Consistently ranked as America’s favourite city, or perhaps the world’s favourite, and for being the inventor of gay, San Francisco surely did not disappoint during my California trip last month. As introduced in my recent post, the city is a perfect blend of exuberance and relaxation, with a beauty ever so captivating that many can easily retire to.
“San Francisco is 49 square miles surrounded by reality.” — Paul Kantner
There’s everything bounded within the 7×7 mile mainland area — food, culture, entertainment, media, commerce — more than you can consume. The upbeat pace and liberating slash hipster culture in San Francisco quenches my wanderlust thirst to indulge in unfamiliar things. I loved it.
With only two full days in the city (third day was dedicated to travelling home), it was a race against time. And because time in the Golden State is more than gold to me, planning ahead was essential. Scraped from various reliable sources and based on first-hand experience, here’s pretty much the classic checklist for a taste of San Francisco’s top attractions.
1. Golden Gate Bridge
One can’t leave San Francisco without seeing the iconic Golden Gate Bridge — now one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Suspending 1.7 mile long above the straits and brazened in orange, it connects San Francisco to Marin headlands.
Once called “the bridge that couldn’t be built,” today it is one the seven wonders of the modern world.
Having walked nearly 4 miles from Pier 33 to Crissy Field, Bibiana and I took a moment to rest by the shore; soothed by the cool breeze and rustling trees, loosely trailing the windsurfers dotting the waters, all while being mesmerised by the Golden Gate bridge from a distant. It was a moment of content and fulfilment.
Strolling along the marina towards the Golden Gate Bridge, I was charmed by the dainty, quirky houses lined up along the vast driveways.
In hindsight, it was slightly ambitious of us to walk 5 miles from the pier towards the bridge without burning ourselves out. The only thing that I would’ve done differently is to hire a bicycle from the pier, paddle towards Fort Point and across the bridge. Save your energy and let the bridge take your breath away close up at Fort Point.
2. San Francisco Cable Car
The San Francisco cable car ride is probably THE attraction for first time travellers. With sharp inclines, walking up the steepest hills would give your calves and thighs a vigorous workout. For $6 per ride, two main lines would appeal to most — Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde, which begin at Powell and Market streets near Union Square and stop at Fisherman’s Wharf (you could go either way). Without any queue, Bibiana and I jumped aboard in between the Powell-Hyde route nearest to the top of Lombard Street, or more popularly known as the most crooked street in the world.
Practically skipping what would have been a long queue at the first and last stops, we were abashed for wedging ourselves into the trolley. And, with two strokes of luck, we had the privilege of enjoying the true San Francisco cable car experience — literally hanging off the poles with no safety equipment.
When the chance to pay for the ticket finally came as were was getting off, the ticket inspector let us off the hook despite our persistence. Guess we scored a hat-trick on this occasion. ;)
3. Alcatraz Cruise
Another addition to San Francisco’s top attractions is none other than Alcatraz Island, which I’d recommend in a heartbeat. Little did we expect just 1.5 miles from the jolly Fisherman’s Wharf, floats the strongest, escape-proof federal prison that housed the most notorious criminals in US history.
Then a federal prison for such notorious convicts as Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, now it is one of the city’s most popular attractions.
After a round of research for the best deals on the Alcatraz cruise, I settled with a standard $30 day tour ticket from the official website. A strong word of advice: book your tickets early, at least two weeks in advance of your visit, more so during peak season (last checked today, all tickets are sold out until the end of July).
The century-old prison may be a thing of the past, but the audio tour really brought it back to life. I enjoyed wandering the corridors and learn about the building and the events that took place within those walls and behind the iron bars. Anyone who skipped the audio tour have short-changed themselves of a true Alcatraz experience.
4. Fisherman’s Wharf
The Fisherman’s Wharf is a lively hub packed with not just eager tourists but also scores of top seafood restaurants and local shops. Anyone can easily spend half the day there; sample some fresh clam chowder with French sourdough bread, indulge in chocolates at Ghirardelli Square, marvel at restored ships parked at the Hyde Street Pier waterfront, and unwind to the antics of wild seals residing, usually basking, at Pier 39.
5. Lombard Street
Here, you will find tourists flocking to see the “crookedest street” in San Francisco, or even in the world. So steep that if it ever snows in San Francisco, Lombard Street would make a good bobsledding course; and so steep that the imposed speed limit is five miles an hour.
The top of the street offers a panoramic view of the Lombard stretch with Coit Tower placed firmly on the right. Bibiana and I descended to the bottom for some obligatory photos at the cost of a five-second traffic stall (whoops).
6. Downtown San Francisco
It’s the city that never sleeps, at least not with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee lingering at every corner of the block. All walks of life make a procession through this neighbourhood — locals rushing to their next agenda, shoppers with both hands full, and meandering sight-seers. Union Square is your vantage point for the fast-paced urban happenings of this town.
The meeting point between Powell Street and Market Street is where most would hop on the iconic San Francisco cable car ride, either on the Powell-Hyde or Powell-Mason line both headed towards the Northern waterfront.
7. Mission District
Mission is one of the oldest yet most interesting and diverse of all the neighbourhoods in San Francisco (not just my humble opinion). When exploring the district (best on foot), you will find an array of not-so-hidden gems in every nook and cranny — Mexican grocery stores, hipster cafes, award-winning bakery with lines wrapped around the block at peak times, stylish independent restaurants, dive bars, and the largest concentration of vibrant murals on the walls and facades. I was told between 16th street and 24th street with Valencia being the hotspot, is where everything interesting happens.
The Mission owes its soul, and its name, to the Latino community that calls the neighbourhood home.
In the heart of Mission District lies Dolores Park, a very popular venue with not only the local residents but also tourists, students, food trucks and street performers. On a good sunny day, crowds sprawl the lawns and treat themselves to a great time socialising, people-watching and gazing at the unobstructed view of downtown. I was somewhat disappointed when I ascended Dolores Park to a panoramic view of the town engulfed in fog. Typical SF they say! But nonetheless a breath-taking sight.
If you’d like to read more about Mission, here’s an elaborate piece written by Airbnb.
I hope this round-up on San Francisco’s highlights has been useful if not interesting. I’d like to hear your experience if you’ve visited San Francisco! And please share if a particular hotspot or attraction deserves to be in this list.
Special thanks to my host, Siong who’s been kind to show me around the neighbourhood of Mission, which tremendously added to the local experience of the city.
Speaking of the city that practically invented gay, in light of the latest talk of the town and to end it on a glorious note, well done America for the historic ruling on legalising same-sex marriage nationwide! Love conquers all.