Wow, what a city! On one side you have the feeling of walking through a dirty and grotty American city. Homelessness and drug use is happening right on the streets. The other side of San Francisco seems to ignore this and continue on as normal with thousands of locals and tourists walking by. Either way, the city entices all types of travellers to explore the vast influence from many cultures. Each suburb is unique and has their own characteristics. San Francisco should be near the top of your top American cities to visit.
Let’s start off with the five main things to do in San Francisco.
Golden Gate Bridge
One of the most famous bridges of the world, the Golden Gate Bridge connects San Francisco to the harbour towns of Sausalito and Tiburon. Further afield you will find the Muir Woods, home to some of the tallest and oldest trees on the planet. The bridge is quite long and one of the best ways to travel across is by bike. Skip the bike tours and hire a bike for the day. I hired mine through Blazing Saddles, they made the process easy and start from $8 per hour. They also provided me with a ferry ticket for my return journey for a discounted rate.
For great photos of the bridge, lock your bike up at the military fort and head inside. You can take the four flights of stairs to the top floor and take some snaps away from everybody else.
After your photos it is time to tackle the hill up to the bridge. There are more vantage points on the way up, but not many places to stop and rest.
Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39
If you want tacky San Francisco souvenirs then this is the place to go. Pier 39 is home to the local population of Sea Lions. Tourists taking photos seem to outweigh the sheer number of these mammals who bask in the sun and shelter of the harbour. Barking can be heard long before you catch a glimpse of the animals. After the Sea Lions, why not check out the Aquarium by the bay, be amused by the street performers or create music on the musical stairs.
Walk further along Fisherman’s Wharf to you arrive to Boudin Bakery, the bakery made famous by being the home of Sour Dough bread. The bakers’ creations are shaped into bears, crocodiles and crabs to name a few. The Fisherman’s grotto is home to the San Francisco Chowder. Try a Bread bowl which has the chowder inside a Sour Dough loaf. The chowder soaks into the bread to make a delicious meal.
Now it is time to take a step back 30-100 years and head to Musee Mecanique. The old arcade machines pre dating video games only cost a quarter and are a living museum of what entertainment used to be like.
It’s not the whole of Lombard Street which is the attraction, more so a small section known as the most crooked street in the world. San Francisco is famous for its hills and Lombard street is on one of the steepest there is. Daily, people drive around the 8 hairpins and test out their brakes. Others, like myself, walk up next to the street and gaze at the slope combined with the twists and turns.
This island was made famous as one of the harshest prisons in the world, not only for the prisoners but the prison guards as well. It has been etched in American folklore and Hollywood movies such as Escape from Alcatraz, The Birdman and The Rock. It is true the island was a Federal Prison for about 30 years from 1934 to 1963, but the island offers more than the stories of the most dangerous men in American history. In the late 18th century, the island was fortified with cannons to protect San Francisco Bay from invasion. As new weapon technology arrived in the 19th century, Alcatraz was transformed into a military prison before the Federal Prison. After the latter prison was shut down, Alcatraz was left in disarray before being the site of Native Indian Activism which caught the world’s attention.
Learn all this and more by jumping on an Alcatraz Cruizes tour. It costs $35.50 and departs from Pier 33. Arrive at least 30 minutes before your boat is scheduled to leave. There are a few lines to queue in before boarding. I would also allow a minimum of 2-3 hours on the island to walk around and listen to the free 45 minute audio guide.
Hot tip: Book as far in advance as possible. The tours sell out 1-2 weeks of dates.
The street car costs $7 for a one way trip, no matter how far you travel. A word of warning though, they can be and will be extremely busy. Not so much with locals, but more the thousands of tourists who travel over the hills. To get the best out of the experience, try and be one of the passengers who stand on the front ledges of the cart and hold on. There is some etiquette whilst riding: don’t disturb the driver or get in their way, have your backpack in front of you not on your back.
Hot tip: Go early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Avoid the street car from 8.30-7.30 unless you want to wait in line for a couple of hours.
Hot tip: Walk up 1 or 2 stops from the main stop and beat the queues. The drivers always leave space on the street car for extra passengers.
To and from the airport
The BART connects the Airport to downtown. The trains run every 20 minutes and your journey will take about 20 minutes. It will cost you US$8.95 one way. The other option is to download the Uber app and book a car. You will generally pay around $15-$20 through Uber.
A word of warning; be ready to walk up and down hills. San Francisco is built on over 40 hills, but not to worry, there are plenty of coffee shops, restaurants or swanky little stores to look in. Get away from the tourist honey traps and explore different suburbs.
Hot tip: Avoid the Tenderloin suburb if you don’t want to see the homelessness. The area hosts a lot of the social services for the city.
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