Westin St. Francis in San Francisco’s Union Square

Disclosure: This stay was provided free of charge, all opinions are my own.

The Westin St. Francis is a historic hotel in the heart of San Francisco’s Union Square that has the fun historic charm with all of the modern amenities you have come to expect from luxury hotels. I got a chance to spend two days there while exploring the city and looking for fun Christmas activities and I loved the great location right in the middle of the city and the fact that so many of San Francisco’s most popular attractions were located nearby. Here is all the information so you can check it out as well.

Details

  • Hotel website
  • Location: 335 Powell St, San Francisco, CA 94102

Getting There

If you are flying into SFO for a long weekend, then I would recommend not renting a car and just taking the BART from the airport. The hotel is located about 7 minutes walk from the Powell St BART station which makes getting there convenient. If you drive, you can park at the hotel but it is an extra $60 per day I believe. Plus it is hard to drive in San Francisco, and parking is pretty much always expensive, so public transit / Uber is a great option.

The Hotel

The Westin St Francis was built in the early 1900’s and has a storied history in San Francisco. I was shocked to learn that one of my favorite photographers, Ansel Adams, even photographed the restaurant for them in the mid-1900’s.

The hotel has been expanded since then, and there is a second tower that sits behind the original building and houses 32 floors of rooms.

We visited during December, during which the hotel has two beautiful sugar castles which are a sight to behold.

The lobby is always packed with people coming in to see them, and I enjoyed being able to walk by them on the way in/out of the hotel during my stay as they are truely majestic.

There was a Sweet Shoppe open in the lobby during the weekends in December as well. It had cookies, macaroons and other treats for sale.

The lobby also holds The Clock Bar, which is the modern hotel bar that has all sorts of fun, movie-inspired drinks. We got a late drink here one night (I recommend the “Dirty Harry”) and the tuna poke appetizer, both were excellent and the bar had a relaxed atmosphere, even during the busy Christmas rush.

The Rooms

We stayed in the Deluxe King City View room in the new tower. It was on the 22nd floor, and one the best things about this hotel was the elevator which is glass and looks out over the city as you go up.

Our room was spacious with a large king bed, a desk, two chairs and a small table.

It also had a great view of the city since we were at a high vantage point.

The bathroom was also nice with a granite shower/bath and ample counter space near the sink.

The hotel had tons of amenities including providing workout clothing to use while at the hotel if you didn’t bring your own. They also allowed you to connect to your Netflix account in the room which made for a nice relaxing night after exploring. Honestly, I loved my time at the Westin St Francis in San Francisco. I have already recommended it to multiple people due to its historic charm and its great location in the city. Check it out, especially during the holidays, and let me know what you think in the comments. You can also find more spots to explore in San Francisco here.

Christmas in San Francisco: 15 Things to Do for the Holidays

Each year around Christmas I like to go an explore all of the new Christmas related attractions you can find throughout the state. While in the previous years I have focused most of my time on Christmas in Southern California, this year I headed up to San Francisco and tried to find all of the best holiday spots in the city. You can see my list of 15 below and be sure to let me know what I left off that you like doing for Christmas in San Francisco in the comments.

Union Square

Union Square is the heart of all things Christmas in San Francisco. Each year it is covered in lights and all of the stores that surround the square put up extravagant displays in their historic buildings. Here are some of the things to do in Union Square for Christmas.

Ice Skating

Right in the middle of the square, there is a large ice rink that sits in the shadow of the historic Westin St Francis (great place to stay for Christmas). This is an excellent spot for the whole family to ice skate, and it is especially popular at night when all of the lights come on.

Macy’s

Macy’s Department Store is the most popular place to visit in Union Square during the holidays. The exterior is adorned with wreaths and lights, while half of the top floor is dedicated to Christmas related souvenirs. You can even write a letter to Santa or sit on his lap while you walk around the store. I never buy anything, but I always like looking around.

Nieman Marcus

Across the street from Macy’s, Nieman Marcus has a four-story-tall tree that you can see from the road. What’s especially fun about this tree though is that you can see it from multiple floors, so as you go up you get different views of it.

Also, you can get a reservation for the restaurant right next to the top of the tree and sit down for a meal while overlooking it.

Winterwalk SF

Winterwalk SF happens during December, and the street between Macy’s and Nieman Marcus is closed to cars. You can walk along the astroturf they lay down over the road, eat at food trucks, relax on the lighted benches or browse the Macy’s storefront windows where there are animals to adopt.

Westin St. Francis

The Westin St Francis is a historic hotel right in Union Square. This hotel has been here since the early 1900’s, and each year they have elaborate sugar castles that are decorated and on display for Christmas. The sugar castles are right in the main lobby, and you have to check them out as they have to be seen to be believed.

They also have a small sweet shop with cookies, macaroons and other delicious treats on the weekends.

Westfield Mall

While this is technically a little off of Union Square, I am going to put this in the Union Square portion of the post since it is close enough to walk. On the top floor of the Westfield Mall, under the dome, there is a massive LED Christmas tree hanging upside down. It is a really fun spot for photos.

Events

If you are looking for a fun event to visit in San Francisco, here are a few I recommend.

A Christmas Carol

The A.C.T. in downtown San Francisco puts on theater productions of A Christmas Carol each year. Seeing the play is a great way to start a new tradition with your family in the city. Book early though as shows sell out in advance.

Great Dickens Fair

Another Charles Dickens related recommendation, the Great Dickens Fair is an annual event that happens during five weekends in November and December. This fair takes over the Cow Palace in Daly City (south of San Francisco), and it includes food vendors, shopping, performances, fair games, and more all set in the backdrop of mid-1800’s London. It is a blast to visit the city and experience the fun culture they create. Don’t leave without trying the buttered rum.

SantaCon

SantaCon is one of the craziest Christmas events in the city (happens in many other cities as well). Basically, thousands of people dressed as Santa descend on the streets of San Francisco for a day of singing, drinking, exploring and just having an overall good time. Even if you don’t want to participate, it is still a pretty fun day to be in the city as everywhere you look you will see someone dressed as Santa.

Deck the Halls Pop Up Holiday Bar

While this is not an annual thing, each year there are many holiday pop-ups, so you can see what is happening this year if you visit the city. When I went, the pop up that was drawing the most attention was Deck the Halls pop up holiday bar in North Beach. This bar was changed entirely for Christmas, complete with penguins and an igloo on the wall, reindeer on the fake roof and a Christmas tree in the back. Even the drinks were inspired by the holiday.

Museums

California Academy of Sciences

The California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park is a fun spot to visit with your family any time of the year. They have a large dome that houses a rainforest and has butterflies that flutter around you as you walk. During Christmas though, they have an ice skating rink, exhibits dedicated to arctic animals, a snowman theater for children and bands that play Christmas music. Plus, you can often see it snow in the main exhibit as well.

Walt Disney Family Museum

In the Presidio, the Walk Disney Family Museum is a fun, quick stop. They put up a “Home for the Holiday’s” exhibit which features a reproduction of Walt Disney’s home and a railroad track that goes around it. This exhibit is free, but the rest of the museums does cost. I wouldn’t go here just to see the holiday exhibit but you are into Walt Disney at all this is a great museum to visit.

Other Christmas Spots in the City

Fairmont Hotel Gingerbread House

Inside the historic Fairmont Hotel in Nob Hill, they have a two-story gingerbread house made out of real gingerbread. This yearly attraction is always popular, and people come from all over to see it. You can walk through the house and have tea in the large dining room if you are looking to stay longer. Also, don’t miss the big Christmas tree in the lobby.

Tom and Jerry’s House

Tom and Jerry’s House is a privately owned house in the southern part of the city. This house gets decked out every year for the holidays, and people come from all over to see it. This is their 35 year creating this fun Christmas activity for the community to enjoy. Be sure to be respectful if you visit.

Ghirardelli Square

No trip to San Francisco is complete without visiting the historic Ghirardelli Square. During Christmas though, the square is transformed with lights everywhere, holiday decorations and a massive Christmas Tree. It is a great spot to come with your family, get some hot chocolate and just walk around the area.

Fisherman’s Wharf

There is not a lot that happens here for Christmas, but it’s still worth walking around to see the lights on the buildings and the Christmas lights on the Fisherman’s Wharf sign. Plus, Boudin has a place where children can sit on Santa’s lap during specific nights as well.

Video

Here is a video I made spotlighting all of these recommendations.

So there you have it, my recommendations for spending Christmas in San Francisco. Be sure to let me know what I left off in the comments!

Museum of Broken Relationships in Los Angeles

While Los Angeles is undoubtedly full of unique museums, the Museum of Broken Relationships on Hollywood Boulevard is certainly one of the most interesting. This museum is in the shadow of famous tourist spots like the wax museum, Ripleys Believe It or Not and even Mann’s Chinese Theater. It focuses on the issues that affect the average human relationship by collecting the leftovers of failed ones. Here is all the information on this spot if it sounds like something you want to see but do note many of the stories are pretty sad.

Details

  • Cost: $15
  • Hours: 12 PM – 7 PM
  • Location: 6751 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028

Getting There

The museum is located on Hollywood Blvd, and there is not much street parking available. I would recommend heading to Hollywood and Highland where there is a big parking lot under the mall. This is a great place to park and to explore all that Hollywood Blvd has to offer. You can walk to the museum from here.

The Museum

This museum got its start when the owner went to Switzerland and saw the original Museum of Broken Relationships there. He figured it would be something that Los Angeles would dig as well, so he created a sister museum in Hollywood.

The museum collects things that are anonymously sent to the curators with stories about what the items are and what they meant to the failed relationship.

Inside there is a range of different items, some of which come with a fun story and some which come with a depressing one. Here are a few of the most unique:

Marry Me Sign

Belly Button Lint

X Files Pin

There is also a confessional book in the back where you can write about your failed relationships and a wall where you can fill in the blanks with the provided pieces of paper and then stick them on the wall.

I will admit that I came here expecting it to be funnier then it was. Honestly, a lot of the stories are just sad, and I left being a lot more cynical of people and their relationships.

That being said, it was still a unique stop in Los Angeles and one that is unlike anything else I have been to. If it sounds like something you would like, be sure to check it out and let me know what you think in the comments.

Lukens Lake on Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park

Lukens Lake is one of the easiest high altitude lakes to access in the high country of Yosemite. This lake is less than a mile hike each direction, and it is one of the most peaceful and relaxing areas you can access on Tioga Pass Road. Here is all the information on this spot.

Details

  • 1.6 miles round trip
  • 100 feet of elevation
  • Location: Lukens Lake parking area on Tioga Pass

Getting There

Heading east on Tioga Pass Road Lukens Lake is a good 16 miles into the journey but one of the first parking areas you will see. Even though the hike is easy, it is not super popular, so the small parking lot usually has a spot or two left.

The Trail

From the parking lot, you will cross the road to get to the trailhead for Lukens Lake.

The trail starts out flat as it heads into the trees, but from there it starts to go uphill for the next half mile.

Eventually, the trail flattens out again, and you start a short downhill to the lake.

There was some snow when we went, but the trail was easy to cross as long as you took your time.

There was a path through the meadow to the base of the lake. We walked out here and made it our picnic spot for lunch.

We also did a little fly fishing at the lake but didn’t catch anything. After hanging out for 45 minutes, we started the short hike back to the car.

While there are certainly more exciting places to explore along Tioga Pass Road, Lukens Lake is a great whole family stop, especially for those not looking for a long hike. If you have been, let me know what you think in the comments.

Napa Valley Guide: Exploring Yountville, St Helena, Calistoga & Napa

For over a century, the Napa Valley region of Northern California has been a popular attraction, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors a year from all over the world. The wine region is one of the most famous in the United States and the small cities that make up the Napa Valley have a lot of wine and a lot of charm. While I have by no means explored all the valley has to offer, I have certainly seen a fair share. Below are some of my favorite spots in the Napa Valley that you can explore. Let me know what I left off in the comments.

Napa

The city of Napa is the first place you will visit when you drive into the Napa Valley. This city used to be a passthrough town, but over the last few decades it has risen in popularity and has a lot of great restaurants, wine tasting rooms, and outdoor adventures. Read all about it here and check out some of my favorite spots below.

Oxbow Public Market

Napa Art Walk

Westwood Hills Park

Anette’s Chocolates

Boon Fly Cafe

Bounty Hunter BBQ

Domaine Carneros

Grape Crusher Statue

Yountville

Yountville is quickly becoming the most famous city in the Napa Valley region. This is due largely to the amount of Michelin stars present in this small town, honoring some of the best restaurants in the state. It is a great town to bike around, try some new food and visit some wine tasting rooms. Here are a few of my favorite spots.

French Laundry Gardens

Bouchon Bistro

Biking to Wineries

Redd Wood

Hot Air Balloon Ride

Hurley’s Restaurant

Domaine Chandon

Bouchon Bakery

St Helena

St Helena is one of the towns that I have spent the least amount of time in. It has one of the most fun little downtowns though with shopping, food and wine tasting. The stand out here is the Model Bakery, which people come from miles around to get their famous English Muffins.

Gott’s Roadside

Model Bakery

Calistoga

Calistoga is the last city in the Napa Valley and while it is not as famous as some of the other towns it still is worth the visit. Calistoga has a lot of unique attractions as well, such as a petrified forest and one of California’s only geysers. Also, Calistoga is home to one of the valleys most famous wineries, Castello di Amorosa, the castle of Napa Valley.

Castello di Amorosa

Phifer Pavitt Winery

Old Faithful Geyser

Jericho Canyon Winery

Petrified Forest

Calistoga Food Guide

Napa Valley Sign

Hotels

There are lots of quaint boutique hotels in the Napa Valley and even a few chains as well. I haven’t stayed in too many but you can see a few I have visited below. If you are looking for the cheapest option, the city of Napa is usually the cheapest place to stay in the valley. 

Calistoga Hot Springs

Lavender Inn

Embassy Suites

Now it is your turn, what did I leave off this list that you love exploring in Napa Valley? Be sure to leave it in the comments!

Napa City Guide: Restaurants, Wineries, Art & Bike Rides

The city of Napa is the gatekeeper to the famous Napa Valley, that people travel from all over the world to visit. The downtown area of Napa city itself has gone through a massive revival over the last decade though and has become its own destination for people to see. I got a chance to explore it for a week and here are some of the things you need to check out when you visit Napa.

Art

One of the big pushes the city of Napa has undertaken in the last few years has been to integrate art all throughout the city. They even established a downtown art walk that you can go on, and that has a revolving set of artists that changes every couple of years. Here are a few ways to get immersed in the art culture while in Napa.

Napa Art Walk

Gordon Huether Art Studio

Outdoor Activities

While I have not done as many outdoor activities here as I would like, Napa city has a great public park that I have hiked in and the downtown river area has a beautiful path for biking. You can read about both below and let me know your favorite hiking spot in the comments.

Westwood Hills Park

Biking in Downtown Napa

Restaurants

Whether you are looking for sushi or BBQ, great restaurants are prevalent in the city of Napa. Here are a few of my favorites but be sure to let me know yours in the comments.

Bounty Hunter BBQ

Eight Noodle Shop

Boon Fly Cafe

Alexis Baking Company

Napa General Store

Celedon

Wineries & Wine Tasting Rooms

Of course in Napa, you will want to taste some wine. You don’t even have to fight the traffic of the valley to try them though as the downtown area gas a lot of great tasting rooms. Here are a few.

Jam Cellars

Mark Herold

Capp Heritage

Domaine Carneros

Oxbow Public Market

One of my favorite places to stop for food, drinks, or a sweet treat is the Oxbow Public Market. This space has a dozen restaurants and shops all in one large building and it truly has something for everyone. Check out the post I wrote about my favorite places in Oxbox by clicking the image below.

Chocolate Tasting

I wanted to call out Anette’s specifically as they do chocolate tastings at the downtown location if you have a large party and it is a ton of fun. I had never learned how to taste chocolate before visiting here but after 45 minutes I feel like I am a pro. They also have a stall in Oxbow Public Market where you can pick up some chocolates if you do not have time for a tasting.

Anette’s Chocolates

Best Sunset Spot

Many of the wineries have great views for sunset, but for me, my favorite place to do sunset photography is at the Grape Crusher Statue. The way the sun lights up the statue as it fades into the sky is hard to beat.

Grape Crusher Statue

Other Fun Adventures

Here are a few fun adventures that don’t fit into the list above. Check them out if you are looking for new places to explore in the city.

Bowling at Crush

Hotels

I have only stayed in one hotel in the city itself, which was the Embassy Suites. It was a great spot with big rooms and a beautiful property. There are a few other popular resorts and hotels though that you can see below.

Embassy Suites

Meritage

Napa River Inn

Now it is your turn, what did I leave off this list that you love exploring in Napa? Be sure to leave in in the comments to others can find it as well.

9/11 Memorial Garden in Downtown Napa

While exploring Downtown Napa, one of the places I was surprised to find in the heart of the city was a beautifully crafted 9/11 Memorial Garden that featured actual steel from the Twin Towers. Established in 2013, and created by the Napa-based artist Gordon Huether, this is a peaceful place in the city to visit and to remember those that lost their lives in this horrible event, here is all the information.

Details

  • Free
  • No specific hours, it is in the middle of an open park
  • Location: 1040 Main St, Napa, CA 94559

Getting There

From downtown Napa you will want to head up Main St. The memorial is located after 1st St on the left-hand side, across from the Napa Valley Opera House. There is street parking around that you can use.

The Memorials

As you enter the small park you will see two pieces of steel on each side of the walkway. These are the first of the six pieces on display here.

In the middle of the park is where the main memorial is. The memorial is three large pillars, each with 8-10 foot glass panels attached to them. The panels have information about what happened and the names of all those who lost their lives during the attacks.

After having just visited ground zero in New York only a month ago, it was pretty somber to think about those events again here in the middle of Napa. That being said, this was one of the better memorials I have seen for the September 11 attacks and it is a worth stopping by when you are in the city of Napa.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

Gordon Huether Art Studio in Napa

Gordon Huether is a famous artist based in Napa that does large-scale installation pieces for schools, corporations, cities, etc.  His pieces are incredibly impressive, and you may have even seen a few around the USA at an airport or park. He was the one that made the 9/11 memorial in downtown Napa which is well done, and when you are in Napa, you can visit his studio if you want to see his work up close and personal. It small, but it is worth the stop. Here is all the information.

Details

  • Free
  • Hours: M-F: 9 AM – 4 PM, closed weekends.
  • Location: 1821 Monticello Rd, Napa, CA 94558

Getting There

From Soscol Ave in downtown Napa, you will head north to Trancas St and turn right. This street becomes Highway 121 and about a mile and a half down on the right you will see the studio. There is a small parking lot, and it wasn’t that busy when I went.

The Studio

The studio features a few of the larger pieces outside, and I would recommend walking around and checking them out before heading in.

My favorite was the large yellow hand, but it is a popular piece so it may have moved by the time you visit.

As you head in, you will be greeted by a small one-room gallery with pieces all along the walls.

There are also lots of small-scale replicas of some of the larger pieces and ones that never got made in the back hallway.

I went on a tour with a group, so we got a chance to meet Gordon and learn more about the art from the man himself, this is not a normal experience at the studio though.

One of the best things about visiting is that if you are spending some time in Napa, you will see some mockups of art you can see around the city. The most notable is the fork that is outside of the culinary institute in Downtown Napa.

I for one like seeing large-scale art like this. If you do as well, then check it out when you are in Napa.

Downtown Napa Art Walk

Over the past two decades, the downtown area of Napa has gone through a massive revolution. With the construction they put in place to stop the historic flooding in the area, it turned the riverfront part of Downtown Napa into a beautiful space you can both walk and bike ride along. One of the best ways to experience it is to grab a map from the visitors center near the Napa General Store and head out on the art walk around downtown. Here is all the information.

Details

  • About a mile and a half of walking
  • Free
  • 9-10 pieces which change every two years.

Getting There

I would recommend starting near the Napa General Store, which has a large parking lot and which has two art pieces that you can start with. This is also a convenient area to get back to when you finish the art walk.

The Art Walk

The Napa Art walk came about through the work of the City of Napa and Arts Council of Napa Valley. Giving back to the arts and encouraging businesses to add art into their builds has been a big push in the city. You can see art pieces all over town, even those that are not associated with the art walk themsevlves, such as the dancing feet that are popular along the Riverfront Promenade.

Here are some of the art pieces you will see along the walk, but remember that they change every two years so they may be different when you go.

The first thing you will see outside of Napa General Store is the large mural under the silos that tells the story of Napa and its river. This was a really cool piece and one that I enjoyed seeing.

Next to it there is Solar Flare by Patricia Vader, which is a a unique piece made of bike rims.

From there you get to walk along the river and can see the large fish that looks like it is jumping in the river. It is not part of the art walk but it is cool to see.

As you weave back into the city from the river, you will come to the Bone Totem by Eileen Fitz-Faulkner.

This leads to Treasures from the Sea by LT Mustardseed which was probably my favorite as it was fun with its unique parts all combining to form a fish.

Across the street is Bogenbinder by Mikey Kelly which was fun to see in the fading light.

Next to this is the Napa 9/11 Memorial which I would recommend you check out as well as it is a beautiful memorial in the city.

The last piece that I enjoyed on the Napa Art Walk was the squirrel down near the new Archer Hotel. This was a very abstract squirrel but it was fun to see and looked like it was darting out in traffic.

The art walk in downtown Napa is a great way to get to know the city’s downtown while being active and I loved walking around and finding them all. Check it out if you are visiting and let me know what you think in the comments.

Eight Noodle Shop in Downtown Napa

For the last year, I have been on a ramen kick, and I often go out of my way to try new ramen places when I visit new cities. On a recent trip to Napa, I found Eight Noodle Shop and knew I had to give it a try. They make a less traditional ramen with larger udon type noodles and crazy add-ins like salmon, but I can say it was a great dining experience that lived up to expectations, here is all the information.

Details

  • Cost: $15 – $20
  • Location: 1408 Clay St, Napa, CA 94559

Getting There

From Main St in downtown Napa, you will want to turn left on 1st St, then right on Seminary St. From here turn right on Clay St and the restaurant will be on the left. There is a parking garage across the street that you can park in.

The Restaurant

The restaurant itself is small with a half dozen tables inside and another half dozen outside.

We opted to sit outside which was great since the Napa weather is usually pretty nice.

My group decided to try a few of the appetizers, and the Korean Fried Chicken Wings were the standout. They had just the right amount of crispiness and a ton of flavor.

The edamame was also excellent with 5 spice salt that combined for a sweet/salty flavor.

For lunch, I went with the pork ramen, which had the thick udon noodles with pork belly and shoulder. The ramen base had a nice big flavor that I appreciated, and even though it seemed non-traditional, I really enjoyed it.

My friend Charles got the salmon ramen which I had never seen before. The salmon was cooked with a sweet glaze and finished in the hot ramen, and it was excellent. The dish was served with corn, and I was impressed with the small sample I tasted. Who knew salmon ramen would be good?

The rest of our group got some other dishes like the kimchi fried rice, and everyone was happy with their choices.

For dessert, we split the Okinawan doughnuts which were more like beignets then a donut but were delicious. They were like mini apple fritters and came with a caramel sauce.

All in all, Eight Noodle Shop is a great place for a meal in downtown Napa. I really enjoyed my time and am sure I will be back.

Disclosure: This meal was provided free of charge, but all opinions are my own.