Offering alternatives to overcrowded, overhyped locations.

At Fisherman’s Wharf, a dreary collection of shops and restaurants


Fisherman’s Wharf. (Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images)

The three-mile-long walkway past Pier 39 and ending at Fisherman’s Wharf bears the name of legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who penned a career-long love letter to the city. Strange to think that two decades after his death, a man whose name is synonymous with all that is glorious about San Francisco could be associated with a dreary collection of candy stores, gimmicky restaurants and unappealing food carts. For as long as I have visited San Francisco, the Fisherman’s Wharf district that includes Pier 39 has functioned as a sort of touristic black hole, inexorably sucking us in, along with a thousands-strong stream of hopefuls. We hop off at the end of the cable car line, perhaps longing to recapture some childhood memory — mine date to the 1960s — and instead discover that yet another trinket shop has opened its doors, like a barnacle scarring the hull of a once-proud ship. If you simply cannot help yourself, linger as long as possible at the area’s San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, an endearing collection of vessels from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Or stand outside Boudin Bakery’s flagship location, close your eyes and let the scent of steaming hot sourdough loaves help you imagine this lovely bayfront location as it was a century ago.

Location: 100 Jefferson St., San Francisco; visitfishermanswharf.com;

2 Beach St., San Francisco; pier39.com .

On Nob Hill and Russian Hill, architecture, views and a comfortable pace


Lombard Street, on Russian Hill. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

From the stop at Fisherman’s Wharf, let the city’s eternally endearing cable cars deliver you to two sites where you can catch a worthwhile glimpse of San Francisco’s fabled past and evolving present: Nob Hill and Russian Hill.

First, ride to Nob Hill, and begin at the breathtaking Fairmont San Francisco hotel, restored after the city’s catastrophic 1906 fire by architect Julia Morgan, who is better known for her design of Hearst Castle. A short walk along California Street will bring you to the Scarlet Huntington hotel and its Big 4 Restaurant, where the green leather, dark woods and brass hark back to the day when the city’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of four railroad tycoons (among them Leland Stanford, who founded the university that bears his name). Across the street, Grace Cathedral’s stained glass and Ghiberti Doors, replicas of those in the Florence Baptistery, will beckon. Margot Heltne, a guide with Hobnob Tours, can bring to life the hunger for riches that built the city and came to roost on Nob Hill. “Men shod their horses with silver shoes,” she says. “It was a period of gaudy excess.”

Hop back on the cable car toward the wharf, or simply keep walking a few blocks down California Street and take a right on Polk. Either route will take you to a onetime working-class neighborhood that opened its doors to Mark Twain and Jack London. Named for a burial site of seven Russians during the Gold Rush, Russian Hill includes the much-visited and fantastically twisted Lombard Street, enviable city views and an eminently walkable stretch of shops and restaurants along Polk Street. Here, the pace is slow and comfortable as you sip coffee or sample a Camembert from Minnesota or a Stilton from England at Cheese Plus. If your appetite for history hasn’t been sated yet, the Russian Hill Bookstore has an expansive section of local books as well as games and stationery.

Location: The peak of Nob Hill is at the intersection of Jones and Sacramento streets. sftravel.com/explore/neighborhoods/nob-hill.

Russian Hill encompasses 30-plus blocks, with its epicenter at the intersection of Polk and Union streets. wapo.st/RussianHill.

Hobnob Tours: 650-814-6303; hobnobtours.com.

Pulaski is a writer based in Portland, Ore.

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