Welcome to Part 2 of my USA Trip series! This week I’d like to bring you a guide to the best spots in San Francisco. I managed to cover all of these in less than a day, so if you find yourself in this amazing city for longer than that, you would have no excuse if you miss any of the below!
Powell Street – cable cars
Powell Street stretches all the way from Powell Station in central San Francisco to the piers on North Beach. It’s a great route for a first walk through the city, or if you’d rather not brave the hilly trek, it’s also great for your first ride on San Francisco’s iconic cable cars. Some of those are really old, and have a great authentic feel. If you’re really lucky, or if you do your research, you could even jump on No. 952, the original 1923 vehicle which inspired Tennessee Williams’ “Streetcar Named Desire”, and still operates on the streets of San Francisco until this day. Find out more here.
If you just can’t get enough of the cable cars in the streets, there’s also a Cable Car Museum.
Union Square – panorama views and shopping
As an avid collector of travel experiences, I have a number of ‘to do’ and ‘to see’ lists covering all kinds of things. One of those is a National Geographic chart of the world’s Top 10 Elevator Rides. The exterior elevator at the Westin St Francis Hotel takes the honorary third place, with its breathtaking 32-floor ride at a speed of 1000 feet per minute, so I had no choice but to oblige.
^The hotel lobby. I had to ask nicely, but one of the porters let me in just to try the elevator, even though I wasn’t a guest of the hotel. Negotiation skills on point.
^ The exterior elevator in action. It was too foggy to take a picture of the panorama from the top, but I’ll leave it to your imagination (hint: it was a jaw-dropping view).
^ You can also do a lot of shopping around Union square, visiting the likes of Saks and Macy’s, as well as a few other independent luxury stores.
China Town is an indispensable part of the tour of San Francisco’s best sites. It captures the spirit of the city as an amazing, colourful melting pot, and it’s also quite a lot of fun to explore its souvenir shops, offering a plethora of oriental merchandise.
Make your way east from China Town, and through the Financial District (for a close view of the Transamerica Pyramid below), to arrive in Embarcadero, the eastern waterfront of San Francisco. There is a lovely market housed inside the Ferry Building, which is nothing shy of a mecca for food lovers.
From here you can either explore all the piers along the eastern waterfront on foot, or take a cable car towards North Beach, home of the ever popular Pier 39.
Pier 39 & Aquarium of the Bay
Pier 39 is the ultimate tourist area offering all kinds of shops, cafés, attractions, and even its very own colony of sea lions! By the time I got there, the light drizzle had turned into a downpour. I made the somewhat reluctant decision to pay a visit to the Aquarium of the Bay while waiting for the rain to stop, but it turned out the somewhat steep admission fee was absolutely worth it, particularly with the underwater tunnel in mind – I recommend checking it out if you have a chance!
^ As I left the Aquarium, the rain was conveniently turning back into a light, refreshing drizzle again, so I continued my exploration of the Pier 39 Concourse.
I turned onto Dock K, and found myself amidst a boisterous, barking, but still very much adorable, colony of sea lions.
^ There is also a great view of Alcatraz prison from Pier 39. Sadly, I couldn’t take the tour, but if you have the time, I’d recommend booking as early as possible.
Fisherman’s Wharf & Ghirardelli Square
The lively Pier 39 is technically part of this neighbourhood, but the central area of Fisherman’s Wharf has its own distinct atmosphere, characterised by a number of museums, such as the antique penny arcade at Musée Mécanique, the Wax Museum, and the Maritime National Historical Park. It also boasts the historic Ghirardelli Square, home of the original Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, which offers one of the most decadent, albeit slightly overpriced, fudge & chocolate brownie sundaes I have ever tasted.
The houses around Lombard Street
Lombard Street is arguably the most famous street in San Francisco, due to its steep incline, its crooked shape, and the abundance of greenery and flowers decorating its flanks. However, the houses lining it, as well as those around other streets in the area, are what contributes the most to the magic and charm of this place. The Victorian architecture is beautiful to behold, especially in its variety from house to house, but the best part is the delicate pastel colour palette decorating the facades.
Bike ride to Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge is undoubtedly the most iconic site associated with San Francisco. For this reason, most people seem to be under the impression that it’s close to the city centre, which it definitely is not. The best way to get there quickly, while still being able to appreciate the scenic route, is via cycling. Start off at Fisherman’s Wharf, follow Bay Street through the park behind Fort Mason and ride onto Marina Blvd, which will finally take you through the exceptionally lovely area of Crissy Field before you reach the bridge. Some bike renting companies offer a package with a ferry ride back from the other end of the bridge – the one I used was Blazing Saddles.
^ Exhausted, but ecstatic!
City Hall & the Opera House
If you have an extra half hour, swing by the City Hall in the southern part of San Francisco. The Opera and the Museum of Asian Art are also worth a visit, and the area is just generally nice for a walk around. Also, if you’re feeling peckish, you can always stop by Stacks, a place offering some seriously awesome pancakes, which is right behind the City Hall.
Mission (Valencia St).
Aside from its famous painted murals,the Mission district is home to some really vibrant cafés and cool shops, which give off a strange, but somehow alluring vibe of a European-American medley of cultural features. The length of Valencia Street is probably your best bet for the full Mission experience, condensed into a single, short route.
I hope my whistle stop tour of the best spots in San Francisco has inspired you to pay it a visit. Let me know in the comments what other areas I should see next time!