, much less having tried the food, I was intrigued. We had wines from Calabria featuring varietals that were new to me. We had one of their regular antipastis -- fried brussels sprouts, which were a perfect combination of sweet, salty, and garlic flavors and a crispy texture. My main dish was from Calabria -- fettuccine with sardines, bread crumbs, and currants. An unusual combination, but it worked. My wife's strata of asparagus, pancetta, and bread was scrumptious.

These two restaurants present a perfect contrast -- a restaurant that tries and one that doesn't. It's no wonder that more visitors than locals frequent North Beach.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dining in North Beach

North Beach is the old Italian section of San Francisco. Although the community is diverse today, North Beach is still home to many Italian restaurants and cafes. Strolling along Grant and Columbus Avenues is a fun way to spend a couple of hours. Lunching outside on a sunny day is a great San Francisco experience.

Many of my guests ask what are the best Italian restaurants in North Beach. I usually respond by saying that most of the restaurants in North Beach feature the traditional red sauce and pasta cuisine; that San Francisco's best Italian restaurants are not in North Beach. Of Zagat's top five rated Italian restaurants, none are in North Beach. None of the San Francisco Chronicle's top 20 rated Italian restaurants are in North Beach.

Nevertheless, visitors should spend some time in North Beach. For lunch, I usually take guests to Caffe Delucchi, at the corner of Columbus, Grant, and Green. Their paninis and salads are quite good. While I haven't had the pizzas and pastas, my guests have enjoyed them. Add some red wine and, if the sun is out, sit at one of the outside tables and watch the locals and tourists go by on Columbus Avenue.

Last weekend I dined at a relatively new restaurant in North Beach, Vicoletto. The staff was among the friendliest I've ever encountered. We were sold when we saw Burata on the appetizer menu. Both my wife and I are big fans of this very fresh, gooey cheese. We shared the cheese and a delicious eggplant and ground beef appetizer with friends. All of us enjoyed our main courses of pork rolled in parsley, braised short ribs, and pasta. Our tiramisu and pear tart were also quite yummy. The wine list includes many reasonably priced Italian wines. Our waiter, who previously sold wine, knew the list well. The only drawback, and this is a frequent complaint of mine, was the noise level. Vicoletto is at 550 Green Street. Reservations may be made by phoning 433-5800.

I also enjoy Trattoria Contadina, at the corner of Mason and Union Streets, for traditional red sauce and pasta fare. The restaurant is old school but what they do, they do well.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Albona, a restaurant on the border of North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf that features food from Istria. This peninsula was part of Italy prior to World War I and is now part of Croatia. While the food is heavily influenced by Italian cooking, it also has influences from Slovenia and Croatia. The cuisine is probably unlike any you have eaten, but is delicious. If you are an adventurous eater, I highly recommend Albona.

If you would like to take a private San Francisco tour that includes a visit to North Beach, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (415) 337-1874 (toll free) or by clicking here.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Spring in West Marin

The first day of Spring is Saturday, which means it's time to visit West Marin. The western part of Marin County is completely different from the more populated eastern side. West Marin is home to beautiful beaches, rugged coastline, dairy farms, and numerous hiking trails. Spring is a great time to visit as you are likely to avoid the winter rains and summer fog. Summer days in West Marin are often as cold as Winter days.

Spring marks the annual migration of the California gray whales from their winter home off Baja California to their summer feeding grounds in Alaska. The whales' migration is the longest of any mammal. On the northward journey, the whales travel with their babies closer to shore to avoid sharks. Their are many spots along the coast to look for sharks, but Point Reyes is among the best. If you visit on a weekend day or a holiday before mid-April, you will need to take a shuttle bus to the point. You can watch for whales from the deck above the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse or walk down the 300 steps to the lighthouse. The lighthouse is open from 10:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. daily, except on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Keep in mind that whale watching requires patience. I've been many times and failed to see whales more times than I have seen them. First, look for the whale's spout. Then, if the animal is close enough to shore, you might be able to see it.

Chimney Rock is at the southern end of the point and is another spot to watch for whales. This is also a great area to see wildflowers. Take a walk on the bluffs overlooking Drake's Bay and the Pacific and you are likely to be see California poppies, Indian paintbrush, Douglas' iris, mission bells, and other beautiful blowers.

South of Point Reyes, near the Bolinas Lagoon is the Audubon Canyon Ranch. At its Bolinas Lagoon Preserve, you can see nesting Great Blue Heron and Great White and Snowy Egrets. The reserve is open from 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. on weekends and holidays through the second weekend in July. You can also make an appointment to visit on Tuesday through Friday.

West Marin is a great part of the Bay Area to visit during any season, but Spring is special. If you would like to take a private tour of West Marin that includes Point Reyes and/or the Audubon Canyon Ranch, call Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 327-4237 or e-mail Blue Heron by clicking here.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Cantor Arts Center

I've always enjoyed the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. This small museum has art from around the world and various periods of time. This weekend I was drawn to see two new exhibits: Rodin! The Complete Collection and Timbuktu to Cape Town.

Last month, the museum reopened its remodeled Rodin galleries and is now displaying its entire collection of sculptures in bronze, plaster, ceramic, tile, and wax - about 200 works. The outdoor sculpture garden is home to an additional 20 works, plus the Burghers of Calais are on the Main Quad. The Cantor Arts Center has the largest collection outside of Paris of works in bronze by Rodin. Most of the pieces were given to the museum by Iris and Gerald Cantor, who were great collectors of Rodin and commissioned castings of some of Rodin's works. For me, this exhibition alone makes a visit to the Cantor Arts Center worthwhile. Rodin! The Complete Collection is ongoing, with no planned end date.

To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the museum's reopening after repairing the damage done by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the Cantor Center is highlighting works acquired since 1999. Timbuktu to Cape Town collects the African art obtained during the past decade. While the small exhibit has some interesting works, it is not worth visiting the Cantor solely to see these works. However, combined with the Cantor's regular gallery of African art, you can see a pretty good small collection. Timbuktu to Cape Town runs through March 22.

The Cantor Center is also home to a nice place for lunch: Cool Cafe. You can get tasty sandwiches and salads and dine inside or on the outdoor terrace. Prices are a little high but, since the the museum is free, it's worth paying a little extra for lunch.

The Cantor Arts Center is open Wednesday and Friday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. On Thursday, the museum is open from 11:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. Cool Cafe has the same hours.

If you would like to take a private tour that includes a visit to the Cantor Arts Center and the Stanford campus, please contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or by clicking here.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Andy Goldsworthy in San Francisco

Environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy frequently makes works that are ephemoral; that disappear with time. However, San Francisco is home to two permanent installations.

The first work, Drawn Stone, was commissioned by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 2003 for the entry to the new de Young Museum. Installed in 2005, the work features a continuous crack that represents the meeting of the North American and Pacific Plates near San Francisco. This faultline is what ruptured in 1906 resulting in the Great Earthquake and Fire. Nearby are large stone slabs where visitors can sit to contemplate the installation.

The second work, Spire, was installed in the Presidio last year. The work is a tower comprised of 35 cypress trees that were removed as part of the replanting of the Presidio's historic forest. Spire is located near the Arguello Gate and the Inspiration Point Overlook. A special exhibit on Goldsworthy's work at the Presidio is located at 49 Moraga Avenue (next to the Officers' Club). Goldsworthy at the Presidio is open Wednesday to Sunday, from 11:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. through May 3.

There is yet another Goldsworthy piece on the campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto. Stone River was completed in 2001 and is located southeast of the Cantor Art Center, near the corner of Museum Way and Lomita Drive. The flowing wall is made with stones from buildings that were destroyed in the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes and is the largest sculpture on the campus.

If you would like to take a private tour of San Francisco and/or Palo Alto that includes these works by Andy Goldsworthy, please phone me at (866) 326-8237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

San Francisco to Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle in San Simeon is definitely worth a visit. William Randolph Hearst's unfinished home is an architectural wonder and houses many priceless pieces of art. Five tours are offered of the estate. Tour 1 is suggested for first time visitors as it provides an overview of the castle and grounds. Tours 2 and 3 focus on different parts of the castle. Tour 4 takes you through the gardens and Tour 5 lets you experience the castle at night. I highly recommend purchasing your tickets in advance as tours frequently sell out.

Each year I get asked if I can do a day trip to Hearst Castle. The short answer is, "no"! San Simeon is halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The drive via the inland route from San Francisco takes about 5 hours. The scenic route through Big Sur along CA Route 1 takes about 6 hours. If you want to visit San Simeon from Los Angeles, the trip takes about 4.5 hours.

While a one-day tour from San Francisco is not really feasible. A round-trip, overnight tour via Big Sur would be a great way to spend two days. Or, if you are traveling to L.A. from San Francisco, take the scenic coastal route and overnight in San Simeon or nearby Cambria. Then take an early morning tour of Hearst Castle and continue on to Los Angeles. Alternatively, you could include a visit to Hearst Castle on a longer visit to California's Central Coast. In addition to Hearst Castle, you could visit Monterey and Carmel; Big Sur; wine country around Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, or Santa Barbara; the city of Santa Barbara, and other coastal communities.

If you would like to take a private tour that includes visits to Big Sur and Hearst Castle, please phone me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Civil War Era Fort Point

When I have children on a San Francisco tour, I frequently include a stop at Fort Point. Built from 1853 - 1861, the fort was designed to protect San Francisco Bay from enemy attack. Fortunately, the cannon never needed to fire against enemies, only for testing. We are also fortunate that the builders of the Golden Gate Bridge decided to save the fort from demolition in the 1930s.

Visitors to Fort Point can learn much about the history of San Francisco and the role of the Army in the city's life. Children enjoy looking at the cannons and climbing to the top of the fort for views of the Golden Gate. Adults may find the various exhibits of more interest. Docents dressed in Civil War uniforms are frequently present to answer questions about the fort. In addition, a number of activities are scheduled each day. The cannon-loading demonstration is particularly interesting.

Fort Point is open Friday - Sunday from 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Even if you are visiting on a day when the fort is closed, a drive down Long Avenue and Marine Drive provides great views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay. You may also see surfers testing their skills under the bridge. If you are very lucky, you could see dolphin in the Bay. Twice in 30 years, I have seen dolphin and both times I saw them from the parking lot adjacent to Fort Point. I frequently bring guests to Fort Point on foggy days as the view of the Golden Gate Bridge is better than from the vista point above.

If you would like to take a private San Francisco tour that includes a visit to Fort Point, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Mosaics and a View

Standing at the top of Grandview Park I had a 360-degree view of the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate, San Francisco Bay, Golden Gate Park, the Sunset District, and downtown San Francisco. I climbed quite a bit to get here as the park sits on the top of a hill that rises to 820 feet above sea level, but the view was worth it.

Grandview Park is not convenient for most visitors as it is located in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood on the west side of San Francisco. However, if you are staying near Union Square, take the N Judah streetcar at one of the MUNI Metro stations on Market Street. Make sure you get a transfer and exit the train at 9th and Judah. Transfer to the 66 Quintara bus and travel to 16th and Moraga. You can also continue on the N Judah to 16th Ave. and walk three blocks south to Moraga.

When you get off the bus, look east and you will see a long stairway covered with mosaics climbing the hill. More than 220 local residents donated funds that resulted in the mosaic of the ocean, moon, and sun. As you climb the steps, look closely and you'll find the names of the contributors who made the steps possible. Be sure to turn around and admire the ocean view.

When you get to the top of the steps, you'll be at 15th Avenue. Look to the right and you'll see a small set of steps that connect lower and upper 15th. When you get to the top of this stairway, you'll see a long flight of wooden steps that will take you to the top of the hill. Enjoy the view as you wander through the small park.

If you want to grab a bite to eat during your outing, there are many small, inexpensive restaurants along Irving Street and on 9th Avenue between Lincoln and Judah. You'll find Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, American, Ethiopian, seafood, Greek, and other restaurants.

If you would like to take a private San Francisco tour that includes a visit to Grandview Park and the mosaic-covered stairway, please call me at (866) 326-4237 or e-mail me by clicking here.