Catherine is an avid traveler and applies her experience in the environmental sciences to give a global view of travel domestic and abroad.
When I visited San Francisco for the first time, it was for an annual conference as a student and I only had three afternoons to see the entire city. I planned accordingly before my trip and took in as much as possible over a long weekend trip to this foggy city.
In three days, I was able to visit Alcatraz Island, ride on the famous cable cars, visit the celebrated piers of the Wharf, see Alamo Square Park, and walk along Haight Street. The trick to seeing everything without losing any sleep was to map out my visit in order to see all this city has to offer in a short time.
My conference was until two o'clock every day, but there was a positive to only having afternoons free in this city; the morning fog rolled in thick and white, but by the afternoon the skies cleared to reveal a sunny California day.
I stayed at a hotel that was a short 10-minute walk from the piers—the Golden Gate Holiday Inn located in the heart of the city. If you only have a short time to spend in this city, I recommend you stay somewhere within walking distance to the pier and/or somewhere close to cable car stops or bus stops. That way you can get around the downtown area quickly.
My first stop in San Francisco was the world-famous Mel's Diner, where I had a good old American meal of burgers and fries. This was a great place to start a day of sightseeing, as I could enjoy the ambience while also mapping out the rest of my day.
I then headed towards my second destination of the day. Since it was such a close walk, my group and I made our way to the Hyde Street Pier after our afternoon meal. Here you’ll see locals bike riding and rollerblading mixed in with the tourists that are there to shop. From there, visit the historic ships and ogle over the breathtaking view of Alcatraz from the shore.
We knew we could revisit the piers later to browse the local shops, so we decided to ride the cable cars, the only moving national historical landmark, down to Haight Street. We took two of the three trolley lines to get there: California and Powell-Hyde.
Haight Street is a west coast version of New York City’s St. Marks Place, for those New Yorkers familiar with that famous street. The California version is filled with antique and vintage shops, tie-dye-filled storefronts, and the California chain Amoeba Music. You could spend an entire afternoon shopping at this famous store, so get ready to explore and open your wallet.
The next morning, we ate at an all-day breakfast restaurant called Moulin Café. The food at this family-owned restaurant was incredible, not to mention reasonable. Our next stop was Alamo Square Park, where we got a perfect view of the famous line of Victorian houses positioned side-by-side on one of the city’s steep, sloped streets. This is a great photo opportunity because you can relax on the grass in the park with a perfect view of the city at the top of one of San Fran’s large hills. This spot was made famous by the sitcom Full House, where they pose right on this grassy area.
That night, we had reservations to eat dinner at the restaurant Alioto's, which is located next to the seafood market in Fisherman's Wharf down by the pier. We had time before our meal to shop at the shops at the Wharf for trinkets and locally made items. This area gets crowded at night, and eateries and dessert shops abound.
By the time we were ready to eat, the sun was starting to go down. From our window at the restaurant, we had a view of the Golden Gate Bridge with the sun setting behind it. Be sure to make reservations ahead of time for a window seat at this eatery, though any seat will result in a pretty good view—perfect for those cold nights by the bay.
We knew we’d make our way back to the piers again before we left on a flight back to the east coast, and luckily it was on our mildest day in the city. Pier 39 is home to the city’s sea and sunbathing creatures—the resident sea lions, but you’ll also find plenty of tourists snapping shots of these sea animals sleeping and frolicking at the edge of the wharf.
We had to stop ogling over the sea lions and admiring the uncountable number of sailboats on the bay because it was time for our scheduled trip to Alcatraz Island. We boarded our ferry from the pier to set out across the bay towards “The Rock” where the tour is half the island visit and half the ferry ride.
Have your cameras ready during this trek because you will have views of the Golden Gate Bridge you can’t get anywhere on land. The island also plays host to nighttime “spooky” visits, though the place is eerie enough without the nighttime environment. As you approach, you’ll see painted in large red letters “Indians Welcome Here,” a nod to the 18-month occupation by an Indian tribe before the island became a historical landmark.
All the visitors to Alcatraz take an audio tour. I placed my pair of headphones on and followed our tour guide as we passed through abandoned rooms and cells. A story that was retold as we walked past the tiny cells that will always stick with me is how the inmates, due to the close proximity to the mainland, could hear the laughter and voices of those celebrating off the piers for New Year's Eve while stuck in their cells.
Our last meal in San Francisco was in Chinatown. This part of the city is filled with narrow, steep streets and innumerable Chinese restaurants and shops. We ate at the ingeniously titled restaurant, Chinatown Restaurant. We were called in by a host of the eatery standing out front, even though there was no convincing needed. We ate on the balcony, which was quite tiny and seemed as old as the city itself. It was, however, one of the best meals I had on our trip.
San Francisco’s transportation is among the most diverse in the world consisting of the world-famous cable cars (or “trolleys”), historic streetcars, electric coaches, diesel buses and alternative fuel vehicles.
Cable cars (or “Trolleys”) were introduced in September of 1873. The Clay Street line started public service in San Francisco using an underground cable. In April 1892, Streetcars’s top three lines and the first electric streetcars with Pier Streetcar overhead wires began running.
Electric buses (or trolley coaches) are buses with motors powered by electricity from overhead wires. San Francisco has the largest trolley-bus fleet of any transit agency in the U.S. An interesting transit lingo fact is that “Trolley” refers to the trolley poles on the roof of the vehicle that are used to transmit the electricity from the overhead wires.
More time is always needed in such a big metropolis that has so much to offer, but I’ll take home with me the experience of a unique city that sets itself apart from others. Perhaps it's best that I didn't get to see everything on this trip so I can plan my next visit soon.
© 2013 Catherine Stolfi
Cooper Harrison from San Francisco, CA on April 18, 2017: