Travel: Forget what you’ve heard about San Francisco’s doom loop

San Francisco’s Nob Hill, dominated by Grace Cathedral, at night.
San Francisco’s Nob Hill, dominated by Grace Cathedral, at night. | Dennis Lennox

Having just returned from a visit to San Francisco, I can see why Tony Bennett left his heart there.

From a streetscape defined by vintage cable cars traversing insanely steep hills to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge that spans the strait where the eponymous bay meets the Pacific, it’s hard to think of an American city in a more beautiful setting.

Of course, one can’t visit without acknowledging the elephant in the room: the widespread perception that San Francisco is trapped in some kind of doom loop — a city hallowed out by the pandemic and overrun with crime and homelessness.

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I’m confident that I saw, did and experienced more than enough things over the course of four days to say that the prevailing Fox News narrative and viral social media videos of a couple years ago aren’t a true and accurate reflection of San Francisco today.

Yes, San Francisco was hit hard by the pandemic. Too many offices remain partially empty, particularly on certain days of the week when workers are remote. A considerable number of retail stores, especially around Union Square, seem closed. At the same time, brick-and-mortar retail has been in a transition for a while. There is also no denying that, like other big cities, a homeless problem exists. At the same time, I saw more homeless last week during my visit to Gothenburg, Sweden, than I did in the City by the Bay. I’ll also concede that San Francisco has political problems, but this isn’t a political column and travel shouldn’t be political.

My observations were also confirmed through honest conversations with numerous locals, all of whom readily acknowledged that the overall situation has improved over the last six or so months.

And with summer temperatures already soaring above 90 degrees in much of the country, San Francisco with her mild climate is a great escape from the heat and humidity. As the writer Mark Twain almost certainly never actually said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

What to do and see

I based myself on Nob Hill.

Before the great earthquake of 1906 that destroyed much of San Francisco, this was the home of high society. It was here where the predominately white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite had their mansions. Remnants from this chapter of history can still be seen.

The interior of Grace Cathedral (Episcopal) in San Francisco.
The interior of Grace Cathedral (Episcopal) in San Francisco. | Dennis Lennox

The most visible is the Pacific-Union Club, a men’s-only club occupying the pre-1906 brownstone mansion of a silver baron. Back then, many members also attended Grace Cathedral, which is separated from the club only by a small park.

The cathedral, seat of the Episcopal bishop of California, might look like it’s always been there but it hasn’t. A rich patron who helped build the transcontinental railroad donated the land after his mansion was destroyed in the earthquake.

Architecturally influenced by the great French Gothic cathedrals in Paris, Reims and Amiens, it’s especially notable for being constructed entirely of poured concrete. Built between 1910 and 1964, architect Lewis Hobart’s design is quite remarkable, not least because anything built just 50 years later would have surely been a concrete brutalist design.

While some planned architectural details were omitted due to cost, the extensive number of stained-glass windows, including 34 windows from Charles Connick Studios, and the west front’s central portal with its bronze doors — exact copies of 15th century originals at Italy’s Florence Cathedral — more than make up for anything that’s missing.

If you appreciate the art and architecture of Grace or the gilded age remnants of Nob Hill, you’ll likely want to visit the Legion of Honor Museum, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco.
The Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. | Dennis Lennox

Housed within a full-scale replica of France’s pavilion at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which itself was a replica of the actual Palace of the Legion of Honor in Paris, the museum is one of the better big-city art museums. European art, including Monet, is a notable part of the collection. Keep an eye out for the 13th century reliquary casket of St. Thomas Becket, the martyred archbishop of Canterbury.

The weekly Saturday market at the Ferry Building with its landmark 245-foot-tall clock tower, a rare survivor of the earthquake, is superb; both in terms of the quality and range of vendors and the people watching. From there, you can walk up-and-down the Embarcadero, a waterfront boulevard with more than 4 miles of walkways.

China Town, which sits below Nob Hill, is interesting, especially for anyone who has never been to Hong Kong or one of the other old trading cities in Southeast Asia.

Other than walking over the Golden Gate Bridge, the best views of San Francisco are probably from the top of Coit Tower at Telegraph Hill. Inside the tower, which feels like a column from antiquity, are noteworthy New Deal-era murals and paintings.

There’s obviously a lot more to do and see in San Francisco, including a visit to City Hall with its 307-foot-tall dome (taller than the Capitol in Washington). Even over a long weekend I failed to complete my bucket list.

If you go

The 19-story brick and terracotta InterContinental Mark Hopkins, which was inspired by the great palace hotels of Europe, has rooms and suites facing Grace Cathedral. While I thought the overall standard of service fell short of five-star hotels, it has retained more old-school elegance than the nearby Ritz-Carlton, a major competitor.

The Little Italy neighborhood surrounds San Francisco’s Washington Square.
The Little Italy neighborhood surrounds San Francisco’s Washington Square. | Dennis Lennox

In terms of restaurants, plan for a nice dinner at the 116-year-old John’s Grill, a bigger lunch or early dinner at any one of the many vendors at the Ferry Building’s weekly market and a relaxed dinner at Sotto Mare, a fresh seafood restaurant and market at Washington Square in the heart of San Francisco’s Little Italy neighborhood.

Getting here is easy, as San Francisco International Airport is well-served by all the airlines. And no, Oakland’s airport isn’t in San Francisco, despite its recent name change.

I only needed rides for the airport and Legion of Honor. In both cases, Uber drivers were widely available. While some of the steepest hills were a challenge, it was still easy to explore on foot. So much so that I did around 30,000 steps each day.

Dennis Lennox writes a travel column for The Christian Post.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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