San Francisco city (commonly called SFO) is the crown jewel of tourist destinations in America. This beautiful city sits on the western coast, in the “Bay Area”, and is popular for its cobbled streets, artful galleries, 150 year old tram network that still works as brilliantly and the ever inspiring, towering Golden Gate bridge. It has inspired many an artist, designers and philosophers. A forward looking, progressive and liberal city, SFO is a sought after destination for many.
San Francisco attracts in excess of 18 Million visitors from other places as tourist, and close to 20% of those are international tourists. My first visit to SFO happened around a decade ago, i.e. in 2004. If I remember correctly, it was in February and the chill got the better of me. Over the next decade, I made 6-7 trips to SFO and here is a concise Ghumakkar Guide on making the best out of your trip to SFO. While most of this guide is based on my personal experiences, I would be liberally borrowing from the other travel experiences from SFO that we have published at Ghumakkar. We have kept it short and a under 10 minute read. So lets get started.
How to Reach
If you want to reach by surface, then there are various ways and means to reach SFO. Interestingly you can also go to SFO via water, and it could be a special fun watching this Bay city as you anchor your boat for a great stay thereafter. But if you are like me and would need to fly-in then there is no dearth of flights. Our personal favourite and recommended carrier had been ‘Emirates’. I had had great experience on other good airlines Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, British Airways and others as well, but for last few years, at least for San Francisco flights, I have been sticking to Emirates and it has been working very well, especially when you are travelling with children. My daughter loves the way they pamper all the kids each time and is looking forward to what’s-next in the long 18-hr flight. The crew even roam around with Polaroid cameras clicking pictures of children to carry as souvenirs, right in the aircraft!
For its tourism as well as business importance, San Francisco Airport is one of the busiest airports of North America. Busy and buzzing.
Best time to go
San Francisco offers a unique weather surprise – the ‘Summer Fog’. Since it is a bay city, mornings and evenings can be very chilly and windy. The warm months are June-Sep whereas Dec-March are colder. For Indian travelers who are more comfortable with the warmer climate, June to September are the best months. For European travellers, I would recommend that between Mar-May and Oct-Nov is a better time to visit. Usually the day highs do not go beyond 75ºF/24ºC and low 50ºF/10ºC, around this time.
You can check the most recent weather updates and forecast – http://weather.yahoo.com/united-states/california/san-francisco-2487956/
While I always felt cold there, especially in the close vicinity of the bay at “Fisherman’s Wharf’ or in the late evenings, it felt much better to know that Mark Twain probably said that “the coldest winter I ever spent was the summer in San Francisco”.
Moving around locally
SFO is very well connected by the SF Municipal Railway or Muni , as it is locally called. It is the most inexpensive mode of transport and they have daily (USD 14), 3-day (USD 22), Weekly (USD 28) passes, which also work on Cable Cars. You must do a ‘Cable Car’ ride at least a couple of times, and at least once by hanging on the boards.
And you must do a lot of walking. You would love those always ascending and always descending streets, it is almost unbelievable to see heavy traffic moving re-assuredly on those inclines and declines. The only thing to remember while walking is the ‘Cross Streets’ and the local lingo is to refer the location of a place by mentioning both the streets which cross closest to the place. For example, you would ask where is ‘Market and 5th’, Market Street and 5th Street are two separate streets. Market Street is like their artery.
Muni and the walk should take care of your in-city commute. Taxis are expensive (and unreliable and difficult to get unless you are at the Union Square or something). Be watchful of the streets after dark.
Ghumakkar Picks – Things to do
1. Take the ‘Cable Car’ and hang on the running board – When in SFO, do what the tourists do. But remember that the roads go up and down all the time so be safe. These iconic, 125 year old, perhaps the only existing manually operated Cable Cars run on three lines. So grab a step. Often there is queue at Powell (the starting station) so it is recommended to walk down a couple of blocks to the next stop and you might find no one there. You can buy tickets on board. Unbelievably enough, in our case, when we got off and realized that no one has asked us for money, we reached out to the ticket guy and tried to pay, well he didn’t charge anything and signalled us to ignore and go. So it was a free ride for us.
For the curious in you, here is everything about the ‘Cable Car’, from history to its mechanics. It is fun to read.
2. Fisherman’s Wharf including Ghirardelli Square (watch those shows, walk around, eat the variety of food, watch the sea-lions, spend an afternoon to evening).
Fisherman’s Wharf is a true blue tourist joint, often called by many as a ‘tourist trap’ but I have always liked the energy at this place. To start with, spend some time at Ghirardelli square where the original factory used to be, and don’t forget to have those free samples of the world-famous chocolate. On a cold weather day, you would find a huge fire-place in open and you can have a relaxing coffee or hot chocolate to give you a good company. Once done, head all the way to Pier 39 and watch the “Sea Lions” on those old wooden decks. One can keep gazing at these big creatures for ever. Sample some fresh breads at Boudin Sourdough Bakery & Cafe. Follow this with two rounds of the whole place and you would be amazed by the sheer color and vibrance, from the souvenir shops to street performances, to museums, the rides and swings, to food kiosks and of course a lot of tourists. On a good day, one can easily spend an entire evening at the Fisherman’s Wharf. And finally when you have nothing else left to explore then head to Alcatraz.
Here is a useful resource – http://www.fishermanswharf.org
3. Take the HOHO (Hop On Hop Off) bus – This helps you to get the overall topology of the city and also to watch the city in fast-forward mode. Each run is not more than an hour and there are various routes. We bought the pass that lasted for 48 hours and we could take as many of the four routes, any number of times. If you are with kids, elderly people then it is hard to walk and these buses can be a guide book with open-roof traveling.
There are many providers but we took this one – http://www.city-sightseeing.us/index.html and they were good. Interestingly we found the same folks in Amsterdam as well.
4. Golden Gate Bridge and Park – This is a must. My recommendation is that you make at least two visits to this place, one during sunlight and one when it gets dark. I am just leaving a link here hoping that I do not need to tell you more of this place. We did go multiple times and liked it every single time. – http://goldengatebridge.org/visitors/
5. China Town – Long walk on Powell if you are keen on walking else just be around, have some tea or dimsum. It is not like being in Beijing (howsoever your guide may insist, from my limited experience of travelling in Beijing) but you would love the smell and the feel of the place.
6. Exploratarium – http://www.exploratorium.edu
This was something that we were recommended and intended to do but could not. As per the website, The Exploratorium is a twenty-first-century learning laboratory, an eye-opening, always-changing, playful place to explore and tinker.
7. And finally, soak some Sun at Union Square and watch the world go by while your better half shops at the huge Macy’s, the flagship Levi’s store and many other small and big brand stores.
To add to my brief list, here are a couple of stories from our stable, leave a comment on those if you have a specific question about it.
“Once we got off the ferry we were greeted by Ranger guides who have been serving the island as long as 25 years. It was interesting to just listen to their experiences on the Island. Guided tours and times vary daily so once you arrive on the deck check out their program schedule. We got the “Escapes from Alcatraz” guided tour and boy oh boy my 8 eight year olds imagination was as its peak after listening to all stories which our guide had to share
All about Pier 39 By Vibha– http://www.ghumakkar.com/san-francisco-pier-39/
There is an amazing array of shops, restaurants, cafes, and amusement options on both the sides of the walk on Pier 39. There is a Hard Rock Cafe right at the entrance and there is an aquarium where you can watch sharks, octopus, Jelly Fish etc up close. If you want to shop, the place offers a good variety but it is much more expensive than the regular Target stores though the stuff is almost the same. You can, however, purchase some momentos such as keychains, Fridge Magnets, Caps, etc. I got a sea lion stuffed toy and a crab stuffed toy for my nephew which I am sure I wouldn’t find easily in Target stores or any other malls.
We intend to do more of these in coming times. So head for SFO via Emirates, in the warmer months of June/July, move around by HOHO, Muni and by walking around, do go to Golden Gate, China Town, Pier 39 and the likes and finally when you come back, share your experience and tips for other travellers.
So that was my quick under 10-minute read guide of SFO. Hope you find it useful.