SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco is one of the world's great walking cities, but it can seem like one endless climb. So we found a springtime walk that mostly heads downhill — and two ways to do it.
The first is to follow in our footsteps, free to take detours and explore places that catch your eye. The second is more structured; for that one, you'll have to sign up with Shanghai San Francisco. The 3-year-old company hosts a street-theater walking tour and interactive scavenger hunt along a route similar to ours. Whichever path you choose, you're in for delights and discoveries.
Where better to start a scenic San Francisco walk than at Coit Tower, with its dual claims to fame: world-class views and a rotunda graced with unique California-centric murals commissioned in 1933 as part of the Public Works of Art Project.
But before we stroll, let's stash the car. Both of our urban walks end near the Sutter Stockton Garage, so we parked there (enter at 444 Stockton St. or 330 Sutter St.) and paid less than $9 for a cab ride to the landmark art-deco tower.
We took the antique elevator ($5, cash only) to the roofless observation deck and found astonishing 360-degree views of the city and the bay. The ground-level gift shop sells kitsch and maps.
For more information: (415) 362-0808, www.onlyinsanfrancisco. com and www.gocalifornia.about.com.
At the rear of the tower are the Filbert Steps, which lead steeply downhill to Filbert Street, past old apartment buildings graced with ornamental trim.
At the bottom of the hill was our first hidden treasure: the small Liguria Bakery, owned and run by the Soracco family for 99 years.
"All we make is focaccia," said Mary Soracco, whose grandfather founded the bakery in 1911. The focaccia is baked in a century-old brick oven. She cut up a slab of the fragrant, flat bread, one studded with mushrooms (there are nine other flavors). We couldn't eat the pieces fast enough. The slabs are $4 to $5 apiece; cash only.
(Liguria Bakery, 1700 Stockton St.; (415) 421-3786.)
The 191-foot-tall twin steeples of nearby Saints Peter & Paul Church have dominated North Beach since 1924. The exterior of the church is a marvel of Gothic and Romanesque architecture and statuary.
Inside, the three Carrara marble and tile altars were hand-carved in Italy, disassembled, shipped to San Francisco and reassembled by local Italian artisans. The wooden pews accommodate 720 people, who can contemplate the church's 87 stained-glass windows while listening to the majestic organ with its 1,800 pipes.
"When there are baptisms and weddings here, you become part of the families," said sacristan David Burbank. "The sense of community is amazing."
(Saints Peter & Paul Church, 666 Filbert St., (415) 421-0809 or www.stspeterpaulsan-francisco.ca.us.)
Across the street is mellow Washington Square Park. We sat on a bench and watched musicians, Frisbee players, tai chi classes and passing packs of tourists on Segways. And lots of pigeons.
Washington Square Park is bounded by Columbus, Powell, Filbert, Stockton and Union streets.
We walked through the park and turned right on Columbus Avenue, strolling a few blocks to tiny XOX Truffles. Former restaurant chef Jean-Marc Gorce hand-makes 50 pounds of intensely flavored chocolate truffles a day there, giving customers a show.
"People come in and watch me make them," he said. "At present, I have 33 flavors (including) 10 with liqueurs."
The truffles have won numerous awards and much national acclaim. We sampled three little rounds of delight — caramel, cognac and cayenne-tequila. Wow!
Truffles are sold individually and by weight ($40 a pound). Buy a coffee drink and get a free truffle.
(XOX Truffles, 754 Columbus Ave., (415) 421-4814 or www.xoxtruffles.com.)
We turned around and headed back the way we came on Columbus. Ahead was the Transamerica Pyramid, the city's tallest skyscraper.
This stretch of Columbus in North Beach is known for its many Italian restaurants and sidewalk cafes, bakeries, delis and espresso shops. Among our favorites are Trattoria Pinocchio (veal saltimboca and garlic bread; 415-392-1472 or www.trattoriapinocchio.com), Stinking Rose (garlic-accented everything; 415-781-7673 or www.thestinkingrose.com) and Rose Pistola (salumi plate; 415-399-0499 or www.rosepistolasf.com).
A visit to the Mona Lisa restaurant is like a quick trip to Rome (415-989-4917 or www.monalisasf.com). The murals, statuary and Sistine Chapel-like ceilings are festive but intense.
The Molinari Delicatessen shouts history and authenticity (415-421-2337). During the week, it's where the Financial District crowd buys hand-built sandwiches for lunch. On weekends, locals and visitors in the know line up.
For something different, turn west on Green Street (aka Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard) to Capp's Corner. Time has stood still inside the clubby bar-restaurant; it's an echo of North Beach the way it once was.
(Capp's Corner, 1600 Powell St.; (415) 989-2589.)
Farther down is the landmark City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, which opened in 1953 and retains a '60s feel.
"We're committed to independent presses and the kinds of books that don't get a lot of attention elsewhere," said publicity director Stacey Lewis.
That translates to 35,000 titles arranged in 85 subject categories. The bookstore was co-founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Taking his lead, the staff tries hard to maintain the store's reputation as a mecca for free-thinkers.
Ferlinghetti, 91, is said to visit the bookstore daily. We spotted him going down the stairs toward the front door.
(City Lights, 261 Columbus Ave.; (415) 362-8193 and www.citylights.com.)
Back on Columbus, we entered Biordi Art Imports (since 1946), crowded with Renaissance-inspired maiolica ceramics, handcrafted and painted in Italy ($11 to $3,000). From decorative plates to functional dinnerware, it's gorgeous.
"We have between 6,000 and 8,000 pieces right now," said owner Gianfranco Savio.
(Biordi Art Imports, 412 Columbus Ave.; (415) 392-8096 or www.biordi.com.)
We left Columbus and got on Grant Avenue for a walk through Chinatown. We found Grant Avenue too tourist-oriented for our taste, so we sought a more authentic environment. Where do the locals shop? We made a right up Pacific Avenue and a left on Stockton Street, taking it as far as Washington.
This short but crowded stretch is fascinating. We jumped in and out of produce, seafood, meat and poultry markets; dim-sum delis, herb stores, tea shops and trading companies — all with arrays of often-unfamiliar goods and foods.
Scene: A white van pulled up in front of a butcher shop. Two young men got out, went inside and emerged carrying a whole roasted pig, which they loaded into the back of the van. "We preordered it," one of them said. Wait! Can we go with you?
We walked downhill on Washington and a block past Grant to Portsmouth Square, the "heart of Chinatown." A small concert had attracted a crowd; nearby, a mini-dragon parade writhed by and strings of firecrackers popped and banged.
We crossed the bridge over Kearny Street to the Chinese Culture Center, inside the Hilton Hotel. The center hosts culinary and heritage walks through Chinatown, sells imported jewelry and hosts four major art shows a year. The next one will be "Zero Viewpoint," Thursday through Sept. 5, featuring modern art by Stella Z hang.
(Chinese Culture Center, 750 Kearny St.; (415) 986-1822 or www.c-c-c.org.)
Back on Grant, we exited Chinatown and turned right on Sutter Street, stopping to admire a nearly life-size sculpture of a horse in the window of the swank Caldwell Snyder Gallery. Inside, we met assistant director Christina Maybaum.
On the walls were paintings by James Wolanin, "neo-pop art (of) retro images from the 1950s and 1960s, with a twist," Maybaum said.
"Our best-selling artist is Greg Miller (of Sacramento)," she added. "He paints nostalgic images of American pop culture." The gallery will show Miller's work beginning May 1, as will its sister gallery in St. Helena (707-200-5050).
About that horse by sculptor Doug Owen: It's made from "found" metal scraps (car, tractor and motorcycle parts) and twine. "It's one of a kind, priced at $30,000," Maybaum said.
What if we offered $25,000? "Depending on the piece, some prices are negotiable," she said. Good to know.
(Caldwell Snyder Gallery, 341 Sutter St.; (415) 296-7896 and www.caldwellsnyder.com.)
At Sutter and Stockton, we entered the Grand Hyatt Hotel and took an elevator to the 36th floor, where the Grandviews restaurant-lounge offers striking vistas of the bay — and Coit Tower, our starting point. A windowside table is particularly romantic in the early evening, when the lights go on in the city. Uh, what was that song by Journey?
Grand Hyatt, 345 Stockton St.; (415) 398-1234 or www.grandsanfrancisco.hyatt.com.
We left the Hyatt and took Stockton to ultra-ritzy Union Square in quest of the most upscale emporium among a community of them — Bulgari, part of the international jewelry and luxury-goods chain.
For a vicarious thrill, we admired cases of diamond necklaces, emerald bracelets, sapphire pendants, pink-gold earrings and other precious treasures.
Best advice: Move slowly, act rich.
(Bulgari, 200 Stockton St.; (415) 399-9141 and http://us.bulgari.com.)