Getting to San Francisco
I was living 8 hours away when I decided to go to San Francisco. I had planned on driving, but after finding out San Francisco has some of the best public transportation and some of the worst parking, I decided flying would be best.
I ended up flying into Oakland, just across the bay from San Francisco. To get from the airport (OAK or SAF) into town, you have to take a BART bus (as long as it’s before midnight). At OAK, the bus station is located across from Terminal 1 baggage claim. You buy a re-loadable ticket at a kiosk; it costs about $10 to get to downtown San Francisco from OAK. Take the bus to Coliseum Station in Oakland, then board the San Francisco/Daly-City train into town.
It can seem a little confusing so the good people at BART have broken everything down. There is a great website that explains everything, complete with a how-to video. http://www.bart.gov/guide/airport
Okay, you’re almost there. I got off at the fourth BART stop, Civic Center/UN Plaza to buy a MUNI passport. MUNI is what you’re going to be taking all around town. Visitors can buy a 1, 3, or 7 day passport for one flat fee and you can ride the MUNI buses, cable cars, and street cars as much as you want within your passport period. A single ride costs $7; a 7 day passport costs $40. Highly recommended you buy a passport.
Once at the Civic Center/UN Plaza, find a human who works there. They are probably behind some bullet-proof glass. This is where you buy your MUNI passport. If the Civic Center/UN Plaza is too far out of your way, go to this map: https://www.sfmta.com/getting-around/transit/fares-passes/where-to-buy, and select what type of ticket you are trying to buy. Notice the four BART stops on Market St.
Getting Around Town
San Francisco is busy. There are people and cars and buses everywhere so it can get a little confusing. At the Civic Center/UN Plaza station there are several bus stops on all four corners of Van Ness and Market St. Finding the right one might take a minute. Don’t worry though; you never have to wait long for a bus in downtown San Francisco. What bus to take simply depends on where you want to go. Here’s a map of the routes: https://www.sfmta.com/maps/muni-system-map
TIP: print out a map of San Francisco or make a customized Google Map (google.com/mymaps). Mark down everything you want to see or visit and then figure out what routes you need to take to get there.
Here is my map of activities:
I used the MUNI bus routes 49, 28, 7, L, and E almost exclusively.
After finally finding the right street car, I rode it until the end. I was going to be staying at the HI San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf hostel, right on the water. I stayed in a girls’ dorm with two bunk beds.
TIP: Ask for the bottom bunk. You’ll have under the bed to store stuff. I got stuck with the top bunk and it kind of sucked having to climb down just for a book or something.
The hostel was extremely difficult to find. I incorrectly assumed there would be signs leading to it but there were not. I wandered all around foot paths asking anyone young-looking if they knew where the hostel was but no one could tell me. I ended up walking up to the back of the hostel and making my way through it towards the front.
The hostel is actually located inside Fort Mason, a park area with lots of history. Footpaths crisscross over each other and there is no clear path towards the hostel. I highly recommend looking at a map of Fort Mason so you don’t get lost and wander around like me.
TIP: Ask for a tour. I had no idea where the laundry or kitchen was for the first couple of days. The hostel is pretty large. There is a restaurant, a kitchen, several bathrooms, a reading area, and an extensive outdoor area.
I didn’t plan on spending any time at the hostel; I had stuff to do.
I bought my tickets online and picked them up at the gate. The boat was fun but cold and windy. I definitely stayed outside and up front and it was worth it to see Alcatraz rising out of the mist. My thoughts were in Sean Connery’s accent and I welcomed myself to the rock when it appeared.
We got off the boat and there was a mess of people waiting to get on to go back. You can take any boat you want back so you can stay as long as you like. The earlier you go, the more time you’ll have.
Most people went inside but I was distracted by the flowers. I expected harsh rock and rough buildings. Instead, nature was taking over. Buildings with roofs caved in were filled with plants. Birds were everywhere. The gardens were actually maintained by volunteers and workers. I never expected Alcatraz to be beautiful.
After putzing around outside for way too long I decided I should go inside before the last boat left. I mean, I could have spent all day walking around outside. I decided to do the tour because I didn’t know anything about Alcatraz. It was eerie. Everyone inside had headphones on. One by one people would turn to look at something the tape mentioned. It was silent. You could feel the ghosts.
I learned a lot. It was historical, beautiful, interesting, and well worth it. 10/10 would recommend. But give yourself double the amount of time you think you’ll spend there. Seriously.
Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge was actually difficult to get to. I had to switch bus routes a few times. But how can you go to San Francisco and not see the Golden Gate Bridge?
It was windy. Like I had to tie a scarf around my head, windy. The mist hung at the top of the bridge and made it seem bigger than it was.
I walked about halfway before I turned back. I tried to see whales or dolphins in the water but no such luck.
If you only have one hour in San Francisco, I don’t recommend the Golden Gate Bridge. I wouldn’t do it again but it is cool to say I’ve been there so take that how you want.
I love old churches and missions and found one just by wandering the streets. Mission Delores is beautiful. The church inside was stunning but so dark hardly any of my pictures turned out.
The outside cemetery was beautiful with flowers and statues and history. If you like old churches, I’d recommend this one. Kids would probably be bored.
The one thing I did not expect to see at Lombard Street was the mass of Asians. The bottom of the street was packed with Asian tourists all taking photos. I don’t know how people live in those houses on the street. I’d get super annoyed with the mass of humanity constantly at my doorstep. People were even walking down the street despite the cars trying to drive on it.
Next to the street are steps leading to the top. I walked them. God they were steep. I was not the only one stopping to take a rest. I walked right past people’s front doors and garages. Again, how anyone lives there is beyond me. They should turn those houses into businesses. Good foot traffic.
At the top, I waited around with the crowd and watched the cars and the few idiot people go down the street. I waited because I expected a cab to come around. I was sure with all those tourists, cabs would be offering $5 rides down the street. But no cabs. I was psyching myself up to ask if someone would take me down when I saw a cab drop people off. I pounced. The guy was confused. He didn’t understand why I would pay him $5 to drive down Lombard Street, which makes me think I could move there and corner the market on Lombard Street tourists.
In the end, I paid him $5, and he drove me down the street. It was actually my first time in a cab and it was actually pretty sweet. He had to drive so slowly because of those turns and I was actually having a lot of fun hanging out the window. I had plenty of time to get video and pictures because of how slow he had to go. Again, how anyone can live there is beyond me.
I was a horrible, horrible tourist who did a horribly touristy thing but I don’t care. It was cool in a completely lame way that I’m embarrassed to be writing about.
I hated this place. Despite it being a hands-on museum, I was still overwhelmed by the amount of children that were there. Buses and buses and buses of them. They should really stop selling tickets when it’s so crowded you can’t walk.
I’ve been to the COSI Museum in Ohio, which is probably the coolest hands-on museum ever so I was a little jaded when I came to this place. The exhibits are small time. But they do have an exhibit all about vision that the COSI doesn’t have and I did see a group of Buddhist monks enjoying themselves so that was pretty cool.
I ended up leaving after an hour. It just wasn’t worth it for me.
California Academy of Sciences
Um, this place is pretty cool. It is a natural history museum, planetarium, rainforest, aquarium, and zoo all wrapped in one. I learned a lot, but since I’m writing this several years after I went, I can’t actually remember anything I learned.
There is an albino alligator front and center. I usually hate seeing animals in zoos but I’m convinced that guy would be dead if he were in the wild. Pretty easy to spot an albino alligator in the water equals not much food for him. He seemed pretty content.
If I lived near this place, I would be going all of the time. One day is not enough and I had to rush through a lot of exhibits. I would highly recommend you visit if you’re one of those nerd types who like to learn on their vacations like I do.
I was having so much fun I forgot to take pictures.
Beach Blanket Babylon
Beach Blanket Babylon, Beach Blanket Babylon, Beach Blanket Babylon, everyone kept talking about Beach Blanket Babylon. You have to go see Beach Blanket Babylon.
Well I went so you don’t have to. Beach Blanket Babylon has a long history in San Francisco and was the first drag show or something like that. It was revolutionary. Well, times have changed and drag shows aren’t that revolutionary anymore. I mean, it was alright. It wasn’t all that daring or shocking. It was just alright
Their big thing is big wigs. As in, all the actors have giant wigs on, to the point of ridiculousness. They keep up on current events and showcase new characters all the time. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a Trump character (I’m writing this in 2017).
You sit at little tables and they serve you alcohol. I had beer and wine and discovered a different kind of tipsy than I am used to.
Again, it was alright.
Palace of Fine Arts
I was wandering around San Francisco when I saw this beautiful pavilion. I was drawn to it. Turns out it is the Palace of Fine Arts. I walked along and took easily a hundred photographs of the architecture and flowers.
Here are just a few:
I decided to go to Fisherman’s Wharf on a Saturday when there would be a makeshift market. It was packed. You could buy just about anything there – it was like a street fair but inside. I’m glad I went because it was cool to be with all those people but I wouldn’t make a special trip again.
Those who are claustrophobic or those with small kids might want to stay away, at least on Saturday.
Pier 39 is home to the sea lions. There are floating docks that the sea lions sleep on. Despite there being several docks, they all seem to want to be on the same one.
I’m a fan of seeing animals in nature, doing their thing. Sea lions are kind of boring when they’re sleeping but it was easy to get to, there were other things like restaurants and the Aquarium of the Bay nearby, and I got to spend a few minutes appreciating the fact that humans built something for wild animals to enjoy.
Aquarium of the Bay
Aquarium of the Bay doesn’t make it into my top five favorite aquariums, mostly because of the hands on exhibit. Little kids touching the sea cucumbers and anemones and screaming and the workers didn’t know much about the animals they were caring for. The building was a little dingy and smelled like cleaning supplies.
I didn’t learn a lot at the Aquarium of the Bay. It was more of a place for kids and was definitely lite on knowledge. I’d recommend the California Academy of Sciences.
I’d heard about this store that sells curios and oddities like they do in British detective movies set in the olden times. No creepy store owner, though. Just normal people.
There were weird jars with weird things inside them. There were taxidermied animals. There were wicked sweet books on everything weird.
They ask that you don’t take photographs on their website. I saw two things I had to take pictures of and asked if I could. They thanked me for asking and said I could. So here you go
It’s a store for the weirdo in you. Highly recommend.
826 Valencia Pirate Supply Store
I heard about a pirate store so I went to check it out. It just has a bunch of pirate supplies. If I were a 10 year old boy, I would have been in heaven.
I felt like I had to go to Haight-Ashbury even though I had to walk quite a distance to get there. It was exactly what I expected. There was a hippie smell (I’m allowed to say that because I also have a hippie smell) and I was the most “normal” looking person on the street.
It looked a little run-down actually. It reminded me of Ypsilanti, Michigan, which is like Detroit for students. I didn’t go inside any stores but I eat at a great Thai food place I can’t remember the name of. I also bought a scarf off a group of kids who obviously shared a one bedroom apartment and were selling stuff for rent. I still use it to this day and I love it. So, score.
Man, I wish I could have spent more time at The Castro. I was getting a tattoo in that district and spent most of my time inside a tattoo parlor.
The Castro was so lively. There were people everywhere. Rainbow flags in every business window. There were even three men wearing cod pieces and hats and nothing else just standing in the middle of a patio. People sat in chairs and just watched them standing around. I loved it.
San Francisco is the type of city where if it wasn’t so expensive, I would totally live there. There was so much culture and each district was distinct. You want amazing Mexican food? Go to the Mission District. You want a crowd of people? Go to The Castro. You want to be touristy? Go near the water.
There was so much to do and I didn’t have time to do everything I wanted. I didn’t see the Painted Ladies, those beautiful houses seen in the Full House intro. I didn’t get to the Musee Mecanique, a penny arcade museum, or Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, something I know I’m going to visit the next time I go to San Francisco.
And I saw so much stuff that didn’t fit into a category. I road a historic street car and got yelled at twice for hanging off it to take video. I saw the stalls of Chinatown through a bus window. I met a cat. I ate at an all-vegan Chinese restaurant that played videos of Chinese animal rights activists with poorly done subtitles.
I highly recommend San Francisco.