Eight Perspectives on San Francisco

Local photographers share their visions of the world's most beautiful city.

By Nina Willdorf, Tuesday, Sep 21, 2010, 12:00 AM

"I took this picture at sunset from the fire escape of a Chinatown hotel, looking toward Coit Tower."

(Hal Bergman)

Growing up in one of the world's most beautiful cities is a strange thing. You can't help but become a bit blase when a sight like the Golden Gate Bridge is best known as just another place you get stuck in traffic.

I guess that explains why, when Budget Travel readers voted San Francisco, my hometown, the most beautiful city in the world, I went through a range of emotions: surprise (it beat Paris!), curiosity (how could it beat Paris?), and, finally, begrudging acceptance (it beat Paris—I guess I get it).

Yet as I sat back and thought about our poll—and the fact that readers voted overwhelmingly domestic in most categories—it occurred to me that it's human nature to overlook what's closest to us. And sometimes it takes other folks to snap some sense into you. When I was a kid, I didn't walk the curvy part of Lombard each morning, climb the street so steep it has stairs, or catch a cable car to get to orchestra practice. In fact, I really only thought about San Francisco's most beautiful spots when I had occasion to play guide, during those weekends when cousins or friends came to town and I'd happily embark on my tour of the city's greatest hits.

We'd start at Twin Peaks, where we'd get a panoramic perspective I considered equal to, if not better than, what you'd take in at Coit Tower. We'd careen down the steepest street in the city, 22nd between Church and Vicksburg, which, according to the Willdorf family, was just as steep as the legendary 1100 block of Filbert (and also much more convenient to our house). We'd then set off for a cup of coffee in the Mission. Swinging past the Embarcadero, through the Civic Center, via Market Street, we'd dutifully check out the cable car turnaround at Powell. And by sunset, I'd make sure we'd found our way to Ocean Beach to watch the surfers ride the waves.

For all the friends and family I took on this tour, I never had a disappointed customer. More to the point, I loved giving it. There was something gratifying about seeing my town with fresh eyes, tapping back into my own sense of wonder. And I liked to think that, as a local, I was able to share something more nuanced than a garden-variety guidebook hit list (Ghirardelli Square, Fisherman's Wharf, etc.).

What's most special about San Francisco is often what you don't find published anywhere else—the surprises over the next hill, and the ones known only to the folks who live there. We thought it would be nice to craft a tour of just those spots, from the perspective of the people who know San Francisco's beauty best: seven local photographers. For them, seeing the city in unique ways is a profession, and this collection of their favorite places helps capture San Francisco's many sides. It's the farthest thing from your standard-issue tour, and that's precisely why I'll be incorporating it into mine—the next chance I get.

HOW I SEE IT

Seven local photographers share their visions of the world's most beautiful city

Carmen Winant
"In San Francisco, you come across spots that are so beautiful and unlikely you're surprised that they exist. I snapped this shot at Louis', a 73-year-old diner on the cliffs in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The building is so close to the edge that you're afraid it could tumble into the water. People come more for the scenery than for the food, so it makes sense to stick to something simple, like a burger. You expect a place with a view this stunning to be cutesy and overrun. But Louis' has somehow remained perfectly preserved." Louis' Restaurant, 902 Point Lobos Ave., 415/387-6330, burger $8.
[SEE THE PHOTO]

Jen Siska
"I've always thought of San Francisco as a free-spirited place where people come to find themselves. The women here were in a band called Rad Cloud. I was shooting pictures for their MySpace page. During a break, we scrambled to the top of Bernal Hill. I like the spontaneity in their interaction, but I'm also drawn to the setting and the light as it plays off the hills." The trailhead to Bernal Hill is located at Ripley and Folsom Sts. It's about a 15-minute hike to the top.
[SEE THE PHOTO]

Ericka McConnell
"The Golden Gate Bridge has to be one of the most photographed landmarks in the world, but the design is so stunning it never looks cliche. I shot this from Cavallo Point, a hotel on a former military base in Marin County. The vastness of the sky and the absence of urban congestion show the kind of open spaces that surround the city. And then you've got the bridge. It's not the centerpiece of the picture, but it pokes its head up as it does from so many points around San Francisco. One glimpse of it, and you have no doubt as to where you are." Cavallo Point, 601 Murray Cir., Sausalito, cavallopoint.com, doubles from $265, hiking-trail access free.
[SEE THE PHOTO]

Ron Koeberer
"Despite being a tourist destination, Chinatown has managed to maintain its traditional character in the face of change. Most of us imagine it as bustling, crowded, and crazy. So I wanted to catch it at a different moment, early in the morning, when the light is soft and the streets are empty—a kind of island of sanity amid the madness. I took this shot at 6:30 a.m., on Grant Avenue near Bush Street. To me, the image captures Chinatown at its most magical, with those mystical red lanterns repeating themselves into the distance until they begin to fade away." A gate marks the main entrance to Chinatown at Grant Ave. and Bush St., a short walk from the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market Sts.
[SEE THE PHOTO]

Brown Cannon III
"This shot was taken at breakfast at the Grove Fillmore in Lower Pacific Heights. From the outside, there was nothing particularly notable about the restaurant. But when I opened the door, a surprising scene emerged. The woman clutching her dog gives you a sense of San Francisco's quirkiness. And the light and movement in the background are an indication of the kind of energy you might discover behind any door." The Grove Fillmore, 2016 Fillmore St., 415/474-1419, macaroni and cheese, made with fontina, cheddar, Monterey Jack, and blue cheese, $10.
[SEE THE PHOTO]

"It may sound strange to say this, but when you're surrounded by the action of downtown San Francisco, it's easy to forget that there's an ocean only a few miles away. What I like about this shot is that it describes just one of the many ways San Franciscans enjoy the beach. On any given day, you'll see bikers, walkers, surfers, hang gliders. And people will often just stop, like this couple, to appreciate the sunset in stillness and quiet." Ocean Beach stretches for more than a mile along San Francisco's western edge. For more information, visit 511.org or nps.gov/goga/planyourvisit/ocean-beach-accessibility.htm.
[SEE THE PHOTO]

Aya Brackett
"People often describe San Francisco as a European city. It's old-world without being stodgy. This shot was taken in North Beach, a historically Italian neighborhood, outside Caffe Trieste, which is a landmark in itself. It's where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay for The Godfather, and where beatniks like Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti hung out. What draws me to the image is the way it reflects the city's traditions. The sky is blue, and the guy in the photo is taking a break, enjoying the good life, pausing to appreciate time passing by." Caffe Trieste, 601 Vallejo St., 415/392-6739, caffetrieste.com. In North Beach, street parking is tricky and garages are expensive. An affordable alternative is North Beach Parking Garage, 735 Vallejo St., $3 an hour.
[SEE THE PHOTO]

Hal Bergman
"There's a drama to the geography of San Francisco that you don't find in other cities, and this really graceful way in which the buildings match the contours of the land. From every hill, you see things in a different light. I took this picture at sunset from the fire escape of a Chinatown hotel, looking toward Coit Tower. I like the scope of the shot and what it takes in, with the light playing off the Marin Headlands in the background, and the brightly colored buildings that are so much a part of the city's character." Coit Tower, 415/362-0808, open daily 10 a.m.6:30 p.m., adults $5, kids 511 $1.50.
[SEE THE PHOTO]

Interviews by Josh Sens

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