When great friends get together in a wonderful place, magic happens. One of the downsides of an expat life is being away from family and friends, so every possibility to spend time together is bound to bring myriads of joy. Naturally, I was ecstatic when my two besties and I managed to plan a joint summer vacation! And what could be a better place for a reunion than the Golden State?! Dazzling cities, gorgeous wine country, scenic Pacific coastline, endless sunny beaches, and picturesque national parks – with so much ahead of us, we made sure to pack hiking shoes, swimsuits and a big sense of adventure.
Like other full-time employed people, we were limited in our vacation days and had a strict budget. Being determined to make most of our trip, we came up with an itinerary that would cover all major California hotspots. We decided to start with exploring the Northern part of the State and travel down to the South, spending total of 10 days in California and then swing to Las Vegas for additional 2 days (Eek!). Considering all the constraints this turned out to be an ultimate travel plan which I’m eager to share with you in a series of blog posts highlighting each of our travel destinations.
Are you ready to hit the road? Ok, then! First stop: San Francisco.
Famous for grand-dame Victorians, classic cable cars, dynamic diversity, a beautiful waterfront, and a soaring crimson bridge, the City by the Bay justifiably stands out as one of the ultimate must-sees on any traveler’s wish list.
Tip – weather: you know what Mark Twain once said about summer in San Francisco? “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.” And let me tell you, he meant every word of it! Make sure to pack a few light sweaters, sweatshirts, hoodies, or cardigans because even in August it gets really chilly in the mornings and evenings.
Tip – shoes: make sure to pack comfortable shoes. Between slopes and cobblestone streets, I don’t think there is any room for your pumps. Save those for Las Vegas! ;)
Tip – tours vs. rental car: we thoroughly compared the prices and after factoring in the cost of the rental car, fuel and parking, plus stress of driving in an unknown parts and finding the parking space, we opted for using public transport/Uber in San Francisco and booking some organized day trips to Sonoma and Napa Valley, West Coast and Yosemite. We do not regret any minute of it!
Tip – lodging: make Airbnb.com your best friend. It was definitely our lifesaver through the entire vacation. We managed to book the cutest apartments in the best locations while paying half the price compared to ridiculous hotel rates.
Girls flew in all the way from Georgia (with 2 layovers and over 24 hours en route), while I traveled from my current home, Haiti. We all got in late on the first night and as excited as we were to see each other, an exhaustion took toll on us and we all passed out. After a few hours of restful sleep we woke up refreshed and ready to venture out for some adventures!
First things first, we climbed onto the rooftop terrace of our house to take in the gorgeous views of the Bay in daylight.
After being done with our goofy photo session, we headed out to explore the sights on our travel itinerary.
Often called the “crookedest” street in the world, this scenic cobblestone road on Russian Hill features tight turns, fragrant gardens and beautiful views of the bay, Alcatraz, and Coit Tower.
Fisherman’s Warf and PIER 39
No trip to San Francisco goes without a visit to Fisherman’s Warf. Located along the historic San Francisco Waterfront, its location provides the picture perfect backdrop for postcard views of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, Alcatraz, Angel Island and the famous City skyline.
You will find two levels of seafood eateries (don’t miss freshly caught cracked crab dipped in melted butter or a hearty chowder in sourdough bowls), street performers, souvenir shops and boutiques.
One of the biggest attractions, however, is a barking and bellowing throng of sea lions. Stop by the docks to see these hefty pinnipeds have a leisurely beach party on the floating docks of the Pier, not minding the sea of tourists eagerly ogling and photographing them.
Tip: Make sure to book the tour online well in advance because tickets sell out quickly and getting one on the day of the tour is almost impossible.
To get additional information on how to plan your trip to Alcatraz, please refer to this site, which by the way is full of other great travel tips!
San Francisco Cable Cars
True icons of San Francisco, the cable cars are symbolic of the charm and distinct flavor of the city. In no other place can you ride a moving national historic monument. Plus, this is the last manually operated cable car system in the world.Usually they are very crowded by enthusiastic tourists, but we lucked out to find an empty one parked on Powel Street and made sure to use it as a photoshoot back drop. ;)
The Golden Gate Bridge
The gorgeous eye-grabbing fire-engine red Golden Gate Bridge is an undeniable icon of San Francisco and one of the world’s most famous landmarks, spanning an elegant bay 1.7 miles. I literally couldn’t not keep my eyes off of it. The whole place exudes peace and has some mesmerizing beauty to it.
Next day started with a walk to the Chinatown, which in fact is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest in the U.S.! The crowded sidewalks of this vibrant Asian hub are filled with Cantonese and Mandarin chatter, overflowing food stalls, and mysterious-looking shops.
Stick to Chinatown’s main artery of Grant Street, lined with markets and trinket and jade shops (the latter especially clustered around the Chinatown Gateway at the neighborhood’s southern end) or venture out to the quitter side streets for more adventures.
The places worth checking out include: Tin How Temple, Great China Herb Company, R & G Lounge, Vital Tea Leaf, Ming Lee Trading, Golden Gate Bakery, and the Wok Shop.
Next, we continued our way to the Financial District. Unlike chaotic Chinatown, you will find nothing but suit-and-tie order in the city’s financial district.
We didn’t linger here long because we were anxious to get to the Union Square, the hub for luxury shopping.
In the afternoon, we were picked up by another bestie of ours who drove us across the bridge to an idyllic beautiful little town Tiburon, in the neighboring Marin County.
Of course, we had to stop for a photo session on the other side of the Golden Gate.
We had the most relaxing lunch with a breathtaking vista of the bay at Servino Ristorante located right at the waterfront.
After lunch we headed back to the city to tour other famous attractions and neighborhoods of San Francisco.
We made sure to stop by the Painted Ladies. Alamo Square’s famous “postcard row” of colorful Victorian homes of the Queen Anne era is probably one of the most photographed locations in San Francisco.
We also had a tour around Haight-Ashbury. While not your safest district, Haight-Ashbury definitely has an interesting history as it was a birthplace of America’s counter-culture and served as a center of the 1960s hippie movement. Stroll along the street for vintage clothing, books and records. For architectural highlights head to Masonic, Piedmont and Delmar Streets.
We ended this beautiful day at the chocolate heaven – Ghirardelli Square! We had one destination in mind more than any other: the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop for its staggering menu of sundae choices: a “Gold Rush” (vanilla ice cream with hot fudge and peanut butter throughout), anyone?
The stately brick buildings in this impressive 1895 complex used to be the original site of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory. Now they are the home to passageways and plazas dotted with an assortment of boutiques and gift shops.
It was literally the sweetest end to our two days in San Francisco. <3
Although we spent another three nights in the city, we were out and about on day tours of Sonoma and Napa Valley; Pebble Beach, Monterey and Carmel By The Sea; and Yosemite Nation Park, which I will discuss in my next posts.
Needless to say, there are tons of things San Francisco has to offer which we didn’t manage to see and do. My biggest regret is not making it to the vibrant Mission District, as well as not lingering longer to explore The Golden Gate Park and The Presidio. But then, this gives me a perfect “excuse” to come back for more!
What are your favorites parts in the City by the Bay which you think is a must-see?
I also loved San Francisco but so much more the second time around. I visited in the 1980’s when I was in my 20’s and ticked the main tourist attractions off the list. I enjoyed it then but this time I was in my early 50’s and saw it in a whole different light. I am now totally in love with the architecture and think that is the main thing that would draw me back. I loved that each street seems to offer something different with a slightly new twist on the Victorian style houses and the quaint little shops that were nestled amongst them. All I wanted to do was knock on a door and ask to look inside, which of course I didn’t. I think this aspect of San Francisco is not promoted enough. I can’t wait to go back. Oh and by the way, do not ever compare this city to Los Angeles. This city has so much character and Los Angeles has …. well….great roads leading out of it.
Hello Karen! Thank you so much for reading and commenting. You made me think how much we actually miss by only concentrating on the “touristy” must-see places. While those are also important, it is often equally rewarding to just stroll the backstreets and breathe in everything the city has to offer. Like you said in case of SF it is outstanding architecture. And I totally agree about LA, visiting it once was quite enough for me. :)
I visited in April and had an amazing time! Especially visiting Alcatraz left a deep impression on me, but I also liked the hiking around San Francisco!
Also, your tip with Airbnb is spot on! We had one of our best Airbnb experiences in San Francisco!
So glad you had a great time! :) I love San Fran. Alcatraz was definitely memorable, there was an eerie vibe as I walked between those walls. This was also my first airbnb experience and will be my ultimate go-to source of travel accommodation from now on!
This sounds wonderful, but a few friends have had mixed experiences in San Fran – is it what you expected?
Oh no, I’m so sorry to hear that! Were they disappointed? or something went wrong? I personally enjoyed every minute of it and would go back in a heartbeat. Honestly, I even loved it more than L.A.!