“Welcome aboard” sang our tour guide Vicky, “how are we all this morning…welcome to the beautiful Saaaaan Fraaaaancisco!”
She had a beautiful lilting voice, American with a strong twang of English and a hint of Australian, it was hard to place.
“Are we all ready to explore this glorious city?”
I think she was disappointed by our grumbled responses because she asked again, a little louder. “Yes!” we shouted back.
The cable car
We had booked a 3 hour tour with Hornblower Classic Cable Cars for their San Francisco Experience City Tour.
The tour is on a motorised cable car, I mean, who needs a bus when you can travel on something so iconic, and takes in the main sights of the city with stops.
The tour starts just off Fisherman’s Wharf, and was easy enough to find. We booked on the 9am one, so we would have time to go back and explore places afterwards.
“Right, has everyone got a drink and a breakfast bar? Good. Off we go!”
And we’re off
The cable car chugged into action and heading down Columbus Street towards Little Italy and Chinatown.
Vicky explained that a lot of Chinese came to California during the gold rush and stayed to help build the railroads. San Francisco’s Chinatown is the second biggest Chinese community, outside of Asia, over 24 blocks.
And we continued on through Nob Hill and Union Square, before reaching our first stop at the City Hall.
The City Hall, or Civic Centre, was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1906, and looks more like a building you would find in Rome.
The Civic Centre is just as beautifully decorated inside.
“Oh look, they must be doing some bridal photo shoots,” I said, pointing to the 7 or so women in different bridal gowns hanging around the staircase.
Vicky laughed, “Noooo, they’re all here to get married. It’s a very popular place to tie the knot” she leaned in, “And very expensive!”
Back on the cable car, our next stop was the ‘Painted Ladies’ on Alamo Square.
These gorgeous Victorian houses have been beautifully restored and sit in stark contrast to the modern skyscrapers in the distance.
These are by no means the only wooden Victorian houses in San Francisco, but probably the most famous. They’ve appeared in more than 70 movies, TV programmes, and adverts over the years.
The smell of cannabis was the first thing to hit us as we rounded the corner onto Haight Street.
“Don’t go eating any brownies until after the tour, ladies and gentlemen!”
Haight Ashbury is known as the birthplace of the Hippie.
This neighbourhood used to be prominently middle class, but the area was hit hard after the Depression and during the housing shortage in World War II , lots of the homes were split into apartments or boards. Many people moved to newer, cheaper to run houses in the suburbs. This meant, by the 1960s, there was an abundance of cheap, vacant rooms and the hippie subculture flourished.
Stop the bus!
All aboard for the ride over the Golden Gate Bridge.
Now this was definitely something that you have to do while your in San Francisco. We all took a collective gasp as the caught a glimpse of the burnt red structure….
“STOP! STOP THE BUS! OH MY GOD, WE NEED TO STOP NOW!!!!”
Everyone turned to look at the couple sat at the back of the vehicle. Vicky ran over to see what was up.
“My purse, I’ve dropped my purse”
The cable car came to a holt as the passenger explained she’d dropped her purse over the open side of the cab.
“It’s OK, we can go back,” Vicky reassured her, with a concerned look on her face. At that point, a car came towards us beeping and flashing. Luckily, they had seen the drama unfold and had picked up the purse from the road side.
After a lot of thank yous, we set off again to cross the bridge.
Golden Gate Bridge
There are no words to describe crossing the Golden Gate Bridge than wow.
Wow for two reasons. Wow it’s incredibly beautiful, and wow it’s incredibly windy!
There was originally opposition to the structure – some claimed it would ruin the dramatic landscape, others said it wouldn’t be possible because of the strong tidal currents. The bridge took 4 years to build, and 11 workers died during the construction.
We pulled into the vista point on Golden Gate View. It was teeming with people all elbowing each other to take photos, videos and selfies with no one else in the viewfinder.
We passed through Presidio and into one of San Francisco’s most affluent neighbourhoods. Every single house is different, with the owners own style and taste stamped all over it. But they all have perfectly manicured gardens and hedges.
This is the end…
…of the tour at least. We’d seen, done and learnt so much in the 3 hours we spent with Vicky. It gave us a great introduction to the city and meant we ticked off a lot of sights in a small space of time. Perfect, since we only had a few days here. But now there was no time to waste – we had plenty more to see!
Fish and chips
We walked along the front till we reached Pier 39, built using recycled wood from the old wharves. The area is very touristy, but lunch called so we found a place to eat.
We got a window seat at the Eagle cafe. It turns out this restaurant has been serving their home style meals since the 1920s.
We both ordered the fish and chips and sat back to admire the views.
The food was very tasty, and there was a lot of it. The only thing was, I mistook the maple syrup on the table for vinegar…luckily I realised, but not before I’d covered a layer of chips in sticky, sweet sauce!
Japanese Tea Garden
After lunch, we caught the bus up to the Japanese Tea Garden.
It was created in 1893 for the Midwinter International Exposition, making it the oldest public Japanese garden in America. Walking round the carefully laid out gardens, you pass a koi pond, pagoda, bridges and even a tea house.
It was a beautiful place, away from the hustle and bustle of downtown San Francisco.
The Buddha statue was gifted to the garden in 1949, but dates from 1790. The stunning pagoda represents one of the 5 natural elements within the Japanese philosophy, starting with earth at the base, followed by fire, wind, water and sky/heaven at the top.
An unsuccessful museum visit
Across the road from the Tea Garden is the California Academy of Sciences.
The museum is home to the world’s deepest indoor coral reef, four-story rainforest and earthquake simulator.
The entrance fee was quite high, at $35.95 but it seemed worth it for the amount of things to see. We noticed a sign saying the rainforest exhibition was closed. No matter.
We went to the booth the buy tickets and were told the museum was only open for another hour, so we decided to call it day and wandered back to the AirBnB in West Portal.
If we had more time
There’s so much to see in San Francisco, and plenty of day trips you can make from the city, such as Berkeley, Sausalito, Muir Woods and, of course, the wine county. A few things we would have done in the city if we had another day.
- Visit Coit Tower
- Drive down Lombard Street
- Watch the San Francisco 49ers
- Explore the Yerba Buena Gardens
- Spend more time in Fisherman’s Wharf