San Francisco is somewhere that I’d never really thought about visiting, and certainly not somewhere I thought I’d really enjoy. I was lucky enough that the headquarters of my new employer is in San Francisco, and even luckier that they have a policy of sending new hires there for the initial two weeks of training.
While I was busy with work from Monday to Friday, from 8-5, we still had two entire weekends, and all of the evenings free to see as much of the area as we could.
It might not be considered a classically beautiful view, but after the flatness of London, it was amazing to see the view from our hotel room, situated on the 14th floor of a building upon a hill.
Our first weekend started with a nearby restaurant, Brenda’s, famous for ‘southern style’ food. This was our first experience with grits, and Risa was in love. I went for the assortment of beignets, which I realised when they arrived, were deep fried pastries – delicious, incredibly sweet, and not entirely what I wanted for breakfast.
We were fortunate enough to have some friends living in the area (and even more fortunate that they have cars!), so we joined them and went for a drive south to Monterey Bay to go for a kayak with the indescribably cute Sea Otters at Moss Landing. Not only were there Sea Otters floating on their backs like driftwood, there were also large numbers of seals, swimming around, and chilling out on the beaches.
The sun, the clear skies, the moderate temperatures, the beach and the surf was everything that I had expected from California. It wasn’t however the prettiest of beaches.
After a seafood lunch, we stopped in for a quick visit to Santa Cruz. Long before we reached the ocean, this town had a total ‘relaxed beach vibe’ going on. That was before we got to the fair by the pier – which was crazy busy! We were a little short on time, so it was only a quick walk through the fair, looking at the food, rides and people before making our way to the beach, and out onto the pier.
Sunday was a little more relaxed, with a slower start to the day. I had booked a rental bike for the fortnight, so I had to go pick it up. We walked through Market planning on eating in a popular breakfast diner, but, the popularity stretched out the door and around the corner, so we opted for something else – which happened to be some Louisiana-style fried chicken and donuts. Yup, we were trying to go full ‘murican. It might not have been a great choice for the first meal of the day, but it was cheap, filling and exceptionally tasty.
The plan for the day was to cycle across Golden Gate bridge, but we planned to walk through Chinatown first. It turned out that the Autumn Festival was happening today, with streets blocked off to traffic and instead filled with food stalls. Even though they looked delicious, we couldn’t be tempted with bellies still full from breakfast. Chinatown in San Francisco is usually an interesting place, but today with all these celebrations going on, it was awesome.
We picked up Risa’s rental bike near Fisherman’s Wharf, and after a quick ride around the area, we started making our way towards the famous bridge. Once again, the weather was absolutely perfect, with clear skies, warm sun and a cool breeze. It was also a shock to my pasty skin. The views of the city from the bay are fantastic, and the Transamerica Pyramid dominates the skyline – even if it’s not that much taller than surrounding buildings. It’s also amazing just how close Alcatraz is.
The actual ride to the other side of Golden Gate Bridge is quite easy flat ride, broken up with a few short sharp hills between Fisherman’s Wharf and the start of the bridge. The bridge is even larger in person than I had expected, and the supporting towers, um, towered over the bridge. Once on the bridge, things got a little more hectic, with the combination of locals in no mood to slow down as they made their way across the bridge, and absent minded tourists (us included) stopping and swerving to take in the views – which are stunning, in case it wasn’t obvious from the photos.
Once across the bridge, I made Risa cycle up a small climb to a better vantage point to take in the bridge, the bay and the city at Battery Point. We only had hired her bike for a short period of time, otherwise I would have done my best to whip Risa even further up the road to Hawk Hill – I went there earlier when I flew out for my interview, however the weather couldn’t be more different. Once Risa caught her breath, we were back on the bikes, and on our way back to Fisherman’s Wharf to return her bike.
We did make one minor detour, to the exquisitely designed, and almost out of place, Palace of Fine Arts. The place reminded me of something that should exist in Star Wars, rather than in U.S.A.
There was still some time left after dropping off Risa’s bike before the sun set, so we went on foot to check out the seals (again) at the end of Pier 39. There were dozens of them, all pressed up to each other on small floating pontoons as even more people with cameras pressed even closer to each other to look at them.
Week nights were a little quieter, as I had to put priority first on work, and second for tourism. I wasn’t sure about walking around town with my expensive camera hanging from my neck, so I tended to leave it at home, relying on my phone and Instagram instead. We tried to find different areas each night to have dinner, which wasn’t difficult at all! If anything, it was going to be a challenge to go to all the places we wanted in only two weeks, with Japantown, Market, SoMA, Mission, North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf, Hayes Valley and Little Saigon. Highlights included the too crazy to not try, Ringmaster, from Straw, that was a burger built using two glazed donuts, some fantastic Mexican from La Taqueria in Mission, and great yumcha from Lai Hong Lounge.
One of the other engineers at work organised a night walking tour of an most curious area of town, Tenderloin, which is known for being impoverished, sleazy, dirty, dangerous and the domain of drug addicts and the homeless. It amazes me that such a place can exist in such proximity on all sides to areas of great affluence and expense. Our tour guide, Del Seymour, spent a great deal of his life there, and had close ties to many of the buildings and businesses in the area – or at least he did in his past life, before finding Christ and moving out of the area.
We visited many hidden bars and speakeasies, most of which you wouldn’t even notice when walking past, including the Phoenix Hotel, with an incredible bar/restaurant, and an absolutely kitsch swimming pool, which according to Del has seen many an after party from touring Rock and Roll legends.
Our second weekend was spent in the fresh air and stunning scenery of Lake Tahoe – but that’s its own separate post.
We made a date night, and visited the Italian restaurant dense area of North Beach, with cute restaurants with their retro neon lights setting the streets aglow. Risa had done her research (she had plenty of free time while I was busy working) and found what was probably the busiest seafood restaurant in the area, Sotto Mare. We put our names down for a table and were given a 60 minute estimated waiting time (and a little glowing/vibrating lobster to let us know when the table was ready). It wasn’t cheap, but it was worth keeping the wife happy. Plus, even as a non-seafood loving person, I appreciated and thoroughly enjoyed the meal.
The next evening, after work I went for a quick detour up to the summit of Twin Peaks, which was a challenge with my broken ribs still being quite tender (and my general lack of fitness). However, the combination of post exertion endorphins and panoramic vistas made the short term pain worthwhile. Coming back down was also fun, especially with the brakes being reversed on bikes here in North America that I’m still getting used to.
Since I hadn’t quite done enough hill climbing, I made my way to a small clearing on the top of Nob Hill to watch the sunset with Risa. It too was worth the effort, with stunning colours, especially to the north towards Alcatraz. If only we could also see Golden Gate bridge, it would have been perfect. Dinner was a above average bowl of ramen from one of the places open on a Tuesday night in Japantown.
Wednesday evening we did something that Risa had always wanted to do, and that was attend a Major League Baseball event. I’m not all that fussed about baseball (or ball sports in general), but I’ve enjoyed it in Japan, and I’m also interested in the culture and the experience, so along with some local friends, we went and checked it out. The stadium, AT&T Park, sits right on the harbour, and comfortably walking distance from the office. Unfortunately, the Giants weren’t in contention for the title in 2015, so there wasn’t a huge crowd in attendance. Our seats were great for seeing the whole picture (it was the last row, at the top of a steep stadium), however we had to rely on the enormous TVs to get any idea of the action that was taking place below. We went for the full experience, electing to eat hotdogs, and drink overpriced beer from plastic cups – even if it meant queuing so long that we missed an entire innings. It was a fun experience, and I’m glad we made the effort, even if I don’t remember who actually won on the night! (edit – it was The Giants, and they scored some pretty awesome home runs that went out into the marina!).
On Thursday, our last night in town, I started work early (and left early) so that we could go on a cruise to Alcatraz Island! I’ve seen this in so many movies (who can forget The Rock!), and it was amazing to think that we were actually going to visit. It’s only a short ferry ride, providing some stunning views of the city, the bay, and Golden Gate Bridge. The island is incredibly compact, and at first it reminded me of Battleship Island in Japan. We started with a short walking tour, listening to some of the history of the island, which was good, but we quickly became aware of how little time we had left until the last ferry of the day departed. We rushed up into the prison, grabbed our audio headsets (included in the ticket price), and made away around the old wards. The winds were howling, and for the first time since we arrived, I was feeling cold.
It was actually a little advantageous being in what was essentially the last group to pass through for the day, getting the chance to see some of the building without it being filled with tourists (yes, like us). It was rushed, but even so, it was a great experience to visit somewhere so notorious and iconic. We even got the added bonus of being escorted of the island by the park rangers, feeling a little like we were being barked orders by prison staff! We boarded the boat, and watch the sun set behind Golden Gate Bridge, metaphorically (and actually) ending a most amazing fortnight in this most amazing city.
Luck willing, we’ll be back to see and do even more some time in the future!