San Francisco is worth a visit for the weather alone. It was sunny and 65 degrees almost the entire time, so it was a nice break from the heat. I hit the one month mark on my trip and felt like the week was a mini version of everything so far… trains, urban exploring, city fun, site seeing, hostel life, couchsurfing and meeting some cool people that I hope to see again. Going in, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stick to my usual budget, but since I had been doing well up to this point, I kind of relaxed some rules and let myself have fun. I was looking forward to big city adventures after my hiking and mountain climbing stops in Colorado and Utah, and San Francisco definitely delivered. According to Wikipedia, tourism is San Francisco’s number one industry, but someone argued with me that it’s actually tech jobs. However, there’s no disputing that tourism is at least a close second. I’d say it’s even more touristy here than DC. There are entire areas like Fisherman’s Wharf swarming with nothing but tourists. Like every place else, I hit the streets on my first day to explore. I walked through the areas known as South of Market and the Financial District on my way to Embarcadero, the main roadway on the Eastern side of the city. There are great views of the Bay Bridge, which isn’t as well known as the Golden Gate, but still pretty impressive. The 1906 earthquake and following fire destroyed much of the city, so a clean slate was in place for twentieth century architects, which helps explain all the art deco. I eventually made my way to Chinatown which from what I hear, is the best in the USA. The narrow streets are packed with locals and tourists alike. There are lots of small shops, cafes, and restaurants. Some of the items in the shops don’t even have English translations. I wanted an authentic experience, and kept looking for a restaurant which a lot of locals seem to frequent. I found one, and got a table. I didn’t get anything that interesting, but feel that was mainly due to not being familiar with the menu. Most of the diners there were getting these dishes in clay pots that were meant to be shared. I also went to a Chinese bakery and got a moon cake. I spent a few hours in total exploring Chinatown, really taking my time to walk through the whole neighborhood. Very cool part of town, probably a mix of authentic Chinese culture and a bit of fake culture to sell to the tourists.
One of the best touristy things I discovered in San Francisco are the City Guide tours. These are free tours given by locals who just love their city and enjoy showing it off. They have several throughout the day, covering every neighborhood and area from Market Street, Haight-Ashbury, The Castro, Mission District, and Fisherman’s Wharf. They also had one to explore the Palace Hotel. There’s a pretty sordid history to the hotel, and President Harding actually died there under mysterious circumstances. The entryway leads into a giant room which kind of takes your breath away when you see it. Another tour I did was one of Market Street. The earthquake and fire of 1906 are a common theme in just about every tour. I learned that the earthquake may have been bad, but what destroyed the city was when people starting lighting fires in their chimneys afterward. They soon discovered they had cracked, and flames began to catch the inner structures on fire. The city was essentially gone after the fire, so almost nothing you see looks like it did prior to 1906. Even if the structure remained, it was a shell. Renovations and additions to the buildings created an entirely different look. Another tour I did was of the Mission District neighborhood. This is one of the first neighborhoods of San Francisco, and was setup as a Catholic mission by Spanish priests in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. If you’re a tourist, but want to escape from the other tourists, this is the area for you. It’s gritty, and was a pretty bad area up until 10 years ago, but has a lot of culture. I learned on the tour that the area is one of the few places in SF where you can find buildings in near original state dating back to the time before the earthquake. The reason is that a fire line was created by burning a block of homes in order to stop the fire there. Also, one of the few working fire hydrants after the quake is located there, and credited with saving areas of the Mission.
The City Guide tours are really awesome, and if you’re going to SF, you should definitely check them out. They do ask for a donation, but there’s no obligation. I gave a few bucks, and felt it was worth it.
For my accommodations, two weeks prior to arriving, I sent out about ten Couchsurfing requests. I only had one person respond and accept for two nights. I booked a hostel for the rest and stayed at one in the downtown area so I could be close to the action. I had been told to avoid an area in SF called the Tenderloin due to its seedy nature and high crime. After arriving at the hostel, I checked on google maps and realized the hostel was actually IN the Tenderloin… so much for that. It’s really not that bad of an area, but I tried to avoid it at night. The hostel was nice, and I met several people who I ended up going out for drinks with. On my third day, I went to a couchsurfing happy hour being hosted just a couple blocks from the hostel. I met several locals, but I’d say half the people there were fellow travelers. Still, it was great to meetup with locals because I hadn’t been able to do that in SLC. They gave me some tips on things to see.
As I mentioned, I did have a host for a couple nights… Ryan and Maria live near the ocean on the far West side of SF. I had a great time, and really enjoyed my stay there. They reminded me of the way I am when hosting which is very accommodating, and willing to take time to hang out and get to know the surfer. I never expect food or even a towel at a CS host’s home, but Ryan and Maria fed me, let me use their shower and even took me around town. They drove me around their area, and we went for some walks in nearby parks. They then dropped me off near the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge so I could walk across and get some pics (more on this below).
One unexpected turn of events was that Ryan and Maria were hosting an English girl, Dani, at the same time as me. Dani was also on an Around-the-World trip, but was 11 months in, and had one month to go. It was so funny to run into her like that at a mutual host’s home. We hit it off right away, and ended up going out to dinner that first night when our host had other plans. We checked out a dessert place afterwards that Maria had recommended… Tart-n-Tart. They had really delicious cakes, and Dani and I couldn’t decide on what to order, so we ended up getting two different slices of cake and sharing. I left Ryan and Maria’s the following day, but Dani and I ended up going out for pizza and drinks that night with another English guy from my hostel. We talked about our mutual interest in seeing some of the murals and graffiti in the Mission District, so arranged to meetup again on my final day. (Those are the pics from above). Funny enough, we ended up going back to Tart-n-Tart afterwards even though it was a bit out of the way. Ahhh…. yet again, I meet a cute girl who’s fun, adventurous, and charms me with her accent. We have an awesome time together, and then have to part ways. Such is the travel life sometimes 😦
I held off going to Golden Gate Bridge until later in the week when I was at Ryan and Maria’s since it was closer to their home than the hostel. It was foggy and overcast when I finally made it there, but think the fog created a cool effect in my pics. I walked across the bridge and back. The view is incredible, but it’s loud with all the cars going by. I recommend ear plugs and a jacket and you’ll enjoy it a bit more. I didn’t ride too much of the public transit here… mostly MUNI trains. For one, the city really isn’t that big, and you can walk just about anywhere. The system is also this confusing mix of a lot of different modes of transport. You have the BART, MUNI trains and buses, trolley cars and cable cars. The cable cars are distinguished by the fact they don’t use the overhead wires for power, but are literally pulled up the hills via a cable and pulley system underneath the streets. There’s even a Cable Car Museum that’s free and allows you to see the inner workings of the system. Those big wheels aren’t just for the tourists, that’s 100 year old technology still at work getting people up the steep hills of San Francisco. A local told me most locals don’t ride them, and at $6 a ride, it seemed kind of a steep price for regular transport. I had been climbing up mountains in CO and UT for two weeks prior, so I had no problem scaling the hills on foot.
I wouldn’t be giving a fair assessment of the city if I didn’t mention the homeless situation. I’ve been to NYC a lot, as well as other big cities on this trip, but the homeless situation in SF is the most severe I’ve ever seen. San Francisco climate is certainly a contributing factor. A person can tolerate living outside all year long since it never really gets that cold or hot. The situation goes beyond homelessness, though. I saw a lot people talking and or yelling at invisible things on a daily basis. It shocks you because some of these people seem completely normal at first glance. During one of the City Guide tours, a woman nicely dressed carrying a purse was walking down the street. She stopped when she got to our group, and began shouting at us in a language I didn’t recognize. She was in a complete rage and had this face that I can only describe as vengeful. I’ll never get that image out of my head. After her tie-raid, she returned to a quiet demeanor and kept on walking as if she turned off a switch. Another time while waiting to get into a restaurant, one guy just started urinating steps from where our group was standing. It’s common to smell urine in city streets, but to see people going to the bathroom in plain view like that was disturbing. I also saw groups of five to ten people together sleeping on the street. It’s pretty terrible, and I never got used to it.
I’ll wrap up on a more positive note… the ocean. I did make it out on one of my last mornings. It was overcast, but this boy who grew up in landlocked Ohio will always appreciate gazing into the ocean for hours.
San Francisco is obviously a fun city with a ton to see and do, great food, interesting people and a cool history. The earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed the town, but the love of its residents helped it rise from the ashes like the Phoenix… the symbol of San Francisco. Everything from the tech jobs, incredible views of the ocean and bay areas, steep hills, cable cars and Northern California lifestyle will keep people coming for years to come. Although I wouldn’t want to live there, I could see SF being a once a year trip for me. I’ll come back again and checkout Muir Woods along with some of the museums next time. Maybe even stay in a hostel again and see what kinds of adventures that can lead to.