My childhood. The Princess Diaries. Yes, that's where I saw the hilly streets of San Francisco for the first time. Many years later I got to see the city for myself. Parts of the city remind me of New York - skyscrapers that cast their shadows on everything below, the financial district with businesspeople hurrying along in their formal attire, head offices of companies like Twitter and Uber. On other blocks it does feel like Cape Town (a comparison that's often made) as the air is calm and coffee is enjoyed leisurely.
I'm a planner, but even if that's not your go-to operating mode, I do recommend that you plot and group your sights for each day. San Francisco is big and it's not easy to navigate, at least that's my experience. You will be walking kilometers every day and it won't be flat...to the contrary. Another heads-up, summer does not mean sandals and dresses. I was there in the middle of 'summer' and was wearing a winter jacket the whole time. Scroll down to see what awaits you!
Union Square is a pleasant spot to catch some rays and just rest your feet.
Make an effort and find Dolores Park. You'll be rewarded with a view of the city skyline and a serene environment, ideal for a picnic.
An obligatory tourist picture of The Painted Ladies, often used in movies and TV series. Expect to see lots of people!
San Francisco is of course known for the Golden Gate Bridge. Impressive for sure, but ice cold when the mist rolls in and the wind is blowing.
From the Golden Gate Bridge, walk along the Crissy Field promenade to The Palace of Fine Arts.
Then make your way to Billionaires Row in the Pacific Heights neighbourhood. Palatial mansions and manicured gardens of politicians, tech royalty and business barons will blow your mind. Eventually you will find the Lyon Street Steps which will provide you with a unique vantage point of the city.
Pier 39 feels like a film set. A waterfront for shopping, eating and socialising. Remember to go and find the seals!
Other things to do: ride a cable car, visit Haight-Asbury to see where the hippie movement started and have a peak at Lombard Street, "the crookedest street in the world". If you see Ghirardelli chocolate, spoil yourself. You won't be sorry. I didn't have high expectations, as it's not Swiss or Belgian chocolate, but man, it was yummy! On a sadder note, San Francisco has a big homeless population and I found it difficult to deal with the extent of it. For me it was hard to fullt enjoy my time as a tourist when I saw the harsh, daily realities of so many people. I'm always extremely grateful when I have the opportunity to travel and in San Francisco I appreciated the privilege even more.
By taking a ferry and then a bus, you can get to Muir Woods and be amazed by the redwood trees - the tallest living beings on earth. The bus ride has quite some twists and turns so if you get carsick you might want to take your anti-nausea remedies with you. Inside the park you'll find walking/hiking routes varying in length and difficulty. I found just sitting underneath these natural monuments a very humbling experience. After a few days in the city, I really enjoyed being in nature so a day trip to Muir Woods is a good idea in my book.
You will read online that it's a massive effort to get to Napa with public transport. I didn't find it to be so disruptive - I took one train ride and one bus ride. Once in Napa I stopped by The Oxbow Market. I doubt whether you can make any wrong choice here, but if you feel overwhelmed, narrow yourself to Gott's Roadside or The Model Bakery (which boasts Oprah's favourite English muffins). Getting to the wineries is probably easiest when you have a car, but that was not an option for me and I chose Laces and Limos instead. They drive you around in a Tuk-Tuk and they even provide you with a snackpack, which includes their personally branded M&M's. Be warned though: Napa is not cheap.
Where to stay
I stayed in Berkeley and travelled to San Francisco using the BART (public transport). Apart from the university, there's not a whole lot to do and see here, but it was cheaper to stay in Berkeley than in San Francisco.
The Graduate Hotel in Berkeley has some of the coolest, quirkiest decor I've seen and all staff members are very friendly and helpful.
Where to eat and drink
Cult bakery Tartine has daily queues of bread and pastry lovers. There's not a lot of space to sit inside, but there are some tables outside or grab a take-away order and enjoy the view in nearby Dolores Park.
Blame it on the movies again, but I really wanted to eat at a real American diner. I ended up going to Mel's Drive-in which had jukebox music and booths! The atmosphere, with off-duty policemen enjoying their lunch too, was priceless.
I'll admit it. If a reputable guidebook or blog claims that someplace has the best 'fill in the blank' then I want to try it and see what the hype is about. After standing in line for more than an hour to have Mama's french toast, I'm glad to say that it was completely worth it.
The Boudin bakery is more than 150 years old. For the first time in my life I could taste the sour in sourdough and the authentic taste was quite delicious.
Also on my list...
- Yosemite National Park is about four hours from San Francisco. Book in advance as accommodation inside the park is very popular. Stay a night or two, hike, visit the Giant Sequoias, breathe and marvel at the beauty around you. I had everything planned and booked and then unfortunately due to the terrible wild fires this year Yosemite was closed down. Hopefully you'll have better luck!