San Francisco was, without doubt, at the very top of my list of places to visit before I die. Despite never actually going, I’d always felt this really intense affinity to the place, so when flights came up from Manchester with British Airways at Christmas I decided to book it on a whim. One of my better late night shopping choices.
I went completely solo, which I’m going to write about in another post because, trust me, everyone needs to do a solo trip at least once in their lives, but today I wanted to share all the things I managed to fit into five days travelling over there in case you’re looking to do a similar break.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of my ultimate San Francisco travel guide, I thought I’d share with you some handy tips I discovered which really helped me on my trip.
- Download the Ulmon app for San Francisco. It works off-line so you’re not using all your data and you can pinpoint all the places you want to visit each day and tick them off, all the while being able to follow the map of the city seamlessly. Plus, the grid road system of the city – similar to New York – makes it super easy to get around and not get lost.
- Instead of getting Uber’s everywhere, I’d recommend getting the MUNI and cable cars. I bought a 3-day travel card which I could use on most transport models, apart from the BART (see below), which cost me $33 – such a bargain when each trip on the cable car is $7. You can buy a MUNI travel card from Walgreens, and different ticket booths around the city, which are really easy to find. Be warned though, bus stops in SF are slightly different to ones in the UK – as in they’re really bloody hard to spot. The lampost will usually be painted yellow with numbers on and there will be a big gap in the road where cars aren’t allowed to park. And if you did just want to pay for the MUNI each time, it’s $2.75 and you need the exact change.
- Take plenty of layers. Through the day, I was able to wear a dress and no coat, but come the evening, the wind really picks up and you’ll want something warmer to throw on. Oh, and take walking shoes because, believe me, those hill inclines are like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Let’s just say I was aching from head to toe when I arrived back home, in a good way.
- I was advised to stay clear of an area called Tenderloin and for good reason. As a lone, female traveller, I never felt unsafe, although I didn’t put myself in potentially dangerous positions and had done my research beforehand. Just for your reference, Tenderloin is south of Union Square and has a big drug scene with many people living on the streets. The level of homeless people I saw was unbelievable, and it definitely makes you count your blessings when you’re back in the warmth of your hotel room, to say the least. Saying all this, I’ve felt less safe walking the streets of London than I did San Francisco.
As mentioned above, I flew with British Airways from Manchester to San Francisco via Heathrow. The flight was great and I landed into SFO at 2.15pm, Pacific time. Which meant, even though I was super tired, I had the full afternoon to check in and explore Union Square, which was where my hotel was located.
First things first, you can always grab a cab from the airport into the centre of San Francisco, but I decided to get the BART, which is a train service taking you directly to Powell Street – an area by Union Square, the main tourist area, which has buses leading to other places if you decide to stay closer to the bay. This cost me $16.50 return, which is a lot cheaper than the $40 dollars it would cost in a taxi there and back. One tip for the BART machine is, you put a $20 note in and then press a button to subtract 50 cents at a time until you hit the amount you want to spend, rather than struggling to find change, which is a good idea in my opinion. Ten stops later I was at Powell Street and checked in to my hotel – Hotel Zeppelin.
I’d highly recommend Hotel Zeppelin, not just for its central location, but for the gorgeous interiors, the excellent service, and the chill out areas which included a bar, games room and a gorgeous restaurant next door – The Rambler. I ate here twice and both times the food was gorgeous. It was £150 per night for a compact room – not so small you couldn’t breathe but for two, you’d need to keep it tidy to stop it feeling claustrophobic.
The first night I wandered around Macy’s, sat in Union Square opposite Tiffany’s and discovered a gorgeous little spot called Maiden Lane, which is home to places like Chanel and Marni. No Primark in sight people.
Friday was a super early start as I was booked on the 8.45am ferry trip over to Alcatraz. You couldn’t have an ultimate San Francisco travel guide without including the infamous prison right? I booked my ticket way in advance on the official Alcatraz Cruises website because be warned, they really do sell out quickly. I’d also give yourself a good hour to get to Pier 33 if you’re staying around Union Square as you’ll need to catch the F Line, outside Old Navy on Market Street, which is a slow but great way to take in the financial district then the coastline of SF before you get to Pier 33.
As we were the first trip to Alcatraz of the day, we had 30 minutes to explore the island before the second ferry came over. In typical San Francisco fashion, it was incredibly foggy, which only added to the spookiness of the prison. I did the audio tour, which tells you about each area within the prison, including attempted escapes, riots, and stories from both guards and prisoners. I even had to pleasure of meeting Bill Baker, a prisoner of Alcatraz who served four years and has since written a book which he signed for me. I’d highly recommend paying a visit to Alcatraz if you’re coming to the west coast. The whole tour took about two hours, by which time, the fog had lifted and the island was full of tourists. I headed back to the shore on the ferry (stand at the back for some fantastic pictures of the island) and made my way up to Pier 39 to see the infamous sea lions.
Pier 39 is like taking a step back in time and it has a real “British seaside” quality to it – doughnuts, hotdogs, souvenir shops, you get the picture. From here I walked all along Fisherman’s Wharf until I reached the very start of the Powell-Hyde cable car line. This takes you up a very steep hill to the top of Lombard Street – you know the famous windy road you often see on television programmes? The top of Lombard Street allows you to get the most amazing views of the city, and if you continue walking down you’ll head straight to the Transamerica Pyramid, the largest structure in San Francisco, through China Town and then to the Ferry Building, which houses a variety of different food and drinks joints. Perfect for a late afternoon spent taking the views of the Bay Bridge in by the sea.
I wandered back to the hotel, grabbing a red velvet cupcake to eat in the hotel room, watched some trash TV and crashed.
On Saturday morning I woke up early again – my body clock doesn’t do well to adjusting to the time difference – so I made my way down to Market Street to catch the no.21 MUNI across to Alamo Square. If you’re familiar with the TV show Full House, you’ll recognise Alamo Square for the famous Painted Ladies – a row of houses which have become synonymous with San Francisco. This area was everything I thought San Francisco would be, from the hills to the stunning architecture – although I’m glad I had a long lens to capture most of these photographs as it certainly feels a little weird standing in front of someone’s actual house taking snaps.
I made my way over to The Mill on Divisadero Street, for breakfast. Warning, you probably won’t get a seat as this place is jam-packed with people willing to pay $6 for one slice of toast. I’m afraid I was one of those people. It was a nice enough slice of toast but don’t bother with the hot chocolate – it was probably the worst I’ve ever tried and, trust me, I’ve tried a lot.
Following my Ulmon app which I mentioned above, I walked 30 minutes down to Haight Street, which has a real 70s, hippy vibe to it. Lined with vintage stores and the air filled with cannabis, it’s like taking a step back in time. I made my way over to Ashbury Street to find no.635 – Janis Joplin’s house, which is a gorgeous pink San Francisco facade. Another tip is, before you leave, go through Instagram under the hashtag #sanfrancisco or the area you want to explore and save any places that look interesting. This is how I found both The Mill and Joplin’s house, so it’s a good recommendation to remember. If you’re looking for a vintage find, or you know, a doobie to smoke, this is your place.
At the very end of Haight, I came to the Golden Gate Park. The park is huge so I hired a bike for 3 hours and made my way to the Japanese Tea Gardens ($9 in), which was very zen-like, and the de Young Museum. Even though you have to pay to get into the museum itself, the viewing tower, which looks over all of San Francisco, is completely free – just take a right when you enter the door and follow it around until you see the lift. It’s definitely worth a visit for the pictures alone.
Grabbing a hot dog, I cycled back around to the beginning of the park and caught the bus towards the Mission district (see bus map here). There were some really cool independent boutiques and bars on Valencia Street so its definitely worth a wander if you have time. From Valencia you can walk across to Dolores Park if you’re looking for a quite place to rest your feet while taking in the most immense views of the city.
Sunday was probably my favourite day of the whole trip. The sun was shining and there was hardly a cloud in the sky, which was perfect as I’d saved Sunday to go see the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. I got the bus over to Bakers Beach (see bus map here), which also gave me time to see the other side of the city through the bus window. The Golden Gate Bridge is to your right as you enter Baker’s Beach and be warned, this is a “clothing optional” beach, much to my surprise as a naked man strolled past me as I sat deep in thought. The northern point of the beach is typically full of tourists trying to get a good snap of the bridge, but if you’re looking to sit with a picnic and enjoy the sea air, head to your left as you walk on to the sand.
I started to hike the two miles up the GG Bridge, which is an easy trek, even if you’re unfit like me. Plus the views are worth the thigh rub, just look at these pictures. Don’t be silly, however, and forget to put suntan lotion on like I did though – I came back with a very red and sore back on Sunday. From the trek, you can then walk easily under the Bridge and grab some lunch in a cafe on the other side. It also gives you a great opportunity to see the iconic red structure from another angle as well.
After taking the views in for an hour or so with the biggest club sandwich known to man, I caught the no.28 bus from outside the GGB Welcome Centre, and one stop later over the freeway I was at the Palace of Fine Arts. I’d even go as far as to say, this took my breath away more than the Bridge. It was absolutely stunning, and I sat for ages just taking in the enormous ruins, the lakes, the fountains, the houses looking on to the Palace.
The whole area of Pacific Heights (where Mrs Doubtfire’s house is if you’re wondering) was beautiful, and probably my favourite neighbourhood in all of San Francisco. If you’re looking for somewhere with shops like Paige Denim, Rag & Bone, Benefit etc, this place is filled with affluent shoppers and pretty bars and eateries. Plus, there’s an amazing shop called Papersource, which is like Paperchase but so much better.
OK, to the final section of my ultimate San Francisco travel guide. I was flying home on Monday evening so once I’d packed I had the morning to kill before I set off back on the BART to the airport. It was a toss-up between a city tour bus, which costs less than $50 and takes you to all the places I’ve mentioned above and more, or a visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I went with the latter. Tickets were $22 and it was a great opportunity to see a real-life Lichtenstein, as well as discovering the Designed in California exhibition, which showed how technology and design have developed since the 70s. If you have time to spare, I’d definitely recommend the SFMOMA.
I crammed so much into the five days I was in San Francisco and the best thing I did I work out a full itinerary before I left to make the most of each neighbourhood. Each day brought new discoveries, and I managed to see so much in the limited amount of time I was there for. I’ve well and truly caught the travel bug now and as I finish writing this post, I’m spending the rest of Sunday reading Conde Nast Traveller magazine to work out where my next adventure will take me.
Is San Francisco on your list of places to visit? If so, I hope this ultimate San Francisco travel guide helped you in some way.