Events round the Bay Area's calendar:
Zinfandel Festival — January Zinfandel is considered the granddaddy of grapes out here, the one that launched the California wine industry back in the mid-1800s. Every year in January, thousands of zinfanatics descend on San Francisco for this annual homage to "America's heritage grape," where some 1,500 pounds of cheese and 8,600 loaves of French baguettes are consumed along with countless gallons of wine. Events include tastings from more than 300 wineries, winemaker panels, and a live auction, with the big tasting event usually taking place at Fort Mason's Herbst Pavilion (Marina Blvd. at Buchanan St., www.zinfandel.org/festival).
Chinese New Year – January/February One of the most popular celebrations in the city, Chinese New Year starts with the first new moon in the new year (late-Jan.-mid-Feb.) and ends 15 days later with a parade that has become one of the largest and most popular of its kind in the country. Festivities kick off with a Flower Market Fair along Chinatown's main streets (Grant Ave. and Washington), featuring fresh flowers, fruits, candy, and a mini-parade with enormous puppets and a sneak peek at the 40-foot parade dragon. Concerts, carnivals, and the Miss Chinatown USA pageant highlight three weeks of events, which conclude with the illuminated lunar parade, starting at 5:30 p.m. Ferocious dancing lions, exploding firecrackers, stiltwalkers, lifesize puppets, traditional costumes, marching bands and the always-popular can-dancing garbagemen make this an only-in-San-Francisco event not to be missed. Parade starts at Second and Market sts. and ends at Kearny and Columbus Ave. Adding to the chaos on parade night is the annual Chinese New Year Treasure Hunt, when thousands of would-be detectives from around the country race through the darkened streets of San Francisco in the country's largest treasure hunt.
Film Fests Galore – January/FebruarySan Francisco has never met a niche, cult, or ethnic group it couldn't throw a film festival at. In an average year, the city hosts some 20-30 film fests, from the granddaddy San Francisco International Film Festival (April/May) to cinematic tributes to Asian, Latino, Armenian, foreign horror, silent — even sex workers. The season kicks off every January and February with the Berlin and Beyond Festival at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro St., 415-263-8760). The largest German language film fest in the USA, it presents new features, documentaries, and shorts from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Following on its heels, the popular Noir City festival pays homage to shadows and fog, gumshoes and dames, with 20 pulp-fiction rarities in 10 days and "no happy endings." Could you forgive yourself for missing such black-and-white classics as Kiss the Blood Off My Hands and Hell of a Woman? Things get even fishier in January with the annual Ocean Film Festival, featuring international movies about marine sciences, biodiversity, and coastal cultures. Finally, throughout the month of February, the SF Indie Film Fest, showcases independent, underground, cult, and downright strange films at the Castro, Roxie, and Victoria theaters in what has become San Francisco's answer to Sundance.
Bouquets to Art — March The de Young Museum hosts this annual ode to spring every March, gathering 150 of the area's top floral designers together to create flower arrangements that complement and interpret the museum's artworks. These are not your average nosegays: Painstakingly crafted with an eye to augment the collections in color, form, materials, and period details, the bouquets are striking works of art in and of themselves. Hours are Tuesday–Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tea Garden Dr. at 9th Ave., Golden Gate Park, 415-863-3330
Annual Cherry Blossom Festival — AprilRevelers pack the streets of tiny Japantown (Post and Buchanan sts., www.nccbf.org) every April for this annual celebration of Japanese culture and traditions. Begun in 1967 in the spring before that famous Summer of Love, the festival honors the tight-knit Japanese community that planted roots and flourished in San Francisco, despite the dark days of internment during World War II. Events include arts demonstrations, a raucous taiko drumming contest, sumo wrestling, performance of traditional Japanese dance and theater, and of course dozens of booths selling sushi, yakitori, ramen, and other Japanese specialties. The festival culminates with a grand kimono-ed and parasol-ed parade from Civic Center to the Japantown Peace Plaza.
Bay to Breakers Race — May May in San Francisco should be renamed Extrovert Month, with a series of annual events that never fail to bring out the uninhibited in full farce, er force. The third Sunday in May, some 70,000 weekend warriors and jogging loonies take to the streets for the spring ritual known as the ING Bay to Breakers Race. Ostensibly, this is a foot race — and there are indeed serious seeded runners — but really it's more about watching giant cocktail weenies, Fruits of the Loom, Dollie Parton look-alikes, and naked guys two-step their way from the foot of the Bay to the breakers of the Pacific Ocean in what has become the world's largest costumed conga line. The 7.5-mile course is fairly tame, but even if you've never jogged down the street for a carton of milk, the sheer momentum of the crowd will get you to the ?nish line. Don't miss the school of spawning salmon who run the race "upstream" every year, and the finale Footstock Festival at the Polo Fields (36th Ave. and John F Kennedy Dr., Golden Gate Park). Race begins at 8:00 a.m. at Howard and Beale streets.
Bay Area National Dance Week – April/MayIf Bay to Breakers doesn't do it for you, you can strut your stuff in an actual citywide conga line at the kick-off of Bay Area National Dance Week. The 10-day free event offers classes, workshops, performances, and public dance celebrations – some 300 in all – showcasing local dance studios and companies. At venues all around San Francisco.
Carnaval San Francisco — May While it's not Rio, Carnaval (usually last weekend in May) is probably the most multicultural, toe-tapping, hip-shaking festival and parade you'll see all year. Samba dancers strut their stuff wearing costumes that make Las Vegas showgirls look like Amish folkdancers; enormous stilt-walking puppets undulate down the street; and onlookers shake their groove things to a steady Latin and Caribbean soundtrack of mariachi trumpets, steel drums, and congas. Food and cultural festival takes place on Harrison St., bet. 16th and 24th sts.; parade is Sunday, starting at 24th and Bryant sts.
KFOG Kaboom – mid-May San Francisco's favorite classic-rock station has put on this event along the Embarcadero waterfront for the past 15 years. The highlight is an elaborate fireworks display synchronized to rock music, but early arrivals can enjoy live bands, a children's stage, games, food, and activity booths. www.kfog.com/kaboom.
North Beach Festival – June One of the the longest-running street festivals in the country, North Beach Fest (entering its 55th year) celebrates the multicultural flavors of the mostly Italian neighborhood with live music, arts and crafts, a celebrity pizza toss, Beat poetry, the annual Blessing of the Animals, Arte di Gesso (Italian street chalk art painting), and of course, tons and tons of food and drink.
Independence Day Celebration – July 4 A fireworks display over the Bay – invariably obscured by San Francisco's famous summer fog – is part of the day-long Fourth of July festivities in the city. Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf also hosts a waterfront celebration that includes live bands, food booths, and street performers. www.pier39.com
Ghirardelli Square Chocolate Festival — SeptemberThe annual festival at this famous former chocolate factory brings chocoholics from around the Bay Area to sample cocoa-flavored delicacies, sip and nibble at the wine and chocolate bar, watch chef demonstrations, and participate in other sweet activities. The event is free, but chocolate tastings require a ticket. San Francisco's answer to Willy Wonka, www.ghirardellisq.com
Autumn Moon Festival — September With its fancy parade and giant dancing dragon, Chinese New Year gets all the attention, but the Autumn Moon Festival (mid-September) is a locals' favorite — a celebration of the harvest and the full moon, when residents take to the streets and pay homage to the moon goddess, Chang-O. Native foods, crafts, taiko drummers, lion dancers, dragon boat races and performances by the Chinese opera, martial artists and acrobats highlight the two-day festival along Grant Avenue, Chinatown's main drag. Be sure to pick up a box of moon cakes—flaky moon-shaped pastries filled with sweet beans and lotus-seed paste that will bring you good fortune.
San Francisco Symphony – September-June The world-renowned Symphony and its charismatic conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, rarely disappoint – offering a season that features works from the classical canon as well as groundbreaking modern compositions. Thomas is famed for his interpretation of Mahler, with several works usually presented each year. Good seats can be tough to come by (especially when MTT conducts), but as the old Zen saying goes: Where there are no tickets, there are also some tickets. Check at the box office the day of performance for center terrace and unused season-holder tickets. www.sfsymphony.org
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival — OctoberA megawatt line-up of country, bluegrass, and crossover stars, including John Prine, Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris join up-and-comers and local favorites at this free weekend musical gathering of tribes in Golden Gate Park the first weekend in October. The annual festival brings the likes of Elvis Costello to the stage with traditional bluegrass acts such as Del McCoury and the Pine Leaf Boys. In all, more than 60 bands perform on five stages at Speedway, Marx and Lindley Meadows (John F. Kennedy Dr. around 25th Ave.) from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com.
Castro Street Fair — October It's not as over the top as the Halloween party, but the Castro Street Fair (usually first weekend in October) still has plenty of PG-rated fun. Aside from the usual crafts, food and clothing vendors, this neighborhood celebration showcases dozens of community and social service organizations, as well as drag queens, lip-synchers and hard bodies, who strut their stuff on non-stop dance pavilions. The fair takes place on and around Castro St. between Market and 19th sts., starting at 11 a.m.
Mill Valley Film Festival – October What started out some 30 years ago as an entertaining, but not particularly important, film festival has grown into one of the industry's heavy hitters, drawing big names, big crowds and big movies during its two-week run. The stars and cinephiles descend in force on the tony Marin County enclave (where movie moguls such as George Lucas and Sean Penn make their home) soaking up an eclectic mix of world cinema, new media, documentaries, shorts and lesser-known Hollywood and indie releases. Events take place at CinéArts@Sequoia, 142 Throckmorton Theatre, and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in nearby San Rafael. Call 415-383-5256 for information, www.mvff.com.
Open Studios — October More than 800 local artists open their studios to the public during this free, month-long annual art fest – the largest of its kind in the country. The event kicks off with a "Meet the Artists" reception at SomArts Gallery (934 Brannan St., www.artspan.org), where participating artists also mount an exhibition featuring samples of their works for view and sale. Different neighborhoods are highlighted each weekend; maps with studio locations are available at SomArts Gallery.
Litquake — October Drinking and writing go together in San Francisco like fog and July, and never is this more evident than during Litquake, when the Bay Area's literary luminaries literally crawl out of the woodwork to celebrate their craft. The week-long festival features readings and performances by notables such as Dave Eggers, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), Amy Tan, Armistead Maupin, and many others; it's capped off with Lit Crawl, a three-and-a-half hour literary pub crawl through 30+ venues in the Mission District. Events take place all around town; for details visit www.litquake.org.
Fleet Week — October Anti-war feelings aside, San Franciscans love their pageantry, and there's usually not a dry eye in the house when the parade of Navy ships sails under the Golden Gate during Fleet Week each October (650-599-5057). The flotilla begins kicks off a week of festivities that includes an air show by the Blue Angels aerobatic flight team, a waterfront music festival, ship tours, and fireworks.
San Francisco Jazz Festival — October/November Once a locals-only event, the annual festival is now an internationally acclaimed jazzapalooza, with more than 30 events sprinkled over five weeks in venues all around San Francisco. The festival presents a full spectrum — from jazz piano legends Herbie Hancock and Ahmad Jamal, to world music immortals such as Ravi Shankar and Youssou N'Dour. Call 866-920-5299; www.sfjazz.org.
Kristi Yamaguchi Holiday Ice Rink, late-Nov.–Jan. The Olympic skater lent her name to this annual holiday tradition a few years back – a chance for weather-wimpy San Franciscans to get a taste of winter without the snowplows and the ear-flap hats. The outdoor ice rink sits in the center of Justin Herman Plaza (Market St. at the Embarcadero), in between the Embarcadero Shopping Center, the Ferry Plaza and the Bay, and draws an interesting mix of children, noontime workers, detouring foodies from the farmers' market and tourists.
Celebration of Craftswomen – late Nov.-early Dec.The San Francisco Women's Building is the host and beneficiary of this mega holiday gift fair, now nearly 30 years old. Celebrating the art and crafts of women around the country, the celebration offers all manner of handcrafted items for sale, including ceramics, metal and wood sculpture, glasswork, jewelry, wearable art, furniture, photography, and paintings. Held at Herbst Pavilion, Fort Mason, Buchanan St. and Marina Blvd., www.celebrationofcraftswomen.org.
Nutcracker – Throughout December For those who like their holiday rituals straight up, the San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker, is as traditional as it gets. The renowned troupe holds the distinction of being the first American company to perform the full-length Nutcracker in the United States in 1944. The current production, as envisioned by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, is true to the story, with enough modern touches, lush sets and special effects to make it exciting for the media-saturated generation. War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., www.sfballet.org.
Kung Pao Kosher Comedy – December 22-25The perfect holiday event for anyone who's feeling Christmas-challenged, Kung Pao Kosher Comedy (New Asia Restaurant, 772 Pacific Ave., 415-522-3737) is a night of "Jewish comedy on Christmas in a Chinese restaurant." San Francisco comedian Lisa Geduldig launched the event 15 years ago "as a community service," and to give fellow Jews and holiday-estranged types a place to go other than the movie theater or midnight mass. No matter what your affiliation, it's a good laugh and a good nosh. Past headliners have included Henny Youngman and Carol Leifer. Performances include a multi-course Chinese dinner capped off by fortune cookies that dispense Yiddish wisdom. You should have it so good.
ONGOINGMuseum of Modern Art Permanent Collection
With its black-and-white striped cylindrical skylight, the Museum of Modern Art (151 3rd St.; 415-357-4000) is an eye-popping ode to Modernism, drawing architecture buffs and art lovers from around the world. Its permanent collection includes works by Robert Rauschenberg, René Magritte and Piet Mondrian; and major photographic works by Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston. Matisse and Beyond: The Painting and Sculpture Collection is an ongoing exhibit showcasing works from the first 60 years of the 20th century, beginning with Fauvism and Cubism and concluding with Pop Art and Minimalism. Among the collection are important works by Mondrian, Bruce Conner, Paul Klee, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Picturing Modernity: The Photography Collection includes pictures from the mid-1800s to the present that capture key moments in the development of the medium. The museum is open every day except Wednesday, 10 a.m. until 5:45 p.m. (11 a.m. in winter/spring) and until 8:45 p.m. Thursdays. Admission: Adults $12.50, seniors $8, students $7, children 12 and younger free. Admission is half price Thurs. eves. and free the first Tues. every month.
City Arts and LecturesCity Arts has presented conversations and lectures with cultural icons, literary luminaries, and notable figures in the world of arts, politics, and science for more than 25 years. You never know who might show up: Nora Ephron talking to Armistead Maupin; David Sedaris delivering one of his priceless monologues; Adam Gopnik and Ani DiFranco. A gab fest for the culturally illuminated. Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., (415) 392-4400.
Bonnie Wach is the author of USATODAY.com's San Francisco City Guide.