If you are anything like me the first thing that comes to mind when you here San Francisco is The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Trams. But, I can honestly tell you there is so much more to this colourful, hilly, beautiful spot of California.
It is the birthplace of the United Nations and is the fourth most populous city in the state. What made it so big was The California Gold Rush of 1849 at the time making it the largest city on the west coast. After the majority of it being destroyed by fire and an earthquake in 1906 it was quickly re-built and brought in millions with thanks to it being the embarkation point of many servicemen and immigrants during the war.
I had no idea what to expect going to San Francisco, I’d heard so much about it and was trying to piece together a picture in my mind of what it would be like. In all honesty I was pretty far off. When I got there I was just shocked by the layout and just knocked back by how much it looked nothing like a city (or at least not your typical American city). Now don’t get me wrong there were skyscrapers and tall buildings especially in the Financial District and around Union Square (which is the place to go if you’re up for a good shopping spree) but most of the city is made up of colourful little buildings and houses. You could easily find entertainment just walking up and down the streets for hours; and when I say up and down I do mean it! The entire city is built on hills, and not just one. You turn a corner and there is another hill to climb but it’s usually the opposite direction which makes it very confusing when you’re walking around but on the bright side you will get a good work out from it.
This is one thing that makes San Fran so unique and attractive to tourists, there is no other city quite like it (that and the cable cars which were built for people to get around with ease but actually make a fortune from tourists just wanting to have a ride for the experience!) It currently costs around $8 for a one way trip on the cars and there are 3 lines in use which cover the main streets in the city; The Powell-Mason line, The Powell-Hyde line and The California Street line. We had a local tell us about all the electronics and how the system works. It was rather interesting to learn about how it all works and how the wiring is all underground, how the brakes work and why they were made. Riding the cars is one of the biggest attractions in the city so it’s one of the things you must try at least once! Only so many people can fit on each car, sitting and clinging onto the edge so you can expect to be waiting some time to get on one but it’s an experience you would want to have.
Another one of the biggest attractions that bring people to the city is Fisherman’s Wharf. This was originally named due to a fisherman coming and settling in the late 1800’s due to the sudden arrival of people coming because of the gold rush. He was shortly followed by a ton of Italian immigrant fisherman who settled there. It still remains home to many fishing fleets even though great efforts have been made to turn it into just a tourist attraction and update it’s appearance.
One of the many things that bring people to this part of the city is Pier 39 which is like a little town in itself, all of the shops (including my favourite The Fudge Factory), aquariums, museums, a mass of sea lions under the pier and of course your typical street performers. There really is something for everyone here! While we were taking a walk around we found an old amusement building which was full of old arcade games where you could go in and spend all your change. We could have stayed for hours! It’s the little places like this that make the city so unique.
Food is a big thing here in San Francisco, especially fish and crab. Everywhere you go (especially down in the Wharf) there will be a stall selling fish, crab and chowder (this is also a big thing so you can imagine how crazy they go for clam/crab chowder!). All along the front there is just so many seafood restaurants to choose from so if you’re a fan of fish you can’t go wrong. The one thing you have to put up with unfortunately is the smell of fish and all of the seagulls everywhere. I mean everywhere.
This is one city you can’t go to for just a day, there is so much to see and do it would be impossible to cram it all in! Unfortunately I only 2 nights here but I tried to fit in as much as I possibly could. I spent some time just wandering around seeing all that it has to offer. With pure determination and after multiple wrong turns (it’s easy to go the wrong way as most of the streets are diagonal and I’m sure I’m not the only who struggles to read a map of this place because of it) I finally found Lombard Street. For anyone that doesn’t know that’s the very windy street that cars struggle to get round and is one of the most iconic picture stops in the city.
Now, I was expecting to see the road with a few tourists taking pictures, but how wrong was I. There were police and stewards, crowds of people, hundreds, people racing to the top of the hill to see who could climb the stairs the fastest and then of course there was a queue of cars waiting to come down! I was amazed at how something so simple could bring so many people.
One of the top things that bring tourists to the city is Alcatraz. There is so much history to this Federal Penitentiary it is definitely a must do if you want to get the proper San Francisco experience. What makes this High security prison so special is that it is located in the bay 1.25 miles off the shore.
It was originally built in 1910 as a US Army Military prison but turned into a federal prison in 1934 after being modernised and meeting security requirements. It was designed to hold the biggest criminals in the US and what made it so famous was because it was claimed to be escape-proof although it is known that a number of attempts (14) were made by several prisoners (36) to make that incorrect. Some of the stories you here on the tour of the prison are incredible yet shocking and you can’t quite believe some of these things actually happened.
Due to it’s poor reputation of escape attempts, events that occurred on the island (including The Battle of Alcatraz and Escape From Alcatraz) and maintenance costs the prison only remained open for 29 years but is still one of the biggest parts of the city’s history which is what makes it one of the most popular tourist attractions. The tour consists of the 4 main cell blocks, the yard, the kitchen, library, visiting area, dining hall, admin rooms, the morgue and access to almost every part of the island. You are able to just put the headphones on and wander round at your own pace while listening to all of the stories told by prisoners and officers. The most exciting part is that some of the cell doors are left open so you can happily (or not so happily…) get a good shot of you in a cell or trying breaking out!
I would definitely recommend it to anyone even if you are not a big fan of history because some of the things you will see on the tour you can’t see anywhere else and you can learn so much in a fun way. Plus, it includes a boat trip out in the bay and you get an incredible view of the city!
One of the best things about travelling with a group (Trek America) is you get things included that you wouldn’t think to do if you went alone. I got to go on a walking tour of Chinatown which I would never have even considered but I can say this is one part of the city you must go to! Our tour guide taught us about the history of the area and what all of the landmarks were which made it all so special. He took us to this cute little bakery (the most famous one in the city) where we got to try mooncakes and the reason behind their existence, I’d never heard of these before and they had an odd taste to them but it was great to be able to try one and understand why people go just to buy one. We also went to a Chinese temple and an old lady told us our fortunes in a very interesting way involving throwing around a lot of sticks…
We went and tried so many different flavours of herbal tea in a tea shop and even got a free fortune cookie from the fortune cookie factory which in itself was an attraction for me! We also got led through Little Italy which was full of little Italian bakeries and restaurants and murals all of the streets. My point here is whenever you go to a new city always do some research and find everything you can do because sometimes you might find something you wouldn’t have thought of which makes your experience even better.
Finally, the one landmark that the world associates San Francisco with…
The Golden Gate Bridge, one of the wonders of the modern world.
Unfortunately this city is also well known for constantly being in thick fog so it can be difficult to get a good viewpoint of the bridge if you are there at the wrong time of day. Our guide from the day before had told us all of the locals call the fog Carl and apparently he even has his own twitter account which I found quite amusing.
Even though the traffic was horrendous as there was a marathon on at the time, we managed to get across the bridge to a viewpoint on the other side and even though the weather wasn’t great we were not disappointed! There are many ways you can see the bridge; driving across it, walking/cycling across it or even sailing under it on a bay boat tour but getting some good snaps of one of the most iconic landmarks in the world is just a must, we couldn’t have left without!
All in all I was far from disappointed and I will definitely be heading back to this beautiful city at some point in the future. The one thing I was definitely not prepared for was the weather. It was absolutely freezing! I ended up buying an extra hoodie to keep warm! Don’t be fooled by the clear blue skies and sunshine, the fact you’re in California in the middle of summer doesn’t make a difference! I’ve heard a lot of people say this is one city in the US they would happily live in because of the lifestyle and all the culture it has to offer and I would agree with them, I would also love to live there….. if I was rich (houses in the city typically start at more than $1,000,000 so isn’t very affordable to most people)!