I have been to San Francisco many times and – just like the song says – I have left my heart there each time. The Golden Gate City is arguably the most unique city in the U.S. with its hilly terrain, sweeping views, late 19th century charm mixed with 21st century buzz, and different international-flavored neighborhoods everywhere you turn.
Why do I keep going back? And why do I recommend it as a “must see” place for one’s bucket list?
Maybe it’s the weather. Not so much the fog but the cool, dry air that makes me ask myself why I live in a hot, humid climate (oh yeah, probably the cost of the living). It could be the food. Within a few blocks walk one can dine on fresh seafood, authentic Italian, world-class Chinese and old-fashioned Mexican.
I believe the answer is all-of-the-above. Like the city itself, I love the melting pot atmosphere of the residents and the tourists that come from all over the globe. I recently spent a few days traversing the area by foot, go cart, subway, boat and bicycle. I even threw in old school transportation with a ride on the famed cable cars and new school with an easy to grab Uber car.
So let’s go find my heart:
The first place I began my journey was online, of course. Before your visit, take some time to plan your trip on San Francisco Travel, the city’s official guide for visitors and meeting planners. Everything from activities to dining, nightlife to shopping, and even hotel suggestions are found on this website. I knew I would be there for three nights so I made an itinerary that allowed me to play, eat, exercise and eat. And eat.
My home base for my stay was Union Square. I really enjoy this vibrant area as it is located near the city center with easy access to cable car lines, the underground subway, busses and trains. It is an easy walk (despite some of the notorious hills) to get to Chinatown, the financial district and of course, all the shopping you can handle.
Yes there are high-end stores that can also be found in places like Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue and London’s High Street but I found many boutique shops and local hangouts with a northern California flair. The fact that a pub or bar seemed to populate the area also added to my pleasure.
One must not forget a nickname of San Francisco – “The City By The Bay.” So it makes sense to get on the bay to view the scenery and cityscape from a different vantage point. First-timers to the area will enjoy a dinner cruise on the Hornblower, a sightseeing ship with several decks for fine dining, weddings and parties, and perches with unrestricted views no matter which way you look.
This three-hour cruise departs from the Embarcadero not far from the Bay Bridge. Guests are welcomed at their assigned tables with a glass of champagne and a four-course dinner menu. Live entertainment and dancing will keep you having fun down below when you aren’t on the top deck looking at the beautiful sights. The Hornblower breezes past Alcatraz Island, circles underneath the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, all while delivering breathtaking views of the city.
San Fran (we are pretty tight so I can call it that) seems synonymous with fishing and seafood which is why a visit to the Wharf is a must. Two cable car lines drop off passengers within walking distance of this area where cool breezes during the day and night may call for a stop at one of the many souvenir shops for a lightweight jacket.
No doubt many of the restaurants, stores and venues are geared to tourists but you can find some wonderful food and plenty of things to keep busy. Lunch at Cioppino’s on Jefferson Street was a treat as I sat on the outside patio sipping a local beer. The menu offers – what else – fresh seafood along with Italian fare that draws customers from blocks away with smells of garlic and clams.
It would be a sin not to get the clam chowder in a freshly made bread bowl. The Dungeness crab cocktail is also very tasty but those appetizers only led up to the main dish of which this place is named. Cioppino is the signature dish here. A bountiful seafood extravaganza of Dungeness crab, clams, mussels, snapper, calamari, shrimp, and tomatoes braised in a fennel scented stew. ‘Nuff said.
It is no secret that I try to keep in shape as much as I can so when I enjoy a fine meal I need to find a way to work it off. A glance down the street found Bay City Bike Rentals & Tours. I haven’t been on a bike in years but there was no time like the present to hop on for good exercise but also a fun way to see more sights.
Bay City Bikes rent several types of equipment for a leisurely or a high-performance stroll. I opted for a lightweight, 21-speed model with a front camera bag, lock, water bottle holder and a map. They also offer an electric hybrid bike with a battery and pedal assist feature lets riders experience the fun with less exertion. I almost regret not choosing the hybrid but at least I worked off my lunch.
I opted for a guided tour and took my place amongst a dozen fellow tourists donned with bike helmets and spandex pants (No such pants for me. Shorts will do just fine.) We departed from the Wharf on a two-and-a-half hour journey that led us on paved trails and streets with sweeping views of the water.
The final destination of the tour would be in Sausalito, a small town just north of the bay filled with stunning sidewalk restaurants, shops and parks. But to reach this point we would need to cross the water. And the only way would be to bike across the Golden Gate Bridge. Bam!
I have driven across this (arguably) most famous bridge in the world several times but traversing it on two wheels was almost an out-of-body experience. An exclusive lane for walkers and bikers was crowded but allowed for a slow-paced pedal underneath the rust-colored towers of the bridge. I had to stop a few times only to take in the view of the city to the south, Marin County to the north, and lots of water right below.
After crossing the bridge with high-fives amongst my fellow pedalers it was literally all downhill into Sausalito. Part of this tour package from Bay City Bikes included a ferry ride back to the Wharf that allowed me to soak up the sights from the water again and rest up from the bike ride.
Similar to dining at a restaurant, touring the city and visiting places can be done by itself (a la carte) or enjoying many things on an all-you-can-eat menu. Like a buffet, the GO Card is a smart way to visit a variety of places across San Francisco and saves money in the long run. A 1-day card can be purchased for $60 ($45 for kids) up to a 7-day card for $160 ($115 for kids) that gives entrance and discounts to over two dozen venues around the area.
The GO Card can be used to access several museums from the Asian Art to the U.S.S. Hornet; even to Madame Tussaud’s and Ripley’s Believe It or Not!. My favorite place to use the card was another way to tour the city…the GoCar Tour. The card allowed for a 30 minute use of these yellow, battery-powered vehicles equipped with a GPS-enabled storytelling experience.
The GoCar is easy and fun to drive. As you drive, it tells you where to turn and gives an audible story of sights like Ghirardelli Square, The Presidio, Cliff House and Golden Gate Park. My personal highlight was driving the GoCar down the curves of famous Lombardi Street.
As if I hadn’t had enough touring – and one can never get enough in this city – I found an intriguing way to learn about the vastly different neighborhoods while experiencing the unique cuisine each is famous for. The Local Tastes Of The City Tour makes it easy to learn, eat and explore within a few hours but an experience that lasts a lifetime.
Offering several tours daily one can hop on its decorative bus or choose to walk a late morning, early afternoon or evening stroll through a choice of celebrated districts. I opted for a night walking tour of Chinatown and North Beach as I wanted to learn about these two different cultures but also chow down on some good Chinese and Italian grub.
Our small group was led by an exuberant guide that started at the foot of Chinatown. We were led at our own pace while listening to the historic significance of the neighborhood and its architecture. Walking creates an appetite so every few blocks we stopped to sample local cuisine. A dim sum selection was offered at a local shop followed by samples of freshly-made fortune cookies at a baking company in an out-of-the way alley.
We spent about an hour leaning about tea while sipping several varieties at Vital Tea Leaf. I have never been a lover of hot tea but after learning the health advantages of these drinks I found myself purchasing several bags to take home. Tip: try the Pu-erh.
Before we found our way out of Chinatown we popped into Begoni Bistro Wok & Wine. The stop was initially for a bit of wine but after seeing the prawn salad spring roll and grilled French rack of lamb we could not help but have a quick snack. (Say hello to the gregarious owner, Ming, for me)
That snack tied us over only for the next two blocks as we entered North Beach, a vibrant district named after the part of town that used to be the northernmost section of the city. The iconic pyramid-shaped TransAmerica Tower hovered over us like a welcoming concierge. We meandered slightly uphill to pass inviting clubs, book shops and restaurants inviting us with tempting scents of Italian flavor.
A few slices of pizza and a glass of wine were waiting at final stop of this journey. We tipped our gracious guide and then tried to remember the spots we had just passed to go back and enjoy a little more of the local sounds and flavor of these unique neighborhoods.
I could go back to San Francisco every year for the rest of my life and still be able to discover something I haven’t seen before. Maybe a small park with centuries-old trees or an alleyway that winds its way out to a view of another part of the bay I have yet to see.
There is no doubt when visiting this great city that every one of all ages and from all places around the world will leave with several things: great memories, suitcases of souvenirs, an appreciation for a beautiful cityscape and atmosphere, and recommendations for others to go back and enjoy.
Oh yeah, and you won’t leave hungry either.