By: Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez
Many people don’t realize it, but… Panama and San Francisco share a common past! In 1915, with great fanfare this North American city announced the opening of the Panama-Pacific Universal Exposition, held from February 20 to December 4. Although the opening of the Panama Canal and the 100th anniversary of San Francisco’s founding was the excuse, the real reason for the celebration was the city’s return to life. Nine years earlier, on April 18, 1906, San Francisco danced with death to the rhythm of an earthquake that shook for half a minute. The earthquake was followed by a fire that burned for three days, took the lives of more than 3,000 people, and destroyed 80% of the city’s buildings.
The United States and the world got the message and this phoenix-city received nearly 18 million tourists, many of them via the Panama Canal. This was an extraordinary number for that time, if we keep in mind that today, San Francisco receives 14 million tourists a year. Now, after one century, this link between the two cities is recreated with the inauguration, on the 17th of this month, of the first direct flight between Panama City and San Francisco. The Panorama of the Americas team traveled to the newest Copa Airlines destination to bring you ten places not to miss when you travel to this city for the first time.
In San Francisco everything begins in Union Square. The plaza got its name during the Civil War, when supporters of the North (the Union) gathered here. Today it is the center’s most exclusive area, home to some of the most glamorous department stores and boutiques in the country and the world. The surrounding blocks offer stylish restaurants, cafes, bars, and cutting edge art galleries. All of the city’s “hop-on/hop-off” tourist buses depart from here. You can also take one of the old cable car routes, on Powell, Jackson, and Hyde Streets, to the Hyde Street Pier; this is where the ferries that used to carry passengers across San Francisco Bay departed before the construction of the Golden Gate and Oakland Bay bridges.
Cable Cars and the Municipal Transportation System
Speaking of cable cars, it would be blasphemy not to hop on one while you’re in San Francisco. The current cable system began to replace horse-drawn trams around 1870. Cable cars were the primary form of public transportation until the 1930s when buses began to replace them. The Powell Street lines remain, with the Powell-Hyde line traveling to and from the Hyde Street Pier and Market Street, and the Hyde-Mason line traveling from Market Street to Bay Street. There is also another shorter line that runs along California Street between Van Ness and Drumm. Here’s a tip: there is always a wait at the end of each line, but the conductors are supposed to begin the trip with half the wagon empty. Walk to the next stop (usually they are separated by three or four blocks) and skip the line. Another streetcar system, this one electric, was restored in 1995 and travels along Market Street to Herman Plaza and the ferry building, and then goes up the Embarcadero and Jefferson, along the piers and Fisherman’s Wharf. This line includes cars from different cities in the world, including Milan and Mexico City, making the entire circuit a rolling museum.
Fisherman’s Wharf and the Embarcadero
This is the old system of piers, now restored, that lines the northwestern coast of the city. Sit down and drink a beer, eat seafood, or try the popular clam chowder served in an enormous sourdough bread bowl, or travel by foot, on a Segway, bicycle, or car. There are other interesting things to do on the piers, such as visiting the Exploratorium: an interactive museum dedicated to scientific phenomena, located at Pier 15. Pier 39 is bustling with shops and a spectacular aquarium. Hyde Street Pier is where the city’s Maritime Museum is located. The ferry for Alcatraz leaves between Piers 33 and 31 and there is a cruise ship terminal on Pier 35.
When you have visited all the interesting sights that the Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf have to offer, board a ferry and travel to this island, the original name of which was “Isla de los Alcatraces” (Island of the Pelicans). The tour of this complex revisits its gloomy past as a penitentiary, focusing especially on “famous” gangsters who were jailed there, including George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Robert Stroud, Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz, and Al “Scarface” Capone. It also recalls the time when it served as a fortress or refuge for a group of American Indians, between 1969 and 1971, who wanted to create a Native American Cultural Center and educational complex there.
From the ferry building on the Embarcadero, located across the street from Herman Plaza, you can sail across the bay to the city of Sausalito. The town was established during the first half of the 19th century. When the Gold Rush hit, the community forged an identity as a getaway for wealthy San Franciscans while also offering shelter to Chinese, Italian, and Portuguese immigrants who were dedicated to various sea arts. This essence remains, making Sausalito today a getaway for residents of the more crowded cities of San Francisco and Oakland, who come here for a drink or to enjoy a light meal in front of the marinas along the town’s coast.
Now that we’re on the other side of the bay, we decide to take a trip to Muir Woods. California takes pride in having some of North America’s oldest, best-preserved, and most beautiful temperate forests. In fact, one species, the redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), is known as the tallest tree in the world (there are reports of trees that reach almost 400 feet high). Its habitat stretches along the California coast; Muir Woods includes 554 acres of protected forest. In the park, there are more than six miles of trails of varying difficulty, from those that are wheelchair-accessible to others for experienced hikers. Marvel at these giants of nature that have an average life span of between six and eight hundred years.
Golden Gate Bridge
When you return to San Francisco, make sure you cross that undisputed icon of the city: the Golden Gate Bridge. Opened in 1937, the bridge quickly became a symbol of pride for San Franciscans. So much so that it overshadowed its neighbor, the Oakland Bay Bridge, which was completed a year earlier. It’s more comfortable to drive across in care, but it’s more fun to cross on foot or by bike. You can stop to admire the stunning views or spot dolphins, turtles, and even perhaps a pod of humpback whales breaching the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Beneath the Golden Gate’s southern access, you can see the greenery and buildings of the Presidio, a former military facility transferred from the Army to the National Park Service in 1994. Two years later, when the buildings were being outfitted for their new civilian use, the foundations of the Royal Presidio of San Francisco were rediscovered. The Presidio was a Spanish military outpost founded in 1776 that later gave rise to the city. Now, it is a wide public space that includes, among other attractions, a sports and entertainment complex in Crissy Field and the old military installations of Fort Point and Battery Chamberlin (now museums). Baker Beach, which borders the Presidio’s perimeter on the west, is a favorite spot for watching the spectacular sunsets over the Pacific.
Golden Gate and Lincoln Parks
Two parks, Lincoln and Golden Gate, complement the city’s green areas. Lincoln Park was also a former military installation; it is dominated by the Palace of the Legion of Honor, today a fine arts museum. In contrast, Golden Gate Park was expressly designed as San Francisco’s answer to New York City’s Central Park. In fact, tour guides say, with poorly disguised pleasure, that it is larger than its counterpart in New York. Its almost 1,018 acres of delicate landscapes serve as a setting for well-loved cultural institutions of the city, such as the De Young Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, the Japanese Tea Garden and the Conservatory of Flowers, the Buffalo Paddock, and the San Francisco Botanical Garden, in addition to numerous areas for games and picnics. Two windmills supply the water for this park, built on old sand dunes that were fortified for years before the area was opened in 1870.
Ethnic San Francisco
Intersperse the tours we have suggested with trips to some of the ethnic neighborhoods that enliven the city center, and which all emerged thanks to San Francisco’s attractive prosperity. Near Union Square, going down Post and then turning on the corner of Grant Street, you will come across one of the Chinese gates that marks the entrance to the Chinatown neighborhood, the most recognizable and scenic of all the city’s neighborhoods, but it’s not the only one. There is also Japantown, which stretches out from the Japanese Center like an L, along Post and Webster. In the North Beach neighborhood you can find the best Italian restaurants, and there is also diverse ethnic fare in Russian Hill. Don’t forget the Mission neighborhood, epicenter of the Mexican community.
From North, Central, South America and the Caribbean, Copa Airlines offers a daily flight to San Francisco (United States), from the Hub of the Americas in Panama City. The flight departs at 9:41 a.m. from Panama City and arrives at San Francisco International Airport at 2:54 p.m. The return flight departs San Francisco at 11:19 p.m. and arrives at the Tocumen International Airport in Panama at 8:32 a.m.