first touring around SF area
DURING MY THIRD VISIT to the US last 2006 summer, I was able to stay longer (for almost 4 weeks) and visited some part of California State. San Francisco is one of them for the very first time.
A month prior to my departure from Britain, I contacted my friend working in San Francisco with an IT firm if I could stay at his place during my short visit. Being a close friend and the godfather of his only daughter, he did not hesitate to answer ‘yes’ to my request. So, my accommodation for few days at the city is completely ok except that I will be travelling from my cousin’s place in Menifee (one hour away from San Diego by car) to Los Angeles, and then finally from San Fernando Valley to SF.
To save some dollars during my trip, I decided to travel by bus (Greyhound) which took me more than 10 hours along the road, having a two-day stop in San Fernando Valley (LA) and had a quick visit to the Universal Studios. Well, within that long journey it took the bus more than 6 hours to reach SF from San Fernando Valley. But it was a quick journey from the bus station to my friend’s apartment in the downtown area using the city underground Muni Metro (light rail) train.
After an hour of chatting/exchanging stories with my friend of not seeing each other for almost 6 years, my ultimate mission to experience San Francisco’s hospitality and its tourists-friendly environment begins!
DiningFrom my friend’s apartment, it was a few walks to the light rail station and we stopped at the Powell Station where we could catch up with the streetcar going to the Fisherman’s Wharf to have our dinner. Few minutes later we reached the wharf and proceeded to the area where seafood stalls and restaurants are located. We decided not to dine there, instead we had our appetizer, a 10-dollar (5.50 pounds) fresh fried, hot crispy squid, and we strolled toward Pier 39 area. It was an easy task to choose where to eat at almost past 9pm since only few restaurants were open, so we went inside the popular restaurant, Crab House. As the name implies, one of its specialities is a 2-pound+ iron-skillet roasted Dungeness crab in a secret garlic sauce, together with roasted mussels, and soup. We had it at a very reasonable price and I enjoyed using the ‘crab cracker’ gadget to remove the crab meat from the hard shell/skin for the first time because I always use my teeth to crack it. The restaurant is situated in Pier 39 where you could have a good and breathtaking view of the bay, including the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. It is also voted as the ‘Best Crab’ destination gourmet in SF.
Since my friend is working, we decided to meet after office hours and had dinner outside for the next few days of my stay. Fortunately, during day time I did not encounter any problem looking for quick meals at the city where convenient stores, including pizza parlours and coffee shops are accessible, especially in the popular tourist places around the bay. But if you don’t have restriction with your budget, then probably the best places to dine are Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 for seafood, continental and American cuisines, while at North Beach and Union Square you could find mixed choices from Asian, Mexican, and Italian food.
Fourteen years ago, my friend and I had the opportunity to work in Thailand, and we both enjoyed the food, culture and hospitality of the Thai people. Having that, without any argument we had our next dinner in a Thai restaurant. It was a fantastic menu having ‘tom yum’ soup, Thai fried rice, and the authentic Thai seafood curry. The ambience of the restaurant gave me a brief reminiscence of my second home, ‘Siam’ - where I stayed there for almost 3 years. Well, on my last day before heading to the bus station, catching up for my late-night trip to LA, I went to one of the popular shopping centres, Metreon (at 4th St) and had early snacks at Starbucks. The store is located on the ground floor near the entrance of the mall and very accessible for people who want to have quick hot drinks.
EntertainingA varied type of entertainment could be explored and experience in SF as long as you have time and money to spare. SF is the place where you find various street performances, night clubs, theatres, musical shows, museums, circus, aquariums, arts, and sports. Having a limited time to tour around the city or watch special events, I decided to watch the musical, ‘The Chorus Line’ at Curran Theatre. It is a two hours non-stop classic musical production about hopeful dancers auditioning for a Broadway musical. Watching this production for the second time at $45 (25 pounds) in the balcony was a remarkable event considering that it was held in one of the oldest theatres and having its first limited engagement in SF before it heads back again to Broadway after 15 years.
Going back to Pier 39, I had a rare opportunity of having a close encounter of splashy sea lions at the pier’s K dock. It was a wonderful scene looking at these grey/black/brown creatures moving gracefully and having a little splash to the water, including their ‘cow-like’ growling sounds. There were also street dancers and artists/painters within the bay area which also attract tourists - either you give them extra coins after performing Michael Jackson’s dance moves or grab their hand-painted artworks at $5 to 20 (3 to11 pounds) depending on the size and design of the painting.
Talking about sea lions’ growling sounds, it is interesting to know from the flyers distributed near the K dock that the ‘war screams’ of the Orcs in the movie ‘Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’ were the sounds made by young elephant seals that were recorded from the Mammal Center near Saulito (just across the Golden Gate Bridge). Also, these sea lions love to stay at Pier 39 because it is a comfortable place to sleep, without any threat from predators such as white sharks and killer whales.
My friend managed to get free tickets ($20 each) for the baseball game at the AT&T Park Stadium between the Washington Nationals and the favourite team, San Francisco Giants on the day of my arrival. I love to watch the game live, but unfortunately I can not change my itinerary to catch the game at noon, 6 hours earlier from my expected arrival in SF from LA.
SightseeingFor being a very popular destination in the world, SF has various ways for guided tours in discovering its beautiful sceneries and cityscapes/urban forms, including nearby counties like Berkeley, Sacramento, and Oakland. One example is the ‘City Pass’ for $49 for adults and $39 for ages between 5-17 (approximately 27 and 22 pounds, respectively) that offers a 7 days pass to use the cable car and Muni transport, including six great attractions: de Young/Legion of Honor, Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure; SF Museum of Modern Art; Exploratorium, and the Aquarium of the Bay. This city pass is an economical offer for visitors who plan to stay longer as more than a week.
Another special tour discount is the Alcatraz day trip at following fares: Adult-$21 (12 pounds), senior and junior - $17 (9.5 pounds). Unluckily, it was sold out on the day that I want to go and it is recommended to have advanced booking (at least one day) to avail the tour. It is not a surprise that this island is getting much attention from tourists considering its reputation as the former federal penitentiary offering self-guided, ranger-led and night tours where service ferries depart from Pier 39 or 41 as early as 930am.
Again, with my limited time and resources, I decided to have the ‘super combo sightseeing tours’ at $71 (39 pounds) covering a deluxe city tour, Muir woods tour, and the Saulito tour for almost 8 hours to complete the trip. The coach was completely filled having a well-trained driver served as the tour guide that every minute he was telling us the significance of the areas/structures along the way. For example: why Golden Gate Bridge is constructed, where Michael Douglas lives, and where is the popular trendiest neighbourhood, etc. Briefly, the highlights of the tour were as follows: Golden Gate Bridge/Golden Gate Park, Twin Peaks – hilltop panoramic views of the city, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, Victorian Homes, Muir Woods/Giant Redwood, and Sausalito county and marina.
The Giant Redwoods and Sausalito tours were the most exciting and refreshing part of the trip. Muir Woods National Monument is a place to see the ancient redwood trees and the magnificent coastal forests of Northern California. We stayed in the park for more than 1.5 hour to enjoy the towering leafy redwood trees and had a quick trekking -following a recommended trail just to make sure that we will not miss the coach. The 560-acre park includes six miles of trails, where the main canyon floor trails are paved and mostly level. The park has limited parking areas where vehicles more than 35 ft long are prohibited due to the steepness and winding roads of the area. There is a gift and coffee shop inside the park offering snacks and interesting souvenirs. A bit of information about forest park is that it is covered with redwoods trees of more than 600 years old, and the place provides habitat for a diverse range of plant and animal life that are listed endangered and rare. It is one of more than 380 parks in the National Park system of the US being managed by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Next is the Sausalito area being considered as the California jewel (often compared to the French Riviera) where Mediterranean style and affluent village sits near the bay which offers an amazing panoramic view of SF. We were told by the driver that Michael Douglas (Fatal Attraction’s star) together with his beautiful wife Catherine Jones live. One of the beautiful spots in Sausalito County is the waterfront where the ‘Cass Marina’ is located. The marina is where chartering and renting sailboats and teaching people to sail take place for the past 4 decades. It offers a friendly and relaxed setting for people who want to experience sailing on the world greatest natural harbour of SF. Well, unfortunately I don’t have the money to do it, but I was able to walk besides these magnificent sailboats and had my monumental photos as ‘if’ I owned one of them!
ShoppingBuying souvenirs and gift items is always in my top list to accomplish while travelling. In particular, in my shopping list includes tops/shirts, underwear, books, postcards, caps, shoes, and perfumes. I was able to grab two branded shirts of ‘Abercrombie & Fitch’ at Nordstrom amounted to 21 pounds. Nordstrom is very accessible at the grand Market Street (near the Union Square) which occupies the four upper floors of the Westfield San Francisco Centre indoor mall. It features a huge shoe department, accessories, apparel, and cosmetics, including the Café Bistro. Also, within the Union Square area, I also bought CK underwear at the House of Blue Jeans. The store is one of the largest selections of Levi’s brand, including a large selection of sweats, shorts, shirts and jeans designed by Quicksilver, DKNY, Marthe Francois Girbaud, and CK. I also visited a big bookstore name, ‘Book Sense’ having a full range of book collections. I also found out that the store is distributing a leaflet entitled, ‘Reading Group’ which features recommended reads, including a brief synopsis of the books, price and ISBN numbers). I am impulsive buyer and it is easy for me to choose books that I want to read especially being recommended by friends. Without hesitation, I bought a book entitled, ‘The Shadow of the Wind: A Novel’ by Carlos Ruiz at $15 (8.33 pounds) - a story of love and loss, of men and women obsessed of books.
At Pier 39, I was able to visit the popular chain store/restaurant, Hard Rock café. My friend was quite generous enough aside from having free dinners he also grabbed a white shirt for me amounting to $22 (12 pounds) at the store. Hard Rock is very popular around the world where we could find memorabilia of popular entertainers. Two of the important stuffs housed inside the store are: the Saturday Evening Post clipping where The Beatles were dressed up in proper English bowlers; and the glittering cutaway costume of Beyonce Knowles of the Destiny’s Child group in their 1999 ‘Bug A Boo’ video. Aside from Hard Rock café, Pier 39 is quite popular for shopping from cosmetics/fragrances, gifts and collectibles to apparel and accessories, and jewellery.
By the way, at Pier 39 (second floor) you can find an internet provider (the one and only accessible facility near the dock area) where you could have quick website browsing and emailing at $10 (5.6 pounds) an hour.
Well, every tag price is being subject to 8.25% sales tax, which is one of the highest taxes in the US; nevertheless, it is still cheap to buy in the US than here in the UK. Or I will put this way: I can buy more stuffs from a British sterling to a US dollar at an average exchange rate of $1.8 for sterling. It also worth mentioning that having a credit card ready for every purchase than carrying cash is quite hassle-free or even applying an ATM card to be used abroad is worth doing especially if you run out of cash.
Convenience TravellingIt is quite easy to travel around SF bay area using the public transport. The Muni (municipal bus and streetcar system) provides a 24-hour service. There is an available Muni passport for one day ($11), 3 days ($18), or seven days ($24) ride to allow unlimited use in all Muni buses, cable cars, metros, and streetcars. The popular historic streetcars run from Castro St Station to Fisherman’s Wharf via Market Street. It is a recommended to ride in these streetcars to have an excellent view of the downtown area, as well as having an unusual ride in the rugged (ups- and-downs) terrain of the city.
The regular adult Muni fare is $1.50 and for youth/senior/disabled is 50 cents, while the cable car ticket costs $5. Transfers are valid within 90 minutes for two boardings in any directions except for cable cars. Aside from Muni system, there is another public transport option for travelling any location in the Bay area which is called BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). BART connects with the Muni metro trains and transfer stations to reach other destinations on the peninsula, including direct access to San Francisco International Airport. BART tickets are purchased at the ticket vending machines located in all stations with a minimum one-way fare of $1.40 (80 pence). My friend purchased a one-month passport for Muni Metro (subway) at $45 (25 pounds) unlimited rides for both the Muni and BART connections. When I visited the University of California- Berkeley Campus, using BART, it took me around 20 minutes to reach the university. I noticed that the railway lines are laid-out in locations where people have good view of the bay area while inside the train.
FRANKLY, HAVING SPENT THREE NIGHTS in the Bay area was not enough to explore the entire Bay area and the neighbouring towns like Berkeley and Oakland. Nevertheless, I was able to visit some of its popular tourist attractions within that limited time, consequently enjoyed every minute of it. It is also worth mentioning of my half-day visit to UC-Berkeley’s libraries (Engineering, Planning/Architecture and Business) as part of my learning experience, and was able to gather valuable reading materials for my on-going research. And surprisingly using my Olympus digital camera, I was able to capture more than 150 shots (equivalent to 4 film rolls) from my three days tour in SF.
OVERALL, SAN FRANCISCO (SF) is an ideal place for young and old, and a place where you always want to be during your next summer escapade!