San Fran’s Famous Five

In this small city by the bay in the west coast of the USA, many believe that dreams come to life. And that has certainly been true of entrepreneurial dreams, beginning from the mid 19th century, when gold hunters from all over the country came here lured by the city’s special sparkle.

Almost 150 years after the excitement of the Gold Rush abated, San Francisco retains that stardust quality, providing a haven to hopefuls with quirky start-up ideas. No surprise then that the very air here seems to carry a whiff of optimism and dynamism.

Long before the city came within the fold of the United States of America in 1846, the region was owned by the Spanish and then the Mexicans. As a result, San Francisco is today the proverbial melting pot of cultures, with dozens of ethnic communities calling it home. Within the larger cosmopolitan weave, specific localities serve as hubs to specific ethnic communities, like Chinatown for the Chinese, North Beach for the Italians, and Mission for the Latinos.

As a result, San Francisco is undoubtedly one of the most interesting cities in the USA, and it is also one of the most pedestrian-friendly. And although you could explore its lanes and hills for weeks on end and still not know it fully, here is a quick guide to help a first-time visitor get the best out of the Golden City through its most interesting neighbourhoods.

The Haight

Located at the intersection of the Haight and Ashbury streets, this district of San Francisco was the epicentre of the Flower Power movement that bloomed in the late 1960s and 1970s. Traces of that Summer of Love (1967) still linger on these roads, where the hippies once congregated to talk dreamily about an ideal world.

Today, these streets are lined with vintage clothing shops, chic boutiques, vegan cafés and organic food stores, and music stores like Amoeba that stock an astonishing collection of CDs, vinyl records and audio cassettes. Although hippies no longer roam Haight and Ashbury, this neighbourhood still carries the open vibe from several decades ago that welcomes all communities.

Don’t miss: The Painted Ladies, Victorian rowhouses at Hayes and Steiner Streets, built between 1850 to 1915 and painted in multiple colours to enhance their already flamboyant architectural details.


If there is one neighbourhood in San Francisco that belongs as much to the locals as to the tourists, then it is Chinatown. The best bit about the warren of lanes that make up this old area is that it is possible – indeed necessary – to explore them without a definite plan, discovering new things as you amble along. Chinatown wears a different character at different times of the day, so go prepared to be surprised at each visit.

Entering through the grandly decorated Dragon’s Gate feels like stepping into another world, one where the exotic east has made its way into the farthest corner of the western world. From the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory to the elaborate temples on Waverly Place, this one has something for everyone.

Don’t miss: A 90-minute guided walking tour with Free Tours by Foot, that lets you in on the fascinating history and secrets of this area.

North Beach

This area is SF’s Little Italy, home to a significant Italian (American) population, and therefore, delicious Italian food. This is where San Francisco’s throbbing nightlife scene originated, and it still remains one of the most of the liveliest neighbourhoods to catch up over a drink in the early evening, or late in the night.

For your own bit of urban oasis, just pick up a pistachio gelato at one of the numerous family-run gelatarie dotting the streets and make your way to the leafy expanse of Washington Square Park. Or peep into the North Beach Museum, tucked away on the second floor of the Eureka Bank building, to learn about the history of this community.

Don’t miss: The City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, founded in 1953, is one of the original landmarks of this area, with a remarkable collection of books.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Nearly every single visitor to San Francisco heads to Fisherman’s Wharf, with its tacky novelty museums and souvenir shops, making it the most popular tourist attraction, even ahead of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is really impossible not to be charmed by the constant buzz around this waterfront area, most of it centred around the touristy Pier 39. After all, 12 million annual visitors can’t be wrong.

This is also among the best places in San Francisco for kids, with attractions like the Sea Lion Centre, the Aquarium of the Bay and the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. Grab a soup in a traditional sourdough bread from Boudin Bakery or sit down for a fresh seafood meal at one of the specialty restaurants on Pier 39.

Don’t miss: A cruise to Alcatraz Island that served as the infamous prison for characters like Al Capone; of the 14 inmates who ever tried to escape, none were successful.

Union Square

It is said that when the going gets tough, the tough get going – to Union Square, primarily to shop. This part of San Francisco, close to the commercial heart of the city, calls out to everyone with its open-air plaza and vibrant arts scene. From swanky designer labels to sprawling department stores like Macy’s, this is also the ultimate shopaholic’s heaven.

With its rich history, Union Square still plays host to many public events, including the city’s annual Christmas tree. Even those not inclined to spend money on retail therapy will have enough fun window-shopping and gawking at the beautiful art galleries.

(image credit: By CarolinaCABoy64Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link)

Don’t miss: ‘The Hearts in San Francisco’ art installations, started in 2004 by the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation, with the idea of fundraising. Like Tony Bennett song this project was inspired by, you too are sure to leave your heart behind in San Francisco.

(Published in the July issue of Jet Wings magazine)

Walking on thin ice

In a year filled with once-in-a-lifetime kind of travel moments (Machu Picchu and Niagara Falls, to name just two) one of my most memorable experiences was walking on the Athabasca Glacier in Canada. I had written about it for DNA newspaper then – and here it is, if you ever decide to head to Canada.

My only previous experience with a glacier was a distant sighting of Fox and Franz Josef in the south island of New Zealand; I remember craning my neck and zooming my camera lens to its fullest, only to feel utterly exhilarated and vaguely dissatisfied at the same time.

This time around though, the experience was totally different.

To begin with, I was standing right on top of the glacier, walking on it and even miming crazy dance poses for keepsake photographs. This was what I had been looking forward to all morning, throughout the stunning drive between Banff and Jasper National Parks.

This route, the Icefields Parkway in the state of Alberta in western Canada, was through glacier territory, and widely hailed as one of the most scenic drives in the world. It did live up to that promise: smooth grey tarmac lined with snowcapped mountains, and glaciers glinting in the mellow morning sunlight on their imposing slopes.

Yet, all I could think about was the highlight of this 230 km road journey, the Athabasca Glacier, waiting for us somewhere in the middle.

Less than three hours after leaving Banff, our small group pulled up at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre for tickets and a quick lunch. Fortifying ourselves with a couple of more layers of sweaters and socks, we then trudged up towards what I can only describe as a red mechanical monster. It was an all-terrain bus (called ‘Ice Explorer’) with wheels that came up to my shoulders, a trusty old thing that carried us through the steep ups and downs of the slippery ice, to that safe spot on the glacier where we could actually get off and walk.

The first thing I did upon getting off was to remove my gloves for a quick dip of my hands into the thin ribbon of glacial spring. As I poured the cold water from my cupped (not to mention frozen) palms into my mouth, I got a sense of what the expression “pure as the driven snow” actually meant.

Even on that sunny day, there was a chill in the air, not easily defeated by all my thermal wear. That was, however, no deterrent, as I began to explore the area, stepping gingerly on the ice that seemed solid but was unexpectedly slippery in places.

Despite that, little children were running around with gay abandon, and adults were lying on the snow, fluttering their hands and legs in an attempt to create snow angels. It was just that kind of place, where adults could easily find themselves regressing into childhood.

The Athabasca Glacier was formed thousands of years ago, when most of this region was under ice. It is part of the massive Columbia Icefield, itself believed to be a remnant from the last Ice Age on earth. And if that is not impressive enough, the glacier is now flanked by 11 of the Canadian Rockies’ 22 highest peaks.

Standing on the glacier that sprawls over six square kilometres, I was reminded once again of my miniscule, insignificant place in the universe. Despite the crowds surrounding me, I had a sense of being alone, on the surface of something primeval and powerful.

The ice, unlike what I expected to be unblemished white, was a sparkling blue in places; perhaps a play of sunlight, or perhaps a hint of the water that flows underneath. I only had time for a brief exploratory walk before it was time to get back on the bus, all too soon.

Back home in the Indian summer, I found my mind drawn frequently and irresistibly, to that day in the Rockies, when I made snowballs on that venerable marvel of nature. And given that the glacier has receded almost 2 km in the last 100 years and continues to disappear at an alarming rate, I was grateful for that up close and personal encounter with it.


Getting there

The Athabasca Glacier is located inside the Jasper National Park, 104 km from the town of Jasper in Alberta. The nearest major airport is Calgary (320 km), 3½ hours away by road.

Best time to visit

The Columbia Icefields Adventure is open only from May 1 to October 15, and the best time to visit is between June and September, when the weather is temperate.

Good to know

~ Begin the glacier adventure with a stop at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre, which also houses a café, museum and souvenir store.

~ Carry extra layers of warm clothing as the weather is unpredictable and can turn bitterly cold any moment.


Visit the website of Jasper National Park for more information on this experience.

16 in ’16

2016 was a blockbuster travel year for me, where I got to visit eight countries – of them six new ones, and most excitingly for me, both North and South America for the first time!

I also got to tick a couple of adventure activities from my list, including paragliding in Uttarkhand and underwater walking in Dubai, stayed at a few gorgeous boutique hotels / homestays across India on work and leisure.

So, a quick look at the year that was, in images…

Began the year with a ten day trip to beautiful Myanmar with the husband

Seychelles in April for the Victoria Carnaval

The stunning isolation and magnificence of the Rockies, walking on Athabasca Glacier and being moved to tears at Niagara Falls – Canada in May

Many usual and some unusual suspects ticked off during a visit to Dubai for a stay at the new Taj, with a spectacular view of Burj Khalifa

My first trip to the USA (yeah really, can you believe it?) – two weeks on work in Louisiana and Nevada and then two weeks on holiday in California, Boston and NYC. What an incredibly spectacular country!

A dream trip for any travel enthusiast – and the delight of discovering there is so much more to Peru than Machu Picchu

Another unexpectedly delightful and beautiful country – who thought Oman would be so blue?!

Ended my international travels for the year with a wildlife trip to Victoria state in Australia – think kangaroos, koalas, penguins and platypus…

Then, there was the usual travel within India – went to the North East for a relaxed holiday (the last time I went was when I was 11!), a few hotel reviews and more chilled out weekends at luxury resorts too.

The second big trip of the year with the husband, after Myanmar in January – Meghalaya and Assam in November

A post-graduate class reunion in Ahmedabad and then a couple of day trips to Patan for the gorgeous Rani ki Vav stepwell and Nalsarovar for the flamingos

The Grand Dragon Hotel in Ladakh – in the middle of a frigid winter in January, the Gustor festival at Spituk monastery and a trip to Lamayuru along frozen roads…

The new and opulent Orange County at Hampi – for a review for Outlook Traveller

A visit to Freddy’s Bungalow in Bhimtal and Mary Budden Estate in Binsar, in February

The long weekend in mid August – a semi forest homestay in Masinagudi, lots of elephant sightings from closeby and this walk in the clouds near Ooty

Indulging at Ibnii, the beautiful new ecoresort at Coorg

Bumper sightings of Maya with her three cubs at Tadoba, once again staying at the lovely Svasara

I also managed a lot of wildlife related activities during my travels (even when they were not specifically wildlife focused) – look out for the next post coming up on this topic.

My world from up above

2016 has been a spectacular year for me as a traveller (a detailed round-up post coming up next) – but one of the highlights was the bird’s eye view I got of some stunning natural and man-made wonders on chopper rides.

From the Grand Canyon in the USA to twice in Canada, over the Niagara Falls and over the Rockies, recently the 12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road in Australia from the vantage point of a helicopter.

Then the familiar landmarks of Dubai from a seaplane, and the very intriguing Nazca Lines in Peru from a light aircraft, it has been an amazing ride.

Here, a few of my favourite memories of the world I saw from above:

The dozen brown hues of the Grand Canyon

The magnificence of Niagara from the Canadian side

Up above the snowy Rockies

The mystery of the outstretched hands over Nazca

Fringes of the Palm and soaring tower of Burj

The 12 Apostles, shipwreck magnets from the past