Impressions from California part 1 – San Francisco

Apologies for the long silence, but I was working up the anticipation to my latest, amazing trip. Now that I am back, battling against withdrawls and jet lag, I can finally share with you my impressions from traveling one of the most impressive coasts in the world: California

San Francisco 

Every single person I met almost screamed of joy as soon as I mentioned the word San Francisco. It seemed to be like everybody’s favourite city. Besides the anticipation, there were two things going through my head during the cab ride between the airport and our hotel: The first was an irrational desire to own an adorable pastel coloured wooden house, the second was that people living here must certainly have toned glutes.

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American with a romantic European feeling to it, SF looks like a hippie paradise, where even the stiffest person would feel like letting their hair down and just relaxing. Liberal to the absolute limit, the city has an entire gay neighbourhood, called Castro, where you are welcomed by giant GLBT flags, and surrounded by an ample choice of gay bars, clubs and even gay pizza joints at every corner. This neighbourhood is what awarded the city the title of gay capital of the world.

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Love is not the only free thing in town. During our stay the beautiful Golden Gate Park filled with people of all ages, sizes, origins and sexual orientations to celebrate 420, the world famous “weed day”. As if they needed another excuse to be free and happy, san Franciscans united in the sun smoking the day away, giving us a very rare and beautiful show. April seems to be a particularly fortunate time of the year to explore the city. Besides 420, at this time the city commemorates the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake that destroyed much of the city, it hosts Easter parades, a Japanese Cherry blossom festival and the international field festival. Together with other happening around California, like the music festival of Coachella, April is definitely a good pick for a holiday here.

Compared to its big sister Los Angeles, San Francisco is relatively contained and easier to explore. Despite this, the city is not very well served by public transport (at least by European standards). The underground system is very limited, so most people tend to move by car or bike. Walking is feasible, even though the steep hills will definitely put your legs to the test. From the picturesque neighbourhood of Castro and Mission, the main road Market Street will lead you to the central Union Square, where shopping lover could happily spend a day or two in the local shops, or climb up and down the many floors of Macy’s and Sacks 5th Avenue. From there, on the corner between Powell and Market Street, tourist queue for hours to catch one of the world famous SF cable cars. But don’t despair, the drivers  always leave some space to pick up a few people along the road to the sea, so buy your tickets and walk a few hundreds meters to the next stop. Same thing applies when taking the cable up from Ghirardelli square back to Union Square. We learned the hard way and were stuck in the queue for more than an hour, and would really like to spare you the wait.

SF cable cars
SF cable cars

The cable cars travel up and down the hills of the city  through china town up to Ghirardelli Square, overlooking the beautiful San Francisco Bay. It is worth to hop off around the Coit tower, a memorial to SF Fire fighters, and a location affording some of the best views of the entire city.

Coit Tower
Coit Tower
View from the Coit tower
View from the Coit tower

Once you are back in Ghirardelli Square, it is just a stone throw away to Fisherman’s Wharf, where SF piers are lined up one after the other, dotted with restaurant, souvenir shops, military ships and maritime museums. It is here that we enjoyed amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge, ate yummy crab and seafood and watched (and smelled too) hundreds of sea lions chilling in the sun by Pier 39. The buzzing heart of fisherman’s wharf, Pier 39 looks like a big, open air mall with lots of good restaurants and little shops, and a good place to book your sightseeing tours.

Pier 39's  most famous residents
Pier 39’s most famous residents

While there, you have to try one of their best-known local speciality, the Clam Chowder. Served in a bowl carved in tasty Sorodough bread, it is sold for a few dollars by many street vendors along the piers. If you are looking for a more sophisticated culinary experience, with the added bonus of a killer view, get a table at McCormick and Kuleto’s in Ghirardelli Square. The restaurant is elevated and has great windows overlooking the bay (and a nice cocktail list too).I recommend ending your day there, to enjoy the sunset.

Tastes better than it looks, trust me... yum
Tastes better than it looks, trust me… yum

At pier 33, you can take a boat to the famous prison island of Alcatraz. Visits to “the rock” as it is often referred to, must be pre-booked online. You can find tickets on http://www.alcatrazcruises.com but if you are under 26 I suggest having a look for STA Travel deals on day trips around the world, they have great offers on sightseeing.

During the visit, you learn more about how Alcatraz developed from a military base to a maximum security prison, while also being occupied and inhabited for a few years after 1968 by the United Indians of all Tribes, a group of native Americans activists  protesting against the US Government. Sign of their brief presence on the island can still be seen.

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An audio tour takes you in and around the prison block, giving you a glimpse of what being an inmate in Alcatraz must have been like. Because of its position and the cold and windy currents of the San Francisco Bay, escape from Alcatraz was often considered impossible. Of the many prisoners during its 29 years of existence as a prison, some of them notorious criminals like Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, only 14 attempted escape, and only 2 seemingly succeeded. Some of their belonging were found on a nearby shore, but they, or their bodies, have never been found since.

Alcatraz's main prison block - a typical cell

Even though we are more likely to associate Alcatraz with the dark reality of prison life, I was surprised to learn that the island has slowly become a  bird sanctuary, hosting a huge number of bird and plant species, a paradise for bird watchers. The prison cells block is surrounded by beautiful gardens overlooking the SF Bay and the Ocean, and seas birds can be observed lazily taking in the warmth of the sun. The rock’s beautiful gardens and bird populations are taken care of by hundreds of volunteers, who are committed to keeping this side of the island alive for the generations to come.

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The visit will take up at least half a day, but I definitely recommend taking this time to see Alcatraz, especially if you are travelling in spring or summer and you are lucky enough to have a clear day. Not only you will learn a fascinating story, but you can enjoy breathtaking views of the SF skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge.

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breath-taking refers to the view, obviously….

Side by side with Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge is San Francisco’s most iconic landmark.IMG_1076

There are many ways to visit the bridge and take in the beauty of its surrounding landscape. Even though it can be observed and captured in photos by many distant locations, I advise to get close and personal with this gigantic structure to really appreciate it. Many tours can take you to the bridge and back, but they are often not allowed to stop at the main Gold Gate bridge Vista Point (Citysightseeing is one of those tours, but if you are lucky enough, you might just get the right driver willing to bend the rules). If you are sporty and more adventurous however, you can rent a bike from Fisherman’s Wharf, and bike across the bridge to the vista points available.

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The bridge connects the main SF Bay area with Marin County, part of the State of California. After you see the bridge, I advise you continue (by car, biked or bus) to Sausalito, the main city of Marin County. Immersed in nature, many celebrities and local personalities populate this part of SF, and you will not struggle to understand why. The picturesque waterfront city enjoys a milder climate and escapes the buzz of the city. It is the ideal place for a stroll on the beach and some food, offering many tasty seafood options. You might even be able to spot Robin Williams, who owns a house there.

Marin County
Marin County

On our last day, before we took our car down the pacific coast towards Los Angeles, we just had enough time to explore “the lungs of San Francisco”, the Golden Gate Park. Within the over 1,000 acres of this park are some of the biggest museums in SF, a beautiful Japanese tea Garden, a zoo, botanical gardens, lakes, sports grounds and much more. With just a couple of hours to spare, we had to be selective with our choices, opting for the famous Academy of Sciences and the Japanese Tea Gardens. I advice you don’t miss out on anything though, and reserve at least an entire day (preferably a sunny one) to explore the park.

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Golden Gate Park

The Academy of Science is the world’s greenest Museum and a wonderful place to visit with children and adults alike. It hosts an aquarium, a reproduction of a tropical forest, with butterflies of all shapes and colours flying around you, and a big planetarium, with live shows about stars and dark matter at regular intervals throughout the day. In 2005 the museums was redesigned by architect Renzo Piano, and it is now at the forefront of environmentally friendly design, with a huge garden roof replicating the hills of san Francisco. It has received many prestigious environmental awards and has been featured in many documentaries. So even if you are not into science, I suggest you give a sneak peak at the building. Did I mention they have ADORABLE penguins too?

the tropical forest at the Academy of Sciences
the tropical forest at the Academy of Sciences
Renzo Piano's "living roof"
Renzo Piano’s “living roof”

Just a few hundred meters away from the Academy of Sciences is the very humble entrance of the Japanese Tea Garden, only recognizable by the very characteristic design of its gate. Please do not be discouraged by the small entry fee. This place is incredible, and you really will be missing out if you don’t go. Once you step in, it feels like you are being catapulted in another world. The gardens are dotted with bonsai trees, cherry blossoms and other Japanese native plants and flowers.

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Almost hidden by the glorious vegetation is a small pagoda, hosting a bar where you can sit and enjoy traditional Japanese tea and snacks served by waiters and waitresses in original Japanese clothing. Once you are finished sipping your tea, take some time to walk around the gardens, discovering a small decorative moon bridge, Buddha statues, lanterns and pagodas.

moon bridge
moon bridge

 

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The garden was originally part of the 1894 California Expo, and later converted into a permanent park by Makoto Hagiwara, a Japanese gardener. Many claim that it is here, in this garden, that fortune cookies were first introduced in the United States from Japan.

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On the way out of the city, towards the road  that will take us to Los Angeles, I remember thinking I would never want to leave this place. I can now safely put myself in the list of enthusiasts that believe SF is probably one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I hope you will get the chance to see it for yourself, or share your impressions If you have already been there.

But our California experience was not over yet…..

(To be continued)


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