Iconic City Sightseeing in San Francisco

Day One – City Sightseeing San Francisco


We roll off the plane in San Francisco, surprisingly highly functioning given the paucity of sleep we’d been able to get on the Air NZ flight from Auckland.

Our gate is the one closest to passport control and we look longingly at the short lines of returning ESTA holders and U.S. citizens. Our line snakes back and forth in front of the booths and backs up to the gate where we’ve just exited our plane – quite the queue! It takes us a good 80 minutes waiting in line before we reach the border agents, and about three minutes to give our fingerprints and stare at the camera before being allowed through.

Our luggage is waiting for us on the conveyor belt and we finally make our way through to the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit).

San Francisco sits at the south head of a huge natural harbour, and while less than a million live in San Fran, the other towns and cities in the Bay Area raise that to a cool 7 or 8 million people. These other suburbs include Silicon Valley, San Jose and Oakland, each with their own flavour, sports teams and culture.

We’d decided pretty early on that we’d only focus on city sightseeing in San Francisco itself since it was our first visit. We weren’t even swayed by the U.S. security pre-screening person at Auckland Airport trying to persuade us it would be a good idea to visit the Mormon Church in Oakland.

We decamp from the BART in downtown San Fran and head away from the CBD a few blocks to Union Square. Here Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s compete with Victoria’s Secret for the attention of shoppers. Another thing competing for our attention is the continuous smell of marijuana.

In New Zealand cannabis is illegal (despite being widely used and widely available) and whenever you smell it on the streets there’s an instinctive, childish “oooh someone’s being naughty” response. In San Fran, the ten minute walk to our hotel quickly makes that reaction tired as we’re continually bombarded with secondhand smoke.

We find our hotel quickly and check in to the Kimpton Sir Francis Drake Hotel. Ange surprises me. She got no sleep on the flight over and still she’s keen on getting out and about and hitting the city streets. I reluctantly agree, because even though I got some sleep on the plane I’m starting to feel robotic.

It’s better to try and match your activities with the time zone you’re in though, and it’s late enough in the afternoon to justify an early dinner, so we head out to get something to eat in Fisherman’s Wharf.

Cable Car

Iconic city sightseeing in San Francisco involves riding the cable cars, and our hotel is right on the Powell-Hyde line, so we decide to get the cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf. We leave the hotel and walk up hill a little way find the stop.

There’s a crowd of tourists catching the cable car at the main stop in Powell Street just down from the hotel and for a reason that made sense at the time we figured if we moved away from that stop we’d have a better chance of getting onboard. Blame a lack of sleep!

According to Google Maps we were in the right place, but we couldn’t see anywhere obvious – no benches or shelter with timetables or LED “time to next bus” sort of thing. We did find a sign indicating that this was a stop so we kept our eyes opened and waited.

An older Asian man stood waiting beside us, so I figured we were in the right place. The rumble in the distance got louder as the cable car got closer, and the Asian gentleman stepped out into the street as it approached. The cable car blew right past him and continued on its way.

He came back to the pavement, his face thunderous. “I hate the cable cars” he told us, “they don’t stop and they drivers are lazy. You saw that didn’t you?” We agreed that yes, we had seen them not stop, and I allowed that the cable car had looked a little full.

That didn’t seem to slow our new friend down. “Yeah, they overfill the cars and then can’t pick anyone else up, it’s terrible, I hate them, and all that for $7 a trip? They’re lazy. They sleep on the job too.”

“Oh?” I asked trying to change the subject, “so when they do arrive how do you get onboard?” “You walk out into the middle of the intersection and they will stop, then you get onboard.” “Wow that sounds dangerous” I say. “Yes,” says our new friend, “especially if they don’t stop and you’re out in the middle of the intersection dodging cars.” “Well, here comes another one” Ange says, “hopefully this one will have more room.”

Lo, the new cable car came to a halt in the middle of the intersection and we loped over behind our friend and mounted the cable car, ushered inside by the staff member on the back. We stood crammed inside, and while Ange was able to look out the windows as we crested the hill and surveyed the city, I was less lucky with the eyeline and made do with watching the cars parked on the side of the road.

Soon enough we arrived at Fisherman’s Wharf and joined the other passengers (mostly tourists it seemed to me) as we all hopped out of the cable car and into the street.

Pompeii’s Grotto

Fisherman’s Wharf is the touristy sort of place thats develops when a steady stream of hungry people from overseas meet a port which is short on marine industry and long on space.

The space quickly gets taken over by restaurants of every stripe, and competition for the tourist dollar is the only thing stopping the escalation of prices. We manage to find a restaurant which appeals to both of us, Pompeii’s Grotto.

Ange has the Shrimp Sandwich with Seafood Chowder and I try the old favourite, Fish and Chips. The restaurant itself has a few seats outside but we want to get out of the cold wind, even if it means forgoing what’s left of the bright sunshine. Because of this we get our choice of seating inside, but have to be quick to catch the waiters’ eyes as they go by.

Lombard Street

After dinner we head back towards town on foot, keen to see Lombard Street from the bottom, as the cable car on the way to dinner had passed by the top. We hadn’t seen much of it but the ‘Crookedest Street in the World’ was worth the return. It’s a short street which solves a 16% gradient problem with eight switchbacks. Apparently at peak times in summer the road gets used by 350 cars per hour!

We marvel at it from the bottom and decide to grab the cable car back to the hotel from the top and so start the trek up. The view just gets better and better but capturing the spectacle of the switchbacks is difficult. We also marvel at the people who live on the street. I don’t know which is worse: having so many tourists swarming your street or getting a car out of a garage on such an unforgiving street.

We arrived at the top and waited for the cable car. We soon realised our mistake. This close to Fishermans Wharf all the returning cable cars were already full. We started walking back towards Fisherman’s Wharf in an attempt to find one that had some space (again with the benefit of non-sleep deprived hindsight walking towards the hotel may have been more prudent).

Eventually we actually reached the cable car stop at Fishermans Wharf and saw the snaking queue of tourists waiting to use the cable car. Bugger that we thought and ordered an Uber instead.

All that walking in the sunshine (and cold wind) was probably the best thing we could have done, because by the time we hit the bed back at the hotel, sleep was instant and deep.

Day Two – City Sightseeing San Francisco

Hop-On Hop-Off Bus

We were up early the next morning ready for the Hop-On Hop-Off bus to tick off the Golden Gate Bridge as part of a San Francisco city tour.

There was a stop conveniently located in Union Square so we didn’t have to walk far. There was a Big Bus waiting and so we jumped aboard. While we’re waiting for the tour to get started, we watch the corner of Union Square where it seems three gangs (in bus tour company jackets) accost passersby with pamphlets trying to get them on their buses.

We were delayed getting away, and then we’re boxed in by one of the other company’s buses. After a few words by one of the ticket sellers, and then by our driver, we were finally away. You can read about our experience here.

Eagle’s Cafe

We got off at Pier 39 and spotted a likely looking restaurant on the first floor, so elbowed our way through the throngs of tourists, making our way to the Eagle Cafe just as they switched from the breakfast menu to the lunch. I had the Shrimp sandwich and Ange bucked tradition, getting the bacon burger for the same price. I must admit to considerable food-envy!

Blue & Gold Fleet: Harbour Cruise

Because we’d gone straight upstairs upon arriving at Pier39, we’d missed the majority of the landmarks on the pier including a giant silver crab at the entrance. This caused some mirth when we asked for directions for our harbour cruise and the helpful person based them on the crab. Our looks of confusion made her dissolve into good-natured laughter.

Eventually we worked out where we had to be and joined a queue for a one hour Blue & Gold Fleet harbour cruise. The ship was a good size, and swallowed the considerable numbers of waiting tourists with ease.

Inside there were instructions on how to use the WiFi onboard to access the commentary for the trip, which Ange did. But it was also piped through loudspeakers in the cabins anyway, so you didn’t need a smart phone or anything.

As we left port we looked out of the porthole and saw the sealions lying on the jetties. My mother had said to keep an eye out for them and we were glad to be viewing them through the windows of the boat to avoid the stench! Of the sealions, not my mother.

The weather wasn’t too bad – overcast and blustery, and the sea had a bit of swell but nothing terrible. A steady stream of people made their way to the exposed areas of the deck as we passed Alcatraz and headed towards the Golden Gate Bridge. A fair few came hustling back inside in a hurry, the wind and spray more than they could handle.

Seeing the bridge from the water level gave a better perspective of it as an engineering feat, and also put it into context with the land around it – something that driving over it on the Hop-On Hop-Off bus wasn’t able to do.

The boat did a u-turn just after passing beneath the bridge, and then headed back to port, passing Alcatraz Island on the other side. The commentary had been good, interesting and well presented, and it was a relief not to have to muck around with WiFi and websites and such. We made it back to the port in an hour, making sure we got some more shots of the sealions on the way back into harbour.

Aquarium of the Bay

On our return to port we went back to the throng of tourists and made our way to the Aquarium of the Bay. Getting through the Aquarium was a bit of a figure eight, you go upstairs to the entrance, through some exhibits to the lifts (one of which wasn’t working), down to the automated walkways (which weren’t moving), back to the lifts and then back up to do the rest of the top floor. It created a pair of bottlenecks where you ended up waiting in line for the lifts instead of ooh-ing and aah-ing at the exhibits.

The first section is a bit underwhelming though the jellyfish were cool, but after we went downstairs things started to get interesting. The Near Shore Tunnel had voluminous quantities of fish clustered in balls as protection against predators, and the smartest animal in the sea, the Giant Pacific Octopus had his own tank just before the Sharks of Alcatraz tunnel.

The fact that the moving walkway wasn’t working didn’t really matter if I’m honest. The other guests were pretty much 50/50 split between family groups and tourists tended to move much slower than Ange and I so having the complete floor available for overtaking manoeuvres was appreciated!

But as good as the sharks were, the last bit of the Aquarium upstairs was where the best parts were. First of all there was a tank with baby rays. The sting rays would flap around and rise to the surface allowing you to pat them, and signs and a staff member were nearby to instruct where on their body was appropriate to touch them. They were very cute: more like a puppy or kitten in their behaviours and one in particular was very gregarious.

After the baby rays we went past a snake in a cage and another pool where you could touch/pat sea anemones and starfish, and then we briefly by passed the otter enclosure to check out the VR experience.

This was funny – there was a section of the floor marked out as an iceberg opposite a big wall on which was projected an image of whoever was standing on the iceberg. Periodically an animal would appear from the water and go through a scripted pattern of behaviour, allowing you to look as though you were interacting with them. Polar bears, penguins, seals and killer whales all got in the act.

But the real stars of the show were the otters. Our visit coincided with their feeding time and we got some great shots of them enjoying the fish from the keeper. Apparently they behave like three year olds – frequently wandering off and doing their own thing and getting distracted.

I was constantly reminded of the photo montage in which actor Benedict Cumberbatch poses like an otter.

Cable Car Museum

After leaving the aquarium we headed back towards the cable car stop for the Powell-Mason line which also headed in the direction of our hotel. There were a fair few people in line and we just missed out on getting on the first cable car.

Eventually we were allowed on but then the cable car stood waiting for twenty minutes. We never did figure out the reason for the delay – the crew were there the whole time, I guess they needed to even out the service?

Again, one of the locals onboard vented that the crews were lazy and that they were always late. It amazed us that San Francisco’s iconic cable cars were able to generate such passionate negative feelings from the locals.

Anyway, when we finally did get onboard we managed to get our choice of seats, and got off at the Cable Car Museum.

It was a really good free museum which shows you exactly how the cable cars work, as well as illustrating the history and expanse of how widely used they were in the past.

Basically for a cable car there is a loop of wire cable under the streets. A powerhouse with a motor is attached to the cable loop and drives it so its constantly in motion. A cable car sits on rails and has a claw beneath it which grips on to the moving cable. The tighter the grip, the closer the car’s speed is to the cable’s. Releasing the grip allows the car to apply breaks and slow down or to cross intersections where other cables pass over the car’s cable.

There is also a lot of memorabilia housed in glass cases, as well as photo viewing booths.

Afterwards we walked over the hill and back to the hotel. On the way up the lift a fellow guest got chatting and mentioned the restaurant across the street, Sears Fine Food so we had to check it out and had a nice experience.

Day Three – City Sightseeing San Francisco

Our last day involved a trip out to Alcatraz Island, another of San Francisco’s top attractions, so we headed down for breakfast at Scala’s Bistro, the restaurant attached to the Kimpton Hotel that we were staying at.

After breakfast we returned to the room to freshen up.There was a timed departure for our trip to Alcatraz so we needed to get to the pier by a certain time. We’d just reached the lobby of the hotel, and I had just ordered us an Uber when Ange realised that she had left her phone in the room.

She headed back up to retrieve it and I watched on the app as our Uber got closer and closer. Not wanting to keep it waiting, while it approached I made my way down to street level, keeping a watch over my shoulder for Ange so much it looked like I was having some sort of fit.

There wouldn’t have been anything wrong with asking the driver to wait, but instead I slowed my walk and took my time getting in, an approach which worked as Ange was able to make it to the car just as I got in. The driver was a bit shocked at the additional passenger though, as he had only seen me at the hotel entrance.

Alcatraz Tour

Anyhow, we made it to the pier in good time, Sunday morning traffic being pretty sparse. On arrival we checked-in and then queued with the other people on our tour. We had booked tickets with Alcatraz Cruises a couple of months in advance due to a tip from Chris’ friend about the popularity of the tour.

Now we were glad we had but despite the number of people queuing, the crowd control was impressive. With great efficiency the returning passengers were offloaded and we made our way on board.

As they checked our ticket there had been the ubiquitous photographers getting shots of everybody, and I played the “how much will the photo be?” game with Ange. My guess was $20, hers was a hopeful $10.

We avoided the mad scramble for the front of the ship with the views of the Golden Gate Bridge, but enjoyed the sun on the top deck behind the wheelhouse. I enjoyed taking photos through the window of Alcatraz as we approached, and we marvelled at the eco-friendliness of the ship.

Signs explained how there were solar panels on the roof and weird spiral shaped wind catchers could power the electronics onboard. When we arrived we joined the throng departing the ship and assembled in front of a Park Ranger who gave us a spiel about what was available on the island. This turned out to be a great feature as we could then plan our day accordingly and fit everything in that we wanted to see.

We started with a National Geographic video on the Island and its inhabitants and history which was shown in the remains of the civil war-era fort which had been turned into a theatre. Basically five large alcoves all synchronised to show the same film on its own big screen TV. The movie is good, a solid background for the day.

After it ends we head out into the sunshine to climb the path up to the main prison building. We collect an audio guide from the prison showers which is both a good photo opportunity as well as a bizarre place for the line to be managed. A sign admonished people to stay out of the shower area.

Another sign indicating which languages were offered for the audioguide made me smile. Spanish was depicted by the Mexican and Spanish flags, Portugese by Brazil’s and Portugal’s flags and Mandarin by China’s and Taipei’s flags. English was only represented by the US flag!

The audioguide was good – an authoritarian ex-prison guard instructed you curtly on where to go and where to look, while relaying stories of the various inmates escapes and attempted escapes, including the riots which needed the Marines to subdue and the food uprising which was put down with just three bullets and no casualties.

It’s a big place and when we visit in May the wind is cold enough to give credence to the unpopularity of certain cells. It’s a grim place indeed, and the audioguide commentary never seems superfluous or padded, and yet after we’ve finished we notice with surprise that at least 90 minutes have gone by. We return the guide and then head towards the gardens.

They’re quite pretty but the blustery cold wind isn’t enough to hide the stench of the nearby nesting colony of Brandt’s Camorants. Hundreds of birds were making their nests along the path, usually open to visitors, but now closed so that the nesting birds were not disturbed.

After the gardens we were ready to leave, and I had hoped that the path would continue around the island back to the docks so that we wouldn’t have to walk back up and over the hill, but there didn’t seem to be anyway through.

Resigning myself to more hill walking, we headed back. On the way down we were passed by the road train fetching the infirm and mobility restricted from the docks to the top of the hill and the main prison building. The hill is certainly a little on the steep side.

We arrived without incident at the pier and proceeded to the photo section, arranged by the start time of the tour. A range of pricing options started at $20 plus tax for two copies, but more interestingly were the options including a USB key with digital copies on them.

Disappointed that I was right about the prices, we headed past to hunt down the Hop-On Hop-Off bus to get back to the hotel.

California Line Cable Car

We got as far as the downtown CBD when we heard the live tour guide mention that the start of the California line was just over there. Ange and I looked at each other – we’d been on the other two lines and so the Californian Line was the only one we hadn’t been on.

The bus paused at a set of lights and I took the opportunity to confirm with the guide that yes, that was the start of the California Line, yes, the cable car. For some reason I just didn’t think it went from the CBD.

We jumped off at the next stop and walked back towards the stop for the California Line – for the other two lines it had been a cable car-sized round section of track which allowed the staff to physically turn the cable car around so that it could head off in the opposite direction as in the photo below.

On the California Line though, because the cable cars were bidirectional, they did  not need the turntable in order to reverse direction. We rode the California Line to its end and then halfway back, getting off at the top of the hill just above our hotel.

We had some time at the end of the day and elected to try and buy a tie that would match Ange’s dress for a wedding we were going to. Off to Macy’s we went, and up and down the escalators before asking someone where the men’s section was.

We were told it was on the same block but in a totally different building. Suitably corrected, we headed off and found the appropriate section. None of the prices appealed, so we headed back to the hotel instead, a short walk because the hotel was very handily located close to Union Square.

That evening we decided not to spend so much on food – difficult when you’re staying in a central location in a very expensive city. A quick google search indicated that while Union Square as a neighbourhood was quite expensive, a block away was Tenderloin, a much more reasonably priced area. A local diner had good reviews, so we headed over there, ready for the complete diner experience.

Pinecrest Diner

Upon entering Pinecrest Diner, we immediately noticed that there wasn’t a lot of room – the area beside the cash register was shared by someone else waiting for a table, an ATM and us – tight fit!

Fortunately not two minutes after arriving, a booth opened up and we were seated. The reviews had mentioned that some people had experienced waits of between 30 and 45 minutes. I couldn’t understand that – surely if you wanted food you would find something else? Anyway, the food was so much more reasonably priced and turned out to be just as tasty as the other meals we’d had.

Just behind Ange in an adjacent booth sat a couple. We couldn’t help but overhear their conversation as they talked about relationships and who had done what to who and then the guy pulled out his phone and asked personal questions of a mutual friend of theirs at the top of his voice.

He then proceeded to tell her that he’d had sexual relations with her sister on their couch. It was obvious from his tone and facial expressions he was being provocative to try and seem edgy but really it was boorish. He indicated that the girl he was with wanted to talk and handed the phone over. She sighed and apologised for his behaviour, almost to the entire diner I thought, before handing the phone back.

I guess with such a laid-back and “anything goes” vibe as San Francisco enjoys, you really do have to go a long way to be seen as edgy.

Final thoughts

The next day we checked-out of the hotel and headed back to the airport, retracing our steps from day one down the hill from the hotel to the BART station and then back to the airport, no hassles, no fuss. Despite having a great time city sightseeing in San Francisco, there were places we were disappointed to miss. We’d wanted to see Silicon Valley after having seen the HBO series called Silicon Valley.

But considering how long it would have take to get there, and what we would have seen, we decided to pass. Seeing offices from the outside and maybe taking photos of the headquarter signs didn’t really appeal, even if they would have been businesses which have the most impact on the Social Media driven world in which we live today.

The other thing we would have liked to do if we’d had one extra day would have been Yosemite National Park. One of my close friends had gone and taken his family and even after five years it was the thing on their holiday that they talked about the most. A long one day trip was possible from San Francisco and if we’d maybe had an extra day we could have done it. Next time for sure!

San Francisco Travel supported our trip to San Francisco by providing us with a CityPASS and Big Bus Tour ticket each. All opinions remain our own.