Trip date 8th to 17th January 2011
It had been nearly 15 years since I last set foot in one of my most favorite cities in the world, San Francisco. My journey there across the Atlantic begins with my departure from Heathrow London on United with my travel group towards San Francisco international airport. After some minor delays with a 1 hour extended stay before taking off we are up in the air across the Atlantic towards San Francisco International. The United in-flight entertainment system is really basic with a few delectable channels (no video on demand) But the cabin crew made up for it with an excellent in flight service.
Had a Californian friend pick us up from the airport where he gave me a lift through evening peak hour traffic to the hotel, where we came into terms with the horrible mobile data services brought to you no other than AT&T. Impressions of the hotel (Aida hotel) was very good though. Despite all the bad reviews it got from booking.com where I made my reservation from.
It’s an old budget hotel with very friendly staff, despite the place spotting an old smell constantly looming on the carpets. But it goes away after getting used to it. I guess having stayed in worst backpacker inns make this a walk in the park, unless 5 star comfort is what you are after. The hotel receptionist was exceptionally helpful too, especially on the time when I accidentally locked myself out of my room while using the shared toilets. Anyway, any hotel which serves donuts (their incarnation of continental breakfast) with free flow of tea and coffee 24hours a day goes in my book.
Okay, enough of the hotel for now, lets get on with it. The hotel I stayed is by the union square area, which is well served by the BART transport, F-line trolleys and a short 10 minute walk to the Powell line and shopping district. San Francisco is a rather safe city to be in, despite the number of Hobos all around the streets at night. While most tourists shun these Hobos with outright paranoia as a freak of nature. These guys are a nice for a chat or two on the streets and they are generally not shunned by the public and locals as a whole. I’ve seen few walking right into a Burger king asking for water and ice in a cup and the manager there filled their cups with no questions asked. In the chills of winter they can be seen pushing push carts all round town finding stuff off the streets and huddling close to the exhaust vents of building ventilation systems.
Powell and Civic Plaza Area
My first night there was pretty much integrating myself with the city and getting some supplies and groceries for the week. Public transport around the city uses the contactless Clipper card which you can obtain from nearby convenience stores, particularly WallGreens, as well as picking up some groceries altogether. in addition, you can also obtain them from the vending machines from any major BART stations, like the nearby Powell station in my case.
Food was quite a no brainier, especially when it comes to noms- fast food. From Subway outlets, McDonalds, to Wendys, Burger king for dinner, you name it, I guess its more fast food to come these days, after all this is America. The San Francisco City hall looks rather excellent at night for photographic shots, you should check that out before exploring the areas out of town. Walking from the Powell streets up to the Union square will bring you to one of the main shopping areas of the city. Union square is also usually home to a public ice skating rink throughout the festive season.
Surprisingly the streets are surprisingly safe despite the rowdy environment and hoods on some streets. But I guess looking like a gangster myself helps abit- bit too good when people, especially locals start to turn to you asking for directions especially interesting ones on where get smokes and booze in town. 😛 I Guess maybe because I look quite a thug myself, with a higher chance of people thinking I would mug people on the streets rather than the other way around.
I guess the large Asian population here in the city has something to do with it, everyone here from all ethic origins are all on equal grounds here, Asian, Black or White, and I am surprised to say, San Francisco is still one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. I blended well in the town so well that after a mere few hours upon my arrival, I get foreigners and even tourists coming over to me asking or directions, one guy even came up to me asking me for directions to the nearest liquor store, to purchase drinks and smokes. Go figure!
My third day in the city was spent exploring the Japan and Chinatown part of the city. China town is situated right beside the financial district and is within walking distance from the Powell and Union square area. Just look for the Chinese arch just off Grant street and that’s just the start of it!
This Chinatown is big, but not that big like the one in New York. But like all Chinatowns this one is all buzzing, particularly in the mornings where the stores are just opening and the marketplace crawling with shoppers and grocery bargain hunters. You will see a good mix of American Chinese as well as Caucasians shopping around here for good buys on fruit, vegetables and various produce.
It’s here too, where I recommend you should try the authentic Chinese and Hongkong cuisines. And the food here, particularly the roast duck and wanton noodles do taste like the ones in Singapore and Hongkong alike, complete with fortune cookies to boot. An economical lunch with fried rice and 2 sides for only $4. The iconic TransAmerica pyramid is located here too, just off the Chinatown Portsmouth Square park, which is full of people doing Tai-chi in the mornings too.
Taking the Muni service 30 from Chinatown will bring you right to Fisherman’s Wharf. There is a very strong emphasis on green transport, even all the buses here are electric (running off overhead rails) or at most electric hybird. Pier 39 is located at the edge of the Fisherman’s Wharf district (near the North Beach) and the Embarcadero. The area is also accessible via the historic F Market trolley streetcars.
Walking along Fisheman’s wharf is like a walk back in time, lots of old retro store line the street complete with street stores and performers alike. It’s not long where you will reach Pier 39, one of the wharf area main attractions. Pier 39 was developed by entrepreneur Warren Simmons in 1978 and is a shopping center and popular tourist attraction built on a pier in San Francisco, California. The pier is home to a variety of rather interesting shops and restaurants often with a theme to go with the wharf or pier theme. There is even a left hand store and a huge Willy Wonka candy store to boot, with possibly the largest collection of sweets I’ve ever seen.
Do remember to redeem a free goodie bag at the visitor center when you are there, using the coupon from the official San Francisco pier 39 guide. On the entertainment side, the pier also spots a cool mirror maze, a video arcade, street performances, virtual 3D rides and a cinema. Taking center stage in the main atrium of the pier is a two-story carousel is one of the pier’s more dominant features. This carousel is located towards the end of the pier and is not directly visible from the street. Generally the pier is good place for food and light shopping. It offers a family-oriented fun and entertainment area making this a popular tourist location for families with kids. And the clam chowder here is a must try!
The pier offers some really good views at the end viewing deck. The Alcatraz pretty much flaunts the view from the end of the pier, with Angel Island, the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge on the flanks. The western side decks offer views of lazy California sea lions all decked out on docks of the Pier 39 marina. The marina is also home to the floating Forbes Island restaurant and is too the operating pier of the Blue & Gold Fleet’s bay cruises.
Besides having an awesome Ben and Jerry’s ice cream store, the area just outside the pier is an interpretive center for the Marine Mammal Center, otherwise known as the Aquarium of the Bay as well as the location of the San Francisco Hard Rock Cafe.
Heading out of the pier will bring you back onto the alley ways of the Fisherman’s Wharf. The wharf is essentially a neighborhood and yet, another popular tourist attraction. It stretches and encompasses mainly the northern waterfront area of the city from Ghirardelli Square/Van Ness Avenue east to Pier 35 on Kearny Street. The place being a tourist hotspot has it’s own wax museum, and loads of souvenir stores to boot too, beside the large variety of dining outlets here, including Johnny Rockets, a personal favorite.
Cable Car ride
For $5 a pop, you can board the cable cars along fisherman wharf on the Powell-Mason or the Powell-Hyde line to the union square, depending on your location on the Fisherman’s wharf. The Powell-Hyde lines starts west on the Wharf and runs to Aquatic Park, at the edge of Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Powell-Mason cable car line runs a few blocks away south. If you are going on multiple trips, it’s advisable to get a multiple use a CityPASS or a one day Muni travel pass, you cannot use your Muni Clipper yet on the Cable car as of early 2011.
Moreover, the historical F Market streetcar also runs through the area, good for $2 and are running works of history too, having been running for almost more than a hundred years. The F line brings you east wards along the pier sides to the Embarcadero towards the civic plaza too.
Going on the Powell-Hyde line will bring you along and the top hill of the iconic Lombard Street, otherwise known as the “World’s crookest street”.
It is an east-west street famous for having a steep, one-block section that consists of eight tight hairpin turns connecting the Presidio Boulevard (west end) inside the Presidio and runs east through the Cow Hollow neighborhood and ending at the Embarcadero.
You can choose to walk to Lombard street from the Wharf area and catch the cable car thereafter. The walk to Lombard is about 5 blocks through multiple steep uphills, which San Francisco is popular for. For me, the cable car is more of a novelty item to travel as it’s expensive to go on and does not serve many areas of the city well, well at least not as good as the bus lines which cover more ground.
But nothing beats riding on the cable car hanging on the edge, well literally, blazing through the streets up and down the hills with no safety lines or belts with an occasional head-chopper or a truck along side the road to potentially rip your head or arm off the cable car. It’s on the cable cars with the operators too where you get to understand more of the workings of his engine-less vehicle, which does locomotion by hooking itself to underground cables on the inclines. You can visit the Cable car museum at Washington Street just off Chinatown to know more about these historical vehicles in motion.
I will be covering the cable car museum in my museums blog post of the city in my next article of my bay visit by navigating the links below, with both the De young and Legion of honor as the other museums of interest.
That’s all for main city sights for now, next up, the some notable museums of San Francisco!
- Chilling out in the city of San Francisco (Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf) (Photos: City Album)
- San Francisco Cable Car Museum, Palace of fine arts and Exploratorium
- Up the Twin peaks and the Castro district, San Francisco (Photos: Twin Peaks & Castro)
- Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point (Photos: Golden Gate Bayside)
- Golden Gate Park and Deyoung Museum (Photos: Golden Gate Park & De Young)
- Legion of Honor Museum (Photos: Legion of Honor Album)
- On the Alcatraz (The Rock) (Photos: Alcatraz Album)