San Francisco Memoirs: A Golden City
Updated: Jan 18
After an epic first few days in Los Angeles, the second leg of our tour of the west coast saw us embark on a six-hour journey north-bound on the I-5 for the world famous San Francisco. To maximise our time in the city which would only be two full days, we made the decision to make the journey overnight, taking it in turns to drive as the others slept in the back of the car. There was one rather hairy moment when Pete took control of the wheel and pulled out onto the wrong side of the road, right into the path of a huge oncoming truck! Thankfully amidst my panicked gesturing he was able to swerve back into the right lane and save us from certain obliteration.
One of my main memories on approach to the city was travelling over the San Francisco - Oakland Bay Bridge and being in awe at the sheer size of the infrastructure as densely packed buildings loomed up through the fog on the right hand side. It was an overcast, dreary grey morning but I couldn’t help but be impressed at the magnitude of the location; it was nothing like I’d ever seen before. Such a positive first impression of San Francisco set the tone for an incredible few days in the city.
N.B This is the second in a series of memoirs in which I recount my experiences travelling the west coast of the United States of America. This was in 2015, so they won’t be detailed “where to go” guides with up-to-date prices, hostel/restaurant referrals and companies. If that is what you’re looking for, this probably isn’t right for you. However, by splitting the trip into separate articles, it should give you ideas as to how to structure your trip and various locations/activities you can do throughout the duration.
That morning as we arrived in Fishermans Wharf, I quickly made acquaintance with the world-famous San Francisco fog. This phenomenon, which is particularly common in the summer, rolls in through the Golden Gate Bridge and sweeps over towards the shoreline piers. It’s quite an incredible sight (or lack of, depending on where you’re located!) and adds a sense of magic as it swirls around. Locals have even named it Karl and set-up it’s own twitter page, which at the time of writing has over 365,000 followers!
The duration of our stay would be spent at HI San Francisco Fishermans Wharf, which is an old hotel from the early 1900’s renovated into a modern hostel. This was my first time using a hostel and, like most people, I was a little apprehensive as to what to expect, however it was the perfect place to start and I immediately felt comfortable and at ease. I particularly enjoyed speaking to other people with whom we were sharing the dormitory, discussing their travels so far and where they were going next. We met some very polite Japanese guys and exchanged Japanese and British currency as gifts; they were going to Yosemite National Park the next day which would feature later on in our trip. The hostel was also perfectly located within range of many of the key attractions in the city, such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Pier 39. Having checked the website, prices for the hostel average around £34-£35 per night, which is still significantly cheaper than nearby hotels.
Ps. Another benefit of stopping at this hostel is that, if you're an ice cream addict like me, you're only a 12 minute walk from the original Ghirardelli ice cream parlour. Ideal!
Cycling over the Golden Gate Bridge
No doubt for me, one of my favourite memories of the entire trip was the day spent cycling from Fishermans Wharf over the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausolito. Truth be told, the idea of this blog was wholly non-existent back then, so I didn’t make note of who we used that day, but I can wholeheartedly recommend the experience. I do remember that the price was around $30 and included the option of a ferry ride back across the bay. Take a walk along the street and shop around as there are plenty of businesses from whom you can rent a bicycle with it being such a popular pastime. One thing I’d bear in mind before starting this ride is that it’s around 7.5 miles long by the time you’ve picked up a bike from Fishermans Wharf, made your way across the bridge and down to the ferry terminal in Sausolito. By no means is it an extremely challenging ride, but it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s a fair distance if you’re completing this with children.
The fog had burned away into a clear, beautiful but breezy day, as we headed up the coastal path from Fishermans Wharf with the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance away to our right hand side. Our route took us along the sandy San Francisco Bay trail between Crissy Field South Beach and Crissy Field Marsh, offering beautiful views across the bay as we edged ever closer to the iconic orange landmark. If you haven’t packed refreshments, be sure to keep an eye out for the Warming Hut Bookstore and Cafe along the route, which also lies adjacent to Torpedo Wharf, offering a great platform set out in the bay from which to take pictures of the phenomenal Golden Gate Bridge. From there, the path winds away uphill as it takes you to the beginning of one of the worlds most famous locations. Prior to reaching the bridge, there is one last epic viewpoint that offers the Golden Gate as the perfect backdrop to any photo opportunities.
Once you’re on the bridge, its relatively easy to ride through to the other side, but be sure to take care of any pedestrians sharing the space with you. It can be all too tempting to stop regularly to take in the wonderful views on offer, but depending on what time of day you do the ride, bear in mind that it can get quite busy. You don’t want to be “that person” constantly holding everyone up! That said, if you have the opportunity to do so without impacting anyone else, by all means be sure to appreciate those panoramic views. It’s wonderful to look out across San Francisco Bay at Angel Island, Alcatraz and the city to its right.
Exiting the bridge led us to one of the most exciting parts of the ride. We wound our way down the steep, curving Alexander Avenue for about one mile descending into the beautiful town of Sausolito. I’d advise being wary of traffic sharing the road but we had no problems whatsoever on our way down. Due to it’s steep descent, it’s possible to pick up a fair bit of speed (albeit responsibly) if you want to!
As you can imagine, following the best part of an eight mile bike ride, our first destination was always going to be the pub! We immediately made our way to one of a host of bars and restaurants located along the seafront to sit down, relax and enjoy refreshments. Due to the number of visitors Sausolito receives on a daily basis coming into the town via bicycle, they’re very well organised in handling the intake. I’ve since researched that there’s dedicated parking for bicycles at a price of $3 on Bridgeway Street and Anchor Street; it is likely we’d have parked our bikes here. Sitting down enjoying a beer on the seafront affords a wonderful view across the bay, taking in San Francisco on the shoreline opposite.
Part of our ticket included a trip back via ferry to Fishermans Wharf; this topped off what had been a wonderful circular route by travelling back across the bay past Alcatraz Island. This was but a taster of our activity the following day; a night tour of the infamous prison.
Night tour of Alcatraz
A special experience that requires booking month’s in advance; the night tour of Alcatraz is not to be missed. Visiting one of America’s most feared maximum-security prisons as night falls is an eerie, memorable experience documenting some of it’s most notorious inmates and the infamous attempted escape that, to this day, lends the question - did they escape or did they perish?
Another benefit of the night tour is the opportunity to witness San Francisco light up under the soft light of sunset, taking in all of the panoramic views. One piece of advice - take a coat! It can get very chilly as the evening draws in, even during the summer time, on this exposed island in the middle of San Francisco Bay.
Watching San Francisco Giants
I’ll be honest, this was a disappointment. I’d been greatly looking forward to my first ever live experience of an American sport and the baseball turned out to be a damp squib. As a football fan and season ticket holder at Aston Villa, my local football club in Birmingham, I’m well accustomed to sporting events and, more often than not, disappointing sporting performances! The fact that the Giants lost was not the issue, nor was the manner of their loss. It was just that the entire game was boring. I should have known better when a group of season ticket-holders met up and, after ten minutes, decided to leave for drinks. If that is not an indication of things to come, I don’t know what is! There was never an edge-of-your-seat moment, or a particular time in the game where the atmosphere ramped up and hairs stood on the back of your neck. No moment of breathtaking skill, or controversy that got everyone talking. As someone with a general interest and appreciation in all sport, something happened to me that has never happened before; I fell asleep. Genuinely, I nodded off!
Away from the game, it wasn’t all negative though. AT&T Park, since renamed Oracle Park under a new sponsorship deal, is a magnificent stadium that provided great views of the game down below. It was also entertaining to see kayaks and dingy’s filled with people patiently waiting for the ball to be launched out of the stadium and into the waters of McCovey Cove, unofficially named after Willie McCovey, one of the Giants most revered players. As it goes, they went home disappointed as nobody was able to clear the boundaries of the stadium. In the end, there was little for the Giants fans to sing about, as Arizona Diamondbacks ran out 0-6 winners on the day.
Next time I’m in the USA, I’ll watch NFL or ice hockey but I think it’s fair to say that baseball didn’t light up my world.
Riding San Francisco’s iconic cable cars
You can’t visit San Francisco without taking the opportunity to ride on one of the city’s most iconic attractions; the cable car. Assigned National Landmark status, the cable car’s play an integral role in transporting tourists and locals alike up and down the steep streets of San Francisco, offering a completely different way to experience the city than would be found via car or bus.
The cars can’t reverse, so it's fascinating to witness a bygone era when they are turned around by hand on a revolving platform at the end of the track. One of the most popular is the Powell St Cable Car turnaround, which then leads onto the scenic Powell-Hyde route which presents some incredible views as it climbs the hilly streets.
It's easy to dismiss the cable car as a tourist gimmick; I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t initially think that, but ultimately it’s been an important part of city life in San Francisco since 1873 and is great fun to ride. I loved hanging from the side of the car and appreciating how hilly the streets truly are; they’re not built on a slight incline, they really are steep!
Walking along San Francisco's famous waterfront is also an excellent way to spend some time in this wonderful city. We checked out Pier 39 on our second evening in the area, browsing through the array of shops, restaurants and attractions that make this a popular destination for many people. The waterfront also offers multiple photo opportunities of the bay, looking out onto the likes of Alcatraz and the surrounding landscape. I must say, it was a good, pleasant atmosphere throughout our time there, with tourists milling around enjoying the attractions and purchasing their souvenirs.
Of course, being an animal lover, for me the real attraction was Pier 39's most famous residents; the California Sea Lions. These guys established themselves on Pier 39's K-Dock following the Loma Prieta earthquake in October 1989 and have become firm favourites ever since. This colony are pretty much living the dream, with a plentiful supply of food out in the bay and accommodation protecting them from predators. I've since read that they were initially a group of 10-50 individuals in 1989 but were numbering 1700 by 2009! It was amusing to see them all lying on the pier in the late afternoon sun, snoring and dozing before occasionally snapping at anyone with the audacity to disrupt their rest. You could almost imagine them shouting expletives as one clambered over everyone to get in or out of the water! Beware of one thing when visiting the sea lions though - the smell!
I loved every single second of my stay in San Francisco. From biking over the Golden Gate Bridge to experiencing Alcatraz by nightfall, the whole time I was there was thoroughly enjoyable. My only regret is that I didn’t spend more time there; I feel there is so much that I’ve left undiscovered.
With the benefit of hindsight, we spent five days in Las Vegas after this part of the trip; I’d take a day off of that and add it onto San Francisco if I could do things again. It really was that good. Next time, I’d be keen to explore some of the viewpoints overlooking iconic locations such as the Golden Gate Bridge, take time to properly experience the nightlife and uncover some of its other gems and attractions. I get the feeling that it’s a location that you can visit multiple times and have a different experience on each occasion.
Hopefully this article has given you some ideas as to what you’d include on your itinerary when visiting San Francisco; there’s no doubt for me that it is truly one of the greatest cities I’ve ever had the good fortune to visit.
Ps. I had the pleasure of flying over San Francisco on a connecting flight from Las Vegas to Manchester in June 2018. It was incredible to witness this beautiful city from the air and I'll be eternally grateful for the view I had from the comfort of my seat that day.