United States

San Francisco, California

San Francisco is a fascinating town. For many reasons. The many hilly streets and just the fact that the city was placed in such a hilly location. The massive Chinatown, the old hippie district Haight-Ashbury with all the Victorian Buildings, Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Bridge which is one of the most beautiful bridges in the world, Alcatraz and just the constant sudden change in weather. As Mark Twain supposedly said “The coldest winter I ever spent was the summer in San Francisco”. Having said that it can also be pretty hot at times.

San Francisco was founded by Spanish colonists in 1776 and later in 1849 the California Gold Rush brought new growth to the city making it the largest city on the West Coast at the time.

Even though the city is known for its beauty it can actually also be a bit rough. There are a fair few of homeless people. A lot of these will be based in certain areas but you will have some drifting around in other areas as well. San Francisco is a bit different in that respect. It’s not like there’s a dodgy neighbourhood as such, you can be in an area of town which seems nice, if you go to the left on the street you’re all good, if you go to the right it can be seedy or vice versa.

At Broadway and Taylor Streets - One of the many steep streets of San Francisco
At Broadway and Taylor Streets – One of the many steep streets of San Francisco

It’s a pretty diverse city which is quite intriguing. Even the Church of Satan was founded here at a place called the Black House in 1966 and but was relocated to Hell’s Kitchen in New York in 2001 – a bit ironic actually. The Black House, which was based at 6114 California Street in the Richmond District, was demolished in 2001 as well. It was used as the headquarters from 1966 to 1997.

Furthermore the neighbourhoods of the town are quite different in character to each other, from Haight-Ashbury to Castro to the Mission District and so on.

You can do a several things off the beaten track too. The aforementioned Haight-Ashbury is a very interesting neighbourhood for many reasons. You can do the “Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour” of this area, operated by Haight-Ashbury Tour, which is highly recommended. It lasts three hours, will take you through all the hot spots and gives you an insight into the architecture and history of the area. At the end of the tour you will visit one of the Victorian Buildings where you will get a chance to view the interior. It will be an occupied residential building too so it will be the real deal which is cool.

Painted Ladies - Victorian Buildings in Haight-Ashbury
Painted Ladies – Victorian Buildings in Haight-Ashbury

Haight-Ashbury was a big part the 60’s hippie culture and a lot of great musical artists lived here such as Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and The Grateful Dead. The latter lived at 710 Ashbury Street in a purple Victorian building in the mid 60’s. A portrait of Jerry Garcia is on the pavement just outside the building.

The corner of Haight Street and Ashbury Street is one of the most famous spots of the neighbourhood as it was the place where a lot of people came in the mid 60’s to search for peace and love.

There is a lot of beautiful wooded Victorian Architecture. This style is actually also called “Painted Ladies” which refers to these types of houses that are painted in three or more colours to enhance the architectural features. The most famous ones are based at Alamo Square and were used in the intro to the sitcom “Full House”.

Painted Ladies at Alamo Square
Painted Ladies at Alamo Square

There are some great examples of mural art in Haight-Ashbury as well. Some of the artists are known and some unknown. Furthermore you will also find exclusive boutiques, high end vintage clothing shops, second hand stores and nice restaurants.

Back in the city centre you’ll find Lombard Street which goes through several neighbourhoods of San Francisco, but it is famous for one section in the Russian Hill District which consists of eight hairpins turns. It’s a very interesting little attraction due to this part of the street being very steep but also because of the sharp turns which really make this spot stand out. It’s great fun having a walk up this part of the street as not only is it cool to watch the cars drive down here but it is also really picturesque due to the sharps turns, the hedges, floral decorations, the architecture and buildings placed on this steep hill. Mind you if you walk up here you have to be in good shape.

View from Lombard Street
View from Lombard Street

The Transamerica Pyramid is the tallest building in San Francisco. It’s located at 600 Montgomery Street in the Financial District. The floor count is 48, it’s 325 metres tall (1066 ft) to the tip and was completed in 1972. It’s a really beautiful piece of architecture which really stands out due to the pyramidal design. The style is futurism. The building is four-sided and the top of the structure is formed by a 65 metre (212 ft) spire.

The Transamerica Pyramid
The Transamerica Pyramid

Not too far from here in the Telegraph Hill District you will find a nice historical Art Deco tower structure called the Coit Tower at 1 Telegraph Hill Blvd. It’s located in Pioneer Park and you have a fair uphill walk to get here. Not only is the tower cool in itself but if you go up in the tower you will get great views of the city which is highly recommended. Just be aware, as previously mentioned, the weather changes rapidly in San Francisco and it can be pretty foggy at times so you can’t always expect a clear view.

Skyline in the Mist - the view from the Coit Tower
Skyline in the Mist – the view from the Coit Tower

Alcatraz Island is located in San Francisco Bay, 2.4 km (1.5 miles) from the shores of San Francisco. It was originally created as a facility for a lighthouse, a military fort and prison in 1868. It wasn’t until 1933 that it was converted into a federal prison which it served as until it closed in 1963.

Today it’s managed by the National Park Service and is a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. On the island you will find the abandoned prison, the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast but also natural features such as rock pools and bird colonies.

You can easily spend about 3-4 hours at Alcatraz as it is so fascinating. Doing the audio tour is highly recommended. Here you will get the stories from former prisoners and prison guards about their experiences at Alcatraz. During this tour you will be guided all the way through the facility. Killer stuff.

Going to Alcatraz is an absolute must on any visit to San Francisco. Remember to pre-book this at least two weeks prior to your visit as it is very popular and it will be busy. The ferry out to Alcatraz leaves from Fisherman’s Wharf and the operator Alcatraz Cruises leaves from Pier 33. Going out to the island by ferry is an experience in itself as the closer you get, the better view you will get of the facility and you can imagine yourself how it must have been for the prisoners going there in the day knowing they would never return to the mainland again. Approaching the Alcatraz pier you’ll have a good view of the facility and you will be able to get some great shots. Really fascinating just thinking about the historic significance of the place and that not too long ago prisoners were actually sent to such a remote place as a last resort. You will see Building 64 in the front next to the dock, the Main Prison just behind it with the lighthouse to the left and a bit further to the right the water tower (built in 1940) is located among other things.

Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island

At the dock there’s a sign saying “Indians Welcome” which is a legacy from the Indian occupation of 1969-71 when 89 Native Americans claimed it as Indian Land. The facility has a bit of a rundown “ruin” look to it which is really cool. It’s doesn’t look restored and fake. Having a walk around the island looking at the different buildings and the water tower is highly recommend before entering the Main Prison to do the audio tour or after the tour if you prefer that. You will find a building that used to be a workshop and a factory. In the 1940’s inmates would work here, washing uniforms for the Bay Area military bases. Freshwater was actually transported to the island by barge for this purpose. The architectural style of the buildings on the island is Spanish Revival. There are remains of old officers’ quarters from 1880, these were demolished in 1941 and were used as a garden area for the inmates.

Quartermaster on Alcatraz Island
Quartermaster on Alcatraz Island

The recreation area is a really cool spot. Just imagine that this was the only place where the inmates were able to have a walk outside in the fresh air. They were allowed out here on Saturdays, Sundays and on national holidays for a maximum of 5 hours. The prisoners were allowed to play sports, board games and to interact with each other in general. Gangsters like Machine Gun Kelly and Basil “The Owl” Banghart would hang out a lot together in the yard.

The Recreation Area at Alcatraz
The Recreation Area at Alcatraz

Inside the Main Prison it is highly recommended doing the audio tour as mentioned earlier. It’s very captivating walking around listening to the tour and looking at the facilities and the prison cells. The tour narrators will be former inmates and correctional officers. Their tales are very fascinating. The cells look like they did in the day and you have an opportunity to enter some of them.

In block B & C the cells were 1.52 m (5 ft) by 2.74 m (9 ft) where there would be a small sink with running water, a toilet and a sleeping cot. The cells in block D were segregated and more spacious. Block B & C contained 336 cells, originally 348 but 12 were removed due to the installation of stairways. In block D there were 36 segregation cells and 6 solitary confinement cells. Isolation block D was reserved for the unusually dangerous or violent inmates. Depending on the offence they could spend a few days here or several years. They would be confined to their cells for 24 hours a day. The 6 solitary confinement cells or closed-front cells were used for inmates with severe disciplinary problems. Inmates could check into “the hole” for a few days and never more than 19 days. It would be on a restricted diet and could be in total darkness, but only a few inmates experienced a visit to “the hole”. On average the prison would hold 260 prisoners.

Prison Cells at Alcatraz
Prison Cells at Alcatraz

One of the well known spots in the Main Prison building is Time Square which is located just outside the dining hall. Right above the entrance there’s a big clock. The alleys are named after famous streets in New York like Broadway and Michigan Avenue.

The Clint Eastwood film “Escape from Alcatraz” directed by Don Siegel from 1979 is based on the true story about the only successful escape from the prison. The escapees were never found dead or alive. It was based on the escape of Frank Morris and the two brothers John and Clarence Anglin on 11 June 1962. They placed dummy heads underneath their blankets during the night and crawled out of their cells through the small vents, climbed up the utility corridor onto the roof, slid down the stove pipe and moved further down to the shore line. They slipped into the water using a raft made of raincoats. They were never seen again. They have reconstructed Frank Morris’ cell as it looked on the day after his escape. His cell was no. 138. Good stuff!

Cell no. 138 - Frank Morris' Cell at Alcatraz
Cell no. 138 – Frank Morris’ Cell at Alcatraz

Al Capone served time on Alcatraz as well. Previously he had been imprisoned at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and at the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta where he managed to get special privileges. Capone tried to convince Warden Johnston of a similar treatment at Alcatraz but it was denied. He spent 4½ years at Alcatraz and got signs of syphilis which he had been carrying for years. Towards the end his mind deteriorated and he also started avoiding the recreation area. In 1938 he was transferred to Terminal Island Prison in Southern California where he served the remainder of his sentence. He was released in 1939 and died in 1947 due to complications with syphilis.

Many birds nest on the island which is closely observed by biologists. They monitor how they respond to the human presence. In recent years they have counted 108 different species.

The souvenir shop on the island is pretty cool. You can get replicas of the cups and salt & pepper shakers from the dining room among a lot of other things. Good fun.

Another great option is doing the “Escape from the Rock Cruise” via Blue & Gold Fleet which leaves from Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf. This is an hour and a half cruise which goes under the Golden Gate Bridge and circles around Alcatraz Island twice so you will get plenty of opportunities to get some great views and shots. Bear in mind on this tour you will not visit Alcatraz.

Golden Gate Bridge looking North
Golden Gate Bridge looking North

Checking out the Golden Gate Bridge is an absolutely must. It’s one of the most beautiful and iconic bridges in the world. A great way of seeing and experiencing the bridge is by cycling across. You can do this by joining a tour. There an operator called Bay City Bike Rentals & Tours where you can join a tour called ”Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito Tour” which takes 2-3 hour and the ride stretches 12.87 km (8 miles). This is a great option.

The tour starts at their location at Fisherman’s Wharf at 1325 Columbus Avenue, then goes along the coast where you will get to a beach and from here there are great views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. On the way to the bridge there are several opportunities for photo stops. You will see Fort Mason, the Marina District and Presidio/Crissy Field.

Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge

Whilst on the bridge you will also have some photo stops. Note on the towers there are actually some Art Deco elements which is a really nice feature, but also the streetlights, railings and walkways are in the style of Art Deco.

After crossing the bridge there’s a stop at Vista Point which is yet another great stop if you’re into taking photos. Thereafter the tour continues on the way down to the picturesque city of Sausalito. It’s really cosy here with the all the beautiful houses up the hills right and down to the pier. Again a great opportunity to take some photos of Sausalito – the architecture and the pier, but also of the San Francisco skyline which is visible. Stay here for a couple of hours and then return to San Francisco by ferry which is also a scenic ride. You will have views of Sausalito, San Francisco, Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Upon arrival back in the city, depending on how long you have hired the bike for, you can continue cycling around which is pretty safe for such a major city. It will be a good exercise especially in certain areas where you have to get up the steep hills.

Sausalito
Sausalito

Fisherman’s Wharf is really cool neighbourhood which is located at the Northern waterfront. There a plenty of shops, bars and restaurants and you will have a lot of opportunities for getting great seafood. Mind you, it is a bit pricy in this area as it is popular among tourists. At Pier 39 there a shopping centre which is a nice place to have a stroll around and you will most likely get a chance to see sea lions lying around on the docks in this area. It is also a great place to visit at night and a pretty cool place is Wipe Out Bar & Grill.

Fisherman's Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf

Another area you have to experience is Chinatown which was established in 1848 and is one of the most famous of its kind around the world. It is centered on Grant Avenue and Stockton Street in the North Beach and Telegraph Hill districts. It is the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinese community outside Asia. They continue to hold on to their cultural heritage and customs, and furthermore the area has been very influential on Chinese immigrating to North America with respect to history and culture.

If you want to check out a music club there a place called Slim’s which was founded by rock and blues musician Boz Scaggs and who has remained a co-owner. It’s located at 333 11th Street in the South of Market district which is a spot for great nightlife. You will find all kinds of shows at Slim’s from folk, cajun, jazz, blues, rock to heavy metal.

Union Square is an interesting area in Downtown where there are loads of opportunities for shopping and for having a night out on the town with all the restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Furthermore it is surrounded by a beautiful urban park.

A ride on the historic cable cars is also an absolute must. Just note that there aren’t that many lines in operation. It is mainly for the sake of the tourists and it’s not really the most efficient way of getting around. There are three lines. At Powell and Market Streets there are cable car turntables which are the beginning and stop of two lines which are the Powell-Mason and the Powell-Hyde lines. Both lines begin at the turntable at Powell and Market Streets. The Powell-Hyde line runs over Nob Hill and Russians Hill ending at Aquatic Park. The Powell-Market line runs over Nob Hill as well and down to Bay Street at Fisherman’s Wharf. The California Street line runs East-West from the Financial District through Chinatown and Nob Hill terminating at Van Ness Avenue.

Cable Car on the Powell-Hyde Line
Cable Car on the Powell-Hyde Line

In other parts of the city where will be cable cars as well or rather trams, but these will not be the historic ones which San Francisco is famous for.

Down at Fisherman’s Wharf it is also great option have a walk down to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Have a view of the bridge, the pier and the city skyline.

The San Francisco City Hall is definitely also worth checking out. It is located at 1 Dr .Carlton B. Goodlett Place in the Civic Center and the architectural style is Beaux-Arts. The building is in the place where the earlier City Hall was destroyed in the earthquake of 1906.

Several movie classics were filmed in San Francisco. “Bullitt” with Steve McQueen from 1968 is noteworthy example. The car chase in this film is absolutely amazing and goes through the streets of San Francisco. This was actually a high-speed chase and the cars reached 177 kmh (110 mph). McQueen did some of the driving himself during the scene which lasts 9 minutes and 42 seconds but took 3 weeks to film.

The Dirty Harry movies with Clint Eastwood were also filmed in San Francisco and in the fifth and last of the series called “The Dead Pool” from 1988 there is also a great car chasing scene where Eastwood is been chased in his car by a miniature car with explosives on it. Killer car chase.

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