Everything you need when planing a vacation trip to San Francisco
Detail from a Coit Tower mural



One essential travel item is a good book. When traveling one inevitably finds one's self waiting -- waiting for the flight, waiting for the museum to open, waiting for everyone to get pack, etc. A good book can make such lost time enjoyable. And with a good book, about or set in the area you are traveling through, can make the whole experience so much richer.


So here are a few books we recommend as a traveling companion on trip to the Bay Area.


The Barbary Coast


The Barbary CoastBy Herbert Asbury


First published in 1933 this has remained the classic telling of the lawless depravity of San Francisco's early years. This page turner tells the history never explored in classrooms.


From the first paragraph:


"...the horde of gamblers, thieves, harlots, politicians and other felonious parasites who battened upon them, there arose a unique criminal district that for almost seventy years was the scene of more viciousness and depravity, but which at the same time possessed more glamour, then any other area of vice and iniquity on the American continent."


How could you not want to read on?


The Maltese Falcon


The Maltese Falcon

By Dashiell Hammett


This classic PI thriller set in 1929 San Francisco, follows the adventures of private detective Sam Spade through the streets of the city as he tries to get out of a murder rap. John's Grill makes a cameo appearance. The place is still there. Back in the 20's Hammett used to eat there all the time. Later they had a small shrine to the book with a first edition and the Falcon from the movie on display. But, January 2007, someone stole them. They need to hire a good PI.


How ya want them eggs? Hard boiled.


Dreaming of Babylon


Dreaming of BabylonBy Richard Brautigan


Brautigan was a popular San Franciscan writer who's quirky humor captured the spirit of the city's counterculture. In this novel he draws on the genera of the hard boiled PI thrillers to tell this story of a down on his luck detective in the opening days of WWII who needs to borrow some bullets for his gun, but has difficulty doing so because he suffers from brain damage that causes him to drift off into a dream world about Babylon. It is a fast read with many bite size chapters, perfect for on the road, with lots of local references and very funny.


Sadly this book is no longer in print, but used copies can be picked up at Amazon.com.




1906By James Dalessandro


This best selling novel set in San Francisco, is about far more than the earthshaking disaster of the title's name. Written in the first person through the character of Annalisa Passarelli, a young music critic and reporter, who is working to gather information about the corrupt city leaders. This engrossing story becomes very complex with many subplots and fascinating characters. This is a great travel book.



The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill


The Wild Parrots of Telegraph HillBy Mark Bittner


In a search for self discovery the author moved to San Francisco as do so many others. After awhile he ended up as a homeless "dharma bum." The sense of purpose in life that alludes him in his religious practices and philosophy studies, he finds in caring for a flock of wild parrots that live in the trees on Telegraph Hill and the in Presidio. This delightful book is much more than a bird book. It is thought-provoking as we see the world through the attitudes and thoughts of an eccentric homeless man. At times it is heart-wrenching and at times very touching. And you will love the ending.


The book inspired a documentary film to be made about Mark and the parrots, which has the same name as the book.


Historic San Francisco


Historic San FranciscoBy Rand Richards


This highly readable history of the city starting in 1542 up to the earthquake of 1989. It manages to do this without becoming ponderous, but instead, remains entertaining until the end. It is well illustrated and has many colorful anecdotes that help keep history from becoming dull and irrelevant


This book also acts as a guide book with four walking tours included.




The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test


Acid TestBy Tom Wolfe


This book about novelist Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, written in Wolfe's trademark Day-Glo style chronicles the shift in the counterculture from the cool of the beatniks to the psychedelic flower power of the hippies. Kesey was in the middle of it all and Wolfe was there taking notes. Its an amazing story and an amazing book. It makes an excellent companion piece to Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.



Daughter of Fortune


Daughter of FortuneBy Isabel Allende


This best selling historical adventure novel takes place in San Francisco during the Gold Rush among other places. Like the author, the book's heroine, Eliza Sommers, grew up in Chile and moved to San Francisco. The story becomes complicated as Eliza moves through different cultures and descends into the lowest levels of frontier society while hiding her identity in drag.


The book is wonderfully written, rich in detail and makes a long past era seem vividly alive.


Mud Blood and Gold


Mud Blood and GoldBy Ran Richards


In 1848 San Francisco was a backwater village of 1,000 people. A year later it had grown to 25,000 and hordes more from all over the world were on their way. The explosion of growth was, of course, fueled by lure of easy riches that captured the imagination of the world after the discovery of gold just lying on the river bottom east of San Francisco at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.


Mud Blood and Gold reconstructs that raucous year of gold frenzy and brings it to life for the reader. Never dull, this book is a great read.


Disaster by the Bay


Disaster by the BayBy H. Paul Jeffers


If it is a non-fiction account of the quake and fires of 1906 you want to read, then this is about as good an account as there is.


There is a selection of photographs of the destruction, some are clearly printed and others are sadly faded. Really, in this age of Photoshop, there is really no excuse for old faded photos. It is such an easy thing to restore them to their original condition.



Bummer and Lazarus


BummerBy Malcolm Barker


This book tells the story of two stray dogs that wandered the streets of San Francisco during the 1860's. This book contains accounts and illustrations taken from the newspapers of the day which kept the population informed on their exploits. At a time when the world could be quite cruel to animals in general and masterless dogs in particular, the loyalty of these dogs to each other won them the respect and admiration of the city.


Perhaps not really suitable as a travel book – its not very thick and is larger than most paperbacks, making it harder to lug around, but we include it here for its touching subject matter and because it shows the early city from a different angle. About from dog-level, I would say.


Today you can find a brass plaque dedicated to the memory of these "two dogs with but a single bark, two tails that wagged as one" near the base of the Transamerica Pyramid.



bottem of the shadow


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