Arriving in San Francisco was a bit of a shock to the system. We’d been experiencing beautiful weather and temperatures in the high 30s since Las Vegas, but on arriving in San Fran we were amazed by how cold and foggy it was (even though it was just four hours from sweltering Yosemite). What was especially amazing was that the weather seemed to fluctuate from neighbourhood to neighbourhood – so even if the North Beach district brightened up after midday, still the tallest hills around the city never really made it out of the clouds. The fog swirling around almost made it look like parts of the city were on fire.
Our first stop was the famous island – Alcatraz. We boarded the first ferry of the day to try and beat the crowds and made it over to the island in time to see a film about the history of the place.
I hadn’t realised that Alcatraz was initially used as a fort during the civil war to protect the port of San Francisco (which was considered especially valuable because of ‘the gold in them there hills’). While being used as a fort, it was considered a good place to hold some of the army’s prisoners – and so the prison was built. It was decades later when the government decided to use it as a federal maximum security prison for the likes of Al Capone and the Robert ‘The Birdman’ Stroud. Even years after the prison’s closure, American Indians used the island to protest about their rights before it was opened as a national park and tourist attraction. It was interesting to learn about the history of the island, but we both really wanted to know about what it was like to be in that prison. The audio tour was great – it was narrated by an ex-Alcatraz guard and had testimony from real ex-cons that were imprisoned there.
We also learned about the great escape of 1962 – when three men broke out of their cells using holes they’d dug through the walls with spoon handles, climbed up on to the roof though an unused maintenance shaft and sailed away on a makeshift raft fashioned from raincoats. The three men have never been found – dead or alive – and so no one really knows if they made it or not.
We enjoyed our visit, and we were both surprised by how close Alcatraz was to the city – just a mile away from the coastline. I had also imagined it would be bigger – but maybe that’s because its reputation as being an inescapable fortress precedes it.
San Francisco is a lovely city with a lot of very nice-looking independent shops that I would have liked to explore had the budget allowed it, but a down-side to visiting after trekking around the mountains in Yosemite was that it’s so hilly! Our legs hadn’t quite recovered and some of the hills are incredibly steep.
At times it seemed like, straight after climbing a hill, you’re making your way back down – only to go back up again! Luckily, the public transport system is great and you can take your pick from buses, the underground or the famous cable cars.
Missing the greenery of Yosemite, we decided to check out the Golden Gate Park – which we’d been told was worth a visit. After getting through the first part of the park, which seemed to be more of a refuge for the many homeless people in the city, we eventually made it to the Botanical Gardens. The gardens were fascinating – separated into segments which each had a different theme showing off plants from all over the world. In the Australia garden we even saw hummingbirds which were incredibly small and amazingly quick!
Being so close to Mission, a district famous for its own style of burritos, we decided we needed to give them a try. The problem was choosing a place to try them – it’s one of those things where everyone swears by a different ‘Taquiera’ (Mexican restaurant). In the end we settled for the famous La Taquiera because it’s even mentioned on Wikipedia’s explanation for mission burritos: here. Apparently La Taquiera is known for serving burritos with generous portions of meat without rice. They weren’t wrong! It was the best burrito I think I’ve ever had!
We’d been noticing homeless people nearly everywhere we went in the States – some of them you couldn’t avoid – but San Francisco seemed to be the homeless capital of the country. We saw so many, we even asked a waiter in a cafe about it. He explained that a combination of factors, including the moderate weather, the liberal attitude of the city’s residents and the benefits they received there, meant that San Fran was a very good place to be homeless. Unfortunately, constantly turning beggars down and seeing people fishing food out of bins or sleeping on the pavements somewhat hampered my enjoyment of the city. At one point we saw a concert in Union Square and many homeless people were taking the opportunity to have a dance – at least it was nice to see them smiling and having some fun!
Our trip wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to the Golden Gate Bridge. We decided to shell out for the expense of renting two bikes to reach and cross the bridge – something we wouldn’t have had the time to do if we’d been walking! The bridge is huge (once the world’s largest suspension bridge), and cycling along with the San Francisco skyline beside us was an amazing experience.
Although we only had a short stop in San Francisco, we felt like we’d done everything we wanted to do there and it was worth the visit. Next stop – Hollywood!