We arrived in San Francisco quite late on the Saturday afternoon and immediately broke the first rule of beating jet lag and had a nap. Of course, our short “half hour nap” became much, much longer and we essentially ruined our body clocks (which took days to recover) and wasted our first night in San Francisco! Luckily we had three days to explore so it wasn’t the end of the world from that point of view, but we did spend the next few days battling the urge to go to bed at 5pm.
For our first full day we decided to do an open top bus tour – neither of us had been to San Francisco so we were keen to get a sense of the place and work out which sights we would like to return to later. I definitely think this was a good plan, except we did not bargain for the weather. We had been fooled into thinking that the “California weather” that we always see on TV was typical of the whole state. Unfortunately this is not the case, and San Francisco spends most of the summer covered in mist. We were lucky with the weather in that it would usually brighten up by the afternoon so we did get some sunny pictures! This snap chat that Emma took on our first day sums up my feelings well.
We used the City Sightseeing Company which was good, but there are so many companies that seem to all be pretty much the same I would say it’s best just to go with whoever you see selling tickets first/who offers the best discount. We got $5 off each so we paid $45 for a two day ticket. We were staying near Union Square so we just headed there and were bombarded with offers so it really isn’t hard to come across tickets.
After we had completed two of the bus routes, we headed for a late lunch at one of the iconic American chains – The Cheesecake Factory. This branch is on the top floor of Macy’s at Union Square and we chose to get seats on the terrace so the views were lovely and the weather had cleared up! We had a really nice meal, but unfortunately this turned out to be another bad move for the jet lag – the portions were so big that we couldn’t possibly have eaten dinner later in the day so this ended up being our main meal of the day (at about 3pm). This is definitely something to bear in mind about this restaurant though – the portions are even big by American standards! This large afternoon meal probably also contributed to our early bedtime of about 7pm… Luckily we were able to keep our eyes open for long enough to spend some time shopping at Union Square. The range of shops here is massive so there is definitely something to interest anyone. If you’re a people-watcher(/creep) like me, it’s also fun to sit in the square and watch all of the people going by because there is such a huge range of people in the area, from tourists to locals.
We decided to spend the morning on the bus tour again, but this time heading to the Purple Route which goes over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and to Sausalito on the other side. Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side and we got some pretty average photos of the bridge covered in mist. The tour was definitely worth doing though and Sausalito seemed like a lovely place so we were sad we didn’t have more time to explore, but we had big plans for the afternoon: a trip to Alcatraz!
After a quick lunch at Chipotle (just hitting all the chains we don’t have at home!), we joined the queue for the ferry to Alcatraz. It seems massive and we thought we would have to wait a long time, but it was well organised and we all got on the (large) ferry for our time slot. In my opinion, this was an absolute must see for anyone visiting San Francisco. We booked our tickets online over a month in advance and we were so glad we had because it was completely sold out for the whole time we were there. If you don’t book in advance, there is a chance of getting a returned ticket so it is worth a try but I wouldn’t take the risk. It was really like nowhere else I had ever been and you had no limit on how long you could look around.
I have heard great things about the Early Bird option, but this was already sold out for when we booked. Having never done it, I can’t really compare that tour to the normal one but our mid afternoon time slot was so good that I would definitely say not to let a lack of Early Bird availability put you off booking another time. There is an audio tour of the cell block that is included in the cost of your ticket which was very informative and useful and there are lots of displays and information available about the prison, life for the inmates and staff and some of the famous inmates.
We spent around three hours at Alcatraz, including our ferries there and back. We found that to be enough time to do the audio tour and walk around the parts we wanted to see. There was more to see though so you could definitely spend longer if you wanted to.
We then spent the late afternoon/evening in the Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 area. There are so many restaurants and shops in this area so there’s a lot of variety. There are also fairground rides and activities so you could spent a lot of time in this area if it was a nice day. There are also Sea Lions that live on the rocks by the pier but we didn’t see them. We had dinner at Bubba Gump’s which was a lot of fun (as it always is) and the food was great. We also both had a cocktail and got a free glass with them – these were abandoned at various points in the trip when we ran out of room in our bags!
On our last day in San Francisco, it was time to do one of the things I was most looking forward to: cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge! I have to say at this point that this was not a particularly easy cycle. They advertise it as being suitable for beginners/intermediates but I would say it’s quite challenging for complete beginners. They also say it’s just over 8 miles, but if you go all the way to Sausalito then it’s actually 10 and it is pretty hilly. Having said all of that though, I absolutely loved it and couldn’t recommend it enough. The views are absolutely incredible from start to finish and you can also feel very proud of yourself at the end! One mistake I made was not taking enough water with me – even though it wasn’t too hot, it’s pretty windy on the bridge which can make you thirsty. We paid $28 for our bikes – you can pay $8 an hour or $28 for the day but you don’t pay until you get back so you don’t need to guess how long it will take you! I can’t remember the name of the company we used but I think all of the bike companies charge pretty much the same and there are lots of them in the Fishermans Wharf area, where the trail starts. The last ferry back to San Francisco is at around 7pm so make sure that you have time to get there and catch it (you can take bikes on with you and it costs $11 per person and takes half an hour). You can ask the person in the bike hire place for details about the timetable. We missed the last ferry and the next one wasn’t for a long time so we ended up getting a taxi back and were totally conned – the guy said $35 and then added $7 per bike and when we arrived said we had to pay the $7 toll too making our $35 journey $56 in total!
We decided that we had to go and celebrate that night: Emma had had some good news, we had done a tough work out and it was our last night in San Francisco. With all the options in the world we went to… The Cheesecake Factory. Again. It was so close to our hostel though and we were so tired from our day. Also Emma had really wanted a cheesecake on the first day we went but couldn’t manage after the very large main course so she got her cheesecake at last. It was HUGE.
I loved San Francisco and I definitely feel like there’s a lot more to discover there – I didn’t go to Chinatown, see the Sea Lions or ride a cable car – so I will definitely be going back. Apparently September is a nice time to go because the weather is less misty – I will have to do my research properly next time I book a trip!