Getting to the Top of Nob Hill Ain’t Easy – San Francisco, CA

Powell Street Cable Car, Photo by Eva Barrows

Nob Hill, a San Francisco neighborhood that rises 376 feet in elevation at a 25 percent grade is not easy to get to. The top of Nob Hill is home to silver baron, James C. Flood’s 1886 mansion and properties of other San Francisco elites past and present. No moat or portcullis needed to keep the riff-raff away, mounting the hill itself is deterrent enough.

The past two years I’ve attended the San Francisco Writers Conference held at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins hotel perched at the top of Nob Hill. Reluctant to drive myself into the heart of the city I’ve experimented with different methods of transportation to the conference. Each method is a strenuous adventure.

Nob Hill Views Down Mason Street, Photo by Eva Barrows

Via MUNI Bus

Surfacing from the Powell Street BART station into a rainy cityscape, I attempted to track down the MUNI bus that would take me to the top of Nob Hill. With a bus number in mind from my review of the online bus schedule, I could not find where it stopped. I stuck my head inside the door of another bus loading passengers and asked that driver where to catch a bus that went up the hill. She directed me back across the street giving me another bus number to find.

Rainy View from Mark Hopkins Hotel, Photo by Eva Barrows

Pouncing through puddles I arrived at a bus shelter where the rain continued to come down. After a ten minute wait, the bus came and I crowded into the back door. I slogged my way to the front to pay not wanting to get in trouble for fare dodging. Before I put my money in, however, I asked the driver if he was going to the top of Nob Hill. He said, nope. He let me off at a corner where another bus that did go up the hill would make its stop. I waited under the canvas awning of a storefront amongst other commuters. The awning became heavy with rainwater and unleashed a wave of water on top of our heads.

Soaked and impatient I decided to walk up the hill myself instead of waiting for the phantom bus. I was running late and needed to get to my post at the conference. One leg lunge after the other I slowly pulled myself up the incline. Huffing and puffing like I did hiking Lower Yosemite Falls, embarrassed by my out-of-shapeness. Claiming victory at a turtle’s pace, I made it to where the sidewalk plateaued. Out of breath, outerwear drenched, shirt soaked in sweat, I arrived at the conference.

Powell Street Cable Car Turn Around, Photo by Eva Barrows

Classic Cable Car

The next day I decided to try catching the cable car up Powell Street which runs directly to my destination. The rain clouds had dispersed to reveal a sunny blue-sky Saturday morning. I bought my seven dollar ticket to ride and got in line with hundreds of tourists. The day before, (when it was raining) nobody was in line to ride the cable car. That was when I should have taken it. I wound up watching ten cars be turned around at the end of the track to take brimming loads of people up the street. As I waited I began to strategize. I was running out of time, I was going to be late for the conference, again. I noticed that people were hopping on the cable car further down the street. But only a few people were being let on at a time. It seemed that I had a greater chance of getting on sooner if I just stayed where I was. Finally, I had my turn to ride the wooden antique cable car clanging up the hill.

Fairmont and Mark Hopkins Hotels, Photo by Eva Barrows

By Car – Hired or Self Drive

Okay, technically I didn’t hire a car to take me to Nob Hill for this year’s conference. I asked my husband to drive me there. Luckily he felt sorry for me and dropped me off across the street from the hotel. I would say by far this is the best way to get to Nob Hill, stress-free (for me) and super direct (no puffing up any hills.) I had some time to watch cars start the descent down Mason Street. Kids in back seats screamed as parents lifted their feet off the break downhill. Remember that? Hands in the air like you’re in a roller coaster, and WEEEEEE, the car goes sharply downhill? Yeah, that was fun.

San Francisco City View from Mark Hopkins Hotel, Photo by Eva Barrows

If you do drive yourself to Nob Hill time-limited street parking and pricy garage parking are available. Also, consider using Uber or taxi to arrive at your swanky destination.

Top of Nob Hill at Sacramento and Mason, Photo by Eva Barrows

Hoofing it aka Walking

I really really really don’t recommend walking to the top of Nob Hill. It can be done but if you’re going up there for a fancy dinner or want to impress anyone with your appearance do – not – walk. I watched as other people struggled to get to the top of the hill. A woman who appeared to live in the area replaced a trip to the gym with a hike up Nob Hill. Wearing workout clothes and clinching a bottle of water, she slowly made it up the street. Her face was pink and sweaty, she gulped for air. An old man plodded up the Mark Hopkins block and paused to hold a trunk of a tree to steady himself. A young woman walked her Labrador up the same block, the dog’s haunches visibly swayed as he climbed.

InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, Photo by Eva Barrows

My Recommendation

The most comfortable and direct method to surmount Nob Hill is to have someone drop you off. But this can be cost prohibitive if the person taking you isn’t related. The second best way is taking the cable car during an off-peak time. Otherwise, you’ll have to drive yourself mentally prepared to pay for a parking garage.

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Abundant Holiday Spirit at the Dickens Christmas Fair, Daly City

Christmas Carolers, Photo by John Barrows

They say it’s the smell of roasting chestnuts, the scent wafting through the busy streets of recreated Victorian London at Daly City’s Cow Palace. The warm sweet smell floats on the crisp ocean air even before we make it into the building. Later in the day, a friend would offer me a chestnut to taste. Eager to try it, due to the advertised aroma, I was disappointed when the nut turned out to be ordinary.

Eva, Hard Cider and Ghost of Christmas Present, photo by John Barrows

Besides the delicious smell, the Dickens Christmas Fair transports visitors to another time and place through many theatrical methods. One of the most obvious conveyances is what people are wearing – royal officers in uniform, Queen Victoria parading in a silk ball gown, unsettled Mad Hatter, and everyone else working at the fair in mid-1800s period correct costumes.

Hundreds of noses are deep inside newspapers

Another striking visual is the use of newspapers. When entering the fair, you’re given a newspaper detailing all of the festive events. Hundreds of noses are deep inside newspapers…a scene that’s extinct nowadays, only to be revived at the Dickens Fair.

Friends at Dickens Fair

Guests are welcome to wear whatever fanciful outfits they’d like or not get dressed up at all. I’m a half-hearted costumer myself. I’ll wear historical dresses I’ve sewn to costume dances but I don’t feel like wearing a hoop and corset all day at the fair. There are too many practical things to consider: clearance to pass people on the London streets, sitting comfortably at a crowded picnic table, and especially maneuvering in tiny bathroom stalls.

A little effort was all we needed to feel like we belonged

My husband and I opted for hybrid costuming. He wore a tuxedo coat, top hat and black jeans. I wore a Victorian-inspired velvet jacket over my normal clothes. A little effort was all we needed to feel like we belonged at the fair.

Mark Twain, Drawn by John Barrows

Last year at the fair, I noticed a parlor room with art easels set up for drawing. My husband, an accomplished artist, would have lots of fun participating in something like that. So he brought his backpack full of art supplies and took part in two different life drawing sessions. A string of interesting characters sat for the artists: Mark Twain and a sprightly green fairy to name a few. Unique participant activities like this are sprinkled throughout the London buildings.

Posing for Artist, Photo by John Barrows

My new partner confirmed that I did, in fact, know the choreographed waltz well.

While my husband was occupied with art, I ran off to Fezziwig’s Warehouse accompanied by friends who met us at the fair. Fezziwig’s is a large dance floor where costumed dancers and performers lead guests in vintage dancing. A live brass band, Bangers & Mash, play polkas, waltzes and other dance music. Free of my husband I got the chance to dance the Congress of Vienna with another partner. My new partner confirmed that I did, in fact, know the choreographed waltz well. It felt strange however dancing in pants when I’m used to a swaying dress!

Weird Science, Photo by John Barrows

My friend and I got in to see the much anticipated Saucy French Postcard Tableaux Revue. The show was an interesting mix of history lesson and naked people. If you’re over the age of 18 and want to get a seat for the French Postcards pick up your tickets early at the telegraph office – seating runs out quick!

Dark Garden Corset Shop, Photo by John Barrows

When Postcards ended for the evening, Cow Palace event security was out in full force. My trio was actually escorted to the exit during the sweep of the building. My husband was surprised at how fast the day went and couldn’t believe it was already time to go. Every trip to the Dickens Fair brings opportunities for new experiences – activities to try, characters to meet, shows to watch. But something that always remains constant is the wish for a very “Happy Christmas.”

Charles Dickens, photo by John Barrows

Plan to Go:

Weekends through December 17th, 2017

10am – 7pm

Cow Palace in Daly City


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Dig-in: Historical Tourism for Foodies, Five San Francisco Ocean Beach Restaurants

San Francisco, established in the late 1700s bleeds history through its architecture. Fight your way west through traffic and tourist crowds to arrive at Ocean Beach, a 3.5 mile sand dune bordered beach. You’ll find some raging history and fine San Francisco cuisine at the following restaurants at Ocean Beach.

Sutro’s and The Bistro at the Cliff House

The Cliff House is perched above the Pacific Ocean at the end of Ocean Beach. Sutro’s one of two restaurants inside the Cliff House is a modern addition to the famous establishment. The walls and ceiling are all windows to best view the crushing waves and piercing rock formations just below.

The Bistro restaurant is located in the recently refurbished 1909 Cliff House. Hints of the past lash out in historical photographs, antique furniture and decoration. The Cliff House looks young and polished now but has gone through several reincarnations and originally opened in 1863.

There may be a wait for a table at the Cliff House restaurants. If it’s just a bite to eat and a drink you want, walk up to the bar and lounge at either restaurant and put your order in.


A short sprint up the hill from the Cliff House, Louis’ restaurant is a surviving 1937 family owned diner. The interior is classic with party booths, tables and bar seating. American comfort food is on the menu: cup of chili, burgers and monster sized milkshakes with refill tin on the side. Louis’ looks out to the ocean and to an only in San Francisco sight – Sutro Baths.

A good portion of the cement floor plan remains of the Sutro Baths, a Victorian era swimming pool complex, are laid out in the valley below Louis’. Watch people explore the mysterious urban archeological find while tossing back a bowl of clam chowder. Bring cash with you for the meal because old school Louis’ doesn’t take cards.

Beach and Park Chalet

Another two-for restaurant duo is located down the hill from the Cliff House, at the foot of Golden Gate Park and across the street from the expansive Ocean Beach. The building these two restaurants occupy opened in 1925. During the Great Depression artist, Lucien Labaudt covered the reception area in a floor to ceiling mural depicting life in San Francisco.

Park Chalet Coastal Beer Garden is just that. Specialty brews, indoor or outdoor relaxed seating and Golden Gate Park location make this restaurant special. Experience garden and park views from inside Park Chalet as the walls and ceiling are windowed. Beware, once the sun goes down the San Francisco fog can make both indoors and outdoors chilly. Bring a warm coat to the Park Chalet.

Beach Chalet is located on the second floor of the historical building overlooking the Pacific. The restaurant has an intimate and cozy atmosphere. Watch cargo ships cruise into the mouth of the Bay while beach goers surround raging bonfires across the street from the restaurant. If the Beach Chalet is for you, put your reservations in early, it’s the smart thing to do.

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