So this is my first travel blog post since I started writing! I’m not sure what you’ll be interested in reading but I’d love any feedback you have in the comments below. I’m just going to cover some of my favourite parts of the trip with a few tips along the way. You might want to make yourself your drink of choice before getting started because I’ve got a lot to share.
In case you’d like to skip ahead to any particular parts, I’ve done a little contents list so you can see what I’ve written about.
- Why San Francisco?
- Where to stay in the city
- What to pack
- Transport, both public and car hire
- Must see spots
- Outside of San Francisco, including the coast to Monterey & Carmel, Muir Woods & Napa
- Vancouver (we had a short layover here!)
Why San Francisco?
It’s always been a bucket list destination for me ever since my first job working in a Thomas Cook call centre age 18. I worked on a team that did a 4 day on, 4 day off shift which meant I had to be trained on all products. When we covered the West Coast, the first page in the brochure was of a bread bowl filled with clam chowder being served at Fisherman’s Wharf and I knew then and there I had to eat that one day. The America training gave me a total obsession with visiting the country but until now I’ve only made it to New York (albeit 3 times) mostly just because of the cost associated to the flights. Nevertheless it remained high on my list of places to visit but I imagined it would be in a few years after some extra saving and combined with a full West Coast itinerary.
Then in September of last year, along came a total bargain of a flight deal with Air Canada meaning it was going to be not much more than a flight to Greece or Turkey. I couldn’t book it fast enough!!
Where to stay in the city
San Francisco is expensive. And the hotels are no exception. They’re more expensive than New York and somehow with even tinier rooms. I’m a big fan of AirBnB too but I couldn’t find a decent one for less than £130 a night and mostly pretty far out from the centre. And because we wanted to hire a car, we also needed somewhere with free parking because even though you can park on most streets, you have to move your car pretty much every day between certain times because of the street cleaning. Hotels offer valet parking but they were charging at least $45 plus tax per day!!
So I started scouting the internet and managed to find a little gem, the Geary Parkway Motel, which has free parking and was about a 20 minute bus ride into the centre from right outside the hotel. The hotel was extremely clean, the bed and pillows were soooo comfy plus there was a fridge and a safe at no extra charge. Oh and obviously the all important free WiFi. I’d highly recommend it if you’re looking for somewhere less than £100 a night.
Here’s the view from our room.
What to pack
Until a few years ago, I was an overpacker. But the last few times we’ve travelled I’ve tried to economise to try and cut down on the amount of baggage we take with us. I managed 11 nights in Greece last year with 2 hand luggages and 1 large suitcase between us! So I was determined to operate the same philosophy for this trip especially because I wanted to leave room for any shopping I might do. Air Canada offer 23kgs and unlimited hand luggage weights so we didn’t have to be too frugal but I still wanted to have a bit of space.
When we told people we were going to SF in January most of them said “oh you’ll have much better weather than seeing as it’s California”. But after a bit of research (and tips from my Instagram friends) I discovered that SF seems to have its own micro climate making it cooler than the rest of the state. Whilst it wasn’t freezing, it was 10-15 degrees every day, with 1 rainy day (that we headed out of the city on) and one particularly Baltic trip to Alcatraz. So we knew we didn’t need to pack winter clothes, we also could leave our flip flops at home.
I also know with a city break, we tend to get up and out quite early and spend the whole day experiencing the place before coming back to the hotel about 8pm to recharge before our next day pounding the pavements (our sidewalks in this case). No nightclubs and bars for us. Apart from the fact I was born middle aged, I need my beauty sleep to get a full day of sightseeing in.
- A medium weight jacket. Not a full on coat but it zipped right up to my chin and had decent pockets and a tuck away hood.
- A comfy pair of trainers (sneakers for any of my US readers). I bought some memory foam Sketchers before the trip which did me proud!
- A selection of long sleeve and short sleeve tops and knitwear – one for each day plus a couple of spares.
- 2 evening tops (just in case I felt some crazy urge to hit up a bar). I also brought some wedged boots just in case.
- Vests! I’m not sure what Americans call vests but I don’t mean a waistcoat. I knew that layering would be key for this trip so a trusty under layer was key.
- Socks – I rarely wear them in the UK but as we were going to walking a lot I wanted to make sure my feet were protected a bit better.
- 2 pairs of jeans.
- A belt.
- 4 lightweight scarves. I tend to stick with an all black outfit so a bright scarf brightens me up.
- My brand new Ona Palma camera bag which doesn’t look like a camera bag in cognac colour (if anyone is interested in a review of this please leave me a message and I’ll do a post). I’ve never had so many compliments on a bag before!
- Another little black bag just in case we went out in the evenings but I didn’t use it.
- And the usual pjs and underwear.
What I learnt though was in SF anything goes dress wise. Most people dressed very casually both in the day and evening so jeans and my sketchers were fine for everywhere we visited.
Transport, both public and car hire
SF, like most big cities, is very easy to get around. Buses are run by Muni and the rail is BART. And both run frequently. I have an iPhone and I found the maps app to be invaluable when set to the transport mode as it works out your route for you, even telling you what number bus to get on. Top marks Apple. Fares are pretty reasonable, around $2.50 per ride.
Whilst we stayed in the city we used a mixture of the buses and Uber, plus one trip on a train and another on a cable car which is of course a must do!
We had a hire car too for when we planned to go to Monterey and Carmel, and up to Napa. I left the car hire to the last minute which was a bit silly as it probably ended up costing more, but surprisingly it was cheaper for us to hire a convertible Mustang convertible than it was for a standard mid size car. So it was a no brainer. It was also cheaper to have it for a whole week.
Here’s my husband with our beast.
Driving in SF is not for the faint hearted. Wrong side of the road, strange speed limits, automatic transmission, strange road rules (you can turn right on a red WTF?) with unfamiliar routes and cars undertaking and overtaking, amongst other things! But my husband did an amazing job of keeping his cool, even with nervous Nellie over here in the passenger seat. It was totally worth it all for the top down drive over the Golden Gate Bridge though. If you want to drive, shop around as early as possible and don’t forget to take our insurance.
One of my favourite parts of our holidays because I love to try new food! The internet is full of recommendations for places to eat and specific food to try and we tried to squeeze in as many as we could. To mention just a few of the highlights, we had:
- An amazing breakfast in Eats near our hotel
- Giant sandwiches with a view at the Cheesecake Factory on Union Square
- Wine, cheese and ice cream cones at the Ferry Building
- Clam chowder in a bread bowl in Boudins at Fisherman’s Wharf
- Coke floats and fudge sundaes in the Ice Cream Bar
- Cruffins, donuts and churro croissants in Mr Holmes Bakehouse
- The best ever burger and the most amazing garlic fries in Gotts, Napa
- Flatbreads and mini donuts in Boon Fly Cafe in Napa
- Pancakes and maple syrup with the best orange juice I have ever drank in Eggs, Vancouver
There are so many restaurants, cafes and bars in SF, you’ll be spoilt for choice.
I had always wanted to visit Alcatraz ever since I saw The Rock with Sean Connery. I had originally planned for us to do the evening tour but after reading up on reviews about the different types of tours, I decided it wasn’t worth the extra cost, which was nearly double the day tour. We decided to go for the early bird tour which was another $10 cheaper than the standard day trip and we wanted to beat the crowds. Unfortunately, we hadn’t prepared ourselves for the traffic that SF has that early in the morning but luckily they allowed us to go on the next boat over. My research prior to the trip warned me that it would probably be a bit chilly on the boat going over and it didn’t lie – it was really cold!! I was so grateful I’d brought my cashmere gloves and had a scarf on because the wind was blowing! It was also a little choppy and you could actually see the currents whirling in the water, making me think about the people that tried to escape by swimming that channel. The trip over was also our first experience of Karl. In case you’ve not met Karl, he’s the SF fog. Yes, the locals have named him 🙂 It was pretty foggy on the way out there which made even eerier!
Alcatraz is run by Golden Gate National Park, and it’s a really well run operation. You get a welcome talk when you arrive, and as well as the headphone tour of the prison, they have some mini tours at different points of the day. We got to see the one where they show you have the locking mechanism of the cell doors works which was so interesting! Although it housed some of America’s worst criminals, it was certainly made you feel sorry for anyone that had to stay somewhere like that.
Once we’d finished the tour, we headed outside. The ranger at the welcome talk told us that we were lucky because the agave walk was open that day and due to close a couple of days later as they don’t allow visitors to walk in that area during bird nesting season. She was right that we were lucky because it was beautiful, such a different side to the prison almost like a tropical island complete with huge agave plants, seals and bird catching octopus from the shallow waves.
And the sun came out! We went from Karl completely blocking the view back to the city to having glorious sunshine and a beautiful view. We actually managed to get the sunnies out and it began to feel more like California than Alaska!
Must See Spots
I could go on and on about all the places to visit in SF and I’m not going to tell you anything different than what you can already get from the guide books or the hundreds of travel blogs on the internet. But I can tell you my favourite spots. There is so much to see in SF so make sure you’ve got your comfy shoes on!
City Hall is beautiful and I could almost imagine Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio standing on those steps in the sunshine after their wedding!
There are lots of shops in Union Square which is just a short walk from City Hall (although most seemed more expensive than the UK) but of course you have to look around Macy’s and Westfield is also worth a look for the curved escalators! Outside Westfield is the stop for the cable car (which is soooo worth the $7 each to go up the crazy hills and down them again to Fisherman’s Wharf). There are also some great views of the TransAmerica pyramid if you walk over to the Ferry Building too. Chinatown is close by and has some of the worst hills, but is so pretty lined with red lanterns and pagoda style buildings. And the fortune cookie factory which is fun for a quick look.
We also did the walk from the Ferry Building up to Pier 11 which was a great walk for people watching – we saw all sorts of cool people and runners on that route. Plus it runs alongside the tram line which is yet another cool mode of SF transport! We walked to the end of the super long Pier 11 and got a great view of the TransAmerica Pyramid in the setting sun.
A trip to SF is not complete without a visit to the majestic Golden Gate Bridge. Walking around the corner and see that bridge in all it’s glory was a truly memorable experience, I actually felt like I had fallen into a guide book. We had taken our cruffins with us and we sat on the wall stuffing our faces with that indescribable view in front of us and I actually felt a bit emotional! We got there at the perfect time of day as we got to see it in the sun, but also as the sun went down which made it glow even more golden, and then in the dark with all it’s twinkly lights. I couldn’t take enough photographs
And for all of you who grew up with Full House like me (hello John Stamos amiright?) a trip to SF is not complete without a trip to see the houses from the opening credits. My husband had no idea what I was on about but nevertheless followed me up the hill to see them. We were actually quite lucky when we got there as it was quite empty and apart from a couple of other tourists taking selfies, we had the whole of Alamo Park to ourselves. It would make a great place for a picnic and the view across the city was amazing.
Outside of San Francisco, including the coast to Monterey & Carmel, Muir Woods & Napa
Outside of the city, we took a day trip down to Monterey and Carmel. The sat nav wanted to force us to go on the inland road as it’s quicker but I definitely recommend ignoring it and head down the coastal road instead. Even though we had a slightly overcast day, it was a beautiful view and we stopped along the way to take some pictures at Pigeon Point lighthouse before continuing down the coast. If I’m honest I found Monterey a little disappointing. We didn’t go into the aquarium – it was $50 per person which I thought was just too expensive, so instead we walked down to the sea to try and find any wild otters which we did! Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get any decent photos of them but i felt very privileged to have seen the little guys hanging out on their backs in the kelp. Apart from the sea otters, the rest of Monterey was just like most seaside towns, for those of you from the UK, it reminded me of Great Yarmouth or sunny Hunny – lots of ‘tat’ shops and overpriced restaurants. So after a short walk around, we headed down to Carmel which was a really pretty little town with a gorgeous white sand beach. We had a walk on the beach and round the main streets before we headed back up to SF.
One of my favourite parts of the whole holiday was our trip to Muir Woods. The drive over there was amazing – the weather was stunning so we put the top down on the Mustang and headed over the Golden GateBridge, through the rainbow adorned Robin Williams Tunnel. To get to Muir Woods, it’s a windy drive over Mount Tamalpais which is a gorgeous if somewhat hair raising road! But it was worth it to see Muir Woods. I’ve always wanted to see redwoods and as we didn’t have time to drive to Yosemite, a colleague had suggested Muir Woods as an alternative and I was so grateful for the tip – I don’t have enough superlatives to describe what an awesome place it was. The tree were absolute giants, the air was so clean and fresh and the whole feeling of the place was one of peace and calm. Also run by the National Park Service, it was run very well and we got to attend one of the ranger-led talks which was really worth it to learn more about the woods, why it’s there and also about the wildlife – banana slug anyone?! It’s only about a 30 minute drive from the city and there are public transport options if you don’t have a car. I cannot recommend it enough, if I lived in SF I would go there every weekend.
From Muir Woods we headed onto Napa, which was another favourite stop. My top tip for visiting wine country is to stop at Napa Tourist Information Center to pick up some discount vouchers for the vineyard tasting menus. You may have some vineyards in mind to visit but a trip to tourist information is really useful as they have maps showing distances and lots of 2 for 1 vouchers, making your trip much more affordable. We only had a day to visit so they recommended 2-3 stops. We picked the Andretti Estate first, which we didn’t initially realise but is owned by Mario Andretti, the famous race car driver. It was a small and relaxed estate and we got to wander around the estate whilst quaffing our wine – oh the life! We then went to the Laird Family Estate which was also a small family run place – it was so friendly and the staff were really welcoming. It was a lovely place to conclude our wine tasting.
Our last stop was a few hours in Vancouver. I would’ve liked the opportunity to have gone outside the city to the mountains and maybe even to Whistler but we just had a few short hours. So we had a walk through the city, a little trip across the water on a tiny ferry to Granville Island. There was a lovely little market there which we had a wander round, before getting the ferry again onto the main city in search of pancakes. Unfortunately that was the end of the trip and we had to make our way back to the airport.
And that concludes our trip around North Cali and Vancouver. We had an unforgettable trip and cannot wait to head back to America the first chance we get! I’m already in holiday planning mode thinking about our next trip – will it be America or will it be somewhere else. I’d love to know what you thought about this post and if you’d like me to blog more about places I’ve been please comment below. I’d also love to hear about your favourite trips!