Golden Date Bridge

SAN FRANCISCO: The City by the Bay

The gem of Northern California set along the bay, with rolling hills and an iconic bridge, San Francisco is a gorgeous city in the United States worthy of paying a visit. The city by the bay has pulsating energy with unlimited entertainment options, swanky neighbourhoods and people with dreams of living the good life and making it big. Whether it is its historic cable car trams or the Alcatraz island or the beautiful parks all combine to make it an amusing city.

On our way back from Hawaii, we decided to spend two nights and a day in San Francisco to explore the city on the West coast about which we had heard so much. The rivalry and debate between the West and East Coast of the U.S. have been legendary. When it comes to sunshine and some fun in the sun, it is the West coast which wins hands down. Another thing which we had heard was that people of the East coast are more ‘hardworking and serious’ while West coast folks are ‘chilled out’ and like to take life easy. Having visited New York, New Jersey on the East coast we set our sights on the West coast and what could have been a better option than San Francisco, the jewel in the crown of West coast.

Hop-on-Hop-off-Bus-San-Francisco
Hop On Hop Off Bus, San Francisco @Rafiq Somani

With very little time on hand, we decided that the best way to explore the city would be to take a no-nonsense, value for money Hop-On Hop-Off bus tour of San Francisco. After a hearty breakfast at our hotel, we reached Union Square from where we could board the double-decker bus. The square seemed to be buzzing with more tourists rather than locals. The Union Square is the 5th Avenue of San Francisco and has all the high- end brand stores where the fashion-conscious shop for luxury watches, haute couture and designer shoes and bags. You’ll also find plenty of restaurants, cafes, theatres, and hotels here too.

Union Square, San Francisco
Union Square, San Francisco @Rafiq Somani

As we waited for the bus, we heard bells ringing as a cable car passed by with passengers standing on its edges and waving out and seeming joyful. Introduced in 1873, to help the locals cross the numerous hills on which the city is built. It’s no surprise that they are designated a historical monument status.  Soon our bus arrived, but there was no place on the open-air upper deck, We settled on the lower deck hoping that more tourists would alight on the subsequent stops and we would be able to climb up then. To hear the guide’s commentary of the city and its spots, we were provided headphones.

Cable Car, San Francisco
Cable Car, San Francisco @Rafiq Somani

Jim, our guide, cracked jokes, shared tidbits and anecdotes that most guide books don’t share. He tongue in cheekily announced that if we wanted to buy first copies of all the high- end expensive bags and shoes, that cost more than a 1000 dollars, at a steal, then China Town is where we should head. As we passed the Civic centre, which houses government and cultural institutions, he proclaimed that there were three things that tourists will undoubtedly see in San Francisco: a protest, a parade and a naked person! He was spot on as we did see a lunatic with just a mattress around him roaming the streets.

China Town, San Francisco
China Town, San Francisco @Rafiq Somani

He shared a lot of details about how the cost of living was high and whatever one gets for free should be taken and reminding passengers to give tips just as one would in the service industry. San Francisco is an expensive city where if a family of 2 adults and a child had earnings less than U.S. dollar 117000, they would be considered poor! We saw a lot of homeless people begging for alms on the street.

Painted Ladies, San Francisco
Painted Ladies, San Francisco @Rafiq Somani

Jim kept pointing to all the iconic buildings that we saw throughout the tour. ‘Painted Ladies’ were not women with makeup but were Victorian and Edwardian era homes built between 1849-1915 and later repainted in the 1960s—Salesforce Tower which superseded the pyramid-shaped Transamerica Pyramid as the tallest building of San Francisco. Next to the contemporary Transamerica Pyramid was the copper-green Sentinel building made in 1907. The modern juxtaposed with historical buildings created a unique tapestry of architecture in San Francisco.

Transamerica Pyramid and Sentinel building, San Francisco
Transamerica Pyramid and Sentinel building, San Francisco @Rafiq Somani

What Hyde Park is to London and the Central Park is to New York; the Golden Gate Park is to San Francisco. Twenty million people visit it each year, and its main attractions are the botanical gardens, Academy of Sciences, Japanese tea gardens, De Young Museum, Music concourse (open-air plaza) and a bison park. Parks are the green ‘lungs’ of cities, and this is something that we in India should demand as most of us live in concrete jungles in cities, choking with pollution and craving for some fresh air.

Botanical Garden, San Francisco
Botanical Garden, San Francisco @Rafiq Somani
Music concourse (open-air plaza) at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Music concourse (open-air plaza) at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco @Rafiq Somani

Soon it was time for us to drive over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, which is the most photographed site in the city. This suspension bridge which opened in 1937 is an engineering marvel and is one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. This open-top ride over the bridge, on a beautiful sunny day with the azure blue sky over us, as chilly winds blew over us, and scenic vistas of the harbour and the emerald green hills enthralled us, is a must-do experience. At the end of the ride, I was craving for more and my prayers were answered as the bus briefly halted at the parking zone and took a U-turn so that we would get a second-round over the bridge.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco @Rafiq Somani
Ferry building, San Francisco Bay
Ferry building, San Francisco Bay @Rafiq Somani

Soon we were near the bay and saw the impressive Ferry building, a terminal from where ferries sail across the San Francisco Bay. Fisherman’s Wharf is the place to be if you want to get a taste of the city and your trip to San Francisco would be incomplete if you didn’t visit this busy tourist spot. This fun place along the waterfront has numerous attractions like Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Museum of 3 D illusions, San Francisco Chocolate Store, San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park and of course Pier 39. We found this place to be like a carnival with street artists at their creative best, a carousel for kids to take rides, shops selling souvenirs, diverse restaurants, cafes and other lures. A pod of sea lions has made Pier 39 their home since the 1990s. We found several of them lazing in the sun, grunting, a pair wrestling with each trying to throw the other off the dock and assert power and supremacy.

Boats at Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco
Boats at Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco @Rafiq Somani
Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco
Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco @Rafiq Somani
Madame Tussaud's Wax Musseum, San Francisco
Madame Tussaud’s Wax Musseum, San Francisco @Rafiq Somani
Ripley's Believe It or Not, San Francisco
Ripley’s Believe It or Not, San Francisco @Rafiq Somani
San Francisco Chocolate Store
San Francisco Chocolate Store @Rafiq Somani
Sea Lions at Pier 39, San Francisco
Sea Lions at Pier 39, San Francisco @Rafiq Somani

From Bay Cruise Terminal we boarded our one-hour Golden Gate Bridge Cruise, with a guided commentary. As we set sail and the gusty winds embraced us, we saw panoramic views of the city skyline, the North Beach neighbourhood and the Maritime National park. The crème de la crème of the cruise was when we passed below the Golden Gate Bridge. All heads were up as our eyes scanned the bridge’s massive 1,260-meter span! We had taken a bus ride over it, and now we saw it from below.

San Francisco Bay view from cruise
San Francisco Bay view from cruise @Rafiq Somani

Turning around as we cruised back towards Fisherman’s Wharf, we passed the Alcatraz island. Our jaunty guide had remarked on our bus ride, “World over people pay to get out of jail, but in San Francisco people pay to get into jail!” His yaking now made sense as there is a prison on the Alcatraz island which has now become a tourist attraction but in times of yore was a high-security federal prison for criminals.

Alcatraz island, San Francisco
Alcatraz island, San Francisco @Rafiq Somani

As our cruise was nearing to an end, we could see the imposing double-decker San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. In earlier times its lower deck carried commuter trains, and the other was for cars. Today both the decks carry about 260,000 vehicles a day.  We could also catch a glimpse of the tall and slim Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, which gives a 360-degree view of the city. Salesforce Tower, the tallest building of San Francisco and Transamerica Pyramid Building in a triangular shape, was also visible in the skyline.

San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge
San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge @Rafiq Somani

After alighting from the ferry, we decided to walk back to our hotel as we wanted to visit China Town hoping to shop there. En route, we passed the stunning Saints Peter and Paul Church. After their civil marriage, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio had posed for their wedding pics at the steps of this church. Sadly, China Town was closed after six in the evening, and we walked back to our hotel.

Saints Peter and Paul Church, San Francisco
Saints Peter and Paul Church, San Francisco @Rafiq Somani

The next morning my husband went for his customary run more so because he wanted to see Lombard Street known as the “Crookedest Street in the World” located on Russian Hill. Many years ago, this was steep road making it difficult for motorists to manoeuvre, so to make it easy, eight hairpin turns were introduced. It soon became a craze to drive down this street which is surrounded by beautiful mansions and landscaped flower beds. 

If you have more time on hand, then you can visit Sausalito, a charming town that is home to fancy restaurants and offers jaw-dropping views. A trek and picnic in the redwood forests of Muir Woods National Monument is another day tip that you can do. San Francisco, with its myriad attractions and infinite entertainment options and vibrant personality coupled with its fun holiday feel, is worth visiting. Yes, there is something about the West Coast that will smite you, and you will want to visit it again and again. 

Nearest Airport: San Francisco has an international airport with good connectivity. From India instead of going westwards over Europe, it might seem a better option to go eastwards via Japan or Korea.
Where to Stay: We stayed at J.W. Marriot, Union Square so that we would be closer to all the attractions. Another option is to stay near Fisherman’s Wharf where the fun never ceases to end.
Travel Tips: You should book and get entry tickets to all the attractions and cruise in advance to avoid being disappointed. We used the Viator App to make our bookings. The Hop-on Hop-Off bus ride cost us U.S. $49 per head, while the Golden Gate Bay Cruise cost us U.S. $ 34 per head.

This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons magazine, July 2019

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