What would be the first thing to head for when spending a day in San Francisco? The bridge of course! We woke up and left a little later than scheduled due to the long drive the day before, but within the hour we were approaching one of the most famous structures in the world!
Disappointingly the weather was pretty grotty on our drive into San Francisco and we were hoping it would improve… We got our first distant sighting of the bridge but it was all a bit grey and overcast, however we were hopeful that by the time we crossed the bridge it would have improved somewhat. Unfortunately it was still really miserable and a bit rainy.
Still hopeful we headed across the bridge to a recommended viewing point at the Marin Headlands.
The headlands are part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and a series of rolling hills just to the North of the bridge. The best views of the entire cityscape were said to be right at the top at Hawk Hill which is where we headed.
The view was good but we had a load of fast moving cloud which mostly obstructed our view. We decided therefore to head back down the headlands again and try and park in some of the lower spots. By the time we got down we were in luck! The cloud was above us now and we were treated to some amazing blue sky and sunny views yay!
The bridge and the city views definitely had a big wow factor for us. The spot on the headlands was a popular one and we did have to wait a few minutes for a place to park but we were able to walk a little closer to a headland which was windy but great! Number 1 must see ticked off our list yay.
Our next stop was Muir Woods, home to Giant Redwoods, some of which are over 150 years old. Unfortunately after our journey there we found it was reservation only and the next slot was 3pm which was too late given our other tour booked today. Instead we headed to Muir Beach.
It was nice but not really beach weather and not really what we were looking for so we drove round again and found the overlook recommended by the guy on the gate of Muir Woods which was much more impressive.
Driving the Golden Gate Bridge
Our return journey over the bridge was a much better one than the first given the improvement in the weather. We really got into the swing of things by playing an appropriate song whilst driving across 🤣🤣
The Streets of San Francisco
It was time to have some fun with the driving! I’m sure most people have seen the movies with the famous steep San Francisco streets and we decided it had to be done! First we headed up the steep inclines of Filbert Street and stopped at the top to admire the views down over the town. You can see the angle of the car how steep it was to park!
Next was the really quite scary/hairy parts…but also good fun! Driving down the steep declines of Filbert Street (31.5% gradient!) 😳😳 to say I was a little scared was an understatement 🤣🤣
Next was onto the hairpin bends of Lombard Street -a little slower but still a challenge!
If you have a car and the nerve you should really visit these streets; I would imagine a Fiat 500 would struggle but our trusty Toyota Camry dealt with the roads like a pro!
One of the most famous parts of San Francisco, we decided to check out the famous Ghirardelli chocolate factory plaza and have an ice cream.
It was a nice place and if you have expensive taste in chocolate this is for you – the ice cream sundae was pretty good! There was also a church group providing music entertainment on the makeshift bandstand.
We had a stroll down to the beach which was a lovely spot; we watched the ships around the harbour and families having picnics. It was a popular spot and we could see why.
Visit to Alcatraz
This was number 2 essential must see on our visit. We had the foresight of booking our tickets the day before but apparently in the height of tourism this needs to be weeks in advance. We paid $45 each for the boat, access to the island and an audio tour of the cell blocks.
We headed to our departure point at pier 33 for 4.30pm in time for our 5pm departure. Parking is limited nearby but we managed to get a spot in a car park just outside pier 35 for $20 for the evening. We got to the pier and joined a lengthy queue to board the boat.
Eventually we boarded and enjoyed the boat trip across the water to Alcatraz Island taking in the city views and the approaching island as we went.
When we arrived there was an option to get a ‘tram’ up to the main buildings as the walk is the equivalent of a 13 story building climb. This is limited to people with a physical need and space is limited. I say tram, it was an electric buggy, but we opted for that as I was feeling too gammy to walk and we were dropped off by the lighthouse at the top and treated to some amazing views across to San Francisco.
Next was on to our tour of the cell blocks. This included an audio tour and we were really confused because there were signs asking us to download an app for our phone; we were kinda wondering what exactly we had paid for if we used our own phone. We discovered there were actually hand held devices handed out if you didn’t want to use your own phone – no headphones however you had to hold it to your ear! Armed with our audio devices we headed off on our tour.
The tour incorporated the different cell blocks including Michigan Avenue and blocks A-C. We saw the visiting areas, the dining room and the solitary confinement areas. We only saw the lower levels as the higher levels were closed off and the recreation area outside was also having some work done. We were able to see the cell blocks where Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers escaped from in 1962 and the dug out vents at the back of their cells. It is said they did the digging with spoons. History states the guys were never seen again following their escape and the account given in the tour does correspond well with the 1978 film starring Clint Eastwood “Escape from Alcatraz”. Of course we also had to take the obligatory photos of our own incarceration!
It was a really interesting visit; however the audio tour was a little poor and left us with more questions than answers; for example there were no mention of the cell block inhabited by Al Capone, how many murders that happened there, was the water so cold that noone could make the mile long swim? What happened to the prisoners after Alcatraz closed on March 21 1963? etc. What was clear however was that the conditions were not as bad as we both thought; the food was said to be some of the best ever in prison systems and some of the cells were actually very spacious and airy; inmates had musical instruments and books to entertain themselves and regular exercise. Nigel concluded that this was an example of a place’s myth, its legend, far exceeding its reality.
Visit to Berkeley
We finished our audio tour around 7 and had arranged to see a Facebook friend, Malcolm Feied, for a drink in Berkeley. It was quite late by the time we got there but we did have a nice beer and good coversation in a bar called Jupiter located in downtown Berkeley. Malcolm told us some interesting things about Berkeley, including the origins of free speech, which led to, amongst other things, it becoming legal to burn the American Flag, which was a very common act around the time of their war in Vietnam. After this we headed back to our hotel in San Jose. Thanks Malcolm for an enjoyable evening, and of course for the beer 🍻
Final Thoughts on San Francisco
We had an amazing day! The bridge , the city and the surrounding bay is one of the best views, encompassing a combination of natural beauty and man made structures, we have ever seen! San Francisco has the WOW factor that we feel Los Angeles is lacking. Alcatraz had been on Nigel’s wish list since he was a very small child and we were glad we went there; even if the audio tour was a little poor, and the driving experiences were certainly a highlight. It was a shame we didn’t get to visit Muir Woods due to our own lack of planning. It was a really enjoyable but long day and we were glad we took the opportunity to visit. If anything our time here was too short so would definitely not rule out a second visit sometime in the future.
Carol & Nigel x