With its myriad hills, vibrant neighbourhoods, sparkling bay, retro cable cars and crimson bridge, San Francisco knows how to leave a lasting impression. It’s new yet familiar, fulfilling yet leaves you longing for more. And when it comes time to dine, the city is awash with excellent restaurants. On its doorstep, legendary wine regions beckon. It’s hard to resist an American staple that does it all and does it well – without feeling like it’s even trying. Here’s a city guide to San Francisco.
In the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay lurks one of the city’s most famous landmarks: Alcatraz Island. Known as ‘The Rock’, this formidable fortress was once home to notorious felons such as Al Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Robert ‘the Birdman’ Stoud when it was used as a maximum-security prison from 1934 to 1963. But before it housed the nation’s most dangerous prisoners, Acatraz Island served as a Civil War fortress and military prison and originally, was developed to house the first West Coast Lighthouse.
No trip to San Francisco is complete without stepping foot on Alcatraz, now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Areas. Some believe ghosts of the former prisoners still remain. A haunting experience day and night, for full effect consider joining a night tour for an extra dose of adrenalin. Reservations for all visits are essential – it’s strong recommended to make these in advance. Tickets include the ferry ride, entry and the award-winning cellhouse audio tour narrated by former inmates and guards, which recounts harrowing tales of prison life and attempted escapes.
Those sweeping views of orange-ochre spans suspended in a blanket of fog over rustling waters forms an ever-lasting icon of the city. The Golden Gate Bridge is the world’s most photographed bridge (it’s also one of the longest suspension bridges on the planet), but no picture compares to seeing it up close and in the flesh. Pace the 2,737 span end-to-end via the eastern walkway (open during daylight hours) or zoom across on two wheels (accessible 24 hours a day). The city skyline panoramas will make it worthwhile.
If that still sounds like too much work, opt for a ride on a vintage streetcar. These lovingly-restored, colourful retro trolleys were brought over from the likes of Milan and Hamburg and there’s even an original New Orleans street car still toddling up and down the streets. For a sheer $2 (even less for seniors), the vintage F-Line streetcar can take you on a grand tour of Civic Center, Downtown and Fisherman’s Wharf – some of the most admired districts.
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For a treat that’s truly local and a delicious souvenir, drop into a See’s Candies shop. They’re dotted all over the city. Made locally (with a second candy factory in Los Angeles), they remain focused on using only the freshest ingredients and no added preservatives. Bite in to delectable chocolates, fudges, toffees, lolly pops and many other irresistible morsels.
When globe-trotting celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain said, "If god made anything better he kept it for himself”, he was eating the crab fat and roe at Swan Oyster Depot. Somewhat of a local institution, this family-run seafood eatery has been in the same location for more than a century – and still, it continues to pull a line of eager diners willing to wait for one of 18 stools at the counter. Freshly shucked oysters, clam chowder, whole lobsters, octopus salad – it’s all fresh as can be. Don’t miss this culinary epitome of San Francisco.
A favourite Fisherman’s Wharf stop since 1886, Buena Vista Cafe is the home of the ‘original’ Irish coffee. Featuring the same foamy cocktail recipe created in 1952, this makes it not only the perfect stop for a morning ‘coffee’ but also for a late-night ‘whisky’. Better yet, any time in between is perfect – they serve hearty food and drink from breakfast ‘til late.
An hour-and-a-half north of San Francisco the panoramas shift into winding vineyards. Both Sonoma County and the Napa Valley lie right on its doorstep, side by side. The Napa Valley is easily one of the USA’s most famous wine regions, laden with Michelin-star restaurants, world-acclaimed wineries, healing spas and cultural events. In contrast, Sonoma maintains a quieter, more local and intimate atmosphere while delivering the same impeccable wine quality and stunning countryside views. Join a tour (often they’ll pick you up from your hotel) or hire a car to stop, sip and taste as you please.
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