I’d heard the rumours about California: sunny skies, friendly people, and fresh food. But as a lifelong New Yorker who’d never left the East Coast, I assumed it was exaggerated. On this trip, I discovered in wasn’t.
I was headed to San Francisco for the weekend for the yearly Women’s Travel Fest. It was a quick weekend trip so I really only had one full day to explore as much of the city as I could. At home I’m an avid walker, averaging about five miles a day, but West Coasters kept warning me that the hills of San Francisco would make it much more difficult. Luckily, everything is pretty close together, so between the hills and the short distances, I was able to walk the whole city without any trouble. And oh man, the views from the top of those hills, of the bay in all directions, the sun in your face, everyone smiling — simply gorgeous.
Here’s what I managed to cram into one full day and what I’ll do on the next trip (because there WILL be a next trip!)
Take a trolley ride
One of the most iconic things you can do in San Francisco is take a ride on the trolley. There is nothing like the thrill of riding on the outside, hanging off the pole. If you can’t get a spot, sit on the bench looking out of the trolley so you get both the breeze and a view of the front conductor as he steers up and down the city’s famous hills.
I bought an all-day pass (you have to buy the card first and then fill it at a designated retailer), which everyone insisted I didn’t need since you have two full hours to ride as much public transport as you can on one ticket. And of course, I really didn’t need it (#localsknow…). As I mostly walked everywhere, I only used public transport four times: for my trolley ride, a cable car ride from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Ferry Building, and a bus to the Mission District and then up to Alamo Square Park.
Bike the bridge
As I watch the training video in the bike shop off Ghirardelli Square, and they’re explaining the mileage of the route over the bridge, I double check with the bike guy: “This isn’t super strenuous, is it?” The guy assures me that he’s put “kids and old ladies” on these bikes, that it’s a piece of cake. Well maybe they were Californian kids and old ladies because I had to get off the bike twice because of the insane hills (while small children and older European tourists easily passed me), but the trail was incredible. I went along the coastline, away from the city and got some incredible views of both the bridge and the city centre behind. On the other side, you can opt to ride down to Sausalito and take the ferry back to Fisherman’s Wharf (less mileage in the end than backtracking back over the bridge). It ended up being a beautiful ride through the country with the scent of honeysuckle everywhere, finishing in what looked like a small Mediterranean seaside village. The ferry ride back passed by both Angel Island and Alcatraz.
Eat at In-N-Out Burger
I randomly came upon an In-N-Out Burger on my day of sightseeing and had to text a friend in LA to verify; yes, this was the West Coast’s Shake Shack. Their MO is to be healthy and sustainable with nothing frozen or pre-packaged. The old-time diner vibe is pretty cool, and the burger and fries were definitely delicious. Unfortunately, I didn’t find out about the “not-so-secret” menu until after, and seriously contemplated heading back for dinner.
Note: Getting a burger “animal style” seems to be the most popular, which includes lettuce, tomato, extra pickle and spread, grilled onions, and mustard on a cooked beef patty.
Check out the Ferry Building
This awesome indoor market was very similar to NYC’s Chelsea Market, with a combination of restaurants, cafés, local produce shops, and more. I grabbed some California olive oil from Stonehouse and a hot panini from Boccalone.
Explore Mission District
This neighbourhood seemed to be the Williamsburg, Brooklyn of San Francisco. Young people everywhere having brunch, vintage shops, and a pretty amazing chocolate factory. There’s even an alleyway filled with murals (Clarion Alley) where you can wander down and watch artists at work.
Note: The Dandelion Chocolate Factory has a stand at the Ferry Building but I definitely recommend coming down here. You can taste a lot of different chocolates and also get an array of baked goods (with chocolate of course), and hot cocoas and coffees.
I’m a huge fan of the Chinatowns in NYC so I was really excited to visit this famous historic epicentre of Chinese immigration. Most locals said it wasn’t worth the trip and I soon understood that Chinatown, unlike in NYC, is spread out throughout San Francisco. You’ll see Chinese restaurants and shops all over the city. The “Chinatown” on the map simply refers to the historic Chinatown which today caters to tourists. I did enjoy the Fortune Cookie Factory though. It’s dark and cramped inside and you have to pay a few dollars to take a picture, but it was really neat to see how fast the workers would shape the fortune cookie from the dough coming off of the machines.
Note: As an East Coaster I’m used to a certain type of Chinese cuisine and it never occurred to me that the Chinese on the West Coast immigrate from different regions of China with completely different food cultures. I was super surprised not to recognise most of the food on the menus of Chinese restaurants.
Spend time in Alamo Square Park
Yes, this is the view of the beautiful Victorian, brightly painted homes from the opening credits of Full House, and to be totally honest, this was pretty high on my priority list. I hit the park around sunset and there were tons of people camped out on blankets and a large part of the park was designated for dogs to run around off-leash.
Here’s what I didn’t get to, but will be top of my list for the next trip.
Lombard St.: I had originally planned to view this famous curvy street from my trolley ride but somehow got on the wrong trolley and didn’t pass it.
Cervecería de MateVeza: Fresh empanadas and house-brewed beers at a “small, experimental brewery” that you can allegedly take to the neighbouring park in a brown paper bag? Yes please.
Mosaic steps: Too far from the city centre for my trip, these steps are covered head-to-toe in beautiful mosaics.
And of course, I’d load up on a few Urban Adventures Tours next time, too.
Flavors & Murals of the Mission: A tour through my favourite neighbourhood, on which you can taste donuts and Mexican pastries, see the local street art, and hear about how this neighbourhood became so cool.
Teas, Temples, and Beatniks: This tour will definitely be top of my list for the next trip. I feel like I missed out on a lot of history about San Francisco’s Chinatown and would love someone to guide me through tea tastings and traditional pastries. Plus, you get to make your own fortune cookie…