On a cool, foggy September morning we embarked on our three-day exploration of one of the most iconic cities in the United States. San Francisco, California has seen its share of destructive forces, but it has always built back. In the 19th century gold and silver booms expanded the city along with corruption, but the building of the Central Pacific Railroad brought foreign laborers, a thriving Chinatown, and growth. An earthquake and three-day fire in the early 20th century killed thousands, but the city rebuilt quickly with large construction projects, which included the Golden Gate Bridge. 1969 famously brought the “Summer of Love” and the expansion of progressive counterculture. In the new millennium, San Francisco is experiencing a new boom as a center for internet technology, but also bringing along higher rents and resentment in some of the rougher neighborhoods. San Francisco continues to be a fascinating city of contrasts.
Golden Gate Bridge
The morning we went onto the Golden Gate Bridge it was tipped with fog, not unusual as it is covered in fog about 70% of the time. The iconic orange-red color (“International Orange” is the official name) stands out against the fog, and also contrasts beautifully against the blue of the water, and the green and yellow hills in the distance. The bridge is named after the location, not the color. It crosses the Golden Gate, which is the straight of water where the San Francisco Bay opens out to the Pacific Ocean.
The suspension bridge is an architectural marvel, almost two miles long and capable of swinging laterally up to two feet in high winds, and it is often windy on the bridge! While you can walk, drive or bike across it, we got a tour bus recommendation from our hotel and rode in the bus across the bridge. There was some commentary from the driver at the start of the tour, however while crossing the bridge he was quiet as you could not have heard him anyway. The high winds whipped against the top of our bus, whooshing loudly in my ears and beating against my head as I struggled to keep my hoodie on over my head, as it was also cold. It was all I could do to snap a video as we rode along. Being that as it may, it was still an unforgettable experience to cross the most photographed bridge in the world, beloved by San Francisco.
After the tour finished, we were dropped back off at the Golden Gate Welcome Center where you also have an opportunity to snap some great photos. There are two cafés located there, and we chose one to sit down gratefully out of the wind, and sip on some hot tea to warm up.
Golden Gate Park
This amazing park sits on top of over a thousand acres, and is home to several unique gardens, groves, lakes and miles of walking and bike paths. It is the location of the Botanical Garden and the Conservatory of Flowers. Events, tours, and activities are scheduled throughout the year, you can get more information along with a map at Goldengatepark.com. We only had that afternoon to explore, so after sauntering through some of the park, we happened upon the Japanese Tea Garden and made that our destination for this particular trip.
Japanese Tea Garden
A serene space to spend some time in and sip some tea is the Japanese Tea House, located here in the gardens. There is a modest $9 admissions fee at the gate, for more information see here.
After walking through the main gate of the garden, you will be enveloped in manicured trees and koi fish ponds, all meant to foster meditation and relaxation. Hedges shaped like Mount Fuji, delicate flower shrubs, dwarf pine trees, Bonsai and waterfalls are all designed in a harmonious pattern. There is also a five-story red Pagoda, or Buddhist shrine, near the center of the garden. The time we spent here truly put us in a mood of balance and ease.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in the United States, and densely populated. Grant street is the main street with the most shops and restaurants, and can be entered through the grand Dragon Gate.
After gazing at the picturesque red lanterns strewn overhead, we made our way through the crowds for some authentic and delicious Chinese food.
We chose to eat at the Z & Y restaurant [655 Jackson Street, (415) 981-8988]. It boasts award-winning food and has served two Chinese presidents. You have to order the Jasmine tea! It is poured for you from several feet away by a skilled waiter. Two other notable and well-known restaurants to try are The House of Nanking [919 Kearny Street, (415) 421-1429] and Sam Wo Restaurant [713 Clay Street, (415) 989-8898.
A walk to the nearby Coit Tower and over to the Lombard street covers about ten blocks and is a healthy walk up and down the picturesque but steep hills of San Francisco. If you are up for it, from Lombard street you can also stroll through the upscale Nob Hill neighborhood and visit Grace Cathedral.
The tower was erected in the 1930s as a public arts project, and the themes of urban and rural life and New Deal idealism are apparent through the many murals in the tower. For a mere three dollars you can take the elevator to the top of the tower for sweeping views of all of San Francisco. Coit Tower sits on top of Telegraph Hill, which makes it very visible. It also makes for some steep hill climbing to get to the tower, so wear your sneakers, do a few stretches first and take it on…it’s worth it for the views.
Famous for its eight sharp hairpin turns on a steep hill, Lombard Street is also surrounded by the manicured lawns of some of the most expensive real estate in the city and is a great place to take pictures with the backdrop of cars inching precipitously down the street. It has been featured prominently in movies like “Bullit” starring Steve McQueen.
If you decide to walk through the Nob Hill neighborhood afterwards you can rest your legs in the pews of the magnificent Grace Cathedral (1100 California Street). I have to say, I got my fill of going up and down the hills that day!
The next day we took a more leisurely tour of Haight Ashbury. You can purchase tickets for a walking tour for around $20, and I recommend doing that because it is nice to have a guide show you where the various row houses are where rock stars like Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix lived and other points of interest. Our guide had an aunt who had been part of the 1969 Summer of Love, and we were told stories about it and shown murals that had special meaning for her. A good guide will really bring that special time in history back to life.
The Painted Ladies
After the tour, nearby only about five blocks away is the iconic row of houses called “The Painted Ladies”, that you often see in shots of San Francisco. It sits on top of a hill and the city rises up majestically behind the charmingly bright row houses. It is a nice place to just sit on the grass and hang out for a bit, and of course to snap a great photo.
We couldn’t leave San Francisco without a ride on a cable car. There are stops all around the downtown area, but the main hub is located at Union Square. By the way, if you are in the mood to shop this is the place with a ton of retail locations – you could spend the whole day shopping if you liked. There are also some great places to eat. We came back here on our last night to have a very satisfying steak dinner at the historic John’s Grill [63 Ellis Street, (415) 986-0069], as much a fixture of San Francisco as the Golden Gate bridge and named one of the top ten restaurants in the U.S.
First however, time to hop onto a cable car at Powell and Market street in Union Square to go explore Fisherman’s Wharf.
Waiting for the cable car to arrive after standing in a long line for tickets, I couldn’t help but notice the strong scent of marijuana wafting through the air. It is legal here, but it was hard for me to juxtapose the clean, modern feel of downtown with so many professional-looking techies walking around along with the heady scent of pot that hung in the air. Just something I noticed, but soon we were on the cable car and cruising up and down the hills towards Fisherman’s Wharf, as I clung with one arm to a side pole and watched the ground race by inches underneath my feet.
A top tourist destination, the various piers and streets here offer a lot in amusement.
For us, we searched for some great seafood of which here there is plenty. From street carts selling fried clams to upscale dining, you can get some good fish here at a variety of price points. For lunch we headed to the famous Boudin Bakery [160 Jefferson Street, (415) 928-1849] for some clam chowder in a sourdough bowl, which was creamy and yummy. Their flagship sourdough bakery is located here, and you can watch demonstrations if you like. For more iconic eats throughout the city, see here.
It was fun afterwards to explore all the attractions at the wharf, especially the sea lions basking in the sun at Pier 39, even if the whole scene is a basically a tourist trap. Back in the day, Fisherman’s Wharf was the location where fisherman would haul their catch into the city, and it is said that the California fish stew “Cioppino” was invented here. So, we decided to get some of this fish stew for dinner at a restaurant named appropriately Cioppino’s [400 Jefferson Street, (415) 775-9311]. It was a crowded place and a bit on the touristy side, and the Cioppino I felt was a bit on the heavy and rich side, but it was delicious with a large glass of lager.
The last must-do sight at Fisherman’s Wharf was a visit to the original Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory at Ghirardelli Square. The famous lighted sign dates back to 1923, and chocolates have been made here since then. There are three chocolate and gift shops, including an ice cream parlor. Here we got some gifts and satisfied our sweet tooth.
On our last morning before hopping in a cab to the airport, we had to squeeze in one more site, and that was the Ferry Building, located near the Financial District. It contains a market and is a mecca for food lovers. For a list of all the vendors, see here. We got some cheap but really good Mexican take out at Mijita’s (no longer open) and sat outside to eat. There is a large outdoor area with picnic tables where people working nearby take their lunch hour, so you can view a bit of the professional local scene, watch the ferries pull in and out, and shoo away the seagulls. It was a crisp, sunny day on our last morning, so it was an enjoyable last lunch and farewell.
Hotels in most areas of San Francisco are very pricey, expect to pay upwards of $300-$400 per night. Deals can be found in some of the outer lying areas if you have transportation with you. It is worth it to search the internet for deals, so that you can be nearer downtown and in walking distance of most sites and the cable cars. We found a deal for a hotel near the Financial District at a discounted rate, but had to make the reservations almost a year in advance.
Top Ten Things To Do
- Golden Gate Bridge
- Golden Gate Park – Japanese Garden
- Coit Tower
- Lombard Street
- Haight – Ashbury Tour
- The Painted Ladies
- Union Square – Cable Cars
- Fisherman’s Wharf
- Ferry Building
Date of trip: September 2018
For more on what a day on a trip to San Francisco is like, please check out the following blog: https://travel-along.in/2021/11/26/san-francisco-1/