It always amazes me how big the USA is, so big that you have to fly 6 hours to get from the east coast to the west coast. The last time I was in America, I was touring cities on the east coast, including New York City, Boston, Niagara Falls and Washington DC. San Francisco marks my first visit to a city on the west coast.
San Francisco was once devastated by a massive earthquake and fire in 1906 that destroyed almost three-quarters of the city. But you wouldn’t be able to tell any of that from the major Northern California commercial and financial centre that it is today, not to mention the birthplace of the United Nations.
With a distinct Victorian style in the housing department and cable cars cruising through the streets, you might just momentarily forget that you are in North America. It is a very different vibe from the likes of New York City, which is also why you’ll never get bored of the USA – there are 50 states in all, each with its own character and personality.
Not just another grid city
While San Francisco is laid out in a grid format like many other American cities, do not get fooled by the maps – San Francisco is not flat land. There are more than 50 hills in the city and you could be in for a workout if you choose the wrong way.
Which was unfortunately what I did. I chose an ‘L’ shaped route from our accommodation to the Wharf, thinking it was the easiest to follow. Little did I know that it took me up the hill and back down again. The uphill trek should have been a warning sign, but not wanting to change course midway and risk getting lost, I decided to stick to it. In hindsight, a zigzag route that stayed on flat ground or hugged the coastline would have been a better idea. Well, at least I got some vantage views while I was up there. Maybe I should pay more attention to street names and neighbourhoods ending with “Hill” next time.
The street view from the top of the hill with Alcatraz off the shore.
Big city in setting, cosy town at heart
Luckily, walking is not the main sightseeing method in San Francisco. The better way to see it is by boat since the city is located by the water. Most of the attractions are either on the waterfront (Fisherman’s Wharf), across the water (Golden Gate Bridge), or in the water itself (Alcatraz Island). So, it’s not surprising that there are many sightseeing boat tours on offer.
The tour boat that took us around the waters of San Francisco.
The one we took was by the Red & White Fleet. Starting from Fisherman’s Wharf, we went around the waterfront, cruised past Alcatraz Island and saw the underbelly of the Golden Gate Bridge. The salty sea breeze lashing at our faces rounded it up. Dress warmly.
View of Fisherman’s Wharf from the boat…
And the famous Pier 39.
Introductory tour over, it was now time to deep-dive into each attraction. The waterfront forms part of the historic centre of San Francisco, and popular tourist attractions like Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 draw in crowds all day long.
Fisherman’s Wharf itself covers an approximate 10-block stretch starting from Ghirardelli Square all the way to Pier 35. Packed with lots of attractions like the Aquarium of the Bay, Madame Tussauds and Ripley’s Believe It or Not, it is guaranteed to keep the entire brood entertained.
Pier 39, the outdoor shopping mall resembling a resort town.
Amongst them, Pier 39 stands out with its outdoor shopping mall concept, combining shopping, dining, entertainment and a gorgeous view into one location. Together with its two-story carousel and game arcades, I felt like I was at an amusement park or resort town, rather than a city centre. The best part was the sky turning a dreamy pink when dusk fell. A perfect way to end the day.
The dreamy view of the sunset at Pier 39.
When in San Francisco, there are a couple of things you mustn’t miss, no matter how touristy they are. The first is a visit to Alcatraz lsland.
Approaching Alcatraz Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay.
Alcatraz was once a military prison, then a federal prison for 29 years from 1934 till 1963. It is said that its location in the middle of nowhere (I mean bay) was a natural deterrent to convicts escaping. Today, it is the perfect backdrop for a tourist destination with its dramatic back story, famous occupants and ruins around the island.
Graffiti from the Native American occupation in 1969.
I was instantly reminded of Robben Island in Cape Town when I stepped onto Alcatraz Island. They both have the same recipe – an offshore island, an abandoned prison and derelict ruins. The boat ride added to the feeling of being shipped off to no man’s land. Be careful not to miss the ride back, or you could be stuck there. Just kidding…
The ruins of the Warden’s House on Alcatraz Island…
And the Water Tower before it was restored in 2012.
Back on land, the other thing you mustn’t miss is a ride on the Cable Car, the world’s last manually operated cable car system. If you don’t see the cables, that’s because they’re all hidden underground. First operational in 1873, it is more of a tourist attraction today than a bona fide public transport option. Or maybe the crowds of tourists make it impossible for locals to catch a ride. With a queue that long and $7 per ride, it’s probably not worth the wait.
Hanging on tight for the cable car ride.
The cable car terminates on one end at the Fisherman’s Wharf, and that’s where we joined the queue for a ride. Besides riding the cable car, part of the fun is watching the operator turn the cable car around on a Lazy Susan (really a wooden turntable) at the terminus. Manual manoeuvres are the new novelty in this technological age it seems. For those interested to learn more about the cable cars, there’s also the San Francisco Cable Car Museum that you can visit.
And round the cable car goes – changing direction at the terminus.
A piece of somewhat ancient history
Speaking of technology, the day we were in downtown San Francisco happened to be the launch day of the first Apple iPhone (yes, it was that long ago). We saw a raucous crowd gathered outside the Apple store in anticipation of the official launch shortly but all we did was walk past it nonchalantly. Ha! Looks like we missed a chance to be part of history. Oh well.
A historical moment and we were right in the middle of it. Or could have been.
Seafood and Chocolates!
I seldom write about food, but with the seafood galore in San Francisco, it deserves a mention. Top on the menu is the Clam Chowder Bread Bowl that can be found all over Fisherman’s Wharf. You can’t really claim to have seen San Francisco without having eaten your clam chowder out of a sourdough bread bowl.
We also had dinner at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., the restaurant inspired by the 1994 film Forrest Gump where you can get all things shrimp.
The shrimp scampi linguine from Bubba Gump. Makes me hungry every time I see it.
And then it was dessert at Ghirardelli’s! In San Francisco, it’s not Hershey’s, but Ghirardelli that rules. Ghirardelli has its roots right here in San Francisco and is such an institution that there’s even a square named after it. While Hershey’s chocolates are on the sweeter side and target the masses (read: kids), Ghirardelli will attract the connoisseurs with its rich chocolatey flavours. For me, I especially love the chocolate squares that come with different fillings like raspberry and sea salt caramel. We bought so many chocolates it practically filled half our suitcases.
San Francisco wasn’t a typical city holiday for me. My travel companions and I spent more time outside the city than in. To find out what “adventurous” thing we did in San Francisco, stay tuned for the next article.