Travelers’ Tales contributor and San Francisco Chronicle Travel Editor John Flinn wrote a story for the paper recently about becoming a tourist in his own town, taking a break from journeys to the back of beyond or to the usual haunts of Paris, London, Rome, or Tokyo and spending time wandering around San Francisco to see the city with fresh eyes. This has been a refrain in my life for many years, but more mournful than inspiring of late because I’ve always wanted to take a week or two off work and truly become an explorer in my own city. It just never seems to happen. Of course I get the usual weekend jaunt in and I’m always wandering around North Beach and Telegraph Hill and the waterfront, but a week as a tourist? I’ve never done it.
Having young children makes everything more difficult, or at least gives you different priorities, so the thought of being a serious tourist in SF is even farther from my realities these days. But a couple of weeks ago I did take a small step toward making that happen. My sister offered to take my two daughters for a sleepover so Paula and I could have a night out completely unencumbered, and we booked a room at the Hotel Monaco near Union Square. First we began planning a big night with dinner, a play, a movie, the symphony, or opera, but the closer we got to the night the less we wanted to pack it all in. Why not just plan to enjoy the hotel, wander the neighborhood, have a completely relaxed dinner in a fine restaurant, and see what unfolded?
It didn’t take much to realize that this was the best plan for us. So we checked in mid-afternoon, relaxed in our room, wandered out for a snack and coffee at Kuleto’s on Powell Street, then just strolled around the square where workers were installing the giant Christmas tree and couples relaxed at café tables. We strolled through the department stores and acted as if we had money to spend, redesigned our living room in our imaginations, bought trousers and socks. The lights of Union Square brightened the night and the place took on a feel almost wholly unfamiliar to me, perhaps because it was recently completely overhauled, but more, I think, because I’d never seen it as a tourist. I’ve always seen Union Square as a resident. That night I had only one place to go—back to the hotel—and no obligations. We could pick any of several fine restaurants and then wander to our home for the night. Everything around me seemed brighter, happier, more full of promise.
We ended up at the Grand Café, not because it’s adjacent to the hotel, but because it’s a fine restaurant. It has the ambience of a Parisian brasserie and I’ve never been disappointed there. But of course the added benefit was that we simply had to walk through a door to be in our hotel lobby. Why would we want to go anything else?
When we were seated at a deuce in a row of other couples I asked if they didn’t have something more intimate, and we were seated at a larger table just a few steps but a world away from the crowd. The meal was excellent. It doesn’t matter what we ate or drank. The service was efficient, the food was delicious, the wine just right. Most important, the ambience took me away from my usual concerns and we talked in ways we hadn’t since Paula’s first pregnancy. After dinner we made our way up the Monaco’s grand staircase to our second floor room as happy and relaxed as can be.
Yes, a whole lot of this had to do with being away from our children and focusing on each other, but a lot of it had to do with getting out of the house, into an elegant hotel, and viewing life from a different perspective. If only for one night I was seeing San Francisco with fresh eyes, and I liked what I saw. Now that I’ve made it this far in my quest to become a tourist in my own town, I’m trying to figure out how to get my sister to take the girls for an entire weekend.
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.