By Suzanne Russo—
The eclectic Mission District is somehow both quintessential San Francisco and a world apart. Like the hip Marina and tony Pacific Heights, the Mission has a large population of ravishing Victorian homes but here the genteel structures keep company with tall palm trees, colorful murals and ornate Spanish-style architecture. And while its edgy, artsy flair resembles the vibe in neighboring SoMa, the Mission is more down to earth.
I recently enjoyed an entire blissful day of Mission flavor and sunshine (this micro-climate at the base of Twin Peaks is also often sunny even when the rest of the city is not). I dove in to the nabe’s offbeat, contagious energy. And I spent just $30—three meals included.
$2.50 scone + $1.25 coffee = $3.75
While it holds true that my usual Mission mainstay, Tartine Bakery (600 Guerrero Street), is every bit as good as its seductive smells and around-the-corner lines imply, the cheaper and equally tasty option is new kid on the next block, Arizmendi Bakery (1268 Valencia Street).
The Mission shop is the latest in a series of outposts (the others are in the Sunset and the East Bay) of the worker-owned coop that’s earned a cult following for its crusty pizza and rotating menu of artisan breads.
For breakfast, though, look no further than the self-serve case of corn-cherry scones, a crumbly delight that has inspired dreams and sonnets (okay, maybe just a few special trips out to the Sunset).
My scone fix managed, I wandered down 24th Street, also known as “El Corazon de la Misione,” (the heart of the Mission), for a little artistic flair.
First stop: Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center (2981 24th Street at Harrison), the energetic arts organization responsible for the mural projects that have been beautifying San Francisco and enriching its communities for more than 30 years.
The center leads tours, but I chose to peruse the gift shop, get a general sense of history and then tour the murals on my own, heading back the way I came, with a stop at Balmy Alley, a tiny, colorful haven where more than 30 vibrant murals mingle with cascading bougainvillea.
Sunshine and Views
Then it was off to Dolores Street, a lovely incline lined with palm trees and exquisite Victorian homes, with the vast green expanse that is Mission Dolores Park holding court at 20th Street. Though this neighborhood recreational center hosts everything from the “Really Really Free Market” to free movies movies al fresco, when I visited on a quiet weekday morning, it was all sunshine and spectacular city views.
$5 suggested donation
I could have gazed at San Francisco’s iconic skyline, with the elaborate tower of the Spanish-style Mission High School floating in the foreground, all day, but instead I moved on down Dolores to visit the lovely structure that gave the neighborhood—and the city—their names.
Built in 1776, Mision San Francisco de Asis (also known as Mission Dolores) is the oldest building in the city. Though it’s dwarfed by a massive (and stunning) cathedral next door, this modest adobe structure is equally impressive, with a woven ceiling patterned after the basket-weaving of the native Costonoans who built the chapel.
Out back, the garden and cemetery are a lush and poignant tribute to some of the more unfortunate aspects of the city’s history (along with several California dignitaries, many of the Native Americans who died building the Mission are buried here).
When it comes to a tasty, cheap and authentic Mission District lunch, head to unassuming Panchitas (3091 16th Street at Valencia). This simple, friendly joint serves up traditional Mexican and Salvadorean eats with a smile. Tuck into a well-stuffed burrito or try Salvadorian enchiladas. Either way, you’ll fill up for under $5.
Yes, we’re on a budget, but I couldn’t visit the Mission without browsing in its quirky shops. I started with the musty smell and stacks of well-loved pages at Adobe Bookshop (3166 16th Street), then visited the used bookstore’s Backroom Gallery, a unique, alternative space for emerging artists to showcase their work.
Next I checked out the funky chotchkes to retro clothing at quirky Therapy (545 Valencia Street), and “got my beat on” at Aquarius Records (1055 Valencia Street). The city’s oldest independent record shop, Aquarius is still the spot for music lovers, with an unbelievable selection of musical magic, and a surprisingly unpretentious vibe.
Peace, Art and Oddities
In between those shop windows are tucked some other eye-candy elements worth looking out for. I checked out more murals on Clarion Alley (off Valencia, just past 17th Street) and then took in the “Troll Window” (yes, you read that right) at 18th and Valencia.
Also on 18th Street is the Women’s Building (3543 18th St.), a testament to girl power best known for Maestrapeace, the impressive mural on its facade.
It just so happens that two of the most, um, interesting addresses in this crazy ‘hood are right next to each other. We’ll start with 826 Valencia, a children’s literacy organization founded by author Dave Eggers. In addition to an educational space, though, this whimsical spot is also outfitted with fake trees, a tented reading spot and, naturally, a pirate store.
Next door at Paxton Gate (824 Valencia), curiosity killed (and stuffed) the cat. The brainchild of a couple of landscape designers, this bizarre yet delightful space is gardening store, natural history museum and curiosity shop in one, with a peculiar stock that includes everything from bulb vases to taxidermied animals.
Post-taxidermy store, drinks were the only logical next step, and, it seems, all Mission roads lead back to Arizmendi. I avoided the temptation to devour another scone, though, and instead opted for its ultra-cool neighbor, Heart Wine Bar (1270 Valencia Street). In true tribute to its up-and-coming yet laid-back neighborhood, Heart is both sleek and unpretentious.
Jeff, Heart’s proprietor, wanted to combine the menu of an upscale wine bar with the fun, relaxed atmosphere of a beer garden. He did up the space, originally built to house Wells Fargo stagecoaches, with reclaimed wood (some from Katrina houses), antique mirrors and rotating art exhibits.
The wines, all natural, small-production artisan varietals, are served in mason jars and priced as low as $6. They also come with amusing, off-the-wall descriptions. (My favorite: “Sort of like that Italian fishmonger in Genoa, but smells better.”)
As for eats, the menu is minimal but tasty, with local meats, cheeses and snacks (olives, almonds, pickles…) on offer, in addition to some salads and a few sandwiches. I had a yummy sandwich and a glass of good wine for a remarkable $15.
Grand total: $27.75!
Do you have any tips about Cheapo-friendly ways to spend the day in the Mission District? Share with us in the comments section.