I’ve wanted to go to San Francisco for a long time and finally I made it in October 2016 for an extended weekend. I quite liked the city and that it feels very relaxed and open, but it’s also very expensive, especially the accommodation. I was also quite surprised with the large number of homeless people… well maybe that’s a result of the high prices.
The main tourist attractions of the city, like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Alcatraz island and Castro neighbourhood, were definitely really nice to see. But my absolute favourites were the cycle across the bridge to Sausalito & Tiburon and a relaxing afternoon in Dolores Park.
A morning at Alcatraz
The trip to Alcatraz island starts at the Embarcadero Pier 33. To make the best use of time we booked a 9am departure. We arrived there well ahead of time thanks to the Uber pool, which works very well in SFO and is quite cheap. The cafe on the pier was handy for breakfast, but also quite expensive – some $24 for two coffees and two muffins, well they are strategically located and full of people with only one option.
Some 20 min before the departure time you can start queuing up to get on the boat and then the journey starts. The morning was relatively chilly and foggy, but the views of the island and the Golden Gate Bridge were stunning. However, later on the sun heated up the air quite a bit and all the jackets we brought were not necessary anymore
After arrival to the island you are pretty much free to explore it at your own pace and stay as much time as you like. To help you with that I suggest you buy the island map for $1 upon arrival onto the island. The prison-house is the most important attraction and there is a free audio guide that guides you around the different parts of the prison and explains the major events in its history. I highly recommend taking the audio guide, as there are not many other explanatory signs.
After seeing the prison-house I do recommend exploring the island a bit. If not for else, the views from the island of the bridge and city are stunning.
It took us about 2 hours to see the prison and the island, so all together with the boat ride it was about 3 hours. Upon return to SFO we headed to Fisherman’s wharf, which is just a short walk away.
Lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf is one the main tourist areas in SFO and in particular Pier 39 is heaving with tourists. To my taste it is very tacky, there are lots of uninteresting shops and average restaurants. I think you are better off skipping Pier 39, unless you’re after buying souvenirs. Anyway, we didn’t know that in advance so we had a lunch at the pier.
I was told that the clam chowder is a typical dish in SFO and we tried one at Chowder’s restaurant on the pier. Basically, it is a very thick and creamy clam broth that is served in a bread bowl. I found it very heavy and it tastes more cream than anything else, especially not clams. Well I’m happy I tried it, but I definitely didn’t like it.
Cycling from Fisherman’s wharf to Sausalito & Tiburon
Our initial plan was to rent bikes and spend an afternoon cycling from Fisherman’s Wharf across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, and it proved out to be one of the highlights of our trip. So we rented the bike from Blazing Saddles Bikes and their service was very efficient and good (definitely recommended). They even provided us with tickets for the ferry back from Sausalito or Tiburon, and if we didn’t use they wouldn’t charge us the $10 for them.
TIP: I do recommend you pre-book your bike on their website. You will pay $26 instead of $30 for a 24-hour period. However, watch-out they do try to up-sell without you realising. We re-booked and requested the basic bike, but all of a sudden they gave us a higher category bike without us even realising that. When we came to return the bike they wanted to charge us a higher price. I complained and after a bit of arguing they honoured the initial price.
The bike rentals work in 24-hour periods, so we could have saved the bikes for the night and used them the next morning, but the hotel didn’t allow us to do that. In hindsight, we would have been better off to rent the bike in the morning and use it to cycle around some parts of the city as well or even adventure to the beaches at the western edge of the city… one always needs to leave some things for the next time 🙂
Initially, we were not even sure whether we wanted to start the ride at all as the bridge was COMPLETELY shrouded in mist. However, we decided to be optimistic and try our luck. When we got just under the bridge the cloud was still firmly sitting over the bridge, so we decided to have a coffee in the Warming Hut Cafe and wait a bit. As we got out of the cafe… voilà … the mist was gone and we had an amazing ride across the bridge.
After crossing the bridge you descend down towards Sausalito and it’s only another 10 min from the bridge. The map the bike rental company gave us said that it was 13km from Fisherman’s wharf to Sausalito and took about 2h. When we arrived it was still early, the sun was shining and we felt like cycling more, so we decided to continue to Tiburon, which was another 16km according to the map.
On the way we side-tracked to Old Mill Park to see some of the redwoods. Even if the map was very useful, at times it was a bit unclear where we were and how long it would still take us. And the main concern was, will we get to Tiburon before dark and make it to the ferry on time, but it all went OK (well apart from me falling down on a steep descent).
The last bit from Sausalito to Tiburon took us another 3h, but it was definitely worth it. We even had to wait some 45 minutes for the ferry at 19:15, which gets to pier 41 at 20:00, and that’s when they close the bike rental shop for returns. However, the ferry was full of people with rental bikes and the bike rental shop people were waiting for us. They even greeted us with a big applause.
An afternoon at Dolores Park
Dolores park is a well known hang-out place on the weekends, and you will understand why only after you see it yourself. The atmosphere in the park is really relaxed, people are chatting with their friends, playing games and having fun. And on top of that, if the weather is nice, the views of the city are beautiful.
We wanted to bring some drinks, but we didn’t know whether is was allowed to drink alcohol in the park. We looked through several blogs, but the information was inconsistent. Hence, we decided to bring a bottle of wine and keep it very discreet in a backpack. When we got there, to our great joy, it was clear that everyone was having a drink. Many people were even selling drinks in all possible forms. But the best part was that everyone was just having fun and being very polite and educated. I didn’t see any people being aggressive and people collected their rubbish after them.
(fun) FACT for all the Mexicans: Quite unexpected, but there’s a huge statue of Miguel Hidalgo in the park.
Evening in Castro
Castro is definitely the most famous LGBT neighbourhoods in the world, and yes, rainbow colours are all over the place. Tollerance is the big advantage of Castro, as well as the whole city.
Castro is quite a fun neighbourhood to have a walk through in the evening, either your gay or straight. There are plenty of bars and restaurants to chose from and it’s also quite small.
Dinner @ Nopa
Among my friends, I’m known to like food and nice restaurants, so we tried to go to at least really nice place (since we decided on the trip very late most were already booked out). Nopa was highly recommended by friends and it also features high on review pages (e.g. at the time it was the 22nd restaurant in SFO on TripAdvisor). Unfortunately, the earliest time we could get a table was at 22.15… one’s gotta suffer for good things, right.
The atmosphere in the restaurant is very pleasant. There is a bar area, which is separated from the dining area with a small division wall, which works perfectly as the bar area is very busy and noisy. The kitchen is open, you can see all the employees busy preparing your dishes. The service was really pleasant. We didn’t know which wine to choose so they gave us a taste of the ones they were selling by glass to help us choose.
The menu seems to change on a daily basis, but in general it is composed of mostly tapa-sized dishes, so we ordered 5 dishes and were very happy with the quantity of dishes. I don’t have a complete recollection of which dishes we had, but in a nutshell: warm goat cheese spread, chicory salad, smoked brisket, smoked trout, and baked beans. Every dish was delicious and a good choice. Together with a desert to share and a bottle of Sonoma Valley red wine the dinner was about $180 – not cheap, but definitely worth it.
Other adventures in SFO
Dinner @ Woodhouse Fish Company
This small and pleasant place is on Market St. very close to Castro. The menu is (obviously) seafood themed and also have fresh oysters. I tried some California and Maine oysters and they tasted very fresh.
The atmosphere was very nice and the food was good. The Baja-Style fish tacos were as they should be (judged by a Mexican), and the stuffed artichokes were delicious. The downside of eating artichokes is that it is very tedious to scrape the meat off each leaf and one makes a mess out of it (not the most glamorous dish… hehe).
A walk through Japantown and lunch
Japan town was a nice little surprise in SFO. It is quite small, although the largest Japantown in the US (allegedly), but there are plenty of Japanese shops and restaurants. There is a, rather big, shopping mall called the Japan Centre which has all sorts of shops and a food alley. In front of there’s a (rather ugly) concrete pagoda, which you can’t miss. The highlight of Japantown was the chance to have a good Japanese lunch with ramen and soba.
A walk through Chinatown and lunch
The SFO Chinatown is very close to downtown and thus very famous with tourists. I think it does feel like a relatively authentic Chinese city, but there are just oo many tourists (and we were making that even worse… hehe). Nevertheless, I think it’s a nice place to have a walk through and see some older Chinese people playing games and dancing tai-chi in some of the small parks and squares.
Also after having lived in Asia I always crave some good Chinese food, which might be a challenge in Mexico 😦 So Chinatown is a good place to go for lunch. We decided to have a traditional Sunday dim-sum lunch at Great Eastern Restaurant. The restaurant was full and plenty of the customers were Chinese, but there were also many tourists. The service was slightly rude, but also no frills. As is customary, they give you a sheet of paper with the dishes on offer and you mark what you want. I think the dim-sum selection was quite impressive and the taste was authentic.
Dinner @ Orphan Andy’s
We arrived late on the first day due to a slight delay of our flight. Believe or not, it is not that easy to find a restaurant in SFO (Castro / Market St area) that is open at 11pm on a Thursday night. We were quite surprised with that. But nevertheless, at the end we found a perfect option. Orpan Andy’s is a typical diner that’s open 24-hours and serves basic American food. Maybe not the most healthy option at that time of the day, but it definitely made us happy, and the service was great.
Summary of our itinerary (just in case)
- Breakfast: cafe on pier 33 (2*)
- Morning: trip to Alcatraz and Fisherman’s wharf
- Lunch: Chowder’s, pier 39 (1*)
- Afternoon: cycle from Fisherman’s wharf to Sausalito & Tiburon
- Dinner: Woodhouse Fish Company (4*)
- Breakfast: The Grind Cafe (3*)
- Morning: walk through Haight Street, Golden Gate Park, Alamo Square Park (Painted Ladies), to civic centre / UN plaza, and Japantown
- Lunch: inside the Japan centre (4*)
- Afternoon: Dolores park
- Dinner: Nopa (5*)
- Breakfast: Chow Cafe, Church St (5*)
- Morning: Coit Tower, Chinatown
- Lunch: Great Eastern (4*)
- Afternoon: Little Italy and Union Square area
Perramont Hotel: very basic, smelly (due to guests smoking in their rooms and getting home drunk) and not very clean, but OK value for money in this very expensive city.