What to do for a weekend in San Francisco
San Francisco is a place that I longed to go to for such a long time, and when I finally made it there it did not let me down. It now sits firmly among the list of my favourite places I’ve ever been, and I’d love to go back one day!
If you don’t have long, make sure you make the most of your time though. The city is so big, and each of the areas within it have a completely different feeling, so try and get around them as much as you can. The tram system is fab, and it’s great as a tourist being able to hop off and on all over town, but getting around the centre of the city is also very easy by foot if you fancy a bit more exercise or enjoy having a good look around as you go.
I stayed in the Little Italy area, in a great hostel called the Green Tortoise just north of the financial district and Chinatown, and would absolutely recommend it as a base, as everywhere is within easy walking or tram distance of pretty much everywhere! It’s pretty big, and definitely not the smartest place I’ve ever stayed, but for what I needed it for, it was perfect. The dorm rooms had 6-8 bunks, but was quiet so it didn’t matter that bigger than some other hostels. As a solo traveller, I made a few really nice friends there and ended up going on some lovely adventures with them.
As far as I could tell the city is broken down into a number of different zones:
The French area runs between Belden Place, an alley just east of Kearny that runs north from Bush to Pine, where buildings are often wooden fronted and there are some great bars lining the streets. The best time to hit the French Quarter is on Bastille Day when Belden Place is packed with 6000+ people, making this one of the biggest Bastille Day celebrations in the U.S.
The Italian area is a section of the North Beach area, and is filled with beautiful restaurants, bars and stunning churches. From here walk up to Lombard street, which is famous for a steep, one-block section with eight hairpin turns, set between houses on each side. There is a very safe vibe up here, and Coit tower is easy to walk to, giving you a stunning view of the city.
As a Brit I have only ever heard of saltwater Taffy as something in movies, and assumed that it was actually salty.
Near the hostel and on the way to Lombard Street, there is a sweet shop that is literally full of barrels topped up with all the different flavours of Taffy (on Columbus Avenue), and you can try before you buy! Maybe this is an American thing, but I’ve never seen it before or since that you can wander around a sweet shop trying out the sweets before you buy them!
Noted for its role as a center of the 1960s hippie movement, Haight Ashbury is a beautiful area where all of the funky, quirky bohemian kind of shops are, as well as some amazing bars where I had my first taste of and started my life long obsession with fireball whiskey! While the earlier bohemians used to congregate around the North Beach area in the 1950s, many turned to Haight-Ashbury, and since then the area has been synonymous with the Summer of Love (1967) and modern American counterculture (an anti-establishment cultural phenomenon between the 60s and 70s). There is also the perma-waft of weed in the air (which is actually quite pleasant in my opinion!). One of the girls I made friends with during my stay took me to this area and pointed out a guy near us who was talking quietly to himself as he walked along. “He’s selling drugs” she whispered as she nudged me. Amazingly, as we watched, someone sidled up to him, fell into pace beside him, muttered something, money was exchanged and weed passed over. It took no more than 40 seconds and neither of them broke pace or made it look like anything had happened! Very impressive.
While I wouldn’t advocate this if you are on your own, we then wandered further into Golden Gate Park, and came to a stop next to a circle of homeless people who were sat on the grass playing guitar. They said hello and offered for us to join them, so we sat on the grass in the sun and made friends with people that you would normally just walk past, however much of a nice person you are. And they were lovely! Warm, welcoming, chilled out, happy (and quite possibly pretty high haha).
I have learned over the years to grab hold of opportunities that I would usually have shied away from, and this was a great example of why: there are some great people out there, and you often just need to say hi. (As a disclaimer though, if you ever feel even the slightest bit uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to just get up and leave.)
Next up on your whistle-stop weekend tour is the Mission district, famous for its Latin American influence, but also, sadly, it’s homeless population. It’s hard to see sometimes, but also worthwhile taking your tourist trade down there, especially to the numerous restaurants and food trucks selling Mexican food. A woman I made friends with in the hostel dragged me to go see the painted walls in Clarion Alley one day, and I have to admit I was less than enthused. How exciting can a painted wall be after all? Turns out the answer is very. Artists are allowed a section of wall down a number of allies to turn into their canvas, and the results are spectacular. Ranging from beautiful graffiti style, to what you can only call absolute works of art, the opportunity for these people to express and display their work is fantastic. And, happily enough, there is a bar around the corner that does the best burgers, and bottomless mimosas. Trust me, we took on the challenge with gusto and they just kept coming!
Around the corner from Mission district, a short stroll across Dolores Park (an absolute must by the way) is the Castro, San Francisco’s gay district. First of all though I have to digress back to Dolores park. The sun was shining, the sky was brilliant blue, and the park was full of happy smiling people sitting on the grass and enjoying the stunning palm tree lined view over the whole of the city. Taking up our spot on the gentle slope of the park, we were greeted after not too long by what can only be described as captain Jack Sparrow’s twin, with a sack of coconuts slung over his shoulder, a bottle of dark rum hanging from his belt, and a pretty impressive knife. For $5 he lopped off the top of the coconut, filled it to the brim with rum, and plonked a straw in before sauntering casually away. Deee-lish-ous.
The Castro was the part I had been looking forward to the most because of its history as the centre of LGBT activism, and I was more than ready to go get my gay on after a day in the sun! Unfortunately, while it was a great area with some neat bars and a very friendly vibe, there was definitely a male-centred vibe, and so if you’re in search of a women-only scene, don’t get all your hopes set for this one. It’s still worth a night out though, and maybe I just went on the wrong night (I didn’t bother going again another night as it is a long way from where I was staying, and the city is FULL of fab bars to drink in).
I’d definitely recommend reserving one of your evenings for a walk to the Golden Gate Bridge and watch the sun setting while sat on the long stretch of beach there. You can also walk up and over the bridge if the mood takes you, but I had already walked all the way from town and to be perfectly honest, I couldn’t be bothered! How much better does it look from the other side I wonder? Not much is my guess! As the sun sets, the sky gets a breathtaking hazy glow, the orange of the sand seeming to reflect the golden hues of the bridge. Make sure you’ve worked out where the bus stop home is though, as they are pretty sporadic and not that easy to find. If it’s dark already, you might find it a bit tricky, and it’s one hell of a long walk back to the city if you do miss it.
One of my favourite little things that I got to do in the morning was wander through the sprawling farmers market at the Ferry Building Market on Embarcadero. It starts pretty early, but it’s definitely worth spending an hour trying out all the local produce. Oysters the size of your fist, fresh fruit and veg, and all manner of home-made products. Set to a backdrop of the stunning pier, and fronted by a wide palm-tree lined street, along which runs yet another tram, it is truly a great way to start another beautiful day.
If you have more time, I would 100% recommend hiring a campervan/car and driving along Route One. I got to spend three days doing this with a girl I met in the hostel, and although we ran out of time and had to turn around before we hit LA (I think we got as far as Santa Barbara), this is definitely very high up on my to-do list for another visit. And you absolutely must go see the seals and sea lions at Point Lobos State Park. I have seriously never seen so many in one place, and they are hilarious to watch lying and lounging in the sunshine, flicking sand over themselves, fighting and generally being noisy, smelly and awkward.
The winding roads hugging the coast all the way from San Francisco, the stunning sunsets, the golden beaches that are more often than not deserted, and the stunning towns on the way down. If you love camping, this is a must. In the evenings, we simply pulled off the side of the road and ate our dinner watching the sun going down before hitting the hay nice and early, as you tend to be woken up in the morning once the traffic starts moving again. A proper post on this journey coming soon!
And so there you have it: my highlights for a weekend trip to San Francisco. The list is by no means exhaustive, and if we ever get to chat I can tell you a hundred more things that I enjoyed doing there. For now though, I hope this is enough for a starter 🙂