San Francisco, Not Just for Tourists

I live in a small town 40 miles south of San Francisco. When I have the urge for culture and action, the city is a quick drive and I come home feeling exhilarated.

I do have my favorites that I highly recommend. Many are off the beaten path — a rewarding way of experiencing any city.

Restaurants

Nob Hill Cafe — not in Little Italy. On Taylor Street, steps away from Grace Cathedral. No reservations taken, so best to get there early. Otherwise, enjoy a glass of wine outside while you wait. This small restaurant has all your favorite pasta dishes; casual, cozy environment perfect with kids. It definitely is a favorite amongst the local residents.

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Cafe de la Presse — just off Union Square. On the corner, across the street from the Chinatown gate on Grant Avenue. This restaurant is perfect for any meal of the day. With it’s French flair, you can pretend you’re in Paris as you watch the shoppers go by. I went with my daughter on a night when it seemed all the big name restaurants around Union Square (e.g. Cheesecake Factory, E&O) were completely full — 45-minute waits! I have no patience for that.

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Grand Cafe — near the Theater District. It truly is grand! Reminds me of the grand cafes in Paris and Vienna. Perfect place to have an early dinner before your 8:00 show. Make sure you sit in the main dining room to experience the elegance and refinement of this restaurant.

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Mocca — A lunch cafe off Union Square. Located on the quaint Maiden Lane. Beautifully presented salads, quick, and delicious. Go when the weather is warm, so you can sit outside.

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La Boulange — Neighborhood breakfast hang out on Polk Street. Perfect for a big bowl of coffee or mocha and scrumptious breakfast.

Park

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Huntington Park — top of Nob Hill. Great, small park for taking in the Nob Hill scene — famous hotels, Grace Cathedral, ringing bells from cable cars. A nice respite for the kids where they can ride on the swings, go down the slide, watch dogs being walked, eat a necessary snack.

Activities

Gourmet food trucks — How about a quick lunch or dinner from a gourmet food truck? Not only will you get a tasty and affordable meal, you will also have a chance to enjoy the great San Francisco weather and hang out with the locals. Click here to find the schedule and locations around San Francisco.  My favorite location is the United Nation Plaza. On a warm day, you might be entertained by a rock band.

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Land’s End Trail

Combine exercise with amazing views of the San Francisco coast, the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Spa

Huntington Hotel — for the urban spa experience. Nob Hill at its best, this hotel and spa are an example of classic hospitality and modern luxury. Massage therapies, body treatments, nail care, hot tub and pool are part of the spa services. You can also order food (and champagne!) and have it rolled to you on a cart and served at the tables around the pool. Continue luxuriating in your white robe. Ahhh. The spa is closed for an upgrade from March 18 – 29.

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Top 12 Trips to Take Your Family

The March issue of Travel + Leisure outlined the “12 trips to take before you’re twelve”. With Easter and summer vacations on the horizon, perhaps one of these could be your destination. Contact me to plan your itinerary for any of these trips, or other exciting locations.

1. Costa Rica’s rain forest

2. Skiing in Colorado

3. Kauai by land, sea, and air

4. Disney done right

5. Alaska’s inside passage

6. Maine family camp

7. A great urban getaway — Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York City

8. Your family’s annual destination

9. Yellowstone adventure

10. Affordable Atlantis

11. Colonial Williamsburg

12. Ultimate road trips — Florida Keys, Utah’s National Parks, Olympic National Park, Washington

Siena’s il Palio — short, thrilling horse race

While in Florence, we took a day trip by bus to the medieval town of Siena. On a previous visit, my husband and I remember it as having the most picturesque piazza — the Piazza del Campo.

The highlight of our day was watching the preliminary events of il Palio, a popular horse race in which jockeys ride bareback, circle del Campo 3 times, lasting less than 2 minutes. It is held twice a year, July 2 and August 16. This is the most celebrated event in Siena and we were part of the thousands gathered in del Campo on the day of the lottery, which determines which of the 10 horses will run for each contrada (district). (Seventeen contrade in all, but only 10 are selected to race each year.) Originating in 1656, il Palio continues to be one of pageantry, allegiance, competition, celebration, and pride. The winner of the July 2nd race is onda (wave).

Bugles announce the start of the lottery

Horses are paraded in del Campo

Jockeys await to hear which horse they will ride

The pageantry…

The crowds…

The winner…onda

The onda contrada decorates its streets

Sample Itineraries

I’ve taken many trips over the years (U.S. and overseas), quite a few with my family. Each trip has had its own unique experiences, like riding an elephant or renting an RV. Here is a sampling of itineraries including the U.S., Europe, and Asia, from as few as 5 days to as long as 4 weeks. If you are inspired to take any of them, or have other destinations in mind, please contact me and I can plan an itinerary to suit your preferences.

EUROPE

Spain, Italy, Croatia (4 weeks), Madrid, Santa Margherita Ligure, Cinque Terre, Florence, Siena, Verona, Lake Garda, Venice, Rovinj, Opatija, Plitvice Lakes, Zagreb

Italy (10 days), Milan, Venice, Florence, Siena, Rome

Switzerland (1 week), Zurich, Andermatt, Bellinzona, Ascona, Lake Lugano

Tenerife, Canary Islands (1 – 2 weeks), Puerto de la Cruz, Santa Cruz, La Laguna, Los Gigantes, Icod, Garachico, Costa Adeje

Barcelona (9 days), Barri Gotic, Tibidabo, Las Ramblas, Sagrada Familia and other Gaudi buidlings, Parc Guell, Montjuic, seafront, Picasso museum,

London and Paris (via Chunnel) (7 days), London Eye, Houses of Parliament, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Louvre, Jardin des Tuileries, Champs Elysees, Eiffel Tower, Musee D’Orsay

ASIA

Thailand and Cambodia (4 weeks), Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Ko Samui, Ko Tao, Siem Reap

Bali, Lombok, Gili Air (2 weeks)

U.S.A.

U.S. History, plus outdoor adventures (2 weeks), Washington D.C., Virginia (Charlottesville, Shenandoah Valley, Winchester), Pennsylvania (Hershey, Philadelphia), New Jersey Shore

Glacier National Park with an RV (2 weeks), Washington (Spokane, Seattle, Anacortes Island), Montana (Glacier National Park), Idaho (Coeur d’Alene, Route of the Hiawatha Rail-Trail)

Anza-Borrego Desert with an RV (5 days), San Diego, Anza-Borrego, La Jolla

California Coast (5 days), Monterey, San Simeon, Cambria, San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach

Kauai (1 to 4 weeks), Hanalei, Haena, Poipu Beach, Waimea Canyon, Princeville, Kapaa, Kilauea, Hanapepe

San Francisco and the Bay Area (5 to 10 days), Nob Hill, Golden Gate Park, Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, Angel Island, Tiburon, Marin Headlands, Point Bonita Lighthouse, Golden Gate Bridge, Point Reyes National Seashore, Palo Alto, Apple headquarters, Napa Valley

How to Tackle the Cinque Terre

While still in California and planning for the Cinque Terre (five villages) hike, I must say there was an overwhelming amount of online reviews and advice on how to tackle this popular hike. From everything I’d read and photos I’d seen, I deduced it was a beautiful hike along the coast, but you had to be prepared and forewarned. Total hike time ranged from 5 hours to 8 hours, depending on physical ability and how much time you spent touring the villages. Everyone agreed to start from the southernmost town of Riomaggiore and work northwards to end up in Monterosso. If you got tired, one reviewer suggested taking the train or ferry to the next town. I decided to get one more person’s advice — the hotel (Hotel Villa Anita) owner, Sandro. Since he had given us such great advice and directions for the hike to San Fruttuoso, I knew we could rely on him again. After a hearty breakfast, we filled up our water bottles (a must!) and set out for our excursion.

This was our plan:

1. 1-hour train ride south from Santa Margherita Ligure to Riommagiore, walk around the town for a few minutes, start the hike at the coast and walk the “Lover’s Path”. Yes, we can now understand why it’s called this. The view is beautiful and romantic. We were charmed by something else. To express a couple’s love for each other, the path over the years has been decorated with locks. Attached to rails and fences, these locks come in a splendid array of various sizes and metal finishes, etched with initials and hearts.

2. After a 30-minute walk through Lover’s Path, arrive in Manarola and visit the town for a few minutes.The seaside is quite stunning. Gigantic rocks used as diving platforms for the young and daring. Small, colorful boats anchored waiting for their passengers. Waves splashing onto shore.

3. Take a short train ride to Vernazza, skipping Corniglia because the trail was still closed from the mudslides in 2011. (Or, you could take the ferry.) While walking around the town, affects of the mudslide were visible, though much of the town was in great shape. We saw some building basements full of dirt and debris, with workers repairing broken walls. The water at the beach was a murky green from excess mud. We decided to take a gelato break, and I snacked on calamari wrapped in a small newspaper cone. Reminds me of chips doused with salt and vinegar wrapped the English way.

4. Continue the hike on the coast to Monterosso. Have a snack and cold drink, enjoy a swim. The hike from Vernazza to Monterosso was spectacular, but arduous. Steep inclines, dramatic descents, shady in areas, and full-sun in others. Always a welcoming view of the sea. The hills are terraced with vineyards, though no grapes at this time of year. Once in awhile we would see a grape-picking contraption — since I don’t know the name, that’s the best way I can describe it. It is a small buggy, gripping a very narrow metal track, with a seat for the driver, and a metal container to fill up with grapes. The track winds itself around and up the steep incline of the mountain. Brave driver, picking grapes and not afraid that the buggy might slip and fall into the sea!

5. Finally, take the train back to Santa Margherita Ligure. We were tired, but satisfied from a full-day’s adventure and memories.

Need help with an upcoming vacation? Contact me.

Picturesque Portofino

Portofino was just a pit stop for us on our hike fom Santa Margherita to San Fruttuoso Abbey. I can describe it in three words: small, crowded and yachts. Very picturesque, though, with colorful buildings fronting a very narrow harbor, and flanked by villa-studded hills. I suppose this view is what gives Portofino its charm. Our first order of business was to find a gelato shop to cool us from the heat. Licking our gelatos, we walked along the harbor gawking at the fancy yachts, peaking inside as if we would see anyone famous! One set of lounge chairs was done up in leopard print! We didn’t linger. After 30 minutes of soaking in the scene, we continued our trek to the abbey.

Santa Margherita Ligure, Charming Town on Italian Coast

We arrived in Santa Margherita after a long, full day of traveling from Madrid. A 2-hour flight into Milan Malpensa, 1-hour train ride from airport to Milan Centrale station, then 2-hour train ride to Santa Margherita. After the heat and crowds in a big city, we were happy to be in this coastal town where you could feel the breeze coming from the vast ocean. I made the right choice in selecting this town as our anchor for the next 4 nights. 

Santa Margherita Ligure lies along the Ligurian coast just south of the popular Portofino and quick train ride to the northern most village of the Cinque Terre, Monterosso. Colorful villas, hotels and restaurants line the picturesque harbor. At the harbor is a small plaza with shady trees, colorful flowers and benches perfect for a rest stop and for viewing the fishing boats and ferries coming in and out of the docks. The green, surrounding hills, dotted with more colorful villas, provide a nice backdrop.

The highlights of our stay include:
1. Delicious gelatos, and with a view. Gelaterie Lato G, across the harbor, was our favorite gelateria in this town. We savored the passion fruit, mango and hazelnut flavors.
2. The afternoon fish market, authentic local experience. I love food markets because you can really be part of the local scene. The fish market is in a perfect, convenient location — right across the small street from the harbor. It is open every day starting at around 5:00 pm. We got there early enough to witness the fishing boats motoring in with their catch, already sorted by fish type in wooden bins, then loaded into carts which were quickly pushed across the street to the market, then placed onto metal racks ready for weighing and selling. There were bins of all kinds — fish, crabs, squid and octopus. The first hour of sales is, we guessed, for commercial sellers or restaurant owners buying in bulk, then the next hour is for the selective chef wanting to make something fresh and delicious for their family dinner.
3. Hotel Villa Anita, 2-star rating, but really 4-star accommodations and service. How do hotels get their ratings? This boggled my mind. I would stay there again in a heartbeat. The hotel is pleasantly located away from the busy, coastal strip. It does have a few peaks of the ocean from some of the rooms. It shares a street with other gorgeous villas, is a quick walk to the center of action — harbor, restaurants and shops — and clean and comfortable. The breakfast buffet is something to look forward to every morning, and you can sit on the outside deck and view the lush landscaping. The pool is small, yet new and comes equipped with several massage jets and a rain shower.
4. The hike to San Fruttuoso Abbey, with a quick gelato stop along the way in Portofino. It was really hot on the almost 4-hour hike from our hotel. We were so happy to have packed water bottles. We hiked up and down steep terrain, went in and out of the forest and always rewarded with gorgeous views of the coast. The descent into San Fruttuoso was exciting. The abbey became more immense as we approached and we paused to take in the scene — a lone, impressive structure; gorgeous water; and crowds suntanning on the small beach, while others enjoyed a swim. I took a dip in with my daughter. The water was so refreshing!
5. The hike through Cinque Terre. We visited Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza and Monterosso. We skipped Corniglia because the trail was still closed from last fall’s mudslide. The towns are fun to visit for a few hours, but not to stay in, especially with my adventurous family. (Best for romantic couples, I’m told.) For our hike through the villages, we took the one-hour train ride to the southern most town of Riomaggiore, then started our walk from there.
I am still working on a separate blog for our visit through the Cinque Terre. Come back soon.