Two weeks ago, I told you I’d let you know all about my trip to San Francisco “next week”. Unfortunately, that was followed by some harsh times for me (insomnia and stress took over for a few days) and for my area of the world, with the Paris attacks and the dark days we have known since here in Belgium.
But I eventually managed to take the time and write this recap of our adventures in the last city of our american road trip!
To finish our trip on a chill note, we decided to spend a few days in San Francisco, the city of rebels and poets, where the hippie culture developed and where the gay community fought for its rights. Just like Los Angeles, ‘Frisco’ is part of our collective culture because of the historical events that took place there, but also for the many movies and series that were shot there. From Mrs Doubtfire and Milk to Full House, I had the feeling, even before I set foot there, that I already knew it a bit.
We didn’t have much time, so we had to be efficient, and organize our visits to museums, panoramic views, leisures and food very strategically, and decided to explore one area at a time. It definitely helped to prepare these few days with maps and guides!
The first thing I learned while doing my research, was that San Francisco was “not a city made for cars”. It’s very true: not only is it very, very hilly (like, really, hardly believable), but mostly, parking is the issue. Street parking is always an option, but it’s limited to 2 hours in most of the popular areas and the rates can be very high. Parking lots and valet services allow you to leave your car for longer periods, but are very, very expensive. So from the beginning, we decided to leave the car and use public transport, especially since all MUNI transports were included in our City Pass.
After one day, we changed our mind. See, we were staying in an Airbnb all the way South of Mission Street, one of the main streets of SF. To get to the center, we had to sit on a bus for at least 40 minutes. And when you have only 3 days to visit such a big city, every hour counts. Choices had to be made, and we went for the flexible and fast option: even though it was more expensive, taking the car everywhere for the other two days allowed us to see almost everything that was on our wishlist. And thanks to that decision, I can now share with you a very comprehensive report of what we did, so no regrets at all!
One of the things I really wanted to do was to discover the historical neighbourhoods of the center by foot. So we started in Clarion Alley, which is famous for its beautiful street art. What the city guides didn’t say though, is that the area was pretty dodgy – like San Francisco in general, actually, but I guess that was predictable – and that it’s not a great place to hang out.
So we continued towards Dolores Park (yes, the one from Mrs Doubtfire!!) to sit down and enjoy the sun for a bit. There’s is something I should tell you, by the way: between the moment when we left our Airbnb and when we arrived at the park, the temperature had risen by about ten degrees! This, just like the steep hills, is a typical SF thing: cold and foggy mornings, warm and sunny afternoons, then (again) cold and foggy evenings. Not very practical, especially when it comes to getting dressed, but I guess that’s somewhat exotic!
Autre Dolores Park, we walked to Castro, the famous and iconic gay neighbourhood, where the atmosphere was completely different. Here, everything is clean and cute, people smile at each other while waiting in the line at a hip brunch place, or jog hand in hand.
Next to Castro is the crossing of Haight and Ashbury, known to be the epicentre of hippie culture. At least that’s what my Lonely Planet said. As it turned out, hippies nowadays seem to be weirdos trying to sell weed to tourists on the street and overpriced vintage clothes in kitschy stores, although the bright colours and the food smells made our walk pretty pleasant.
A little bit further, we visited another famous SF neighbourhood: China Town!
This long street made of gift shops where you can but cable-car-christmas-ornaments, ridge magnets, katanas and football jerseys had a very weird vibe as well. I was expecting something similar to New-York’s China Town, something a bit more authentic (sorry if I sound douchey) and different, and it turned out to be this big tourist trap. The buildings look really cool and are worth checking out, but there was really no reason for me to stay longer.
A little bit further up north, we went to see one of the world’s most famous street, or at least the crookedest one: Lombard street! It was pretty funny to see, unfortunately it was very busy when we went, which kind of ruined the experience. Try to have a good look and take a nice picture of a street when two hundred people are taking selfies while driving their car in the middle of the zigzag road… I feel so sorry for the people who live there.
New neighbourhood, other atmosphere: finally, we found a quiet place in this crazy town. We were (almost) alone when we went to see the Wave Organ, an art piece created by the Exploratorium in the San Francisco Bay. It was a bit weird but very cool to see (and hear)!
The Exploratorium, by the way, was also on our wishlist. This unusual museum allows visitors to experiment around diverse subjects: 5 senses, physics, mathematic laws, the human body… what I really loved is that absolutely everything is interactive, and you’re actually playing and learning instead of just looking. If you ever visit SF, this is a must, whether you have kids or just a very present inner child. This visit was included in our City Pass, another good reason to get it!
And thanks to our City Pass, we had one more visit to pick among their selection of museums, so we ended up going to the California Academy Of Sciences, located in the Golden Gate Park. With its planetarium, its green roof, its artificial rain forest and impressive aquarium, the Academy of Sciences allowed us to see very rare species, like this albino alligator for example. It’s really heaven if you love nature and science! Avoid weekends if you can, there were a lot of people when we went.
For the last day of our trip, we had booked tickets to visit Alcatraz. Needless to say we were VERY excited! We arrived on the departure pier about an hour in advance (american organisation is no joke, don’t even bother showing up late or worse, without having booked your tickets in advance!), ready to embark on a boat to the island of Alcatraz, located about 15 minutes away from the shore.
Once we set foot on the island, we went straight to the entrance of the penitentiary. We had read that the audio guide was very popular, so even though it’s not really our thing, we followed the general advice and went for it. And I gotta say it was very, very good! The explanations and anecdotes were told by former guards and prisoners and allowed us to visit the building area per area, really feeling like we were going back in time. It’s very interesting, very well made, you can do the visit at your own pace and take the time to discover each aspect. My only regret is that the website announced a visit that lasts about 2 hours, when actually, you’d need about 4 to do a thorough visit of the island. We didn’t know that and didn’t take it into account in our very busy planning, so unfortunately we couldn’t finish the tour. If you ever go, make sure you have enough time, because it’s really worth it!
Once we were back on the shore, we walked up to Fisherman’s Wharf, an area known for its restaurants, touristic attractions, street musicians and of course, its gift shops. Oh, and the sea lions!
The coolest thing we did there was visiting Musée Mécanique, an ‘old school’ game arcade that had machines from the early twentieth century. So we got a bunch of quarters and started playing! Among other things, you can know your future, play ski ball or arm-wrestle. Pretty cool and very unique!
I gotta say, I have mixed feelings about San Francisco. We saw and did some great things (the Exploratorium, Alcatraz, Musée Mécanique…) but in general, I found the city a tad too touristic. I had a hard time feeling the vibe of the city, and it’s very frustrating because I was really not expecting that from SF. It was lacking warmth and friendliness, atmosphere and depth. I really hope I’m wrong and I will change my mind one day, hopefully, I just needed more time to discover the true San Francisco.
Anyway, this was the last blogpost about our american roadtrip! I already can’t wait to travel again, now I just have to save some money and pick the next destination… I hope my stories helped you and inspired you, let me know if you visit the same areas and what you thought about them!