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!

The Cable Car Museum

April 3, 2017

Some museums require a complicated explanation about how to get there; not so with the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. Both of the Powell Street lines stop outside of the museum, and the California Street line has a stop a few blocks away.

Despite living in San Francisco for almost a decade and a half, I’d never visited the Cable Car Museum, and decided on a whim today to pay a visit.

Most of SF’s tourist attractions fall into one of two buckets: a horrid tourist trap (Pier 39, Grant Avenue in Chinatown) or are actual gems that you shouldn’t miss (Telegraph Hill, Musee Mecanique, Cliff House.) The Cable Car Museum, I’m happy to report, falls into the latter category. That said there’s not much to the museum itself. The real show here is watching how the cable car system works.

I suspect an average tourist doesn’t give much thought as to how cable cars work — it’s just a weird old wooden train with a bell, right? Just like a big version of Mr. Rogers’ trolley? Anyone with that notion will be in for a shock if they visit the museum and watch the motors pulling the cables. More on that in a moment.

The Cable Car Museum is free to visit and is open most days. There are bathrooms open to the public, and of course a gift shop with books and trinkets. Much of the museum consists of panels explaining the history of the system, how it was invented, etc. Most of these factoids you could just as easily find on Wikipedia.

The most interesting of these exhibits explain in detail how the mechanisms that power the cable cars work, for example the grip and the truck pictured below.

 
Cable Car Museum Cable Car Museum
 

Another cool feature are the old cable cars. Did you know that at one time they had two cable cars hitched together? Or that ads on public transit apparently go way back further than you may have thought? These are the quirky little details you won’t find anywhere else.

 
Cable Car Museum Cable Car Museum
 

But like I said earlier, all of this is really secondary to what the museum is really about: seeing the mechanism that powers the cable cars up close. It’s like a factory tour in a way — the museum’s located inside the building that powers the entire cable car system in San Francisco.

Several enormous wheels spin a thick braided metal cable, one for each line. That cable is what the “grip” mechanism in each cable car latches to, which is what propels tourists between Powell and Market and Fisherman’s Wharf. Normally you can’t see those cables since they’re underneath the street, but here they’re in full view.

Apparently it’s some guy’s job to sit there watching the cables, checking for damage as they wiz by, and if there are any frayed bits they have to be repaired at night when the cable cars aren’t in service. While I’d assume this is the sort of job that could be easily automated, in the spirit of preserving a historical system maybe that would be cheating.

 
Cable Car Museum Cable Car Museum
 

In the basement of the building you can see the wheels that act as pulleys, tilting the cables into different directions for each line. Unfortunately it was too dark down there to get a usable photo.

A portion of the building is devoted to a machine shop. The cable cars are custom made, so if a part needs to be replaced it’s not like SFMTA can go on Amazon and order a new one. I spotted several fresh looking grip mechanisms sitting in one corner, ready to be installed as needed. Since it was a weekend there was unfortunately no activity in the machine shop. There might be more action to see if I’d visited on a weekday.

One last fact to mention here is the noise level. With the motors driving the giant wheels and the cables spinning around, this is not a quiet museum. Check out my very brief video below to look and listen to those motors in action.
 

Honey bears invade BART station

March 22, 2017

BART Honey Bears from fnnch
 

A series of fnnch’s honey bears have invaded the Powell BART/Muni Metro station as I discovered on the way home this evening. These are among the larger honey bear murals I’ve come across, though I think thees are the same size as the one that was once across the street from Dolores Park.

According to Broke-Ass Stuart, these murals are a little different from fnnch’s other work in that they were painted on panels that were then taped to the wall. It’s an interesting mural technique because it makes it simpler to put up (and remove, presumably) but also opens the door to this type of street art installation in a confined space where spray paint fumes wouldn’t be welcome.

Castro Valley’s Lake Cabot

March 5, 2017

Recently at work we had a day trip — normally that wouldn’t be worthy of a blog post, but in this case we took a trip to place I’d not only never been to in the Bay Area, but honestly had never heard of: Lake Cabot in Castro Valley.

Lake Chabot is not a natural lake. According to the official website, it’s actually an emergency backup reservoir built in the 1870′s. It was turned into a park in the 60′s but still used as a reservoir today.

Lake Chabot
 

The park features a number of picnic sites with your standard wood tables and barbecue grills. At our picnic site the grills and tables were in fairly new condition. Beer and wine are officially allowed, though the park rangers didn’t bother us for bringing in hard liquor. Then again, we weren’t a particularly rowdy group — I bet they’d have used the liquor as an excuse to kick us out if we’d been troublemakers.

There are hiking and biking trails throughout the park. Apparently there’s a golf course nearby, but I didn’t get to see that. The most intriguing feature of the park is boating. They have a small pier with some kayaks, pedal boats, and a couple of motorboats for big parties. I believe you’re allowed to bring your own boat (the other BYOB?) The company that rents out the boats also has a small cafe in the park, you can take a look at their website here.

I rented a pedal boat with co-worker, and it was only $20 for an hour for the two of us, life jackets included. The photo above I took near the middle of the lake.

Now there’s one caveat here — you don’t want to get in that water. Aside from the fact that it’s kind of gross to have people swimming in a reservoir, the water is filled with toxic algae. I’m told it’s also toxic to dogs. Apparently it’s not toxic to fish though, as there were a few people out with fishing poles.

If you’re thinking of visiting Lake Chabot, I’d recommend it if the weather’s agreeable. It’s a somewhat off the beaten path destination suitable for picnics and various outdoor activities.

How to get there: it’s about a 10 minute drive from the San Leandro BART station. I wouldn’t suggest biking unless you consider yourself a hardcore cyclist, since there’s a hill and a winding road involved. If you drive your own car there’s a parking fee, so you may be better off with a taxi. That said the entrance to the place is not well marked. One co-worker told me his Lyft driver had a tough time finding it. The directions on Google Maps weren’t very clear either, so watch carefully for the sign.

Breakers to Bay

February 19, 2017

Earlier this afternoon I decided to do something I’d never done before: walk all the way from Ocean Beach to the Embarcadero, across the entire length of San Francisco. It’s been so rainy recently I haven’t been able to reach my goal of 10,000 steps per day on a consistent basis, so I felt like I had some catching up to do.

To begin I took the N-Judah outbound to the last stop at 48th Avenue, and walked over to Ocean Beach. It was an incredibly windy day in general, but the wind was intense at the beach. So it should come as no surprise that people were windsurfing and flying kites, and that birds were everywhere. What I didn’t expect was the thick layer of sea foam blowing around. It’s kind of like when someone pulls a prank and fills a water fountain with soap, except it’s a natural phenomenon that forms at beaches. I think I managed to avoid inhaling any of it.

Ocean Beach Ocean Beach Ocean Beach Ocean Beach windsurfers

 
I also didn’t expect to find a mural honoring Lemmy from Motorhead, but they always had a strong following in San Francisco. Or at least that’s what I would assume based on the number of motorcycles that appeared whenever they had a show here.

Ocean Beach
 

After climbing back up the stairs from the beach I made my way through Golden Gate Park. It’s a long walk but I’ve done it many times before — I always try to take a different path every time to maximize the chances of getting lost and stumbling across something new so I sort of zig-zagged all over the place.

At the Music Concourse I noticed there’s a statue of Beethoven. Which, wait, why, exactly? He died before San Francisco was even on the map, really. Seems like an odd choice. As a city we’re better known for bands like… um… Third Eye Blind? Okay, maybe we’re better off with Beethoven. Forget I said anything.

Golden Gate Park Beethoven, Golden Gate Park
 

I’m going to spare you the details of walking down Haight Street, which was even more uncomfortably crowded than normal with tourists for the holiday weekend. It’s a classic case of a sidewalk that’s far too narrow for the number of people. The Lower Haight wasn’t so bad, and by the time I hit Market Street it was pretty easy going. Check out this rad skateboard mural I came across:

Skateboard mural, Market Street
 

Then I hit the Union Square area and… no thanks. I walked a block over to Mission to avoid the hellhole of consumerism on my way to the Bay. And, speaking of which, here’s one final photo: The Bay Bridge’s Bay Lights lighting up in the twilight of the evening. As with all photos in this post, click if you’d like to see a larger version.

Bay Lights on the Bay Bridge
 

Stray observations:

  • My fitness tracker says this was just shy of 20,000 steps. Your mileage may vary.
  • Google Maps predicted the total walk time would be about two and a half hours, which proved accurate.
  • Basic manners seem to be obsolete these days. A shocking number of people stepped right in front of me while I was walking in a straight line as though I were somehow invisible. What the hell?
  • Jeans and a thin wool shirt were adequate for the windy 50 F weather. No need to dress up in a thick jacket when you’re on a long walk.