San Francisco has been on my bucket list for longer than I’ve had a bucket list. Along with San Diego Zoo and probably New York (and Disney World), I remember being no older than six and telling myself that one day, I would go to those places.
So as a seasoned world traveller wishing to visit some very accessible and easy destinations, I was amazed that it took me over twenty years to make it to two of those.
And now you might be wondering why, after taking twenty years to get there, I only spent a day there? Alright, that’s because we spent more than a day there.
But after arriving around lunchtime (after a fantastic stop at the Jelly Belly factory just outside Sacramento, by the way!), we took a stroll around Fisherman’s Wharf, and after taking around 20 photos, I tried to take a video of the sea lions and it was then that my camera finally informed me that I’d left my SD card in the laptop. So with no photo evidence of our first day, had we even been to San Francisco at all?
I’m joking, of course (well, not about being a total idiot and leaving my SD card behind), but we did get it all pretty perfect on our first full day in the city by the bay.
San Francisco is a funny city to get around at first glance. Because of its multitude of steep hills separating every district, and sometimes every road within that district, walking is pretty much out of the question. Getting around by public transport felt complicated and might not give us a direct route around everything we wanted to see. All the arrows were pointing towards getting one of those big bus tours, and if there was one city we were going to succumb to one of those, then San Fra–
WHAT?! No. I refused to pay $55 for an easy way out, when we could get an all-day public transport pass for less than half the price at $22. In fact, if we walked to our nearest Walgreens, we could get it for $15 with the Clipper card. Seeing as that included a tram ride which costs $7 each way by itself, I considered that a bargain.
And so, armed with our $30 saving (each) and hours of researching the perfect route using buses, trams and streetcars (seven of them, in fact), we set off on our epic journey around the city.
Which actually started with a walk (and not just to Walgreens for our Clipper cards). We stayed at the HI Fisherman’s Wharf hostel, nestled in the barracks of Fort Mason, which meant we were a short walk from the famous Lombard Street, one of my must-visits.
Because we were setting off early, there weren’t too many people around and we pretty much walked down the crookedest street in the world by ourselves.
From there, we walked down (down, down, down) to Fisherman’s Wharf to actually take photos of the place and of course visit the sea lions again, which became a daily tradition for us.
We passed some really cool buildings on the way, including this one with King Kong perched on the roof, and a door that had been plucked straight from the Chamber Of Secrets. AND A DRAGON. How fricking cool is this?!
We didn’t spend long in Fisherman’s Wharf because we’d been there the previous afternoon, and jumped on the cable car to Union Square. Again, because it was early, we didn’t have to queue for long – the previous day, the queue had been about five times the length!!
The cable cars in San Francisco are super touristy – with the price tag to match. Luckily we had a ride included in our Clipper card pass, because each ride is a hefty $7!!! It’s one of those things you have to do on your visit, but I would have very begrudgingly paid if we’d had to.
Union Square is where San Francisco turned into Any City In The World, and luckily we hadn’t planned to actually spend any time there. After all, San Francisco is famous for a lot, but Union Square and Westfield shopping centres have never been part of that appeal. No, we were off to explore some of its quirkier neighbourhoods (in the opposite direction of the swarms and swarms of people queuing to get on the tram going back to Fisherman’s Wharf!).
I couldn’t get over how loud Union Square was as we waited for the bus. Not the hustle and bustle you expect from any city, or the honking cars of New York – but the young people carrying boomboxes that sounded like there was a rave going on. It wasn’t just one, either – it seemed to be a thing. I felt like an old lady – who the hell were these people and why were they assaulting my ears with shit music on full blast? I looked nervously at the glass bus shelter, waiting for it to crack.
So, for a few reasons, I was glad when our bus turned up.
Oh, I had such high hopes for Mission. My cousin had told me to avoid it, but I couldn’t brush off everything I’d read about how cool the area is. As our bus got closer, the streets got rougher, the buildings got uglier, and the only people I could see roaming the streets were wannabe-gangsters and people clearly coked up to their eyeballs.
Ash felt more uncomfortable than I did when we got off the bus at 18th Street (our first mistake, I’m sure). We got off here because one of my main reasons for having Mission on my list was the street art, and Clarion Alley is one of the best streets in probably the US for street art.
Don’t get me wrong – Clarion Alley has AMAZING street art. But we felt immediately on edge as we passed a couple of guys sitting along the wall. Whether they were homeless or not, I’m not sure, but they made both of us feel like we should get out of there.
“This is crazy,” I thought. “Solo female instragrammer whatevers are always coming down here. It can’t be that bad.”
I happily snapped some quick shots as we walked down the alley, and handed Ash the camera to take a photo of me against a particularly colourful patterned backdrop.
That’s when we noticed one of the guys had got up and was following us. We carried on walking – we were almost at the end now – and when I stopped to take another quick photo of some cool art, Ash looked at me incredulously. “Are you freaking kidding me?” His hushed but urgent whisper hit me like a rock and we both bounded triumphantly out of the alleyway onto Valencia Street.
To say I was disappointed was an understatement. After everything I’d read about Mission, I hadn’t expected to feel like that in broad daylight. Everything cool is supposed to be on Valencia Street, but a quick glance down the road didn’t make it enticing for us. Had we not just had that experience in the alleyway, maybe we would have wandered down to 20th (where the actual cool Mission is supposed to start) and discovered the awesome book shops and fantastic pirate’s shop and quirky restaurants.
Instead, we decided to stay on 18th Street and get the hell out of there. We walked to our next destination: Castro.
I am pleased to say that we fell in love with Castro. Everything that we had missed or expected in Mission was in Castro, plus a lot more.
So instead of stopping for lunch in Mission, we found ourselves at an amazing little local diner in Castro called The Cove, where the owner seemed to know everyone and I started to wonder if we were the only tourists in there. Always a good sign. It was the perfect way to end our little 20 minute or half hour stroll (I lost track because it was actually a nice walk).
Castro is also the gay district in San Francisco, as well as being the first gay district in the USA, and it was full of risque shops and posters, like a place called “Hand Job” (not sure what they did…!) and a poster for a club serving COCKtails on Cockshot Tuesday!
But it also had its fair share of great looking restaurants, bars and cafés, and there is so much more I want to check out in this area.
A few blocks over was a silly “attraction” I wanted to check out.
A street slide!!! (Just follow 20th from Castro to Douglass, and you’ll find Seward Street just off Douglass)
Our next stop, Alamo Square, is pretty much famous for one main reason:
Although “Postcard Row” is mostly recognised from the show Full House, the street has been used in over 70 other movies, TV shows and commercials. Despite its popularity, there are actually tons of rows of houses like these around the city, especially in this area – 48,000 Victorian and Edwardian style houses were built in San Francisco, although many were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. I’d estimate that I took photos of around half of the remaining ones. Seriously, I might do a photo essay post of beautiful San Franciscan buildings.
The park itself is pretty small, although the entire thing is a hill so it’s sloped on all sides! For us, it was a quick pit stop, and we were off to a much bigger park.
Golden Gate Park & Japanese Tea Gardens
I hadn’t been particularly planning to go to Golden Gate Park, but Ash has been to San Francisco before and remembered loving the Japanese Tea Gardens, so we added that to our day’s itinerary.
We had read that it was free on Wednesdays, but missed the part where it says “until 10am”, so we had to pay $9 each to go in. It is a really nice garden, and I loved the bridge, but I thought $9 was pretty steep (almost as steep as the bridge, ho ho!) so although I’m glad we went, I don’t think I’d make the effort to go back.
Golden Gate Park has tons of other attractions, including their own herd of bison, and had we been there in summer in the longer days, we probably would have stayed longer to explore.
Golden Gate Bridge
Finally! The moment we had all been waiting for. The Golden Gate Bridge WITHOUT the clouds!
We had planned to go there for sunset, which meant we were there by around 5.30pm to get some good daylight shots before the sun went down. We also went for a walk to some of the barracks, and I wished we had a bit more time to go further along the coast.
While I was planning where we should go for dinner, the first thing that popped into my mind was Chinatown. After all, it’s the oldest Chinatown in the USA, so where better to get some good Chinese food on our trip, while experiencing a real SF staple? We were meeting a San Franciscan friend who we met in Thailand, and when I suggested this he immediately chose a great little hole-in-the-wall restaurant for us to meet at – the legendary Sam Wo.
Naturally, we were late. I had it all planned out – stay at the Golden Gate Bridge until sunset, then hop on the bus towards Chinatown.
Ash hadn’t realised my plan, and insisted that we stop by the hostel on the way so that we could get changed. And that’s when it all went to pot. Because I’d only planned out that route, we asked the girl at reception how we should get to Chinatown, and she immediately told us to get a Lyft because public transport was a nightmare. I glared at Ash.
No matter what I did, Lyft would not work on my phone. It wanted me to add a second credit card to my account for security, and wouldn’t even let me apply free credit. Meanwhile, Ash was frantically looking up buses, to find that there was a direct bus there. So much for it being a nightmare.
However, we finally turned up at the bus stop just around the corner, and the bus was six minutes away. Then 11 minutes. Then 13 minutes. What the hell was going on? Maybe that’s what she meant by it being a nightmare.
Eventually, about 20 minutes later, a bus turned up and we had to apologise profusely to our friend for being so late, and he confirmed that yes, buses usually are that crap.
So I considered ourselves pretty lucky that we’d managed to navigate our entire day around buses.
Anyway, we had a delicious meal at Sam Wo, which contained so much food that we were good for the following day’s dinner, too! Yum yum yum.
(I also forgot to take any photos whatsoever, which is probably a bit of a relief considering this post contains almost 50!)
OUR DAY OF PUBLIC TRANSPORT
It sounds complicated, but when it’s all laid out, getting around by public transport was a great (and cheap!) way to do San Francisco. If you want to save the hours of research I did into how to get between each place, I have it all here for you.
Here’s our full itinerary:
– cable car from Fisherman’s Wharf to Union Square
– #14 bus to Mission & 18th
– walk to Castro along 18th Street
– #24 bus to 18th & Divisadero/Hayes for Alamo Park
– #5 bus from McAllister & Pierce to Golden Gate Park (Fulton & 10th for the tea gardens)
– #28 bus from Park Presidio Boulevard & Fulton Street to Golden Gate Bridge
– #101 & #1 bus to Chinatown (would have been our plan!)
The main thing we did wrong was Mission. If you want to skip it, you can get the F line tram all the way to Castro – but if you do go, try and get further down than 18th Street! I wish we’d just got off at 20th or even 24th, rather than starting off with our disaster in Clarion Alley.
And all the rest…
We actually had another day and a half in San Francisco, although that’s partly because we messed up with Alcatraz. We had planned to visit Alcatraz on the Thursday and then drive to Yosemite in the evening, but when we went to book it two days in advance, Thursday was completely sold out! In the middle of October!
So we had to frantically book another night in San Francisco (such a shame, it being one of our favourite cities and all) and visit on Friday instead, which gave us a total lazy day on Thursday.
We were thinking of hiring a bike and cycling across the Golden Gate, but to be quite honest we were feeling pretty knackered after two weeks non-stop on the road, so we went back to Fisherman’s Wharf (what a surprise) and had a blast at the Musee Mecanique, had lunch and of course went back to the sea lions at Pier 39.
Musee Mecanique was actually a lot of fun – it’s a penny arcade but also a museum, so it’s packed with real antique arcade machines like EXECUTIONS (kinda disturbing) and huge, old fairgrounds, and love-o-meters and all sorts.
I also met up with the lovely Paroma from yrofthemonkey who was an absolute sweetheart and took me out to the Palace Of Fine Arts before we took a quick stroll down to the harbour to see the Golden Gate lit up in the distant sunset.
I took a long-winded walk back to the hostel via the Presidio, because nestled somewhere within its streets is a Yoda fountain, and for me, something as weird and wonderful as a Yoda fountain is worth a little detour.
Turns out that the reason the Yoda fountain is there is because it’s a complex of LucasArts offices, and when I couldn’t find the fountain in the growing darkness, I just walked around the buildings looking at huge hallways of stormtroopers and all sorts of Star Wars-related memorabilia (I also spotted an Ant Man poster next to someone’s desk). Anyway I DID eventually find the fountain, because a couple were stood next to it posing with fricking LIGHT SABERS! Obviously, I had to ask to pose with one.
So that detour was even more ridiculous and great than I could ever have planned, even though I only saw Yoda in the dark by the time I found it.
The next day, we finally made it to Alcatraz, which has been on my list for as long as I can remember. What I loved about it is you can pretty much do it at your own pace rather than having to stick with a tour. There is a walking tour, but it was packed and it was much nicer to just walk around on our own. We did the audio tour which gives you tons of info and tidbits and was totally worth it (considering it’s free!).
I found the whole history really interesting, from it being a fort to a prison and the reclamation by the native Indians who left their mark on the buildings and water tower. The stories of people’s escape attempts never to be found again were fascinating, and I kept making comparisons to The Shawshank Redemption – I think it’s clear where some of his ideas came from!
Alcatraz marked the end of our time in San Francisco, so sadly as well as escaping Alcatraz, we also had to escape the city by the bay. But it lived up to all expectations. There is much more I want to do in San Francisco, like riding across the bridge and going to Baker Beach and finding the mosaic stairs and perhaps finally finding out what all the fuss is about in Mission, but for now it’s goodbye.
We will DEFINITELY be back, SF!
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