I just spent about a week in San Francisco and have the blisters to prove it. I visited this hilly city for a two day conference, and afterward took the opportunity to do some sight seeing in the company of Mr. Chuckles when he joined me over the weekend. In the span of three days, we trekked up and down the numerous hills of SF to explore a few different neighbourhoods and iconic sites.
Union Square | Chinatown | Japantown | Fillmore | Mission District | Lower Haight | Embarcadero | Alcatraz Island | Fisherman’s Wharf | Russian Hill | Presidio | SoMa | Pacific Heights
Where we stayed
Accommodations in San Francisco, both hotels and Airbnb alike, are generally exorbitantly expensive. Even outside of high season, I was looking at places charging an average of $300 to $500 USD per night. There are more budget friendly options further out of the downtown core, but those were either too far from the conference hall or located in sketchy neighbourhoods like the infamous Tenderloin.
I ended up at the Grand Hyatt Union Square which is centrally located in downtown San Francisco. It is a chain hotel so has a generic look and amenities, but was a good choice as it had convenient access to popular tourist spots, shopping, and public transit. The city view room was large and very clean. Pricing was typical for the area and hotel rating (4 stars), at around $430 USD per night.
Of note, San Francisco’s struggles with affordable housing has led to a major problem with homelessness, further exacerbated by issues with access to mental health and drug rehabilitation services. Some visitors to the city are put off by the sight of the homeless population and it certainly is very apparent when you walk down many downtown streets, but I felt perfectly safe staying in Union Square.
Union Square is a central shopping, hotel, and theatre district that is optimally located for those looking to visit the usual SF tourist sites. We actually didn’t spend an extended time exploring this area, using it more as a stepping off point for our excursions instead.
We did enjoy one very good omakase lunch near here, at Akiko’s. Word to the wise: there are two Japanese restaurants named Akiko’s in the Union Square district but the one on Bush Street is the one you want. We had an embarrassing interaction when we sat down at the much more humble version of Akiko’s on Mason Street and had to awkwardly walk out when I realized that it was not the place where I had made reservations. Oops.
SF boasts the oldest Chinatown in the United States, where you can find the largest Chinese enclave outside of Asia. Starting at the Dragon Gate on Bush Street, it spans 24 city blocks.
We spent part of Saturday morning walking around, with our first stop at Good Mong Kok Bakery for take out dim sum. Based on my Yelp research, this place is one of the best spots for dim sum in the city and it met my expectations. Arrive before 10 am to avoid long line ups. Mr. Chuckles and I each enjoyed a couple shumai and shrimp dumplings, and agreed that these were the best we’ve ever had.
Next stop was the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, a family owned shop that has been around since 1962. We were greeted by a friendly lady who was hand-making their renowned fortune cookies and we picked up a box to take home. There was also an option to make custom fortunes and take a free tour of the shop.
Heading west of Chinatown lies Japantown. It is one of only three remaining Japantowns in the United States (the other two are in Los Angeles and San Jose, California) and covers six city blocks.
We browsed around Kintetsu Mall inside Japan Center, which houses several cutesy shops and, of course, some good looking eats. We came by in search of Ichi Sando, a cafe which serves the delicious egg sandwiches and fruit sandwiches that we have been missing since our trip to Tokyo, but unfortunately they were closed for renovations all month. Looks like we will just have to go back to Japan one day!
Our trip to the neighbourhood of Fillmore was primarily to see the Painted Ladies, also known as the Full House house. If you were a fan of this classic 90s family sitcom, you will recognize the shot from the opening credits, which was filmed from Alamo Square Park across the street.
Upon our arrival to the park, there was a small crowd of visitors trying to capture the money shot. We also spotted an interesting man who was quite the character, doing a jig and singing a song…without any pants on.
In southeast SF lies the Mission district, an area with a strong Latin American influence and hippy vibe. We came here for the tacos and street art.
There’s serious debate out there on the best taqueria in SF. We went with Taqueria El Farolito on Mission Street and were not disappointed with this busy, no-frills joint. I can vouch for the carnitas and carne asada tacos as good selections. Yummy!
There is a lot of street art scattered throughout the Mission. We checked out some along Balmy Alley. You can also find a few Banksy pieces around the neighbourhood if you know where to look.
We didn’t have the chance to visit the more famous Haight-Ashbury, but did spend some time in Lower Haight when we had dinner at Petit Crenn.
This is the more casual sister restaurant of Atelier Crenn, owned by three Michelin star chef Dominique Crenn. Here we enjoyed a seven course French inspired tasting menu.
The Embarcadero area sits along the eastern shoreline, featuring several waterfront attractions. My conference took place at the nearby Hyatt Regency so I was able to spend some time strolling around the area. The Ferry Building is an iconic site in SF and includes a food hall that was a nice place to stop for lunch. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays there is an outdoor farmers market.
If you walk around to the back of the building, there are nice views of San Francisco Bay and the San Francisco-Oakland Bridge.
Alcatraz Island probably doesn’t count as a neighbourhood but I’ll leave it here anyway. Also known as ‘The Rock’, it was initially developed with facilities for a lighthouse, military fortification, and the infamous federal prison. The prison closed in 1963, and a few years later in 1969, the island was occupied by a group of Native Americans participating in the wave of Native American activism that swept through the United States in the 1970s.
In 1972, Alcatraz became part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area and nowadays you can visit it as a site of the National Park Service.
We spent Sunday morning touring the island after taking the ferry over there with Alcatraz Cruises. I wasn’t sure about the quality of the prison audio tour but it was surprisingly well done. It was definitely a worthwhile couple hours spent.
You can also catch beautiful views of the San Francisco skyline from across the Bay.
A short walk from Pier 33, where we boarded the ferry to Alcatraz, is Fisherman’s Wharf. Sitting along the northern waterfront, the area features several seafood joints and various souvenir shops.
It is super touristy but was a must-visit for us because the city’s only In-N-Out Burger is located here!
Also worth seeing was Pier 39, where you can find a bunch of sea lions that started hauling out on the docks in 1989.
We figured that if we were going to walk the hills in SF, Lombard Street was the place to see. This street actually runs all the way from Presidio to Embarcadero, but it’s the block between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets in Russian Hill that is the focal point for most visitors.
It is designed with eight sharp turns that were intended to reduce the hill’s natural 27 percent grade, which was too steep for vehicles to handle. This is known as the most crooked street in the world. Surprisingly, the walk up was pretty easy. Definitely not the Inca Trail here.
Speaking of hills, here are a few more from Russian Hill and elsewhere around the city.
The Presidio is a park and former US Army military fort on the tip of the San Francisco peninsula. We stopped here to examine the engineering marvel that is the Golden Gate Bridge.
Built in 1937, the bridge spans 1280 metres (4200 feet) and measures 227 metres (746 feet) high. It is held up by 250 pairs of vertical suspender ropes and runs across the Golden Gate strait, which connects San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. It carries traffic on US Route 1 and California State Route 1, as well as pedestrians and cyclists, heading between SF and the city of Sausalito.
As per its namesake, SoMa (South of Market) is the area located south of Market Street. It is mostly an industrial warehouse filled district so there didn’t seem to be all that much to see here, at least when we were passing through in the evening.
We made the trip down solely for our meal at Omakase, a Michelin star Japanese restaurant serving traditional Edomae style sushi. So, so good.
Our last stop in SF was a short walk through Pacific Heights. This area has been named the most expensive neighbourhood in the United States, and it sure looks like it.
Pacific Heights boasts several notable residents, including US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi, Apple chief designer Johnathan Ive, and co-founder of PayPal Peter Thiel. And remember that massive house from Mrs. Doubtfire? It’s here, specifically at 2640 Steiner Street. Asking price $4.5 million in 2016. Ka-ching!
On that note, our whirlwind trip to San Francisco was complete. Time to head home to our own expensive city here in Canada!
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