Early in September I happened to spend a week in San Francisco for business. Even before leaving I knew that it was going to be five hectic days, with 12-hour long shifts that would have allowed me to see very little and that I should have made the best of the one day I had to see the town.
I think I did it and San Francisco in a day is possible, just like Florence.
The following tips will better fit those who, like me, when traveling toward west struggle with the jet-lag and the first morning wake up at 4. I thought I had got over it last July when I flew to JFK, got there at 5pm, managed to stay up until 11pm and woke up the following morning at 9, fresh and rested. Things went quite differently this time and after an 18-hour journey, started at 7.45am at Heathrow, a connection in Chicago, I finally landed at 4pm local time but I couldn’t go any further than 8pm, when my body was yelling at me that it was actually 4am of the following day!
Our city-tour will then start early in the morning, when tourists are still asleep and a thick layer of fog covers the top of the Transamerica Pyramid, the pointed skyscraper of San Francisco, and the highest steeples of the Bay Bridge. You’ll find that this is one of the most spectacular attractions of the city that happens every morning and at least until 10 you won’t know whether the world still exists beyond the bay or San Francisco is the only place left on earth.
What I personally did find the biggest attraction of the city and which made such an early-bird morning worth it, was discovering a colony of sea lions living freely at peer 39. I didn’t exactly know what I was looking for: I had read about the cetaceans living in the area but I didn’t know whether that happened in given periods or all-year round. After a bit of wandering among a deserted Fisherman’s Wharf (which is itself quite suggestive on a early, foggy morning with no living soul around), the off-key and asynchronous choir arrived to my ears as sudden as a bolt: peer 39 is where some fifty sea lions sleep,nap, play, swim, yawn, fight and make love on a bunch of floating pallets.
After some pictures taken and some time spent with the marine mammals (a good half an hour in my case), we’re ready for breakfast.
American pancakes with blueberries, strawberries, bananas and real maple syrup is what I had in mind. A quick Internet search carried out the night before among the blogs of previous visitors had brought to my attention Mama’s, on 1701 Stockton street, a place famous for its abundant breakfasts. The same Lonely Planet guide made no mention of it, which let me think of a place for locals more than for European and Asiatic tourists. Despite the early time for a Sunday, at 8 at least thirty people were already queuing outside. Waiting more than 15 minutes to be sited is something I’d never imagine doing, standing in line outside on the pavement is even against my principles, but the only presence of Americans got me curious and after about 30-minute wait (interesting for who, like me, finds the conversations of the natives a way to better understand the culture), I got a table. If you’re there alone you are likely to be asked if you want to share the table with another lone soul: I honestly suggest doing so and try to make the best out of such experience. My meal-mate that morning happened to be Melissa, architect from Chicago often visiting San Francisco for work, who loves traveling in Europe and with whom I exchanged few suggestions on each other’s country (two countries in my case).
Mama’s offers a wide range of options on its menu even for vegetarians. I went for a sweet breakfast with American pancakes, blueberries, bananas, strawberries and smoothie with mango and orange, but next time I will try Mama’s eggs with potatoes and mushrooms. Moreover, the long wait and the stroll to get up the hill makes the meal even more enjoyable and guilt-free.
From Mama’s you can walk to two of the attractions that all the guides suggest: the Coit Tower on the top of Telegraph Hill and Lombard street, a long road which for a section turns tightly few times on the side of the hill, unmissable for all the lovers of selfies with important backgrounds. Hoping in a panorama that would allow me to take good shots, I chose Coit Tower over Lombard street, just 10-minute walk from Mama’s, although I didn’t pay for a ticket to get on top of the tower. From the highest point of Telegraph Hill you will get a gorgeous view on both the Bay and Alcatraz island and on the Financial District.
If you are still feeling sleepy for the early-bird start of the day or stuffed for the breakfast, try to walk down the 470 steps along the side of Telegraph Hill, that’d certainly help. The stair path makes its way among narrow alleys and private gardens hidden from the main roads. For those who love observing the local people and the way they live everyday, the stroll among the back of San Francisco’s houses will be a good addition to your cultural explorations. Don’t forget to cast a glance at the sky (but always watch your step!) because families of parrots live in the area. The staircase will lead you on Sansome Street: once there, cross Levi’s square (on your right the Levi’s HQ in San Francisco with an inside-store), walk beyond Battery street and get to the Embarcadero, at Peer 23.
The next destination deserves a bit of brief history notions. Between the 60’s and the 70’s San Francisco happened to be the cradle of some of the revolutions that started off a resounding eco across nations: the demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, the students riots in 1968 and, last but not least, the battles for the rights of homosexuals, started here in the area called Castro, today one of the most famous gay quarters in the world and that contributed to make San Francisco one of the most gay-friendly city on earth. You can reach Castro street from the Embarcadero with the tram F: this way you will include in your visit a ride on the famous electric trolleys of the city, so similar to the ones that you might find in Rome or Milan.
The ride from The Embarcadero up the hill on Market sreet lasts about 20 minutes and will give you the chance to take note of the shops on the way in case you will have time and money left for some intelligent American shopping (Levi’s, Converse, Apple). Castro street opens with the Twin Peaks, the first gay bar to have windows on the road. The walks continues with the Hot Cookies, a bakery where you will find extravagant-shaped biscuits and then the Castro Theater, already seen in the movie Milk with Sean Penn. The theatre offers also alternative afternoon shows, like Mary Poppins – sing along: join the audience singing along with Julie Andrews on the notes of A Spoonful of Sugar. You don’t remember the words? Never mind: just follow the lyric on the screen!
Right now we should be halfway through the morning, too early for lunch but hungry enough for a nibble. When I travel I usually have a light meal in place of a proper lunch, which I like to leave for the evening. Walking through the side-roads of Castro street I chanced upon H Caffè, 3801 17th street, where you could get a tea or a coffee and a quick sandwich, sitting outside and using their free WiFi to update your Facebook page with a check-in of the area (roaming charges can be quite expensive when traveling abroad). For the lovers of the dancing nights, Castro gives a wide range of possibilities (the fag hags I know would love!) but one day is all I had and the working week didn’t give me the chance to test the San Francisco by night myself.
If there is a must-do thing when in San Francisco, cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge is the thing. Despite many parts of the town are not what you would call cycle-friendly (unless you have the calves of Fausto Coppi and are used ride a bike across the Maiella), you’ll find quite few places where to rent a bike for the day, either from one of the kiosks, a bit more expensive but that for about $25 a day will get you a good mountain bike, a helmet and a lock, or from one of the self-service stations where for $9 a day you will get a heavier bike, no helmet, no lock but you will be free to drop it at any other stations in town. I opted for a better bike and for a helmet and I suggest the same to whoever wants to follow the itinerary. Moreover, for few bucks more you will be able to leave your bike in a different kiosks of the same chain. We will rent our bike at San Francisco Bicycle Rentals, just on the edge of the Golden Gate Park, on Haight Street. To get there, you can either walk (a good half an hour-walk) or you can take two buses which will take you at destination in about 20 minutes, find the route here. The way to get to the bridge will take you about 30 minutes, but it’s a pleasant ride through the Golden Gate Park and the Presidio to the other side, where the bridge starts. The Presidio is a green area of San Francisco, used as military fortress for a couple of centuries until 1989.
They say the bridge is a masterpiece of engineering from the beginning of the 20th century and it is for sure. Personally, I remembered it from many movies and TV shows, the last being X-Men 3, showed on TV few nights before leaving, where Magneto uses his powers to lift the whole bridge and drag it to the near island of Alcatraz. Two side-lanes go along the bridge, one for pedestrians, on the Bay side, and one for cyclists, on the ocean side. Be careful if you decide to stop to take pictures, the lane is narrow and the bikers speed. If a jump is what you have in mind instead, try the support line first.
Once on the other side of the bridge you can leave your bike on the rack (I hope you have a lock) and use the underway to get to Vista Point, on the other side of the bridge, which faces the Bay and from where you will be able to enjoy a beautiful view of the city. After the long ride I was hoping for a coffee bar or a place where to get a refreshing drink but all that Vista Point has to offer, apart a breath-taking panorama, is lavatories and a drinking-fountain.
You’ve got two choices: crossing the bridge back, cycling along the cost to peer 1 and stopping for a visit at Fisherman’s Wharf along the way or ride down the hill on the side where you left the bike (it’s fun down the slope) and reach the near Sausalito where you will get a ferry back to town. Total cost $9, length of the journey about 15 minutes. If it’s not cold, you can even sit outside on the deck and enjoy the view. Sausalito is a lovely sea town where you could eat something in one of the many restaurants on the cost or just take a stroll before heading back to San Francisco. To those less used to the bike: both ways (the one via Sausalito is shorter) have few slopes which you might find steep. If you feel you cannot make it, just dismount and push your bike.
A couple of notes on San Francisco and its inhabitants:
The city is extremely green, they pay big attention to recycling and saving energy. Let’s try to respect this healthy habit and do the same, at least for the time we will get to spend there. You will notice in the hotels, in the shopping malls as well as in the streets more than a bin for your garbage: usually two will be for paper, plastic and glass and one for compost. Use this one for your leftovers.
You will find Californians to be cheerful people and open to welcome who comes from abroad: it’s a good manner to greet your companions on the elevator (if you don’t do so, they will for you) and you will certainly be asked if you need help when looking lost while you try to understand which way GoogleMap is suggesting to get where you want to go. Don’t be shy and just throw yourselves in as many conversations as you can. Believe me: you will get back home with much more than a pair of new Levi’s and 3GB of photos