Coastal CA

On Foot: Afternoon at the San Francisco Zoo and Sunset at Ocean Beach

Tuesday September 21, 2010

Some days in San Francisco, you wake up with a fine, chilly mist sprinkling your face and the blanket of white fog refuses to burn off.  This most commonly happens during the Summer.  Actually, this happens just about every day in the Summer.

(That sound you heard was the bitter laughter of every tourist who ever came to our city in shorts and a t shirt… and left in Levi’s and a brand new San Francisco fleece.)

And so it was that we woke to the third straight day of a chilly, damp SF and decided to go to the Zoo.  The Zoo is perfect under not-ideal weather conditions, as the animals are more lively in the cool shade and no sane person will be there.  You practically get the whole place to yourself…

Day Trip to the San Francisco Zoo, Ocean Beach, and Sunset District (7 hours)

What you’ll need:

  1. Backpack/messenger bag.
  2. A blanket (optional)
  3. Fleece/windbreaker/jacket.


Recommended Itinerary

  1. Travel to San Francisco Zoo
  2. Stroll through the Zoo
  3. Dusk/sunset at Ocean Beach
  4. Dinner at Kingdom of Dumplings in the Sunset District (Open Tue-Sun 11:30am-10pm)

1.       Travel to the San Francisco Zoo

outer sunset, pacific ocean, taraval, street car tracks, san francisco california

Getting to the San Francisco Zoo takes a while.  The Zoo is perched right on the edge of the city.  Unlike other walkabouts of SF, it is entirely possible to drive between all the destinations I have listed without any added stress or annoyance.  There is ample parking everywhere, and there is no way you can get lost.

Thankfully, though, the MUNI Metro L-Taraval will take you right to the Zoo’s front door.  The ride takes approximately 30 minutes from downtown, and it’s pretty pleasant once you get out to Sunset.  The streetcar lumbers past a seemingly never-ending stream of two story pastel Edwardians.  Sleepy doesn’t do this district justice.  (See How to Ride the MUNI Metro)

We made a pit stop at the West Portal station (the MUNI transfer system makes this super easy – you can get back on the train for free if you do so within an hour) to grab some snacks and coffee.  This turned out to be a pretty wise decision as the area near the Zoo is desolate except for a few sand encrusted beach shops.  West Portal is pretty darn cute, though, and you may feel the urge to stay past the expiration of your transfer ticket.  There is a coffee shop directly across the street from the above ground MUNI station, although we went to a Peet’s about a half block down West Portal Ave.

Keep in mind that the streetcar you’ll see going down West Portal Ave is not the one you want – that is the K-Ingleside line.  To get back into the station, show the station manager your transfer (he’ll wave you through) and remember to get on an outbound L-Taraval train.

The rest of the train ride will take about 17 minutes.  When you aren’t taking note of Chinese storefront after Chinese storefront, try looking out the front of the train.  If it’s a clear day, you’ll be able to see the Pacific Ocean looming in front of you.  The urban landscape here abruptly gives way to the Pacific Ocean in a vertical wall of blue, similar to that scene in Inception where the city folds up and over itself.  It’s unsettling and unreal.  Or, as I said upon first seeing this optical illusion a few months ago, “That is the ocean?!  But that makes no sense…”  Unsettling to say the least.

If you’ve taken MUNI, you will feel like you’re on the edge of Earth when the train finally pulls in to its last stop.  You may well be the only people left on the train.  You’ll have to step through all the sand, which blankets every sidewalk and street and pools in every crevice and curb, to cross Sloat Blvd and enter the Zoo.

The Zoo has an extremely large parking lot, which was only ¾ full on our visit, and costs $8.  You will not need to pay a parking agent upon entering the parking lot, though.  Instead, you pay for an $8 exit ticket at the Zoo, and use the ticket to exit the parking lot.  You can alternatively park on Sloat Blvd, although I imagine that may get full on nicer days.




2.       Stroll through the San Francisco Zoo

gorilla, baby gorilla, hasani, zoo, san francisco zoo, san francisco, california

Once you have waited in line and purchased your entrance to the Zoo (and parking ticket, if you’ve driven here), you’ll walk into a gathering of gift shop and information booths.  Comfort yourself with the knowledge that this is the only gift shop in the Zoo (and a sales associate whispered that he’d be willing to take 50% off selected extremely large stuffed animals).  Restrooms are on the far right side of the buildings.

I would recommend starting the Zoo Loop with the African Savannah and going counterclockwise.  The Zoo must round up its inhabitants after it closes at 5pm, as when we finally got to the giraffes around 4:30, the three of them were milling around their barn waiting to be let indoors.  Though, that did clue us into the giraffe barn doors, which stand 2 stories tall and about 3 feet wide and make a lot of sense.

The San Francisco Zoo is much more similar to DC’s National Zoo than the Bronx Zoo.  (Granted, the Bronx Zoo is a sight to behold –you need a lot of acreage if bison are going to herd and stampede at your zoo.)  What it lacks in acres, though, it more than makes up for in beauty.  At times, you will forget that you are in a zoo and not a botanical garden.   These are not the Maples and Oaks that I’m used to.  No, this park has tropical foliage mixed with great big redwoods and coastal shrubs and trees, bursting out of every crevice, and with a backdrop of the Pacific Ocean at that.  It is breathtaking.





I.. I can’t tell you how much I love zoos.  Well, how much I love to read and watch shows about animals, and how much I love gazing and being infatuated by them.  Perhaps at some point during your day, you will have a philosophical debate regarding a few chapters of Animal Liberation (not happy) versus the opening chapter of the Life of Pi (very happy, if fictional).  It seems to be a debate without end, but we were comforted by many sign posts that explained which animals had been rescued after being critically injured in the wild.  That seems ok, right?  They would have died otherwise, right?

So, walk through the Zoo, and gather the proper respect and awe to be paid to these amazing creatures.  They are being forced (to some extent) to sacrifice themselves (to some extent) for our species’ greater knowledge.  If you are the grown man who was loudly taunting the gorilla as she held her baby for your children’s amusement during our visit…I don’t even have the words to express my disgust.

The Zoo does have a hotline for you to report any obnoxious behavior at (415) 753-7069.  I sadly didn’t know about that at the time.  It is a misdemeanor to taunt animals at the San Francisco Zoo.




gorilla, zoo, san francisco zoo, san francisco, california

Alright, let’s move on from those unsettling images.  After the “savannah”, you’ll get to the gorillas, and they are indeed extraordinarily cool.  The baby gorilla was born in December of 2008.  Interestingly enough, he is being raised by an adoptive mother as his biological mother didn’t properly nurse and care for him.  That is pretty remarkable, huh?  Gorillas are always a bit unnerving as they appear to have just about as much self-awareness about their plight as you do, and will meet your gaze and keep it.  You may begin to wonder exactly who is looking at whom here.

Next up were the other primates, who were absolutely captivating and delightful (if not made some of us, and we’re not naming names here, feel some instinctual anxiety that someone was going to get hurt and who were they gonna come crying to then, huh? HUH?)  The Pied Tamarins were the most insane little spazzy things – a lot of fun to watch.  The Chimpanzee made us feel guilty; as soon as he noticed us, he looked right back and then softly and deliberately turned so that his back was facing us.  The Francois Langurs…oh, I still get heart palpitations.  They were in constant movement, chasing and crashing and leaping off every surface of their enclosure, particularly the chain link fence a few feet from our faces.  They would sometimes fall several stories onto the ground below, having failed to grasp something adequately on their way down.  I may have had to watch from the cracks between my fingers; I was so worried that one of them was going to get hurt.





The Leaping Lemur Café is on the edge of the Primate Discovery Center and has restrooms and a variety of warm foods for sale.  They do have a good selection of vegetarian offerings — by which I mean mac n’ cheese in addition to the ubiquitous cheese pizza.  Although the food was nothing to rave about, it’s fine.  The café tables and chairs were clean, though, and the cylindrical building was pretty and comfortable inside with a nice view of preening flamingos.  (The Zoo offers hand stamps for re-entry to the Zoo, so you could also bring food in your car and have a tailgate picnic.)

Up next on the loop are the big cats.  I was delighted yet wistful to find that the cat house did not have the same distinct oddly sweet yet pungent odor as the cat house at the Philadelphia Zoo.  (Anyone who grew up in Philadelphia has that smell etched into their olfactory memory, I promise you.)





The cat house was actually odorless and seemingly clean, more like a museum than a zoo enclosure.  We stared at the African female lion for a few moments, enjoying her majesty, when her companion male lion came in and roaredRepeatedly. Was I standing too close?  Did he object at my snapping camera?  Y’all, that lion laid itself down about 4 feet away from me, with its massive eyes staring straight at me from between the bars.  Talk about intimidating.  Alright, so cameras down, hushed tones, and nervous laughter it was.  I took back anything I’d ever said about lions acting like my playful, silly cat back home – this was truly a magnificent creature.

The cats have outdoor space connected to the cat house, though, that they seemingly have free access to.  The Zoo has installed tall acrylic barriers above and beyond the traditional separation moat, for what we assumed to be an additional precaution following that horrific incident in 2007.




lion, african lion, male lion, female lion, enclosure, zoo, san francisco zoo, san francisco, california

As you approach the South American portion of the Zoo, you walk through dense tall trees and beautiful streams and ponds holding an assortment of large birds and other creatures.  The vistas are so beautiful and you may be so enamored you may forget to look over at the anteater and the unfortunate warthog (why is it genetically advantageous for you to be so ugly, Mr. Warthog?  What cruel trick of evolution is this?)

Then, the bears.  The bears are…restful, for the most part.  The Grizzlies, rumored tendencies apparently placated by endless feedings and tending to, were resting their chins on the warm rocks and playfully slapping the surface of their pond.

Once you have made your way through the Zoo, it is time to head to Ocean Beach.  Exit the Zoo parking lot towards Sloat Blvd and take a left.

3.       Dusk/sunset at Ocean Beach

fog, dusk, pacific ocean, ocean beach, san francisco, california

Depending on how you have timed things, you will catch Ocean Beach either at dusk or sunset.  This might sound absolutely stunning to people on the East Coast, for whom sunsets on the beach are a natural impossibility.  Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your outlook, this part of the city is often fogged in and so the shimmering cobalt blue water under a psychedelic sky doesn’t so much happen here.  What does happen is the pale violet and silver sunset, which is probably much less striking but much more tranquil.  And pretty in its own way.

The entrance to Ocean Beach at Sloat Blvd isn’t the nicest, but there are benches for you at the top of the hill overlooking the water if you’d rather not walk onto the sand.  If you would like to walk down onto the sand, I would recommend walking a block or two north on Great Highway to where the beach is wider and the sand free of seaweed and other ocean remnants.  If you are driving, you will want to park at the lot on Sloat Blvd and then walk north – the other entrances do not have parking lots.  There is a scenic walking path along the edge of Great Highway, so the walk isn’t so bad at all.

Slide down the sand and onto the beach.  I was delighted to find out that my cowboy boots were ideal sand-sliding shoes.  Find a spot and lay out your blanket.

Ocean Beach lines the western edge of San Francisco for approximately 4 miles.  It is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which means that it is open to the public and doesn’t have one darn commercial establishment on it.  (There is the Cliff House (a restaurant) and the Beach Chalet further up north, but they deserve a daytrip all their own.) This is a great spot to see surfers hanging out in the water and occasionally making a run for it.  The waves are not the joyful happy waves of New Jersey that beckon you in, I can tell you that much.  They are large and aggressive as they crash on the shore.  We kept far away.  My husband tells me there are 15 foot waves in Hawaii, and I can’t wrap my head around that fact.

Someday, this tour will include a wetsuit, some body surfing, and a bonfire (permitted between stairwells 15 and 20), but I’m not that California…yet.

Once you’ve gotten your fill of dusky mellow sunsets, head back towards the city, specifically onto Taraval St (the streets are conveniently in alphabetical order here, so walk north or south on Great Highway depending on where “T” falls for you).

4.       Dinner at Kingdom of Dumplings in the Sunset District

soup dumplings, kingdom of dumplings, sunset district, san francisco, california

Walk east on Taraval St for two blocks.  The MUNI Metro streetcar stops at Taraval St and 46th Ave.  You will once again be lumbering through the sleepy Sunset District.  You’ll notice that there is an array of ethnic groups represented in all the storefronts.  It would be incorrect to label the Sunset District as an immigrant community, though.  Chinese men and women first started emigrating to this part of California in the mid-1860s.  That’s not a typo.  Their children are 7th generation Americans by now.

Chinese Americans have a very long and troubled history in San Francisco and the state.  Early delegates to the California state constitution wanted to create the first white-resident-only state.  Although that was shot down, an early law excluded all non-white residents from appearing as plaintiffs or witnesses in court.  Several other laws, including income tax laws, expressly discriminated against non-white residents as well.   With the ratification of the 14th Amendment, the Chinese-American community impressively took the fight to federal courts…and won, over and over again.

Take the streetcar to either 28th or 26th Ave (keep track of street sign posts to figure out where you are).  Kingdom of Dumplings will be on your right on Taraval St, between 27th and 28th Ave.  Alternatively, you can drive to the restaurant, as parking will not be an issue.

Before you enter the restaurant, it will be impossible not to look down Taraval St and see the “city falling into the ocean” effect that I described earlier.  So eerie, every single time.

The Kingdom of Dumplings is a miniscule restaurant – I counted 6 tables total.  What it lacks in size it makes up for in menu offerings, as it has at least 30 different types of Chinese dumplings on its menu in addition to other Chinese fare.  They even have two kinds of soup dumplings, my husband’s Holy Grail of Chinese Dumpling ever since he had them once in Manhattan five years ago.  The dumplings are all made fresh, and a taste confirms it.  These are a far cry from the sad, waxy dumplings that you may have had at other restaurants.  The dumpling are soft and spongy, and they melt in your mouth (and inexpensive at 12 dumplings for $7.)  Although it will be difficult to pull your eyes away from the dumpling offerings, we recommend that you order at least one non-dumpling item to help cleanse your palate.

You will be able to catch the Muni streetcar at the same corner where you got off.  The streetcar will take you directly into downtown.

2 Responses to “On Foot: Afternoon at the San Francisco Zoo and Sunset at Ocean Beach”

  1. […] a bit infatuated with West Portal, mostly from my previous visit on the way to the San Francisco Zoo.  It’s just so pretty!  And quaint!  It reminds me a bit of Cobble Hill in Brooklyn, before […]


    11/10/2010 at 3:11 pm

  2. […] image […]


    9/9/2013 at 8:10 am