“I left my heart in San Francisco.” Tony Bennett
It’s a bit of a cliche, I know, but I think I did leave my heart in San Francisco. This is a city I fell in love with and returned to more than once, each time having a different experience, exploring more of the city but always leaving things out of the itinerary to make sure there are new things do next time. I’m already planning ‘next time’, it’s going to be a couple of years but I’ll get there.
I can’t really put my finger on what makes me love the city so much – there is a ‘vibe’ about the place. It’s a city of contrasts and diversity, it’s colourful and vibrant and despite it’s size, somehow manages to have a small town feel which made me feel very comfortable. To wander the streets of a large city, and have people saying ‘Good morning’ or generally acknowledging you as they pass is a rarity but something I have seen on all of my trips to this San Francisco.
The city covers a fairly large area, but much of it is walkable as long as you have the time and a good set of quad muscles. We’ve all seen the movies and TV shows with the car chases up and down the hills of San Francisco. Well, let me tell you, those hills are very steep in some places!
On all my visits, I have stayed in hotels around the Union Square district. I find it a great base – there are plenty of hotels varying in price range and also a great selection of restaurants and bars on your doorstep. Oh and breakfast places. Did I mention breakfast? We’ll come back to that later!
As with most large cities, there are some great tours available. In most new cities, I tend to spend a couple of days doing a hop-on, hop-off bus tour. These open topped buses usually featuring an audio guide are one of the best ways to get your bearings in a city, and to easily get to the main tourist attractions. They can also be very entertaining depending on your tour guide!
The Big Bus San Francisco tours are a fantastic way to navigate the city. There are three route options – The Red route which is a day tour of the city, The Blue Route which is Panoramic Night Tour of the city and finally The Green Route which takes in a tour of gorgeous town of Sausalito across the bay. This tour wasn’t available when I last visited, but will definitely be in my plans for next time.
The best way to cover my thoughts on the city is to take you a virtual bus tour with me, hopping-off at some of the main stops along the way.
The Union Square district is San Francisco’s central shopping, theatre and hotel district focused around, funnily enough, Union Square – a large public plaza flanked by large hotels, large shopping malls and department stores. It is the busy hub of the city, and a great place to base yourself.
I’ve always looked up at The Westin Hotel from the Square and dreamed of staying there one day. Next time, maybe!
There are plenty of restaurants and bars to keep you occupied in the evenings. Be sure to call into Johnny Foley’s Irish House, a traditional Irish pub for a pint of Guinness. The Daily Grill is definitely worth visiting for a great meal in nice surroundings. For the best breakfast you are likely to have in San Francisco, pop into Taylor Street Coffee Shop. Get there early, as people will line down the street waiting for a table at this tiny little breakfast joint. If you fancy the classic diner experience with all the 50’s memorabilia, search out Lori’s Diner.
For a drink with a view, call in at the Marriott Marquis and head to the View Lounge, which offers fabulous panoramas across the city from high up. I would recommend heading there for sunset, you won’t be disappointed.
Onto the bus and we head through the Tenderloin district (not an ideal place to roam around as a tourist) and towards San Francisco City Hall, a large domed government building occupying two full city blocks.
From City Hall, the bus heads west towards the Alamo Square neighbourhood and one of the most iconic San Francisco scenes for me – The Painted Ladies, a row of Victorian houses that sit opposite Alamo Square Park with a backdrop of the downtown San Francisco. It’s picture postcard stuff.
Next we head further west to the Haight-Ashbury district, famous for being the origin of the hippie culture in the sixties. The area is now home to hip cafes, restaurants and boutique stores but the buildings facades still pay homage to the flower power era. It’s an interesting area to wander through. One of my main reason for stopping here was to call into the Amoeba Music store and browse the amazing collection of records.
Golden Gate Bridge
Back on the bus at Haight-Ashbury, we head along The Panhandle and into the Golden Gate Park before turning north and heading through The Presido to arrive at San Francisco’s most famous landmark – The Golden Gate Bridge.
The bus crosses the bridge, before stopping at the observation point across the bay offering amazing views of the bridge itself.
If you are not content with this view, you can take a pathway which leads from the parking lot, under the road and head up the hill on the opposite side of the bridge to another vista point at Battery Spencer, a 19th century concrete fort. The views from this higher vantage point show the bridge with the backdrop of the city – definitely worth the hike up there.
Russian Hill and Lombard Street
Once we are back over the bridge and heading back towards the city, we pass through the Marina district and then the Russian Hill district, a good spot to disembark and take a stroll to view another of the city’s iconic landmarks.
Lombard Street aka The Crookedest Street in the World runs east to west through the city, with one block being too steep for vehicles at a 27° grade. On this one block, eight sharp turns were created in 1928 making it passable for vehicles, now making it a San Francisco landmark that is regularly visited and driven down by tourists. The landscaping and planting is also really eye-catching.
While we are up on Russian Hill, it’s worth bringing to your attention another lesser known San Francisco landmark that I had to visit. In fact I think I have visited every time I have been to the city – Barbary Lane.
Here’s the thing – Barbary Lane doesn’t really exist, it was created in the mind of Armistead Maupin for the Tales of the City novels – a set of stories focusing on the trials and tribulations of the residents of 28 Barbary Lane.
The original novel was made into a mini-series in 1993, and featured the often described steps up to Barbary Lane, which in real life are steps up to a leafy and quiet pedestrian street called Macondray Lane situated between Leavenworth and Taylor Streets.
I fell in love with the books and the characters that Maupin created, as well as the mini series and it was a great treat to be able to see some of the filming locations in real life. If you haven’t read these books, please search them out and transport yourself into this world – it’s magical, happy, sad and everything in between.
After many a hike up and down the steep slopes of Russian Hill, we jump back onto the bus at Van Ness Avenue and head back towards downtown, skirting around the north end of Union Square before continuing on to another area worth stopping – Chinatown. Known as the oldest Chinatown region in North America and established in 1848, the area covering 24 square blocks is a bustling and vibrant part of the city.
North Beach & Financial District
For the interests of this post, we can head back to the Chinatown Dragon Gate at the intersection of Grant and Bush and jump back on the bus before travelling a few blocks and getting off at Portsmouth Square (but in reality if you stroll through Chinatown you can easily reach this point anyway)!
The reason you will want to get off at this stop is to take a wander around the North Beach and Financial Districts. North Beach which borders Chinatown to the east is a vibrant and interesting neighbourhood packed full of great restaurants, cafes and bars, fantastic nightlife and rich in diversity. I was originally directed to this area by friends who recommended I visit due it historically being the stomping ground of beat poets such as Jack Kerouac in the 1950’s. While here I visited the historic City Lights Bookstore and the neighbouring bar Vesuvio – a gorgeous little place steeped in history (and some great beers on tap).
A little stroll from here will bring you to the base of the Transamerica Pyramid, a 48 storey building which completed in 1972. I love the contrasts of the buildings in this area – the older Victorian buildings against the backdrop of the newer and taller skyscrapers.
Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf
Having chilled out for a while with a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale at Vesuvio, or perhaps a coffee on one of the many sidewalk cafe areas while doing some people watching, it’s time to head back on the bus and head for the next stop. A much busier and more touristy stop. Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39.
Pier 39 is a hugely popular tourist destination on the San Francisco waterfront – a pier packed with cafes, restaurants, shops and people. Lots of people. It’s a nice and scenic area and definitely worth a visit, but more to tick off the list than to truly enjoy your surroundings!
One thing I forgot to mention above was the sea lions. Oh the sea lions, with their loud barking and unique aroma! These Californian Sea Lions settled at the dock next to Pier 39 in October 1989 following the Loma Prieta earthquake and the population has grown ever since. The dock offers a protected environment and a plentiful supply of food so these guys are not going anywhere!! Some days the pontoons can be packed full of them.
Washington Square Park & Coit Tower
Picking up the route again at Pier 39, the bus journeys through the streets of Fisherman’s Wharf before heading down Columbus Avenue towards North Beach again. Stop off at Washington Square, a lovely park surrounded by cafes and Saints Peter and Paul Church with it’s impressive twin spires.
From here it’s worth taking a walk up Filbert Street (yes, it does get quite steep, I’m afraid) towards Pioneer Park and Coit Tower – a 210 ft art deco memorial tower built in 1933 offering some great views across the city.
The good news is that it’s mostly downhill back to Washington Square to pick up the bus again.
Back onboard we head towards the final leg of the bus tour, passing through the financial district and disembarking once we reach the Embarcadero and the Ferry Building.
The Embarcadero is a three mile stretch of waterfront which starts at Pier 45 to the north and ends near the AT&T Park stadium to the south. We spent a couple of hours strolling the entire length of the Embarcadero during our stay, stopping off here and there for some refreshments and food. We took in views of the AT&T Park – home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team, the Bay Bridge, the Ferry Building and also took a walk down Pier 7, a historic and photogenic wooden pier with excellent views over the city skyline.
From the Ferry Building, it’s possible to get back onto the bus which will then take you back along Market Street and up to Union Square where the journey began. Which is where we leave it for the time being.
There are of course plenty of other means of transport in the city, including the world famous Cable Cars and the Boat Tours across to the Island of Alcatraz, all of which we will cover in the next post.