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Beyond Fisherman’s Wharf
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Beyond Fisherman’s Wharf – a Local’s Guide to the Soul of San Francisco

Denice Barsness, CRA, COMT, CDOS, FOPS
CPMC Department of Ophthalmology
San Francisco, CA

Stepping Out

We San Franciscan’s are blessed with great year round weather for walking and we do plenty of it. The good news is that no matter how far you walk, you can always find your way home again via a great bus system, electric scooters on every corner and a robust Lyft/Uber/Taxi system.

Most are not aware of it, but hundreds of secret stairways carve their way around the city’s hills.  Some of my favorites include the pyramid shaped Alta Plaza Park which gives you commanding view of the topography of this city, including a great night view of St. Ignatius Church.  Head on over to the leafy Esmeralda Stairs of Bernal Heights any my all-time favorite, the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps.  These mosaic tiled staircases are whimsical stories in fantastical shapes of hummingbirds, dragonflies and various  birds.  Look closely and you will see that the artist(s) had a bit of a sense of humor.  Buried in the beauty are funny little anecdotes.  Halfway up turn back and look behind you for a sweeping view of the ocean.

Closer to downtown head to the Vallejo Street Stairway.   Not only will your cardio requirement be met by these long and steep steps, if you’re lucky you will be treated to a flyby from the famous wild parrots of Telegraph Hill.  These steps are located  Located on the edge of Telegraph Hill and close to the famous Filbert Steps and Greenwich Street Stairs, the Vallejo Street Stairway ranks among the most beautiful stairways in San Francisco.  Both the stairs and the gardens The Vallejo Street Stairway consists of three separate stairways running approximately parallel to each other.  The central stairway is the widest and wanders through the surrounding gardens.  Two smaller stairways run along the side of the gardens straight up the hill.  The smaller stairways are considerably narrower and steeper than the central stairs.

Three separate terraces provide an excellent view of the Bay Bridge, Treasure Island and Oakland.

Don’t Be Square!

For reasons unbeknownst to this local, thousands of visitors head to Union Square each month.   At one time the epicenter of the shopping district, and still home to Macy’s and other big box retailers, I find it has all of the charm of a Greyhound Bus station.   On a sunny day it’s good for a cup of tea and an outstanding pastry at Rulli’s, and a pretty good place for Christmas photos around the giant tree in the center.  However, there are so much more interesting streets for window shopping, books stores and oodles of coffee shops to sit and watch the parade of life known as the urban landscape.

I might be partial to Fillmore Street as my condo is just around the corner.  However, locals know Fillmore Street, the district at the foot of Pacific Heights ( often referred to as Pac Height’s less affluent cousin ) as a hip neighborhood with a little something for everyone.    This vibrant street has quite a history.  After WWII the area was a thriving community of African American cafes and jazz clubs.  It was known as the “Harlem of the West”.  Some of those clubs such as the Boom Boom room still thrive.   These days you are more likely to find a robust café scene built around fashion and coffee.  This street has more diverse coffee shops than pretty much any other in the city.   Walk from Geary street ( BB room is at the corner ) about 20 blocks north until you hit Broadway street.  From that vantage point you will have an up close and unfettered view of Alcatraz, Angel Island and the Bay.   This stretch of street will treat you to the multicultural food scene here as well as interesting one of kind shops ( The Fillmore Street Merchants Association has worked extremely hard at keeping chain stores at bay)  my favorite?   Browser Books and La Mediterranee café.

Meet you for a cup of Joe at Blue Bottle!

Get out of the Golden Gate Park and Walk the Line

The Presidio was originally a Spanish fort sited by Jaun Bautista de Anza ( thus, the Anza park among many other “Anza’s” in this city )  in 1776.   While Paul Revere was getting busy on the East Coast, Juan and his men were bivouacked out in this raw piece of land serving as Spain’s most northern outpost of colonial power in the New World.  Why here?  Because the El Polin Spring provided a source of fresh water.  This spring has been restored and by walking along a beautiful long trail from the top near the playground you can imagine what this might have looked like in the time of the native Ohlone community.

The Presidio was granted national park status 25 years ago.   There are endless gorgeous trails within this park.    I’ve mountain biked most of them, but walking affords a slow pleasure of the many secret pleasures hidden in the trees.  There are four works by British land artist Andy Goldsworthy scattered about.   The most striking, and my favorite, is the Wood Line, a line of branches snaking through a majestic grove of eucalyptus trees.   If you have children, the Julius Kahn Park here is voted the best by parents- I know my son and I spent hours playing there.

The Presidio Social Club or the Presidio Palm’s Café will provide a nice respite after hiking or biking this park.  One of the best kept secrets is the Starbucks at the Presidio on Letterman drive.  It’s large, quiet and adjacent to the beautiful grounds of the Letterman Digital Arts Center .  Grab a hot tea and wander the grounds- check out the Yoda Fountain and the tribute to Eadweard Muybridge.

See you in the trees!


Go Take a Hike!

16.4 million visitors came to Fisherman’s Wharf last year.  That’s more than triple the number of visits to Yosemite National Park.  John Muir lobbied Congress to create Yosemite National park in 1890; however, California still retains control of it, and the equally beautiful Mariposa grove.  Most visitors stand on the wharf and look over at Alcatraz and beyond, Angel Island.

Do they know how much fun a day there can be?

I may be partial to the natural beauty of this area, but I doubt 16.4 million visitors bothered to take a ferry to Angel Island and hike around.  Angel Island is the largest natural island in the Bay and offers 360 degree views of the Bay Area should you make it to the top of Mt. Livermore.  While the Coast Miwok valued this land for seasonal hunting, the US Immigration Station was established here in 1910-1940 where hundreds of thousands of immigrants, the majority from China, were processed.  Camp Reynolds lens over 100 years of military history.   Many of the original buildings are still standing and provide outstanding photographic opportunities.

Me?  I’m partial to the North Ridge Trail which circles the island, bringing you around to the Sunset trail where you will have unimpeded views from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate bride of Alcatraz Island.  Rent a bike for $15.00 per hour or $60 for the entire day.  The bike trail around the Island is an easy 4.5 miles and there are a multitude of picnic areas where you can stop and gawk at the amazing Bay Views or wander around satisfying your inner photographer.  The trail is a moderately easy one with ocean views most of the time.  The elevation gain is only about 650 feet.  It will take the average hiker about 2 hours start to finish.

There is a Cantina on the Island but the food choices are limited.   Better yet, pack a picnic lunch, strap on a backpack, and explore this Island that in many ways, has remained unchanged since Captain Ayala checked it out.  

Put down the Latte and Go Take a Hike!


Top 6 Myths About San Francisco ala Barsness

1.    It’s too expensive to live here

Yes, housing here is amongst the top three in the USA.  We have a vibrant tech community, gorgeous natural geography and a temperate climate.  This coupled with a very small footprint on a peninsula makes the market a tough one.   Rent for a two bedroom apartment might set you back as much as 3500.00 a month.   We don’t have four car garages ( most of us don’t use a car!) or half acre back yards.  But, we do have a fascinating multicultural city which abounds in free events and cheap places to sample the cuisines of the world.   Step outside the marketing of the tourist industry and check out the fringe neighborhoods.   You’ll find nearly a half million working class people raising families and going about their business just like you!


2.    We have too many homeless people

Like every major city from Kona to Washington DC, SF has its homeless “problem” as well.    Add to the sheer percentage of population a liberal policy of sanctuary city as well as a forgiving climate, it may seem as if our numbers are higher than average.  The 2011 Occupy movement infused hundreds of tents onto our streets, making the occult problem more visible than most cities are willing to admit to.   ( SF Chronicle June 2018) It may not seem like it, but there are fewer homeless people on the streets of San Francisco now than there were in 2004, when the city launched a series of long, intensive and only partially successful efforts to put every street person under a roof.   We struggle, but with a heart.  You’ll find that unlike hiding under bridges in Portland, our homeless will congregate where the tourists are.  It’s simple math.   Get off the beaten path and discover the true heart of SF is in its working class families not seen on Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf.


3.    This isn’t a good place for kids

What????  SF is known for its world class aquarium the Exploratorium, Children’s Zoo, Randell Museum, Acrosports and a zillion other mind stimulating venues. There are more than 100 playgrounds in our 47 square miles and plenty of places for city kids to play.  My top park of course is the Koret Children’s Playground in Golden Gate Park.

 With its historic carousel from 1888! Second would be Mountain Lake park with its outstanding cement  slide and nearby Mountain Lake.   Give me the Dolores Park Playground with the nearby Bi-Rite Creamery for a snack afterwards.  Julius Kahn in the Presidio has the best grassy fields for running and jumping.  For a downtown spot try the Yerba Buena Gardens Children’s play area- they have a huge carousel, and a fantastic interactive children’s museum.  There are 9 indoor public pools here- my favorite is the Joe DiMaggio pool in North Beach.  $2.50 gets you a swim in a million dollar sun drenched atrium pool with a slice of pizza from North Beach pizza afterwards.    Fact, this WAS the playground that Joltin Joe used to practice in….


4.    The weather is always foggy

Don’t tell anyone, but it’s our little secret.   Our climate is outstanding.    June and July, the months that MOST people think as summer, is our winter.   We’re a peninsula, surrounded by very hot valleys.  This causes hot air of summer to hit the ocean shrouding SF in a layer of fog usually June-Aug.  The rest of the time sunny skies are the norm.  I’ve often hiked in the sunshine at Christmas time.  So, while the rest of the country is shoveling out of the latest blizzard, we’re out riding our bikes or hiking our mountains.   Come visit us Jan-June, or Sept-Jan and you’ll see why those housing prices are so high!


5.    Chinatown is where the Chinese people live

While our multicultural mix is 38% Chinese, not everyone is living in a pavilion in Chinatown.  While SF’s “Chinatown” is the oldest in the USA, having been founded in large part by the migration of Chinese male laborers during the gold rush of 1848, you’ll find that the Asian influence permeates this entire city.  Avoid the kitschy paper lanterns of Chinatown on Grant Street and head for the vibrant street life of Clement street instead.  The Outer Sunset and Richmond Street neighborhoods around UCSF abound in the over 48 “Asian” cultures that call SF home.


6.    Irish coffee originated in SF
The Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf is famous for their Irish Coffee. Hundreds of people sit at their counter every day to sample this special brew. Somewhere along the way, word spread that this drink was originally created at the Buena Vista Cafe. This is not true. The drink originates in, of all places, Ireland! The owner of the Buena Vista was traveling there, sampled the delicious drink, got the recipe, and started making it for his customers. They LOVED it and more and more people came to check out this new "San Francisco" beverage.  It will cost you though, more than 9.00 a glass!   SF boasts over 38 different coffee companies  and you won’t have time to sample them all- discover Blue Bottle, Philz, Equator, Ritual and Sightglass to name a few.  Step away from the Starbucks and find a new coffee experience only in SF.

Denice Barsness, CRA, COMT, CDOS, FOPS
CPMC Department of Ophthalmology
San Francisco, CA 


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