I recently spent a wonderful week in San Francisco. It was my first time in the city and I absolutely loved it!
During a prolonged and unseasonable period of hot and sunny weather, I found SF to be a fabulously diverse and liberal place. It’s full of fascinating culture and communities, colour and brilliant things to see and do…
If you’re going to pay to visit one big tourist attraction in San Francisco, then it has to be Alcatraz Island. Located in San Francisco Bay, 1.25 miles (2.01 km) offshore from San Francisco, the Island is best known for its federal prison which closed in 1963. Holding prisoners as notorious as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”) and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, the stories are brought to life with an amazing spine-chilling reality through the immersive cell-house audio tour. The wash-house in particular will leave you feeling a sombre sense of the true harsh realities of prison life. Hearing the countless failed escape attempts is a highlight. The Island itself is managed by the National Park Service and has a history which stretches far beyond the prison, as well as being a habitat for nesting seabirds.
The whole act of catching a boat and going out to the island, seeing such a renowned landmark slowly getting closer, is an experience in itself. In spite of hordes of tourists it’s not hard to “tune in” to the place when you get there.
The cell-house audio guide is exceptional, clear and emotive, and the makers clearly spent a lot of time getting it right. You really get a sense of what life was like inside the prison and feel the emotions and stress related to its most notorious escape attempts. I found myself holding my breath in anticipation for much of the tour.
Wearing headphones for the audio tour makes it a very solitary experience, particularly when you’re visiting with others. But that solitary experience seems to justifiably sum up the essence of the prison, ensuring the sombreness gets right in and affects your subconscious.
Wandering the rest of the island at your own pace (if you’re not on a late tour) makes it excellent value for money. The tantalisingly stunning views of San Francisco across the bay underline how the prisoners must’ve felt each day, seeing it so close but painfully out of reach.
There are plenty of photo opportunities on Alcatraz, and it’s not hard to escape the main throng of tourists at the entrance and the cell-house, and really appreciate it for what it once was and now is.
Visitors can reach the island by ferry in around 15 minutes from Pier 33, close to Fisherman’s Wharf. There are various tours available for Alcatraz visitors:
- Day Tour, circa $38 (approx. 2.5hrs)
- Night Tour, circa $45 (approx. 2.5hrs)
- Behind the Scenes, circa $90 (approx. 4.5hrs)
- Alcatraz & Angel Island (seasonal tour, approx. 5.5hrs)
Note, it is strongly advisable to book tickets online well in advance of travel to San Francisco as Alcatraz Island tours are extremely popular and can sell out many weeks in advance. Visit Alcatraz Cruises to book.
Golden Gate Bridge
You can see the Golden Gate Bridge from many places all over the city, and (if you look hard enough) even the plane as you’re coming in to land at San Francisco International Airport! Walking and driving over it are free. But the absolute highlight of my own trip to San Francisco was hiring a bike and cycling over it.
Donning a helmet and setting off towards San Francisco Bay on a blue-sky sunny day is always the first memory that comes back to me of my time in the city. Don’t worry if you’re not a very experienced cyclist (it was my first time on a bike in 30 years!), the route is obvious and easy to navigate with cycle lanes alongside breath-taking scenery, and even a hilltop café for a quick pit-stop!
I’d recommend riding into the beautiful town of Sausalito on the other side of the Bridge and stopping for lunch at one of the many Bay-side restaurants. After a long bike ride I felt relaxed and invigorated.
I realised during the return bike ride, not only that I was in the best place in the world at that moment, but also that going over the Bridge on a bike was an exhilaratingly joyous must!
Top tip: In Sausalito, don’t just stop at one of the first couple of bike stops you come to where you’ll be charged for leaving your bike for a few hours. Ride a little further up the road and you’ll come across plenty of free bike parking, and for as long as you want to stay. Just don’t forget to lock your bike and remove all valuables before leaving it!
While you’re there, a great restaurant to check out is Venice Gourmet – kind of resembling an antique shop, I enjoyed an enormous cheeseboard and amazing clam chowder.
Not having a clue about the rules of baseball but wanting to try out something typically and iconically American, I booked tickets online the day before for a home San Francisco Giants vs. San Diego Padres game. And what an experience!
Based at AT&T Park, the MUNI (San Francisco’s underground system) journey was an experience in itself as we encountered ever more excited Giants fans, decked out in their team’s orange and black colours.
The first sight of the unique position of the stadium in front of the Bay was a definite wow factor moment. Despite not really knowing what was happening on the field, the atmosphere alone was incredible and infectious. A walk around the copious food and beverage stands and witnessing entire generations of families all out for an enjoyable afternoon was inspiring.
I’ll be honest; in spite of staying for the whole game, I never did find out who won until a few days later online…that’s how much I understood! But that didn’t matter. I had a really fabulous time in my cheap seats looking down at the pitch, with the gorgeous San Francisco bay as a backdrop.
The food stand offerings really surprised me too – there were plenty of healthier options, and even produce grown in gardens belonging to the stadium.
A slightly surreal but brilliant day out!
Tickets: Bigger savings the earlier you book, and ticket prices vary depending on view. However, tickets can start from as little as $10 per person for the back rows. Don’t forget to factor in costs for getting to the venue, and food and drink, which you will undoubtedly want to buy to enter into the spirit of it all! Nearest MUNI stop is King St and 2nd. Tickets can be purchased here.
Mission Dolores Park
In the Mission District, Mission Dolores Park was a fabulous place to go and chill, drink in the sights and generally mix with the locals. With far-reaching city views from the sloped edges of the park and occasional wafts of food, alcohol and recreationally-smoked cannabis (this smell quickly becomes a familiar one in California), I can still quite honestly say that this felt like my safest and best park experience, in the world, ever.
Enjoying the unseasonably hot and sunny weather during my time in the city, I found the park to be especially brilliant people-watching. There are some truly crazy Californians!
Whether you’re LGBTQ or not, this area is a must-visit for all of its sheer vibrancy. It’s awash with colour and rainbow flags, a cacophony of LGBT-related shops for all manner of tastes, rainbow road crossings, and people from across the LGBT spectrum comfortable enough to be who they are, and hold hands if they wish. But what struck me more than anything is its inclusivity. Nobody, regardless of sex, race, age or sexual orientation seemed out of place here.
We actually stayed in the Castro and couldn’t have chosen a better place. It’s far enough away from the main tourist areas of San Francisco but still buzzing with life and energy. And it’s close enough to get to everywhere relatively easily.
There’s a long and varied LGBTQ history relating to the Castro and it’s not difficult to pick up on a sense of it. We visited the GLBT museum and many of the incredible, historic gay bars that exist in the area.
It’s worth the visit even if only to check out the rainbow zebra crossings and to witness the abundant celebration of LGBTQ life.
The thing that surprised me most was the lack of drama in amongst the colour and vibrancy. The city has been ground-breaking in advancing LGBTQ rights and has “normalised” LGBTQ to the point that it felt shocking to feel so “unshocking”.
Not really a hidden gem, but do try some of the best sourdough you’re likely to taste from any of the Boudin Bakery & Cafés in San Francisco: The flagship Fisherman’s Wharf bakery is impressive, with as many different types of sourdough as you can possibly think of!
Also, try out Greens vegetarian restaurant for a very nice meal spent looking out across the bay at the Golden Gate Bridge. Tasty food, if fairly costly for the portion sizes, but still a great experience in a relaxed atmosphere with fabulous waiting staff. The restaurant is popular so booking is advisable. Dress code is smart casual, but there is very little pretentiousness.
Check out these free (tip-based) San Francisco walking tours for more alternatives to seeing the city.
Thirty minutes’ walk from The Castro are the ‘Painted Ladies’, a magnificent row of brightly painted Victorian and Edwardian houses; almost a surprise for their individual simplicity yet sheer ‘presence’ and beauty, with the San Francisco skyline as a stunning backdrop. Note: San Francisco is hilly, so public transport is sometimes a better option for leg-weary travellers.