San Francisco's Summer of Love
Visiting San Francisco during its celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Summer of Love was appropriate for me on several levels. In fact, “love” is a word I’ve come to associate with San Francisco for most of my adult life. I first visited the City by the Bay with my then-girlfriend, Michele, and we got married and moved to SF two years later. Over the course of eight years in “the city” (as everyone from Big Sur up to Eureka refers to San Francisco), I came to love the morning fog, the often spooky-gray Pacific, the food (the Mission District’s best-ever burritos in America, a wider variety of East Asian cuisine in Chinatown and beyond than anywhere I’d ever lived), the oasis of Golden Gate Park (we lived two blocks away), and the pinch-me weekend getaways (Muir Woods, the Sierra foothills, Sonoma, Santa Cruz, Monterey just a short drive away. So, sure, “Summer of Love.” I didn’t really have to think twice.
And while it’s an admittedly stale construction for a travel writer to claim he found the “perfect” hotel for his destination, I stand by the notion that Michele and I stayed at the hands-down most appropriate hotel in San Francisco. The San Remo, at the top of the North Beach neighborhood just a few blocks from Fisherman’s Wharf, was built in 1906 by Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini to house workers rebuilding the city after the devastating earthquake and fire. If that’s not enough SF cred, in the 1960s and ‘70s, as the city became a mecca for young people seeking to escape what they perceived as stifling Middle American values, the hotel was revitalized by the very countercultural types that made the 1967 Summer of Love possible. Today, the San Remo is utterly unique among Bay Area hotels. You notice the vintage cars parked outside on Mason Street first, then the charming turn-of-the-20th-century architecture, then as you climb the stairs to the main floor you realize the hotel is styled after an Italian pensione with shared bathrooms, exquisitely decorated narrow hallways, cozy rooms, and a quirky, homey vibe you may have never found - and may never find - anywhere else your travels may take you. With rooms under $200/night and a penthouse under $300, the San Remo offers the style, authenticity, and value that every Budget Traveler craves.
Waking up at the San Remo means you’re a quick walk to exquisitely brewed coffee and fresh pastries at the Boudin bakery on the wharf before the hordes arrive. Boudin also offers a cool bakery tour where you can watch the unusual, labor-intensive process by which sourdough bread is mixed, kneaded, cut, and baked. In the early morning, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and fishing boats loom out of the fog on the bay. Vintage streetcars ply Jefferson Street. We loved exploring the wharf during the crowd-free hours, the barks of sea lions cutting through the fog all the way from their favorite perch at Pier 39. In the evening, the wharf can be a nice place to grab a bread bowl full of clam chowder, local craft beer, or a glass of Sonoma or Napa wine at a good price.
Bohemian North Beach
The San Remo’s neighborhood, North Beach, is SF’s Little Italy, which mostly means, of course, extraordinary food on every corner, from the fresh breads, cheeses, and cold cuts at Molinari’s to snug cafes like Michelangelo Ristorante and Caffe for pasta dinners and desserts like gelato and cannoli at Liguria Bakery. For a decidedly more upscale (and totally worth-it) splurge, you’ll find Fior d’Italia, the oldest continuously operating Italian restaurant in San Francisco, on the street level of the San Remo Hotel, serving up classic Florentine beefsteak, light-as-air pastas, a deep wine list, and live jazz by local music-scene veterans of the highest, swingingest order. Walk down Columbus Avenue to stop by City Lights bookstore, a must-stop for those who want to experience the roots of San Francisco’s countercultural movement; the shop was founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953 and became not only a bookshop but a book publisher and meeting place for people who care about literature. “It is as if the public were being invited, in person and in books, to participate in that ‘great conversation’ between authors of all ages, ancient and modern,” Ferlinghetti famously observed of his shop.
Art & Eating Downtown
As charming as North Beach is (and I sometimes feel that I could be happy remaining at a cafe table on Columbus Avenue for days on end), we also loved hopping on a nearby bus to reach downtown in minutes. Our CityPass allowed us three full days’ of complimentary public transportation, including MUNI buses and streetcars as well as the iconic cable cars that traverse Powell and Mason and California streets. Downtown juxtaposes old and new in jarring ways that may remind some visitors of London. Stately 19th-century structures stand side-by-side with early 20th-century tenements (some now converted into relatively stylish apartments to feed SF’s insatiable tech-money-fueled real estate market) and sleek office towers like the brand-new SalesForce tower. Lunch or dinner downtown should include a stop in Chinatown, where shops like Good Mong Kok Bakery and Hon’s Wun Tun House serve world-class noodles, seafood, and dim sum.
On our way to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), we grabbed lunch at Oasis, on Market Street, serving Middle Eastern favorites like falafel to a young, fast-moving lunchtime crowd. SFMOMA is one of those perfect museums whose exterior and interior design thoroughly complement the vibe of the art collection and the spirit of the neighborhood. Gallery spaces are expansive and uncluttered, showcasing the work of modernists from Matisse and Picasso up through pop artists like Warhol and Rauschenberg, plus provocative new work by contemporary artists. I especially loved Nam June Paik’s “Self Portrait,” which features a vintage television set displaying video of the artist’s face obscured by a screen spray-painted with graffiti.
Golden Gate Park
A streetcar ride from downtown out into “the avenues” took us to the DeYoung Museum, in Golden Gate Park, which made the excellent Summer of Love Experience exhibit the focal point of its 2017 offerings. The exhibit celebrated the fashion, visual art, and music of 1967 and of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, the epicenter of hippie culture (something that, post-exhibit, visitors can do by visiting the nearby crossroads of Haight and Ashbury streets for vintage clothing stores, funky boutiques, and a decent helping of latter-day hippie types). The DeYoung’s rooftop observation tower almost steals the show, affording visitors a 360 view of what is widely regarded as the most beautiful city in America. The view turns grownups into kids, marveling at the downtown skyscrapers in the distance, the Golden Gate Bridge to the north, and the fog crawling back in from the Pacific along the avenues of the Sunset and Richmond districts. The tower also reminds you of all the attractions right there in Golden Gate Park, including the peaceful Japanese Tea Garden; the dinosaurs, hands-on exhibits, and dioramas of the California Academy of Sciences Museum; and the incredible Botanical Garden, which gives you a sneak peek at California’s many climates and landscapes (desert, coastal redwoods, old-growth forest…) all within a short walk of the DeYoung. After living near Golden Gate Park for eight years in the ‘90s, we’re partial to Pasquale’s pizzeria on Irving Street, and it remains a neighborhood favorite and relative “best-kept secret” for San Franciscans and visitors seeking California-fresh toppings like garlic, onion, bell peppers, and other veggies at a reasonable price.
Another quick streetcar ride took us westward on Judah Street to Ocean Beach. If you’ve never been to SF’s massive stretch of oceanfront, prepare to be surprised: This is not your sunny Southern Cali beach by a long shot. But if you show up prepared for fog in the morning, late afternoon, and evening (and possibly every hour in between), temperatures in the 50s, and relentless gray waves and warning signs that tell you flat-out that you’ll die if you try to swim here, you can learn to appreciate it the way locals do. When I lived in San Francisco, I often started my work day with a trip to Ocean Beach, the fog and cold and relative isolation waking me up better than any cup of neighborhood French roast ever did.
Yes, Take a Guided Bus Tour
I have one more recommendation, and a little confession to make. When Michele and I lived in SF, we would never have considered taking a double-decker guided bus tour of the city. I mean, that's what tourists do, right? But when we realized that our CityPass included hop-on-hop-off privileges, we gave it a try. And we are so glad we did. From our perch on the top deck, we took in familiar sights in a new way and learned history and trivia we’d never heard before (for instance, the clock tower on the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street, now known for its incredible food market, survived the 1906 earthquake), and because we were enjoying the ride so much we didn’t actually pay attention to the route, we ended up getting an unexpected ride across the Golden Gate Bridge in the fog. If you’ve never zoomed over the bridge from the second story of a bus, there’s a lot of vertigo-inducing activity on the bay you’ve missed.
No, four days in San Francisco were not enough. While you can manage to squeeze most of the city’s sights into a day trip if you have to, you can also spend a week, a month, a year, getting to know this complex, ever-evolving melting pot. Whether you’re seeking some kind of transcendence like those kids who headed here back in 1967, or just a great crab salad with sourdough bread and a reasonably priced Sauvignon Blanc, or, like most of us, something somewhere in between, I hope you’ll enjoy your own Summer of Love in San Francisco sometime soon.
Get to Know: Chatham, MA, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Chatham, MA, is no. 4 on Budget Travel’s list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. Chatham, which is situated in the “elbow” of Cape Cod, is one of those rare small towns that feels like it was a cool small town 100 years ago. After all, you can’t avoid its history, and it involves lots of eye-catching sites. First, there’s the postcard-perfect Chatham Lighthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was first lit to guide boats in 1897. The town's historic district has over 300 protected buildings. What’s more is the town has the highest concentration of classic Cape-Cod-style houses. (Think: timber frames, Victorian details) Not least among them is the ultra-luxe resort Chatham Bars Inn. Among its 24-plus buildings, some date back as far as 1914. Also onsite is eight acres of farm and a greenhouse, sources for the hotel’s posh restaurants’ produce and herbs. While those kinds of gardens are above and beyond what most other restaurants in Chatham offer, one thing that pretty much every dining spot offers is straight-off-the-boat seafood. The town is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to lobster, haddock, and skate, to name a few. And about those restaurants—there’s a lot of them. It all starts at the airport, where you’ll find Hangar B, a compact eatery known for its hearty and creative breakfast fare. Other options throughout town range from the classy yet casual Bistro on Main to the Filling Station, a retro diner located downtown that dishes out classic breakfast food all day and burgers on soft pretzel buns, to the legendary Chatham Orpheum Theater, which features a café where you can anything from salads to burgers to sandwiches to sliders as well as beer, wine, and cocktails and indulge while you watch a movie. Toss in plenty of outposts for birdwatchers (the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge is part of the US Fish and Wildlife Services) to take in the show; the new Chatham Shark Center, in case you wanna learn more than you can get during "Shark Week" (Chatham is known for the return of great white sharks); and whale watching excursions and it all adds up to something pretty cool.
Get to Know: Nevada City, CA, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Nevada City, CA, is no. 3 on Budget Travel’s list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. When I visited Nevada City in July, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, I loved strolling up and down Broad Street, where cool boutiques and unique shops rub elbows with local ice cream, BBQ, and historical sites. When I mentioned to locals (who range from families who trace their roots here back several generations to recent transplants and weekend warriors from the Bay Area and Silicon Valley) that Budget Travel has named their town one of the coolest in America, I generally got one of two reactions: A high-five and a thanks, or a whispered, “Please don’t tell everybody about us.” Well, the secret is out. Nevada City and its surrounding area are definitely having a moment. Just a few days after my visit, the California Arts Council named the region the Grass Valley-Nevada City Cultural District, honoring its evolution from a gold-mining hub in the mid-19th century to its reinvention, starting in the 1960s, as a cultural hot spot that draws artists, writers, and technology innovators. Where gold-hungry miners once panned, culture now thrives. We love Nevada City for its music and art, food, and the surrounding rivers, lakes, and nearby mountains. I found perfect burgers and wings at Bistro 221, along with local craft beer and lively conversation. Up the street, the Nevada City Chocolate Shoppe serves heaping scoops of great ice cream made by locals with deep roots in the community. Music lovers flock to the Miners Foundry for live acts, the town is the epicenter of the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, devoted to nature and adventure filmmakers, and with incredible hills, switchbacks, and scenery, the Nevada City Classic is one of the, well, coolest bicycle races in the U.S. The Miners Inn, an Ascend Hotel Collection Member, in nearby Grass Valley, pays homage to the region’s history with a decidedly more upscale welcome than those 19th-century miners ever got. A grand lobby hosts cocktail events for guests, and the hotel’s beautiful woodwork and comfortably appointed rooms are a real treat. My wife and I really enjoyed our gorgeous room, and we loved chatting with the staff about the Grass Valley-Nevada City area, its history, and their recommendations about food and fun.
Get to Know: Bisbee, AZ, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Bisbee, Arizona is number 2 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America. When you look at the town by its numbers, the facts will astound you: By the early 1900s, the town’s Copper Queen Mine, one of the richest mineral sites in the world, yielded almost 3 million ounces of gold and more than 8 billion pounds of copper. As a bustling mining camp back then, a history honored at the Mining & Historical Museum, a population of more than 20,000 relished its riches. Flash forward to today, with a population of around 6,000, and its small town vibe is likely a big reason why retirees and creative types flock there. Two hours southeast of Tucson, 30 minutes south of Tombstone, and eight miles from the Mexican border, this mile-high city is something of a funky, laid-back artists’ paradise set against a hilly historic backdrop. Actually, “hilly” is a bit of an understatement. The town is so steep that each floor of the four-story high school sits on a ground floor. The Mule Mountain Pass into town is not for the faint of heart. Once you get there, though, you’re rewarded with a living portrait of the Old West. Various boutiques and galleries flourish amid restored Victorian homes, old saloons in the Brewery Gulch district, once the stomping grounds of gamblers and prostitutes, and stunning historic hotels, like the Copper Queen Hotel, the oldest continuously operating hotel in the state, dating back over a century. But far from being a fusty time capsule, Bisbee delights in its quirkiness. The Shandy Dell, a collection of nine revamped retro trailers, is a popular accommodation. The so-called Killer Bee Guy, a specialist in the insects who’s often featured on TV when broadcasters need bee expertise, has a shop here that sells honey, bee pollen, and more. And in case you have any doubt of the general attitude, just take a look the bumper stickers found on many residents’ cars that say “Keep Bisbee Bizarre.”
Locals Know Best: Grand Rapids, Michigan
When Dana Friis-Hansen moved to Grand Rapids, one of the things he was immediately smitten with was how each neighborhood was accessible to the rest, yet each of them had a character uniquely its own. It’s a walkable, livable city, yet he hardly runs out of things to explore. As the director and CEO of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Dana is particularly attuned to the art, architecture, and all-around visual allure of the city. We chatted with him about those things as well as where he likes to eat, drink, and hang out when he’s exploring his hometown. LOCAL COLOR Heritage Hill’s name says it all. The neighborhood, which is situated about a half-mile from downtown Grand Rapids, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. The well-preserved time capsule lined with historically protected Victorian homes, including the Meyer May House built by Frank Lloyd Wright, which Dana says is particularly worthy of seeing. And the appeal is all the more enhanced by the fact that everyone who lives there keeps their property in tip-top shape. You can easily switch from past to present with a quick stroll to Downtown, a scenic area cut through by the Grand River and dotted with public parks. There’s been increased attention to development alongside the river, but that hasn’t gotten in the way of the various running trails, biking trails, spots for fishing (yes, urban fishing) and, perhaps most interesting as far as Dana is concerned, lots of public art. He’s quick to call out Calder Plaza, the site of an old and stunning Romanesque-style City Hall that was torn down in the 1960s, much to preservationists’ chagrin. In its place stands a hulking building of glass and steel. To give the area a little pop, though, La Grande Vitesse, a giant red metal sculpture, was constructed outside, but not without opposition from locals. Dana explains that it was the one of the first NEA-funded sculpture in the country and today it’s one of great respect. It’s the city’s symbol and it appears on the city seal, garbage trucks and lots more. “I love telling that story because it shows the triumph of art,” he says. That story and plenty more about other important sculptures are what you’ll likely find if you take advantage of Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affair's free public art app, available on iTunes and the Google Play Store. EAT YOUR HEART OUT There’s plenty of art to be found on plates around Grand Rapids these days. The restaurant scene is more vibrant than ever, thanks to creative entrepreneurial chefs as well as longstanding institutions that just can’t seem to stop being fun. Bridge Street, an area on the west side of the river, is in the throes of a full-blown renaissance after being a bit down on its heels for a while. One of the most exciting go-tos these days is Sovengard, a Scandinavian-minded eatery in an old brick building. Dana likes its backyard beer garden and bocce ball courts, not to mention the herb gardens that grow along the walls. And the super-creative cocktails. “It’s how hygge came to Grand Rapids,” he says, referring to the Danish tradition of simplicity and coziness that’s become the trend du jour in America’s hippest neighborhoods. Equally cozy but in a different, more old-school way are the various dive bars on the strip, like the well-worn Anchor Bar. And that’s just one street. Head over to nearby Leonard Street, where you might find Dana at Long Road Distillery, which features a laid-back, rustic-chic gastropub that serves elevated twists on classic American fare as well as the spirits they distill in the next room. Another option is the newer, locally owned Mitten Brewing Co., which dishes out excellent pizzas along with top-rate brews in its taproom, a rejuvenated Victorian era building. And speaking of beer, the area’s beer culture has been booming to such an extent that a lot of the businesses banded together to create the Brewsader Passport, a booklet that you can gets stamped on each visit to the various brewery. Pick one up at the Grand Rapids Art Museum’s Welcome Center, fill it up over the course of several days’ of visits (moderation is key in this challenge, of course,) then bring it back to the museum’s Welcome Center and trade it in for a t-shirt. Another way to get a true sense of the local scene is a stop at the Fulton Street Food Market, especially in the summer when you can indulge in what could be the area’s most famous delicacy: fresh cherries. While you’re there, stop by the legendary Cheese Lady Store, where the selection is almost as fantastic as the store’s name. READ: Locals Know Best: Portland, Oregon CULTURE CLUBS Grand Rapids’ South Division, a longtime commercial corridor, is in the throes of a massive revitalization and it’s all about the arts, what with the arrival of artist studios and funky little shops. In fact, the district has even taken on the name Avenue for the Arts, and during the monthly first Friday, there’s an open studio with local artists’ work, from paintings to leather and wood items on display. The Frederik Meijer Gardens, another stop Dana encourages, blends art and nature in its amazing sculpture park and botanical garden. Plus there’s a five-story tropical conservatory with more exotic plants than you can shake a branch at. And, of course, Dana has plenty of reasons to endorse his museum. Not least among them is the fact that it’s free all day on Tuesdays and on Thursday nights from 5PM to 9PM. Get it on the right day and you can catch a lecture or a yoga class. And every Thursday night in the summertime they offer free outdoor concerts. Plan to hang out a while and indulge in everything the food trucks and bar have to offer. (Food and drink are for purchase, we regret to inform.) On Sundays in the fall and winter there are classical music concerts. Other fun things to note: museum tours are free with admission and on Saturdays there’s a hands-on open studio for anyone with an urge to unleash their inner artist. Speaking of free, there are movies in the park throughout the summer and in the spirit of democracy, the movies are decided on by public vote. READ: Locals Know Best: Cleveland TRAVELING WITHIN AND BEYOND THE CITY The public transportation in Grand Rapids is terrifically easy to navigate and, what’s more, it’s free. DASH is a free shuttle service throughout the downtown area. There’s also the Silver Line, which is more like a trolley. It’s free within designated city limits, but there are routes that will take you far beyond for a small fee. Like so many other cities these days, bike-sharing services are on the rise in Grand Rapids, and if you’re in heading there, take note that the trails beyond the city are an embarrassment of riches. “They say you can get all the way to North Dakota if you’re persistent,” says Dana. For help navigating, the Michigan Trails website has all the nitty gritty details of anywhere you could want to go. One of Dana’s favorite routes is about a 20-mile mostly flat ride from downtown to Rockford, a hub of riverside restaurants that offer food as delightful as the views. Wanna explore the area beyond the city on four wheels? Head out to the towns around Lake Michigan. like the adjoining Saugatuck and Douglas. They’re Dana’s top picks, not just for the bucolic beaches. Douglas features terrific galleries to wander through and excellent restaurants while neighboring Saugatuck is known for the Saugatuck Center for the Arts, which features regional theater groups and notable musicians.