Bad start of a good time in San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge.

There are few places in USA that cannot be confused with any other. One such characteristic place is San Francisco. After a few quiet days in Nevada, we decided to visit the city that claims to be the capital of Silicon Valley.

The first impression

Matthew, whom we met in Reno, and his wife were going for vacation on the coast. They knew we wanted to go to the Bay Area so they offered us “a ride”. As a result, without squeezing on the bus, in the good company we reached the outskirts of San Francisco.<it’s> From there we traveled by subway directly to the center.

We arrived to Market Street before noon, and we still had a lot of time before our Couchsurfing host was getting back from work. The day was quite warm and sunny so we decided to first measure the time to David’s apartment. First block – 3 homeless people sleeping against the wall, the second block – 2 homeless and 3 guys watching us quite extensively, the third block – 2 homeless and an eccentric shouting something to himself, 4 block – 3 homeless and a guy wearing a skirt, a bra and a hood of the winter jacket. And still 8 blocks to David’s place. Damn… where are we?! We decided to calm down in a park…

Homeless sleeping on street in San Francisco.
Homeless sleeping on street in San Francisco.

The nearest park was at a corner of Eddy and Jones Street. We went there… and the area in general was not any better! Even more homeless, more freaks and more suspicious guys, and walking passed them with all our belongings in our backpacks felt very uncomfortable. It was later that we found on the internet the info about the area in which we found ourselves. Tenderloin is a district with one of the highest crime rates and the number of homeless in San Francisco. Moreover, as a result of changes in the rules on treatment of mentally ill people, in the 70s of XX century, many ill patients were released from hospitals. With nowhere to go, they stayed around the city center, including the Tenderloin.

Quickly we arrived and quickly we took off the park. The rest of the afternoon was spent in places where we could see the police (e.g. in a restaurant, in which we stopped to eat something, instead of the security was a policeman) and a library. The first impression of San Francisco wasn’t the best and didn’t motivate us to explore further. But sometimes it’s worth to give another chance – and luckily it turned out to be a lot better than the beginning 😉

Lions on the coast

What is the best about sightseeing in San Francisco? If you do not like for visits to museums, almost all of the most interesting places in the city you can see completely for free! We liked it very much!

Historical tram and Fisherman's Wharf sign.
Fisherman’s Wharf.

Our tour started from Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. This district at the beginning was mostly settled by Italian immigrants that were working in fishing industry, now is the third most popular tourist attraction in the USA. You can find here a lot of shops and restaurants with all sorts of dishes and fresh seafood. In addition, you can lose a little time (and money) in the arcade museum or learn something interesting about marine mammals at Marine Mammal Center and the Aquarium of the Bay, or explore the interiors of ships serving in the US Army during World War II.

Turists watching sea lions on Pier 39 in San Francisco.
Sea lions on Pier 39.

One of the most famous Fisherman’s Wharf attractions are Californian sea lions that live in this area and very often rest on the planks of the marina adjacent to the pier. That’s definitely not the best experience for the sense of smell (there’s nothing to hide – the marina just stinks), but it’s nice to look at animals that usually can be seen only in the zoo.

From Pier 39, you can also set off on a cruise to Alcatraz Island, which in the years 1934 to 1963 was one of the best guarded prisons with maximum security in the US. Among others, Al Capone was imprisoned here – with around 1,500 prisoners guarded by 500 guards.

Soaking feet in the Pacific and the trademark of San Francisco

The next day we went to the Ocean Beach. The cold water and strong waves definitely didn’t encourage us to swim, and after dipping feet we had the impression that we’re on the cryogenic treatment session. Like most people on the beach, we decided to stay on the shore, soaking up the sun and enjoying the beautiful natural circumstances. However, there were a few surfers that didn’t get scared by the cold water, and were trying to tame the waves.

Dawid on Ocean Beach.
Ocean Beach

The next place we visited that day was Golden Gate Park. With an area of 410 hectares, it’s the largest of all the parks in San Francisco (all of them cover the total area of 18% of the city). Originally, the park area was only dunes covered by spots of grass. It was not until 1870, when the park was created, and the entire area planted with thousands of varieties of trees and other plants from around the world. Every year the park is visited by approximately 13 million tourists. Numerous lakes, charming paths and fields, and picnic places such as Shakespeare Garden, Young’s Museum, Academy of Science and the Japanese Tea Garden – you can enjoy yourself in the park for hours without feeling the time pass you by. We completely lost track of time while watching the amazing hummingbirds that live among the trees 😉

Hummingbird in Golden Gate Park.
Hummingbird in Golden Gate Park.

From Golden Gate Park, we headed north, toward the Golden Gate Bridge. This walk takes some time, but most part of it goes through the quiet residential cottages. If you don’t plan to walk the bridge, one of the best places to see it is the Baker Beach. We stopped here for the sunset and some few photos, but our plan was to walk through the bridge. Sadly, the route from the Baker Beach to the bridge is not very pleasant after dark – completely unlit and runs along a fairly busy road, on certain sections of the hard shoulder or completely dark park.

Golden Gate Bridge at dusk.
Golden Gate Bridge at dusk.

When we got to the Golden Gate Bridge, the entrance to the footpath was already closed. So we went down to the viewpoint and for a while we just leisurely watched the trademark of San Francisco. Our impressions? The Golden Gate Bridge is simply impressive and generally doesn’t surprise us that it’s considered one of the wonders of modern engineering. Nearly three kilometers over the river, suspended by two identical towers decorated with Art Deco elements, and every day around 110 000 cars passes it. The construction which costed $27 000 000, after introducing the toll for the passage from north to south (or simply – into the city) already generated incomes three times bigger than the costs. The distinctive orange color makes the bridge is visible even in a dense fog. And despite the fact that we couldn’t enter the bridge that day, we came back the next day just to walk the bridge to the first support and see San Francisco from a different perspective.

A walk through the hills of San Francisco

A very characteristic element of the landscape of San Francisco are numerous hills. Many areas of the city were named after the hills, for example Russian Hill, Nob Hill and Telegraph Hill. While the walk up the next hill can be sometimes quite tiring, it’s worth a stroll these two neighborhoods.

Cars going down crooked Lombard Street.
Lombard Street.

In Russian Hill and its surroundings you will find many very impressive residential buildings, and from the top of the hill you can take a look at the amazing view above the bay, Alcatraz, Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge. In this part of town you can also find the most unusual street in the entire San Francisco – Lombard Street. This one-way road between Hyde and Leavenworth Street is often called “the most crooked street in the world”. On a stretch of 400 meters there are 8 sharp turns. Everything was done to ease residents of 12 properties the access to their homes.

On Russian Hill you can admire one of the most famous tourist attractions in San Francisco, which is undoubtedly one of the icons of the city. Along the Hyde Street goes the historic city tram line – so-called Cable Car, which is on the list of National Historic Places. The historic tram ride goes on three different routes – the line along the California Street, line from Market Street along Powell and Hyde Street, and a line from Market Street along Powell and Mason Street.

Historical Cable Car in San Francisco.
Historical Cable Car

Close to the Russian Hill there’s Telegraph Hill with its symbol – Coit Tower. The tower, set in the highest part of Telegraph Hill, was funded by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who in her last will gave part of her wealth to the city, stating that this money has to be used to beautify the city that she has always loved. Although there’s only one street leading to the tower, and there’s around only a dozen parking spots – this doesn’t scare off tourists before attempting to reach the hill by car. We chose the walking option and there’s no denying that got really tired before we even got to Coit Tower. However, there’s something really good in the fact that we got sweaty a bit 😉

A picture of Coit Tower with Patrycja and Dawid together with Allison and Danny in the foreground.
Coit Tower.

The day was sunny and hot, so after reaching the top of Telegraph Hill the first place to which we went was water fountain. As you might expect, by the fountain we met other thirsty tourists. One of them was Danny. One word led to another and we learned that Danny and his wife Allison are also pursuing their dream – to see all the 50 states of USA. Amazing Magical Thinking people – they told us about their adventures and what’s more to come. Soon their daughter Catkin will come to this world so they currently paused the trip to give birth, but then later their travel experience will be even more interesting.

A walk through Chinatown

Strolling through the hills of San Francisco you cannot forget about visiting Chinatown. The oldest in USA is also the largest Chinese community located outside of Asia. Interestingly, more tourists visit Chinatown than the Golden Gate Bridge.

Astonishing Dragon Gate, long streets filled with stalls with Chinese products, characteristic Asian architecture, promenade decorated with lanterns and flags – all this creates an incredible atmosphere of Chinatown.

Chinese holiday festivities - Autumn Moon celebration.
Autumn Moon celebration.

As a perfect reflection of Chinese culture in America they celebrate traditional Chinese holidays. We were lucky enough arrive to Chinatown on a weekend when the annual festival of Autumn Moon was celebrated. Crowds of tourists and locals gathered in Chinatown along Grant Avenue, where among the countless stalls traditional procession was led with dances, dragons and lions.

Some other interesting places…

We got to see a few more interesting places In San Francisco. Among those we can mention:

Embarcadero and historic port terminal building. You can admire the beautiful view of the Bay Bridge and the skyline of San Francisco, which is very spectacular especially after the sunset.

San Francisco district Embarcadero at night.
Embarcadero at night.

Alamo Square and charming buildings called the Painted Ladies. With more than 48,000 Victorian style buildings across the entire San Francisco, the few at Alamo Square are almost a postcard image with the cityscape in the background.

Victorian-style buildings called Painted Ladies in San Francisco.
Painted Ladies.

Definitely worth seeing is also the tallest building in the city – the TransAmerica Pyramid. Thanks to its very characteristic shape it cannot be confused with any other building.

Also the Financial District, and in particular California Street, resemble New York’s Manhattan and its glass office buildings.

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway is a part of California State Road No. 1, which is said to be one of the most beautiful roads in the United States. From the National Olimpic Park far to the north of the state, it passes through the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, continuing further along the coast to Dana Point past Los Angeles. Being so close and not seeing the Pacific Coast Highway?! No way! We rented a car for one day and hit the road to Big Sur.

Pacific Coast Highway.
Pacific Coast Highway.

Beautiful scenery, picturesque beaches and steep cliffs – every few kilometers we did stop to admire the views. And although we can honestly say that in Europe we could easily find as beautiful or even more impressive coastal roads (for example Croatian D8, which we drove in 2014) yet the Pacific Coast Highway has its own unique atmosphere of a long, straight road running continuously for many miles in beautiful setting.

Patrycja sitting on Bixby Creek Bridge.
Bixby Creek Bridge.

We finished this special day watching the amazing sunset over the Pacific Ocean, sitting on a cliff at the Bixby Creek Bridge.

Practical tips:

  • Public transportation in San Francisco is very well-organized. A large number of bus and tram stops, so you can easily move from one place to another. One-time ticket costs 2,25USD and entitles you to use public transport for 90 minutes. Unfortunately, the ticket is not valid to use the historic trams (Cable Car), in which one ride costs 7USD. If you want to take advantage of the historic transportation and at the same time plan to travel a lot by public transport, you should buy a Visitor Passport. It costs 17USD for one-day, 3-day 26USD, and weekly 35USD.
  • The Pier 39 is easily accessible through the historic tram line F Market or public buses. A ticket for one trip costs depending on the means of transport 7 or 2,25USD.
  • If someone is interested – CityPASS can also be found in San Francisco. It costs 94USD and in addition to admission to selected attractions it also covers the unlimited use of public transport.
  • If you want to visit Alcatraz from the inside, you have to book your tickets in advance. The admission ticket costs 31USD and you can buy it at www.alcatrazcruises.com. There’s also option for those who didn’t book the tickets early enough and are very determined – each day at the ticket office there’s a certain number of tickets available for the first morning hours cruises that day. But in order to get the ticket, you must be ready in the queue from about 5AM (ticket office opens at 8AM) and you have to remember that one person can buy only up to 4 tickets, and all 4 people must be present when buying tickets.
  • The entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge pathway is free, but available only in certain hours. From March to October from 5AM to 9PM and from November to March – 5AM to 6PM.
  • Entrance, or in fact the elevator to the top of Coit Tower, costs 8USD. Some time ago one could walk to the top using stairs for free of charge, but since about a year it’s not allowed.
  • Car rental price depends on the type of car and company. In addition to the most popular search engines, such as www.kayak.com that’s presenting results for different rental companies, you should also check directly their websites – sometimes you can find some interesting promotions. Personally, we can also recommend the website turo.com, where private individuals rent their cars, often for much less than popular rental companies.

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