“It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be in San Francisco.” —Oscar Wilde
San Francisco has inspired some of the world’s great minds for generations. It’s a city full of surprises and, yes, it is a place to disappear into, as my friend Jen and I discovered on a recent visit.
We’re small-town gals, but the lure of the big city caught us. The city that has captured poets, playwrights, songwriters, and authors loomed large in our minds as we arrived for a couple of days of uniquely San Francisco experiences.
A night in Alcatraz
Our first stop was to grab a couple of passes for the hop-on, hop-off tour bus. These proved to be well worth the price. The tickets allowed us to curate our San Francisco experience and be mobile without having to drive in traffic.
We checked into our hotel near Fisherman’s Wharf, a bustling part of town that is very popular with tourists. We chose to stay here because it’s within walking distance of many of the attractions and restaurants we wanted to visit.
Our agenda included a pre-booked night tour of Alcatraz, and the ferry left from Pier 33, a pleasant walk along the Embarcadero from our hotel. We stopped along the way to enjoy an iconic San Francisco meal—clam chowder served in sourdough bowls from a street vendor.
“The Rock,” as Alcatraz Island is sometimes known, was a lighthouse station until the 1870s, when it was converted to a military prison. While active, the prison hosted some of the most dangerous criminals of the early 20th century, including the notorious Al Capone. The creepy factor was definitely multiplied by being there at night! We listened to the stories of former guards and prisoners on the self-guided audio tour, envisioning the escape attempts and the violent riots.
From the island and on our ride back to the mainland, we saw spectacular views of The City by the Bay lighting up the darkening sky.
On foot once more and heading back to our hotel, we stopped at Gold Dust Lounge for a nightcap. The bar was founded in 1933 and is a popular landmark for both locals and tourists. They have a reputation for serving the city’s best Irish coffees, so Jen and I each toasted our visit with one.
“Perfect,” she said with a sigh.
I nodded and sipped my own, enjoying the warmth from the whisky and coffee combination.
The following day we activated our hop-on, hop-off bus tickets and boarded on Jefferson St. by the San Francisco Visitor Center. Our first stop was Union Square South for a wander through Chinatown. This is the oldest and largest Chinatown of any US city, and we marveled at the historic buildings and interesting shops. A stop by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory revealed an old-fashioned production line, where workers fold 20,000 cookies by hand every day.
One of our favorite finds in Chinatown was City Lights Bookstore, a 65-year-old city treasure that has been a mainstay for free speech and indie literary voices. Founders of the Beat Generation walked those floors way back when, and today the shop still offers a range of new and used books amid historical photographs and posters.
Boarding the bus again, we stopped by Hayes and Steiner Streets, taking pictures of the iconic “painted ladies.” We knew this tight formation of Victorian houses by sight, having seen them featured in many shows and movies set in the city, including 90s television show Full House.
Stopping next in Haight Ashbury, we had the sudden urge to put flowers in our hair, an ode to the hippy movement rooted in the area. Jen grabbed an old Bob Dylan record from a store, while I picked out some vintage clothing. We could have spent a long time wandering the eclectic shops but wanted to make sure we left ourselves plenty of time at our next destination—Golden Gate Bridge.
A city in bloom
Miraculously, in a city known for its fog (the fog has even been named Karl and has its own Twitter account), we struck a clear day. We walked the length of one of the world’s most iconic bridges, with views out to the headlands and back to the city. Jen and I agreed that we were in one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
Boarding the bus once again for the day, we rode to Pier 39, the last stop. We were in the mood for a sweet treat, and where better to find that in San Francisco than the home of an iconic chocolate company? Ghirardelli Square is the site of the old chocolate factory and is now a shopping center, which includes a Ghirardelli store. We indulged in ice cream from Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop and picked out some chocolates to take home.
The next day, we made a quick plan, mapping out what we wanted to see for our last day in San Francisco. Boarding the bus again, we passed several stops, opting to get off at Golden Gate Park. As it was Sunday, the main drive was closed to cars, and instead it was full of people on bikes, skateboards, and scooters. We found ourselves moving to the beat of some Lindy Hoppers, who were drawing quite a crowd with their dancing prowess.
The city takes pride in this park as one of its greatest jewels. We explored the Victorian-era Conservatory of Flowers, admiring a huge collection of aquatic and tropical plants, some of them very rare. The Conservatory has been a popular landmark since it opened to the public in 1879. We spotted a couple of geckos and learned that they’re used to keep cockroaches in check.
The grass-domed roof of the California Academy of Sciences drew us in next. This impressive structure houses a planetarium, an aquarium, and a natural history museum. We found out that the “living” roof is made up of native plants, providing a habitat for birds and insects, insulation for the building, and stormwater collection. Eco-friendly is on display everywhere, and we spent quite some time engaged with the natural world.
After strolling across the park and through the enchanting Japanese Tea Garden, we arrived at Beach Chalet, where we had a late lunch reservation. Stunning views of golden sands and the Pacific Ocean accompanied our seasonally inspired lunch. Our midsummer timing had us there for their Heirloom Tomato Celebration with a special menu. We dined on squid-ink spaghetti while raising glasses of their locally brewed beer.
Our time in San Francisco amounted to a whirlwind tour of some its coolest attractions, but we know we only scratched the surface this time. Will there be a next time? For sure. In the words of Rudyard Kipling: “San Francisco only has one drawback: ‘tis hard to leave.”