My husband had to attend a conference in San Francisco, and luckily I was able to tag along. To make it even better, we added a couple of extra days to the front of the trip so we could visit the northern California wine country. (Click here to see that article.) We finished our last wine tasting and drove to San Francisco with visions of brightly painted row houses on hilly streets in our heads. The company put him up at the San Francisco Hilton, Union Square, which turned out to be a big disappointment (click here to see my review). This hotel is actually located in the Tenderloin—probably the worst area of San Francisco—and I don’t recommend staying there, or in Union Square for that matter. If you want to see pretty row houses, hilly streets, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Golden Gate bridge, the Mission district, Haight Ashbury, etc., stay closer to those sites. (We stopped by a Holiday Inn near Fisherman’s Wharf that looked nice and was well located.) I like to explore cities on foot, and I’ve seen plenty of grit and homeless people, which doesn’t phase me, but the Tenderloin made me downright uneasy at all times. It was full of deranged people walking around, some yelling, one man chasing someone, a guy following me as closely as possible without actually touching me, etc. I’m not talking about an occasional incident, I’m talking lots of scary people popping up all the time. I felt like I was in an episode of The Walking Dead every time we went out. It’s really sad, and a testament to the fact that the way we are handling the homeless crisis in this country is not working. These people are clearly in need of help, and some are dangerous to others. Being left to their own devices doesn’t help anyone… Besides having to watch your back all the time, this area is just plain ugly. Union Square gets a little fancier, but not much, and the problem with the homeless spills over there too. See the photo on the right. No hills, no row houses, no exuberant art. If you’re planning a vacation, don’t stay here. If you’re stuck here on business, stay at the Nikko Hotel, Don’t bother eating at Old Siam, which is just a sort-of-OK Thai restaurant, but read my review of Kin Khao, a Michelin-rated Thai restaurant in the area. I also recommend First Crush for California cuisine (you can read the review here). If you need a little peace and civility after walking on the streets, sit in a big, cushy chair in the Kanpai Lounge at the Nikko and enjoy one of their fine cocktails and excellent service. It is an oasis!
Even though we weren’t thrilled with the hotel or the area where we were staying, and it was raining cats and dogs, we knew San Francisco was a cool town and we were determined to see as much of it as we could in the two days that we had left. We got rid of our rental car as soon as we arrived (I would not want a car here), so we bought a day pass for the cable car and stood in line for the Powell-Mason line. If you’re riding the cable car to see sights, sit in the front seats that are open to the street. It’s the only way to guarantee you’ll be able to see anything. If you sit in the back portion of the car, which is enclosed, you will likely see nothing but the people standing in front of you as the car becomes more and more filled. We intended to take the car to the Wharf, but since we couldn’t see anything, we hopped off once we were within a few blocks of Lombard, so we could walk to this crooked street and watch the cars take the hairpin turns. From there, we walked to Fisherman’s Wharf, where we saw the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Ghirardelli Square, and people swimming in the cold water without wet suits. Eventually we got hungry and ate at McCormick and Kuleto’s overlooking the bay, (click here to read my review), and had coffee and chocolate in the Ghirardelli shop.
Muir Woods National Monument
I had a day on my own, and wanted to take a guided tour of the Mission District, Haight Ashbury, or Alcatraz, but all the group tours I could find were booked days ahead, and the private tours were too expensive. Guided tours are a great way to see a place and actually learn about what you’re seeing. A good guide can really make a place come alive for you, so book your tour way ahead of time. I would also say that you need at least three full days to see San Francisco, and I would recommend setting aside one day for a full-day guided tour. Tours that go inside Alcatraz are especially hard to book at the last minute, so plan ahead. I found an opening on a tour going to Muir Woods and Sausalito, and decided that would be perfect. I booked the tour through A Taste of San Francisco and Beyond, and waited for them to pick me up at the hotel. (Other highly rated tour operators in the area are Dylan’s Tours and Best Bay Area Tours.) We got off to a bit of an odd start as an unmarked vehicle pulled up in front of the hotel and a man got out with a clipboard. He seemed to know what he was doing and who he was waiting for, and he walked by me several times without asking if I might be waiting for the tour. I was expecting a smaller van with a logo, so I didn’t ask him either. Finally, we figured it out, and it was fine after that. I feel terrible that I can’t remember the guide’s name right now, but he gave us a lot of history of San Francisco as we drove through, and as we got closer to Muir Woods, he filled us with interesting details about the redwoods, such as the fact that they can only reproduce by fire. The cones that hold the seeds are so strong, only fire can cause them to break open and release the seeds. Then the seeds tend to create new growth in a circle around the mother tree, so you will often find a charred mother tree surrounded by a circle of daughter trees. Pretty interesting, huh? Also, because the trees naturally repel insects, there are very few birds in the park because there isn’t anything for them to eat. I really appreciated getting this information, as the park service does not allow guides to accompany guests into the park because they want to encourage a quiet atmosphere. Our guide suggested that we walk straight to the end of the paved trail and then onto the dirt path where there are fewer people so we can really appreciate the quiet of the forest.
I love forests. To me a forest is like a sanctuary where I can feel at peace … I can feel really at home in my body and fully connected to nature and the whole Universe. Forests are all a little different—a rainforest feels different from a dry forest—but I love them all. Walking in a forest is a walking meditation, and entering Muir Woods was very special. The forest is majestic, and I wanted to walk in silence and just feel it. There are signs posted throughout the park reminding people to “maintain the quiet” and to not leave the path, and most people were basking in the awe, but there were some groups who were blabbing away, barely noticing the trees, and some people stepping off the path to climb a tree for a photo op. After spending a couple of days surrounded by cement, this was truly a treat and well worth a visit.
My husband and I made a restroom stop in Sausalito on our way to wine country, and I was really enchanted with this pretty little town, so I was thrilled that our tour offered a chance to spend a little more time here. We drove by the floating homes, a community of houseboats, and then the guide gave us only a half hour to get out and walk around on our own. It was a short visit, but some tours offer the option to stay longer and take the ferry back to San Francisco. He suggested that we get ice cream at Lappert’s, but I wanted to walk and take photos. Our guide told us that many people who live in San Francisco go to Sausalito for weekend getaways. Apparently most tourists are gone by 6:00, and it gets really quiet and more locals come out. Even with the tourists, it didn’t seem too busy.
Sausalito is a small town, with homes nestled into green hills with beautiful views of the bay and the city on the other side. In fact, from this view point, San Francisco looked downright magical. There’s a strip of shops and restaurants, a small but beautiful park, and a marina. I was kicking myself for forgetting my real camera (I only had my old iPhone for photos), but I had a lovely walk and would definitely be up for a future visit.
What to Wear
Layers! I often see photos of San Franciscans wearing summer clothes, but it was quite cool and rainy in mid-March. The average year-round temperature is about 65 in the day and 50 at night, so don’t pack like you’re going to L.A. I saw lots of women wearing black tights and boots at this time of year, and both men and women wore jeans. Locals had a cool, city-vibe. The western part of the city is colder and foggier than the eastern part, where you might see more sun. Bring your raincoat and comfortable shoes for walking the city streets. I did not see many, if any, women teetering around in high heels.
There are plenty of yoga and barre studios in San Francisco, and most of the major hotels have gyms, but walking up a few of those hills every day will keep you pretty fit as well.