Posts Tagged ‘walking tour’

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Haunted Ghost Tour from Wild SF Walking Tours

November 10th, 2019

Over Halloween it occurred to me that I tend to gravitate toward “ghost tours” everywhere I go, but I’d never taken any traditional ghost tours at home here in San Francisco.

The tricky part it turned out was figuring out which one to go on — there’s a surprising number of such tours from different companies in different neighborhoods. I eventually decided on the Haunted San Francisco Ghost Tour from the relatively new Wild SF Walking Tours.

This tour is only offered after dark, beginning at Union Square and making a loop through the Tenderloin. The group I was in was maybe 15 people or so, led by a very entertaining drag queen performer who goes by “Mary Vice.”

As with a typical ghost tour format, it’s a mix of high profile murders and other deaths, morbid historical events, as well as reports of mysterious activities attributed to ghosts.

I never know how much to give away when reporting on a tour like this — I don’t want to say so much as to spoil it for anyone who’s interested, but I do have to mention a few key aspects to provide a taste of what’s involved. I’ll do my best here to provide a high level overview.

The tour includes:

  • San Francisco’s ban on new cemeteries and eventual relocation of all (known) buried human remains.
  • The Zodiac Killer and the time he was spotted committing a murder by multiple witnesses.
  • The rise of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple and the resulting Jonestown atrocities.
  • Several tales involving the 1906 earthquake and fire.

One of the more interesting traditional ghost stories is at the St. Francis Hotel, which have apparently freaked out guests on the top floor of the old wings of the building.

In general ghost tours are best led by theatrical minded guides and “Mary” was no exception. The tour has two other guides, or three if you include Mary’s alter ego.

On my way home after the tour I started thinking about all the subjects this tour didn’t cover. Most were well out of the tour area like the somewhat mysterious death of President Harding at the Palace Hotel, the double assassination of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk at City Hall, as well as my personal favorite local ghost story — the Lady of Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park.

The only story I could think of that might fit the tour was the attempted assassination of President Ford outside the St. Francis Hotel. Then again it may not be noteworthy: it was the second time someone tried to kill him that very month. Besides, there’s already enough spooky stories at that hotel anyway.

 

My recommendation: With so many ghost tours in San Francisco I can say this one is absolutely worth considering. It’s reasonably priced, about the right length, and not too strenuous of a walk. There are stairs and the stories include subjects not suitable for younger children. If you’re interested it can be booked through their website or through Airbnb Experiences.

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Hollywood History walking tour

October 27th, 2019
Walk of Fame

 

This morning I took the LA Metro to Hollywood and Vine, the meeting place of another Downtown LA Walking Tour, Hollywood History. The name of the tour company is kind of a misfit here as Hollywood is not located downtown.

The first thing anyone should know about Hollywood Boulevard is — if the two wax museums and the Hard Rock Cafe weren’t a dead giveaway — it’s a tourist trap. Expect people to try to hand you pamphlets for bus tours, and unlicensed costume characters to pose for photos with you in exchange for tips. I counted at least two Spider Men, three Mickey Mouses, and one Edward Scissorhands.

The tour makes all of this a little more palatable by focusing largely on the history of the place rather than the current spectacle.

 

Capitol Records Building

 

The starting point of the tour is also kind of the starting point of Hollywood as it relates to the entertainment industry. Although these days Hollywood is almost synonymous with the film industry, the intersection of Hollywood and Vine is where both local and national radio broadcast studios were located, as well as record companies. The 1950’s era Capitol Records Building — shaped like a stack of records — is located half a block away.

On a related topic, the Hollywood Walk of Fame (see photo at the top of the post) is not just movie stars, but recognizes entertainment stars in various categories. Theater actors, singers, TV actors, etc. are also eligible in their respective categories. This also means a few people have more than one star for their multiple talents.

I wasn’t paying super close attention, but I spotted stars for everyone from W.C. Fields to Lucy Lui to the band Rush.

 

Egyptian Theater Chinese Theater

 

Heading east along Hollywood Boulevard, the sights of the tour started looking more familiar. The Egyptian Theater and the Chinese Theater are two of the more iconic cinemas in the area where new films are screened, though they’re not the only ones.

One weird quirk our tour guide pointed out about the Egyptian Theater is the Spanish tiles on the roof. Apparently the building was originally going to be built in the Mission Revival style, but just after construction kicked off, King Tut’s tomb was discovered. So the plans were shuffled to cash in on the newfound popularity of Egypt, but the owner was too cheap to redo the existing roof.

The newest theater on the street that I unfortunately didn’t get very good photos of is the Dolby Theater, where the Oscars now take place. It’s attached to a new strangely shaped mall with a series of viewing platforms where tourists can go to get a clear view of the Hollywood sign.

 

Jimmy Kimmel Live theater

 

The theater where late night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! is filmed is also on Hollywood Boulevard. Filming notices are posted outside, but if you’ve ever seen Jimmy Kimmel’s show on TV you’re probably aware a film crew might pop out (possibly with a celebrity in tow) and strike up a conversation to use on the show. Our tour guide had a personal story about this.

 

The Hollywood Roosevelt

 

The tour ends just across from The Hollywood Roosevelt, a large hotel frequented by celebrities, politicians, and — according to legend — ghosts. I wandered into the lobby to snap some photos. Can’t say if it’s haunted or not though the interior is quite stunning.

 

My recommendation: Like I mentioned in the opening paragraph, this is a tour of a neighborhood that’s become a tourist trap. I’m of mixed feelings about this one, I think someone who’s more interested in Hollywood than myself would get more from learning details of the history of the area. That said it’s certainly much more enjoyable than trying to take a stroll down Hollywood Boulevard on one’s own.

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Arts District tour

October 26th, 2019
Arts District Arts District Arts District

 

Yesterday afternoon I took a tour of LA’s Arts District from Downtown LA Walking Tours. I had the same tour guide as I did when I took the Chinatown and Little Tokyo tour on my last visit, and as it turns out he’s intimately familiar with the local art scene through his other job as a photographer.

The general story of an art district anywhere in the world follows pretty much the same pattern: a bunch of old warehouses in a poor part of town become available on the cheap, artists show up and turn them into art studios, those same artists improve the neighborhood over time, and are then forced out when the rents increase. It’s a classic tale of self-gentrification.

LA’s Arts District is a little more complicated than that, as it turns out — these artists were more organized than most. First the city codified the status of artists living in former warehouses where they worked, even if the buildings weren’t up to code. Second, some of the artists were able to hold on to their apartments even as those buildings were changed to new uses. Lastly, there are still a number of galleries in the area.

Oh, and the chickens. I should explain the chickens.

The first stop on the tour is Hauser & Wirth, the LA outpost of a Swiss chain of high-end art galleries. It’s actually several galleries in a building that was constructed as a flour mill.

In the patio of the building there’s a restaurant called Manuela, which is pricey but also apparently well liked, and is often frequented by celebrities. They grow some of their own spices and such on the patio outside, and have a fenced in area with chickens to provide fresh eggs. The chickens even have their own Instagram.

Like the former flour mill, other buildings in the area were either warehouses, or production sites for companies like Challenge Butter and Coca Cola. These businesses all left the area when the shipping economy shifted from railroads to trucks.

 

Arts District Arts District Arts District

 

Though the tour stopped at three very different galleries, there’s also a focus on the outdoor art, from enormous murals to sculptures, which includes the oversized mailbox seen above.

There’s so much street art in the neighborhood that the same tour company has a tour devoted just to that topic. Unfortunately it wasn’t available during my trip this time or I would have booked that as well.

The last place we visited, Art Share LA, is more than just an art gallery. It also includes classrooms, studios for resident local artists, and even an event space that’s used for everything from ballet classes to church groups to weddings. The whole place has a welcoming atmosphere and features some of the most quirky art in the area.

 

Arts District

 

One of the last spots on the tour is Wings by Colette Miller. What started as a simple pair of angel wings painted on a corrugated metal wall right here in the Arts District, designed to attract selfie-takers, is now an oft-imitated global phenomenon. Miller herself has been commissioned to paint many of these all over the world.

Even if you haven’t seen the original, you’ve almost certainly seen someone’s photo on Instagram standing against a wall with wings painted on it.

 

My recommendation: If you don’t know much at all about LA’s Arts District this is a solid tour. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what you’ll see on it, so if it sounds interesting I’d recommend it.

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Gaslamp Walking Tour

December 28th, 2018

Gaslamp Quarter
Gaslamp Quarter Horton Grand Hotel
 

During my first visit to San Diego I remember walking across a busy street and set of train tracks from the Convention Center to the Gaslamp Quarter (or Gaslamp District, depending who you ask.) According to the big sign crossing Fifth Avenue the Gaslamp is the self-proclaimed “Historic Heart of San Diego.”

The neighborhood’s promotional pamphlets had already turned me off somewhat, and on seeing this stretch of the Gaslamp my tourist trap sensor went off — all the restaurants on the block had barkers out front.

Today that particular stretch of the Gaslamp is even more tourist trap-y with the addition of a Hard Rock Cafe. You can poke around on Google Street View here to see for yourself.

So I was a little apprehensive about signing up for a walking tour of a neighborhood that seemed so touristy. But the organization behind the tour appeared legitimate and I’m always down for an interesting walking tour.
 

This Gaslamp walking tour is specifically the Gaslamp Foundation Thursday Walking Tour although from what I understand you can book the same tour on Saturdays.

The tour meets at the Davis-Horton House Museum, which is operated by the same organization behind the tour.

Early on, the tour throws some shade on that big Gaslamp Quarter sign’s claim to be the “historic heart” of San Diego. The original inhabitants of San Diego were Native Americans, a claim easily verified by anyone familiar with California’s Spanish history — the first Mission was built in San Diego in 1769 to convert the natives to Catholicism — and it’s pretty far away from the Gaslamp.

Second the Gaslamp was originally known as New Town, promoted as the new downtown San Diego, much closer to the port (now where the Convention Center is located) than Old Town further up north. Old Town is still preserved in some capacity and is another tourist attraction. So there’s that.

But by far the biggest blow to the image promoted to tourists about the Gaslamp are the “gas lamps” themselves. Those ye olde fashioned (electric) light posts lining the streets were installed in the 1980’s when city planners became interested in preserving the area, and rebranded it as the “Gaslamp Quarter.” Although gas lamps were installed inside buildings back in the day, the streets themselves never actually had gas lamps illuminating them at night.

Before the Gaslamp rebranding, New Town was known locally as the Stingaree. Nobody calls it that anymore. Marketing is a powerful force.

A few highlights of the tour:

  • Many of the Victorian buildings were renovated to “modernize” or strip them of the Victorian elements after World War 2. Some of them were recently renovated back to appear Victorian again based on photos or even molds of other buildings. To me the ways we “preserve” history say more about the prevailing fashions at the time than anything meaningful about history.
  • San Diego’s Chinatown (or Asiatown, really) once included part of today’s Gaslamp. It’s all but forgotten unless you know where to look. Even then there’s little left to see.
  • Several buildings were moved one way or another, including the Davis-Horton House as well as the nearby Horton Grand Hotel. The Horton Grand Hotel was originally two hotels, ripped down, put into storage, and eventually rebuilt as a single hotel in a different location. This explains why one side has trapezoidal bay windows and the other features rectangular bay windows.
  • Buildings near a port often served as brothels because, you know, sailors. The photo of the ornate Victorian above is a semi-recreation of a building that once housed a particularly well known brothel. The madam sold color-coded marbles, with each color corresponding to a painted door leading to a sex worker in the building. Authorities cracking down on brothels in the area — and there were many brothels — couldn’t touch this simple marble saleswoman. As if that’s not enough supposedly Wyatt Earp frequented the place, but supposedly only the restaurant on the bottom floor.

There’s much more to the tour than this, and my tour guide pointed out that you can wander around and read the historical plaques tacked on to the sides of many historic buildings in the area. That said the early history of the area is often more colorful and complex than the plaques would have you believe.

Our tour entered several buildings to point out historical details not visible from the outside, but officially this walking tour only includes the interior of the Davis-Horton House. That said many of the older buildings in the Gaslamp Quarter are open to the public to some extent (stores, restaurants, etc.) so you can take a peek inside on your own to get a feel for 19th century San Diego.
 

My recommendation: If you’re interested in the history and architecture of the west coast, go for it. For that matter the tour’s worth checking out if you’re curious about the ways history is preserved, or even what’s considered to be historic. Turns out there’s far more to San Diego’s history than navy operations and beaches. Who knew?

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Historic downtown LA walking tour

February 18th, 2018

LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
 

I spent the morning on a long walk through downtown Los Angeles on LA Conservancy’s Historic Downtown Walking Tour. I won’t go over everything on the tour, but I’ll cover a few stops I found interesting.

LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
 

The Central Library is actually two buildings glued together, and aside from books and such it’s also home to a variety of permanent and rotating art. The LA Conservancy helped prevent the stately old library from being torn down, although it was too late to save the interior due to a fire. See also the photo at the top of the post.

LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
 

One Bunker Hill, aka the Southern California Edison Company Building, is an art deco masterpiece that was also the first building in LA to feature air conditioning. Thankfully, it still does. The building’s land was owned by Henry Huntington who was involved with SoCal Edison among other businesses. And where did he get the money for financing these projects? From one of San Francisco’s railway robber barons, his uncle Collis P. Huntington.

LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
 

Angel’s Flight is known as the world’s shortest railway, intended to get lazy people up and down Bunker Hill. It raises some interesting questions, or rather one question really — why didn’t they just build an elevator? I suspect the answer is people will pay for train rides but would balk at paying for a very short elevator trip.

Confession: since it’s cash only and I don’t like bothering with paper (their claim to accept TAP cards is a bold faced lie) I skipped the ride and took the stairs instead.
 

I didn’t get any photos but the Grand Central Market is your typical foodie mecca selling everything from raw ingredients to freshly made cuisine. It’s pretty similar to the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Pike’s Place in Seattle, etc. Bringing the tour through here at lunch time was a poor choice as we lost a couple hungry tourists. I came back after the tour for lunch myself. Finding good food was easy, finding a table was not. Finding a chair was even harder — I eventually gave up and ate while standing.

LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
 

Last but definitely not least is the Bradbury Building. Also known as “hey it’s that building from Blade Runner!” The iron work in the building was reclaimed from a World’s Fair exhibition. Today tourists are only allowed on the first two floors and not in the elevators as the offices are still actively used. Many of them appeared to be empty, presumably because workers got sick of answering questions about Replicants.

There’s a patio on one side of the building with a wall detailing the life of Biddy Mason, a slave who’s owners moved to California. Mason realized being a slave in a free state made no sense and successfully freed herself through the court system, then took up work as a midwife. Her former home was located nearby on the site of what is now (to the surprise of no one who’s ever spent time in Los Angeles) a parking garage.
 

My recommendation: If you like architecture and public art and don’t know downtown LA (that’s me!) this tour’s a good fit. Be forewarned it’s more strenuous than your average walking tour. A few older folks in the crowd were having trouble keeping up at times.

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City Guides tour of Lands End: Sutro Heights

September 6th, 2016

I’m no good at planning, so it comes as no surprise that I’d neglected to make plans for Labor Day and had to find something interesting to do at the last minute. I figured I’d go on another City Guides tour — I’ve been on dozens of these — and somehow managed to pick one of the most interesting tours with spectacular views on a day that was shockingly not foggy. I’d highly recommend this particular tour.

If you’ve never been on a City Guides tour, here’s the briefing: they have many 100% free walking tours in San Francisco led by volunteers every day. The program is run by SF Public Library and paid for through the hotel tax and donations by people like you and me. At the end of each tour they pass around envelopes and you can put in a few bucks if you like, but there’s no obligation. The tour groups range in size greatly depending on a number of factors; sometimes there’s only a couple people, other times — like today’s tour — there’s over forty.

As the title suggests I went on the Lands End: Sutro Heights tour. I’m writing this to entice you to go on it yourself so I’m keeping the “spoilers” to a minimum. But I’m going to bait you with some photos of the views and a few neat tidbits you probably haven’t heard about.

The tour starts at the Sutro Heights park, which is just up the hill from Sutro Baths and across the street at 48th Ave; look for the big lion head statues.

Like many things in San Francisco, Sutro Heights is named after a certain local businessman and former mayor Adolph Sutro. The area is now a park, but was originally where his own home once stood. Sutro made the area into a garden with flowers and statues, but the flowers died out long ago and most of the statues mysteriously disappeared. Someone even removed the antlers on this remaining deer statue; now people occasionally replace what’s left of the antlers with tree branches.

 
Sutro Heights
 

Back in Sutro’s day there were a number of observation decks open to the public with a spectacular view of Ocean Beach. The only remaining one was built in stone, and once had an area (now sealed off) that acted as the wine cellar for Sutro’s home.

Not pictured, but just to the right and below is the Cliff House, which Sutro bought and turned it into a restaurant; one factoid the City Guides tour mentions but is strangely absent from most tourist literature is what the Cliff House was used for before it was a restaurant. (Hint: it involved sex.) After Sutro bought the place it was infamously blown up by accident, rebuilt, burned down, then rebuilt as a small cement building that still stands to this very day.

As with other photos in this post, click on the panorama below for a larger version.

 
Sutro Heights
 

Another interesting story is Sutro’s long, expensive battle against Southern Pacific Railway, which he felt was gouging travelers coming to spend money at his attractions. After all, how can you squeeze money out of someone when their pockets are empty? But that’s a story too long for this post, so either go on the tour yourself or read about it online or in a history book.

Which takes us to Sutro’s other attraction, Sutro Baths. Before people had showers and bathtubs in their homes, your average Joes would head over to a public bathhouse to clean themselves. Without getting into how fucking gross this is, the project was a severe miscalculation by ol’ Adolph; by the time he’d built the thing it was already obsolete as most homes in the area had modern bathrooms. Whoops.

The building stood there until the mid 1960’s when it was burned down, probably on purpose. Now it’s this strange modern ruin that attracts tourists for some weird reason that I’m not sure I fully understand.

 
Sutro Baths
 

The City Guides tour itself ended before we walked down to the baths, presumably for liability reasons. But I headed down anyway and have a couple more photos to share.

First, here’s the ruins of Sutro Baths from the walking path just above it:

 
Sutro Baths
 

Next up: until this afternoon I’d somehow never walked through the cave next to Sutro Baths. I couldn’t get any great photos because a) it’s way too dark and b) it was filled with people. Also I was too busy trying not to trip on the rocks inside the cave to get my phone out.

The cave is completely terrifying — you can hear the echo of waves crashing against the rocks and the entire thing feels like it’s going to probably collapse at any second, and one day it inevitably will. Until then, you can see the ocean waves in a couple of spots where it’s already eroded a hole away. Incidentally, these waves were also what fed into the Sutro Baths. The ocean water went through a natural aquifer, then into a steam-powered heater.

 
Sutro Baths
 

On my walk home I decided to head past the beach and through Golden Gate Park, so here’s one final shot of Ocean Beach. It was such a sunny day there were nine (nine!) beach volleyball games going on at once, and that’s only at this end of the beach.

If you look carefully at the photo you can see both of the windmills in Golden Gate Park. But did you know? Those windmills both served an important function in the park back in the day, and there was once a third windmill in Sutro Heights. What where they used for and why? You’ll have to go take the tour yourself to find out.

 
Ocean Beach