New York is known for its skyline, Los Angeles brings sun, sea and sand to the table, and New Orleans takes soul food to another level. But where do you go when you want sunrises cloaked in morning fog, gourmet fayre eaten from inauspicious food trucks, arty haunts that spill out onto graffiti strewn streets, plus a unique blend of hipster hangouts and more refined haunts? The answer is San Francisco, of course.
San Francisco is a popular port of call on most Pacific, North American and Alaskan itineraries, with cruise lines including Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Princess Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Lines amongst those who venture beneath that iconic orange bridge. Tony Bennett declared ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ and we can’t say that we’re surprised; this is one section of America’s West Coast where a whistle stop visit doesn’t quite cut it. Here’s how to make the most of your first time in the city.
Spend a night at Alcatraz
Alcatraz spent 30 years as the most infamous prison in America, with Al Capone and Robert Franklin Stroud (aka the Birdman of Alcatraz) among its most famous inhabitants. Nowadays, the gates have been thrown open and no visit to San Francisco is complete without a tour of this grim institution. Shun a daytime tour, and the crowds, and opt to experience this haunting attraction under the cloak of darkness. Night tours often leave the bay in time to take in some pretty spectacular sunsets on route to the prison itself, and tour group sizes are much smaller than those during the day. Exclusive tours, programs and activities are reserved especially for night time tour groups, including an option to be locked in a solitary confinement cell. Here’s hoping the tour guide doesn’t have a short attention span or forgetful nature, or you might be experience life in Alcatraz a little more realistically than you thought!
All aboard a fire engine tour
Open-top bus tours are de rigueur in any given city, but you can trust San Francisco to mix things up a bit with a fire engine tour. Hopping aboard the shiny red 1955 Mack fire truck is cool enough in itself, with all 14 passengers given the chance to go all out and throw on some regulation fire department attire for added effect. Setting off from Fisherman’s Wharf, you’ll make your way around the city, before venturing over the Golden Gate Bridge and into the village of Sausalito for some of the most amazing views of San Francisco. With ‘ride over the Golden Gate Bridge in a vintage fire truck’ ticked off your bucket list, you’ll make your way back to the city and onto bustling Union Street.
If touring cities in vintage fire trucks is a common occurrence for you, elevate the experience with winery tours, horseback rides along the California coast line and themed Halloween or holiday light variations.
Catch a game
Americans take their sports seriously and San Francisco is home to some pretty big hitters, including the Giants, 49ers and Oakland Raiders. Monday night football is a way of life and catching a game is a must; watch baseball’s biggest names at the San Francisco Giants’ AT & T Park, where you’ll find gastropub-quality eats and craft ales in place of your usual hot dogs and warm beer. The Levi’s Stadium hosts American football’s San Francisco 49ers and the stadium’s sheer size cultivates an incomparable atmosphere on game day.
Lose yourself at Golden Gate Park
There’s more than one reason Golden Gate Park attracts millions of visitors every year, in fact there are over 1000 acres filled with reasons to go. People watch on the lawn of the Conservatory of Flowers, ride the Herschell-Spillman Carousel, unleash your creative side at the Art Studio, rent a rowing boat on Stow Lake, ride a Segway, visit the bison paddock, play disc golf on an 18-hole course; if you’re bored at Golden Gate Park, you’ve nobody to blame but yourself!
Eat like a local and go Off The Grid
Much is made of San Francisco’s foodie scene and nowhere is it better demonstrated than at Off The Grid. Every Friday night between 5-10pm, the waterfront Fort Mason Center comes alive with a mixture of locals and in-the-know out of towners, all there for one thing; incredible food. As California’s largest evening street food market, Off The Grid consists of 32 food vendors all offering something equally as enticing. Forget the greasy burger vans of home and prepare for smoked and roasted BBQ meats, Asian fusion, unique burrito combinations and bacon eaten in more ways than you ever thought possible. A DJ provides the entertainment between 5-7.30pm, after which live bands take to the stage to round things off until 10pm.
If you’re looking for a taste of local life, you’ll need to go Off The Grid.
Bathe at Baker Beach
If you’re trying to find the rocky spot seen so often in photographs of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, head to Baker Beach. This mile-long strip of sand on the shore of the Pacific Ocean provides views of San Fran sunsets, the Marin Headlands and said bridge unlike anywhere else, and if you’re really lucky you might even spot dolphins and harbour seals playing in the water. There’s BBQ grills and picnic tables just off the beach too, so pay a visit to one of the city’s many farmer markets for supplies before setting off.
One last thing; half of Baker Beach is a designated nudist beach, so stay north of the Hazardous Surf sign if you prefer to keep your clothes on!
Clam chowder and sourdough (with a side of sea lions) at Pier 39
Many are under the illusion that San Francisco for tourists consists purely of the Golden Gate Bridge and Pier 39. While there’s so much more to the city, a visit to the lively location at the end of Fisherman’s Wharf is a great introduction.
Start in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf, where you’ll still see fishing fleets come and go with their catch of the day. To visit the area without trialling the seafood would be criminal; shun the bigger chains and choose from a whole host of family restaurants that have stood in the same spot through generations.
If you prefer to eat while you walk, the area has plenty of options. Clam chowder in a bowl of sourdough bread is our favourite dish and is best enjoyed while watching the sea lions that have taken up residence at Pier 39. Have your attentions turned by street performers and make your own melodies on musical stairs designed by Remo Saraceni – the same artist who created those played by Tom Hanks in the movie ‘Big’.
There’s only one way to travel to Fisherman’s Wharf and it’s a costly one; you’ll need to blow a whole $2 to ride the colourful vintage street car of the F-Line, going all the way from end to end for the princely sum.