Archive for May, 2019

The Wave Organ

May 29th, 2019

The Wave Organ, photo by Frank Schulenburg via Wikipedia

On Memorial Day I found myself in the Marina in the evening with a little spare time. I figured I’d try visiting The Exploratorium’s Wave Organ. Though I’ve been before it was seemingly never working. As it turns out, I simply hadn’t followed the directions — as the official website explains, The Wave Organ only works at high tide. Fortunately this time the tide was coming in. Sure enough, it was working!

The Wave Organ is built out of reclaimed concrete and stone at the end of the Marina Harbor jetty, with metal pipes sticking up that produce sound as the waves splash past the lower end. Here’s a short clip I recorded from one of the pipes:



I don’t know what I had in mind, certainly the echo-y sloshing sound of the waves coming through big pipes is nothing like your typical church or old fashioned movie theater organ. It’s more of a natural, meditative soundscape. It’s not super loud, but if you put your ear up to the pipes it sounds much louder than the passing waves down below.

During my visit the place was crawling with people… most of who were taking selfies instead of listening to the organ. To be fair it is a decent spot to get a photo of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.

I didn’t get any decent photos of my own before I had to take off; the photo at the top of this post is from The Wave Organ’s Wikipedia page.

Musée Mécanique

May 20th, 2019

Musée Mécanique

Musée Mécanique is a family run museum of coin operated amusements, many of which are antiques. It’s free to enter but you’ll have to bring or purchase quarters to try the machines. These include everything from arcade games to moving dioramas — I’ll get to what you can expect to find in the museum in a moment.

The first time I visited Musée Mécanique it was a somewhat forgotten back road attraction in the dusty, leaky basement of the Cliff House. There were tarps everywhere to protect the machines, which gave it the feeling of a collection in a dilapidated warehouse rather than a proper museum. Still, the place had character and made sense as much of the collection came from the defunct Playland at the Beach amusement park once located down the street.

When the Cliff House was closed for renovations in 2003, Musée Mécanique relocated to a larger and more tourist friendly location at Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s not terribly difficult to find; it’s roughly between the Fisherman’s Grotto and the historic ships at Pier 45.

Now, onto the machines themselves. Having visited Musée Mécanique a number of times over the years, I think they’re best described by category.

Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique

Arcade Games seem like the most obvious category of machines, and I found more than I previously remembered seeing during my visit yesterday.

They have everything from mechanical games like pinball or one where you guide a little bulldozer around, to games you might find at Chuck E. Cheese like a ball toss and air hockey, all the way to video arcade games including everything from a Pong knockoff to two player 90’s racing game Cruisin’ USA.

Musée Mécanique

Creepy Machines are just what they sound like, and typically feature mechanically animated puppets laughing. The best known of these is the life-size Laffing Sal near the entrance, which lurches back and forth and she laughs.

Sal is only one of several of these throughout the place, but it’s by far the largest and best maintained.

Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique

Fortune Tellers typically feature the upper body of an old female mannequin who moves around a little, waves her hand over some tarot cards or a crystal ball, and then a fortune appears in a slot below.

It might seem racist and even sexist that the fortune teller figures always appear to be older female gypsies, but as we’ll soon see that’s just touching the tip of the iceberg here in terms of stereotypes.

Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique

Love Machines claim to rate how attractive you are, how good of a kisser you are, etc. They’re all conceptually similar to the fortune tellers, but instead of just spitting out a random fortune there’s often some element of input involved, like squeezing a lever or putting your hand on a metal plate.

Musée Mécanique

Music Machines play, well, music. From the player piano above to a Swiss mechanical music box, it becomes a cacophony of sound when they’re all going at once.

The most impressive of the bunch is a Wurlitzer “band box” near the entrance. It’s behind glass, probably for safety reasons. When fed enough quarters it springs into action, playing a variety of instruments in time with one another as a band would. It can play a handful of tunes, all of which fit the theme of an old carnival or amusement park.

Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique

Stereoscopic Photo Machines flip through a series of 3D photos in a special viewer. Many feature local themes like the 1906 earthquake and fire. Several claim to offer risque images though in practice the photos are very much G rated.

Musée Mécanique

Feats of Strength test your strength. These range from machines where you have to pull two levers together, hit something, or in the photo above, arm wrestle a machine.

The arm wrestling machine is noteworthy because it features a large warning that the machine could break your arm. If you’re not careful at least you’ll have an entertaining story to tell your friends when they ask why you’re wearing a cast.

Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique

Dioramas typically show a scene of daily life in motion, or a little stage show with dancers. There’s often an element of music involved. These range significantly in size from a small cabinet to about the dimensions of a ping pong table.

These are often the least reliable category of machines, which includes their two subcategories below — prepare to lose a quarter or two.

Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique

Morbid Dioramas are the same thing but with a focus on the macabre. I’m not entirely sure why there’s so many of these, but then again if you want to watch something morbid or violent you have plenty more options these days.

Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique

Last but certainly not least, we have the category of Offensive Dioramas. It seems these amusements didn’t stand the test of time at all, raising many questions about what should be considered appropriate entertainment.

In the photos above we have a diorama of an opium den, complete with stereotypical Chinese people depicted as opioid addicts who do little than squirm back and forth. Susie the Can-can dancer seems to be a stereotypical depiction of an African woman with enormous lips, but for some reason is dressed like a Polynesian dancer. What this has to do with Can-can dancing I’m not really sure. And then there’s Dan, the alcoholic puppet you can watch take a drink, because once again addiction is something we’re apparently meant to laugh about.

I’m sure none of these were created with the intention to offend, but they’re regrettable enough in retrospect it’s easy to see why they’re in a museum instead of at, say, a Six Flags.

My recommendation: I think anyone who wants to see antique amusements, old arcade games, etc. should consider stopping by. It’s easily the most unique attraction in the entire Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood.

Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze

May 19th, 2019

Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze
Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze

If there’s one common trait among tourists, it’s a complete lack of spacial awareness. Everywhere I’ve been from Barcelona’s historic Gothic Quarter to Millennium Park in Chicago and any place in between, I’ve always had to dodge tourists who stop and jump out excitedly pointing out some mundane detail to their equally clueless companions, like “Look, they have Pizza Hut here too!”

So when I visited Pier 39, San Francisco’s infamously tacky tourist trap, I was there for one reason only: to find my way through Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze. What better way to feel at home among a bunch of easily confused tourists than to enter a carnival-style mirror maze?

The first puzzle is finding the maze itself. Pier 39 is laid out like a generic 1970’s outdoor shopping center, but the Mirror Maze is on the upper level and difficult to spot from below. I went to consult a map, only to spot the maze across from me. To say I wasn’t off to a good start would be an understatement.

The maze entrance is in a short hallway. I stowed my soaking wet umbrella into my backpack and walked in. The woman at the desk didn’t seem to notice me at first, so I said hi. She replied only with “hi” and I actually had to ask about buying a ticket. I handed her a five dollar bill (they also take cards) and she told me to take a pair of plastic gloves from a box. At no point during this interaction did she look at me.

I put the gloves on and went to the maze entrance. It’s dimly lit with color-changing lights inside, and looks nearly the same in every direction. Forging ahead I spotted a family on one side of me, only to realize they were on the other! Soon I found myself seeing my reflections on more and more sides; a dead end. At this point the gloves became helpful, allowing me to touch the mirrored walls without smudging them with fingerprints.

The maze itself isn’t particularly long though I wouldn’t even hazard a guess as to the layout. It’s obviously sort of ring-shaped, but aside from that I have no idea. It’s intensely disorienting in there — which of course is the entire point. By the time I stumbled across the exit I’d only been in there ten minutes or so.

As I exited and disposed of the gloves I couldn’t help but to think I’d have a much better impression of Pier 39 if they had more carnival attractions. They already have gift shops and junk food stands, why not throw in say a love boat ride and a ferris wheel?

My recommendation: I have a simple mnemonic to remember how to avoid tourist traps in major cities: “Hard Rock Cafe? Go the other way.” Pier 39 itself was the inspiration for this simple rule. Still, if you have the focus to visit Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze without getting distracted by tacky restaurants, insufferable gift shops, and crowds of blissfully unaware tourists, it’s a fun but short little adventure. I’d consider trying it again if I were in the Fisherman’s Wharf area.

Last of the Howard Street folding streetlights removed

May 18th, 2019

Folding streetlight removed Folding streetlight removed

For many years the section of Howard Street just outside Moscone Center featured some unusual French folding streetlights. During the day they stood straight up, and at night folded over the street as their lights turned on.

I’m not clear on the details, but somehow Willie Brown got these fancy lights for free; I assume they must have fallen off the back of a truck.

During the recent renovation of Moscone Center all but one of these streetlights were removed, leaving a single folding streetlight at the corner of 3rd and Howard — until last week when this last one was removed.

While walking past the corner I took the above photos showing the hole in the ground where the streetlight once stood, and later the sidewalk patched up to cover the hole. An unremarkable end to one of the more unique street design elements from San Francisco’s recent past.

Finding the Faery Door in Golden Gate Park

May 13th, 2019

Faery Door

Do you believe in faeries? Also spelled “fairies,” these small human-like woodland creatures appear in numerous fantasy stories. Are they related to elves or hobbits? I’ve never been certain about the lineage. Perhaps I’ll inquire if I ever meet one.

This morning I woke up with the idea that I should visit more of the local oddities here in San Francisco. After my recent trip across America I’d explored some of the stranger off-kilter attractions across the country; why not continue the trip in a way by finding one of many such attractions here at home?

I decided to track down the Faery Door, a tiny but magnificent little door installed at the end of a log somewhere in Golden Gate Park. The location is a secret; all I’ll say is it’s outside the Japanese Tea Garden in a public area of the park. It took me a while to find it, I walked right past it at first. It’s well hidden in plain sight along an off the beaten path trail.

It was clear others had stopped by recently to leave fresh flowers both outside and inside the Faery Door. Perhaps this door is less secret than I had assumed; or were the fresh flowers the works of the faeries themselves?

The Faery Door has several sister doors throughout the Bay Area and an official website. For those seeking more answers an official book regarding these magical little doors is available from the website.

Riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr: Life on board the train

May 11th, 2019


I assume most people have never ridden the California Zephyr route — if they’ve ever been on Amtrak at all. This post is for those curious about what life is like aboard the train. It’s an important consideration since the entire route is a serious time commitment at around 52 hours.

From Chicago heading west the trains quickly became less crowded. The train was full in Chicago but had plenty of empty seats by the time we reached Omaha. Aside from April not being peak travel season, I suspect Amtrak is a more typical form of travel for those east of the Mississippi.

As for what to do on the train, I’d recommend downloading some TV shows or movies onto a laptop or tablet. Over the course of the trip I had enough time to read two books and start a third, but a few sections of the train track are too bumpy to make reading a pleasant experience.

Another thing to do is plan adventures your for your next destination — particularly when there’s wifi or at least cell service. I figured out details like how I was going to get around, booked tickets for tours and events, found unusual sights to see, etc. I wouldn’t recommend booking accommodations at the last minute though, nor anything that could sell out months in advance.

California Zephyr
Crossing the Mississippi River

The most obvious thing to do is look out the window. The lounge car is built specifically for this since the windows are very large and you can go downstairs to the cafe for drinks and snacks. But really there’s a good view from any upstairs window seat.

Occasionally we got an announcement about what we were seeing, such as when we went over the Mississippi River. For the most part when I was curious about what I was seeing I relied on Google Maps.

At least one group of people on each train I was on took a booth on the lounge car and passed the time with card games. A deck of playing cards can be purchased from the cafe.

California Zephyr
Coach legroom with my backpack

Even at its most packed the coach section is roomy, with big aisles and plenty of legroom. When the seat next to me was empty I’d often stretch out and use all the space, which felt surprisingly luxurious. In coach from what I understand you can switch seats whenever you like as long as you stay in the same car and move the destination card above the seat with you. Be warned that if you switch cars you could miss your stop — passengers are assigned cars by destination, and not all doors open at every stop!

I have less to say about my two nights on the sleeper cars because, well, I was asleep. Yes they’re a little cramped, though comfortable enough. In general I had no problems sleeping in a roomette aside from getting jolted awake a couple times. To reduce noise I brought along “Leight Sleeper” brand foam earplugs. The train announcements stop during the night so people can sleep without interruption, though the train whistle still goes off throughout the night for safety reasons.

While in the sleeper cars I always set an alarm on my phone to wake up in time. Conductors go around knock on doors to wake people up before their stop, though I wanted to wake up a little early for a shower and breakfast.

There was only one part of the trip where we were told not to move between cars; inside the Moffat Tunnel between Denver and Salt Lake City. It’s a long tunnel and the ventilation is bad, so if anyone opened the doors between cars it might fill up with diesel smoke.

Every few hours at a stop we’d be invited to exit the train for a “fresh air break,” which in practice was mostly a chance for smokers to take a quick cigarette break on the station platform. That said it’s a good chance to go stretch your legs and take photos.

In the cafe, nearly everything is prepackaged and the food is often microwavable (they work the microwave for you.) It’s somewhat overpriced and disappointingly is not open 24/7. You can allegedly order “meals” here but they’re ghastly smelling TV dinners. The worst thing I personally ate from the cafe was a bagel, a chewy mess.

Amtrak breakfast
Dining car early breakfast

The dining car is a step up from the cafe. It’s included if you’re in a sleeper (but bring cash for a tip) or as a paid option in coach. Not the most exciting menu, but it meets most diets. Unlike on an airline it’s served on plates with metal knives and forks. There’s even a tablecloth! Don’t get me wrong though, the food’s more like Applebee’s than a gourmet restaurant.

The worst item I tried on the menu were the salads, all of which came with wilted lettuce; they should have taken them off the menu. The best item was the baked potato side dish. The after dinner deserts were all fine, but I only ordered them so I’d have an excuse to stick around and chat.

All tables on the dining car are communal, which is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the ride. If you’re traveling as a couple or group you’ll get seated together, but those of us traveling alone could get seated anywhere. This is an underrated aspect of dining on Amtrak — meeting random people on the train. The conversation starters are obvious:

“So where are you going?”
“..and why Amtrak?”

A surprising number of my fellow passengers were just like me: those who’d never been on Amtrak before, but were curious to try it. It doesn’t bode well for Amtrak’s California Zephyr if most of the passengers are new rather than loyal riders. I’d expected the typical rider would be older men afraid of flying; yet I only met one passenger who fit that profile during the entire trip.

Another surprise was how many passengers were heading to San Francisco. I didn’t want to play tour guide since I was on vacation myself, but I did answer some basic questions. This worked out fine as nearly everyone had a concrete plan already. Mostly the SF-bound crowd only wanted to chat about their plans or to ask simple advice like where to find good coffee near their hotel.

The entire time I was in the dining cars I couldn’t help but to worry about my backpack, especially if it was in coach. In practice Amtrak seems relatively secure, though if they had private lockers it would have given me more peace of mind.

A scenic fresh air break

Tipping is an aspect of Amtrak I’m not sure I fully understand. It’s straightforward enough in the dining car if you treat it like any other restaurant. Still, what do you tip the conductors? They accept tips in cash when they greet you as you leave the train. It never felt mandatory to me in coach, but on the sleeper cars conductors do everything from making the beds to making coffee.

I’m not very good at remembering to carry cash so unfortunately I only tipped the second sleeper car conductor. I gave him $20. Was that the right amount? Hell if I know. Just because I’m American doesn’t mean I understand all of our tipping practices.

It’s worth pointing out that food on the dining cars — but not alcohol — is included in the price for sleeper passengers. You just write your car and room number down similar to how you’d bill something to your room at a hotel. However this doesn’t mean tips are included, and the only option is to tip in cash. This is a little confusing since you won’t see a bill, you’ll just have to remember the menu price of what you order and tip accordingly.



The big question is, would I do it again? The answer is yes and no. Yes, I’d consider riding Amtrak again, but not this route. Why? Three reasons. First, I’ve already done it, so if I took another Amtrak trip like this I’d go on a different route and visit new places. Second, my favorite stops by far on the trip were Chicago and Denver, and both of those are far away enough it’s faster and cheaper to fly.

The third reason I wouldn’t repeat this route is a personal one: of all the major stops for travelers on this Amtrak route, the last destination is where many are headed for their trip: San Francisco. As I went across the Bay Bridge on an Amtrak shuttle bus from Emeryville to San Francisco I couldn’t help to watch other passengers marvel at the city skyline and try to spot Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc.

Yet all I could think about was going back to work on Monday. I was the only passenger who left the bus at the first stop, the Temporary Transbay Terminal. Everyone else was headed to a hotel — where my vacation ended, theirs was just beginning. I couldn’t help but to feel jealous.

Riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr: Tickets, scheduling, stations, and boarding

May 10th, 2019

One of many views along the way

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: the California Zephyr’s schedule is very inflexible. Each stop gets one train per day, per direction. This is not a commuter train.

While planning my trip I purchased the majority of my train tickets directly from Amtrak’s website. These tickets appeared in the Amtrak app on my phone. To make sure internet access wouldn’t be an issue I saved the tickets to Apple Wallet. I assume there’s a similar option on Android.

I purchased one ticket through Amtrak Vacations — the official third party travel agent for Amtrak — because I had a gift certificate from them. They typically arrange package deals but will purchase any Amtrak tickets you’d like as part of a “custom” trip. The price is no different than booking through Amtrak itself. I had to call them to buy tickets, which they emailed to me. The only real downside is you can’t load these tickets onto the Amtrak app.

The total cost for all the Amtrak segments from Chicago back to San Francisco was $602 with an early booking discount. That included three coach tickets and two overnight roomette sleeper tickets.

Amtrak app

The Amtrak app was a must-have for checking train arrival times, I found it very accurate. Whenever my train was running late I’d go have a coffee or something before heading over to the station.

As mentioned above the app also displays your tickets. The tickets themselves are QR-style codes scanned with a handheld device.

Boarding worked differently at each station. The gist of it is that someone scans your ticket, hands you a boarding slip with your destination on it, and directs you to a certain car. Usually your conductor meets you at the door.

The stations vary significantly as well. Some are old stations which serve (or served) multiple passenger rail lines, dubbed union stations back in the day. Others are nothing more than a small waiting room.

Union Station, Chicago

In Chicago I waited in the Grand Hall of the old Union Station until my train was called. True to Chicago’s form the station is at least two buildings with an underground “pedway” connecting them. From the waiting area they walked us to our trains in a cavernous underground station where they scanned our tickets.

I have to admit this is a confusing station, many of the signs seem confused as well. Fortunately Amtrak has staff to help find your way around. The newer part of the station has a newsstand and a basic mall-like food court. It’s nothing special, I’d recommend going outside for better food and shopping options.

California Zephyr

Omaha’s old Union Station is now a museum, so Amtrak has a tiny station without much going on. It’s not a major stop but it’s big enough to have an indoor waiting area with a heater.

When the train arrived a conductor jumped off and called us outside. There were maybe 10 people tops so it didn’t take long to scan everyone’s tickets.

Denver's Union Station

Denver’s old Union Station isn’t nearly as large as Chicago’s, but it’s completely different. For one thing the interior is filled with shops, upscale dining options, and even a hotel. I considered eating at the station a couple times but it was always too busy.

I asked how to board at the Amtrak window, they directed me to a platform where a line of passengers were already waiting in line for the same train.

Amtrak SLC

In Salt Lake City I might be a little fuzzy on the details because the train was running super late; I think I boarded after 2 AM. It’s a slightly larger version of the Omaha station.

A few people wandered in who had some kind of Greyhound voucher which they exchanged for Amtrak tickets. The conductor scanned everyone’s ticket, told us all to stay inside until he called our group; which everyone promptly ignored and went outside. In fairness I’m sure all the passengers were all as tired as I was.

Amtrak's Reno station

Reno’s station layout is pretty strange, but essentially you wait in the “basement” next to the sunken railroad tracks. The guy who took my ticket told me which train car to get on relative to the end of the train (this confused many people) and the conductor of that car assigned a seat to me. While sleeper cars are always assigned, this is the first time I had an assigned seat on coach. Realistically you could sit wherever, the “assignments” were not enforced and there were plenty of empty seats.

The weirdest element of the Reno station is in the photo above: there’s an elevator intentionally blocked off by a row of chairs. Fortunately it’s not the only elevator.

Of course, not all stations are as large as these. Many stops in small towns are nothing more than couple benches next to sign bearing the Amtrak logo. As a general rule the larger stations tend to be at stops with luggage service.

If I had one piece of advice for Amtrak here it would be this: the boarding procedures should be more straightforward and remain as consistent as possible between stations. Anything to reduce passengers’ cognitive load is welcome… especially when their train arrives at 2 AM.

Riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr: The trains

May 8th, 2019


As I outlined in my first post about the trip, in spring 2019 I took a trip across America via train on the California Zephyr route with stops in Chicago, Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Omaha before returning home to San Francisco. In this blog post I’ll go over the trains themselves before delving into other aspects of traveling this route in future posts.

On the California Zephyr Amtrak has to share all the rails with slow moving freight trains, which often leads to delays. There are only a few sections where they can floor it and make up for lost time — and even those sections aren’t exactly high speed. On straighter sections of the track the trains can hit about 80 MPH at most, but on the winding, curved sections of track it may go as low as about 35 MPH. (Take these measurements with a grain of salt as I came up with them from an app on my phone.)

The train layout is relatively straightforward. In the front are two massive engines. Following the engines is the luggage car, which can be used for checked bags if and only if you’re starting and stopping at stations which provide luggage service. Next are the Superliner cars: the sleeper cars, dining car, the lounge/cafe car, and the coach cars.

The way the passenger cars connect on a Superliner is a bit unique. They’re all double decker train cars and the only passageway between cars is on the second level. Downstairs there’s areas for passengers with disabilities, bathrooms, the cafe on the lounge car, or the staff-only kitchen area on the dining car. If you’re in a roomette the shower is on the lower level.

For most of the trip I rode coach. In many ways coach on Amtrak is nicer than what you’d find on airlines; every seat is either a window or aisle seat, and they all have a generous amount of legroom. There’s an outlet for each seat to charge your phone or laptop.

Amtrak Roomette Amtrak Superliner Roomette
Superliner Roomette: Day vs. night configuration

I spent two nights sleeping on the train in private “roomettes,” tiny rooms with blackout curtains and fold-out beds in the sleeper cars. These are worth considering if you’re a light sleeper and have trouble getting a full night’s sleep in coach.

Each roomette can fit two able-bodied people with a bunk bed, and even features a tiny closet with hangers. Larger rooms are available for families and groups, but they cost more.

Although fairly comfortable and clean, the coach and sleeper cars look old and aren’t always well maintained. The worst thing I saw was a toilet seat that wasn’t at all attached to the toilet.

California Zephyr
Enjoying a beer in the lounge

Anyone’s free to wander into the lounge and cafe car. Upstairs there’s large windows with skylights and two seating areas, one with booths and one with seats facing the windows.

The cafe is downstairs in the same car — it’s not really a cafe so much as a small convenience store. Depending on the model you’re riding, the cafe will either be a window where you order or a small room where you serve yourself and check out.

At least during my trip the dining car had freely open times for breakfast and lunch, for dinner the staff walked through the train to take reservations. Meal details were announced over the speakers throughout the train. On the dining car the waiters hang out near the center, communicating with the kitchen staff below. To be seated you have to walk up to them and ask for a table.

As for other amenities:

  • The trains have wifi… sometimes. I can’t blame Amtrak for this entirely but I blew through my T-Mobile monthly data cap both months during the trip.
  • The first sleeper car I rode in ran out of hot water before I had a chance to take a shower. The second one had hot water and it was glorious! There’s nothing quite like falling asleep in one place and waking up in another — but trust me, it’s so much better with a shower and change of clothes.
  • The biggest amenity is the windows. Unlike passenger jets there’s a clear view of everything outside as long as the sun’s out. On a route this long there’s plenty to see out there.

Reno wrap up and stray observations

May 5th, 2019

Reno sign

Reno: it’s the city most of us think of either as a second-rate Las Vegas, or a spot you stop by on your way to somewhere more interesting like Lake Tahoe — or Las Vegas.

What I’m saying is most of us tend to view Reno less of as a destination and more of a rest stop. Which is unfair because Reno actually has a lot to offer. Unlike in Omaha where I was bored after 48 hours, I spent the same amount of time in Reno and felt rushed for time. Not just because it was the last top on my trip, but because I realized I wouldn’t have time to stop by the Nevada Museum of Art or the nearby Sundance Books and Music — a bookstore housed in an old mansion.


Before I say too many good things about Reno, I stayed at Harrah’s, a casino hotel that’s just old. It’s the only hotel I stayed at on this trip as there weren’t many Airbnb’s in downtown Reno.

Aside from the convenient downtown location right across the street from Amtrak there’s not much to say about this hotel, apart from the obvious fact that it was last renovated around the time Bill Clinton was elected president.

Truckee River

The Truckee River cuts through Reno. Along the river there’s a pedestrian path with a variety of parks, restaurants, and cafes. I particularly enjoyed dinner at Campo and the coffee at Hub Coffee Roasters, both of which are right on the river.

Heading west along the river from downtown, there’s a small island with an amphitheater called Winfield Park, and just across the street is a little sculpture garden called Bicentennial Park. Further west — not too far past Hub Coffee Roasters — a much larger park called Idlewild features a lake, various gardens, activities, and plenty of space for stretching your legs or having a picnic.

Former post office building Former post office building

Just across the Truckee River from downtown is an old Post Office building from the public works era. It’s no longer used as a mail facility; the upstairs is now a West Elm store.

Sounds disappointing unless you somehow know to go downstairs to the basement where you’ll find a cafe, a bar, a salon, and other local businesses. There’s also a history wall with old photos of Reno, including the “quickie divorce” era in which Reno’s main attraction was its liberal divorce laws.

The basement is a hidden gem I would never have known about without the suggestion by a friendly local. I definitely would have stopped by for a coffee if I’d known about it in advance.

Death & Taxes Death & Taxes Death & Taxes Death & Taxes

Midtown’s Death & Taxes might be the most ridiculous cocktail bar I’ve ever visited, but it’s so photogenic I had to include it here despite not staying long. The first clue the place would cost more than a nice dinner was I arrived in the late afternoon and it wasn’t happy hour, because they don’t have one. The second clue is the woman behind the bar who greeted me was cutting up roses… which I quickly realized were intended as cocktail garnishes.

The guy sitting next to me had ordered an entire ~750ml bottle of some liquor for himself, and offered me a sip which I politely refused. He clearly had a lot of money to throw around as he chatted with the bartender about some overpriced gin aged in whiskey barrels, which he claimed “tastes just like whiskey.” The guy on the other side of him laughed loudly and said “so just drink whiskey!” That guy had a point.

Just before I left a middle aged couple walked in. The wife ordered something from the cocktail menu, while the husband ordered some kind of call drink with Jose Cuervo. His wife shot him a dirty look, and without missing a beat the hip bartender said they didn’t have Cuervo and recommended their well tequila. Burn!

Junkee Junkee Junkee Junkee

I’ve saved the weirdest for last, one of a lot of weird places in Midtown. Junkee is a large store selling all kinds of costumes, antiques, and secondhand goods.

The words to describe this store don’t exist yet. They have everything from old chairs, used jewelry, vintage comic books, armored knight costumes, and even a bowl of dolls correctly labelled “creepy.”

I’m not sure Junkee is the absolute weirdest store in Midtown — I did enter one small store there which had a giraffe skull for sale — but Junkee is a reasonably priced spot for costumes and odd decor.

One last observation about Reno; it’s easily the most friendly place I visited on this whole trip. Locals would just stop to say hello or good morning, help me out if I looked lost, and even recognized me if we crossed paths a second time. The city’s motto is true, Reno really is “the biggest little city.”

Reno street art: Midtown

May 5th, 2019

Reno street art
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In the last post I went over some of the street art in Reno’s downtown. Now, onto the Midtown neighborhood.

Not long ago Midtown was known for dingy motels and strip clubs; to some extent that’s still true, but it’s undergoing a renaissance these days. And why not? It’s a short walk from downtown — just across the river, really — and has become a destination for nearby office workers to have lunch or grab a drink after work.

I don’t think I would have considered visiting Midtown to see its street art on my own, but while searching for food tours in Reno I came across the Midtown & Murals Tour from Reno Food Tours. I don’t want to go into the food aspect too much here except to say I was very stuffed by the end.

The highlight of the tour was completely unplanned: while looking at one of his murals, we just happened to cross paths with prolific Reno muralist Joe C. Rock. Our guide immediately spotted and introduced us to him.

Some though not all of the murals in the above photo gallery were featured on this tour. It’s pretty easy to find most of these murals; they’re either in parking lots along Virginia Street, or off to the side in alleys, parking lots, and on the backs of buildings. There’s no need to go on this or any other tour to walk around Midtown and see plenty of murals on your own.

I’ll admit I was surprised by the quantity, quality, and variety of street art in Reno — particularly in Midtown. It’s definitely not a city I would have associated with street art, and I was happy to be proven wrong.