Going back to California: San Francisco

After two days in Silicon Valley I transferred up to San Francisco. My stop in the city was a short one – a whole day Saturday, plus half of Friday and some time on Sunday before heading to the airport – so it was bound to be a case of picking a few things to check out rather than an exhaustive tour of the area. So what did I learn? Well..

Take walking shoes

I like walking, and I’ve always thought walking around a city as far as you can manage in a day is a good way to get a feel for it – I’ve tried this in just about every place I’ve visited over the years.

In San Francisco I arrived at 1pm, so carved a path down Nob Hill, through Market Street to the Ferry Building, up to the Coit Tower, down to Fisherman’s Wharf, along the coast to Golden Gate Park, South to Haight/Ashbury and then back via Isotope Comics on Fell St. Coit Tower gives you a nice view over the city – here’s looking towards the Ferry building:

Looking South-East

.. and in the West I passed the splendidly mad Palace of Fine Arts, sadly surrounded by chain-link fence and signs soliciting donations to help save it:

Palace of Fine Arts

The whole circuit, including long stops at various museums, restaurants and, er, to buy comic books, only took the afternoon, but it took in some pretty lengthy hills – especially ascending to Coit Tower from the East, and coming up North towards Haight from the shore. If I’d been wearing fancy shoes instead of a pair of battered New Balance my feet would have died.

You also get to stumble across interesting stuff that you wouldn’t otherwise find, from huge signs:

Congratulations Class of 2010

to tiny ones:


Four wheels bad, two wheels good

I’d heard that it was easy to rent a bike in San Francisco – and having visited I can confirm that it’d be hard *not* to rent a bike in San Francisco. The tourist-trap that is Fisherman’s Wharf (more later) is covered in huge bike rental stands with young men and women hollering for customers to BIKE THE BRIIIDGE in a way that seems likely only to put you off the idea.

Anyhow, on the second day – with the fog burning off and a few hours to kill – I picked up this Marin bike for $8 per hour. The brakes were a bit loose and the handlebars needed straightening (I got a few odd looks doing that), but hey – $8 per hour! Bargainous.

Four wheels good, two wheels ouch

The journey to Golden Gate Park is easy thanks to a long cycle path that covers most of it, and heading across the bridge to Sausalito is a really easy ride – if you’ve ever ridden for more than an hour or so there are no hills that’ll trouble you, and there are several lovely views. It surely beats the alternatives:

New car, old car

.. and even if you have no intention of crossing the bridge it’s far quicker to ride to Golden Gate Park than to walk. Having left San Francisco rather late at 3pm I caught one of the last ferries of the day back across around the bay around two hours later to return the bike before its 7pm deadline, but if you set out in the morning you could explore far further around the headland and back.

Do go across the Golden Gate Bridge

There is, as you may have heard, a lot of fog in San Francisco. Quite often this completely obscures the Golden Gate Bridge – here’s the view from around ten minutes before I crossed it:


And yet when on the bridge: sunshine!

Golden Gate Bridge

The fog was still there of course, being whipped around the towers by the wind:

Fog swirling

.. and it was pretty chilly, but the views were fantastic nonetheless. There’s a scenic view point on the far side – if you cross on the West side of the bridge there’s a path underneath (with steps – you’ll need to be able to carry a bike comfortably to use it). In summer I’d recommend attempting to cross even if the fog does look a bit grim – just take suitable clothes for cold/wet weather.

Skirt around the tourist traps..

Fisherman’s Wharf is, at dusk, kindof pretty:

Dusk at the wharf

.. and great for fans of illuminated signage:

Fisherman's Wharf

By day, though, it’s a bit of a dump – aside from the bike rental shops and a branch of In-N-Out burger there’s not much that I’d want to see again, with piers dominated by craptastic novelty shops (including one selling pseudo-spiritual tat called “Enlightenment” – my irony gland committed suicide on the spot).

Similarly, here’s Haight / Ashbury:

Haight / Ashbury

Yes, the corner is now what must surely be the world’s most-photographed Ben & Jerry’s. The only thing I’d recommend around there is a branch of KidRobot on Haight.

.. but do cross to Alcatraz

Besides crossing the bridge, the one really touristy thing I would recommend is visiting Alcatraz. I wasn’t too interested in the idea of visiting the prison (reason 1: it’s a prison, reason 2: it uses the dreaded audio tours) but bought a ticket because I thought the island and ferry crossing might be pretty.

As it turns out I was right on the pretty bit and wrong on the prison. You can cross every half-hour or so on one of these:

Alcatraz Cruises

from which you get a great view of the island (notice how sunny it was by the time we were arriving – that’s not Photoshop):

Alcatraz Island

and then you get as much time as you like to explore the island, which is now mostly a bird sanctuary, and the surprisingly small prison block:

Inside Alcatraz

Even the audio tour, narrated by a number of ex-guards and convicts, is interesting, and I was intrigued by the many signs of the Indian Occupation, about which I knew pretty much nothing at all:

Indians Welcome, Alcatraz

All in all, I’d thoroughly recommend it. Book in advance, though – the day I crossed most of the boats were filled up.

.. and do see the Museums

On Sunday I had only a few hours before heading for the airport, so I visited the museums around Market Street. If you’re interested in photography, and documantary photography in particular, SFMOMA is unmissable. It also had some later Roy Lichtenstein works on show, and a rather lovely atrium:

SF Museum of Modern Art

Around the corner the Museum of Cartoon Art is also brilliant – when I visited it was dominated by an exhibition on Beetle Bailey (meh), but also included the original copies of the first Japanese Batman comic (bonus fact: in Japanese, Batman likes to use the expression われわれ! quite a bit, just like Kyon) and an amazing collection of feature strips from the golden era of newspaper cartoons – including an original Peanuts strip in its huge A3 original format. There’s also a section dedicated to small press comics and a great bookshop – this, together with my visit to Isotope, turned out to be rather expensive for me.

Also interesting was the San Francisco Fire Department Museum, which is chock full of old hand- and steam-powered engines, photos and bits and bobs. Here’s the front of one of the oldest engines there:


Pop in, gawk at the stuff, make a donation. It’s worth the trip, and the Swedenborgian Church is just a few blocks away.

Eat at In-N-Out

This is an In-N-Out Double Double meal. Costs about £4:

In-N-Out Double Double Meal

Depressingly, its is better than any burger you’ll find anywhere in the UK. Ever. And here’s the secret menu. You’re welcome.

Don’t queue for the cable cars

Three of the old cable car routes are still running, more as a tourist attraction than any kind of useful public transport (for those see the BART and MUNI services, which are comprehensive). With only three lines there are a handful of terminus stations, and each one normally has a massive queue. It’s certainly worth riding the cable car at least once – if you’re standing on the side there’s a great view:

Cable Car View

.. but I found that jumping on at one of the many intermediary stops meant far less waiting around – just pick one a few stops into the line so somebody will have left the car to make room for you. Tickets are $5 a ride.

Drink the local beer

California is home to some great beers – Sierra Nevada, for example – and San Francisco has its own in the shape of Anchor Steam. Both are fantastic and available everywhere, and there are some other, smaller brews too (I quite liked Fat Tyre). If you like beer, it’s a great place to sample loads. Apparently the Anchor Steam brewery runs tours, but these must be booked ages in advance. Also, if you’re under, say, 35, then be sure to carry ID.

And finally, go visit

Alcatraz under the fog

And that’s about it. I brought my heart back to London, arteries slightly fuzzier than before thanks to the Double Double, but San Francisco certainly is a great place, and a far better city to explore on foot than, say, San Diego. If you’re on a longer trip or tight budget you can see a few great parts of San Francisco in a few days, but a week would give you time to look around properly.

All © 2022 Tom Royal