Mark Twain famously said: 'The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.' If you hire a bike, you'll stay warm while acquainting yourself with this quirky California city
In San Francisco, the fog rolls in around 5pm every evening and doesn’t completely clear until 11am next day, making the place feel decidedly chilly. While this meant sunbathing was off the agenda, it opened the door to a wide range of activities to be enjoyed. Our favourite? Biking across the Golden Gate Bridge.
I hadn't ridden a bike in more than 10 years, so was slightly apprehensive as to whether the old adage – "You never forget how to ride a bike" – was true. My fears were eased by staff at the bike rental company Blazing Saddles (www.blazingsaddles.com) at Pier 41, Fisherman’s Wharf. (There are several such outfits dotted along the pier.) Prices start at $7 an hour, $28 per day, with a wide range of bikes on offer – and no cowboys called Mungo in sight! We were handed a helmet, pointed in the right direction… and off we went.
Once you have hired your bike, you can go anywhere in the city – but when planning your route, bear in mind that there are a fair few steep hills in San Francisco. My suggestion would be to follow the bike path that runs alongside Bay Street, Marina Boulevard and Mason Street, and head for the Golden Gate Bridge. The bike path is clearly sign-posted, so you won’t miss it, and the route provides some great views of the Bay.
We were backpackers on a budget, so we decided not to explore the area on the other side of the bridge. However, if you hire your bikes before lunchtime, it’s definitely worth taking in the town of Sausalito and getting the ferry back to Pier 39 later in the day. Blazing Saddles is very flexible about what time you return the bikes, and even has a depot open 24 hours a day – just in case you lose track of time and get back late. Another cheap, fun alternative is to hire a tandem for $11. However, only do this if you are in a solid relationship. We saw plenty of tandem-related arguments along the way!
It took us just under three hours to get across the bridge and back, but I’m sure more experienced cyclists could do it in less time. On the way back, make sure you dodge the man who likes to disguise himself as a bush (famous in the city for jumping out behind two giant leaves and scaring passers-by along the pier), then head for a hot chocolate from Ghirardelli Square (900 North Point Street, at the corner of Beach and Larkin Streets on the West side of Fisherman's Wharf). At $4, San Francisco’s famous chocolate brand is a bargain – and if you have worked up too much of a sweat for hot chocolate, have an ice-cream sundae instead. It's equally delicious and self-indulgent, a reward after burning all those calories.
In a city that boats one restaurant for every 25 residents, you won’t struggle to find somewhere to eat. My recommendation is to walk back to Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf for home-made clam chowder at Chowders (www.chowderspier39.com). Served in a sourdough bowl, it will definitely leave you feeling warm and filled – and at $7, your pockets won’t be emptied.
Head for bed at the Elements Hostel on Mission Street. The six-bed dorms, costing $25, are en-suite, cosy and clean. The rooftop terrace was a great place to have a drink in the evening, as its outdoor heaters provided much more summer-like temperatures. Be there at sunset for a beautiful night-time view of the city. If you’re not the hostel type and have a bit more cash to splash, Hotel ABRI is close to Union Square and provides easy access to the airport. The BART (underground) is just yards away.