San Francisco was the first destination of my big Summer 2015 west-coast USA holiday. I booked up well in advance to spend a week staying with one of my best friends, Ali, who moved to California for a new job last year. Ali is a doctoral researcher at UC Berkeley and lives in the heart of city, and it was perfect to have one of my closest friends as the tour guide for my trip.
Six days was just the right amount of time to see every corner of San Francisco and Ali had made sure our my visit was jam-packed with fun activities all the way through. Whilst Ali was at work I had time to explore districts by myself and become a local for a few hours, and at the weekend we took in the big sights and completed a pretty awesome tourist checklist.
My list combines a mixture of big attractions and quieter downtime activities, so just for you, here are my top 10 in no particular order:
1. Start your day with a walk down to Fourth Street and relax and do nothing at Artis Coffee. People watch and kick-back at a window seat. Perhaps follow your caffeine fix with a look round the fabulous interior design shops or independent fashion outlets and make-up stores. This street is every girl-about-town’s dream for a free morning of roaming.
2. Get the bus back and have lunch in Gourmet Ghetto
The Berkeley business district has some amazing eateries dotted on and off Shattuck Avenue, nicknamed Gourmet Ghetto for its choices. I met Ali for lunch at Poulet – one of the street’s many French delis with canteen-style wooden benches, loads of light, heaps of chicken, salads and fresh, organic awesomeness.
3. Stroll round UC Berkeley campus grounds, and the sorority/frat houses (yep, its very much like how an American chick flick portrays them) and rewind back to your student days. There are some very cute shops on College Avenue in the Elmwood neighborhood if you’ve got more time to wander about.
4. Head back to campus and take a stroll down Telegraph Avenue
Peruse the record and book shops whilst listening to street tunes and definitely join the queue for an ice-cream sandwich from CREAM.
I literally sniffed the shop and put weight on. Don’t let the queue length put you off – it’s a get-served and get-out affair so you’re not waiting long. You can even snap up some trendy college attire at the Cal Student Store if you’re feeling particularly in need of a UC Berkeley souvenir.
This is hands down the best historical tour I’ve ever done. EVER. It was totally amazing and made me want to read more (and watch Escape from Alcatraz) as soon as I got home. It is so perfectly preserved; the views from the ferry over to the island are pretty special, and the audio tour is great. Note, if you don’t book this at least a month in advance of your trip you will be disappointed. They don’t sell tickets on the day either so book it up sharpish! I’ve heard the night tour is pretty scary, so if you’re feeling daring, do it (I’m a wuss so no chance!).
6. Eat clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf
You are completely spoilt for options when choosing where to sample this famous San Fran dish served in a bread bowl. I opted for tourist hotspot Boudin Bakery, which was close by on Pier 39 after I returned from the Alcatraz tour.
This is tasty lunch is carb-lovers dream with a subtle fishy flavour. Gooey bread soaks up all the creamy potato goodness to leave you full for hours.
7. Take a day trip to Napa Valley and sample Californian classics to your heart’s content in wine country. We took a bus tour on a Sunday (booked for £50 pp through Viator) and took in the Cline Family Winery, Nicholson Ranch and the Madonna Estate. The architecture, interior design and grounds at each were simply stunning. We got so carried away after a few slurps too many and a good chat over a glass of Pinot Noir that we nearly got left behind by our driver! Oops.
You’re a fool if you don’t come back with a couple of bottles for your friends and family!
8. Eat Mexican in the Mission
Spend a few hours mural-hunting and get snapping the colourful pieces dotted around the district walls, then grab a blanket and sit on the hill in Dolores park. Lie down with a cold drink, people watch and let the view of San Francisco from up high sink in.
San Fran isn’t short of rooftop bars with amazing views, and El Techo de Lolinda in the heart of Mission St didn’t disappoint. Serving the best Latin American street food, order as many small plates of Mexican eats as you can manage and wash them all down with a few Cuba Libres or Piña Coladas. Sandwiched between the bright blue parasols as you arrive on the rooftop from the lift is a breathtaking panoramic view of the city. A brilliant way to watch the sun go down on your final night in San Francisco.
Before you go for a mammoth Mexican feast and settle in on the rooftop in your Ray-Bans, you must grab your elevenses at Tartine! A world-famous bakery, known for their expertise in sourdough bread (my sister Francesca, who is a baker, informs me that staff member Chad is a ‘bread hero’) and an excellent series of books. Their on-the-corner home has a busy community feel and fed me the best slice of lemon tart I’ve ever had. Divine.
9. Cycle over Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito
Set aside your Saturday for big tour day. Hire a bike from Downtown (right by Embarcadero station) and cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. It’ll take you a couple of hours at a leisurely pace, just make sure you take it slow (there are some brutal hills!) and get your camera out along the way. The Golden Gate Bridge is as incredible close-up as it is from across the bay, and the houses in Sausalito are gorgeous. I set many life goals on this cycle ride let me tell you!
Book the ferry back for you and your bike and secure your ticket in advance. Otherwise you’ll be queueing to get on the return journey for hours and hours (this was us, and it wasn’t fun).
Immerse yourself in the history of American hippy culture in this dreamy neighbourhood. Think Camden Town, California style. Haight-Ashbury is home to some of the most amazing thrift and vintage stores dotted between jewellery shops and bars.
I am now the proud owner of a pair of gorgeous vintage Bally court shoes and Ali picked up a classic leather Coach satchel for $30 – such a steal!
I can only imagine what it would have been like to live in this place in the 60s….unbelievably cool and care-free.
So there you have it, my top 10 things to do in San Fran. Get booking your trip now people!
I flew to San Francisco from London with Virgin Atlantic, and managed to secure a indirect flight for just under £600.