If you are jumping straight in this ‘Part Two’ post – to recap, Part One covered some of the reasons why I fell in love with San Francisco. We also took a virtual tour on the Big Bus San Francisco, sharing some photos of the destinations along the way. Check it out here.
The bus tour isn’t the only way to navigate this city though – there are plenty of other options (as well as your feet) and we will take a look at those here.
Streetcars and Cable Cars
San Francisco is home to a network of Cable Cars and Historic Street Cars, which I am sure you will all have seen in photos, TV or in the movies. A trip to the city is incomplete without taking at least one journey on these.
The San Francisco Antique Streetcars are a collection of vintage streetcars, trolleys and trams, some of which have been been shipped in from towns and cities around the world, including one from our very own Blackpool in the UK. These colourful streetcars travel along the F-Line from the Castro neighbourhood all the way down Market Street to the Embarcadero then head north as far as Pier 45 before making their way back.
It’s worth giving a mention to The Castro district which sits at the far end of the F-Line in the Eureka Valley. As one of the first gay neighbourhoods in the USA it remains as one of the most prominent LGBT spots in the world and is definitely worth a visit to take in the atmosphere of this vibrant area.
I’m guessing the most well known form of transport in the city are the world famous Cable Cars. Do not visit San Francisco without taking a ride on one of these – it’s definitely something to tick off the list. Do not take a ride on one of these without standing on one of the outside steps – it’s great fun, but hold on tight – these things are bumpy and jerky.
There are three routes that the cable cars take. The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines both run from the Powell and Market turnaround in downtown and head towards Fishermans Wharf, with the Powell-Hyde line ending further east near Ghiradelli Square, a site of the former Ghiradelli chocolate company. It’s a lovely area to wander around with a collection of shops and restaurants – the important shop for me being the Ghiradelli Chocolate Shop to stock up on the mouthwatering Sea Salt and Caramel Squares. If you choose to board at the Powell and Market turnaround, there can be some lengthy queues at some points in the day – everyone wants to take a ride on these!
The third cable car route is the California Street Line which runs along California Street from the financial district all the way up the steep hills to Pacific Heights / Nob Hill. There are some great views travelling along this route looking up or down at the steep slopes and taking in sights such as the spectacular Grace Cathedral at the top of the hill.
Given that San Francisco is on the coast, you are not going to want to visit without doing a boat trip. There are many different tours that run from Fisherman’s Wharf but one of the best that we found was the Golden Gate Bay Cruise, run by Red and White Fleet. This cruise takes you out into the bay and right under the Golden Gate Bridge, before looping around Alcatraz Island and heading back to the wharf.
Speaking of Alcatraz Island, of course I can’t post a lengthy review on San Francisco without mentioning it.
Quick history lesson. The small island of Alcatraz (also known as ‘The Rock’) out on the bay was developed initially with a lighthouse and military prison in the 1860’s before running as a federal penitentiary between 1934 and 1963. It housed some of the more notorious and dangerous criminals such as Al Capone. Due to the cold, strong currents of the San Francisco Bay, the prison was deemed inescapable although there were many failed attempts over the years. It has spawned several movies including the Escape from Alcatraz and The Rock. The island is now a property of the National Park Service who run tours of the abandoned prison.
I’ve visited Alcatraz twice, and the second visit was definitely the best and most atmospheric. The reason for this is that we did a ‘Night Tour’ run by Alcatraz Cruises. It’s technically not a night tour as such, more of an evening tour really depending on the time of year. We visited in June, so we had an early evening departure meaning that it was daylight on our journey across the bay but the sun started setting while we were there offering some great photo opportunities and a darker journey back to the city.
Having visited the city a couple of times in September, which was nice and mild I expected June to be similar but while we were there the famous fog rolled in a few times. And then it was chilly. My top tip would be to bring some layers – it can get really cold on that ferry trip across to the island!
Once you disembark from the ferry, there is a fair bit of walking and some steep slopes on the way up to the main Cellhouse, but the tour guide gives you plenty of interesting information along the way.
The Cellhouse tour is a self guided audio tour of the building which is really interesting, bringing to life some of the stories of the inmates.
This tour takes in the cell block, the dining hall and the recreation yard. One of the main sections of the audio tour that stands out for me is the fact that given the fairly close proximity to the mainland, the inmates would be able to see and (depending on wind direction) hear the city sounds, so despite the conditions they were living in it was even more torturous being able to see and hear what they were missing out on across on the mainland.
The fog had rolled in while we were on the island, and despite not being very thick it gave some really great views across the bay.
The combination of the fog and the sunset as we were walking back down to the ferry dock created an eerie atmosphere and some good photo opportunities!
I would definitely recommend a Night Tour over the daytime tours, purely for atmosphere but it’s worth noting that you do need to book well in advance as they can get booked up quote early.
One final recommendation I would make is that if you have a rental car and you are leaving the city, then please take a detour to Twin Peaks and in particular the Christmas Tree vista point. From way up here, you will catch some of the most dramatic panoramas of the city that are available.
It was a fantastic way to wave goodbye to the city I fell in love with. Until next time…