Driving holidays in and around California often start and finish at Los Angeles or Las Vegas, but leaving San Francisco out of the equation is something that should be avoided.
It’s a lengthy drive up the coast from L.A. to San Fran and the weather often takes a turn for the worse, but some of the best things of the classic west-coast US trip can take place in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Here are my top tips to get the most out of a couple of days in San Francisco.
- Base yourself at Fisherman’s Wharf. Hotel prices anywhere in S.F. are through the roof wherever you choose to stay, but it’s worth forking out a little extra for the fabulous location next to the Bay. When you book, make sure you have a deal you can cancel at the last minute and then check prices again a day or two before you travel – prices sometimes fall quite a bit if the hotels aren’t full. And don’t forget to visit Pier 39 to see the sea lions that came to live here following the earthquake in 1989.
- Take the cable car from Fisherman’s Wharf and go all the way – and all the way back. There’s nothing quite like the old cable cars going up and down the famous hills of San Francisco and it’s an experience to cherish. Be prepared to queue up to get a spot on a car, and maybe hang on for the next car so you can literally hang on and stand on the outside. It’s quite hard work and takes its toll on your knees, but what a fabulous opportunity – always go on the outside if you can! You’ll need to queue for your tickets and then queue for a place in the car. If you’ve got more than one person in your party, it’s a good plan to get somebody in the queue for the cars at the same time as you’re queuing for tickets.
- When in San Fran… you’ve got to try the local dishes. Walk along the front of Fisherman’s Wharf and you’re bound to be enchanted by the smell of the French bakery. Pop inside here for a reasonably priced lunch of clam chowder. It’s a local favourite and is served here like nowhere else – in a bowl made of bread. You eat the chowder, soak it up with some bread and then literally eat the dish it’s been served in. If seafood is not for you, there are alternatives served in the same way.
- Cross Golden Gate Bridge. Drive across it, walk across it, hire a bike and pedal across it. However you do it, go all the way and take in the fabulous views of this iconic structure that has been destroyed so many times in movies like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, X-Men Apocalypse and San Andreas. Ok, maybe save that last one until you get back if you’re a nervous traveller. If you’re driving, there’s a toll to pay when you come back from the south and it needs to be coughed up online. Be sure to drive down twisty-turny on the way back Lombard Street if you have hired a car. And it’s well worth using the hire car to motor an hour north to see the giant redwoods of Muir Woods.
- Visit Alcatraz – it’s a must. But be aware that you can’t simply rock up to the rock and expect to get in. If you walk to the pier taking boats to Alcatraz you’re likely see a sign saying that the next available tour is in a few days. If you haven’t got a long time in San Francisco that could be unwelcome news, so make sure you’re online booking your visit 90 days in advance when they become available. The trip itself is fascinating. The audio tour around the prison is wonderful in itself, and there are many other features of the island to enjoy. Allow at least half a day to get the most out of it.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in San Francisco, felt safe throughout and wouldn’t hesitate to go back if I had the chance. Yes, there are homelessness problems in some areas, like in many major cities, but San Francisco is on the whole a clean, welcoming city. From my experience, it’s one of the finest places for a tourist to visit in the whole of the United States.