At the heart of California’s San Francisco Bay region, the peninsula that separates the bay from the Pacific Ocean is what we believe to be the super-relaxed city of San Francisco. The city has over 800,000 inhabitants and as such is only a small part of the agglomeration of cities on the bay, namely Berkely, Oakland, Palo Alto, San Francisco, San Jose and the Sillicon Valley.
The city is known for its steep hills (which are also covered by the famous cable trams), Alcatraz, the hippie culture from the past, and of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. Most people who have been there also told us that it is the city of cold, misty summers. However, we were there in the month of May and saw nothing but clear blue skies.
San Francisco Highlights
San Francisco has a lot to offer. Although we were there for three days, there are undoubtedly many sights that we did not see. Below is a selection of highlights that we ourselves found beautiful, interesting or just fun.
Golden Gate Bridge
Most people associate California and San Francisco in particular with the iconic and technically-ingenious Golden Gate Bridge, the orange-red suspension bridge over the Golden Gate (the opening of San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean).
Construction of the bridge began in 1933. The festive opening took place on 27 May 1937, with 18,000 people walking across the bay. The construction was a technical masterpiece, especially at that time. Most engineers considered it impossible to bridge a 1,600-metre-wide strait.
The Golden Gate Bridge quickly gained worldwide fame. Not only as a technical masterpiece but also as an architectural masterpiece in a beautiful environment between two nature reserves on the Pacific Ocean. Although the bridge is no longer the longest bridge in the world today, it is still one of the most famous buildings and – according to the American Society of Civil Engineers – even one of the seven modern wonders of the world.
You can cross the bridge on foot, but remember that you’ll be on the road for a while. For people who are afraid of heights, the walk can be a challenge, especially if the bridge swings back and forth in strong winds. A better option is by bike. There are many chances to stop on the way to take a photo of the beautiful view out onto the bay. Moreover, if you don’t feel like taking the same way back, you can also cross the bay by the ferry.
Golden Gate Park
The 411-hectare Golden Gate Park is a fantastic place in San Francisco for cycling and hiking. Inspired by the design of Central Park in the city of New York, engineer William Hall created a hilly park with lakes, meadows and winding roads in 1870. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the park was further wooded by its successor after which it grew into the park it is today.
Over the years many attractions have been added to the park. Most of them are located on the east side, like the Conservatory of Flowers from 1883. The old structure, by American standards, is a beautiful Victorian-style greenhouse where you can find many kinds of tropical flowers and plants. Nearby is the M.H. The Young Museum, which offers a variety of works of art. There is also the two-hectare Japanese Tea Garden, which, like the museum, is a remnant of the 1894 World Fair. In the garden you will find a teahouse, many ponds with bridges and various, native Japanese plants.
There are many other attractions in the park such as a Dutch garden with an authentic windmill, the Buffalo Paddock, a rose garden and the Steinhart Aquarium. What made the park so nice for us is that you can also cycle, walk, play tennis, go horseback riding and even play golf! During the weekend the large lawns in the park are busy because of the locals who come there for a picnic.
San Francisco’s cable cars, together with New Orleans’ classic cars, are the only moving ‘National Historic Landmarks’. The latter, hand-operated cable cars that are still in use, look a bit touristy but are still widely used by the locals. This type of car was created in the 19th century out of necessity: no other type of car could handle the slopes due to the great differences in altitude.
After the earthquake in the early 20th century, many cable cars and routes were replaced by electric trams and buses. Fortunately, there are still three lines in operation, namely Powell-Mason which ends at Aquatic Park, Powell-Hyde which runs from Nob Hill to Fisherman’s Wharf, and the California line which includes Chinatown and the financial district.
Of course, there’s also a cable car museum in San Francisco. The museum is located on 1201 Mason Street. We haven’t been there ourselves but it seems to be a nice, interesting museum!
Many people will know of the small island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay from the film ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ that was screened in cinemas in 1979. The film is about three prisoners who managed to escape from the infamous prison on the island.
The small island is named after alcatraces, the Spanish word for gannets because the Spanish discoverer of the island found many seabirds on it (which were not real gannets by the way). Alcatraz is also called ‘The Rock’ by many because until the 20th century the island was nothing more than bare rock.
Due to its strategic location, a fort was built in the middle of the 19th century. In 1907, the fort was renamed a military prison. Only in the 1930s was the island with the prison used to detain gangsters and other criminals. In 1963, the prison was closed due to high maintenance costs.
Alcatraz was not only notorious for the cruel treatment of the prisoners, but also because it was a prison from which nobody could actually escape. This was because of the many watchtowers, the remotely-operated doors and to a large extent, because of the ice-cold water and strong currents around the island.
Today the island with its lighthouse and former prison is one of the city’s largest tourist attractions. There are many excursions on offer but it is still important to book well in advance. The tours in the prison, especially in summer, are fully booked in no time.
Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf
Pier 39 is a busy, rather touristic complex of shops, restaurants and some attractions. The pier, where a colony of sea lions comes to spend winter every year, is the most famous of the many piers on the San Francisco quay. We were there in the spring and could already walk over their heads. Moreover, it is one of those sights of San Francisco where we think you simply must go. Despite the crowds it is very cosy. Once you’ve managed to get a spot on the sunny terrace, you can have hours of fun just people watching.
Only a short distance from the pier is the popular Fisherman’s Wharf, which has been a lively seafaring neighbourhood and an active fishing port since the late 19th century. It used to offer a wide variety of fresh fish and crab. Nowadays the yard is more of a tourist attraction (according to some a ‘tourist trap’) with colourful fishing boats, and a place where you can still get good fish. In most cases, Fisherman’s Wharf is also the starting point for excursions to Alcatraz or a boat trip in the bay.
Best time to visit San Francisco
If you look purely at figures such as average monthly temperatures, amount of precipitation, etc., the summer months seem to be the best months. In that period, however, it is more expensive and the chance of fog at the Golden Gate Bridge is much greater than in May and June, or September and October, for example. In this respect, our advice would certainly be at the end of spring or the beginning of autumn. It can still be pretty chilly in May early in the morning!
Transport within the city
We visited San Francisco when we were travelling from Los Angeles to Yosemite National Park with our rental car. We didn’t use that car during our stay in the fairly compact city. Instead we sometimes took the cable car but mostly just our rental bike. As mentioned before, the city is known for its steep hills. However, the bike rental companies give you a city map that also shows you the bike routes with the least height differences. Super handy!
Accommodation in San Francisco
There is plenty of accommodation in the city. Please note, however, that due to the housing shortage and sky-high housing costs, most hotels, apartments and other types of accommodation are not cheap. However, if you don’t mind being a little further away from the main attractions, you can still stay in this lovely city for a good price.
Eating and drinking in San Francisco
The city is a true paradise for the Burgundians among us. There are more than 500 totally different restaurants where you can eat at any time. The quality of the food is also above average due to the freshness of the ingredients (vegetables and fish). Moreover, because of the many immigrants that the city is rich in, the cuisine is multicultural. Think Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian and so on. What’s more, lovers of hamburgers and even vegetarians get their money’s worth.
There are more than 500 wine farms in California. The state is not called the wine region of the US for nothing. The wines are generally of good quality. The beers from the area are also nice. A very successful example is the locally brewed Anchor beer.