The September 2013 visit to San Francisco was my 7th USA holiday, and my second holiday in California. I was going to write Sunny California but we found out that San Francisco is often cool and breezy California!
We flew with Virgin Atlantic on their aptly named Tubular Belle 747. As is usually the case with Virgin Atlantic, the seating and in-flight entertainment (especially the Sky Maps that I am addicted to) were excellent, but on both legs of the flight the food was absolutely terrible this time. Note to self – take snacks! With the cost of flying, I would expect better quality food, and I hope this was a one-off. British Airways food is much better, so reasonable in-flight grub can be provided on economy flights.
We left pretty much on time from London Heathrow at around 1pm, and after a long flight arrived at San Francisco International Airport at around 4pm San Frantime. A warning if you haven’t flown into San Francisco before, you approach very low over the water, and it looks like you are going to clip the wall as it’s so low. I really enjoyed the part of the flight that went over the main body of the USA – with views of some wonderful rugged landscapes.
We picked up our pre-arranged transport, which was called by the Virgin Holiday rep at the airport, and were dropped off at our hotel for the next 9 nights, the Sheraton, Fisherman’s Wharf. Our room was a good size, with modern furnishings, a good sized TV (with a wide range of channels) and a nice-sized bathroom.
The staff were excellent – from cleaning staff through to the helpful reception staff. I would definitely recommend the Sheraton, as it has the perfect location – a few minutes walk from the main piers, the plentiful pier-front restaurants and shops.
Our first evening was spent having a quick mosey around the Fisherman’s Wharf area, grabbing some snacks in the local 7-Eleven, as we were too tired to go out for a meal after our long transatlantic journey.
I didn’t stick to my pre-holiday plan of writing daily notes (a big mistake when you try to remember what you did and when several weeks later), so I’ll just talk about the highlights in a disorganised kind of way.
Early on we decided to get the two day hop-on / hop-off open-top bus ticket. The journey started about 5 minutes from our hotel, and for our first trip, we followed the Virgin Holiday reps suggestion and did the whole city circuit. This was a great way to get our bearings, and decide where to visit during the rest of our stay. We passed through most of the areas that we would visit later on during our holiday.
We passed through the Tenderloins District (which we also drove through on our airport transfer), and on both occasions it was obviously an area not to be visited by tourists.
Another area we did not get to visit was the Golden Gate Park – we went through on the bus, but did not get round to visiting the park and it’s gardens / museums.
The open top bus ride gave us lots of trips (8 in total) across the Golden Gate Bridge. Make sure you hold onto your hat and wear warm clothing, especially at night, as it’s freezing cold crossing the bridge in the open. We were treated to an amazing view of the city and the Bay from just over the Golden Gate, at the rest stop.
Three days into our 9 day San Francisco trip we took the boat ride to Alcatraz Island. We pre-booked this online before leaving the UK, as the tours sell-out pretty quickly. This was one of the highlights of our holiday.
It was an eerie experience peering inside the tiny, cramped cells and walking the corridors where prisoners and guards lived (and sometimes died) in such close proximity.
The sound of the cell doors shutting was quite frightening.
The audio tour really brings Alcatraz to life – you hear the stories told by the voices of those incarcerated or working in the prison.
There is clearly a lot of work being done to preserve the historic buildings (many of which were short-sightedly destroyed in the late 60’s / early 1970’s) – and there is an excellent shop on the island, with the profits going towards the refurbishment work.
Shopping and Dining
We made a couple of trips to the main shopping district in downtown San Francisco, at Union Square. One of the best parts of these trips was lunch in Bristol Farms, in the Westfield Mall. I enjoyed wolfing down a delicious beef, cheese, onion and salad toasted sandwich, with a side of mash and gravy. The beef was so fresh and mouth-watering, and I get hungry just thinking about the sandwich porn.
My favourite place to eat in the USA is usually Applebees, so we visited the newly opened San Francisco branch. The food was great, the wildberry frozen lemonade was to die for, but on two of our three visits the service was awful. Either rushing us, or bringing the wrong drinks and not rectifying it. I filled the post meal survey on both bad visits, with no comeback. Bad customer service Applebees!
Bubba Gumps, though more expensive, was a much better experience, with wonderful views of the Bay if you are able to get a window seat.
Our first San Francisco breakfast was in Joannie’s Happy Days Diner, with the enthusiastic owner outside beckoning you in from across the street!
Our favourite breakfast place was Johnny Rockets Diner. We had three breakfasts here – and the food and coffee was always hot and prepared well. The breakfast was topped off great 50’s / 60’s music playing on the jukebox.
The best coffee we drank was in Cafe Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s restaurant in North Beach. Unfortunately we didn’t eat here, but it was wonderful taking the load off on our walk back from Union Square, and drinking a lovely latte whilst looking at the pictures from Francis Ford Coppola movies.
Another great place for a caffeine and cake fix is Boudins, where you can stand in the street and watch the baking through a window. Or pop inside and have food and drink as a variety of (mostly animal) shaped breads are moved by an overhead conveyor system from bakery to shop. There are also a couple of spots to eat and drink outside Boudins, and it always smelt so nice passing the bakery everyday. I love the smell of baking bread (isn’t that a song by Nick Lowe?)
It doesn’t really hit you at first how most places are within walking distance. Pick up a free map from your hotel, and it’s easy to navigate your way to most places, or jump on the easy to navigate public transport.
The street cars are wonderful – cars from all over the world, restored and displayed in wonderful colours, they make each journey a unique experience.
Every visitor to San Francisco has to ride on the cable car. We rode the Powell-Hyde line (taking it in turns to hang off the side, as you do!) which took us from the Ghiradelli Square turnaround to just past Union Square. It’s noisy and slow, but great fun – especially when the driving is giving a running commentary and ringing his bell.
We took a night bus ride through the city, driving through the Presidio towards Golden Gate Bridge, then back through the city towards the Bay Bridge, which we then crossed. Sitting on an open-top bus, being driven across a 4.5 mile long bridge high above the water was a terrifying experience. I was convinced we were going to topple over the edge and perish in the freezing waters below. Luckily we didn’t.
We spent about 15 minutes on Treasure Island (no pirates sadly), with a wonderful view of the lights of San Francisco across the bay. Then back across the bridge, but no-one told us that on the way back we were on the upper lane, even higher up. Still, we didn’t die (again), so all’s well that ends well.
Where the girls have flowers in their hair
We decided to visit Haight-Ashbury, the part of San Francisco famous for being where the hippy “Summer of Love” movement started in 1967. The main reason for visiting was to pop into Amoeba Music. So many goodies in there, it was so hard to keep my wallet snapped firmly shut. Box-sets, vinyl, cheap CD’s, how I resisted their beautiful wares I’ll never know.
The hippy vibe was still intact, and it was clearly a gathering place for dead-heads of all ages. Sadly it was also a place where open drug dealing went unchecked, and outside of Tenderloins, the place with the largest population of homeless people.
The one negative of our visit, that we found difficult, was the noticeable difference between the haves and have nots. We weren’t hassled by anyone begging, though I was mistakenly recognised as a long lost Australian friend (I’ve never been to Aus) by a young homeless guy who was as high as a kite, and who proceeded to give me a full hug!
But the sheer numbers of homeless people on every street, and the amount of clearly troubled people (of all ages) struggling with their mental health, was more noticeable than anywhere I have been in my life, and makes me so glad we have a National Health Service in the UK, to help people when they need it. It’s not perfect, but so many people seem to slip through the cracks in San Francisco. That’s enough moaning, I don’t want dreary politics to creep into my blog.
We stayed in the Bay area for the whole of our holiday. The furthest we ventured was to the town of Sausalito. Even though it’s only a few miles from the city, being tucked around the corner means it’s much warmer. We had a nice meal yards from the bay, with wonderful views in the warm autumn sun.
The America’s Cup was taking place during our holiday, and although we were not in San Francisco for it’s conclusion (we were there when the Kiwi’s were thrashing the USA), it was great to be able to find a spot and watch the boats race by. And it was free entertainment too!
I left my heart…
We had a great time in San Francisco, and it’s a very vibrant, diverse city, with something for everyone. Apparently September / October is a good time to visit, as it’s quieter than the peak summer months but the weather is still pretty good. The city is certainly in my top 5 (joining New York, Engleberg, York and Kissimmee) and I would love to go back in a few years time.
Visit my Flickr page for more San Francisco pictures.