San Francisco is known for its steep streets, eclectic mix of Victorian and Modern architecture, the Golden Gate Bridge, The Rock (no, not Dwayne Johnson), indie hipsters, and cable cars, just to name a few.
I was so excited to finally have the opportunity to visit the city where Mia Thermopolis finds out she's the princess of Genovia (Okay, don't judge, I grew up in the 2000s, watching not only The Princess Diaries but also, Disney's That's So Raven, and the classic Robin Williams film, Mrs. Doubtfire, all of which take place within the fabulous city of San Francisco).
I was even fortunate enough to be exploring this city with a few of my bestfriends who journeyed all the way from Melbourne, Australia.
First things first, I was definitely not prepared for the unexpected heatwave that began the morning my plane flew in from Los Angeles. It was around 35 degrees celsius. And of course I only brought one piece of carry on luggage (I was on a VERY tight budget) which meant one main outfit consisting of jeans and a long sleeve shirt... to somehow last me 3 days.
Over the next few days we stayed at Hi San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf located at Fort Mason, a former United States Army post built in 1912, now refurbished into a clean, comfy backpackers retreat overlooking the bay – with views of the Golden Gate Bridge to the left, Alcatraz island to the right, and in the distance the seaside town of Sausalito. I highly recommend this hostel as the beds are comfortable, there's an on-site cafe, movie room, pool table and jukebox, large kitchen hall, as well as free parking and daily activities run by the hostel itself. This place had a really laid back vibe, great for travellers of all ages.
That evening I watched the sun set over the crimson red, steel bridge known as the Golden Gate. No fog in sight. Seagulls cawed overhead and the smell of sea salt infused with fresh pine wood reminded me of when I was a little girl wandering through Eastern Botanical Gardens in my hometown of Geelong.
DAY 1: Alcatraz
We took the ferry out to Alcatraz island at around 11am – the sun already blistering hot. My whole 'jeans and long sleeve shirt' getup was not helping. I wonder how the prisoners coped with no air conditioning or heaters back in the day? It must've been tough.
The ferry took about 15 minutes. The island really isn't that far from the mainland. Apparently it's only a 3km swim but with strong currents and cold waters I can see why most prisoners were afraid to take the plunge. It was especially interesting to learn that on New Years Eve it would get so loud in the city that the inmates could hear the partying and cheering from within their cells. The worst kind of torture!
The Cellhouse Audio Tour was definitely the highlight. Walking into concreted cells, exploring the spooky corridors, guard offices and dining areas gave me a sense of unease. To think how many men must have passed through or perished within this building, now ghosts just lurk through the empty halls. The tour consisted of real life audio accounts, accompanied by a haunting soundscape of prisoner's voices, eerie echoes, and batons banging on bars.
It's insane how this prison was able to stay open for as long as it did (29 years, eventually closing in 1963). The conditions were appalling: small, stone cold cells, just wide enough for prisoners to extend out their arms. I'm still amazed at how a small sink, toilet, desk and bed managed to fit in such a tight space.
We spent about 4 hours on the island which was more than enough for us. We began to feel like prisoners ourselves, wanting to escape desperately, thirsting for a cold glass of water. The ferry took us back to the mainland where a pod of dolphins swam alongside us.
For lunch we enjoyed a seafood meal on Pier 39. The food was overpriced, which you can expect in these touristy areas, but nonetheless delicious. We strolled down the pier to watch the sea lions sun-baking on the wooden docks. This was a pretty cool experience as we had never seen such large seals lying together, just metres from us humans.
DAY 2: Walking Tour
The hostel ran free activities throughout the week so we decided to jump onboard with a 3hr walking tour of the city (although it did take 5hrs which, again, was not ideal in clothing that was still sweaty from yesterday's adventure). Overall the walking tour was awesome! Our volunteer tour guide was so insightful and knew almost every historical detail about the city. But expect your legs to be wobbly from all that hill climbing, come prepared with sneakers, water and a hat.
On foot we explored the wealthier neighbourhoods, meandering through enchanted gardens, peering into million dollar homes, and discovering paths leading to mesmerising views of the bay. These narrow houses are designed with European charm, the ones seen on postcards that climb up the streets, splashed with pastel colours. I like to think of them as giant, life-sized dollhouses.
Along the way we visited Fisherman's Wharf, twisty Lombard St, Coit Tower, Chinatown, and a number of cathedrals. We practically covered all the main touristy sites of San Francisco on foot before taking a rest on the steps of Grace Cathedral, its steeple providing us with much needed shade.
Later that evening, we all walked down to Jefferson St, along Fisherman's Wharf, to grab a bite for dinner. We saw an ordinary looking pizza store and decided to eat in. As we sat their eating greasy pepperoni pizzas, something just didn't seem quite right about the restaurant. Was it the underwear mannequins with "Tommy" written across the bum or the photos lining the wall depicting the disaster artist himself, Tommy Wiseau? Little did we know we were sitting in the pizza store filmmaker, Tommy Wiseau, known for the terribly funny low-budget flop, The Room, owned. And right next to the pizza store was the International Spy Shop, also owned by the one and only. Being fans of the film this was quite an uncanny find. We often laugh about this strange experience and still wonder if Tommy has made any sales from his personalised underwear display in the restaurant.
DAY 3: Across the Golden Gate
Today we hired a car and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. Finally, the hot weather had vanished and we got to see why everyone calls San Francisco the Fog City. The fog caused the Bridge to look majestic from Sausalito.
Our plan was to visit Muir Woods National Park but without a park reservation our plans changed last minute. We took a pleasant, peaceful drive to Muir Beach. It was refreshing to travel away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Later that day we stopped at a classic American diner and enjoyed a very large, unhealthy meal. You know you ate way too much when you have to unzip your jeans. Milkshakes, pancakes, french toast, fries, it was important to give my Aussie friends the American diner experience, despite knowing we'd regret it later that evening.
San Francisco is such a unique and beautiful city. After living in Los Angeles for the past six months I can say that I prefer the layout and feel of San Francisco. I would highly recommend this magical city by the bay to anyone whose looking to visit the US. Easy to explore on foot or cable car. A green city with world class cuisine and a fascinating history.
Caitlin is a 20-something broad from Australia with a passion for filmmaking, writing and exploring the world.