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The best way to spend a long weekend in San Francisco

San Francisco or the ‘City by the Bay’ – crested on the California Coast and on a major fault-line it’s home to the infamous Alcatraz Prison and 1960’s Haight-Ashbury hippy movement.

San Francisco has a distinctive electrical pulse and doesn’t try to be anything it’s not. Meet a local San Franciscan and they are fiercely proud to call it home. It’s also the gateway city for Yosemite National Park, not that you need an underlying reason to visit this buzzing metropolis.

What to do in San Francisco

Typically I escape the larger cities rapidly – they require public transport and I prefer to walk, they are unfriendly and I like local interaction, they are expensive and I love a bargain and generally the main attractions are found outside the urban sprawl – this is not the case with San Francisco. With a long weekend in this magical city I found there wasn’t enough daylight hours – so what did I get up to?

I stayed off Market Street at the Hotel Tropicana – the main shopping area where you find the usual array of suspects such as Saks and Macy’s. The hotel rooms appear to be the work of a team of interior designers with different visions. Colours are misplaced and skirt a central courtyard which creates a wonderful echo, guaranteed to wake you from your slumber all hours of the night. If I had to rate the hotel it would be 2.5 – 3 stars (I still don’t understand what a half star is!).

Market Street has a good end which is the main business district, and a shabby end which attracts the homeless who seem to migrate to San Francisco. Locals confirmed why San Fran is a melting pot for the homeless:

– Benefits are better – there is a voucher scheme in place for buying groceries although I am told this is flawed as certain shops will exchange them for a lesser monetary amount
– The weather is better – California sunshine with bouts of heavy rain
– There is more community work – high volume of shelters and assistance
– Safety in numbers – it really is astounding the sheer volume of homeless in the city
– Some of the larger American cities move homeless people along with free Greyhound bus passes, therefore becoming another cities problem

I had no issues and found they kept very much to themselves apart from the usual asking for loose change or cigarette.

I walked everywhere in this hilly city as it’s the best way to become acquainted with its true and honest pulse. It has a welcoming and easy footpath grid to follow and locals gladly offered this lost soul directions (as I have no sense of navigation). These are a few things I visited on my walk (although the trams are amazing) around the city:

It's cheap, fun and a good way to chat to locals.
It’s cheap, fun and a good way to chat to locals.

Touring around San Francisco

Once the centre of the world for the hippy movement, music and where people came to ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’, Haight-Ashbury still retains its relic heritage transporting visitors back to another era. Unfortunately it does appear that some of the occasional drug users of that time have taken up residency as drug addicts, but it is colourful and great for people watching, musical delights and wafting incense stick aromas. It is also home to one of my favourite music shops – Amoeba Records which sells new and used CD’s, vinyl (current to the obscure), DVD’s and posters. Any music lover will be in seventh heaven.

Golden Gate Bridge (Obviously)
Public buses drop off and pick up with a reliable frequency if you don’t fancy the walk. San Francisco has a unique weather system whereby the bay seems to act as the catalyst for rolling mists, obscuring the base so the bridge looks almost suspended in mid-air – like something from a horror movie or a romantic black and white. It is the most photographed bridge in the world with towering orange arches connecting San Francisco with Sausalito. It is also a passenger commuter bridge, yet another reason why American’s are queueing to live here.

Ok so this is pretty special - Golden Gate Bridge. Try walking across once the sun goes down.
Ok so this is pretty special – Golden Gate Bridge. Try walking across once the sun goes down.

Alcatraz Prison
This infamous prison needs no introduction but what I will say is book in advance. There are limited tickets which sell out during high season (June – September) but whatever you do, don’t miss out. If you do, head down to the terminal early (6.30am) and queue for the few day tickets available. The ferry departs from Fisherman’s Wharf where the resident colony of sea lions eases your safe passage. Upon arrival you are issued with headphones which map the history with an informative and animated precision. You can wander in and out of the cells and enjoy sweeping views over the city. It leaves you questioning if the escaped convicts ever made it given the distance and temperature of the water.

Try and escape from this prison, hope you like swimming!
Try and escape from this prison, hope you like swimming!

Sunset Sailboat Cruise
Not everyone’s cup of tea but this is a wonderful and sickeningly romantic way to cruise the bay whilst the setting rays of the sun bounce off the Pacific Ocean. The view can be somewhat spoilt by rain but on a good day you will feel like an explorer riding the air currents.

What a way to travel around the bay!
What a way to travel around the bay!

The Painted Ladies
What more would you expect from this uniquely artistic city? Rows of house painted in glorious colours, ornately wood-crafted shapes adorning the front – a wonderful feature typical to this area. What appears to be a community project is now a tourist attraction, and yet is a common feature in this remarkable city.

The view from here is pretty amazing - Painted Ladies
The view from here is pretty amazing – Painted Ladies

Market Street
If shopping is high on the agenda list the shops on and around Market Street will tempt the dollars from your pocket, offering the latest in fashion to local taste sensations. Did you know San Francisco was the first city in America to ban plastic bags and water bottles! Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

A must see – with such a high Chinese population, this is one of the largest Chinatown’s in the world and in my experience having lived in China, one of the best. It oozes colour, fragrant sweet smelling aromas, barking orders in Mandarin, and a frantic chaos which actually soothes. Do not pass this up folks.

It's buzzing, colourful...and totally tasty.
It’s buzzing, colourful…and totally tasty.

In the evening if you’re eating out, I recommend visiting ‘Mission Burrito’, some may hate me for saying this but I might be so bold as to say they are better than those I ate in Mexico. If you’re after hipster bars with great music and a fiercely cool attitude, Elbow Room pours hefty measures and is one of the oldest bars in the Mission.

These are the reasons that make this one of the choice American cities. Let’s not forget that only 2 hours away the hills are covered in vineyards with some of California’s finest tasting wine if you fancy a bus ride, and it leaves from right in the centre of the city.

Three days is enough to visit everything you need however, I could have spent longer. Now I don’t know if you should wear flowers in your hair as the song says, but whatever you do, don’t call it Frisco!

Have you ever been or want to go to San Francisco? Would love to hear your thoughts! Also those from local Friscan’s.

If you want to read some of my other posts on America, click the links:
Hiking to Angels Landing in Zion National Park
The Alaskan Wilderness – Getting back to nature
Dig this, shoot that in Las Vegas
Yellowstone Winter Wildlife


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