Posted on November 10, 2015
San Francisco and the Bay Area
Visiting San Francisco and the Bay Area
Part of me truly believes I was meant to live in California. I know it’s a common expression, but if so many people believe it, there must be some truth to it. Near the end of our six-week road trip, we spent four days in San Francisco and got a healthy dose of Northern California culture.
One of my most favourite – if not my absolute favourite – film of all-time was filmed in San Francisco: Big Trouble In Little China. And ever since I first saw Kurt Russell drive his big rig over the Golden Gate Bridge in the pouring rain, I knew it was a city I needed to visit. Because we planned to return to Canada via Highway 101, it only made sense to make a long stop in the Bay Area and experience Northern California for ourselves.
In researching our visit, I found that hotels were generally very expensive in San Francisco. Instead I found us a garden suite vacation rental in the Inner Sunset neighbourhood. This suited me just fine because my travel style is more “blend in with the locals” rather than “stand out like an obvious tourist.”
We were a short streetcar ride away from the downtown core, but far enough away that the streets were quiet at night and the neighbourhood felt extremely local-centric. We’d start each day by walking a block or two to the local coffee shop before grabbing the streetcar downtown. Peasant Pies was a noteworthy neighbourhood favourite. (Tip: with a single cable car ride setting you back $7, pick up a 3-day unlimited transit pass for only $26. It’ll pay for itself in no time!)
When friends of ours, Ashley and Mike, discovered that we planned on being in San Francisco at the end of July, they booked tickets and flew down from Calgary to join us. On our first day in the city, we met up with them at Mama’s restaurant at Washington Square. San Francisco was unusually hot that day, and after a long, long, long wait on the street, we were finally treated to one of the city’s most famous breakfast experiences.
San Francisco is a city of hills, so from there we trekked east (and up!) to the Coit Tower overlooking the city. Sweeping views in almost every direction gave us a sense of direction, so we continued east (but this time down!) to the Embarcadero. This lively stretch along the city’s waterfront eventually led us to Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, ground zero for tourist activity.
We visited with lazy sea lions, chowed down on world famous sourdough bread from the Boudin Bakery, wove in and out of souvenir shops and soaked in the delicious California sunshine. It’s amazing how quickly a day can go by when you’re not doing much in particular at all. Before we knew it, it was time to part ways with Mike and Ashley and say goodbye. They had more they wanted to see and do in California, so we were on our own from then on.
Instead of heading back to our rental, we popped into the Blue Mermaid Chowder House for a bowl of their award-winning Corn & Crab Chowder. It’s a must!
The following morning, a thick fog permeated our vacation rental’s backyard. It was an eerily perfect morning to visit Alcatraz Island and explore San Francisco’s most infamous landmark. (Tip: book your tickets weeks, if not months, in advance. The tours fill up in the summertime.) Alcatraz can fill a blog post all on its own, so look for that within the next week.
By the time we returned downtown from Alcatraz Island, the day was barely half over and we had a lot more exploring to do. J and I grabbed a cable car and made our way south to Chinatown. The largest Chinatown in North America, San Francisco’s was established in 1848 and has most certainly stood the test of time (and seismic activity).
It was an exciting opportunity for me to scout all the locations where Big Trouble In Little China was filmed while soaking in the charismatic and colourful sights. We wandered north to south and darted in and out of interesting shops. I was lured by different scents and fabrics and sounds coming from all directions. San Francisco’s Chinatown is very unlike its counterpart at my home in Vancouver in that it feels as if it has a life of its own separate from the city.
Like most days on our trip, we spent a great deal of time walking that day. We were grateful for a sweet treat at La Boulange (now known as La Boulangerie) before ducking into an air conditioned movie theatre. Sitting in front of the big screen caused us to work up an appetite, so we returned to Chinatown that evening and sought out House of Nanking on Tony‘s recommendation. In a word: “Wow!” This restaurant blew us away with its inventive and fresh dishes with a totally unique take on traditional Chinese cuisine. In fact, I’m salivating just recalling it for you!
With only one more day left in the city, we wanted to see San Francisco in a big way. Arriving in the Haight-Ashbury district, we found a reputable bike rental shop – Golden Gate Park Bike Rental – that would let us return our bikes later in the day at Fisherman’s Wharf. The plan was to ride across the bridge to Sausalito, but I couldn’t do it before seeing The Painted Ladies for myself. After our brief detour, we rode west through Golden Gate Park and past a paddock of bison (yes, really!) until we reached the Great Highway.
A bit of winding, weaving, and wheezing finally found us at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Not surprisingly, the bridge was largely congested with pedestrians and other cyclists, but the pathways are clear enough that a ride over the bridge is simple. Within less than 20 minutes we were coasting into the seaside town of Sausalito, just in time to enjoy some late afternoon sun before taking the ferry back across the bay.
By that point, we had already put close to 20 miles on our bikes, and were so glad to be able to drop them off at the waterfront. Our appetites were understandably huge and I wanted desperately to carb load for our last night in San Francisco. Little did I know, the city is home to a Little Italy neighbourhood. My husband and I grabbed a bistro table on the sidewalk outside Michelangelo Caffe and scarfed down on Margarita pizza (my favourite!) and house wine. Not yet satiated, we walked up the street for some gelato. “When in Rome,” right? Or is that “When in Little Italy?”
A beacon on the ocean that is rich with history, saturated with culture, and abundant in incredible food, San Francisco is one of those can’t-miss travel experiences. I wouldn’t know where to begin to choose my favourite memory of this city. I was so thankful that we had the time we did, and can’t wait to return again. There’s so much more I want to explore and a few places I definitely need to go back to. I’m looking at you, House of Nanking.