On arriving into San Francisco I had developed a fully blown cold – a runny nose, sore throat, foggy head, the full works. New Zealand had finally caught up with me.
For the first couple of days, I slept in, had leisurely breakfasts and did my admin thoroughly. I did things that, despite not working 9-5, I still didn’t seem to have time for when travelling. Things like clothes washing, catching up with friends and family, researching the next couple of stops, booking tickets and writing blog posts. It was nice to get on top of currency cards and emails, but I was mostly doing anything to stay in the comfort of my dark room and even better the comfort of my much needed, tissue-strewn, bunk bed!
I ventured out for little parts of the day to subdue my guilt at being in one of the best cities in America and not being able to fully experience it.
I caught a brightly coloured cable car over to Pier 39 to see the famous resident sea lions and for lunch ate a traditional bowl of seafood chowder in a sough dough loaf to warm up and nourish my insides.
It went down so well, I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the city by foot. I walked from Pier 39, with my sights set on making it to The Golden Gate Bridge, but over an hour later, with the bridge still no closer and my feet starting to throb, I admitted defeat and admired the view from a distance. I took a pew on the beach front, near Crissy Fields, to watch kite surfers battle the coastal winds while I relaxed in the warm sunshine.
I had booked onto an Alcatraz Island tour in advance, so the next day, I went down at the dockside again, ready to board one of the first boats going over to the island. Despite having to set an alarm for the first time in months, going early did mean the prison and cell blocks were less crowded with other sightseers. Alcatraz is the most visited site in the whole of North America, so tickets sell out around a month in advance.
I had mixed feelings about visiting. I was part interested, in a macabre way, (what sort of crimes did men have to commit to be incarcerated in one of the world’s most famous prison islands?) part unsettled (why, is this barren and hostile looking place, where all freedoms were removed, such a popular tourist destination now?) and part downright spooked (what if I am in a Shutter Island scenario, where I’m the asylum prisoner patient playing out my alter-ego and these other ‘tourists’ on this boat are actors?!)… you probably have to have seen the Martin Scorsese-directed film and have an over-active imagination like me, to get that one.
What I actually found was that it is a dynamic place with a varied and rich history. The prison made the island famous, but as a site, it had many uses, including as a political protest location for native American Indians in the 1960s.
The tour around the prison building is narrated in part by previous inmates via recorded headset, and the personal stories and human voices mixed with photographs and being inside the cells, which haven’t changed since 1963 when the building closed, is a very powerful immersive museum experience. Alcatraz’s most famous inmate was Al Capone, but the prison was made more infamous by several failed escape attempts, with only one thought to have been successful in the prison’s history.
Back on the mainland, I booked an open-top hop-on / hop-off bus ticket covering the next two days to save my legs and cover more ground.
If anyone in the world can do tours, it is Americans; continually upbeat, funny and full of facts – all my drivers and guides were excellent and clearly loved their jobs. Their enthusiasm was infectious; I became known as ‘London’ and other tourists were named after their hometowns too. Any personal barriers were broken down in the first 10 minutes and everyone on the bus quickly start chatting to each other.
I travelled the sites of Downtown, across the Golden Gate Bridge and over to Sausalito – where Hollywood stars live across the Bay. I went through the Golden Gate Park, Botanical Gardens and to the Sutro Baths and did Downtown again at night. The historic sights in San Francisco are endless but so are the reminders of more recent American culture; from where OJ Simpson went to school, to where Marilyn Monroe married New York Yankees player Joe DiMaggio; to the house used in the filming of Robin Williams’ classic, Mrs Doubtfire – we saw them all.
With new friends made on the bus, I had the opportunity to check out some local American-Italian food, see the city from a great free viewpoint at night and check out a very entertaining local piano bar which kept us singing along until the small hours.
Mission and Castro District
I saw other neighbourhoods too. A free walking tour took me to Mission District, where old Spanish Christians first settled in the city to spread the word in 1776. Having originally been a Spanish and Mexican dominated area with traditional taquerías and bars, it has gone through a gentrification process in the last decade to accommodate Google and Facebook employees, much to the dismay of locals.
Balmy Alley, an alleyway connecting 24th and 25th Street, documents the struggle between these old and new worlds through graffiti and street art murals. Ironically, or so it seemed to me, these pieces of political protest art mainly feed the Instagram generation who like to come to view it, thus protecting the jobs and new salaries of whom the art is ultimately protesting at. Nevertheless, it is a quiet and reflective space in busy Mission and worth seeing.
House prices and the influx of highly paid tech workers is an issue across the whole city. As house prices have risen, many other professions on lower wages have been priced out of owning homes, including state-school teachers. That said, tech companies employ thousands of people here and those salaries are spent in the retail, food and leisure sectors, which again, employ thousands. Being the world’s leading tech city clearly has pros and cons.
From Mission, I also explored Castro, the prominent LGBT community area where activists like Harvey Milk campaigned for equal rights in the 1970s. A giant rainbow flag flies high and residents freely express themselves through anything from political protest to fashion. It is a fascinating place to grab a coffee and people watch.
After nearly a week in San Francisco, I had learnt a lot about the history of the city and its famous landmarks. From the Spanish missionaries to the Californian Goldrush of the 1850s, to the 1901 earthquake, to the tech giants reshaping its districts today, it is a city that has, and will continue to change, at a rate that at least seems faster than anywhere else.
It has, in equal parts, a laid back, liberal, freedom-fueled charm, but also an ambitious vibe – it is an important global city, it is also prettier than LA and it knows it. It is quaint and historic but also futuristic and metropolitan. It’s something for everyone.
Alcatraz Cruise can be booked here: http://www.alcatrazcruises.com/ and tickets start at $33 for adults.
Bus Tour: There are several companies in San Francisco that operate these tours, I would recommend City Sightseeing , the ticket was roughly $60.00.