Friday, March 13, 2009

Walking Tours

San Francisco has lots of old houses. The city itself is relatively new -- it's about the same age as New Zealand -- and so it has plenty of Victorian houses (at least in the parts that weren't destroyed by the fire).

On Friday, we went to Pacific Heights to do a tour with the San Francisco City Guides. This group offers free walking tours of various parts of the city, and you can donate at the end of the tour if you think it was worth it. Our guide was Steve, an exuberant real estate agent who enjoyed loudly telling everybody that New Zealanders were the nicest people in the world. Of course, after that we had to live up to our reputation, and we had to behave ourselves for the rest of the tour.

Steve was quite knowledgeable about the different types of Victorian houses. In San Francisco, there are three main types: Italianettes, built mainly in the 1870s, Sticks in the 1880s, and Queen Annes in the 1890s. He explained how you could tell them apart, and as soon as we can upload photos we'll post a good picture of a canonical set of Italianettes so you can too. Most Italianettes in the area we were looking at were worth around US$2 million. The garages that most of them had added as a basement cost around US$400,000, which seemed like a lot until we found out how much the houses were worth.

After we'd been shocked by the price we moved on to see various other houses of interest in the area, including the ex-British embassy. While we were hearing about its history, the current owner came out the front door and invited us in for a tour of the house. It was amazing seeing how some people live! He had bought this huge house just to house his art collection, which was very impressive. There was a 'Souper Dress', Renaissance paintings dating from the 1500s, a bed bought from Heast Castle, and beautiful furnishings everywhere. The Royal room contained an Arts and Crafts bed, and was where Prince Philip stayed once. During his stay he had to use a secret escape path because of IRA raids.

Each room in the house had been decorated by a different designer as part of the 2004 Decorator Showcase (held in May each year). The sad thing was that the owner didn't even live in the house! He and his wife and daughter lived in an apartment, and used the house for entertaining, charity events, and to host musicians who were in town for a show.

Our next stop was a famous house in Steiner St, which was used in the movie Mrs Doubtfire. Stuart was very excited to see this house :)

After this we raced off from the tour to catch a bus to Land's End for our second walking tour of the day at Sutro Heights. This is an area of land on the coast that was owned by Adolf Sutro in the late 1800s, which he planted with tropical plants and decorated with statuary and opened to the public. He built his house there, but still kept the grounds open for the public, and even built a railway out to the area so that people could visit for the day.

The gardens were a great attraction to the people of San Francisco. The statues that Sutro imported from Europe often cost more to ship than they were actually worth, and were all replicas of famous statues. No picnics were allowed in the gardens, as Sutro wanted to keep them neat. At the edge of the gardens, overlooking the ocean, Sutro built a sun deck. The remains of the stone steps down the cliff to it are still visible.

Sutro had a great collection of books, and he had always hoped to start a library. For whatever reason, this never came about, and unfortunately he wasn't very clear about this in his will. So, his collection of books (which included plenty of rarities and first editions) was put into storage after his death. Unfortunately, they were kept in two places, and one of the places wasn't fireproofed. 60% of his books burned in the 1906 fire.

Sutro was still a businessman as well as a philanthropist, and he eventually sold off the railway to his gardens. The first thing the new owners did was double the price to 10¢, which incensed Sutro. He promptly built another railway, resumed charging 5¢ for it, and charged anybody who used the old railway 25¢ to get in to the gardens (which were free for everybody else).

He also built a massive bath complex down next to the sea, which had the largest indoor swimming pool of its time. The complex had 20,000 swimming costumes (people had to hire them to swim there) which gives some indication of the numbers of people who went. The baths had a tunnel system that used the sea to fill and drain the pools, ensuring that they were clean. It is still not completely understood how this system worked.

Further around the coast was a memorial made from the bridge of the USS San Francisco which had holes from battle. You could also see a dangerous rocky part of the coast where there had been a few shipwrecks, and the tour guide told us that a couple of the rocks were actually parts of ships that had been wrecked there.

From there it was just a short bus ride back to Fisherman's Wharf where we got some fried chicken from Safeway. By this time the weather had packed up again, so we had a damp ride back to our hotel room and called it a night.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Exploratorium and the Golden Gate Bridge

On Thursday the day dawned sunny as you liked, with a cool breeze. After a delicious breakfast at our hotel we headed off for a day of science at the Exploratorium.

The Exploratorium is just fabulous. It's a museum full of hands-on exhibits -- admittedly, for kids -- which are designed to teach you about various scientific principles. The building itself is the old Palace of Fine Arts, which was originally used for a world fair in 1915. It looks stunning, especially on the beautiful day that we saw it.

Inside, the first half is dedicated to physics experiments. We had fun playing with iron filings and magnets, and trying to get a small marble ball to jump through a series of hoops when we dropped it from a height. One of our particular highlights was a camera that was sensitive to heat instead of light. This let you see how warm you were, and what it looked like when you held something cold for a bit and then held up your hand (you got an awesome tattoo, depending on what you touched). It also proved that Leah's hands were much colder than mine.

Another highlight was the particle accelerator. This is basically a large clear globe with a small marble inside. You move the globe around in circles, and the marble spins around faster and faster and makes a terrific racket.

The back half of the museum was full of psychology things. I did an emotion test on Leah, and got her to tell lies and do embarassing things while monitoring her reactions (she doesn't like singing in front of strangers, but she likes to imagine herself on the beach). There was also a 'de-balancer' -- you stand on one leg in front of a big chequerboard panel which the other person then moves to-and-fro. It's very hard to stay balanced when they do this -- apparently this shows how you use your surroundings to keep yourself balanced.

Just before we left I got to have a go at the bubble table. You get to make enormous bubbles with giant frames, and if you're really good they float away (I wasn't good enough). There was another floor of experiments left, but we'd been there for 5 hours and it was time to go to our next attraction.

Eventually, we managed to get ourselves to the Golden Gate Bridge (the bus stop looked close on our map, but unfortunately it was missing some streets). After seeing so many photos of it, it felt a little unreal to be actually standing in front of it. We snapped a few pictures, and then braved the crowds to walk across it.

The bridge is 2km long over its main arches, but it felt a lot longer as we walked over. We did get some lovely views of both the city and the islands in the bay, but the bridge itself was unsurprising. It's constantly being repainted to stop it corroding, and we saw some of the equipment they use to paint the cables (it looks like a little box that winches its way up). We decided we didn't really want to have that job.

Wikipedia says the bridge is the most popular place to commit suicide, but thankfully we didn't see any of that. We did see plenty of signs and phones urging people to call for help, and apparently they're going to build a 'suicide net' around the bridge to deter people from actually jumping.

After we'd gone back over the bridge, we bussed back to Safeway to get some dinner, and then took a cable car back to our hotel. I rode on outside, which isn't as terrifying as it looks (the hills in San Francisco are fairly hair-raising). It is pretty good fun though, as long as you don't mind cold hands and ears.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


We know you're all just dying to see our photographs, but we haven't got any way to upload them to Flickr just yet. Don't worry, we're working on it, and eventually we'll update this post with some pretty ones.

On our first full day in San Francisco it had stopped raining, so we headed for Alcatraz. We caught a tram there, after eventually figuring out where it stopped. The trams in San Francisco are all quite old: they maintain really old ones that they have purchased from around the world. The one we rode on was from Milan, and it was dated 1928.

We arrived at Alcatraz Cruises rather early, and had little to do for about 40 minutes while we waited. Eventually we got to go on, and after a 20 minute ferry ride, we arrived at the island and headed up to the prison block to do the audio tour. It was very interesting, and pointed out the cell that Al Capone stayed in (he got done for tax evasion rather than anything gangster-related). We also heard about the various escape attempts, including one succesful one, where three guys used spoons to dig around the air vent and climbed up to the roof using their sheets as ropes. They're not sure if the guys actually made it to land or not, as no sign has ever been found of them.

One thing we both noticed was that the cell block was very cold. The windows seemed very draughty, and although we were visiting on a warmer day we could imagine how cold it must have been in the middle of winter. On the tour, they mentioned that the prisoners on one side of the block could sometimes hear the sounds of parties in San Francisco when the wind blew the right way, and that it always seemd to on New Year's Eve.

Alcatraz Island is actually a national park, because of all the birds that like to nest there. After the cell block, we did a short island tour with one of the National Park guides. We listened to Ranger Dave who told us how the island was basically just rock before people got there, and how soil was imported from another nearby island and piled around the guns to stop the shells from bouncing around everywhere (this was when it was a fortress, before it became a prison). People planted flowers and plants in the soil and now the island has lots of wildflowers etc. It's also become a haven for birds and is a bird sanctuary.

After getting back to the mainland we tried to go on a walking tour but were about 15 minutes late, so instead we caught the cable car to Lombard St, aka the Crooked St. It is awesome, especially when you're looking back at it from the opposite hill. We also went to Coit Tower, which has good views of the city. Coit Tower was built by the city when one of its former citizens bequeathed a sum of money to be used to beautify the city. It essentially looks like a giant fire hose. Over on Alcatraz we saw some paintings one of the prisoners had done of the San Francisco cityscape, and Coit Tower was the dominant feature. When we looked, it was hard to make out amongst all the other skyscrapers.

The tower's carpark apparently used to have great views, according to the tour guides we read, but we think that the trees have grown significantly since then because we couldn't really see anything over them. The tower itself has murals painted all around the inside, which date from the Great Depression. They depicted working people's lives during the depression, and apparently some were controversial at the time.

After that we walked down the hill and walked around Fisherman's Wharf for a bit. It was very quiet there because it was getting dark, but it's meant to be the touristy area of the city. It showed -- there were lots of touristy activities you could do, like all kinds of Believe it or Not style museums and restaurants. There were a few curbside seafood diners as well, and as we walked past plenty of people tried to hustle us inside. Instead, we caught a tram home, and that was the end of day one.