"I'm not going downtown," the bus driver calls over the intercom. I'm aboard the N Judah -- one of San Francisco's Muni Metro light rail lines -- and downtown San Francisco is exactly where I'm heading. I'm making the trip to go ice skating in Union Square, but that's the only set plan. For the rest of the day, I'm determined to explore what the Union Square neighborhood has to offer beyond its well-known reputation as "San Francisco's Crown Jewel of Shopping Districts."
Since I have to disembark from the N Judah anyway, I walk to Church and Market Streets, where I can catch the F Market & Wharves heritage streetcar -- a historic vehicle that in nearly six years of living here, I'm a little ashamed to say I've never ridden before. Streetcar 1050 pulls up and I'm pleasantly surprised to discover that the seats are comfier than any I've ever encountered on a Muni vehicle. The interior is gladly free of the flagrant advertisements found on non-historical vehicles, and some of the ad space is instead filled with informational placards about the city's streetcar history. The best part is that a historic streetcar ride costs the same as any other Muni bus: $2 for adults and $.75 for children, seniors, and people with disabilities.
I get off the F-line at 6th and Market Streets and enjoy a leisurely walk the rest of the way to Union Square, pausing to admire some street art along the way. I scope out the ice rink and the continual stream of tourists and locals alike snapping photos in front of the goliath evergreen tree, and large heart sculpture -- part of the Hearts in San Francisco public art installation. The annual tree lighting is fast approaching, and there's already plenty of holiday cheer in the air.
Located just two blocks from the HI-San Francisco Downtown Hostel, and seven blocks from the HI-San Francisco City Center Hostel, Union Square is easily accessible to hostel guests. Though it's apparent that this neighborhood is a shopper's paradise, I'm here to explore aspects of Union Square that will appeal to travelers who, like me, value creativity over consumption.
On Stockton Street, just before Post Street, I discover one of these gems: a Kiosk Museum. The current exhibition is A Worldview of Puppets, and it's the first in a pilot program to repurpose San Francisco's unused newsstand kiosks. The shadow puppets and marionettes on display hail from China, India, Italy, Vietnam, France, Burma, Mexico and Indonesia. It's a great concept that incorporates technology as well -- scan the QR code with your smart phone and instantly learn more about the exhibit.
My next stop is the only Frank Lloyd Wright - designed building in San Francisco. Located on Maiden Lane, just a half-block from Union Square, this is a must-see for art and architecture aficionados. Originally the V.C. Morris Gift Shop, and now home to the Xanadu Gallery, Wright used the space as a prototype for his legendary spiral ramp at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Xanadu Gallery -- which houses artifacts, textiles, and jewelry from Asia, Oceania, and Latin America -- is open to the public, free to peruse, and photography is welcomed. Marvel at this architectural wonder's inner and outer beauty during Xanadu business hours:
10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
On Grant Street, between Post and Geary Streets, I notice a tiny alleyway called Tillman Place, and its quirky appearance draws me in. It seems a bit like the alley that time forgot, surrounded by the gleaming storefronts and no-nonsense design of high-end retail spaces. It's home to a few wooden picnic benches -- the perfect spot for a brief reprieve from the bustling streets -- and hidden at the very back, one of the few exposed-brick buildings left in the neighborhood.
I've heard rumors of jaw-dropping city views from some of the neighborhood skyscrapers so I head to the Grand Hyatt San Francisco, just north of Union Square, for lunch. I enjoy a tasty wild-mushroom flatbread and iced tea in the hotel's OneUP Restaurant & Lounge.
Though the menu prices aren't exactly a bargain, they're very reasonable for the neighborhood, especially considering the panoramic 360-degree views of San Francisco. For more local food options check out these recommendations from Mel, the Activities Coordinator at HI-San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf Hostel, and former front desk associate at HI-Downtown.
Outside the Grand Hyatt, I stumble upon Ruth Asawa's San Francisco Fountain. Crafted out of bronze, the cylindrical fountain depicts the Cliff House, the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, the band Jefferson Airplane, Francis Scott Key, and many other iconic San Francisco sights and personalities. Ruth Asawa, who passed away in August of this year, was a revered local artist, activist, and vocal advocate for public arts education.
I still have about an hour left before I meet a coworker at 2 p.m. for ice skating, so I make a cappuccino run at The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Market Street at Yerba Buena Lane. Just out front, two large vertical, concave disks accompanied by the text, "Here: take a moment." catch my eye. I'm delighted to have stumbled upon more public art, and more than happy to take a moment to explore the exhibit. Called Pause on Market Street: A Living Innovation Zone, this is the first of many Living Innovation Zones (LIZ) planned for the Market Street corridor.
Part public space experiment and part community benefit project, The City of SF partnered with the Exploratorium to create this interactive and dynamic public installation. I watch as young and old alike delight in the acoustics created by the disks, allowing the duos to hear each other clearly despite the distance between them.
Right next to the LIZ, I notice a Bay Area Bike Share station -- a great option for travelers who'd like to explore the area on two wheels. I carry on down Yerba Buena Lane for quick visit to the Yerba Buena Gardens, a tranquil refuge amidst the downtown rush. Though not considered a part of the Union Square district, Yerba Buena is just a few blocks away, and if you're in a museum-going mood, you'll find both the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) here. The YBCA offers regular free events like the interactive ConVerge and a monthly gallery crawl.
It's nearly the ice skating hour, so I head back to the Union Square Ice Rink to meet my coworker. Skate sessions last an impressive 90 minutes and cost $11 for adults, $7 for children, and ice skate rentals cost $5. We pay for a locker ($3), and though we've both remembered them, the rink kiosk also sells socks, gloves, and water bottles. As I strap on my skates, a somatic memory of their vise-like grip on my feet comes rushing back. I haven't been ice skating in a decade, but in my teens I went regularly enough to become a decent skater. I'm unsure how much ten years have changed that, but after some initial apprehension fades, I'm gliding around like a pro. I kid, but I am proud to report I didn't take any spills. Nevertheless, it's reassuring that first aid-trained staff is on the rink during skating hours.
The rink is relatively small, but the sessions are so long that it didn't feel overcrowded. Ice skating really gets your blood pumping, and after about 25 minutes, we take a breather. My feet are throbbing so I decide to exchange my skates for a slightly larger size. The wider hockey skates make my feet much happier for our final half hour of ice skating. It's the perfect finale to a serendipitous day discovering a quirkier side of the Union Square neighborhood!
The Union Square Ice Rink is open for the season from 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. daily through January 20, 2014.
This story was written by Fiume Drummond Simnacher, Marketing + Communications Coordinator for Hostelling International's eight Northern California hostels. Born in England, Fiume is a perpetual seeker of intercultural experiences, and has lived in Arizona, Argentina, and Nepal. She has called San Francisco home for nearly six years.
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