So, where did the Wise Men go after?

Happy New Year!

January tends to weigh heavily on the mind, as far as months go. I’m pretty sure that even the Three Wise Men were heading back from Bethlehem thinking, “Now what? Is there anything else to see on the way home?” Or, at least I would have been saying that if I were one of the Magi.

Whether you’re seeking an escape due to the New Year blues or are just cheerily planning your year’s travels, I strongly urge you to consider the world’s Second Cities. My interest isn’t only because I’m originally from the Chicago area– America’s original Second City. While it’s great to throw coins in Rome’s Trevi Fountain or eat sushi at Tokyo’s Tsukiji, sometimes a country’s capital cities can be too crowded, too noisy, and just too overwhelming to really feel like you experienced the place.

While the places I’ve listed below may not technically qualify as their country’s true Second Cities (I think even Chicago is now third behind L.A.), they’re all amazing representations of the best of what their country and/or region has to offer. And yes, you should definitely visit Chicago!

Torre, Bologna, Italia
Street view & blue skies in Bologna

Bologna, Italy – This is the place where Italians go on foodie holidays, which tells you something about the quality of the cuisine. Sometimes known as “Bologna the Red” for its lovely terracotta-hued buildings and its political past, Bologna plays host to the oldest university in the West, a bevy of wonderful shops, a fantastic archaeology museum, cool cafe culture and great night life.

And did I mention the food? Mortadella, tagliatelle, tortellini– just to name a few. Of course, none of these have anything to do with the bastardized cousins you may be familiar with. Rubbery, bland “bologna” cannot be found in Bologna, thank God. Gloopy, non-distinctive “spaghetti bolognese” (or “spag bol” as the Brits call it) is also mercifully non-existent in this amazing, vibrant city. Rome – watch out!  Have a look at what’s on via the informative official visitors site.

Ghent, Belgium – In the interest of full disclosure, I generally have an aversion to Belgium; it has historically been one of my personal Low Countries. In Bruges, I got bed bugs and was accosted by a duo of louche, dwarf swingers. (NB: This happened well before the film, “In Bruges” forever connected the city and a dwarf as a a plot point.) I have also had numerous unpleasant interactions in Brussels. Essentially, I had almost given up on Belgium until I spent two days in Ghent. Like Bologna, Ghent is a historic university town, a status which keeps the beautifully preserved Medieval city from getting too museum-like. Ghent’s got beautiful canals, vibrant street life both day and night, and is peopled by funny, smart, down-to-earth Ghentians. (I’m not sure that this is the accurate name for those from Ghent, but all local people were careful to highlight that they were from Ghent, not from Belgium. Hmmm. Perhaps I’m not alone on this Belgium thing.) It’s a town full of music, culture and several restaurants featuring all-you-can-eat spareribs. For all that’s happening in one of Europe’s most delightful cities, check out Ghent’s robust visitor info.

Kilkenny, Ireland – Nearly 15 years ago, my husband and I got married in Kilkenny, after meeting in a youth

St. Canice's Cathedral - Kilkenny
St. Canice’s – One of Kilkenny’s very beautiful and very old churches

hostel a few years before that. Though this romantic association is admittedly personal, I can assure you that you will make your own pleasant memories when you visit Kilkenny. The fact that many Irish people choose it for their stag weekends, hen parties and other celebrations is a sign that there is extremely good craic to be had here. In addition to some of Ireland’s finest pubs and a Smithwick’s beer factory, Kilkenny also features amazing medieval architecture, a lovely well-restored castle, fine walks in and around the city, and some of the nicest people in Ireland– which is one of the nicest countries on Earth. While I love Dublin, I’d often fly straight into Kilkenny if I could. Kilkenny has a slew of festivals, including a foodie fest and the world’s first (and only?) comedy and economics festival, Kilkenomics, so definitely have a look at the official info to see what’s happening to plan your visit.

Osaka, Japan –  Tokyo is likely the world’s best-run city. It is beautiful, clean, easy to get around and full of people– the largest

Gorilla sign - Osaka
One of the many reasons to go ape for Osaka

metropolitan area in the world, in fact. Where other countries have chaos when 10,000 of their citizens attend a soccer match, Tokyo hums along with millions coursing into, across and out of the city every day. That being said, Tokyo can, at times, be overwhelming. The time you accidentally get on at rush hour and have to get shoved by the gloved train employee. The night you’re in the Golden Gao and realize that not every establishment welcomes “gaijin.” This is when it’s time to leave Tokyo and head straight for Osaka. The good people of Osaka are extremely friendly and the city features amazing food and nightlife, an awesome aquarium, a pretty impressive castle, and Japan’s best baseball team– the Hanshin Tigers.  Fore info on baseball in Osaka and more, have a look at my post on some Japan highlights.

 

A Guide to the Outerlands

Ocean Beach Sunset, San Francisco, California
Sunset in the Outer Sunset

Having lived out in the Avenues for a decade, I always enjoyed it when the rest of SF came out to our neck of the woods for events like Outsidelands and the Bay to Breakers. There’s something amusing about drunk people asking how far away Haight-Ashbury or the Ferry Building is, when most of them have just walked from there.

But you shouldn’t wait for a special event to bring you out where the streets have numbers and alphabetically sequenced names. The Outer Sunset (also indicated on old maps as the Outerlands when it was a somewhat barren terrain of rolling sand dunes) is one of San Francisco’s most original, authentic neighborhoods– a groovy mix of surfers, artists, folks starting cool local businesses, and just plain ordinary people (if anyone residing in San Francisco can ever be described as merely ordinary).  Here’s a few things to do before or after a good walk in Golden Gate Park or on the beach, or anytime you’re lucky enough to find yourself out in OB (Ocean Beach).

Community Coffee Klatsch
If you head down in the morning to enjoy the beach, you may need some caffeine. For some of the best espresso in the city, head to Trouble Coffee, on Judah between 45th & 46th Avenues. You can also recharge with the excellent toast and the refreshing juice from freshly cracked coconuts.

At the end of Judah where the street car turns around is Java Beach, which offers coffee, some light fare, and beer when the time’s right. The outdoor patio and garden across the street are perfect places to sip a beverage and watch the neighborhood go by if it’s a sunny day. (Some nights, Java Beach also has music, and you can check out the calendar here: http://www.javabeachcafe.com/)

Picnic Items
The Outer Sunset is a zone of independence against the tyranny of encroaching chain stores. So much so that the neighborhood’s residents successfully got chain stores banned from the neighborhood when the mermaid-logo people from Seattle tried to muscle in.

The epicenter of this independent, up-with-people movement in the Outer Sunset is Other Avenues (http://www.otheravenues.coop/),  a worker-owned co-op offering natural and organic foods and merchandise since the 1970s. Other Avenues is located on Judah between 44th and 45th Avenues, and you should pick-up a kombucha drink, micro-brews, or organic vino along with cheeses, fresh breads, and great organic produce for a beach and park picnics here.

Surfer Gear
If you left your board at home and want to catch some sets at OB, swing by Mollusk Surf Shop at 45th and Irving (one block toward Golden Gate Park from Judah). The apparel’s also great here, particularly the brilliantly designed t-shirts with sea/surf motifs. Year-round, Mollusk hosts a lot of fun events, from yoga classes to art shows to movie screenings. You can find out more here: http://www.mollusksurfshop.com/

Eat Your Veggies (It’s a Treat)
For organic, contemporary fare, Outerlands, at 4401 Judah (on the corner of 45th), offers a menu that changes with the seasons, with a real focus on vegetables that will make you forget they’re not the main dish. (I had brussel sprouts here once that would have changed any sprout-haters mind!) The soups and fresh bread are super-stars on an already tremendous menu, and the wine list offers several interesting options, along with a beer menu that changes daily.  Take a look at what’s on offfer at Outerlands here: http://outerlandssf.com/

Currying Favor
Good, solid Indian food can be found at Golden Gate Indian & Pizza, in a little strip mall on Judah, right off 46th. The veggie samosas are some excellent fried goodness, and you can get your chicken tikka as spicy as you like, if you ask. The Indian pizza is also a novel combination of two awesome foods: pizza and tandoori chicken. Mmm. When worlds collide.

The Locals Local
If you’re out in the avenues for a special event or on a banner weather day, don’t try to fight the crowds and claw your way back downtown. There’s a place for you called Pittsburgh’s. One of the only places that’s open until 2 a.m. in the area, Pittsburgh’s attracts an eclectic crowd: surfers, sports fans watching a game or two, locals shooting pool, and professional drinkers who could give Bukowski a run for his money. The bartenders are always friendly, and never bat an eyelash if you walk in wearing cowboy hats or other costumes. As long as you’ve got the green to pay for your ice cold PBR, it’s all good.  Cruise over to 4207 Judah, at 47th Avenue for a solid, old-school American local.

Festivals that Find You in the Outer Sunset
If you’re an SF resident who’s skeptical of the Avenues, you’ll already know about these festivals. If you’re a tourist, here’s some things you should definitely take part in when you come to SF for a visit.

  • Bay to Breakers – Third Sunday in May traditionally. People walking, running, and drinking from the SF Bay to, you guessed it, the “Breakers” of Ocean Beach. Wear a costume. Mexican wrestling masks count as a costime. The Beach/Park Chalet is a hot spot on the finish line. I’d give you the link, but every year, they annoyingly/intelligently change the URL to include a corporate sponsor’s name. Google will show you the way if you’re game.
  • Outsidelands – Mid to late August, this music festival combines top name acts with the best up-and-coming artists. For the festival’s first year, I saw Radiohead play at night when the fog rolled in, and I’ll never forget it. I’ll also never forget the deep-fried fancy macaroni and cheese sticks with a side of spicy tomato sauce. It’s like all the other festivals…without the crappy camping! Get details on the upcoming hoo-ha at: http://www.sfoutsidelands.com/
  • Hardly Strictly Bluegrass – Mid to late September/Early October, the park plays host to multiple FREE venues where you can hear acts like Joan Baez sing “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” It’s free because a very nice man made a lot of money in Silicon Valley/investment banking and decided to put on a music party for his favorite kind of folk/bluegrass tunes. I have never heard of a better expenditure of cash, which probably makes Warren Hellman (the funder of said festival) the smartest money human on the planet. Bravo, Mr. Hellman. Bravo.  

Coastside Weekend – Ano Nuevo & Half Moon Bay

Yellow Flowers in Pescadero
Yellow Wildflowers in Pescadero

In addition to the myriad delights of the city itself, one of the best things about San Francisco is the ability to get away from it all fairly quickly. In just over 25 minutes, you can find yourself in the Marin Headlands, in the middle of the Bay, or, if you head south down the coast, to the charming enclave of Half Moon Bay. On weekends when everyone in San Francisco seems to be heading up to Marin for a daytrip, cruising south is a great way to get out of town while fighting less traffic and crowds. The towns of Half Moon Bay and Pescadero help you instantly forget city stress, and get the cool, chill vibe of the coastside lands.

Day One – Elephant Seals & Pocket-Sized Pescadero
Starting out from San Francisco on a Saturday morning relatively early in the a.m., head south on the Great Highway and keep following signs for Highway One. The drive’s a beautiful one, particularly once you get to the open stretches of coastal road that dramatically hover above the coast past Pacifica. The coastline’s dramatic, the water’s blue, and there are scads of lovely little beaches if you want to get out for a leg stretch, or just to marvel at the great waters of the Pacific.  

Your destination this morning is Ano Nuevo, a California state natural reserve. Ano Nuevo is a beautiful landscape, representing coastal dune vegetation and the NoCal coast as it was before modernity began to forever change these habitats.

Though Ano Nuevo is a beautiful place for a nature hike anytime of year, the best times to visit coincide with the presence of the elephant seals. Ano Nuevo is an important spot for elephant seals, where they haul out to recreate, reproduce, and rest. And they do need some rest; Ano Nuevo is also a popular haunt of Great White sharks, who feed on the abundant elephant seals here. Marine scientists have deemed the sharks of Ano Nuevo a significant population for understanding the mysterious Great Whites’ behaviors overall. Before you go, be sure to check out any permit requirements. Because Ano Nuevo is so important for the elephant seal population, there are times of year when visitation of the beaches is restricted: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=523

After 2 or 3 hours at Ano Nuevo, the sea air and the hiking should have amply whetted your appetite, preparing you

Duarte's Tavern, Pescadero
Yum. Duarte’s Tavern.

 for one of the best meals you’ll ever eat at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero. (Also affectionately known as “Doo-arts” by some SF locals.) To get to Duartes from Ano Nuevo,  just need to head north on Highway One, and after about 30 minutes, turn right when the sign for Pescadero appears. The restaurant’s one of the only things in the sweet, pocket-sized town of Pescadero, so you can’t miss it. Give your name at the front of Duarte’s for a table, and then, go wait in the wood-paneled, wonderfully old-school bar. Sample a local beer, Anchor Steam, or try one of their refreshing bloody marys.

Once you get your table, prepare to be delighted. This James Beard award-winning restaurant serves some of the freshest seafood around, along with the best of local ingredients in general. Start with a cup of “half and half” soup, a combo of their cream of artichoke (made from chokes growing down the road) and chile soups. For your main course, the cioppino (the Italian fisherman’s stew) never disappoints, nor does the abalone sandwich. Whatever you order, be sure to save room for pie; pies served at Duarte’s are nothing short of fantastic, particularly the ollalieberry. For more detailed directions or some other info, check Duarte’s out online at: http://www.duartestavern.com/

After lunch, you’ll need to walk off whatever you gorged on at Duarte’s. You should check out the shops on Pescadero’s main street, which showcase crafts made by local artists, and also, foods featuring local ingredients. Stop in Arcangeli Grocery/Norm’s Market (http://www.normsmarket.com/store/) to pick up some wonderful breads and foccacias, cheeses (especially the local, delicious, Harley Farms goat cheese), more pies, and local treats like pickled garlic, artichoke spreads, and more.  (Be sure to stock up on items that will keep until tomorrow to enjoy at a picnic.)

If you still feel like a little more nature as you leave Pescadero, on the way back out of Pescadero at Highway One, there’s a wetlands for bird watching and a beach with some tide pools. If you go to this beach, be careful: the surf is treachorous here, and the rocks very jagged. Make sure you know which way the tide’s running so you are more certain to keep sure footing. (Particularly if you’re one of the lucky passengers who got to have more than one Anchor at Duarte’s.)

Smoking bus at Camerons Pub
Double-decker bus at Camerons Pub

Once you’ve enjoyed all of Pescadero’s delights, you’re heading back to Half Moon Bay, and after the intersection with 92, you will see Camerons (http://www.cameronsinn.com/) on the left of Highway One. You should definitely stop for a pint, and, if you’re hungry even after Duarte’s, some decent pub grub. (Camerons also has a little shop with British goods, should you need a Cadbury Flake fix.) You won’t be able to miss it, as the pub is surrounded by double-decker buses from England. (You can even smoke in one of them, if you’re one who still indulges in tobacco products.)

After a quick pit stop at Camerons, continue north on Highway One, until you get to the Beach House on the north side of Half Moon Bay, where you’re staying for the night (http://www.beach-house.com/half-moon-bay-hotels.html) Rooms are spacious, and can sleep 4 if you’re trying to save a penny or two, as they have living areas with pull-out beds. Enjoying a bottle of wine on your patio while the sun sets from your perch right on the coast is a very nice way to end a busy day. You can also soak your troubles away in the hot tub or the small pool.

If you feel a bit more peppy in the evening hours, walk on the coastal path a short distance to Sam’s Chowder House, conveniently located just next door. Sam’s has good seafood staples, and really nice ambiance outdoors, where you can sit on a deck above the sea next to communal fire bowls and enjoy a cocktail or several. Sam’s also has music on weekends, and you can see the schedule here: http://www.samschowderhouse.com/ 

NB: Though there are many fine places to go in Half Moon Bay for drinks and/or dining, particularly in the charming downtown that’s inland from the coast, Sam’s is the best evening pit stop when staying at the Beach House, as you can walk back to your bed rather than driving after imbibing. If you actually have a designated driver with you, your evening options are a bit more open, though Sam’s is a very worthy place to spend an evening regardless of its proximity to the Beach house.   

Day 2 – Beach Walk & Bocce
In the morning, be sure to make the most of your coastal location, and have a great walk on the shore and/or coastal path from the Beach House, after enjoying the complimentary continental breakfast. Have a soak in the hot tub, and enjoy yourself until check-out.

Before you leave your hotel, pack up your picnic lunch that you assembled yesterday. You’ll head south a bit on Highway One to 92, and turn left, going to La Nebbia Winery.  (The entire trip will take you about 15 minutes.) On 92, you’ll pass by a lot of the garden/farm supply places that Half Moon Bay is known for, and see a lot of pumpkins if you’re here in the autumn before Halloween. (Half Moon Bay is the pumpkin capital of NoCal, and has a festival to prove it.)

La Nebbia gets surplus juice from a lot of different wineries in Sonoma/Napa/Santa Cruz and bottles it, meaning you get some wines that normally cost $40 for more like $10 when you buy them at La Nebbia. The folks who work here are always really informative about what’s being poured and very fun and friendly. The property has picnic tables and a great bocce court, so have your picnic, raise a glass or two, and enjoy some bocce for the afternoon. La Nebbia also has many events, so see what’s on before you go: http://www.lanebbiawinery.com/

Depending on the weather (fog or lots o’ fog in the summer), after La Nebbia, cruise home on Skyline or take Highway One back. For either route, signs of city life will appear quicker than you think, shaking you out of the cool, laidback coastside ambiance. You’ll be so restored you won’t believe you’ve been gone from the city for only 24 hours.

Norway Day Festival, SF

Discover your inner Viking at this unique festival
Discover your inner Viking at this unique festival

On my father’s side, I come from a long line of Norskes. After moving to San Francisco, I was pleasantly surprised to find a few more links to Norwegian culture here than I expected. (Not sure why I was so surprised since San Francisco is on the water and Norwegians are a notoriously sea-faring people.)

However, the best and biggest surprise is the Norway Day Festival at Fort Mason, where you can enjoy some great open-faced shrimp or salmon sandwiches and drink a few beers, all while taking in some fine musical performances and cooking demonstrations for things like lefse (a crepe-like item that you roll in butter and sugar). In addition to lefse, be sure to try some kringle for dessert.

Even if your ancestors didn’t roll with the Vikings, you can have a great time at this unique and fun festival. It usually takes place in early May. For more info, along with schedules for music and performances, take a look here: http://www.norwayday.org/

Beach Chalet/Park Chalet

Example of beautiful WPA project at the Chalet
Example of beautiful WPA project at the Chalet

After a day of walking through Golden Gate Park or hanging out on the beach, the Chalet is a great place to wet your whistle with the great beer made on site. (Of course, the cocktails and the wine aren’t bad either.) The Chalet encompasses 2 restaurants, each with its own vibe and menu.

When you first enter the building, you’ll notice the beautiful murals that cover the walls, a WPA project. (Back in the day, to help take the sting out of Depression-related unemployment, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration employed artists to beautify public buildings. The Chalet is one of the best examples of such art in San Francisco.)

On closer inspection of the murals, however, you will notice some interesting details, which seem to imply that, perhaps, not everything was as it should be with the local denizens. One creepy stand-out is the mural section as you head over to the bathrooms (on the right side of the passage to the bathrooms). Once you start looking for strange, symbolic things in the murals (think: sausages, fountains, and cylinder shapes at odd angles), you’ll find the oddities right in plain sight. (Much like San Francisco itself, but I digress.)

The Beach Chalet, upstairs, has a menu that’s more steakhouse-focused, and the steaks are great. There’s a lot of music (particularly jazz) played up there throughout the week, which makes it pretty enjoyable. The view of the ocean is tremendous for dinner when you can watch the sunset. For breakfast, while you sip a fine bloody mary, you can watch the surfers and other ambitious aqua-athletes (kiteboarders, skimboarders, and more) hit the frigid ocean in the morning.

The Park Chalet is downstairs in the back, and has a different food menu, though the same great libations. Pizzas are great. Burgers and other grilled stuff are also good, particularly when you eat them outdoors at the weekend BBQ on their lawn (only available during certain months). Studded with cheerful Adirondack chairs where you can get service, the lawn’s a perfect place to watch some great music outdoors in the summer. (The Mermen swing by from time to time.) You’re also welcome to throw a blanket down on the grass when the comfy chairs fill up, and you can even get service from your own blankie. Sunny Sundays are very popular here, and you’ll see a great cross-section of San Francisco folks massively enjoying the weather, tunes, and beer.    

If it’s too chilly for all that, as it often is in San Francisco, they’ll do the music indoors at the Park Chalet, which is just fine. The entire indoor area is glass, which opens and closes in different configurations to make you feel like you’re always outside.  There’s a stone fireplace that is nice to sit and sip next to on cooler nights, of which there are many in San Francisco, particularly in July.  

Check out their site for special nights, special deals, and music schedules before you go @ www.beachchalet.com Or, just get surprised and head over to the end of Golden Gate Park at 1000 Great Highway.  If you have only one day in San Francisco and the weather happens to be nice, this is a must-visit.

Tiki in the Tonga Room

In between rainstorms, one of the world's best tiki bars
In between rainstorms, one of the world's best tiki bars

The tiki bar is a sadly dying breed in the surviving American kitsch scene, and the Tonga Room is the Graceland of tiki bars. Scurrilous rumors are currently circulating around San Francisco that the Tonga will be closed at some point to make way for luxury condos, and this has only heightened the Tonga’s popularity.

Situated in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel, the Tonga Room is a San Francisco institution, most notably for the hangovers it cheerfully administers, but also for its kind staff and amazing decor. Did I mention the rainstorm, replete with thunder? Yes, it rains indoors at the Tonga.

You can even conga in the Tonga when the band plays, which is usually Thursday through Saturday evenings. The musicians come out on a barge on the old swimming pool and play the most rocking of disco beats from the 1980s.

You can shake your tiki goodness on the dance floor, which resembles the deck of a schooner.

Though it can be fun to go dancing here as a couple, the Tonga Room is the most fun when you’re with a group of friends, all devoted to worshiping the Gods of Tiki, Mai Tai, & Scorpion Bowl.

Tiki it up at the Tonga. Before you go, check on hours and musical schedules: http://www.fairmont.com/sanfrancisco/guestservices/restaurants/thetongaroomhurricanebar.htm

For your one-way trip to Polynesia, take the cable car or cab up to 950 Mason Street, right off California.