You can’t help but fall in love with San Francisco, the drive into the city is enough in itself to sell the place.
It’s nine o’clock in the evening and we’ve been driving for nine hours. We’re feeling slightly dejected, reeling from the disappointment of LA and worried the industrial maze of Oakland will carry on right on through to Frisco. Then we head over the Bay Bridge and see the city glowing in the night, beckoning us in as the shining lights of the skyscrapers shimmer in the water.
It’s impossible to ignore the soul that this city has. Despite the chill, you feel a warmth in the atmosphere.This isn’t the phoney, artificially enhanced film set we’ve just come from, this is a place with a real culture and a real history.
To call where we stayed a “hotel” is overly generous, if not downright misleading. However, The Orange Village Hostel offers the weary and financially strapped traveller all that they really need: a shower, a reasonably clean bed and, if you’re lucky, a TV.
Unlike our stay in LA, our accommodation is perfectly positioned within walking distance of all that San Fran has to offer. Taking advantage of this, we immediately headed out for a walk along the Embarcadero.
We had a drink in Pier 23, a local bar that isn’t overly friendly to tourists. San Franciscans as a whole tend to be quite protective of their city and weary of tourists. Despite the initial cold shoulder, the bar eventually warmed up as the beer took effect.
Certain things are inevitable for British tourists when they do abroad. When a Brit goes to America, it is inevitable that someone with a heavy American accent will claim to be English, and ask if you know the Queen. In Pier 23, everyone seemed a little curious as to our links with the monarchy.
Later, we found a beautiful tapas place overlooking the bay called Coqueta. The restaurant itself was a little out of our price range, but we chose to have the cheaper option of eating at the bar in front of the chefs working their magic.
The convicts may have been replaced by tourists, but Alcatraz retains some of it’s inherent spookiness. That is until you go outside and see the beautiful gardens and some of the best views in California.
One place that is definitely best avoided is Pier 39. Aside from the sea lion colony, the pier is made up of some of the most gaudy overpriced tourist targeting souvenir stores in California. However, near the pier is the local institution Boudin sourdough. Yes, it’s just a bakery, but clam chowder in a Boudin bread bowl is just as much a San Francisco landmark as the Golden Gate Bridge.
Golden Gate Bridge
Another one to tick off the list of predictable tourist destinations is the Golden Gate Bridge.
We gave ourselves a morning to cycle from Fisherman’s Wharf, over the Golden Gate Bridge, down to Sausalito and back – this was not enough time.
On route, we visited the Palace of Fine Arts which, although undeniably beautiful, was not all that we thought. We were expecting a gallery or exhibition or something to warrant the classification “Palace”. This does sound a little ungrateful because the building and the grounds are incredible, but after 20 minutes, you begin to wonder what you’re doing there. The ride to the bridge takes about an hour, and is well worth the effort. The views are spectacular, although it is a little unnerving that the bridge is dotted with signs encouraging would be jumpers to call the Samaritans.
Sausalito is a small picturesque town on the other side of the bridge. Once a place of heavy industry, it is now home to some of the Bay Area’s wealthiest and most creative residents.
The town is beautiful and relatively secluded, although it can swarm with tourists. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stay there long. So, after a quick ice cream, which being America was both the largest and sweetest I’ve ever had, we headed back to the city.
We got up very early one morning and took a four hour drive to Yosemite National Park. The scenery is astonishingly beautiful, but a little spoilt by just how busy the park is.
The people hiking seemed to be mainly local Californians rather than tourists, but the sheer number there made it feel a little bit more like a theme park than a national park.
What else is there to do in San Fran? Everything.
Despite the nonchalance of the locals, the city is actually bristling with energy and there is such a vast culture to be explored.
Time wise we were slightly limited, so we stuck to the more established and well known landmarks.
We went to explore Chinatown which, unlike most around the world, was not at all gimmicky but a genuine community. Going through San Francisco Chinatown didn’t feel like you were going through a tourist trap, as most of the people you saw were local Chinese Americans.
We had lunch in the Great Eastern Restaurant which proudly boasts its links with the President. In 2012, whilst campaigning for reelection, Barrack Obama popped in to pick up some take out and we, like many of the people inside I bet, thought that if it was good enough for him, then it was good enough for us.
You can’t go to San Francisco and not get on a cable car. Cynically, we were assuming some rickety old machine that didn’t really go anywhere but was only useful for pulling in gullible tourists. Although that was partly true, the majority on the car were tourists, the car was actually a pretty good way of getting around, although too expensive to use often. The walk up to Coit Tower is beautiful, giving incredible panoramic views of the city and the bay, not to mention that the building itself is pretty impressive. Opposite the Coit Tower is Lombard Street, which, despite being impressive and curvy, is just a street. It’s slightly baffling how this road attracts flocks of visitors. It’s not even particularly easy to get to. However, the views from the top are impressive and it is good for a bit of house porn.
One area we sadly missed was the Castro district, the historic community strongly associated with Harvey Milk and the gay rights movement.
After only a few short days in San Fran, we had to move on the Washington DC. But over the course of those few days, we had fallen in love with the city. There is a buzz and a culture in the city that you’d have to try very hard not to love. You could easily spend weeks exploring the city, and still be surprised by what it has to offer.