7 Things That Will Make You Love San Francisco
Featured destinations: San Francisco
Published 30 March 2016
You’ve heard the phrase ‘I left my heart in San Francisco’ right? Well there’s a reason for that: it’s a rather magical place. Blessed with the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, blanketed in a mysterious year-round fog and home to colourful cable cars and charismatic townhouses, it’s hard not to be won over by this pretty peninsula’s charm. Feeling the love? Try these experiences and we reckon you’ll fall even more head over heels for the ‘City by the Bay’.
Meet the prisoners of Alcatraz
Well, not face-to-face to course. Alcatraz was decommissioned as a federal penitentiary in 1963, but its infamy as a lock-up for troublesome inmates is what draws visitors in their droves here every year. Take a tour of the island and you’ll visit cell 181, where Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone was incarcerated, as well as learning about Robert Franklin Stroud – aka the Birdman of Alcatraz – and kidnapping mobster George “Machine Gun” Kelly.
You’ll also get the chance to see the first lighthouse and US-built fort on the west coast up-close, as well as learning all about the native Americans who settled here for 19 months from 1969, prior to the isle becoming a national recreation area in 1972. History buffs, take note.
Sample wine in the Valleys
The Napa and Sonoma Valleys, just a stone’s throw from the city, are renowned for their world-class grape growing. Both are home to hundreds of wineries, a plethora of Michelin-starred restaurants and a cluster of peaceful, quaint towns and villages. You can hop from winery to winery on most tours, or you can take the historic Napa Valley Wine Train if you prefer to chug through the vineyard landscapes at a laid-back pace while enjoying some gourmet grub.
If you’re planning to explore both regions then it’s also worth stopping-off at the Muir Woods National Monument too, home to some of the tallest redwood sequoias on the planet.
Watch the world go by at Fisherman’s Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the city’s most famous tourist spots, so of course it’s rammed with visitors, all clamouring to see the many attractions between Pier 39 and Ghirardelli Square – think museums by the boat-load. But once you’ve had your fill of the crowds, venture behind The Franciscan restaurant and you’ll stumble across a quiet pier across from the ships. It has benches, is never busy and offers great views of the passing vessels and Alcatraz.
Finish the day at the behemoth bread-makers known as Boudin Bakery – famed for selling the best sourdough loaf in San Fran.
Ride the cable cars
Whether it’s in guidebooks, on TV or in many a Hollywood blockbuster, everyone’s seen or heard of the city’s historic cable car system. Created by British expat Andrew Hallidie in 1873, it’s the last manually-operated cable car system in the world and runs three routes: Powell-Mason, Powell-Hyde and California Street. A ride really is an authentic Franciscan experience – don’t leave without attempting a “hang on” off one of the special poles on the outside of the car.
Tickets are US$5 each way, or you can get unlimited rides for seven days with your CityPASS.
Cycle across Golden Gate Bridge and through the park
One city, two wheels: hopping on a bike is the best way to see the city, especially when it comes to the Golden Gate Bridge. Hire your wheels from one of the many outlets in Fisherman’s Wharf and self-guide yourself across the 1.7-mile Art Deco suspension bridge. Even when the crimson structure is shrouded in mist and cloud, you’ll still be rewarded with incredible views of the Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
Don’t miss the neighbouring Golden Gate Park either. It’s regarded as one of the city’s best natural treasures with 1,017 acres of manicured greens, lofty trees, pretty lakes and waterfalls. If you’re tired of cycling, why not give a Segway tour a go?
Live like a local around Union Square
Street vendors, protest rallies, busking musicians, Harry Krishna followers and outdoor performers – Union Square is where all of San Francisco’s quirks come to life. It’s where you’ll find all the locals rushing to work, foodies seeking the best lunch or dinner spots and shoppers seeking retail therapy. Navigate the blocks around Union Square, away from the chain restaurants and stores, and that’s where you’ll feel most like a San Franciscan.
See east meet west in Chinatown and Japantown
San Francisco is a fusion of eastern and North American cultures, and it embraces both with gusto. Alongside burger joints and seafood eateries, you’ll find the oldest Japantown in the USA, and the biggest Chinatown outside of Asia – not a bad claim to Far Eastern fame. Both districts should be visited to fully appreciate the city’s cosmopolitan feel and outlook: shop at Ming Lee Trading in Chinatown for authentic snacks and see the five-storey Peace Plaza in Japantown if you do nothing else. Seeing in Chinese New Year in San Fran is worth a trip across the pond too.
Ready to experience San Francisco on your next USA holiday? Speak to one of our Travel Experts about our Coastal California Journey, where you’ll take in the city’s delights, as well as venturing down the Big Sur’s Pacific Highway to Los Angeles.