San Francisco - What you must see

by Geeta High

My husband and I embarked on that old American institution - the road trip. It turned out to be the most amazing holiday of our lives and San Francisco, our starting point, was a highlight.

We spent many evenings hunched over a map of California in an attempt to plan a rough route around the State.  We knew we wanted to end up in Vegas - but where did we start?  Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway was a must, and San Francisco is a great starting point for this.  My husband has long admired the Golden Gate Bridge and this played a major part in our decision to start the road trip here.  Until this point, I had no idea just how amazing this city was, but a little research soon showed me what we had been missing, and left us in no doubt of where to start. 

Our intention was to collect the hire car from the airport and spend a night in San Francisco before heading south.  But a flick through a guide book and an hour on Google later, a night couldn't possibly be enough.  We extended our stay to 3 nights, but we were still pushed for time.  There is a great deal to see and do in San Francisco - it's most famous sights like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz must be seen, of course, but there is a world of charm beyond this.  Like New York, you have to plan ahead before you arrive, or you really are in danger of merely scratching the surface.  This is a city that deserves your time as well as your attention.

We stayed at the Castle Inn on Broadway, which we’d booked prior to arrival. At $120.00 a night, it was very reasonable for its proximity to the bay but, bear in mind, this is a basic (but very clean) hotel. Our main requirement was parking, and this wasn’t an easy task. I trawled through many Internet sites before I found the Castle Inn. Our location was perfect as we were a convenient walking distance to both Chinatown and Lombard Street, so not completely reliant on the car.

The owner of the hotel was a scary looking biker who turned out to be an absolute wealth of information and showed us many things on a map that I hadn’t read anywhere else (and I had done a lot of reading). Like where to find one of only three spiral escalators in the world (Westfield San Francisco Center), which my husband was sorry to miss – there was just too much to do and too little time.

The hotel was approximately 15 minutes from Lombard Street, but it is worth remembering that San Francisco is very hilly, so a lot of the walking is uphill or downhill – and pretty steep at times. Around the corner from the hotel was a tiny student-type pizza place (Escape from NY Pizza, 2109 Polk St, www.escapefromnewyorkpizza.com) which did huge pizza slices for something ridiculous like $2! It was open til very late so was a handy place to stop off if we arrived back to the hotel late and fancied a quick bite. It looked like a shoddy enterprise, but the pizzas were first rate.

The golden Golden Gate

There are many ‘must-sees’ in San Francisco, making it a hugely popular tourist destination, but despite this, we never felt like we were in a city full of tourists (like ourselves!) - yet another of San Francisco’s charms. Golden Gate Bridge is definitely one of these ‘must-sees’ even if you have no interest in bridges and their architecture. Who could not appreciate the absolute beauty of the bridge, which is so commanding against the backdrop of the gorgeous bay? I recommend driving over it too (or walking if you have the time) as the views of San Fran ‘on the other side’ are spectacular – the windy roads take you up to quiet and pretty residential areas that offer stunning views of the bridge, city and bay. We actually drove over this twice (once by mistake having got into the wrong lane!) but that turned into a blessing as we chanced upon the Marin Headlands, a popular photo-spot offering the kind of views you see in travel books. Words really cannot do it justice.

One of our drives over the bridge was to Muir Woods which is about 50 minutes north of the city (www.nps.gov/muwo). Take hiking boots and plenty of water, but it’s well worth a trip to see some of the tallest trees on the planet! There is a $6 toll charge when you come back over the bridge into San Francisco.

Crooked amongst perfection

Lombard Street, the self-proclaimed ‘Crookedest street in the world’ isn’t something you see every day – it is so steep no vehicle could drive up it so some bright individual built turns into it, thus giving the road its unique title. It’s great fun (and a little scary) to drive down but be prepared for long delays as everyone takes their turn. We also walked up the pavement running alongside which was hard work (and we’re pretty fit!), but worth it – the far-reaching views of the long, steep streets running exactly parallel to one another are quite a sight, and with the bay sparkling on one side and the Bay Bridge on the other, it is unforgettable. A cable car stops at the very top of the street giving you a chance to get a quick picture, but getting off is a must! The road itself is lined with colourful flowers and pretty, almost make-believe, Victorian houses. It’s truly one of a kind.

San Francisco Bay - past Pier 39

Pier 39, located in Fisherman’s Wharf (Beach Street and The Embarcadero), is a quaint little pier a world away from the British seaside piers we are used to. The piers run along a wide, palm tree-lined street and Pier 39 has many unique shops and eateries (check out www.pier39.com). Parking is difficult (and expensive!) near the Pier so take a cable car if you can. We easily spent a morning strolling in and out of the shops and watching the street performers.

Look out for the Lefty’s Store (www.leftyslefthanded.com/AboutUs.asp) which stocks goods for left-handed people, we bought some cool souvenirs for people back home. My husband, a ‘hard-done-by’ lefty felt he had finally come home! There’s also Chocolate Heaven (www.chocolateheaven.com/index.cfm?fa=view.page&p=4) which is just that, and has a real olde worlde feel to it, as do many of the shops here. The Pier is also famous for the large number of sea lions that arrive here in the spring. They are literally a stone’s throw from the Pier and it is easy to spend an hour just watching them and their antics as they pull one another into the water. Or maybe we are just easily amused.

Climbing half way to the stars

Having a ride on a cable car is an absolute must, and it's a great way to see the city. You can take a seat, or if you're brave, stand on a rather narrow ledge in front of the seats. We thought this would be fun, but it turned out to be pretty scary too - you stand facing the traffic, holding onto a pole (for dear life, at times) and climb the steep streets, albeit at a slow pace. The scary part comes when cars rush past you on the opposite side of the road, but passing another tram going the opposite way and being told to 'breathe in' as you brush the standing passengers on that tram, is pretty cool. Heading down a steep hill is almost like being on a rollercoaster in slow motion, but it's all great fun. Don't stand when you have lots of shopping bags like we did!  See www.sfcablecar.com for route information and more.

Escape to Alcatraz

No trip to San Francisco is complete without a trip to Alcatraz, which we booked a day in advance. These tours fill up very fast despite the number of companies that offer them so book one as soon as you can. We booked with Alcatraz Cruises who had a stall near Pier 39 (www.alcatrazcruises.com). The tour cost $26 and was very informative, but allowed us plenty of time to explore the island at our leisure. Make sure you fit in a photo of yourself in a cell – surely a must?! If you purchase the day tour as we did, there is no set time for the ferry crossing (which departs every 15 minutes) so you really can make the most of your day. The views of the San Francisco skyline are just stunning from this angle with the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges on either side of the city.

What a sunset

One final spot I recommend is Ocean Beach, which runs along one side of Golden Gate Park.  It doesn't get much of a mention in the good old travel books, but it's definitely worth a visit. We drove part of the '49 Mile Scenic Drive’, which is well signposted and easy to pick up en-route, and this took us out along the coast. As luck would have it, we drove this as the sun was setting (complete fluke!) and witnessed the most beautiful sunset while local people flew kites on the beach. We sat and watched until the sun had fully set and marvelled at how this city seems to have it all.

I’m going home to my city by the Bay…

No surprise I have come home the most avid San Fran fan! We saw many beautiful places during our road trip, but San Francisco was a firm favourite. It has the city life combined with the calmness and beauty of the bay, which seems to be peeking at you wherever you are. I can see why Tony Bennett wrote that famous song so many years ago, and whose words we appreciate all the better since our return. We both long to go back and when we do, I’m sure we will leave our hearts there all over again.

Geeta High

My husband and I are very keen travellers, as you can tell from my reviews! We are always planning our next venture and try to fit in as much adventure as possible. We're not the all-inclusive/beach holiday type! I've been married for nearly 5 years, have 3 cats and am always itching to jet off to faraway lands. Mexican food is my major weakness but I love to try cuisines from around the world.