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cable cars are for suckers.
the anti-tourist's guide to san francisco
by matt morin
pop culture

Hello, my name is Matt and I’ll be your tour guide this afternoon.

Every year, about 16 million people spend their vacations in San Francisco and they’re comically easy to spot. They’re the ones wearing shorts and Golden Gate Bridge t-shirts in June…when it’s 61 degrees. They’re the ones waiting in line for hours out in front of The Gap to ride the cable car 10 blocks. They snap pictures of the Transamerica building, keep Pier 39 in business, and are the only people gullible enough to fall for the homeless guy’s “I need money for a bus ticket home” story. Sure, there are the more adventurous tourists who might venture into the colorful Castro for a good drag queen tale to tell friends back home, or the visiting businessman who will venture into the Tenderloin for a sexually transmitted disease, but all in all, there’s a word for the things tourists do in this city: Touristy. (Imagine that.) And it’s a shame, too. Because as cool as Alcatraz is (which, for a crumbling prison on a rock in the middle of a fog bank, is pretty damn cool), most people who visit San Francisco are missing out.

I mean really, why on Earth would you spend a day wandering around the city when you could skate it? Every Friday night, hundreds of inline skaters gather at the end of Market Street for a 12.5 mile loop around the city – they’re known as the Midnight Rollers. I started doing the Friday night skate when I first moved to the city in 1995. The three-hour route takes you on a tour of San Francisco that most people (even residents) rarely get to see: The vibrant energy of the wharf; the massive, elaborate architecture at the Palace of Fine Arts; the cacophony of 700 single-file skaters in the Broadway Tunnel. Most hills are somehow avoided and frequent stops to dance, talk and refuel help slower skaters catch up. We laugh. We have fun. And we wave at tourists stuck in air conditioned buses as they’re instructed to look out the right side of the vehicle.

Inline skating not your thing? Maybe you should time your trip to coincide with the Bay to Breakers race. No worries if you’re not a runner. Maybe only 10,000 of the 70,000 official (and estimated 20,000 unofficial) entrants actually run the 12 kilometers. As a matter of fact, you probably won’t even see a runner. The serious people start at the front and I guarantee a dozen Kenyans will finish the whole event before the people at the back of the crowd even reach the starting line. What you’re much more likely to see are 25 people dressed as a giant centipede or a full-sized rolling tiki hut stocked with a complete bar. But if you want to keep things simple, you could do something like 10 of us did last year – steal a shopping cart, put a keg in it, and get hammered before you even reach Golden Gate Park. It’s Mardi Gras with running shoes and a sight not to be missed.

Of course if physical exercise is not your idea of a vacation, you can always take in some of San Francisco’s legendary music and performance art. And you can get both in the same place during Incredibly Strange Wrestling. For a $16 ticket you get four different punk bands who play sets in between some of the craziest wrestling you’ve ever seen. By the end of the night, your cheeks will hurt from non-stop laughing as you watch wrestlers like Culo de Muerte take on the Poontangler, or Macho Sasquacho and El Homo Loco battle it out against El Pollo Diablo and El Libido Gigante. Oh, and don’t forget your tortillas. Before the first band even starts, and continuing throughout the night, the crowd flings corn tortillas anywhere and everywhere. Expect to catch a couple with your face, but that’s a small price to pay for getting to throw your own corn disk. Bean the lead singer in the mouth mid-note or knock a beer out of the hand of an unsuspecting ringside fan. I was conservative and brought 250 tortillas last time. I should have bought 500.

If you’re looking for something slightly (and I stress slightly) more subdued, you could try your hand at bingo. Of course, this being San Francisco, you know it’s no normal bingo. It’s Ba-Da-Bingo! Put on as a fundraiser by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Ba-Da-Bingo is something akin to bingo meets the Rocky Horror Picture Show. There are drag queens. People yelling obscenities at selected moments. And audience participation is not only encouraged, but demanded. When I went prior to Christmas, the theme was “A Porn Star Holiday.” Everyone was given free gay porn on DVD (um…e-mail me if you want my unopened copy). If you happened to have your raffle ticket drawn (no, that is not a euphemism for anything), you could play bingo from a card printed on the boxer shorts currently being worn an actual gay porn star. There’s big money and prizes, but a word of caution: do not bring a cell phone. Anyone whose phone goes off (no, that is not another euphemism) gets hauled up to the front and spanked with a paddle. Hard. (Although I don’t know. Maybe you’re into that shit.)

For those tourists even a little more brave, October is a great month to visit the city by the bay – and not because it’s actually one of the warmest months the Bay Area has, but because October is the Exotic Erotic Ball. Held annually for the past 22 years, the Exotic Erotic Ball is a wild pre-Halloween event. Thousands of people – many in some of the most creative, sexy, hilarious, inventive costumes you’ve ever seen – flock to the Ball for sheer debauchery. You’ll be entertained by Ron Jeremy as emcee, learn the finer points of liquid latex application, and see plenty of skin. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is some fringe event. This year I saw a great performance by Digital Underground, drank good microbrew, and danced most of the night to one of my favorite DJs. Oh yeah, and I wore a sleeveless rubber shirt and vinyl pants.

All craziness aside, don’t let San Francisco’s freaky nature scare you from visiting. There’s something for everyone here. We’ve got city-wide treasure hunts for the cerebral, parades for the stupid, and even our very own pirate supply store for the…um…swashbucklers. It’s the beauty of this city: anything goes…and it usually does.

So the next time you’re in San Francisco, (or if you live here and just don’t get out much because of that nasty thing on your lip) you should look past the standard, stereotypical San Francisco entertainment. Skip the trendy Marina bars or the North Beach Italian restaurants and try something a little different. At the very least you’ll go home with a great story. And at best? You’ll end up moving here, paying $1500 a month for a studio apartment, $1.90 a gallon for regular unleaded, $10.50 for a movie…and loving every single minute of it.


Matt would love to be George Plimpton...welll, except for the being dead part. He supplies the doing and the writing. All he asks of you is the reading.

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robert melos
1.21.04 @ 1:11a

Well, I've got your last sentence living in New Jersey. You've sold me. I'll be moving as soon as I can line up a good paying job.

Seriously, just based on some photos and videos I've seen of the city, it looks to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. If I do get to San Francisco, you're hired as my tour guide.

david damsker
1.21.04 @ 8:24a

I was one of those dummies in shorts and a T-Shirt on the Golden Gate bridge last October.

Actually, a guy jumped to his death while I was standing there. I didn't see him fall, but one minute there was nothing, and the next there was a smooshed body on the cement. Through our binoculars, we saw some really nasty close-ups.

margot lester
1.21.04 @ 11:12a

dude. as long as you're mentioning exotic erotic, why not go full-on, as it were, and promote the folsom street fair?

sfo and new orleans are my homes away from home. both goregous small cities with a nice edge on them.

adam kraemer
1.21.04 @ 11:28a

Wow. Two uses for the bridge.

tracey kelley
1.21.04 @ 12:07p

I can't rollerblade on completely flat surfaces.

I can't imagine doing it in San Fran, fun as it may be. That would be a cool way to see the city, though.

Bus tours. Blech.

matt morin
1.21.04 @ 8:41p

San Francisco really is a great city. I'm sure most major urban areas have all sorts of cool, off-the-touristy-path things to do. SF's just seem to be one step crazier than most places.

I think that's what I like about the Bay Area. People here accept - and enjoy - others doing what they like to do. Not much is out of bounds. It's a city that takes itself seriously when it needs to, but also realizes that it doesn't need to very often.

And I love the fact that eventhough I've lived here almost a decade, I still find new, fun, original things to do every single week.


lee anne ramsey
1.22.04 @ 3:15p

tracey - the funny part is that when a San Franciscan says "flat" in regards to a street, it's really just relative to the enormously steep hills that are the norm. The number of times I have seen cars rolling backwards or get stuck on the hills ... trust me that roller blading here is certainly a challenge!! (Personally, I think they're crazy... but that's just me.)

Matt, I think it's very cool you have found such original things to do in SF!!

jael mchenry
1.26.04 @ 4:03p

It's no Exotic Erotic Ball, but I did get to take advantage of a pleasant DC semi-tourist location on Saturday. When it's below freezing, the best thing to do is visit the Botanic Garden. Giant, giant greenhouse, much of which is jungle. Ahhh, jungle.

sandra thompson
1.29.04 @ 10:19a

Ah, if only there were no earthquakes.

matt morin
1.29.04 @ 4:04p

We haven't had a BIG earthquake here in a long time. And the little ones are actually kinda fun.

Just like surfers who are in the water all the time don't really worry about sharks, people who live in the Bay Area learn not to really worry about earthquakes.

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