Experience The Best Of The Bay. (Earthquakes Are Free!)
Famous for its steep hills, historic cable cars, and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is a great city in which to spend your holidays. This being our second visit to the bay, it was like catching up with an old friend!
From a sombre tour of the former prison on Alcatraz Island to sampling a delicious clam chowder served in a sour dough bread bowl at Fisherman’s Wharf, there’s something for everyone in this compact city. This time around, we chose a tandem bicycle on which to see the major attractions. If you only have a few days to explore, here is what we recommend!
Cycling past Crissy Field to the Golden Gate Bridge.
1. Cycle Over The Golden Gate Bridge
For a closer look at the 1.7 mile long Golden Gate Bridge, one of America’s top 10 construction marvels, hire a bike from one of the many companies scattered around the bay and cycle over it. Having never ridden one before, we decided to hire a tandem for the day and headed straight for the Golden Gate Bridge as our number one spot! For a great panorama view, as well as unique angle shots of the bridge, visit ‘Fort Point National Historic Site’ which stands beneath the southern end of the bridge.
We hired a tandem bicycle from ‘Bike & View’ on Lombard Street.
All ready to pedal off…
Heading for the bridge and hoping the sun makes an appearance.
San Francisco ‘selfie’ in front of the Golden Gate bridge.
View of the bridge from Fort Point.
Fort Point under the southern end of the bridge.
Cycling over the Golden Gate Bridge.
A quick rest stop to enjoy the view over the bay.
Happy that Wayne is at the front and therefore in ‘control’!
I must say it took us a while to master the tandem! The whole synchronisation of us pedalling took me a while to fathom as I wanted to start from the opposite foot to Wayne. It was also quite nerve-racking being at the back and not having a brake. I had to rely on his skills of perception, awareness and navigation to keep me safe. But with my spacial awareness (or lack of it) I’m sure he was glad to be in charge!
2. Make The Most Of your Bike Hire & Cycle The City
San Francisco is easy to navigate, especially by bike. There are designated cycle lanes throughout the city that make cycling both a safe and viable option to reach many of the main tourist attractions. Our bicycle hire included cycle helmets, bike lock, bag and map, which made it easy to stop at various places to either take a look around or to have a rest as there are numerous bike racks provided for locking up your bike. After cycling the Golden Gate Bridge, we headed along the coastal route to the outer bay area, then cycled through the Golden Gate Park. The hilly sections did prove tricky and I had to get off the bike and walk at a few sections whilst Wayne continued pedalling. But cycling definitely enabled us to see more of the city in a short space of time.
View of the city from Fort Point.
Looking back to Golden Gate Bridge from the Coastal Trail.
The Legion of Honour Art Museum.
Taking a breather whilst Wayne wanders off to take some photographs.
Heading down Market Street…
Walking through the street market to the Ferry Building located on The Embarcadero.
3. If You Can Beat The Crowds And Get A Ticket Visit ‘The Rock’ & Take A Tour Of Alcatraz
We did this tour back in November 2011 and it was worth every dollar! (But we pre-booked online at least 3 months in advance). Now in the hands of the National Park Service, Alcatraz Island is one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions. (If you expect to get a ticket for that day, you need to start queueing from 5:00am. Top Tip: Pre-book online if you can). Your ticket includes a ferry cruise from San Francisco Bay to ‘The Rock’ as well as a guided audio tour of the former prison. What made the experience really stand out for us was the vast knowledge of the Rangers concerning the history of the penitentiary and its infamous inmates, especially listening to their tales of great escape attempts, as well as Hollywood truths & myths! The audio tour was also really well done, playing true accounts from prisoners & guards recorded before Alcatraz was closed in 1963.
Taking the ferry to ‘The Rock’ with Alcatraz Cruises.
‘Alcatraz Island’ maintained by the National Park Service.
Row of prison cells.
Enjoying the audio tour.
Not one of the famous inmates!
4. Take A Ride To Nob Hill On A Historic Tram
This is not quite as easy as it seems, as again there are usually large queues of people waiting to board the historic trams that traverse the city from 3 different locations. You can board at either Powell and Market streets, where there are two lines taking different routes ending in Fisherman’s Wharf. Alternatively, the California Street line runs East-West from the Financial District, through Chinatown, over Nob Hill and stops at Van Ness Avenue. One-way on any of the ‘cable cars’ is $6. However it’s probably better value if you buy an ‘All-Day Pass’ for $15 that allows you access to the city’s buses, street cars and cable cars so you can ride all three routes each way.
Tourists flock to ride the historic trams as seen in many Hollywood movies!
An iconic shot of San Francisco.
The best spot on board is to stand at either end and literally hang on!
Hollywood pose mastered by the second ride!
5. Head To Fisherman’s Wharf To Sample A Seafood Medley
Fisherman’s Wharf draws in many visitors eager to sample the fresh seafood on offer. As a working fishing pier, there is lots of choice, the most popular dish being a creamy ‘clam chowder’ served inside a hollowed out sour dough bread roll acting as a bowl. Whether you want fine dining with fantastic views of the bay, or to sit on a bench with the seagulls whilst sampling something fresh from the fish market, there are plenty of options. Fisherman’s Wharf is ‘foodie’ heaven and not to be missed!
Heading to Fisherman’s Wharf to check out the seafood on offer.
A popular restaurant at the wharf.
Fresh crab cooked to order at one of the many seafood stalls.
My new octopus friend.
San Francisco’s signature ‘Clam Chowder’ served in a sour dough bread bowl.
One of the many seagulls feasting on some left-over bread.
6. Enjoy A Spot Of Retail Therapy At ‘Pier 39’
No trip to San Francisco is complete without visiting ‘PIER 39’. Not only is it home to a colony of sea lions, but there is a whole array of attractions including waterfront dining, street performers, live music, shopping, as well as the famous San Francisco Carousel and the Aquarium of the Bay. We enjoyed wandering around the many gift shops and seeing that you can buy just about ‘anything’ labelled with San Francisco! (It’s a good job we’re on a budget and have reached maximum weight allowance or I would have had a basket full of tacky goodies!)
Photo opportunity not to be missed: Located on the top level of Pier 39 is the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Restaurant made famous by Tom Hanks in the movie Forest Gump. Outside there is a bench complete with a suitcase and box of chocolates, where you can literally sit in his footsteps for that iconic movie shot where Forest reminisces about his life!
Hopefully the only bear we’ll get to meet up close and personal!
Sitting in the footsteps of Forest Gump!
For all you ‘Breaking Bad’ fans out there! We love Walt & Jessie!
7. Test Your Legs – Venture Out On A City Walking Tour
Not content with a cycle around the city, we also devised our own walking tour. As our hotel was located at Fillmore and Hayes, we had around a 40 minute walk across the city to the waterfront anyway. So instead of taking the 21 bus for $2 each, we walked various routes each day to take in more areas. We felt completely safe the whole time and got to see a lot more neighbourhoods this way. It also helped that we had great weather and I was with Wayne – the ‘expert’ navigator. If you’re considering walking, remember San Francisco is built over 44 hills – so the walk can be quite strenuous! Also, just like in any other city in the world, keep your wits about you and use common sense when deciding your route and time of day for walking.
Navigating San Francisco’s hilly streets.
One of the most photographed sights in San Francisco – ‘The Painted Ladies’ off Alamo Square.
Statue in Fort Mason, Great Meadow.
In front of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge.
Historic street car of the F line.
San Francisco City Hall.
California Public Utilities Commission Building.
Wayne with President Lincoln.
Not what we were expecting at Nob Hill. We didn’t have any laundry today – but it’s always handy to know the location of a launderette!
8. Expand Your Cultural Side By Visiting Chinatown and Japantown
San Francisco’s Japantown is the largest and oldest such enclave in the United States. We enjoyed seeing the fusion of modern city buildings with traditional style Japanese architecture and garden landscapes. The Peace Pagoda, a five-tiered concrete stupa designed by Japanese architect Yoshiro Taniguchi and presented to San Francisco by the people of Osaka, Japan, is located in the northeastern corner of Peace Plaza and dominates the skyline in this area. It’s definitely worth a look if you can drag yourself away from the attractions at the waterfront.
We have been to many ‘Chinatowns’ throughout the world, but San Francisco Chinatown is considered the largest outside of Asia. This surprised us having visited the huge, bustling Chinatowns of both New York and London. ‘Chinatown’ is always a major tourist attraction and a wonderful place to explore and learn about the culture and history of one of our favourite countries. It’s also one of the best places for food. So we went in search of some dim sum and Genral Tso’s famous chicken, Chinese food we had been longing for during our hikes on the Pennine Way and Coast to Coast. We were delighted to discover the ‘Shanghai Dumpling King’ located on Balboa and 34th Avenue and knew it would be a great place to eat as the queue for a table was outside the door! (Always a great sign, especially when the people queueing are ‘locals’!)
We discovered the ‘Shanghai Dumpling King’ during our cycle ride. Not technically in Chinatown but located on Balboa and 34th Avenue.
We were not disappointed! Tasty spicy chive and pork dumplings.
9. Stroll Along The Embarcadero & Delight in The Delicacies On Offer Inside The Ferry Building
If Pier 39 is on your list of things to do, then continue east along the waterfront past the Port of San Francisco to the Ferry Building, where you will also find a food and shopping haven. Next to the Ferry Building is the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market that operates on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, whilst inside there are numerous eateries and deli counters with fantastic choices of meats, vegetables, artisan cheeses and oils. It is claimed that the restaurants and cafés serve cuisine representing the quality and cultural diversity of San Francisco’s best chefs. So if you have the budget, why not treat yourself to a slap up meal and night on the town!
Take a stroll along Pier 7 for views of Oakland Bay Bridge.
A floating restaurant!
Inside the Ferry Building.
Gourmet sausages for sale at one of the many deli counters.
10. Find Your Sea Legs By Going On Board Balclutha At The San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park.
Being on the west coast of the USA, of course San Francisco is steeped in maritime history. One of the greatest examples of this is the presence of Balclutha, a steel-hulled full rigged ship that was built in 1886. She is the only square rigged ship left in the San Francisco Bay area and is representative of several different commercial ventures, including lumber, salmon, and grain. If you are interested in going aboard her, Balclutha is now a U.S. National Historic Landmark and is currently preserved at the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, located at Hyde Street Pier.
Using our ‘American Beautiful Pass’ to visit the Maritime National Historical Park.
Walk along Hyde Street Pier to see the famous ship Balclutha and discover her career at sea.
You can also go on-board the Hercules tug-boat.
Wayne takes charge of steering!
In 1904, Balclutha was renamed Star of Alaska during her time transporting wild salmon.
Staying In The City
Why choose San Francisco? We decided to fly into San Francisco instead of LA as there are good transport links to Yosemite National Park, our starting point for the John Muir Trail. Plus, being approximately 7 miles by 7 miles, the city is easy to navigate and we feel you have a much more personal experience here. Walking around, you generally feel safe, and there are a lot of options. From beaches, to parks, to museums, to shops, there is so much to see and do, and much of it is for free or for less than $10 – perfect for budget backpackers like ourselves!
Not part of our planned itinerary, we also got to experience an earthquake for the first time! The earthquake of magnitude 6 was the strongest to hit northern California in 25 years! It took place around 3.20am. We actually woke up to feel the bed shaking, then proceeded to go back to sleep, not realising what had happened until we saw a news broadcast the following morning.
The last time we visited San Francisco during our first world trip, we stayed at an RV Park located in the Marin Headlands, just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge. This meant we either had to take the bus or ferry to reach San Francisco’s mainland. This time, we wanted to be closer to the action, so to speak, so we chose a hotel considered to be in walking distance of all the main attractions.
We stayed at the Casa Loma Hotel located at 610 Fillmore Street. Not a 5 minute walk to the waterfront, (for that you would have to stay at the Radisson Hotel on Fisherman’s Wharf). It was more like a 40 minute walk – but hey, we like walking, and remember – just being on the mainland itself meant we were closer to the main attractions!
Our helpful & friendly hotel, Casa Loma, located on Fillmore Street.
Our other reason for staying in San Francisco for a few days was to complete our preparations for hiking the John Muir Trail (which we start on Friday 29th August 2014! Exciting times!) We needed access to a large hiking shop so that we could purchase bear canisters which are mandatory for securing food stuffs during our hike. (More about our preparations in our next post).
So there you have it! We enjoyed 3 jam-packed days in San Francisco, the best of all was hiring a tandem to cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge – simply one of those bucket-list moments. But there are still many things that San Francisco has to offer that we haven’t done yet – maybe we’ll add them to the list for next time – after all, 3rd time lucky!