Tag Archives: travel

Off the Beaten Track: San Francisco’s Hayes Valley

‘Great Adventure’ is painted in giant marquee letters on the side of a Victorian mansion on the corner of Hayes Valley’s Octavia and Page Streets. This Ben Eine mural is a constant reminder of the district’s steadfast spirit. Since suffering a crucial blow from the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake and subsequent fires, the community has continued to surmount itself. Bold entrepreneurs moved into the area after big-scale renovations had tidied up the neighborhood. Now, twenty-five years later, a unique ambiance has spawned with exciting shops, mural masterpieces, food truck dining, blossoming public gardens, and a relaxed atmosphere. Hidden away in the shadows of Civic Center’s domes, Hayes Valley has risen to contain all ingredients that make San Francisco so special.

When approaching the neighborhood from the east, coming from City Hall, picturesque Linden Street offers the prettiest entrance. Rather than lined-up cars, planters dominate this lively alley. Appropriately titled ‘While You Wait’, a monochromatic mural by Zio Ziegler offers the perfect distraction while waiting in line for Blue Bottle Coffee. Stashed away in a garage, this coffee hut is believed to have the best coffee in town. The New Orleans-style iced coffee, in particular, gloriously kick-starts your morning. The stretch of greenery that lies ahead is Patricia’s Green, the epicenter of neighborhood life. When sun bathing on the park’s lawn, give in to one of Smitten Ice Cream’s many surprising flavors. How about brown cinnamon shortbread or strawberry white balsamic for a change? Consume your icy delight away from local razzle-dazzle in the narrow public gardens flanking Octavia Street. Quoting one of the sayings painted on pieces of wood, ‘let your thoughts pass thru you like wind’ when you perch down on a bench in these fenced botanical retreats. Pass through Page and Laguna Mini Park and zigzag up to Koshland Community Park before fueling up in Samovar Tea Lounge. Sumptuous lunch dishes along with artisan teas are guaranteed to provide you with the kick of energy needed to further explore Hayes Valley.

Hayes Valley

Photo by Flickr user: Charles CC2.0

Tree-topped Hayes Street accommodates the area’s trendiest stores. One of the most notable ones, Flight 001, is a traveler’s Valhalla. Decorated to look like the inside of an airplane, this swanky shop sells everything from international power adapters to stylish travel bags. With branches in major cities like Tokyo and New York, setting-up shop here demonstrates the upturn of Hayes Valley as an up-and-coming destination. Styling the city’s most fashionable residents, Undefeated has a diverse selection of the coolest sneakers, clothing, and caps. Shop for vintage one-of-a-kind items and apparels at Reliquary, just around the corner. This neighborhood trump feels both enchanting and unhurried. Comic book nerds and aficionados meet at Isotope on Fell Street. More than just a comic book store, Isotope is also a place for art, workshops, and relaxation. Chill out on one of their comfy sofas with a graphic novel in hand while discussing the latest adventures of Spider-man, Batman, and the X-men.

Just as diverse as the district’s shopping scene is the munchscape, ranging from casual eateries to posh diners. On sunny afternoons people line up for one of the many food trucks that cruise the city. Within these mobile mini-kitchens talented rookies and established chefs cook up the most delicious meals for the most satisfying prices. Baking a mean Arugula pizza, Casey’s Pizza truck has been spotted regularly on Saturday afternoons. Derived from ‘mazza’, meaning small dishes of appetizers in Arabic, Lebanese corner restaurant Mazzat serves hummus and tapas-like dishes. Every morning, grandma prepares fresh meals for the day, making this family-enterprise highly authentic. Souvla on Hayes St. is the newest addition to the exclusive Greek dining scene in San Francisco. In this rather modern walk-in, a communal table for twelve replaces the typical ramshackle seats that one might expect in traditional Greek diners. With all those enticing fragrances, choosing between pork, chicken, or lamb (or veggie) has never been this hard. No place else screams bearish German food like Rosamunde Sausage Grill in Haight Street, just west of Hayes Valley. Head here for a hearty sausage on a bun or gigantic burger, only served on Tuesdays. Expect little space to maneuver yourself to the counter as this joint is gaining popularity.

Acknowledging the great marriage between sausage and beer, next-door Toronado allows you to bring in your grilled meat. Their infamous selection of beers and divey vibe make this place one of the Bay area’s finest beer bars. If you’ve become intrigued by San Francisco’s street art scene don’t forget to take a quick peek at the mysterious ‘Two Beauties’ mural on the corner of Steiner and Haight Streets. For tall mugs of German beer, descend back to central Hayes Valley’s Biergarten. The dozens of picnic tables, alongside the shipping containers that house the bar and kitchen, are packed with people looking to spend a carefree, sunny afternoon. Cross the Atlantic in the belly of a pirate ship in Smuggler’s Cove. Looking like the set of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, this tiki bar serves up great cocktails and ensures a fun time. One of the lesser-known music venues, Rickshaw Stop, is the go-to place for live music of your favorite indie band or underground DJ. This venue on Fell St. gives you the opportunity to see up-and-coming acts before they go viral.

If it’s department stores, Michelin stars, and nightclubs that you’re after, you came to the wrong place. But if you are looking for trendy shoes, finger foods, and happy-go-lucky drinking, Hayes Valley will win you over. The neighborhood’s unconstrained atmosphere provides a breath of fresh air compared to downtown’s fast pace. Together with the community’s appreciation of innovative ways of living, this completes the recipe for San Francisco.

Off the Beaten Track: Pretoria’s Hatfield

Pretoria, like the rest of South Africa, has entered times of massive urban renewal. Since hosting the World Cup in 2010 Pretoria, along with Cape Town and Johannesburg, has successfully revamped particular neighborhoods into vibrant and interesting places. Unfolding in Pretoria’s prettiest neighborhood is a real-life open-air exhibition of human, cultural, and architectural contrasts. Hatfield’s grounds are cultivated with student dorms, rustic bungalows, and stately diplomats’ houses. For good reasons, however, Hatfield is often referred to as party area, catering to University of Pretoria students. When moving away from the main streets, the sounds of sprinklers watering flower beds slowly replace the honking of horns and traffic noises. In Jacaranda shaded streets like these, you will find hidden shops, restaurants, and backyard pagodas typically unseen by the average visitor to Pretoria.

Taxi buses come and go, carrying and loading at least twice their capacity, before speeding off. The antique Volkswagen 1s that dominate the streetscape, purr in front of traffic lights. Hustling and bustling with activities, central Burnett Street provides you with a good first impression of modern day South Africa. With its cafes, fast food restaurants, hotels, and diverse shops, it’s the throbbing heart of Hatfield. Many young people spend most of the day smoking hookah in one of the many bars on Hatfield Square. However, beyond this lively square there is much more to experience.

Jacaranda 3

Photo by Flickr user: Ockert Botha CC2

Leave the chaos behind you by heading north. Rest your feet in Springbok Park where giant, hungry Hadada Ibis birds roam in search of a snack. Continue your way along the borders of at least a dozen countries, housed in fine ambassadorial villas. Passing the enormous American embassy, unsurprisingly bigger and more grand than its neighbors, you’ll find Eastwood Village Centre. Tucked away in the shadiest corner sits Café 41, one of Pretoria’s most enjoyable lunch spots. The cafe is praised for its good deals on continental dishes, cozy seating, and cosmopolitan vibe. Alternatively, Harrie’s Pancakes offers some of the most exotic pancakes around, both sweet and savory.

Pop into one of the few shops that have not yet been swallowed by one of many malls that scatter Pretoria. For artsy shoppers, enchanting Duncan Yard is an absolute must-see. These formerly ruinous buildings on the corner of Duncan and Prospect Street have tastefully been converted into a mini shopping center connected by picturesque corridors and stoney passages. Nowadays, the Yard is home to twenty stores selling exclusive furniture, unique merchandise, and delightful food. Maybe not as quirky but certainly charming is Owl Books just down the street. Among its dusty and unorganized shelves there are literary gems to be found. The Hatfield Flea Market, held every Sunday afternoon in the parking lot of Hatfield Plaza mall, is the place to stock up on African curios and souvenirs. Early birds can start off the weekend with a visit to the Boeremark (farmers market). Here you’ll find organic cheeses, honeys, and cakes. Be sure to be there on time since stalls are bound to be sold out by 9am.

If eating food sounds more appealing than shopping for food, you won’t come short in Hatfield’s multicultural dining scene. In self-proclaimed bastion of good times, Bravo Pizza, you can laze around, do your laundry, or pick out a good quality cut in the butchery area whilst you are waiting for your pizza. On Burnett Street, Shen Zhou Chinese Dumpling Restaurant cooks up the sweetest chili chicken you have ever tasted. With prices so cheap you keep ordering, the shabby exterior is easily ignored. On the brink of being pretentious, Papa’s Real Food is a good value, serving  international dishes and rich viands. Their minced meat and bell pepper stuffed pizza Calzone, in particular, does not leave room for dessert. All the way in the back, the attractively lit courtyard promises the same ambiance as neighboring Duncan Yard. For an elegant dining experience, try Braza in Menlyn Mall. Their Brazilian dishes, predominantly seafood, will leave you speechless; and not just because the dishes’ names are so hard to pronounce. Taste typical South African cuisine at Boer’geoisie, situated off the main roads in the middle of quiet Brooklyn. Once here, go for the Bobotie, a traditional and delicious South African version of meatloaf.

Squeeze in between uber-fanatical rugby supporters or soccer fans at Lady Chatterley’s Pub for after-dinner drinks. Low-key Aandeklas attracts similar crowds but preserves a more laid-back atmosphere. Postpone ordering beers until halftime or risk getting caught up in passionate cheering. For live action, consider a free evening game of university league rugby or soccer at the LC de Villiers sports campus. Unleash your sports-related frustrations or celebrations on the beer pong table in Herr Gunters. Mind-blowing dance-offs are common occurrences at Cheeky Monkey, a bar on the other side of the square. Ultimately, by far the poshest nightclub is Moloko Club. Balancing a strictly enforced dress-code and refined ambiance with the right amount of exuberance, this club has become one of the region’s hippest nightlife destinations.

In a land that is known for its magnificent natural beauty and coastline, metropolitan areas have always come second. Previously believed to lack noteworthy sights and, even worse, presumed to be foul, unsafe, and highly populated, Hatfield proves outdated presumptions wrong. Following the path of its predecessors, Hatfield offers an intimate and dynamic neighborhood experience as well as an urban escape from nature.

Off the Beaten Track: Berlin’s Kreuzberg

Admittedly, when entering the easternmost part of Berlin’s Kreuzberg via the Oberbaumbrücke, the place feels run-down and grungy. Whether it’s because of the bridge’s dark stoned tunnel or the drunk German selling beers out of his cooler, the area’s entrance can hardly be perceived as welcoming. However, think twice before turning around and fleeing for the nearest outbound train because once immersed in eastern Kreuzberg’s bustling street life, alternative atmosphere and immigrant culture, you’ll find yourself appreciating its rough edges.

Start off your visit with wandering the neighborhood; by far the easiest and most rewarding means of exploration. Allow your nose to lead the way to one of many fragrant Arabic groceries and German Konditoreien (bakeries). Plunge down Kuchenkiste for an assortment of modern-twisted pastries, cakes, or pies. Then end your stroll in popular, but so-sketchy-it’s-beautiful, Görlitzer Park, once the site of Berlin’s main railway stations. Awe-inspiring street art can be found throughout the area. Consider taking the Public Art Tour for a selection of the most impressive works. You might want to rent a bike from either one of three Rent a Bike locations if you intend to spare your feet for late-night dancing.

Photo by Flickr user: grahamc99 CC2.0

Photo by Flickr user: grahamc99 CC2.0

A hoisted flag, waving in the wind, is the only thing missing, proclaiming the neighborhood to be hipsters territory. But then again, wouldn’t that be too obvious, for hipster standards? Surrounded by graffiti-sprayed garage doors, CHAoS iN fORm is one of the area’s hippest boutiques. Their racks are stuffed with everything from haute couture to carnival outfits and beloved by a hipster clientel. Live mannequins can best be spotted during evenings. It’s hard to miss their well-groomed appearances, quirky fashion statements, and organic noshing habits.

Speaking of noshing; Burgermeister serves some of the best burgers in Berlin. Housed in a small shack, sheltered by overhead U-bahn tracks and flanked by busy Oberbaumstraße, it is the perfect urban setting to reflect on the day’s encounters and experiences. Are you, like me, travelling on a budget? Pizzeria La Romantica wins you over on its richly-topped 3-6 euro pizzas. However, don’t let the name lure you into bringing a date; it simply doesn’t deliver on romance. Instead, take your date to Treinta Y Seis; their affordable Mexican dishes and hot sauce, will fire up the conversation. When craving German classics (think Frankfurters, Schnitzels, and Strudels) there are basically two options: fine dining in traditional Kattelbach or finger-licking grub at Frau Rauscher’s.

After dinner the neighborhood comes to life as nocturnal party flocks, varying from smooth mid-town folks to eccentric youngsters, find their way to two of the city’s biggest night clubs: Tresor and Watergate. Spooky and industrial-looking Berghain is located a stone’s throw away. Temper illusions of busting your signature moves on the clubs’ dance floors; it’s notoriously hard to get past the giants at the door. Kicked up too much of a fuss? Hide from angry bouncers in one of Kreuzberg’s superb underground bars. Try Madame Claude for a truly disorienting experience: it has an upside down interior! Café Wendel is an excellent runner-up. Sink into retro sofas and sip their quirky Gekko Mate soda. If you think dancing fiercely burned enough calories to treat yourself to a late night snack, Delikato’s kebab brings you that much closer to heaven.

Sehraya shisha lounge in central Kreuzberg offers a more relaxing environment. Its two-story Middle-Eastern interior is both atmospheric and incredibly kitsch. They offer more tobacco flavors than I can name fruits, and their menu is perfect for some Egyptian treats or nachos. Others might prefer an alternative film screening in Central Kino. To get there, duck into a narrow alleyway on Rosenthaler Straße (in Berlin Mitte) and pass metal artworks and mustached men.

Although the virus that covers buildings with  graffiti and infects humans with artistic juices has spread to adjacent Neuköln and north-west Wedding, Kreuzberg remains home to Berlin’s alternative spirit. For years the area has been presenting itself as a greased up laborer but, much like the undercover bosses in the eponymous TV show, finally reveals to be an upright power house of Berlin neighborhoods.

Off the Beaten Track: Introduction

Contributing writer Tom Aussems from The Netherlands introduces a new blog series focusing on  unique neighborhoods around the world. Each segment of this series highlights an interesting niche of a major city that proves to be amazing and off the beaten track.

The power went out in Paris’ 18th arrondissement. Tucked away in a cobblestoned alleyway, it was quite the adventure to make it back to the room. The run-down hotel showed little aspiration of earning a second star, with its springy bed, stale croissants, and magnificent views of the next-door neighbor’s toilet. However, that particular trip to one of Paris’ shabbiest neighborhoods sparked a desire to absorb local culture and follow paths less traveled. Eating airy sugar-coated crêpes, sipping soda in smoky cafes and strolling Clignancourt’s anonymous streets might not be mentioned in tourist guides, but these experiences prove to be more fulfilling than anything offered in pre-packaged deals. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself staring at real estate pamphlets, daydreaming of becoming part of the neighborhood, rather than merely visiting.

An authentic and vibrant local lifestyle unfolds away from downtown’s silly dance: a bunch of tourists sprinting in the same direction, queuing up for coffee, and taking pictures of street signs. Wandering through these areas, where hop-on-hop-off buses are banned and big retail chains are unwanted, puts travelers in locals’ rather than tourists’ shoes. Captivated by the Eden-like neighborhood atmosphere, travelers create lifetime memories and develop a strong desire to experience a feeling of belonging. Ultimately, that is what makes traveling and discovering new places so rewarding.

Flickr - Neighborhood Charm

Photo by Flickr user: Shadowgate CC2.0

This series attempts to focus on neighborhoods that may not appear on a typical tourist’s list, but nonetheless, offer unique local vibes. Due to snobbish traits or indulgent motives, sheer simplicity is often overlooked when travelling. Thankfully, invaluable experiences don’t usually require a fat wallet. Just forget about the nearest cathedral for a second. Take a break and settle down on a bench in the shade of a hidden parklet with a locally brewed tallboy. Throw away the travel book and rely on your senses to lead your way to neighborhood gems, completely off the beaten track.

A day in Coyoacàn, diving into the heart of Mexico City

Our intern Laura visited Mexico City over the holiday break. Below she describes the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of Coyoacàn, a peaceful, yet exciting neighborhood.

I am Laura, a 22-year-old French girl living in San Francisco for a six-month period. When I arrived in California in October I planned to explore Mexico, especially since a friend living in Mexico City invited me to visit him. Eventually, I got the opportunity to go around the holidays, which allowed me to enjoy the incredible decorations. Plus I have to say, for a girl coming from a cold French region, walking around wearing a short skirt in December is pretty exciting!

After landing, the first thing that caught my attention was the size of this city. At 573 square miles, Mexico City is 14 times larger than Paris! I figured that I could not see everything, I had to make choices. With only 8 days in the city, what did I absolutely need to see? For years I knew I wanted to see Frida Kahlo’s house, so exploring its neighborhood seemed like a great plan. Located right in the heart of the city, Coyoacán is one of the 16 boroughs of the Federal District. “Indeed, you can’t leave Mexico without experiencing this area” my friend told me. This became clear to me when he dropped off at Plaza Hidalgo only on the second day of my trip, the last day of 2013.

San Juan Bautista church was built in the 16th century

A melody of salsa

The first thing I noticed in Coyoacán was the architecture. Buildings are very low, and their colors are so crazy. I noticed the huge contrast between them and the grey color of the crumbling San Juan Bautisto baroque church façade. Inside the church, the ceiling is covered with very interesting colonial paintings. The different tints were amazingly bright, backgrounds, so dark and depth of field was almost not represented. I felt very lucky to see this church, so different from the roman and gothic arts in my own country.

After a while, I came back out to the fresh sunlight. It was nine in the morning, time when waiters are tying aprons around their waist, when old men meet on a bench, trying to solve world’s problems. A light breeze, twittering birds and the scent of coffee hung in the atmosphere. The city was waking up leisurely, and I found everything so quiet, unlike the rest of the city. However, I changed my mind pretty quickly! Once the first stools have been set on cafes terraces, the area became more alive. Even at this time, melodies of salsa music escaped from windows.

Nearby, I saw a yellow gate with an arched shape. Just above, “Bazar artisanal mexicano” had been hand-painted. A craft market? Without hesitation, I went for it! After walking through the first food stalls, I found a genuine Ali Baba’s cave. Surrounded by lime, corn and fried food smells, I jumped in this colorful crowded shamble. Exotic fruits, spices, sombreros, traditional clothes and trinkets, but also posters, scrap metals, sheets were for sale all around me. Strolling among the pervasively draped fabrics and the frolicsome children, I just had the feeling I could find everything here! “Que vas a comprar hoy, chica?” A work-worn hand grabbed mine, it was an old woman offering a henna tattoo. Amused by being constantly called out to buy, I always answered with a smile or a polite “No, gracias!”

The Bazar Artisanal Mexicano  probably sells everything you can imagine

The Bazar Artisanal Mexicano probably sells everything you can imagine

 La Coyoacana

Time to meet my friend for lunch was already here. “La Coyocana, 1pm” he told me. When I arrived, he and his family were already enjoying a michelada, the mix of lime, tomato juice, pepper slices and beer, the alleged “perfect hangover drink”. They all were sitting in nice-looking chairs in this wonderful courtyard. Traditional decorations were hanging above the tables, waiters were running, straddling on every side of the yard, trying to serve everyone as fast as they could. This was such a special place, it literally took my breath away as soon as I arrived. Instead of a michelada, I ordered an agua de horchata -the most refreshing beverage in the world. It is made of rice, almonds, sometimes cinnamon and often vanilla: my new addiction!  The sunlight filtered through the draperies sometimes reaching us, and a fresh breeze stroked our skins. Then, el Molcajete came. To describe it clearly I would say it’s a big stone bowl with three feet that is sometimes used as a grinder.  My molcajete however contained a traditional Mexican assortment: pork and beef, chorizo, tomatoes and greens onions, with chicharrón–huge pieces of crispy pork rind, all accompanied by the inevitable tortillas.


“Molcajete” a traditional Mexican dish.

Aware that this plate was invented by pre-Hispanic cultures, eating from it felt like a journey back in time!  I was wholly amazed by the beauty of this spot and by the charming scene unfolding around me. While we were enjoying our food, a group of six costumed men were singing very loudly: some were playing the guitar, some the violin and even the triangle. I knew they were mariachis, Mexican folk musicians, but this was the very first time I was seeing them for real. Suddenly, they came to us! I didn’t know what to do, but my friend’s mother knew: after handed them a bill, she whispered something to them and they started playing for us. One of the best memories from my Mexican trip!

Mariachis playing a very traditional love song in the restaurant’s patio

To continue this perfect moment with art, I decided to go to the famous Frida Khalo Museum, which is in fact the house where she was born and always lived. Again, being in this place was like walking through time. For me, it was very sad and surprising to see how much she suffered since her childhood. The house, her sanctuary, is so calming, it’s hard to imagine how tormented her life had been. What I found most moving was seeing the painting Viva la vida, probably because it was so simple, so pure and almost infantile. Knowing that she created this painting, despite the fact that she was dealing with such dreadful pain, made me even more fascinated by this woman.  To me, it just seemed to be an explosive hymn to life. The house is brimming with light, colors, life and the gorgeous surrounding blue is impressively stirring.

The famous blue walls of the Frida Khalo Museum

During the last part of my visit, I examined a temporary exhibition featuring pieces of her wardrobe.  What was really thrilling to me was that I understood that her firmness, her toughness and her confidence was in fact a way to hide her vulnerability, her frailness. That’s how I realized she was a mix of weakness and strength. More than a touristic experience, visiting Frida Kahlo’s museum was a profound experience for me.
Coyoacàn has so much history that makes it a huge part of Mexico’s soul. From my first steps on Plaza Hidalgo, I felt the spirit of this place. Every time I close my eyes now, I dream of going back there for a nice ramble.



Frida Kahlo museum – http://www.museofridakahlo.org.mx/

Bazar artisanal mexicano Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BazarArtesanalMexicanodeCoyoacan