California dreaming Part 1 (San Francisco)

As someone with a passion for travel, I would always recommend combining the must-see tourist attractions with off-the-beaten-track exploring, particularly when visiting somewhere for the first time. It is wonderful to find that somewhere special that no guide book mentions but equally, seeing what has made a place so famous, is also important in getting under its skin. Here are some of the most common San Francisco tourist traps, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid them.

Golden Gate Bridge

One of the most popular ways to see the bridge is by cycling over it. Bikes are ten a penny at Fisherman’s Wharf and while you can rent them for as long as you like, a nice trip to make is the eight mile ride over to the pretty town of Sausalito on the other side of the bridge. This is a charming place reminiscent of the Cote d’Azur or upmarket Northern French coastal towns like Deauville or Le Touquet, with designer boutiques and pavement cafes. The bike rental companies will explain that you can cycle over and take the ferry back. What they don’t tell you however is the ferry system is a complete shambles! As you arrive in Sausalito, you are advised to go straight to the ferry terminal and pick up a priority boarding token so you can jump the queues when coming back. But because everyone is advised to do that, there aren’t any tokens left and you have to join the normal queue anyway. And because the ferries only go every 30 minutes and the queue is so long, you can be waiting a very long time!

My advice therefore is to cycle both ways – yes it is a 16 mile round trip and be warned there are a few not insignificant hills so it is probably not advisable unless you are quite fit, but it is by far the hassle-free way to enjoy the experience.

Once in Sausalito, there are some lovely shops and cafes, although it is quite touristy in peak season. My friend and I had lunch at The Spinnaker, a slightly outdated restaurant in terms of décor but with a huge range of lovely fresh seafood and panoramic views of San Francisco on the other side of the bay. Sausalito also has a completely different climate to San Francisco which can be only around 16 degrees in August but just over the bridge it can be sunny and hot so even if you have wrapped up in San Francisco, take a change of clothes!

Alcatraz

Everyone is familiar with this infamous prison which hosted some of the US’s most notorious criminals from the 1930s until the last man left in 1963.

Now purely a museum, you can do day tours or for the more adventurous, by night. Included in the $40 entrance fee, you get the 15 minute ferry crossing and an audio guide which is narrated by old prisoners and prison wardens. It really is fascinating learning about the escape attempts, riots and appalling conditions that surely would have deterred anyone from a life of crime. In summer particularly, the tickets for Alcatraz get booked up weeks in advance, so if you know your travel dates make sure you book up early.

Every year you can also take part in the 1.25 mile swim from the prison to the mainland in an organised event, and even children and dogs take part!

Cable cars

Another of San Francisco’s most famous sights and a staple fixture in any movie set here (The Rock and Hitchcock’s The Birds to name a couple), is the world’s last manually operated cable car system. The cable cars hug the roads and seemingly miraculously manage to ascend and descend the steepest of hills, although they are pulled by a cable under the road so there is no real danger of plummeting downwards at breakneck speed! Although predominantly used for tourists, the heart stopping moments come in rush hour, when San Franciscan commuters just jump on and hang off the sides in what looks like a sure-fire road accident waiting to happen.

Although 23 lines were established back in the late 19th century, now only three lines remain, each only a couple of miles in length. At either end is a turn table in the road which is manually turned 180 degrees by the cable car operator so that the car can complete its return journey. Along with being fun to watch how the cable cars change direction, you can get on the cars more easily here as it is the end of the line and further along into town the queues build up at each stop and it is harder to get a space.

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