Tuesday, February 22, 2011

San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco is sadly not the actual house of horror I thought it was when I first heard the name. One of my favorite books is The Devil in The White City by Erik Larsen which tells the story of the serial killer Dr. H. H. Holmes and the 1893 Chicago's World's Fair nicknamed the "White City". At the time of the fair, Dr. Holmes lured an unknown number of helpless women to their death in the World Fair's Hotel and struck fear into the residents and visitors of Chicago (similar to SF's very own Zodiac killer). When I first saw the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina, I thought "how cool", but my friend pointed out this was built 1915, not 1893 and this is San Francisco's Palace, not Chicago's and I was in the wrong place.

Palace of Fine Arts, 1919

Although it's not a house of horror, it's still one of my favorite spots in the city. San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts was built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition to house works of art presented there. Due to its unsiesmically sound structure, the original Palace was demolished in 1964 and a replica rebuilt in its place. The new Palace is almost exactly the same as the old except for the absence of the murals in the dome and a few lesser details. Today, the Palace is also home to the Exploratorium and 1,000 person theater.

Palace of Fine Arts, 2010
 The Palace is popular among locals and visitors. The lagoon and its white geese as well as the manicured green lawns make it a picture perfect picnic spot. On a sunny day in the city, the lawn surrounding the lagoon is teeming with families, couples and friends enjoying a bite to eat, relaxing in the sun, or flying a kite. The Palace is also popular for engagement and wedding party pictures. It's a beautiful old world backdrop in the middle of a modern city. I always make a point to bring out-of-town visitors here to show them the beauty, diversity and history of San Francisco. The spot is so iconic that Disney made a replica of it in Disney's California Adventure Park. Even Disney thinks it's important!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dali: China's Scenic Gem

Dali, located in Yunnan Province is famous for its Old Town and beautiful natural surroundings.  Dali is comprised of two cities; the historic Dali Old Town (Gucheng) and Dali New City (Xiaguan). Dali Old Town is one of the most popular tourist destinations for domestic travelers as well as foreigners traveling the China backpacking circuit. Although Dali used to outnumber neighboring Lijiang with most foreign visitors, Lijiang’s well preserved Old Town has become more of a tourist attraction in recent years.  What sets Dali apart from Lijiang is its beautiful location sandwiched between Erhai Lake and Cangshan Mountain.
 Old Town is actually a miniature city laid out in an easy-to-navigate grid pattern offering an assortment of activities; however, the most interesting places lay outside Old Town’s four walls. A good way to get an overview of the town is to walk atop the historic walls surrounding the city. Compared to Xian, Dali’s historic wall is petite as it only takes about an hour to leisurely walk. 
Another fun walk is from the South Gate (Nan Men) to the North Gate (Bei Men) exploring the city streets along the way. Near the South Gate is the famous Dali Municipal Museum. The museum opened in 1987 and houses a small collection of Bai artifacts excavated from the surrounding area as well as stone steles, jade, and Dali’s world famous marble carvings. Another spot that literally cannot be missed is Yangren Jie (Foreigner’s Street) located between the North and South Gate and one of the most popular places in town. In recent years, Foreigner’s Street has become a smaller version of the famous Khao San Road of Thailand offering everything from banana pancakes and café lattes to Mexican burritos and hippie style clothes. Foreigner’s street is popular with foreign travelers as they get a taste of home and can get lost for hours relaxing at one of the many outdoor cafés and with domestic travelers as they are able to snap photos of foreigners in their “natural habitat”. It’s really quite a scene that should not be missed.
The best way to explore the beauty surrounding Dali Old Town is to rent a bike. Jim’s Tibetan Guesthouse and Peace café is a wonderful resource for maps, lists of must-see sites and a reliable place to rent a bike. Once outside Old Town, the possibilities are endless for adventure and relaxation. Dali is one of the few tourist destinations where you can truly enjoy the quiet side of China.
 Erhai Hu (Ear Shaped Lake) is one of the highlights of a visit to Dali. Erhai Hu is the seventh biggest freshwater lake in China and sits 1973m above sea level and covers 250 sq km. The best way to explore the lake’s Bai villages, traditional fishing villages, temples and markets is by bike or hopping on one of the many ferries that crisscross the lake. Popular stops on the ferry are Wase and Shaping for their colorful Bai markets and Putuo Island and Lesser Putao Temple, a very picturesque spot. For the more adventurous types, a day trip by bike to Shaping and back or a 58 km ride around the lake to Wase will surely get your heart racing as you travel along the busy lakeside road. If you are looking for more of a relaxed bike ride, take the secondary road to the west of the lakeside road and stop at the small temples and out of the way villages as you enjoy the jade colored waters of Erhai Hu.
 The Cangshan Mountain and its 18 peaks located near the shores of Erhai Hu, rise high above Dali and often have a picture perfect reflection in the clear and still waters of Erhai Hu. The mountain is famous for its 3000 different types of plants, crystal clear ponds and waterfalls, hiking trails, natural marble, and views of Erhai Hu and the entire Dali Prefecture.  Travel up the mountain is easy by cable car at either the base of Gantong or Zhonghe Temples. The cable car takes about a half hour as opposed to hiking up the mountain which is a sweaty 2-3 hours. Once atop the mountain you can walk between the two temples via the Cloud Path, a 20 km scenic hike, or take the chairlift that connects the two. For a special stay, behind Zhonghe Temple are guesthouses for those who want to spend the night in absolute peace and quiet.  
 East of the foot of the tenth peak is the world famous Three Pagodas, the symbol of Dali, built in 824-840 AD. Qianxun Pagoda, the tallest of the three, is 16 tiers high with a white marble sitting Buddha statue at the center of each tier. The two pagodas that flank Qianxun, built about 100 years later, are 10 stories high and also have a Buddha statue on each floor. The designers of the pagodas came from Xi’an and are said to have designed the pagoda after the famous Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.
Dali has risen to the top of China’s must see list yet it still remains one of the last tourist destinations where visitors can escape hectic city life. The city’s location between Erhai Hu and Cangchan Mountain make it one of China’s most spectacular natural beauties. Spend a week relaxing and getting lost in its city streets and on its many scenic trails and you’ll leave truly happy and relaxed.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Coit Tower: Best Views of San Francisco

 The best place for a panoramic view of San Francisco is Coit Tower located in Telegraph Hill. This little gem should be on every visitor and local's must see list. The 210-ft tower is located in Pioneer Park at the top of Telegraph Hill and can be seen from most neighborhoods in the city. The tower was built with money donated by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy and eccentric socialite, after her death 1929. Lillie was a big fan of the city's firefighters (like most ladies) and probably would have become one if she wasn't a woman born in the 1800s. Its rumored that she was a woman born before her times as she often wore pants and smoked cigars. Oh good heavens! After her death, she wanted to honor the city and its firefighters by building a monument to beautify the city. Although Coit Tower looks like a fire hose nozzle, the original designers say this is just a coincidence. Her money was also used to build a monument of three firefighters carrying a woman. To this day, Lillie is the patron saint of San Francisco firefighters.

Coit Tower is easily accessible by bus, car or on foot. The topography of the street up to the tower is only one lane so cars must get very close to the hill's edge in order to allow buses or other cars to pass plus there are only 10 parking spots that fill up fast. Often times the "car line" to Coit can wind all the way down to the bottom of the hill. Also watch out for random joggers, there aren't any sidewalks and they often run out in the middle of the road like they own the place. You can also take the 39 MUNI bus to the top of Coit for only $2, leaving every 20 minutes. To walk up you take the steep Filbert Steps, a hodge-podge of wooden and concrete steps, it's strenuous but only a 20 minute walk. I recommend MUNI or walking, driving makes the trip a headache.

Once you reach Coit Tower, you can enjoy Pioneer Park at the base. The park is teeming on the weekend with tourists but during the week it's quite peaceful. The park is also a popular spot for yoga, meditation and various urban boot camps.

Inside the tower are 26 intricate murals, the most famous being by Diego Rivera (Frida Kahlo's husband). The murals depict scenes from the streets of San Francisco, a car crash, a pickpocket, labor march and some controversial "leftist thinkers" to name a few. Tickets to the top of the tower cost $5. Its a 26-floor elevator ride to the top of the tower and it's completely worth being squished in the old-school elevator for a few minutes.

At the top of the tower you will have some of the most spectacular panoramic views of San Francisco. Some spots you'll see are: Sausalito, the aquatic park, the Bay Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf, downtown San Francisco, Alcatraz, Treasure Island, Angel Island, a bunch of San Francisco neighborhoods and their cool rooftop gardens and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Next time you are in San Francisco or want to do something "touristy" on a clear day, take a trek up Coit Tower and enjoy the spectacular views!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

San Francisco City Workouts

I am a big fan of exercising but not a fan of the gym. I have a hard time doing the same routine day in and day out and not being stimulated by my surroundings while exercising. I like to exercise but not really do so in the traditional gym, yoga, Bar Method kind of way. I want to have fun and do a little cardio at the same time.

San Francisco is a great city for people who want to work out but don't want to join a gym. Not only is the city full of hills to work your buns but has over 300 stairways to get a maximum workout in minimal time. My six favorite workouts are free and have fabulous views to keep you entertained.

1. Lyon Street Steps- Start at the corner of Lyon and Green Street and walk or better run up these popular steps all the way to Broadway and back. Great workout. Popular but there's no finger pointing or mocking when you need a break and grasp the handrail gasping for air.

2. Presidio's Immigrant Point/Coastal Connector better known as the "1000 Steps"- It's actually only 808 steps but its sure to make you feel the burn. The trail starts at Overlook Point and takes you all the way to Baker Beach. Beautiful views and a shady canopy make this a great weekend walk or run.

3. Coit Tower- The Telegraph Hill walk up to Coit Tower is the most scenic city hike on a clear day. I've had the pleasure of running up to Coit Tower (unintentionally) on the main street and it's a great workout sans steps. You will 100% feel the burn. You can also take the Filbert Street Steps of the Greenwich Street Steps for a more scenic and classic trip up to Coit Tower. Anyway you do it, you'll be sure to appreciate the sweeping views and benches to rest on at the top of the tower.

4. Crissy Field- For those who desire no incline try walking or running Chrissy Field. This dead flat trail takes you from the Marina/ Fort Point to the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. A good resting point is the Sports Basement for a drink or restroom break.

5. Golden Gate Bridge- I attempted to give my mother a heart attack a few years ago when I came up with the fantastic idea to bike across the Golden Gate Bridge. This is a strenuous bike ride which should not be taken lightly. If you aren't into biking the bridge, an easier (and more enjoyable) trip is to walk the bridge or run. The views can't be beat and since you are walking the bridge you get twice the work out as you have to walk back across to the city.

The City has so many wonderful exercise possibilities. Take advantage of the city's natural topography and get a workout while exploring the city by the bay!

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Shakespeare Garden in Golden Gate Park

The Shakespeare Garden in Golden Gate Park has to be one of the most quintessential gardens I have ever seen. It's as if you awoke in a garden that Cinderella herself attends too. It reminds me of the last scene in Knotting Hill where Julia Roberts is laying on Hugh Grant's lap reading a book, just picture perfect, throw up in your mouth romantic.

The garden is located near the busy California Academy of Sciences, yet it still retains a quiet laid back vibe. The garden is really never busy unless a wedding is happening. It's popular in the spring for early afternoon weddings as its inexpensive (about $550 for a 2 hour ceremony) and you don't have to decorate as the park speaks for itself. I contemplated having a wedding there, until I remembered the unpredictable weather in San Francisco in October, but it would have been just lovely.

I love the garden to relax in on a warm day. You can pack a picnic lunch and chill on a blanket, read a book on a bench, or stare at the beautiful trees and flowers and be lulled asleep by the soft park breeze. If you need to learn a bit on your visit, the huge brick wall opposite the garden's wrought iron gate entrance has a bronze sculpture of William Shakespeare and 4 of the 6 original plaques featuring literary quotes by Will (the other 2 were stolen/vandalized). Also, check out the benches closely as each is dedicated to famous San Franciscans and tell a bit of that person's history.

This lovely garden is a magical place not to be missed. If you have ever seen a park in a movie and thought, "that doesn't exist in the real world", this place will prove you wrong. It's absolutely lovely and Martha Stewart would give it two thumbs up!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Friday Nights at the San Francisco de Young Museum

The de Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park is now open late Friday nights mid-January through November for its sixth season of the FREE Friday Nights Out. Although its not as trendy hip (and overcrowded) as the Academy of Science's Thursday night, it's a great place to spend Friday night getting a bit of education while being entertained. The museum is open until 8:45pm so don't waste your time hitting happy hour before, come after work to soak up the culture and enjoy the no-host bar with reasonable prices. Plus the cafe offers a special Friday night menu and the museum store is open late for compulsive shoppers.

The de Young is offering a wide range of activities on Friday nights from poetry readings, live bands to behind the scene tours and all the exhibits are open free to members, but at a minimal cost to non-members. In addition to entertainment for the adults in the form of booze and beats, the museum also offers crafts for kids (and their parents). The de Young Friday nights appeals to most demographics but the overall vibe was couples of all ages and young families.

Every week is different so check the de Young website calendar for the nightly theme. We had the pleasure of hitting Opera Night last Friday. This Friday, Feb 4th a selection of musicians will be playing in honor of Black History Month. And Friday, Feb 11th, the museum will be launching their new iphone app and celebrating with music and online tour of the app. Lots to choose from, so get your culture on and visit the de Young on Friday nights!

Pisco Sour Day at La Mar

It's official! La Mar is hosting a Pisco Sour day on Feb. 4th and 5th in honor of the national holiday "Pisco Sour Day" in Peru. All pisco sour drinks are just $5. Only 2 of these little treats make me a drunken mess so its a great event to take a "cheap" date.

My love hate relationship began with pisco, not just pisco sours, on a trip to Peru in 2003. As I am always looking for a cheap alternative while backpacking, my friend and I decided to buy a bottle of Pisco from a corner store in Paracas to enjoy as we planned our tour of the Poor Man's Galapagos Islands otherwise known as Islas Balletas. Ironically, it really wasn't a bottle of pisco, but a Peruvian tradition of making your own homemade hooch and repackaging it in used water bottles. Clearly we should have stopped there, but what the hell we drank it. Never been sicker and never touched the stuff again for years. Sadly pisco was ranked with tequila as the devil's drink for about 3 years until I enjoyed one while in Mexico. Not officially a Peruvian pisco sour but not as bad (or may I say controversial) as the Chilean rip-off version.

The La Mar Pisco Sour is nothing like my little dirty corner store version. Me encanta! La Mar carefully crafts their delicious beverage treats using only the finest ingredients: Pisco Quebranta, lime juice, simple syrup, egg white, and regional bitters. Don't be thrown off by the egg white, it creates a cappuccino like frothy top that is so entertaining to scoop with your finger. Remember Pisco is a brandy distilled from grapes, so if brandy doesn't agree with you, likely Pisco won't either. But what the hell give it a try and come out to La Mar on the 4th or 5th to try one (or five).

*Thanks Princess Allison for the heads-up on La Mar!