A City With Something To Offer Everyone
San Francisco is a spectacular city that sits on a peninsula surrounded by water. It is one of the top visited cities in the world and offers many unique attractions like the former prison island of Alcatraz and PIER 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf.
The steep hills that created a need for the cable cars are part of what has made the city famous. The city is impressive visually, its steep hills are an attraction in themselves. From many areas in the city you can get incredible views of the bay that is spanned by the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. There are endless cafes and restaurants, museums, art galleries and shopping. It is an exciting, diverse and open minded city that seems to have something to offer to everyone.
San Francisco’s climate is very mild and generally sunny. It is however known for its morning fog. This creates an excellent opportunity for photographs of the Golden Gate Bridge sitting amongst the mist. Our visit to the city was in early June. We were warned about how cold the city can get, even in summer. It’s not like other parts of the California coast like Los Angeles and San Diego
You should be prepared by bringing several layers of clothing to accommodate temperature fluctuations. Strangely enough, it ended up being unusually hot during our visit. Instead of having to put on jackets we found ourselves having to keep from getting sun burnt.
You Might Be Choosing Your Hotel By How Much They Charge To Park
Accommodation in San Francisco can be on the pricey side, and parking costs can be outrageous. Advance booking can get you some better deals. Summer is of course high season and weekends can be busy all year round.
We went onto tripadvisor.com and found a small motel style place that had great reviews. It was in a good location and best of all had free parking! This is almost unheard of in a city where hotel parking can be as high as $40 a night on top of your room charge. It is called Nob Hill Motor Inn. It is nothing fancy, but was cheap, very clean and well kept. A friendly family operate the hotel. They were helpful with any information we needed about the city. A warning, the parking stalls in their parkade are very narrow! You may find yourself having to squeeze in and out of your car door, but as I said it is free!
Parking In San Francisco, Expensive And Hard To Find
Parking In San Francisco is expensive and finding a free street side spot has been deemed as lucky as winning the lottery. If you are flying into San Francisco you may want to consider skipping the car rental and using the money you save from parking expenses to use towards taxis. If you want to see other areas and attractions outside the city you could consider renting a car for a portion of your stay.
We had our vehicle with us for our entire visit because we drove there from Vancouver, British Columbia. Which is an amazingly beautiful drive if you take the coastal route the whole way through Oregon and Northern California.
By the time our visit was over Jack was a parking expert, he was parallel parking our car into the tightest of spots. We soon learned that if you saw an empty spot somewhere it was valuable treasure that you took no matter how small it was. It was quite common to see vehicle bumpers touching each other.
If something was in walking distance of our hotel we would leave the car parked. Our hotel happened to be within walking distance to a few attractions such as Fisherman’s Wharf. If you do any amount of walking in this city of steep hills be prepared for some sore legs! Our calf muscles were aching by the end of our stay. On a few other outings we took a cable car. Check what the parking situation is before you go somewhere, it might not be worth taking your vehicle.
If you want a unique and fun option to renting a car you can check out GoCar Tours. They are GPS guided and talking mini cars.
49 Mile Scenic Drive
The 49 Mile Scenic Drive is a self guided route that covers the major highlights and attractions of the city, including Fisherman’s Wharf area, Chinatown, Golden Gate Park and some unique neighbourhoods. It is a great way to get an overview of the city and see it at your own pace. The route is marked by signs that have a large white seagull.
The part of the drive that starts out in the city can be a bit hectic while driving through the traffic. The latter part of the drive is much more relaxing. Be sure to have a map. Some of the signs are missing, apparently people like to steal them as souvenirs. There will be areas that will be hard to find parking. You might want to use the drive as a tool to see what looks interesting and then come back to it later. You can even break the drive up over a period of a couple of days.
Lombard Street has a section between Hyde and Leavenworth streets that is one of the crookedest streets in the world. Hordes of tourists come every year to see this famous street. It has eight switchbacks with the steepest part at a grade of 27 degrees. The main attraction of the street is watching people maneuver there vehicles down the winding one block section. It’s even more fun driving down it yourself. On busy days the stream of vehicles can be never ending.
Lombard street has some of the most expensive real estate in the city. Stately Victorian mansions, high end condos and townhouses line the road. In the spring and summer there are beautiful flowers in the landscaped gardens that follow the switchbacks down to the bottom.
During the summer and busy weekends an option is to take the Powel-Hyde cable car that will drop you off at the top of the street. Sometimes the wait to have your chance at driving it are just too long.
San Francisco Cable Cars were created back when horse and buggy were still in use in the city. They were put in place as a better solution to navigate the city’s steep hills. Due to the high prices to ride the cable cars they have become more of a tourist attraction than practical transportation for locals. They are fun to ride on, it just wouldn’t be a complete trip to San Francisco without trying it at least once.
Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most beautiful and most photographed bridges in the world. It is the iconic symbol for the city of San Francisco. You can’t really appreciate the span and size of the bridge until you actually get on it. It stretches 1.7 miles over the bay. You can cross by foot, car or bicycle. There are parking and viewing areas at either end of the bridge. There is a toll in one direction only, southbound heading into the city.
From the Presidio there is a sand ladder staircase that takes you down to Baker Beach. It’s so steep that it is popular with professional athletes that use it for training. From the beach there are beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge. In the morning it can be foggy, lending itself to some interesting photography. The sand stretches for a mile and lies at the foot of rugged cliffs.
On the summer weekends the beach is busy with sunbathers. Be warned that the northern end of the beach is a clothing optional area. We were quiet shocked to stumble across nude sunbathers, but the real shocker was the men running around playing frisbee with it all hanging out! The beach is not safe for swimming due to the rip tides and large waves.
Alcatraz, Interesting And A Little Creepy
Alcatraz is an island that sits out in the middle of San Francisco Bay. It was a federal prison for some of the most dangerous and notorious criminals. Some of the famous ones were Al Scarface Capone, George “the machine gun” Kelly and Robert Stroud (known as the Birdman) The island was featured in the famous movie Escape From Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood and The Rock starring Sean Connery.
The worst torture for the prisoners was how close they were to the city of San Francisco. On a calm evening it was possible for them to hear parties and laughter from across the bay.
The island had other uses other than a prison. It was once used as a military fort, and a Native American peace community. It acts as a wildlife sanctuary for many birds. There are western gulls and black-crowned heron that have colonized on the island.
On a tour of the prison you can rent a headset that will guide you through and give history and interpretation as you go along. The solitary confinement cell was unimaginable to be locked up in. There are usually one or two former inmates at the prison who are there to tell the story of their time served. You can ask them questions as well.
You should try to buy your Alcatraz tickets in advance to get the time and date you want. If a daytime visit isn’t quite creepy enough for you then book the Alcatraz Night Tour. The tour is much more intimate because it is limited to a few hundred visitors each night. You will also enjoy spectacular night views of the city and maybe even a sunset.
Fisherman’s Wharf And PIER 39
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the premier attractions in San Francisco. It offers world class restaurants, fresh seafood, shopping and sea cruises. One of the main features of the wharf is PIER 39. This is a 45 acre open air complex that has two levels of shopping, dining and entertainment. There are over one hundred shops and 14 full service restaurants. The shops are open from 10am to 8:30pm, and longer hours in the summer. For the kids there are a multitude of things to keep them entertained from street performers, the two tiered San Francisco Carousel a games arcade and an aquarium.
The wharf is much more than a shopping and entertainment district, it holds important history for the fishing industry. You can still see the fisherman at work fixing nets and tending to their boats. Most of the fishing vessels here belong to third generation fisherman.
A colony of sea lions are permanent residence of the PIER 39 West Marina on K-Dock. They are fascinating to watch, but noisy and smelly!
The world famous Ghirardelli Square has been converted to an open-air center filled with fun shops and restaurants. It is located in the Fisherman’s Wharf area. This is the headquarters for the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company that was incorporated in 1852. They are the United States division of the Lindt Swiss Chocolate Company. Here you can even see the company’s original chocolate-making machines.
San Francisco’s Chinatown has the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. It is also the oldest Chinatown in North America. The fortune cookie was invented here, there is even a fortune cookie museum. The birth of Westernized Chinese Food was also started here.
San Francisco’s Chinatown does not exist by any means for tourists. It is a thriving Chinese town that retains its own customs, traditions, languages, and identity. It is like a “city within a city”.
There are over 300 restaurants to choose from. There are many shops selling traditional Chinese herbs and other Asian goods. There are a number of parks, temples and pagodas.
Haight Ashbury District
The Haight Ashbury District is famous for its role in the hippie movement of the 1960’s. During this time there was a huge cultural and political uprising that swept first in the city of San Francisco and then eventually spread across the United States and the world. The main objective was to stop the Vietnam war. The height of this activity was in 1967 during what was dubbed as the “Summer Of Love“. Over one hundred thousand youth showed up in the Haight Ashbury area.
During the 60’s the area was full of all kinds of psychedelic shops and funky cafes. Some of the places had names like Love Burgers and The Trip Without A Ticket. Today it is a place where affluent yuppies have moved in to buy up the Victorian Homes. The shops have been transformed into high end boutiques and chic restaurants and trendy cafes.
Japanese Tea Gardens
Japanese Tea Garden is the oldest Japanese garden in the United States. It is a beautiful and serene place to walk around. It’s not that large and as many attractions in San Francisco it can get very crowded in the summer and on weekends. We were there in early June and it wasn’t crowded at all.
Conservatory Of Flowers
Conservatory Of Flowers is a gorgeous Victorian greenhouse that was opened in 1879. It is made of wood and glass and is designated as a national historic landmark. It has an array of exotic flowers and plants. Our favorite plant was the prehistoric lily pads, they were enormous! One of the stars of the conservatory is a hundred year old philodendron that reaches over twenty five feet in height. It houses one of the worlds best public collections of Dracula orchids.
Be prepared for the extreme humidity inside the parts of the conservatory. We have been in several places like this and it was the most humid one we have ever been in. I was getting quite concerned about my camera while we were inside.
Union Square is a large plaza that is bordered by Geary, Powell, Post and Stockton Streets. It is a very cosmopolitan area, and one of the main shopping areas for San Francisco. The Union Square area includes a hotel and theatre district as well. There are several large department stores upscale boutiques, trinket shops, art galleries and salons. The large department stores include a huge Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Barneys New York, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue. The upscale boutiques include Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel, Dior, Tiffany and Dolce and Gabbana.
Coit Tower is a 210 foot tall structure that sits on top of Telegraph Hill. The top of the tower provides a 360 degree view of the Bay, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island and downtown.
On the ground floor of the tower there is a museum and ten foot tall murals that were painted in 1934. They depict the working life during the Great Depression. The viewing area outside the tower can be accessed anytime. The inside is open daily from 10am to 6pm. Admission to the tower elevator to get to the top is $5.
Victorian Homes Of San Francisco
Over 500 blocks of real estate were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire of San Francisco. Many examples of nineteenth century Victorian architecture was lost. Today there are over 14,000 Victorian buildings that have been preserved. Most of them are west of Van Ness Avenue in the Cow Hollow, Pacific Heights and Alamo Square districts.
We got to see many beautiful homes including the huge mansion that the famous author Danielle Steele resides in.
Painted Ladies At Alamo Square
Alamo Square sits high up above the city allowing for incredible views. The biggest attraction of the square is the row of Victorian houses that sit on Steiner Street that runs along one side of the park. They are known as the “Painted Ladies” and also referred to as the six sisters and postcard row. The ornate Victorian architecture sits in juxtaposition of the San Francisco city skyline as their backdrop.
The houses have been used for many movies and television shows. They are recognizable from the opening scenes of the 1990’s sitcom Full House.
The houses are painted in bright colors and show the architectural style that was predominant in San Francisco during the second half of the 19th century. Many Victorian homes were lost in the great fire of 1906, but there are still many examples left throughout the city.
From Alamo Square you can see Golden Gate bridge, the Oakland Bay bridge, Transamerica Pyramid and City Hall.