San Francisco has everything you want as a tourist, but look a little deeper and you’ll also find a city that brings out the traveler in you. All cities have the obligatory destinations that you really do need to see. New York has the Statue of Liberty, Miami has South Beach, Seattle has the Pike Place Fish Market, and so on. San Francisco has quite a few of its own: Fishermans Wharf, Pier 39, cable cars, and the Golden Gate Bridge. All of those are a must see but I say get a bus pass and see the rest of the city…the real city and you’ll have an even better time.
Fisherman’s Wharf has some great restaurants and seafood is its greatest draw. Perhaps the most authentically Wharf food you can get is clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. The city is legendary for its seafood and the sourdough is the best of any town around. The Wharf can be very crowded with tourists and the street shows that accompany them. If that’s your thing, you’re going to be entertained for hours with great food and live street entertainment. Visit the Wharf early in the morning before the hoards arrive, while the fog is still hanging around, and the sounds of seagulls and foghorns fill the air, while all of the seafood vendors are setting up for the day and the experience will be quite different…deeper. If crowds aren’t your thing but you’d still like to experience Fisherman’s Wharf, consider visiting Monday through Thursday before the vacationers arrive. It might not be quite as entertaining, but you will have more room to move around and take your time along the piers.
Near the Wharf is another must see attraction especially if you’re a first-timer, Pier 39. Pier 39 is quite similar to the Wharf but differs in that its emphasis is not as much on seafood as it on more traditional tourist fare like crepes, fresh fruit, and candy stores. The biggest and best Pier 39 attraction is without a doubt the sea lions that rule the docks near the end of the pier proper. The sea lions compete for space on the platforms and the competition between the males will end up making you feel sorry for the smaller ones. They continually keep getting knocked off by the big bad dominant male. I’ve seen significantly more sea lions there in the winter months than in the summer. In the early morning when the city is still just waking up you can hear them ‘barking’ from blocks away. If you’re a morning person and a runner, you can find dozens of people running along the Piers as well as people swimming in the Bay across from Ghiradelli Square near an ancient looking sail boat. Not for the faint of heart as the water is freezing.
After taking in the sights, sounds and smells of Pier 39 and Fishermans Wharf, a stroll southward along the Embarcadero will get you some exercise and a bit of elbow room as well. From here, and many places from within the city, you can see the landmark of the Coit Tower at the top of Telegraph Hill. If you’re up for it, head to the Filbert Steps which lead roughly from Levi’s Square 600 steep steps up to the top. The garden lined pathway is definitely steep but there are many places along the way to stop and catch your breath while looking back and seeing some great views of the Bay Bridge, Treasure Island, and the Ferry Building below. Continuing up, quads burning, lungs bursting, notice the intricate gardens of fruits, flowers, palms and herbs that distract you from the pain of the climb, as well as some beautiful multi-million dollar homes. You literally walk right by them. At the top, you’re rewarded with one of the finest views in the city and you can now see the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island in the distance.
If you walk down the opposite side that you walked up, you’ll continue through the neighborhood known as North Beach towards Chinatown. Along the way stop by the Beatnik era bookstore City Lights Bookstore and check out this famous city landmark and maybe even buy a book. Just across Jack Kerouac Alley is another Beatnik hangout, Vesuvio, which is an eclectic place to hangout for a couple of drink and imagine Jack Kerouac having a drink, or two or three there.
As you continue walking in a generally southern direction, you’ll eventually end up in Chinatown. There is something about Chinatown in San Francisco that just draws us in every time. The place is always buzzing with cheap souvenir shops, interesting restaurants, unique grocery stores, and more Chinese being spoken than English. After all of that walking and stair stepping, we were hungry for a snack and stopped at Delicious Dim Sum, a low budget, slightly adventurous looking restaurant. We decided to take a chance though and went in for some dumplings. The old lady working there spoke almost no English but with the help of another customer, we were able to order three pork dumplings which were outstanding…and only $2.50. Across the street, we saw what looked like an ‘interesting’ alley that also looked like something worth checking out. As we were admiring an alley coming down from the Coit Tower we walked past a bicyclist who saw me taking a picture and offered “the best part of San Francisco is the alleys” so when we saw this one we decided to take his advice. We were rewarded by stumbling into the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company where they still make the cookies by hand. They also, for $5 a bag, sell X-Rated fortune cookies which is something that can be tons of fun 😘!
For the last part of our walk through Chinatown, we stopped by the Eastern Bakery for some traditional Chinese pastries. We tried a butter cream pastry, so good and a sesame black bean moon, good but we liked the butter cream the best. All for just $2.95!?! Fun but it’s time to move on! Up next is a cable car ride and another walk, this time to the hippie district of Haight-Ashbury.
So is riding the world famous SF cable car a “tourist” thing to do? Hell yes it is but it is so fun. Hanging out the side of the cars feels like getting to do something you shouldn’t be allowed to do, which makes it even better. Never mind that it’s just a great way to get around, it’s fun too. We happened to be on the cable car while the driver was in training which made it even more interesting, especially when he didn’t apply the brake when he should have.
After finishing that ride we walked a few blocks to Haight-Ashbury and spent some time walking around hippie ground zero before strolling over to Golden Gate Park. This park surely ranks up there with New York’s Central Park as far as great urban open spaces go. On this day, instead of walking the miles of trails through the beautiful park, we stumbled on a collection of food trucks and live music. Now, San Francisco is legendary for its great food truck culture so why not give that a go too? We tried one called “The Chairman” which served Coca Cola braised pork with a couple of other sides that I couldn’t pronounce, let alone write. The food was so unique and tasty that it was hard to believe that it came from a truck.
With daylight fading, we hopped on a Muni Bus and tried to get over to the area around Lands End to take in an ocean sunset. We made it with a few minutes to spare and we were able to take in a great sunset from Point Lobos. The area around the point is worth exploring while you’re there. The ruins of the Sutro Baths are there to check out and the Cliff House, a restaurant and bar with an incredible view of the Pacific is nearby. We then hopped back on another Muni Bus to our hotel and can honestly say that we squeezed every bit out of the day you possibly could but we had a blast.
We experienced so much of what makes this city so diverse, and have been to San Francisco numerous times. This time we didn’t go to the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, or the Ferry Terminal. As you can see, San Francisco is a city that takes several days to explore, maybe even a lifetime.