Traveling the US West Coast is something I think everybody needs to do at least once in their lifetime. The main reason I say that is, in my opinion, there is something there for everyone. In this post I am focusing on what I think is the jewel in the crown of the US's West Coast, San Francisco.
I have been fortunate enough to visit San Francisco and the surrounding area many times in my life journey, and it never disappoints.
One of the most exciting things I enjoy about visiting San Francisco actually happens before you have even arrived.
If you are flying into San Francisco chances are you will have a spectacular view of the city and bay from your aircraft window.
The long slow descent over the bay as far south as the San Mateo bridge gives you a birds eye view of the bay, and across to Oakland and beyond. Once on the
ground San Francisco Airport, even as the second largest in California after Los Angeles International, and the 24th busiest in the world, is expansive, bright and easy to navigate.
The airport is located just 13 miles or 21kilometres south of Downtown San Francisco.
From either of the three terminals you can get a train connection to the city, Oakland or the East Bay.
Since the Spanish founded the city back in 1776, the city has since grown into the 13th most populous in the USA. A little over 800'000 people call San Francisco home, but a staggering 25 million tourists descend on the city every year, pumping in over $10 billion dollars into the local economy.
Every time I have visited San Francisco I have uncovered something new and exciting, so in this post I am going to share a few tips to make sure that you maximise your time in this beautiful part of the world. First off, I am going to list some of the places I think you should definitely include on your San Francisco experience.
Downtown San Francisco
Pacific Coast Highway Route No 1
Like many travel destinations some magical experiences can occur when you actually get away from the city, and start to explore the nearby countryside. San Francisco is one of those places. Going from the city to the East, South or North will have you in very new, and very different surroundings in no time.
So what is there to do?
Lets start off with San Francisco city. It is a pretty easy place to get around. You can either hop on and off the cable cars, or walking is another great way to see this city. I have always used the somewhat hilly terrain as a good way to keep fit while in town, but some of the hills are a bit testing. If you want to go further a field, then hiring a car is the best choice.
Fisherman’s Wharf, on the northern waterfront, is one of the city's busiest tourist areas and one of my favourite places to visit while in town. Souvenir shops and stalls selling crab and clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls appear at every turn, as do postcard views of the bay, Golden Gate and Alcatraz. There’s also a colony of sea lions to see and historic ships to tour. At Ghirardelli Square, boutiques and eateries reside in the famed former chocolate factory.
San Francisco is a bit of a quirky fun city so if you are looking for a little bit of 'unusual' you can surely find it here. Take Lombard Street as one example. This crazy twisting street attracts many tourists as they walk or drive (slowly) down this totally impractical thoroughfare.
San Francisco is another major city that has an increasing amount of homeless people. You will see many of these homeless people if you venture around the Union Square part of town. I must say, I have had some of the most interesting interactions with homeless folks as I have travelled the world, so don't let this deter you while visiting San Francisco.
While the city of San Francisco draws you in like a magnet, the true beauty of the natural surrounds is where you really want to explore. A walk through Golden Gate State park is a must, and for me this holds a special place in my heart. I was fortunate enough one year to participate in, and to finish, the San Francisco Marathon. Coming into the Park and finishing there was an absolute highlight of that particular visit to San Francisco.
Another for those a little more exercise minded, is to cycle or walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. This iconic structure has been immortalised in Hollywood blockbusters, and images of the bridge shrouded in mystical sheets of fog are easily identifiable by most people. it is 2.7kms in length and her roadway sits 67 meters above the waterline at high tide.
Once over the Golden Gate bridge there are some of the most expensive and beautiful homes in the area. Sausalito is one of those areas, a city in Marin County, California, across the Golden Gate Strait from San Francisco. It’s known for its Richardson Bay houseboat enclaves, built by artist squatters after WWII. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Bay Model Visitor Centre has a functioning 3D hydraulic model of the Bay Area, plus exhibits about the area's waterways.
Continuing over the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge and just seventy six kilometres from downtown San Francisco is the beautiful Napa Valley. Known for the wine and culinary delights this destination is a must on your 'to try' list when visiting San Francisco.
There is always the question, which is better Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley?
Well let me put it this way. If you are after the ritz and glitz and the higher prices then Napa Valley is for you. If you are after a little bit more of a laid back and country style experience, along with cheaper prices, then Sonoma Valley is for you. Both destinations are grand, it merely comes down to your tastes and budget.
When you head south from San Francisco you have a whole host of other gems waiting for you. The wild ocean coastline is a 'must explore' for any traveller to the region. You can start almost right under the Golden Gate bridge and take in Ocean Beach which runs alongside Golden Gate Park. It is one of the go to surfing spots around here, but trust me when I say you will need a triple layered wetsuit to survive. The water temperatures are horrid.
So I suggest you stick to the car, and take the amazing coastal drive down the Pacific Coast Highway. You can go all the way to San Diego if you want too, and if you have the time to do that, then I thoroughly recommend it. It is simply one of the best 1000km trips by car you can do anywhere in the world (my humble opinion).
If you only have time to do a day trip or so then I highly recommend the comfortable three hour trip (each way) to Big Sur and back, another favourite spot of mine, and another marathon finish line I have conquered. There are plenty of cool restaurants to stop at along the way, so a packed lunch is not required. If you are fortunate you might even see some grey whales along the way, just make sure you keep your eyes on the road, there are plenty of bends to negotiate along this road.
So you are back in San Francisco and you are looking for another thing to do. Then add a visit to the famous 'rock' or Alcatraz Island to your itinerary. Home to the once infamous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, this place has it all. Now I don't usually do 'tours', but I strongly recommend you go on a tour to the 'rock. You can even do night tours, and they are creepy.
Located just 2kms out in San Francisco Bay the 'rock' has featured in many movies, and is infamous for apparently never being escaped from. BUT, and this is a huge but, maybe there was a successful escape, the debate rages on until this very day. I won't tell you anymore, go and check it out for yourself.
As you can see, there are plenty of things to do in and around the incredible Californian city of San Francisco. One of my most memorable visits was when I took a helicopter flight from SFO airport along the coast and up to, and under the Golden Gate Bridge it was breath taking and worth every cent. I strongly recommend this one as a 'must do' while in town.
When it comes to accomodation you will find everything you want in San Francisco. It's a little pricey for a budget minded traveller, so check out the Air BnB's if you plan on being in town for long. All in all I love the place, and I cant wait to return to uncover another well kept secret of this amazing city.
by Mark Philpott