San Francisco was the first stop on my big American roadtrip, and still remains one of my favourite US cities. Even though it’s in California, don’t automatically assume it’s all golden sunshine and sandy beaches – San Francisco is famed for it’s thick mists, particularly early in the morning. So, what is there to do in the City by the Bay?
9am: Start the day right at Ferry Building Marketplace
As one of the most indecisive people you will ever meet, I love an eating establishment with a lot of different choices because it takes all of the pressure out of choosing a restaurant! Ferry Building Marketplace on the Embarcadero has an almost overwhelming number of food choices but it’s hard to make a bad decision here. Make sure to do a full lap before you buy anything – there is nothing worse than making a food choice then seeing something even more delicious two stalls along. If you are really stuck, try one of the flaky gluten-free croissants at the Mariposa Bakery or a wild mushroom biscuit from Biscuit Bender (don’t worry, this is more of a savoury scone than a biscuit in the English sense of the word!)
10am – Take a walk down Lombard Street
If you buy a postcard in San Francisco, it will have one of two things on it: the Golden Gate Bridge or Lombard Street: the most crooked street in the world. It’s hilarious watching not only cars, but also first-time Segway riders, trying to navigate the 8 hairpin bends that make up this single city block. The easiest way to see it is to ride the famous San Francisco trolley to the top, then walk down to the bottom. I can’t even imagine living on this street – you would have muscles of steel just from walking to and from your own house!
10:30 am – Unleash your inner child at The Musée Mécanique
On the face of it, the Musée Mécanique doesn’t sound like much – it’s essentially a museum filled with penny arcade games from the 1900’s – but don’t let this put you off because it is heaps of fun. We took a little bit of convincing from our tour guide, but it really is worth a look in (plus entry is free so if you don’t like it you can turn right around and leave!). For 25c a time, you can see 1920’s peep shows, play the very first arcade games, get your future told by a terrifying plastic fortune-teller, or watch a group of mechanical miners pull down their pants and moon you in time to the soothing sounds of banjo music.
11:30am – See the sea at Fisherman’s wharf
A lot of people will tell you to steer clear of Fisherman’s wharf (and especially pier 39) because it’s over-hyped, over-priced and over-crowded but I am not going to do that. Yes, it is a total swarm of tourists rushing into and out of tacky souvenir shops and gimmicky restaurants, but there is also a lot of good parts of Fisherman’s wharf. Here you can get some of the best, freshest seafood in the world (and served in a bowl made of bread – is this actually heaven?) as well as seeing the San Francisco sea lions. Plus, it’s sometimes nice to have the option of buying some gaudy souvenirs and doing a spot of tourist-watching! There are also a lot of optional activities off the coast at Fisherman’s wharf – like sport fishing trips, kayaking, banana boats and even whale watching.
12:30pm – Saddle up in Sausalito
I’ve said this before, but consider this your second official warning: this bike ride is a nightmare. It’s incredibly long (at over 18 miles), incredibly steep and at one point a very nice group of San Franciscans will probably have to carry your bike up the stairs at the Golden Gate Bridge because every muscle in your body will have spontaneously turned into something resembling mashed potato. Having said that – and my biking partner almost certainly disagrees with me – the bike ride from San Francisco to Tiburon via Sausalito is so worth it. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge (from both ends and while you bike across it) are amazing, Sausalito is a wonderful seaside town and Tiburon is home to the infamous hippie swing as well as some of the most breathtaking panoramic views of the bay. My advice: hire a bike from Blazing Saddles, plan your route on one of their free maps and go slow. We took plenty of cocktail and snack breaks and we were still exhausted, so I have no idea what state we would have been in had we rushed!
5:30pm – Refuel at El Castillito
After a long and exhausting afternoon of bike riding, it might be time for a long rest, an iced drink and a massive burrito. California on the whole does excellent Mexican food, but San Francisco has the burrito down to a fine art. The ones at El Castillito (on Golden Gate Avenue) are such good value for money: overflowing with rice, beans, avocado, sour cream and some of the best carne asada you could ever hope to put in your mouth, and all for less than $8. While you are here, try a bottle of Mexican Coke: it’s made with cane sugar rather than corn syrup and is so much better than the American variety.
7:00pm – Prepare for a sugar rush at Ghiradelli
You might have heard of Ghiradelli – those tiny squares of rich chocolate in a wide variety of flavours – but you may not have heard about the Ghiradelli Manufactory near Fisherman’s Wharf. Not only do they sell some of the thickest, most decadent chocolate milkshakes this side of Switzerland, but you can actually see the chocolate being made using traditional methods that have been around for hundreds of years. You get to watch the chocolate being churned in giant vats, tempered to the perfect temperature and poured into those square Ghiradelli molds. The staff are so knowledgeable and passionate about what they do, and will tell you more interesting facts about the chocolate-making process than you even knew existed. Ghiradelli fulfills three of my favourite pasttimes: eating, being nosey and learning new things – perfect!
8:00pm – Set sail at sunset
You have already been over the Golden Gate Bridge, so why not end the day by going under it? There aren’t many better ways to see the city than by boat: you’ll get to sail around the bay, past Alcatraz Island and almost as far as Sausalito before heading back towards the wonderful views of the city as the sun sets behind the bridge. Just remember that whatever time of year it is, it will probably be cold: those bay winds can be absolutely bitter, which explains why I am wearing an XXL windbreaker that was hanging around spare on the deck because I was a legitimate hypothermia risk. It’s definitely worth a bit of a chill to see the silhouette of the bridge across a golden sky though – especially if you go with San Francisco Bay Tours.
Bonus: Take a trip to Alcatraz
I can’t say too much about Alcatraz unfortunately: tickets often sell out weeks in advance, so we weren’t able to go unless we were willing to head over to the ticket booth for it’s 6am opening time (and that’s a no from me). However, I have heard only good things about it and I would have loved to learn more about it’s fascinating history. Have you been to Alcatraz? Let me know in the comments if it was worthwhile!