Posts Tagged ‘tours’

Seven Stills tour

November 25th, 2019
Seven Stills tour


Last night I took a tour of the new Seven Stills Brewery & Distillery, a brewpub located on the edge of the Design District and Mission Bay in San Francisco. The six year old company is in the process of moving their operations to this new facility but it’s not up and running just yet.

It was the first day of the tour in the new facility, and the tour wasn’t quite going according to schedule. I assume that will be resolved soon. The dining area isn’t fully open yet either.

The tour began at a small tasting bar just inside the front door. The tastings began with a glass of pilsner as a palate cleanser, while our guide explained their concepts. As a local company the name Seven Stills is a play on words, referencing the “Seven Hills” in San Francisco. Some of their products reference specific hills and their surrounding neighborhoods on their packaging.

The origin of the company was a home brewer met an experimental home distiller. A few years later they decided to launch a unique brewery and distillery company, with the distillery focused on making whiskey from their own beer.


Seven Stills tour


As we got underway our guide explained the key components of beer brewing: grain, yeast, and hops. All basic stuff, until he got into brewing with fresh hops instead of the dried stuff. Turns out the more boutique brewers like Seven Hills have fresh hops trucked in from Washington state for special beers when hops are in season.

The first real tasting of the night was Five Pounds, a west coast style IPA paired with a whiskey distilled from it. I’m not a huge fan of this style of IPA, but I really enjoyed the pairing between the two. Even though the hoppiness is lost in the flavor of the whiskey it’s still very much present in the scent.


Seven Stills tour Seven Stills tour Seven Stills tour


We walked into the back room and we were hit by another surprise. The brewing tanks are brand new, still covered in plastic wrap. The plumbing was still in progress. The copper still wasn’t fully built, with the main boiler still dangling from a hoist on the ceiling and other parts in the room outside.

Personally I found it interesting to see all of this equipment in its bare, just delivered state, essentially a factory waiting to be assembled. It’s supposed to be all up and running in the next few months. If you want to see what a brewery and distillery looks like while it’s being built, now’s a good time to go.

Before returning to the front for another whiskey and beer pairing, we sampled a “negroni” beer that really just tasted like a sour beer with a berry aftertaste. The guide discussed some of the beers they’ve made with unusual adjuncts, including a guacamole beer which didn’t sound very good to be honest.

We also had small samples of the vodka and gin they make. The vodka just tastes like a good vodka — not bad but also not very interesting. The gin had a strong pine tree scent to it, almost like a perfume.


My recommendation: How often do you get to taste whiskey and the beer it was distilled from in the same place? On the other hand the historic Anchor Brewing is located just up the hill with a similarly priced tour. For those only interested in one, which should you go with? If you’re more interested in beer history Anchor’s your best bet. For newer types of beer and whiskey distilling Seven Stills is worth checking out instead.

Colorado State Capitol building and the mile high marker

April 25th, 2019

Colorado State Capitol Building
Colorado State Capitol Building Colorado State Capitol Building
Colorado State Capitol Building Colorado State Capitol Building

Denver is the state capitol of Colorado and their capitol building is free and open to visitors during normal operating hours. It’s a beautiful late 19th century building with a gold-leaf dome. Best of all you can get there for free on either the MallRide or MetroRide buses by hopping off at the Civic Center terminal.

During my visit both the state house of representatives and state senate were in session. The photo in the gallery above is the representatives who were going through some dry procedural issues like scheduling.

I also got to see part of a press conference downstairs where the governor was speaking. Only recognized him thanks to finding his photo on Google on the way over.

A somewhat unusual feature for a state capitol is a gallery of painted portraits of every US president. They were all painted by the same artist except for Obama, as the artist passed away by that time. There’s currently space for Trump once the portrait is completed.

The capitol building has a free guided tour running every hour. More information here.

I went in and asked at the information desk about the tour. As it turns out that’s where you sign up for the tour — this isn’t mentioned on their website — and although the next tour was minutes away from starting I was lucky enough to be able to join in. If you visit during peak tourist season it’s recommended to get there much earlier.

The tour goes through most of the public spaces in the building, covers some of the art honoring the historic figures of Colorado, and finishes in a fantastic place most tourists aren’t allowed to visit: the dome’s balcony.

Colorado State Capitol Building Colorado State Capitol Building

At the top floor visitors are allowed to enter on their own is a small exhibit on the history of the building and Colorado’s government. The exhibit walls feature windows where you can see the large attic space between the building’s roof and interior ceilings.

On the tour the guide unlocks a door leading into this “in between” attic space and directs everyone to a utilitarian metal staircase. At the top of the stairs is a narrow walkway on the interior of the dome.

The real treat though is walking out to the exterior balcony where there’s an amazing view of the city. I was lucky enough to visit on a clear day where the snow-capped Rocky Mountains were visible in the distance.

Many of us on the tour had questions for the guide about what we were seeing in the distance and down below, and he happily answered every question.

One mile above sea level

Outside the building on the steps to the west entrance (not a public entrance) there words “One Mile Above Sea Level” are engraved into the steps. Denver is known as the mile high city, after all.

As it turns out measuring a mile above sea level is a bit of a fool’s errand when the sea is nowhere in sight. In fact there are two different medallions embedded in the steps claiming to be the one mile high mark — one on a couple steps above the engraving, and one a couple steps below. More information on why these measurements differ can be found on Atlas Obscura.

My recommendation: If you want to glimpse a state government in action, you enjoy American neoclassical architecture, you want to know more about American history, or even if you just want a nice view of Denver, it’s all there at the Colorado State Capitol building and costs nothing. The tour itself is 45-60 minutes. You’ll have to locate the mile high marker on your own but it’s pretty easy to find and the tour guide can point you in the right direction if you ask.

Tijuana street food tour

December 30th, 2018

Tijana street food tour

I spent this afternoon on a guided street food tour of Tijuana. Starting at the Blue Line trolley stop near my Airbnb, I took a ~45 minute ride to the last stop on the line at San Ysidro. The trolley stop is a stone’s throw from the border between the US and Mexico.

I’d signed up for the Wild Foodie Tours Tijuana street food tour based on many positive online reviews. As it turned out our guide Albert is the one man operation behind the company. He’s a self-described foodie who comes from a restaurant family.

The tour I’m about to describe is my experience only; this tour varies depending on what’s available on Tijuana’s street food scene. I should also point out I’ve commented on Mexico’s excellent street food scene before during my visit to Mexico City in 2011.

The tour started — ironically enough — just outside a McDonald’s at the border. You can’t miss the location if you take the trolley since it’s at the trolley platform. Albert guided us through Mexico’s customs. On foot it’s not super obvious where to go, but once you’re inside you get a passport stamp, they scan your bags, and that’s about it.

Aside from the guide our group included myself from California, two people from New Jersey, and a family from New Zealand. The last group took a little longer but I think the total time was probably under ten minutes. It’s not like the old days where people could apparently just walk into Mexico, but it’s still pretty fast.

On the other side of the border we walked over to a shared taxi stop. If you’re unfamiliar with Mexico’s transit this might be a little confusing. In American English we call a shared taxi a “jitney”, but I doubt many Americans are familiar with the term. It’s kind of like public transit in that it’s cheap and shared, but it’s not strictly official. Even if you speak Spanish I’d recommend a local guide for this mode of transit.

Our first stop was a semi-open air farmer’s market, Mercado M. Hidalgo. It’s a super crowded and not particularly tourist friendly market where you can find everything from fruits and vegetables to religious figurines and pinatas. I had to keep dodging people and ducking in order to follow our group around the place.

Early on our guide got a large fruta con chile to share for the group. This is a simple, classic Mexican snack: it’s a bunch of big wedges of fruit (melons, jicama, etc.) dusted with chili powder. The sweet juicy fruits combined with the spices combine in your mouth to explode with a strange sensation of burning sweetness.

Tijana street food tour

We stopped at the market to sample a variety of foods available for purchase, the highlight for me was a shop selling spiced nuts and dried fruits. I wish I’d bought some of the spiced peanuts but I also know I’d have wolfed them all down by now.

Tijana street food tour

The next stop was a food truck well known among locals and had a small crowd. We got fish tacos that took a while to prepare, but were outstanding. I’ve never had anything quite like it — the soft shell tacos were crunchy and grilled on the outside, but soft on the inside.

This was by far the highlight of the tour for me. Fish tacos are a classic Californian dish, but this variation blew me away. The younger member of the New Jersey group confessed this was the best fish taco she’d ever had, and I couldn’t disagree.

On the way to the next stop one member of our group pointed out that the top of a fire hydrant seemed to be sticking out from the sidewalk. Albert brushed this off replying with “a lot of what you’ll see in Mexico makes no sense.” Words to live by.

Tijana street food tour

Next we wandered over to a street food vendor offering a variety of seafood dishes. We got their ceviche, which was good though it seemed like a step down from the previous tacos. Then again almost anything would seem like a step down from those delicious tacos.

Some of the other seafood dishes they offered seemed more interesting, including a raw clam dish. One person in the group wanted to try it, but our guide warned them it would be very filling and spoil their appetite for the rest of the tour.

Tijana street food tour

Although not part of the tour exactly, we went to a traditional Mexican bakery for those interested in purchasing classic Mexican sweet pastries and cookies. Apparently California’s food import laws allow baked goods to be brought in. They’re much pickier about fruits, however. But fruits in baked goods are okay.

We made a brief stop at a corner taco stand serving carne asada tacos. As a pescatarian I had a bean taco which was fine, especially after adding various toppings including extremely spicy salsa and grilled onions. The best part was the tortilla, handmade to order right there at the taco stand as we watched.

Tijana street food tour

We had a much longer stop at an indoor juice shop for agua frescas and horchata. The owner’s daughter served the beverages for us, she was barely tall enough to reach over the refrigerators. My horchata was excellent. Aside from the bakery this was the only stop that I guess isn’t technically street food, though the sides of the store were open to the sidewalk.

This stop offered a nice chance to sit at some makeshift tables and chairs and chat for a bit while watching the people, cars, and taxi buses pass by. Albert told us about some of the other tours he offers, including one to Caesars, the Tijuana restaurant that invented the Caesar salad. The guy gets around, he says he’s going to have some completely new food tours just days away in 2019.

As we sat at the corner juice spot one person in the group pointed out how Mexico’s stoplights work differently — before switching to yellow, the green light starts flashing. At the same time the walk signal starts flashing as well, before switching to a solid red hand.

I’d noticed this as well. Some of the pedestrian signals have countdown timers, but they often aren’t hooked up correctly. (Many just flash “88.”) This hardly matters since Mexican drivers treat stop lights as suggestions rather than rules so you have to be careful and cross your fingers as you cross the street.

The father of the New Zealander in the group told me he thought California drivers were overly polite and was more used to haphazard way people drive in Mexico. He claimed it’s due to some weird quirk in New Zealand’s law where car insurance is partially government subsidized so there’s less personal incentive to avoid collisions.

Tijana street food tour

Our last major food break was another taco stand, a big street food operation that attracted quite a crowd. At this point I was super stuffed and could only finish off one of the two fried fish and seasoned sour cream tacos. Two police officers were taking their time at their lunch break as we ate. They hogged the salsa stand perched on an outdoor windowsill.

Strangely this street food stand had a storefront across the sidewalk they used for storing ingredients and such. Seemed to me they could have just operated out of there? Then again they were clearly successful operating just off the sidewalk so who am I to argue.

Aside from fish tacos this vendor also specialized in a seafood soup. That might have been a better option at this spot but it was interesting watching the guy operating the fryer, tossing breaded fish into a huge vat of oil for the fried fish tacos.

Tijana street food tour

The last food stop crossed the ultra-touristy Avenida Revolucion to a vendor offering churros. Don’t get me wrong, a freshly fried churro is great; but it also seemed anti-climactic for a food tour. Then again I was far more used to Mexican food than most of the participants in the group, being the only Californian.

The vendor made each churro by extruding the dough from a device built into the cart by cranking what looked like a steering wheel before dipping it in the fryer. These were very small, thin churros sold in a small paper bag like french fries. And I have to say they were delicious.

On the opposite side of the sidewalk a store was selling shoes… and mobile phones. Only in Mexico!

At the end Albert took us on a on a shared taxi back to the border and instructed us where to go. He said he’d stay the night in Tijuana as we all passed customs back into the US.

Entering the US on foot from Tijuana was very quick. There was no special line for US citizens. One of the New Zealanders made it across before I did, and we wished one another a happy new year before I had to literally run to catch the Blue Line trolley back to downtown San Diego.

Oslo expeditions

July 22nd, 2018

My five days in Oslo were packed and I still left with the impression there was much more to see. When my flight home got delayed I was annoyed because there were still a few hours to go out and see the museums I’d missed — let alone a ferry trip I’d meant to take to the islands — but not quite enough time to do any of those. In a way it was Stockholm all over again: I should have booked a couple more days. Ah well, better to err on the side of taking off before you’ve seen it all and get bored I suppose.

Since I went on fewer tours than I did in Stockholm I’ll go into each tour individually, though I’m saving all the outdoor art segments for the next post.

Oslo Oslo

Free Tour Oslo City

This free (donation requested) tour hits many tourist friendly destinations. Starting at the tiger statue outside Oslo S, it heads to a view of the Opera House, up to the main square of Christiania/New Oslo, over to the fortress, to the waterfront, City Hall, and finally to parliament. That list isn’t comprehensive but covers the gist of it.

Opening hours permitting the tour goes inside Oslo’s City Hall. While the building doesn’t look like much from the outside the interior has wall to wall murals covering various art deco styles. Sculptures in the courtyard outside built into the walls have typical arts and crafts designs.

The tour doesn’t sugarcoat the dark side of Oslo’s history during its occupation by Nazi Germany. A number of plaques on the ground written in Norwegian have a person’s name and the word “Auschwitz” — you can easily guess what that means. After the tour guide pointed these out I began spotting them all over Oslo.

Oslo Oslo

After the tour ended I wandered back to check out the Opera House firsthand. Or maybe “firstfoot” would be a more appropriate term as the exterior of the building is an enormous sloping plaza. It’s currently surrounded by neighborhood construction on two sides — and water on two others — but you can still visit via a small bridge. While the outdoor space is always open, the indoor lobby and restaurant have posted hours.

I’m told the Opera House plaza can get very slippery during the winter. During the summer the white exterior is almost blinding to look at. Either way you need to watch your step due to the uneven surface. Seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen, or at least that’s how it would end up in the US.


At my host’s suggestion I visited the botanical garden. No tour here, just a serene and impeccably maintained garden filled with exotic plants. It’s a perfect spot away from the crowds to sit around and sip a cold coffee on a hot summer day — you can bring your own or visit the cafe in the middle of the garden.

It’s free to visit but they have a donation box for those inclined to contribute.

Oslo Oslo

The Culinary City Walk

This food tour is from the same company that runs the food tour I went on in Stockholm. Oddly, while waiting at the meeting point for the tour guide to show up I was mistaken both for the tour guide and for a participant in a nearby Pokemon Go event.

The first proper stop on the tour was Mathallen, a hip modern food hall built into an old industrial brick building. This stop introduced me to Norwegian brown cheese, a caramelized dairy product (not technically cheese) often eaten at breakfast with waffles or crepes. Personally I though it was fine, though some find it quite divisive.

We took a long winding stroll to reach our next destination on the waterfront. As an aside I spotted a taco truck parked by the streetcar stop on the waterfront, which I went back to later on my own. The tacos were surprisingly good, and I had a lime Jarritos to go with it. Little taste of “home” as it were.

Anyway, back to the tour. We went to a seafood-focused restaurant on the waterfront called Rorbua where we were served a large sampler platter. Mine was all seafood, but the meat eaters in the group were served some rather exotic meats including whale and reindeer (sorry, Rudolph.) Not everyone seemed to have the stomach for eating whale. As far as seafood the trout and shrimp were particularly tasty.

Unlike the Stockholm tour where we ended on coffee, the food tour in Oslo ended at a bar with a beer tasting. Seemed a little early for beer, but most of us went along with it. All of it was brewed in Norway yet in traditional British styles. The only one that stood out to me was an IPA that had a more subtle hoppiness than the in-your-face styles we tend to have at home in California.

As we departed the tour feeling a little tired from all the food and beer, a bunch of protestors marched outside the bar towards city hall as if it jolt us awake on cue. I think they were protesting against the imprisonment of an East Turkestan independence advocate, though the connection to Oslo’s city politics (if any) was entirely lost on me.


Discover the Charming Westside of Oslo

Here we have it: the first tour on this trip that was a total bust. Maybe the online info is just outdated, but the guide never showed up.

Since I hadn’t paid in advance there wasn’t much to be mad about, just a little annoyed that I’d brought 200 NOK in payment. The tour was supposed to start near the royal palace (see above photo) so I just wandered around the gardens for a little while. The gardens are open to the public and pretty popular with tourists; palace grounds include a small park, a duck pond, and oddly enough a beehive. There’s probably a joke about a queen bee in there somewhere.

The palace gardens were hosting a small temporary sculpture exhibit I found amusing, which got me thinking — the tour was supposed to end at the Frogner Park sculpture garden, so why not just head over there? After all it’s not like the sun was going to set.

So I hoped on a streetcar and visited Frogner Park. Would have been nice to have a tour guide, but the evening itself wasn’t a total failure. I’ll go into all the sculptures in the next post.

Oslo Oslo Oslo

Hipster Oslo (Grünerløkka)

I wanted someone to take me around the neighborhood where I was staying and discovered this tour almost at the last minute. A young family had signed up for the tour even more at the last minute than I did, moments after the guide showed up.

I highly recommend this one — it’s inexpensive, goes into great detail, takes you to many historical spots in the area, and the guide was practically a walking encyclopedia of knowledge. If you want an off the beaten path tour of Oslo, this is it.

The tour was so long I’ll just stick to the highlights. It starts off in the labor union square on the edge of the neighborhood, passes by a former bathhouse, then snakes through a few streets lined with boutiques and restaurants, before hitting the campus of a world renowned art university and along the river, highlighting a couple of waterfalls.

Continuing up a hill we passed a hip outdoor area lined with street art (also in the next post, I promise) followed by a steep street lined with some of the oldest surviving wood buildings in Oslo. Going around a corner or two we went through a cemetery where many famous locals were buried, including Edvard Munch.

All the famous individuals buried there had QR codes next to their graves in case you wanted to look up their obituaries. Someone had left a handmade book at Munch’s grave of their own sketches of Munch’s famous paintings, including The Scream. It reminded me of a quote from the show Westworld — “Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin never died; they simply became music.” There’s a certain truth in this idea.

Passing through the cemetery we were supposed to go through a church but it was closed due to construction. Instead we detoured around a communal garden and ended the tour at the Mathallen food hall.

As we parted ways I pulled the 200 NOK note out of my pocket I had leftover from the no-show tour and handed it to the guide as a tip — a 100% tip. She was clearly surprised, but it was my last full day in Norway. I enjoyed the tour and had no interest in bringing Norwegian currency back with me. Hopefully big tips aren’t considered insulting or anything.


Once again back at Mathallen I was hungry and ready to try something new. After washing up at the bathrooms in the basement I sat down at a Spanish food stall serving pintxos. Much like traditional Scandinavian cuisine, pintxos are open face sandwiches with various toppings. Or kind of like avocado toast back home… hmmm, who else would grab lunch at a place like this in Oslo?

The guy next to me kept trying to order in barely passable Spanish. I couldn’t help snickering when the employees replied in English. At some point he turned to me and said “Hey, where you from?”
“San Francisco.”
“Oh? Me too! What neighborhood?”
“The Mission. You?”
“Twin Peaks,” he replied.

We got to chatting a little before we both left separately… and then we both wound up in line at Tim Wendelboe, an espresso shop that seemed remarkably familiar. I ordered an espresso and after a long wait it arrived with a shot glass of sparkling mineral water. I kept looking around for the Blue Bottle logo, yet it was nowhere to be found.

Oslo Oslo Oslo

Later on my last night I went to explore the Akershus Fortress, which sits on a hill above the waterfront. Even though its military presence is long gone the area is still patrolled by royal guards with bayonets. Its clearly all for show as the guards seemed happy to take photos with tourists.

From the fortress there’s a good view of the waterfront — a sensible place for a fortress. Cruise ships dock just outside the fortress though, so if there’s one in the way the views may not be so hot.

Stockholm expeditions

July 4th, 2018

During my six sunny days in Stockholm I tried to squeeze in as many expeditions around town as possible without exhausting myself too much. It’s a big city with a lot going on — you could probably spend a couple weeks in Stockholm and still leave with that nagging feeling you missed something.

Here’s how I spent my time:

Stockholm Stockholm Stockholm

Free walking tours
Note: These are all free, but you’re expected to tip the guide if you enjoyed the tour.

  • City Tour by Free Walking Tour Stockholm. This tour’s kind of a grab bag, but wanders around mostly in the new-ish parts of Stockholm to the east of the old town. Much of it focuses on the era around the beginnings of the era of the constitutional monarchy.
  • Old Town (Gamla Stan) Tour by Free Walking Tour Stockholm. When I first set foot in Gamla Stan I couldn’t help but to roll my eyes — yet another beautiful relic of a medieval European city turned into a tourist trap. Sigh. But this tour helped breathe some life, or in some cases death, into the stories from the old days. Can’t say Gamla Stan is my favorite place, but by the end of the tour I appreciated it the history enough to not hate its current incarnation.
  • Subway Art Tour by Free Walking Tour Stockholm. If you’ve seen the amazing photos of the subway stations in Stockholm this tour needs no introduction, and if you haven’t go Google it right now! My only complaint about this tour is it didn’t take me to enough stations. I’ll follow up with another blog post about Stockholm’s subway art in the near future, there’s too much to say here.
  • Söder Tour from Free Tour Stockholm. I was staying in the Söder neighborhood/island so most of the ground we covered was already familiar, but the history of the neighborhood was new to me. Somehow this part of town went from a battlefield to the poor part of town and eventually became a the hip part of town.

      Stockholm Stockholm Stockholm

      Other tours

      • Stockholm Ghost Walk. This somewhat theatrical tour covers both the historical stories from the old town (Gamla Stan) as well as the more… shall we say, legendary tales. A crypt is included, though the bodies were moved long ago.
      • Guided tour of the Riksdag (Parliament). This tour shows you around the building where Sweden’s government operates. The building’s a mishmash of old and new, modified over time to fit the needs of the day. It’s completely free, just show up at the designated time and prepare to go through an airport-style security check.
      • The Nordic Food Walk. This one’s pricey but worth it since it includes samples of many different Swedish cuisines you won’t find elsewhere. They’ll try to cater to your dietary needs, and as a pescetarian there was only one dish I didn’t get to try — a meatball. The tour ended in the basement of a restaurant for a “fika,” or Swedish coffee break.


      Odds and ends

      Aside from the tours here are some other places I stumbled on during my time in Stockholm.


      During my first day in Stockholm my Airbnb host suggested visiting Monteliusvägen, a lookout point near where I was staying. There’s a panoramic view of the city from there and it’s not much of a climb. The place was pretty crowded, but there’s a long trail along the cliff with a few lookout points where you can take in the view and snap some photos.


      A few rooms of the Royal Palace were open to visitors for free. The photo above is the chapel built into the palace but there are several other rooms you can visit without taking the tour. The courtyard is also open to the public.


      The Stockholm Public Library is like a temple for reading. The circular main room has three levels of narrow hallways with books on one side. There’s a small section of English books, though like many visitors I was just there to admire the architecture of the building. According to a sign outside the building this was the first open stack public library in Sweden.


      The idea of an espresso tonic never appealed to me until I was in Stockholm during a heat wave and happened to walk into Johan & Nystrom. Normally at a fancy espresso bar I’d order an espresso, but it was such a hot day I almost gagged at the though of drinking a hot beverage.

      Noticing an espresso tonic featured on their summer menu I went ahead and ordered it. The barista made an espresso, which he poured over iced tonic water. I liked it so much I came back for two more during the trip.


      Everyone who visits Stockholm seems to agree there’s one museum you have to visit: the Vasa Museum. They’re right. This is one impressive museum.

      Back in the 1620’s, the king of Sweden wanted a modern warship with two gun decks in order to intimidate his neighbors. This proved to be a little too cutting edge for the time as the ship sank on its maiden voyage. The wreckage was mostly forgotten until the 1950s when it was discovered again.

      The museum tells both the story of the ship and its historical context as well as the monumental effort that went into getting the ship to where it is today. But the initial “wow” factor for me was walking in past the ticket counter right up to a massive wooden ship that nearly fills a five story building. You don’t see that every day.