Barcelona

August 16, 2017

In the very first post in this blog, I justified its creation by stating that I had some things to talk about, or “In other words, no vacation slides” as I said at the time. Realistically I wanted to start a blog to talk about my fascination with a local immersive art installation known as The Jejune Institute rather than an aversion to vacation photos.

Look no further back than my 2012 visit to Copenhagen to see an example of a violation of the principles outlined in that first blog post. Yeah, I lied… though somehow I never got around to writing about my 2013 trip to Shanghai on this blog for whatever that’s worth. So forget the no vacation photos thing and let’s move on.

As I wrote in my first post about my vacation to Europe this summer, I started and ended the trip in Barcelona because I booked cheap flights. This meant I stayed at two different hotels a few days in June and again a few days in July.
 

My trip’s first hotel was Hotel Via Augusta in the L’Eixample District, near the Gracia neighborhood. L’Eixample means “expansion,” and it’s literally an expansion of the original part of Barcelona. The original city is now known as the Gothic Quarter and was once surrounded by a wall. After the city wall was demolished the city built outward, mostly in large, dense blocks that had tapered edges to accommodate streetcars. That last factoid plays a pivotal moment in Barcelona’s history, so read on.

Gracia is an older neighborhood that wasn’t originally part of Barcelona. Even though most of the buildings look new, the streets are very narrow with a layout that’s slightly more contemporary (less chaotic) than the Gothic Quarter. It’s a lively, family friendly neighborhood that doesn’t attract as many tourists as other parts of town. That said, it’s walkable from a number of Metro stops and not far from Sagrada Familia. Gracia grew on me quickly with one exception — it’s completely dead on Sundays. Depending on your schedule this can add a significant challenge when you need food. For my part on Sunday I found a “takeaway” lunch at a sushi restaurant (they have Philly rolls in Spain!) and a gazpacho dinner from a convenience store.

Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona
 

It’s fashionable everywhere to gouge and generally hate on tourists; Gracia was no different. But I couldn’t help laughing at this anti-tourist sticker with a skull and selfie stick “crossbones”:

Barcelona
 

Further out in the L’Eixample District, the architecture takes on a life of its own. Local architect Antoni Gaudí and his contemporaries built — or in many cases renovated — buildings with their own modernist styles. Not all of them survived Spain’s civil war intact.

Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona
 

The most astonishing architecture near my first stop is also the most famous: Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, an enormous church that’s been under construction since 1882. Gaudi knew he wouldn’t live to see the end of the construction, and as fate would have it he was killed by a collision with a streetcar in 1926. His original plans for the structure were also destroyed in Spain’s civil war.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
 

With the interior largely complete, the exterior still has one facade and several more towers to go. Will it be complete by the deadline of 2026? I doubt it, even though they’ve switched from stone to modern reinforced concrete for the main facade — which has barely begun construction. Still this is an amazing building to visit and its unfinished, changing nature is a part of its allure.

For better or worse, I booked tickets for the tower on the Passion facade. The ticket included an elevator ride up, but (unbeknownst to me) not back down. The views from there were spectacular, but the path down involves narrow stone staircases. The last part of the climb down has a handrail on one side, and a steep drop on the other. This is an alarming descent, especially when the temperature is 95 degrees and your hands are a little too sweaty to firmly grip the handrail.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
 

Fast forward to the end of my trip, and I stayed in at Hotel Cortes in the Gothic Quarter, the old and original part of Barcelona. Like many folks in Barcelona, the guy running the front desk when I arrived barely spoke any English. Fortunately others in the hotel spoke English fluently, and my limited (Castilian) Spanish was enough to get by.

Everyone will tell you the Gothic Quarter is the most touristy part of Barcelona, but it’s also historically significant, and even today is quite lively. That said, if you want to check out the architecture, wake up early on a Sunday when everything’s closed and stroll the narrow streets for a few hours. It’s a gorgeous part of town when it’s empty, and the clash of styles between the old buildings and the modern street art really shines.

Even during the day, the restaurants, bars, and cafes a little ways off the beaten path are worth checking out. In particular I found a bar with excellent gazpacho, a taqueria (yes, really) with killer margaritas, and vegan British pub with not only good beer, but surprisingly good food.

Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Taco Alto, Barcelona Gazpacho, Barcelona
 

Though the Gothic Quarter can be touristy, one part in particular stands out as a serious tourist trap: La Rambla, a wide street going down the middle of the neighborhood towards the sea. Despite a few useful shops, for the most part the place is crowded with tourists and poorly rated restaurants, including (of course) Barcelona’s Hard Rock Cafe.

As a general tip for traveling, remember this helpful rhyme: “Hard Rock Cafe, Stay Far Away.” I’ll get into that more when I discus my trip to Florence.

Barcelona
 

From the Gothic Quarter I wandered up to Montjuic, a scenic viewpoint on a tall hill. An aerial tramway connects the hill with a (man made) beach. It’s fun to find your way up the hill, especially because not all the pathways are marked. On the way there I happened to walk past “El Gato de Botero,” a large metal sculpture of an overweight house cat. Silly, but worth checking out. The top of Montjuic sports a hotel, a couple restaurants, and an immaculate garden.

Although it’s not included in the panorama below, from several vantage points on top of Montjuic you can easily spot Sagrada Familia. The numerous cranes are a dead giveaway.

El Gato de Botero, Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona
 

On the opposite side of the city from Montjuic (yeah, I got around) there’s another high vantage point: Park Guell. Built into the side of a hill, Park Guell is filled with lush gardens, meandering pathways, playgrounds, and a number of homes designed by Gaudi. Commissioned by a man named Guell, the place was intended as a small village for a handful of rich families with sweeping views of the city. Ultimately it was a failure, and the place was eventually handed over to the city to be used as a park.

The most built out and decorated part of this development is near the bottom, with a number of buildings, man made cave-like structures, fountains, and mosaics. This part currently costs extra to enter most of the time, although it’s arguably no more or less interesting than the rest of the park.

Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona
 

The street art scene in Barcelona is pretty wild, especially in the Gothic Quarter. I took dozens of photos — too many for an already long blog post — but here are a few works I found interesting and representative.

Barcelona Barcelona Post No Bills, Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona
 

While I explored Barcelona mostly on my own, here are all the tours I went on:

  • Sagrada Familia top views. For 29 euros you get to go up one of two towers and get an audio guide. You have to book this one at least a day or two in advance. Third party operators also provide tours, but I suspect you’re better off sticking with the official tour.
  • Free walking tour of the Gothic Quarter. This is a very well put together tour available in three languages (each with a different guide.) Even though it’s free, they do encourage tips at the end of the tour so it’s more of a pay what you want kind of thing. You don’t have to book in advance, but if there’s no space available you may not get in if you show up at the last minute.
  • Craft Tours: Barcelona Beer Tour. Who knew Barcelona has a beer scene? This is the same company as the free tour, but it costs money upfront — and includes tapas and a lot of beer. This one has to be booked in advance.
  • Craft Tours: Discover Gaudi & Modernisme. Another tour from Craft Tours that also requires booking online, this one goes into detail about the modernist architecture in Barcelona in the L’Eixample District, mostly around the time of Gaudi and his contemporaries. The tour ends after a brief Metro ride at Sagrada Familia.
  • Park Guell Monumental Zone. While Park Guell itself is completely free, the core “Monumental Zone” costs seven euros to enter, and you generally have to book in advance — though if you arrive very early in the morning it’s free. It did seem a bit overpriced, though maybe the guided tour option would be more interesting.

For more photos, see my Flickr albums for part one and part two of my Barcelona trip.

A robot barista charged me for health care

August 9, 2017

Robot health insurance
Screenshot of the receipt
 

Robots are handling food everywhere these days. Whether delivering falafel or attempting to scoop ice cream, there’s no escape from food robots in the Bay Area. All of which is fine with me: I, for one, welcome our new robot food service overlords.

What I’m not fine with, however, are spurious surcharges. So imagine my surprise when I paid a visit to Cafe X, the robot coffee machine at the Metreon, and found a small surcharge on my bill for health care.

While it’s not uncommon for San Francisco restaurants to add a surcharge for Healthy SF, a local subsidized medical care program for those without health insurance, this is the first time a machine has charged me such a fee.

Yes, I realize human employees maintain this robot. But if you think about it, Cafe X is nothing more than a fanciful vending machine. You put money in, make a selection, and a product comes out — that’s it. All vending machines require humans to restock it, clean it, etc. but when was the last time you went to buy a Coca-Cola from one only to find that your 99 cent beverage actually cost $1.10 because of a surcharge? Never, that’s when.

It also makes me wonder if the economics of this robot food service industry are really working out. The “robot” part of Cafe X is an off-the-shelf robot arm custom programmed to move cups around, the coffee beverages themselves are prepared by off-the-shelf automatic espresso machines. If Cafe X has to nickle and dime customers to the point where the prices are in line with Blue Bottle, why wouldn’t I go to Blue Bottle instead? It’s barely a block away, and to be honest their humans not only make better coffee, but they don’t charge an extra fee for health care.

Eurotrip 2017: Itinerary and transportation costs

August 2, 2017

In a previous post about my trip to the Mediterranean earlier this summer, I broke down how I decided to take a month long vacation on a whim after finding out about a cheap flight directly from Oakland to Barcelona. Here, I’m going to explain where I went and how much the transportation cost at and between each location.

I’m won’t go into what I spent at each location on food, hotels, tours, etc. since unlike transportation costs that’s going to vary wildly from one person’s budget to the next. Some people can afford luxury hotels and fancy restaurants, others couch surf and make their own food — but the costs are more or less fixed when we’re talking about getting from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time. And yes, you can pay more for “first class” airfare, but why? Let’s get real, flying still sucks no matter how much money you squander on it, so don’t be an idiot.
 

Barcelona

The trip began and ended in Barcelona. I landed on June 17th, took the Aerobus to the central Plaça de Catalunya, and walked to my hotel from there. The Aerobus is very convenient, and a reasonable deal at 10.20 euros for a round trip or 5.90 one way. You can buy tickets online or at either terminal stop. I also bought a T-10 pass on the Metro for up to 10 trips for just under 10 euros. Individual rides cost about two euros, so I got an okay rate despite only using it six times total.

Fair warning that in Barcelona, the two main languages are Catalan Spanish and Castilian Spanish. Many locals don’t speak anything else, so be aware that you may have to get by with pointing at things and using basic Castilian (or English) phrases in some situations. But for buying passes on the Aerobus and the metro, English is fine.

Transportation cost: 10.20 euros ($12.08) + 10 euros ($11.84) = $23.92
 

Venice

On the 20th I left Barcelona for Venice. I took a Vueling flight for just under $71. If you’ve never flown Vueling before, it’s an absolutely no-frills discount airline based in Spain that flies throughout Europe. There’s no in-flight entertainment whatsoever on Vueling, so bring a book, magazine, movie, etc. to keep yourself entertained.

I should point out that the Venice airport isn’t on the main island (which is technically a chain of islands, but who’s counting.) From the Marco Polo airport, I took a water bus — or “vaporetto” — to the stop closest to my Airbnb. I used Alilaguna’s blue line vaporetto, which cost 15 euros for a one way trip. Tickets are sold at the airport, and you can pay by cash or credit card.

For a large group of people it may be more economical to take a water taxi, but as an individual that would have been a little pricey. Once you’re on the main island it’s very walkable, though you have the option of getting around via vaporetto or water taxi — or take a gondola ride, but that’s silly and overpriced.

Transportation cost: $71 + 15 euros ($17.71) = $88.71
 

Florence

Originally I wasn’t planning on staying in Florence, but after looking at the layout of Italy’s rail system it seemed reasonable to stop in Florence for a couple nights on my way to Rome. So I stayed at a hotel from the 23rd to the 25th right in the heart of Florence, steps away from the famous Il Duomo cathedral. The only transportation cost within the city was the wear and tear on my shoes.

How much did the rail trip cost? Well, hold on a sec. After Florence, I got on the train again to visit…
 

Rome

I bought my rail tickets all at once so I don’t have a cost breakdown, but from Venice to Florence, and then from Florence to Rome I spent $71. That’s it — all the train stations were easily walkable from where I was staying, so no additional bus, subway, taxi, etc. charges were needed. If you can, high speed rail is by far the best way to travel.

I stayed in Rome from the 25th to July 5th. Within Rome I mostly walked, although I bought a seven day bus/metro pass for 24 euros and used it when needed. Which if I’m going to be totally honest, was not very much; Rome is a very walkable city, I barely used the pass at all.

On my way to the airport, I took the not terribly fast “express” airport train for 14 euros from the main train station.

Rome/Florence transportation cost: $71 + 24 euros ($28.34) + 14 euros ($16.53) = $115.87
 

Athens and Greek islands

From Rome I took a flight to Athens on Aegean for $115 USD on July 5th. Despite what you may think, the Greek economic problems doesn’t mean everything there is cheap. That said Greece doesn’t attract as many tourists these days — most of the tours I booked wound up as personalized tours because nobody else showed up!

My Greek friend, his girlfriend, and I spent a long weekend on the island of Spetses. I also ventured out on a One Day Cruise which went from Hydra to Poros to Aegina. Combined, both the day cruise and the hydrofoil tickets to and from Spetses cost just slightly over $200 USD.

I also took a handful of trips on the Greek metro, but since I paid in cash there’s no paper trail on how much I spent. It’s only 1.40 euros per trip, I probably spent less than $15 total. Greek taxis are also fairly cheap, so maybe that’s $25 on local transit if you include the two times I took a taxi — a very liberal estimate.

Transportation cost: $115 + $200 + $25 = $340
 

Barcelona, part 2

From Athens back to Barcelona was not cheap, I wound up paying $175 for a Vueling flight. That said, flying to or from Athens isn’t cheap on any airline, and it was still cheaper to fly back to Barcelona then back to the Bay Area than to fly back from Athens directly. Besides, I very much enjoyed spending more time in Barcelona. I arrived on the 13th, heading home on the 16th.

While I had to buy another round trip on the Aerobus for another 10.20 euros, I also continued using my ten ride Barcelona metro pass. I didn’t spend anything else on transit in Barcelona.

Transportation cost: $175 + 10.20 euros ($12.04) = $186.98
 

Conclusion

Let’s add this all up:

Barcelona part 1: $23.92
Venice: $88.71
Florence and Rome: $115.87
Athens and four Greek islands: $340
Barcelona part 2: $186.98

Total European transportation expenses: $755.48

So traveling around Europe doesn’t have to be all that expensive these days. Something to think about if you’ve got a lot of vacation days saved up, or a job where you can work remotely. Wrapping it all up, here’s my takeaways about getting around in Europe on the cheap:

  • When possible, travel by high speed rail. When you have to fly, research how you’ll get to and from the airport in advance.
  • For the best deals on airfare, book as far in advance as you can; for rail you can book at the last minute and it won’t matter.
  • Compact, walkable cities are great to visit since you won’t need to spend much (if anything!) on getting around.
  • Riding public transit is usually a bargain, but don’t do what I did and pay for more than you need.
  • Google Maps is your friend! But make sure to keep your phone charged, and add labels at places your staying or traveling to so you don’t get lost.

A robot served ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery

July 30, 2017


 

Yesterday just before 7 PM I got an unexpected series of texts from a friend:

I got ice cream from a robot
I’m at 18th and Dolores.
 

There’s a robot here
Bi-Rite Creamery

Intrigued, I texted back letting her know I was on the way; what sort of maniac could say no to watching a robot serve ice cream? I raced over from BART, practically running down 18th Street.

The “robot” as it turned out was a pair of robot arms attached to a mannequin torso, sitting on a table under a tent on the sidewalk outside Bi-Rite Creamery. A guy waving around a pair of HTC Vive controllers caused the two arms to scoop up ice cream and sprinkles — for free — to robot and/or ice cream fans passing by the creamery on 18th Street.

Not wanting to spoil my appetite for dinner, I declined the ice cream, but happily watched as others partook. My friend said the ice cream was oddly flavored with a mix of blueberry and anise, but is the taste really the point? Much like robot arm serving coffee in Cafe-X in the Metreon, sometimes it’s the mechanized process that’s the star, not the resulting food products.

The robot did seem to have a camera in its “head,” and I noticed there was an unused Vive virtual reality headset sitting on the table. The desktop PC controlling everything had a high-end GeForce GTX graphics card glowing from under the case’s grill which seemed capable of driving the headset. When I asked the operator if the VR headset worked with this contraption he confirmed that it does, though he said it’s difficult to see what he’s doing while wearing the headset.

Perhaps in the future this might be addressed. At that point it’s only a matter of time before a remote operator could use this device to serve ice cream, then a few years down the line the contraption could be fully automated with artificial intelligence to remove the need for a human operator at all, thus putting hard-working ice cream scoopers out of a job.

For now though this device not only requires a human operator, but also requires the recipient of the dessert to carefully move their bowl as the ice cream drops out of the serving spoon.

 
Watch my video above to see this somewhat chaotic process in action, and check out some photos in the gallery below.

Ice cream robot at Bi-Rite Creamery Ice cream robot at Bi-Rite Creamery Ice cream robot at Bi-Rite Creamery Ice cream robot at Bi-Rite Creamery

I took that crazy cheap flight to Barcelona

July 22, 2017

Park Guell
Barcelona skyline from Park Guell
 

Recently a new airline called Level introduced a crazy cheap nonstop flight from Oakland to Barcelona. I immediately decided to take the plunge and book a trip. If that sounds insane, keep in mind Level is from the same company as British Airways and Iberia, so it’s not just some random startup with an airplane made out of cardboard and duct tape.

Now I should mention that going in, I knew that the cheap ticket wasn’t without its limits. The flight did not include free food, checked luggage would cost extra, and selecting a seat was also an extra charge. I only paid for the latter — I’m an aisle seat kind of guy because I drink too much coffee.

The first step was buying the ticket, from there I needed to find out how much time off I could take from work. When that turned out to be a month, I also needed to figure out where else I wanted to go in Europe.

I’ll get into some trip details some other time, but first I learned a few things traveling to and from Europe on the cheap. Here’s what I found:

 
Book now, ask questions later

Over a couple weeks I found my friend in Greece was interested in traveling with me, I could stay at his place in Athens, and that we were both interested in visiting Rome. From there we had to figure out what we wanted to see together, and I had to figure out where else I wanted to go.

After booking half a dozen tours, a few flights, train rides, airport bus shuttles… somehow a couple months had gone by. Oops.

For better or worse, the cheapest flight out of Europe by that time was also on Level, and was also from Barcelona — but for almost double the original price. I shouldn’t have spent so much time on research. Damn!

The worst part of it is that many of the most interesting tours, museums, even restaurants that I went to were the ones I found after I’d landed in Europe, either because someone told me about them or because I happen to Google them late at night before going to bed. Clearly, mistakes were made.
 

Pack light

Discount airlines charge extra for checked luggage, so only bring the absolute minimum with you — and the absolute minimum back. For me this meant I had to buy a few extra supplies like a new toothbrush and more sunscreen while abroad. Not a big deal.

You might think traveling light is hard; I found the experience the exact opposite. Instead of trying to lug a rolling suitcase over cobblestone roads and dragging it up and down flights of stairs, it was just me, a backpack, and whatever was in my pockets.

Clothes were not a problem. Most of the places I stayed at where Airbnbs with their own washing machine, so about four days of clothes was enough. I actually overpacked; I bought a pair of pants and a sweatshirt that I never wore due to the hot summer weather.

Still not convinced? Well don’t take it from me, travel expert Rick Steves recommends packing light as well. Besides, there’s no better feeling than walking past the baggage claim, eyeing your fellow passengers collecting mountains of luggage while silently mumbling “suckers” to yourself.
 

Prepare for liftoff

No food on the plane? No problem. Buy some food at the airport that will last a while, and eat it on the plane when you’re hungry. Bring a bottle of water and some tea or whatever. Most importantly, bring an energy bar or something in case you’re hungry. In theory you could buy food before you even got to the airport, but that can result in TSA headaches.

Like many airlines, Level does have food for purchase on the airplane but it’s overpriced and there’s no guarantee it will still be in stock by the time you’re starving, so it’s best to buy food ahead of the flight.

As with any air travel, check SeatGuru to see what each seat has — in flight entertainment, USB charger for your phone, electrical outlet for your laptop, etc. Even if there is in flight entertainment, it still doesn’t hurt to have some TV shows, movies, audiobooks, and podcasts all ready to go at your fingertips. This is especially important for very long airplane rides.
 

Don’t fear the cheaper

So, what’s the trade off for a cheap flight like this? Here’s what I noticed.

Both flights were reasonably on-time, with the flight back getting delayed 30 minutes or so. Not bad for a transatlantic flight. Seats were as comfortable as other airlines, and the airplane was brand new. Level doesn’t have its own points/miles system, but at least for the moment you can earn Avios points through an Iberia Plus membership.

The flight leaves from OAK instead of SFO. For me anyway, I think the BART ride is a little shorter to OAK so that’s fine. However, the airport food options leave a lot to be desired. At the Barcelona airport the plane doesn’t connect to the gate, you have to get on a bus that takes you between the tarmac and the gate. This seemed a little weird because the Barcelona airport is enormous and not all of it is currently used, but maybe this saves money somehow?

The in flight food ordering system was supposed to work through a touch screen, but it was buggy and impossible to place an order without help. I suspect this will be improved in the future, and I was an unwitting beta tester. As a result the flight attendants could be a little slow to help sometimes.

The in flight entertainment was much better than I would have expected. I finally had a chance to watch Deadpool and finish the first season of Westworld. I also watched the Assassin’s Creed movie, but the less said about that the better.

Online check-in was broken on the flight out, but was working and integrated with Apple Wallet on the flight back. This is a huge time saver when you only have carry on luggage. It also means you have to make sure your phone still has a charge by the time you get to the gate, of course.

Obviously, cancellation or changes are not included in the lowest fares.
 

Just do it

If all that sounds fine to you, then by all means book an inexpensive flight like this on Level, Norwegian, or whatever. But make sure to book as far in advance as possible so you get the lowest rates, and say no to upsells you don’t need.

In my experience, I’ve always flown economy in all my transatlantic flights, and this seemed easily on par with what you’d get with a more expensive major carrier like United. I’d even go so far as to say that not including meal service is a plus, since the cabin frankly smells a lot better without the nauseating stench of airline food.

So if you want to cross some travels off your bucket list without spending a lot, by all means try the new cheap airlines. You have nothing to lose — especially if you don’t check any luggage.

Visiting the top of Coit Tower

June 11, 2017

Coit Tower
 

Despite living in San Francisco for (checks watch) almost 14 years now — and the Bay Area my entire life — somehow I’d never bothered to take the elevator to the top of Coit Tower… until yesterday.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve climbed up Telegraph Hill more times than I can remember. I’ve walked up and down the staircases of both the Greenwich Steps and the Filbert Steps, as well as semi-staircase sidewalk along Filbert Street from Washington Square on the western side of the hill.

But Coit Tower itself? Sure I’ve gone in and looked at the murals, but as for the trip up to the top I was always turned off by the price and the long lines.

Well, it turns out you can take the elevator ride to the top either for free, or without waiting in line — but not both. How? Let me explain.

If you’re not interested in paying, all you have to do is sign up for a library card at any SF Public Library location. Once you’ve done that (or renewed your card if it’s expired) visit the Discover & Go website and log in with your library card and PIN. From there you can get free access to various local museums, pools, etc. Select the Coit Tower option, which includes “Free admission for up to two adults accompanied by up to four children under 18.”

Or if like me, you’re more turned off by the lines than the price, book a reservation with a skip the line ticket at least one day in advance. In addition to a $2 advance booking fee fee, adults pay $9.00 but residents of SF with a valid ID only pay $6.50. Seniors and children get a discount as well regardless of residence status. (All prices are as of this writing in 2017.)

In my case the employees seemed a little confused by the skip the line ticket, but accommodated me nonetheless. If there’s a line at the front door, just present the printed pass and they’ll wave you through to the gift shop. From there, the cashier took my pass, gave me a hand stamp and a receipt, then told me to go back to the elevator and wait for the next group.

Once the elevator operator has taken you to 15 or so stories up you’re actually not at the top — you’re at a lower observation platform for people with disabilities. Assuming you’re able there’s still two flights of stairs to climb.

 
Coit Tower
 

The top of the tower looks pretty much like what you’d expect from the ground — it’s an open air viewing area with sets of three windows on each side. That said, to my surprise, many of the windows were open. Visitors were sticking their cameras out of them to take photos. I wonder how many people have accidentally dropped their cameras?

From these windows, weather permitting there’s an amazing view of North Beach, the bay, and downtown. Click the photos in the gallery below for a full view.

 
Coit Tower Coit Tower Coit Tower Coit Tower Coit Tower Coit Tower
 

Despite being an iconic tourist attraction, I was surprised by how non-touristy it felt at the top. The atmosphere was relaxed, the elevator operator was very chill, and the only crowd was the line in the lobby.

I should point out there is a second activity at Coit Tower that isn’t as well advertised, and I have yet to try it myself: in addition to the Depression era murals in the lobby, there’s a small second floor above it with more murals. This second floor was closed to the public up until 2014 and still isn’t as open as the lobby. You can book paid mural tours either in the ticket window at the lobby, or through the skip the line website (see above.) Or if you’d rather not pay anything, SF City Guides has a free tour of the murals on a regular basis. Both include access to the second floor area.

Are there other floors in the tower? I’ve long heard about how the tower’s original caretaker lived in a small apartment located within the tower, but always assumed the tale was apocryphal. Yet according to SF Gate the apartment was real:

If you are up there at the right time, you can see staff coming out a door, beneath Ben Cunningham’s “Outdoor Life.” This is something else as unknown as the second-floor murals: the long-rumored Coit Tower caretaker’s apartment, now converted to an office.

What were they thinking?! With a location like that, even a cramped apartment could have easily fetched a steep rent — especially if it included unlimited roof access. I’d certainly consider moving in.

Visiting the new Venus sculpture at Trinity Place

June 1, 2017

Trinity Place sculpture garden
 

Trinity Place, the aggressively rectangular apartment buildings in mid market are still under construction. But the main plaza and much reported on Venus sculpture by artist Lawrence Argent have already been installed and are ready for their close ups.

So, how can you go see it?

From Mission Street between 7th and 8th Streets, the Venus sculpture is clearly visible from a fence. One might think the sculpture is accessible from there — not so. The gates in the fence are locked (presumably residents have a key.)

But if you walk around to the 8th Street side of Trinity Place between Mission and Market, there’s an alley without a gate. And that’s where things get interesting.

Walking down the alley, I noticed something unexpected: a sculpture seemingly trapped in a blue/green ringed glass container. This was at one end of a small hallway leading to the plaza where the Venus sculpture rests. At the other end of the hallway, what do you know — a second trapped sculpture. Both seemed reminiscent of the main attraction in that they all exhibit eerily modern looking distortion applied to what otherwise seem to be classic Greek or Roman-like works.

 
Trinity Place sculpture garden Trinity Place sculpture garden
 

It turns out that the Venus sculpture is the largest part of a a series of art installations called C’era Una Volta, which includes the aforementioned sculptures, the plaza itself, and a number of intricate rock carvings.

Without C’era Una Volta, Trinity Place would look like a bland, generic apartment complex; with it, I could almost forget the buildings even existed. The modern, whimsical sculpture garden was easily captivating enough to distract me from the otherwise uninspired surrounding architecture.

 
Trinity Place sculpture garden Trinity Place sculpture garden

Public notice: Beware of robots

May 29, 2017

Public notice: Robots
 

The other day I noticed an inconspicuous flyer attached to a phone pole at 16th and Valencia. Upon further examination, this notice combines seemingly every stereotype about San Francisco circa 2017. Here’s the full text of the notice:

NOTICE OF OPERATION
 

From 5/23 to 6/5 automated delivery carts will be used at this location for the purpose of food delivery. Operation hours are 11 AM-4PM, 5 PM-12 AM Monday-Sunday.
 

Typically, the automated delivery carts will be supervised by a chaperone and loaded in a specially marked zone adjacent to the restaurant entry at 3109 16th St, Truly Mediterranean, during operation hours only.
 

If you have any concerns please contact:
 

Marble Robotics
1660 16th St.
San Francisco, CA 94107
415-654-3207
 

For complaints or other related concerns, please contact 311.

https://www.sf311.org/

 

If you haven’t heard, Marble has partnered with Yelp’s Eat 24 food delivery service for short range food delivery. Their robots are basically small self-driving cars that drive along the sidewalks, which is why the board of supervisors is already itching to ban them. (Why they have to drive on the sidewalk is beyond me.)

Anyway, so to sum this all up, here’s why this notice is essentially the essence of 2017 San Francisco distilled into a single document:

  • Self-driving robots are seemingly everywhere, though they still require humans to watch over them.
  • San Franciscans are too lazy to walk to a restaurant to pick up their falafel, would rather order delivery online.
  • High tech robots stealing jobs from hard-working Americans.
  • A public notice is required for seemingly anything and everything.
  • The board of supervisors wants to ban it.

There aren’t many practical ways this could be more peak San Francisco, but that didn’t stop me from thinking of a few:

  • The robot could be programmed to smoke pot and piss on the sidewalk.
  • During its off hours, the robot could join political protests outside of City Hall.
  • At Critical Mass, the robot could somehow get into a fight with a bicyclist.
  • The robot could live in an overpriced apartment, sparking a wave of fully autonomous gentrification.

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head. See if you can come up with your own — unless you are a robot, in which case please don’t.

Hiking Mount Davidson

May 7, 2017

Mt. Davidson

 
San Francisco has “seven hills,” depending how you count. Before I’ve written about hiking up Mount Sutro, Twin Peaks, and Bernal Heights. Yesterday I finally got around to hiking around Mount Davidson, the tallest of all the hills.

Back when I lived in the Parkside neighborhood in the mid 2000′s, I remember occasionally seeing this giant concrete cross on a hillside and wondering what the deal was with that. Of course, most of the time it’s so foggy on the west side of the city that you can’t see it, so I rarely gave it much thought.

Then a while back I was re-watching Dirty Harry which features a sequence where Clint Eastwood’s character has to deliver a ransom. He winds up all over the city, including Forest Hill Station and finally makes his way to the cross on Mount Davidson. Although he’s forced to make a bunch of random stops in between, in real life Mount Davidson is only about a 30 minute walk from Forest Hill Station, or a ten minute bus ride on the 36. Something to keep that in mind if you’re not delivering a ransom payment to a crazy killer.

Anyway, back to the real world: yesterday I managed to take the elusive City Guides tour of Mount Davidson. Elusive because it’s only offered twice a year. And even then, only when the weather is good. If you’re interested in the tour but your schedule doesn’t line up, the tour guide also runs a website about Mount Davidson with information about the park.

Interestingly, not many people seem to know about Mount Davidson, despite the sweeping panoramic views. It’s a little harder to get to than Twin Peaks. The park attracts dog walkers and bird watchers — I spotted a pair of hawks and a bluebird without paying much attention.

 
Mt. Davidson

Mt. Davidson Mt. Davidson
 

So what’s up with that giant cross, anyway? It turns out a church group used to build temporary big wooden crosses up there every year for Easter. At some point they decided to build a permanent one. This caused a first amendment issue when the park became public, city owned land. As with ten commandment issues at courthouses, you either can’t have them, or you have to allow anyone else to put their religious statues nearby.

While it would have been funny to see a 100 foot tall statue of L. Ron Hubbard next to the cross, the city’s voters decided to sell off the land under the cross to a group of private citizens in order to avoid the issue. This is explained in signs all around that part of the park.

 
Mt. Davidson
Mt. Davidson
 

On a clear day, the views are amazing. The towers downtown look like tiny from so far away, but you have a view of Sutro Tower, Twin Peaks, and a partial view of Bernal Heights.

There are trails and stairways leading up and around the park. None are particularly well marked or maintained. Many don’t seem officially sanctioned. If you decide to go on your own, I’d recommend just wandering down whatever paths you like. The park isn’t big enough to get lost.

Finally, here’s a panorama from the east side of Mount Davidson’s peak. Click through for the full size version.

Mt. Davidson

Muni Murals outside Laguna Honda

About a year ago, the wall facing Forest Hill station at Laguna Honda hospital got the mural treatment. Today I (finally) found myself over there and decided to check it out. Among other aspects, the mural features two fun depictions of Muni over the years that connect the past with the present.

First, here’s a Muni trolley exiting Twin Peaks tunnel at West Portal. This represents the original West Portal station, a glorified bus stop with a facade that looks similar to those of the old piers along the Embarcadero.

Muni Murals

 

The second Muni-themed part of the mural depicts a modern Muni Metro LRV heading to the nearby Forest Hill station. Once known as Laguna Honda Station, it’s the oldest San Francisco subway station that’s still in use today. Regular Muni Metro riders can identify the station’s platform level in the mural by the checkered pattern on the wall. Or you might recognize it from a certain Clint Eastwood movie.

Muni Murals

 
“But wait,” is the question I doubt anyone would ask, “Which Clint Eastwood movie that takes place in San Francisco could you possibly be referring to?” Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the next blog post to find out. Try not to let the suspense kill you!