2002-09-03 11:21 p.m.

10 Things You Should Know Before Visiting the San Francisco Bay Area

So you're coming to California for JournalCon, or you've always wanted to see SF and harbor a secret jones to move, or you see our weather reports this time of year and they make you swoon. Before you pack your bags, here's a (heavily opinionated, natch) list of things you need to know to have the best time.

  1. It's not Frisco. Ever. As a tourist, this is the main thing you need to know. If you're thinking of moving here, see #8 for why you shouldn't, but if you disregard #8, your life will be easier if you read #9.

  2. Leave your shorts at home, but bring your sweaters. Fisherman's Wharf is littered with the frozen bodies of people who have ignored this advice.

  3. San Francisco is not as important as it thinks it is is most respects, but it is a fabulous place to eat. Food is nigh-unto a religion here, produce is insanely fresh year-round and you've already heard about the wine, so take advantage. (A friend's parents visited here from North Carolina and ate nothing but Sizzler all week. Don't let this be you.)

  4. Don't rent a car, except for the days you're daytripping outside of San Francisco. The DPT (parking enforcement) are merciless, and parking is almost a blood sport. Your feet and MUNI will get you most places you want to go, so buy a MUNI pass and if you take a tour, make it a walking tour.

  5. The Golden Gate Bridge and the cable cars really are fun. (So's Alcatraz, I hear, though I've never been.) The fog really does look that stunning. Sourdough bread is yummy. And redwoods really are that big. (Skip crowded Muir Woods and road-trip up the coast or down to Big Sur. If you can't get that far, go hiking in Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, or visit the groves near the downtown areas of Mill Valley, Larkspur or Fairfax, all in Marin.)

  6. Avoid: Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square (though not the chocolate itself), the cable car line that runs to Fisherman's Wharf, seafood at Fisherman's Wharf, Fisherman's Wharf, tourist cruises (hop a commuter ferry instead), wineries that charge for tastings (Sonoma has many that don't), redwood burl.

  7. Twitchy about earthquakes? Nothing you need to worry about for a visit. Most locals are pretty jaded about them, unless they had a really awful experience with the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. Guessing the magnitude of the small quakes that hit every couple of years is the second-favorite local sport (right after scoring a sweet parking space). If you're paranoid, don't stay in a hotel built out of brick (unreinforced masonry being a huge seismic no-no), but the odds of the Big One hitting while you're here are vanishingly small.

    And keep in mind that these things are relative. Small quakes don't bug me, but the prospect of tornados scared the snot out of me during the few years I was in exile in Texas.

  8. You don't want to move here. No, really, you don't, and I'm not just saying that to be NIMBY. Here's why. (Skip down to #10 at the bottom if you are already certain you won't move here.)

    • There are no jobs. Ever since the Gold Rush, the area's gone through a boom-bust cycle where people pour into the area, cash in on the latest big thing (gold, the Internet, tulip bulbs) and then leave when the going gets rough. Ever since the dot-bomb and the recession hit, even non-techies have had an impossible time finding work.

    • Housing is EXPENSIVE. Really, really expensive. You think you know from expensive, but until you've hung out in the Bay Area a while, you really don't. Here's an example. I live in a small, nondescript 1-bedroom apartment in an area you will never visit. I pay $800 a month for it, but if you rented it now, you'd be paying $1000, so it's a good deal. That dream pad you've been eyeing? The second-story walkup on Columbus, where espresso fumes drift into your window and you can stroll around reading Beat poetry? Double the rent for my neighborhood -- and triple that if you don't want to live in a closet and cook on a hot plate. Think I'm exaggerating? Go here for a reality check.

      And consider this: later on, if you decide you want to have a house, or if you decide you want kids and don't want them to have to sleep under the stairs Harry Potter-style, you'll be in for at least a $500,000 mortgage. Much cheaper than that, you'll need to go deep into the 'burbs, and suburbs here are as banal as anywhere else. You'll tell yourself that the commute's not so bad from San Ramon or Brentwood, but you'll tire of it quickly, end up taking a job in some industrial park in Walnut Creek or Rancho Cordova, and rarely see your city friends because it's such a haul out to your house.

      So you'll end up shelling out for a $350,000 mortgage, get far less house for that than you would at home, have to build a social circle and support system from scratch, and only end up seeing that city you moved here for once or twice a year. And if you're going the kid route, little Harry and Hermione will end up being raised in a place every bit as boring and whitebread as those stultifying little Midwestern burbs you and your spouse or life partner came from. (Not planning on sticking around until you're of parenting age? See below.)

    • "San Francisco just isn't as special as it was when I moved here." Prepare to hear that. A lot. Note that most of the people saying it have been here 10 years, tops, and often claim to be "almost" a native San Franciscan.

      No matter what people may tell you, you're not a native, or even an almost-native, unless it says "San Francisco" on your birth certificate. (And sometimes not even then -- those of us born in SF but raised in the 'burbs don't get to be "native San Franciscans" either, unless we're talking to people who have never heard of our home town.)

      But don't worry about it -- you have plenty of company, and there's no shame in being from elsewhere, as long as you don't treat the area as somewhere you're putting up with living in while you make your fortune, or as a layover point between now and your real life.

      (And while I'm ranting about the sins of naturalized San Franciscans, don't ever whine about the "lack of seasons." We have seasons, they're just not the seasons you're used to. OK, end of digression.)

  9. If you disregard #8, here are the placename faux pas you should memorize and avoid like Ebola. This may sound petty, but in an area where large numbers of people arrived just 2 or 3 years ago and are desperate to stake out their resident cred, these distinctions matter a great deal, and it will affect how you're treated. (And your hometown makes these kinds of distinctions too, though enforcement is undoubtedly much less ruthless.)

    • Be sure you mutilate Spanish-based place names in the locally practiced manner: Farallon/Farallones (both the islands and the seafood restaurant): FAIR-uh-lawn[z]. Los Gatos: Los GA-dus, not Los GAH-tos. San Rafael: San ruh-FELL, not San RAF-ee-yell. Point Reyes: RAYS, not RAY-yez. Santa anything: SAN-na.

    • Use of "the" in place names.
      • For districts in San Francisco: Good. THE Mission, THE Castro, THE Sunset, THE Marina, THE Richmond (as distinct from Richmond, a city in the East Bay).

      • For freeways: Bad. 101, not THE 101; 280, not THE 280. Exception: where the freeways have names. The names generally refers to specific sections of the freeway, not the whole thing. THE Nimitz is 880 south of Oakland, THE Bayshore is 101 on the Peninsula, though lots of people will just say 880 or 101. (N.B.: Highway 1, not THE 1 or, God forbid, PCH. These are LAisms, which are Very Very Bad.)

      • For streets: Only if you see "the" on the street signs. THE Alameda, THE Arlington (both in Berkeley): Good. THE El Camino: Very Bad. An LAism again, since El Camino Real functions as a third north-south freeway down the Peninsula and into the South Bay. Almost as bad as "PCH."

      • For bridges: Depends on the bridge. "The bridge," generic, will probably mean either the Golden Gate or the Bay Bridge, depending on where the speaker lives. The Golden Gate, ok. The Bay, people will assume you're referring to the body of water and not the bridge. The Dumbarton, The San Mateo, ok. (There is a city called San Mateo, though no city called Dumbarton.) The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge is The Richmond Bridge, to distinguish it from The Richmond and Richmond. (Confused yet?) The Benicia (buh-NEE-shuh, not beh-NEE-CEE-a) Bridge is just The Benicia Bridge. (You must cross it to get to Tahoe, so it's not as irrelevant as you might think.)

  10. That gift shop in Chinatown, at California and Kearny across from McDonalds? It's been "going out of business" for at least 20 years.

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