My Little Grand Tour: San Francisco (2/3)

On my second day in San Francisco (first day here) I realized something really important. The fog is almost always there, but not really always. That means that if you don’t dress in layers you can die both of cold and sweat, pretty much at the same time. I had a lunch engagement, not far from the […]

On my second day in San Francisco (first day here) I realized something really important. The fog is almost always there, but not really always. That means that if you don’t dress in layers you can die both of cold and sweat, pretty much at the same time. I had a lunch engagement, not far from the hotel, so I decided to catch up on a couple of things I couldn’t see the day before. The afternoon, though… the afternoon was an entirely different story. If you’re using the City Walks, this would basically cover: nr.1 (The Ferry Building Marketplace and Farmers’ Market); nr.16 (The Cannery, Ghirardelli Square, and the Hyde Street Pier); nr.17 (Fort Mason); nr.18 (The Marina Green and The Palace of Fine Arts); nr.19 (Crissy Field and Fort Point); nr.20 (The Presidio); nr.21 (The Golden Gate Bridge); nr.49 (South Park and The Embarcadero). Plus some other stuff. This is also where I take my first Uber in order to get back to my dinner engagement.

Day 2: The Long Walk

2.1 The Asian Art Museum

A beautiful museum near City Hall, right in front of the Pioneer Monument and the Public LIbrary. You’ll probably notice it for the huge colorful animal in front of it. It looks a little bit as if a Chinese dragon had a baby with a hippo. You can’t miss it.

This is the library, seen from the ass of the dragon-hippo thing.

The museum has a beautiful collection with sections from China, Korea and Japan, Persia, South Asia, India and the Himalayas. The building is the former city library and was renovated by Gae Aulenti: you can see her touch next to the main hall on the second floor and around the escalator. I’m not particularly fond of dear old charming Gaetana, having met her in my younger age, but here I have to say she didn’t make much damage. The beauty of the original building wasn’t touched, luckily enough: it’s not a delicate intervention like the one she did in Ferrara, probably due to less strict boundaries, but still it’s not the urban carnage she did here in Milan’s piazza Cadorna.

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The main entrance staircase leads up to a hall where the beautiful original architecture is the main exhibit: you also have a couple of glass cases with ceramics and the installation Collected Letters by Liu Jianhua. Take your time to read the inscriptions above each window, watch the movie of how they made the installation and move on. There’s a lot to see.

Character is the governing element in life
and is above genius.



It would be pointless to list all the amazing antiquities I saw in this place. What I’d like to do, though, is list the top five things I learned and take some time to talk about a mind-blowing temporary exhibition they had.

  • Motifs for all Seasons. Next to a set of prints, you have a series of illustrated panels that will guide you through all different decoration motifs and their meaning. This always has to do with calligraphy and the different was to pronounce a letter or, the other way around, the way same objects are pronounced as the letter representing a concept. Blessing is spelled Fu, just the same as bat, therefore an upside down bat means that blessing is finally here. Something I could have used back in the days when I was designing vampire adventures for my RpG squad. Also, a bat carrying an Indian swastika means Ten thousand blessings because 10.000 and swastika are both pronounced wan, but I’m positive I would have not used that one.
  • Gandalf lived in Japan. Not that we had any doubt. The plaque said it was Haniwa in the form of a man, but they’re not fooling me: I know a wizard when I see one.
  • Geishas do not shave their armpits (they’re right) and love ice cream (who doesn’t?).
  • The woodblock prints economy follows an iterative process and starts with a publisher: he plans and finances the entire project, decides the theme he wants to work on, he hires artists. If there’s no publisher, there’s no market, there’s no work. Sounds familiar?
    • during the first round: the artist draws the overall design in ink on paper  the block carver takes the design and carves key blocks for the outline of the overall image  the printer makes several impressions of the outlined design using those key blocks;
    • during the second round: the artist receives the printed outlines from the printer and designate colors for each register  the block carver carves the series of color blocks based on the artist’s instructions  the printer uses both the key blocks for the main picture and the color blocks to put color on the image  the finished prints go back to the publisher.
  • Monkeys are nasty and bite.
  • Camels are dreadful creatures and nobody likes them.
  • It’s clearly the other guy‘s fault.

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Even if you don’t see anything of this stuff and you don’t manage to climb up till the last floor (worth the visit for the beautiful wooden ceiling as well), I urge you to look up the story behind A Guided Tour of Hell. It’s an exhibition of illustrations made by Pema Namdol Thaye under the guidance of one Samuel Bercholz, who in 2003 had a near-death experience and visited hell. Wait, do not go back watching porn: I don’t believe in that stuff. What I do believe in, though, is art and the power of narrative. Now, don’t get me wrong here: Sam is totally convinced he literally went to hell, he doesn’t think the experience were pictures fired up by his brain lacking oxygen, he truly thinks it was an extra-corporeal, after-life journey. The fun thing is, if you watch his interview, that he defines himself not religious. After a brief bullshit check, you can find out that Bercholz was indeed not religious enough to be “a prominent Buddhist educator and publisher”. Anyway, it’s not about believing or not, just as much as you cannot say that you don’t enjoy Dante’s Commedia only because you’re not religious. You can say that you don’t because you don’t understand Italian. That I would understand.

Anyway, you can get an idea of the kind of art you’ll find here by taking a look at the publication on the artist’s website: it’s a vibrant set of vivid illustrations portraying different entities and tortured souls Bercholz “saw”. I particularly enjoyed panel nr. 9 – Demolition: This hell-being was a computer genius who used his talents to build a technologically fueled utopia. He seems to be tripping over his own creation and I can’t seem to be able to wrap my head around the reason why someone should be in Hell for contributing to an utopia but there it is. Particularly interesting is panel nr. 15 – Frost Giant: An engineering genius built a Doomsday machine to defend his home Country. Serves him right, I guess. The pharmacist from panel nr.16 also doesn’t seem to be faring well, for no apparent reason.

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2.2 The surroundings: Westfield and the Twitter HQ

While you’re there, you might want to pay a visit to the beautiful City Hall, just on the other side of the street, and to the Twitter Headquarters. They have a beautiful marketplace on the ground floor and it’s a decent spot to grab a bite. Also, if you climb back up on Market Street, you’ll reach the Westfield Shopping center. It’s in a beautiful building and they have a LEGO Store on the lower level.


2.3 The Long Walk towards the Bridge

Let’s assume now that you’re tired of all these museums and buildings, the weather is fine and you’ve heard they have a big bridge around here, a bridge they’re particularly fond of. It might be time to go exploring east. Now, the good thing is that San Francisco has the bay and not even I can get lost of the only rule is: keep the sea to your right and keep walking. So that’s what I did. I went down to Pier 1 where they have the Market (more on that later), turned 90° on my heels, put my right hand in the water and started walking.

The first interesting thing you’ll find on the piers, aside from what I already described, would probably be the Maritime National Historical Park, with the Maritime Museum. It’s a debatable modern building but if you go round and walk down Hyde Street Pier you’ll see they have magnificent historical vessels there. The Balclutha, a three-masted square-rigger from 1886, will be back this fall after a brief stay in Alameda for maintenance, but here you can find a list of all the other vessels you can see.


The park is also beautiful in itself and only the first strip of wonderful green meadows that will accompany you throughout all the long walk towards the Golden Gate Bridge. The main area revolves around Fort Mason, a red roofed former coastal defense site which player a major role during the Pacific operations of World War II. It’s more impressive seen from a distance and, unless you want to go down to the SFMOMA Artists Gallery, I suggest you carry on. At this point, you’ll start seeing the bridge from a distance and it will look really big. Honey, you have no idea yet.


Keep walking and aim for the Wave Organ. It’s a sculpture at the end of a strip of walkway, a beautiful sight-seeing spot both for Fort Mason and for the ridge itself. It’s quite a long walk in itself and you might be frustrated by the fact you have to walk the other way from the bridge but I promise it’s worth it.


Now, if you’re a focused person, you’ll keep walking towards Crissy Field and the bridge. That’s not what I did. And don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m not focused: it’s simply that I cannot resist beauty. So I knew that I had to keep walking a certain way, but a big beautiful odd thing emerged to my left and my inner sense of What the fuck is that? prevailed over common sense. I detoured.

What caught my attention was, I was soon to discover, the Palace of Fine Arts. It’s this big neoclassical structure with a huge entrance arch, a rotonda of some sort, a dome, arms branching out to surround a pond. Clearly the favorite place for weddings around there. Apparently it’s the only structure to have survived the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition and I just love how someone decided that muses were mad at you: none of them is facing outwards, all of them are offering you their best part to contemplate. It’s impressive, anyway. Seriously. Go there.

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Well, at that point, I had detoured. Getting back on track was supposed to be an easy task, just retrace your steps, but at that point something else caught my eye, this time on the map.


Now I know it’s not an open venue and I wasn’t expecting anything nor anybody to come and say hello to me, but I simply had to go and pay my homages, so that’s how I found myself uphill (and when they say uphill in San Francisco they really mean it) in the Presidio district. It’s a beautiful area full of historical landmarks, those wooden houses you see in movies, the so-called Earthquake Cottages and, last but not least, the Walt Disney Family Museum. I didn’t have time to go in there, so I cannot tell you anything about it, but I spent quite some time on the red chaise-lounges they have on the meadow of the Main Post Lawn and I’m telling you it’s going to be good for your feet.

When you’re rested enough, move your ass and get up but remember that you’re cut away from the shore by Route 101. There’s no crossing it unless you double down and go back to Lincoln Boulevard and take a left on Halleck Street. If you don’t do that, you won’t be able to go down to Crissy Fields, which is quite lovely, and you’re going to have to wait till Stilwell Hall to go under the 101. Which is far less charming.


But I never go back, so I stayed up. I kept climbing Sheridan Avenue, until for no reason it becomes Lincoln Boulevard and keeps going up. If you do that, you’ll see the impressive sight of the National Cemetery to your left. Veterans, mostly from the Civil War, are buried here under white ordered tombstones and for the first time in my life I saw something close to the dignity of death.

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If you keep going this way, you’ll be offered another choice: you can either go down to Crissy Field overlook or you can keep going up towards the Log Cabin on Storey Avenue and then aim for the Golden Gate Overlook on the other side. I went down, because even my madness has limits. And this is where I took an Uber, because my dinner engagement was at the Embarcadero, where I started my walk.

It wouldn’t have been that mental if I hadn’t detoured.

Oh, by the way, the bridge is huge.


2.4 The Marketplace and the Embarcadero

Back where I started, I promised to spend a couple of words on the Ferry Building Marketplace. It’s a trap for tourists, of course, but not as much as Pier 39. They mostly have food, but also a couple of nice stands for candles, soap, leather stuff, fabrics. The building is beautiful and, until the opening of the Bay Bridge, was the main hub for transportation across the bay, so you can think of it as a railway station.

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I suggest you stretch your legs here, if you didn’t have enough, and then double down towards the Embarcadero. They have a giant bow and arrow. I wasn’t able to divine why.


The “smaller bridge” is also a fine view during the evening: they have lots of different sets of lights going on on the bridge throughout different hours because, I guess, if you’re the “smaller bridge” you need to make sure people notice you as well. Apparently that is the place where tech people go to chill out. There was a guy flying a drone, when I was there, and purposely freaking out his own dog with it. I’m not sure that’s entirely legal but hey, it’s California, baby.


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