If you only have a few days in the city by the bay, make sure you spend them in the best possible way. Boom. Poetry.
Here’s a some of the un-missable San Francisco experiences (and an indication of the time we allowed for them when we did them)…
Tree Hugging Anyone? (1-2 hours)
If you’re coming in from Yosemite then it’s a good shout to take a small diversion to Muir Woods on the way to the city. There is free parking, friendly deer and it is home to some pretty big-ass trees. Stop at the visitor’s centre for a small dose of local history and then take the small boardwalk path around the forest and try-but-fail to wrap your hands around a massive tree trunk, like every other tourist before you.
Driving over the Golden Gate Bridge (2 minutes)
What better way to arrive in the city than by driving over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge?
Given that it is one of the city’s most iconic structures, it felt only right to arrive in the city by driving over it, despite the fact that you have to pay for the 2 minute privilege. The view was well worth the toll charge which is around $7 and is payable online or through your car hire company later who will automatically re-charge you when they get the bill (yes, unfortunately they had my credit card details).
Shopping. A must-do in any city. (2-4 hours)
We arrived mid afternoon and set out to explore Union Square almost straight away. Whilst the shops in Union Square are good it is worth noting that they are mostly chains, so if you’ve come from New York and/or Vegas (as we did) then you’ve probably seen most of the stock already! That didn’t stop me looking again, much to the joy of my Husband…
Head to Marshalls for significant discounts on brands. I got myself a rather snazzy Michael Kors Leather Jacket for less than $230 and a pair of Michael Kors shoes for around $50. I had to trust that I would lose my ‘America weight’ when I got home and that the jacket would then fasten at the front.
It’s a good idea to end the shopping spree in Macy’s so you can work your way up to the Cheesecake Factory. It lived up to it’s reputation for having a huge menu, as well as a huge array of cheesecakes…and a huge queue for a table! We waited approx 30 mins at around 7pm, which isn’t too tedious when you’re clutching a mojito and taking in the views over the square at night.
The Exploratorium (2-4 hours)
Ever wished museums were actually fun? Consider your wish granted. It’s as if The Exploratorium was the brain child of Willy Wonka and Inspector Gadget. Think mind-boggling, touchy-feely interactive exhibits which assault your senses and have you wishing you’d taken science more seriously at school. If geeking-out could ever be cool, this place is a close as it comes.
There are many reasons why a visit to the Exploratorium is a must if you have a couple of hours free – especially if you can get yourself there on a Thursday night for the after dark session, when entry is permitted for adults only and alcoholic drinks are available for purchase!
If you’re lucky, you might find yourself there on a night when one of their ‘Pairings’ events are on. Pairings is an innovative way of bringing science and food together, with guest speakers and free tasters of food and drink! It’s included in the entry price and is well worth checking out! The theme on our pairings night was apples, so we tasted a delicious apple based salad and a variety of Ciders (or ‘Hard Cider’ as it’s referred to stateside).
Alcatraz Island Tour (2-4 hours)
Normally the idea of getting up early, boarding a boat in the cold morning mist and wandering around derelict buildings on an island designed to deter people wouldn’t be my cup-of-tea. Alcatraz is the exception. All of the guide books suggest a visit here and I wouldn’t disagree. The tour is guided with a headset so you can roam freely without having to stop to read things all of the time. That’s great, but in busy spots there was a bit of a wait to see the exhibit (like a specific prison cell) so we did have to pause the tape on occasions.
Unfortunately for me, cups of tea and sweets inside the prison grounds are not permitted. Be prepared to scoff or bin your snack stash when you get off the ferry! Book at least 6 weeks in advance to avoid tickets being sold out.
Pedal Power! (1-8 hours)
I don’t have a bike in the UK because I don’t have anywhere to store it, but that didn’t stop me or my Husband hopping on and touring the bay on two wheels. Once we remembered how ride, we cycled over the bridge and back again. Another option is to cycle over, head to Sausalito and get the ferry back to the city. We chose to cycle back and used the bikes to explore some of that end of the city (we got lost).
Hiring bikes was easy on the pier front despite it being a busy weekend. It was good value and cycle routes are clearly marked and easy to follow.
China Town (20 mins +)
We walked through China town a few times during the morning markets. There were lots of shops offering ‘touristy’ type souvenirs, so we bought a Golden Gate Bridge fridge magnet for around $3 (it might be a bit sad, but we always buy a fridge magnet from the places we visit).
The atmosphere was a little bit chaotic and exhausting with the heat and the hills, so we didn’t stop there for long despite having heard that there were some fantastic buffet restaurants in the area! Despite not sticking around, it’s definitely worth nipping to this part of town for a splash of alternative culture.
Fleet Week (1 week event)
We happened to be in town for San Francisco’s 2015 Fleet Week. This was actually unplanned, but a massive stroke of luck. There was a carnivalesque atmosphere the whole time we were in the city and there were air shows on Saturday and Sunday, including a star appearance from the Blue Angels which we were able to watch from the bridge!
There were live bands on Pier 39 and the whole Fisherman’s Wharf area was filled with military vehicles and personnel. The bay was packed with military vessels and spirits were high! If you’re heading out there in October – it’s well worth checking whether you could align your stay with fleet week!
The Embarcadero & Markets (1-2 hours)
If you’re a fan of food and craft markets, check out what’s going on down at the Embarcadero Centre. It’s the kind of place where you struggle to decide where to grab breakfast from because all of the food stalls and cafés pull you in with aromas of sausages, bacon, artisan breads and cheeses. Grab a little snack from a few places to-go and wander down the waterfront enjoying the view.
Pier 39 & Fisherman’s Wharf (1-2 hours)
This is the main ‘touristy’ area of the city and where you’ll find a host of bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. We ate there twice for lunch.
The first time we went to the Eagle Cafe where we ate AMAZING seafood. When asked what type of oysters we wanted we asked for a surprise because we didn’t know what any of the options were, and given it was only the second time either of us had tried oysters – we quite frankly didn’t care.
The second time, we ate at Bubba Gump Shrimp, where we failed the Forrest Gump quiz in a tremendously bad fashion. Stunning views, seaside smells and good food make it worth a visit.
Palace of Fine Arts (30 mins+)
For it’s sheer beauty, this place is worth more than a passing glance. Tag it on to your cycle trip over the bridge as it’s not far off-route, but be aware that you’ll have to dismount your bike when you arrive as cycling is not permitted. You’ll want to make sure your camera is charged for this one!
What about the trams?
We didn’t need to get the tram anywhere, and I think you see more of the trams when you’re outside the carriage so unless you’re desperate to go on one, don’t worry about missing out on the tram experience. You’ll have plenty of photo ops when a crammed carriage passes you in the street!
How could you leave out the famous Lombard Street?
We went. We saw. We were somewhat underwhelmed.
It took us 30 minutes walking up and down hills in the heat to arrive at Lombard Street and although it’s very pretty and very wiggly, I wouldn’t go again unless I happened to be passing. In a taxi.
Considering a late night?
Don’t bother. Unlike Las Vegas and New York, San Francisco is a city which does sleep, and it turns out it goes to bed pretty early. We tried to get dinner reservations at 10pm and the hotel concierge sort of politely chuckled. He came through though, by sending us for one of the best (and best value) meals of the holiday – a curry at Punjab Kabab House, who were more than happy to feed us after a long day exploring the city. Definitely one to check out!!
A quick nod to the less fortunate.
It doesn’t take a detective to realise that homelessness is a real problem in the city. We were surprised by the amount of people ‘begging’ on the streets everywhere we went in the USA but it certainly seemed more prevalent in San Francisco. If you don’t feel comfortable giving people loose change (well, you don’t know what they’re doing with it to be fair) then perhaps a little compassion could be extended in some other way.
Each time we left a restaurant without finishing the meal (pretty much every night), we asked for the leftovers to be packaged as a take-away and then gave them to the next homeless person we came across. Not once was the gesture rejected, and there’s something extremely humbling about hearing a homeless man declare “Oh Yeaahhhhh – fig rolls!!” as you continue the walk back to your 4* hotel.
Are you planning a visit to the city on the bay?
Head over to my travel planning page for hints and tips on how to maximise the benefit of your annual leave!
The 5 Week Wanderer