Twin Peaks, Sutro Tower, & Haight/Ashbury

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San Francisco is a city built on hills, and one of the most prominent hills in the city is Twin Peaks.  No, it has nothing to do with that quirky 80’s TV show.  Rather, it’s a pair of mountain peaks at the southwestern end of Market Street.  (Market Street is one of the city’s primary roads, cutting a diagonal swath through downtown.)

A lot of tourists end up at the top of Twin Peaks, but it’s mainly because bus tours take them there.  For the average, do-it-yourself tourist, Twin Peaks is somewhat of a hidden attraction.  I never read about it in any guidebook, rather, a friend and former SF resident recommended it.  He also helped me find my way (by cell phone, from 3,000 miles away) when I got turned around on my way to the top.  You see, there are no signs pointing the way to the city’s best observation point–you must figure it out for yourself.

And that’s exactly what I tried to do.  At first, I thought I’d found it… but instead, I was in Buena Vista Park, which offers some reasonably good vistas, but nothing like its neighbor.  Note that at Buena Vista Park, you’re fairly near to Sutro Tower (the city’s mostly hated broadcast monstrosity), but Twin Peaks is much closer.

So what’s the right way, and the easy way, to get to the observation area atop Twin Peaks?   Here’s my suggestion: take Ashbury Street south from the famous Haight/Ashbury corner.  Within a few blocks, it merges with Clayton Street.  Just after you cross 17th Street, watch for Twin Peaks Boulevard to split off to the right.  In just a few more blocks, Twin Peaks Blvd. will turn to the left — if you go straight, you’ll be on Clarendon, and headed the wrong way.  Now, just follow the road uphill, headed for the giant broadcast towers.  Parking is limited at the top, though, so good luck.

When you get out of your car and step to the edge of the viewing area, you’re bound to say “wow!”.  The entire city spreads out before you.

Directly ahead is downtown, with Market Street cutting a path through the middle of the buildings.

Look to the right, and in the far distance, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge, to the left, the Bay Bridge.

You’ll probably want to take a few minutes, just to take this all in.

On a hill directly across from Twin Peaks is Mount Sutro, and the aforementioned Sutro Tower.

Sutro Tower stands 977 feet above the ground, and 1,800 feet above sea level.  Almost all of San Francisco’s radio and TV stations broadcast from here, which in the old days (before cable TV), made things a lot easier for people using antennas–they could point it in one direction, and forget about it.  Construction began on the tower in 1971, with the first signal broadcast two years later.

Once you’re done admiring the view, drive back downhill for an experience that’s uniquely San Francisco: a short walk through the Haight/Ashbury district.

The corner of Haight St. and Ashbury Street was the nexus of the counter-culture movement in the 1960’s.  Many young people and drug users moved to the area because the rent was cheap–many of the old buildings had been abandoned in the previous decades, as families escaped the crowded parts of San Francisco and moved to the outlying areas.  Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead lived here, among the hippies.

Nowadays, it’s still pretty obvious that life along Haight Street is a little different than anywhere else in the country.

There are some bizarre stores along this stretch of road, most notably, the Piedmont Boutique, which has a pair of fishnet-clad legs hanging over the sidewalk.  But, for every genuinely weird and bizarre establishment, there are at least two tacky gift shops, hoping to sell anything tie-died to tourists.

My friend and San Francisco expert recommended I have lunch at one of his all-time favorite restaurants, ASQEW Grill on Haight St., just one block west of Ashbury.  The restaurant serves chicken, beef, lamb, prawns, bass, tuna–you name it– on grilled skewers.  You pick the meat, the sauce, and the side dishes, and create your own meal.  It was very good, and the staff was much friendlier than you’d expect to find in a big city!

Note: This trip was first published in 2007.

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