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Posts Tagged ‘san francisco attractions’

San Francisco – Alcatraz

Posted in United States, Worldwide Travel Destinations  by admin on December 2nd, 2008

For a structure that served the purpose that made it famous for less than 30 years, Alcatraz is an enduring monument to a bygone era.

By the time it first came into use as a U.S. Federal Penitentiary in 1934 prohibition had already ended. (Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to outlaw the sale of alcoholic beverages was passed in January 1919, but repealed in December 1933.) Nonetheless, Alcatraz’ most famous figure from that activity, Al Capone, took up ‘residence’ from 1934 to 1939, when he was released.

Arriving not long after Capone’s release was another prisoner, almost as well known. Robert Stroud was transferred from Leavenworth in 1942. Nicknamed the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’, he wrote several books both before and during his incarceration. (The nickname was popularized by a best-selling book and subsequent film.) Ironically, he kept no birds at Alcatraz.

But apart from its inmates, the prison offered several reasons for its fame, or infamy.

Long isolated, the island a few miles off the coast of San Francisco housed a military prison beginning in 1907. In the early 1930s Federal prison system officials decided to use the location to hold its most hardened criminal detainees. It was thought that the cold, rapidly moving currents off the coast would discourage escape attempts.

Even so, many tried. Evidence of the results – bullet holes and blood stains – can still be seen on some of the walls.

Guards were hired that were thought to be much less subject to bribes. When Capone arrived and attempted it, he was thrown into solitary confinement. Prisoner’s were entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. All else was a privilege to be earned by good behavior.

After its closure in 1963 (among other problems, the facility was twice as costly to maintain as other prisons), the island was mostly unused for the next 10 years.

In 1973, Alcatraz was incorporated into the burgeoning National Parks system and began its career as a tourist attraction. Since then, over 14 million visitors have taken the 10-minute boat ride from Pier 41 to see ‘The Rock’.

The tour encompasses an introductory video explaining the history of the prison and the island. At the site are books, audio guides and other items. Tour guides then direct the group up the hill to the cellhouse.

The audio guide contains former correctional officers and inmates describing what life was like at the prison. Tour guides provide interesting commentary while visitors explore Al Capone’s cell and other areas.

Touring after dark is especially good for getting a sense of the dismal living conditions. Since San Francisco stays light in the summer long after the tour leaves, that can only be done in winter. But conditions then are particularly unpleasant, so decide how much authenticity you want to experience.

Both the boat rides to and from, as well as the island itself can be windy and cold, so dress appropriately. Of course, San Francisco can get quite warm in the summer, as well. Dress in layers. Between the ride and the tour a great deal of standing and walking is involved, not all of it on level ground. Be prepared for some exercise.

Tickets generally sell out, sometimes weeks in advance. Plan ahead by purchasing from Blue and Gold Fleet at or call the number listed at the site.

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San Francisco – Chinatown

Posted in United States, Worldwide Travel Destinations  by admin on November 17th, 2008

There are over six million people in the San Francisco area, with 750,000 in the Bay Area itself. Nestled within that vast sea of individuals is a conclave known around the world as Chinatown. Most large U.S. cities (and many outside) have a ‘Chinatown’. But, including even New York, the most authentic is unquestionably that of San Francisco.

In an area near North Beach, bound roughly by Grant Avenue and Bush Street, Broadway and Larkin Street, lies a population of the ancestors of 19th century immigrants from China. They arrived literally by the boatload, seeking freedom and fortune during the post-1849 Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroads.

Home to the largest Asian population outside China, the exact number is virtually impossible to state. As a consequence of legislation to limit Chinese immigration via the Chinese Exclusion Act, and other social factors, the residents often avoid census taking. Passed in 1882, and extended and revised several times, the Act wasn’t completely voided until 1965.

Today the area still holds many people, shops, temples and housing that would not look odd to a visitor from those bygone days. Even so, virtually everything was rebuilt from scratch after the great earthquake of 1906.

Along Grant Street there are souvenir shops and restaurants with English translations on the menu. Those not fully prepared for complete immersion may be more comfortable here. One block west on Stockton the visitor can find the Chinatown’s Chinatown – crowded, noisy and bursting at the seams with genuine Chinese food and wares. It’s delightful.

Among the many restaurants in the area there are those that serve primarily tourists, and others where completely authentic Chinese food can be had. New Asia may be one of the few that has managed to do both.

Here,too, is located the heavily visited Mee Mee Bakery (at 1328 Stockton between Broadway and Vallejo). Mee Mee’s is reputed to be the originator of the fortune cookie. Looking around, one can easily believe it. The wonderful smells and sights make it a front runner for that honor.

But Chinatown has much more than food and colorful trinkets. These dozen square blocks house a busy hospital, highly rated Chinese and American schools, newspaper publishers and even tennis courts.

On Waverly Street visitors can find a ‘joss’ (good luck) paper store or see authentic Chinese architectural designs. The street still bears signs of its former existence as home to opium dens and brothels, but only architecturally. Many were housed under pagoda style roofs of intricate design.

Socially, the residents mingle and trade stories about when you could get a haircut for 15 cents. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the outpourings of one of the neighborhood music clubs.

Be sure to visit the Buddha’s Universal Church. One of the younger structures (it was dedicated in 1962), the concrete and steel, marble and wood exterior holds many unusual sights.

The gold leaf and mosaic tiles on the interior lend a cool contrast to the teak paneled walls. Finally, the rooftop garden makes for a stellar completion to a visit to San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Bring your walking shoes and be prepared to take back lots of gifts and a full stomach. Chinatown is the real deal.

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