NTTC Conference heads to San Francisco, home of the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, Fisherman's Wharf, Chinatown

April 1, 2012
Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. And if you're going to the 64th Annual NTTC Conference & Tank Truck Equipment Show May 6-8, you might too.

Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. And if you're going to the 64th Annual NTTC Conference & Tank Truck Equipment Show May 6-8, you might too.

It's that kind of a place — one of the most beautiful and culturally diverse cities in the world. “The City By The Bay” is ranked the 35th most-visited city in the world, according to, largely because of its steep, rolling hills, architecture, and famous landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf, Alcatraz, Chinatown, Nob Hill, Union Square, and the ubiquitous cable cars.

One warning: Bring a sweatshirt, sweater, and/or leather jacket. Although Mark Twain actually never said or wrote the quip commonly attributed to him — “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” — it applies. Touristy shops make a killing on sweatshirt sales to those who come unprepared.

Conference attendees will be staying at the Fairmont San Francisco Hotel, 950 Mason Street, a luxury hotel that is a short cable-car trip from bustling downtown, Financial District, Union Square, and Fisherman's Wharf. In fact, the Fairmont is the only spot in San Francisco where each of the city's cable car lines meet.

The Golden Gate Bridge is not the oldest suspension bridge, and is no longer the tallest or the highest, but it remains the most visited and photographed bridge in the world. A walking tour reveals why it is so compelling and why it was so difficult to build.

Parking is free at the GGNRA lots on the east and west sides of the bridge's Visitors Center on Lincoln Blvd. You can also ride a bike both ways. Some people ride just one way, go to Sausalito, and then return to San Francisco via the ferry.

Alcatraz, located in the middle of San Francisco Bay, was named Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans) by Spanish explorer Manuel de Ayala. The island has been used as a Civil War fort, Federal prison, and symbol of Native American plight, and is now run by the National Park Service. The “Day Tour” is most popular, and includes round-trip transportation to the island and the audio tour. Also popular and well-rated is the “Night Tour,” which includes extra activities and is slightly more expensive.

At Fisherman's Wharf, many first-time visitors see the shops, crowds, street performers, and crab stands along Jefferson Street and wonder, Where are the fishing boats? It's estimated that approximately 1,000 fishermen work out of Fisherman's Wharf within the course of a year and more than 350 boats are moored in the inner and outer harbors, but because of the way the piers and buildings are laid out, fishing boats are not readily visible to pedestrians except for a small stretch of water along Jefferson Street. Only when you walk through an alley near Jones Street to the lagoon by Scoma's Restaurant do you see boats named Carrie, Checha, Linda Noelle, and Pavo Grande.

Historic restaurants

Nunzio Alioto, an immigrant from Sicily, built a combination fish stand and seafood bar in 1932, the first on Fisherman's Wharf. Six years later, he opened a restaurant. Today, Alioto's is run by grandsons Nunzio and Joe Alioto with the help of many members of the family. Other historic restaurants still operated by family members include Fishermen's Grotto and Pompei's Grotto. More than 100 restaurants of all sizes serve diners.

The Wharf is famous for fresh cracked crab and sourdough bread. Louis Boudin and his son, Isidore, created the original recipe for sourdough bread when they arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. You can watch bread baked from start to finish or visit the sourdough museum at Bistro Boudin at 160 Jefferson Street.

Fisherman's Wharf is one mile in length, starting at Aquatic Park and ending at Pier 39. Along with its variety of restaurants, the central part appeals to families because of its Wax Museum, Guinness Museum of World Records, and Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum. Hornblower runs tour boats around Alcatraz from Pier 33, while Red and White runs tours to the Golden Gate Bridge, both popular family tours.

Two shopping areas, The Anchorage and The Cannery, are located in the central area. Each is filled with unique stores, selling boutique items not available elsewhere. Fisherman's Wharf extends to Aquatic Park, a popular place where residents have always loved to picnic, promenade, or play bocce ball. The Maritime Museum, once the park's palatial bathhouse, exhibits memorabilia from the West Coast's seafaring days and includes giant masts, painted figureheads, and detailed ship models.

Rising on a hill across the street are the brick buildings of Ghirardelli Square, once a chocolate factory. Historical plaques tell the history of Domingo Ghirardelli, who came to California to prospect gold but ended up becoming the king of chocolate. The Chocolate Manufactory & Soda Fountain still makes chocolate with the original old-fashioned machines.

Back on the bay is Hyde Street Pier, a US National Park located on the water and exhibiting historic ships from the past. You can go aboard the Eureka, one of the last auto ferries on the bay, or the schooner, the CA Thayer that transported lumber between 1895 and 1912. The Balclutha, built in 1887, carried coal regularly around Cape Horn to San Francisco before becoming a lumber ship and then a transporter of men and supplies to Alaska. She was also the star of the 1930s movie, Mutiny on the Bounty.

The views of the bay, the wharf, Golden Gate Bridge, and the city from the far end of Hyde Street Pier are magnificent. On the far east end of Fisherman's Wharf are the newest additions to the wharf area. Located here are the Blue & Gold fleet, which cruises to various ports around the bay and San Francisco Seaplane Tours, which offer 30-minute flight-seeing tours. Plus, there are pedi-cabs, motorized cable cars, and horse-drawn carriages all available for rides.

Finally there's Pier 39, a shopping and entertainment complex that has been popular with visitors since it was reincarnated into its present form almost 20 years ago. At the entrance is the Aquarium of the Bay, a $40 million aquarium, where you can view eyeball to eyeball the marine life in San Francisco Bay. Clear acrylic tunnels transport you through gigantic fish tanks to see thousands of fish, such as rays, sharks, and eels, swim inches away. The F-Line transports visitors on historic trolleys along the waterfront from the Embarcadero to Fisherman's Wharf through downtown.

Cable cars

San Francisco's cable-car system is the last operational manually operated one in the world and forms part of the intermodal urban transport network operated by the San Francisco Municipal Railway, or “Muni” as it is better known. Cable cars operate on two routes from downtown near Union Square to Fisherman's Wharf, and a third route along California Street. While the cable cars are used by commuters, their small service area and premium fares for single rides make them more of a tourist attraction.

It is the only transportation system listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the only moving National Monument.

Built near the historic heart of San Francisco, Portsmouth Square, Chinatown is the most densely populated neighborhood west of Manhattan. It is also the oldest and one of the largest Chinatowns in the United States. It is the home of the earliest Chinese Christian church and the oldest standing Chinese temple in the United States — Tin How at 125 Waverly. Chinatown was reduced to ashes in the 1906 earthquake and fire. City officials, seizing the opportunity to oust residents from land located near the city's financial district, proposed relocation to Hunters Point. It was only through the tenacity of Chinese business leaders and intervention by Chinese diplomats that Chinatown was rebuilt along Grant Avenue. What visitors see today, however, is largely the creation of non-Chinese architects who copied certain features of classical Chinese design.

Many early Chinese-Americans were employed in the building of the first transcontinental railroad in 1865. With the completion of the railroad, they sought employment in other industries and were soon perceived as a threat. When economic woes beset America's economy, several Chinese Exclusion Acts and a general anti-Asian immigration law were enacted. The discriminatory laws were not repealed until 1943.

Several historic structures have been preserved, and in 2003 volunteers working with San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park staff built a replica of a Chinese junk, the Grace Quan. During the summer, it can be viewed at China Camp; in the winter at Hyde Street Pier. A new exhibit on board the Balclutha also details the role Chinese cannery workers played in the development of the West Coast salmon fishing industry.

In the late '70s, a “second Chinatown” gained much attention as Chinese restaurants and grocers opened in the outer Richmond District, especially along Clement Street. Today San Francisco's Asian population is estimated at 247,000, more than 30% of the total population.

Shop 'Til You Drop

The hub of San Francisco's shopping district is Union Square, a well-manicured, 2.6-acre plot planted with palms, Irish yews, boxwood, and bright flowers. Like Paris' Place Vendome, Union Square has a towering, statue-topped shaft at its center and is surrounded by smart stores and fine hotels. It also has something of the same aura of elegance.

San Francisco's retail core consistently ranks among the top five in the nation in total sales volume. The Square is framed by famous fashion houses offering a wide assortment of luxuries. One will find the most upscale department stores, featuring pret-a-porter and couture fashions from world-renowned international and American designers, and specialty stores known for their impeccable traditional European footwear, luggage and other leather goods.

Union Square's slightly convex surface covers a four-story deep cavity like an imposing pot lid. In 1941, the park was carefully dismantled and earthmovers began burrowing a hole big enough to accommodate more than 1,000 automobiles. The facility was the first of its kind. As many as 2,700 cars a day sweep down its ramps. A California Registered State Landmark plaque at the park's Geary-Powell entrance records that Union Square was deeded to the public on January 3, 1850, during the administration of John White Geary, the City's first mayor. Its name derives from a series of violent pro-Union demonstrations staged there on the eve of the Civil War. Architecturally, Union Square's chief attraction is the distinctive yellow brick structure housing Circle Gallery at 140 Maiden Lane. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1949, the building, with its spiral interior ramp, was the prototype for the Guggenheim Museum in New York. A uniquely San Franciscan happening, the Cable Car Bell Ringing Competition, is held there in summer. National holiday observances, fashion shows, fund-raisers, political demonstrations, sports rallies, and band concerts are common occurrences.

Nob Hill was named after the word nob, a contraction of the Hindu word nabob or nawwab: “A person, especially a European, who has made a large fortune in India or another country of the East; a very wealthy or powerful person.” San Francisco's nobs made their fortunes in the West in the mid-1800s in gold, silver, and the Central Pacific Railroad.

In the years immediately following the 1848 gold strike, the scrub-covered hill rising 376 feet above the waterfront offered an escape from the rawness and rowdiness of the boom town below — until the newly rich perceived it as their pedestal.

Mansions were built there that drew lowlanders just to stare. In 1882, Robert Louis Stevenson described it as “the hill of palaces.” The steep grade (24.8% on the south face) was hard on horses and millionaires alike. So the house-proud hill-dwellers installed their own cable car line, the California Street RR Co, in 1878. It's still in operation today. The great, gray eminence atop Nob Hill on California Street is Grace Cathedral, the largest Gothic structure in the West. The Crocker family donated this entire block to the Episcopal Diocese of California after the '06 fire destroyed their two residences there. The cornerstone was laid in 1910 but major construction did not begin until 1927. Of the cathedral's many splendors, none is more arresting than its cast of the gilded bronze doors created by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Baptistery in Florence. These are the 15th century portals Michelangelo deemed fit to be the gates of heaven (Porta del Paradiso). Their 10 rectangular reliefs depict scenes from the Old Testament. They stand at the top of the steps to the Cathedral's east entrance. The slopes of Nob Hill embrace a treasure of another sort. The one-of-a-kind Cable Car Barn & Museum is two blocks downhill from the Fairmont Hotel, at Mason and Washington Streets. From its mezzanine gallery (open to the public free from 10 am to 6 pm daily) visitors can observe the improbable machinery that keeps the city's motorless museum-pieces in motion.

Are you a baseball fan? You're in luck. Head across the Bay Bridge to the Oakland Coliseum, where the Oakland Athletics host the Toronto Blue Jays in a 7:05 pm game on Tuesday, May 8.

The A's, who have won nine World Series (third all-time), are led by general manager Billy Beane, the subject of Michael Lewis' best-selling book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which inspired the movie Moneyball, which starred Brad Pitt and was nominated for six Oscars.