After much itinerary-tweaking, San Francisco ended up being our only destination on the USA’s west coast; at the insistence of my boyfriend, unlike LA and San Diego, this city wasn’t scrapped from our initial list. Before visiting San Francisco, any visions I had of the city were based on scenes from The Princess Diaries (it exceeded my expectations of just how hilly it was) and Escape from Alcatraz (which actually painted a very accurate picture of “The Rock”).
We flew with Spirit Airlines (who are notorious for the lack of leg room, but offered us the cheapest fare from Chicago O’Hare) into Oakland International Airport. It was then an easy trip on the BART (which for the uninitiated stands for ‘Bay Area Rapid Transit’) into downtown San Francisco. The city itself proved, somewhat unexpectedly, to be a rather difficult place to find cheap, budget accommodation; in the end, we settled for the Pacific Tradewinds Hostel, located on the edge of Chinatown. A word of warning: if you’re not into the whole mass dorms hostelling experience, this probably isn’t the place for you. Preliminaries aside, here’s a selection of things to see, do and eat in (and around) the city by the bay . . .
Ascend the Coit Tower
For the best panoramic views of San Francisco, head to the Coit Tower. It’s blustery at the top, and for the best views you should try and choose a clear, sunny day devoid of the quintessential San Francisco fog. The murals on the entrance level are interesting to look at while you wait to ascend, and there’s only a few stairs to climb at the top since you’re taken up in a lift. No excuses for not passing up this panoramic view since it doesn’t require climbing 300+ steps to see it.
See the Sea Lions at Pier 39
During the summertime, loads – and I mean loads – of sea lions come and bask on flotation devices just off Pier 39. If you can tolerate the stench, they’re well worth a visit for the entertainment factor! Whilst you’re there, you can catch a glimpse of Alcatraz from the end of Pier 39 and sample some great food in some of the restaurants – try Pier Market for the clam chowder, if that’s your sort of thing.
See the “Painted Ladies”
The “Painted Ladies” are not, as their name suggests, painted ladies. In fact, it’s the name given to a row of postcard-perfect Victorian houses on Steiner Street (next to Alamo Square Park), which are painted and decorated in a multitude of colours. If you’re not pushed for time, it’s worth the trip – after all, it’s not an architectural style that you’ll get the chance to see just anywhere.
Alcatraz is arguably the star attraction of the city; it was my ultimate must-see when we visited. If you want to go, it’s highly advisable to book in advance. You can book tickets up to three months in advance, and should book them through this website as it’s the only genuine seller of Alcatraz tickets. The journey over is a little rough, but it’s well worth it. Book your ticket for an early slot – this way it won’t be as busy and you’ll be free to spend as much time as you like exploring the site. (You can come back on any ferry you choose.)
Explore the Ferry Building
This was the first thing we did on our first day, and boy was it a good choice. On Saturdays, there is a huge farmer’s market outside; the blueberries we tried from one stall were incredible, even if they did cost $9/pint. Inside the Ferry Building is a remarkable collection of independent shops – perfect for postcards to send home, or gifts for friends and family. If you have a sweet tooth (like me!) then head to Humphry Slocombe for an ice cream; they have different flavours every day and you’re guaranteed to find something unusual!
Discover Muir Woods
Across the bay lies Marin County; it’s here, in Muir Woods, that you can get right up close to the world’s tallest living things: the Californian Coastal Redwoods. To explore Marin County in depth, you really need a car. However, it’s still a do-able trip if you’re relying on public transport: take the ferry to Sausalito, and from there a bus to Muir Woods. It’s worth noting that the bus is seasonal, and only runs on weekends and holidays – so if you’re relying on it, plan your trip accordingly. Once there, Muir Woods is a breathtaking natural space: trees so tall you can’t see the tips, trails weaving amongst them and an underlying feeling of tranquillity.
Try Boudin’s Sourdough
Before visiting San Francisco, I had never tried sourdough before in my life, having relegated it to the realms of “weird foods” preferred by my mum. However, upon trying some at Boudin’s, I changed my mind: the stuff’s delicious! At Boudin’s, they make it in all sorts of shapes and sizes (including alligators, turtles, crabs and more) and you can even watch someone making them in the window. If, like me, you’re not bothered about eating the fancy shapes you can simply buy a basic sandwich roll for around $1.40.
Walk (or Cycle) the Golden Gate Bridge
There are tons of places in the city centre where you can rent a bike and ride across this iconic landmark; others will allow you to cycle one way and return by ferry, if you’ve got weary legs. Being utterly bonkers – and, for my part, a horrendous cyclist – we decided to walk. To the Golden Gate Bridge, across it, back across it, and back into town. Bonkers, right? But worth every minute – and it didn’t cost us a penny. Surely walking – or cycling – across the Golden Gate Bridge is something you have to do at least once in your lifetime?
Head to Little Italy for Pizza
Really, a trip to San Francisco should be all about sampling the fresh fish and seafood delights. However, sometimes you just feel like something else, like pizza. L’Osteria del Forno does amazingly affordable authentic Italian pizzas, with great service and a lovely atmosphere. It’s small though – the restaurant that is, not the pizza – so unless you’re there early be prepared to wait.
Pay a Visit to the Cable Car Museum
So, assuming you’ve taken that all-essential cable car ride up and down the hills of San Francisco (and if you haven’t, you should) you should check out the Cable Car Museum, to discover how the whole system works. It’s free to visit and you can see the cables themselves in motion, alongside learning a few interesting facts to fill your postcards with.
Visit the World’s Crookedest Street (But Don’t Take Selfies if You’re Driving)
Lombard Street is widely acknowledged as the world’s crookedest street; the gradient of the street is jaw-droppingly steep and the recommended speed is 5 mph. Even as a pedestrian, it is a slightly terrifying street to walk down. It’s certainly worth a detour to marvel at the design – and to watch the spectacle as drivers tackle the descent of this infamous street.
Marvel at Yosemite National Park
Even if it’s just for the day. It is totally worth every moment, especially if you won’t be in the area again any time soon. After a lot of research, we decided the best option for us was to go on a tour; we chose Extranomical Tours and were really pleased with it as it was a small group tour, and we got plenty of time in the park itself. For me, this was the highlight of our time in San Francisco: I’ll never forget the incredible views, the enormous Giant Sequoia that we crawled in to, the little hikes we were able to do, seeing a climber on El Capitan and the bear that crossed the road barely fifty metres behind us . . .