San Francisco was actually the first city I visited in the North American continent and my first visit to USA was to Honolulu, but I do not consider that as part of North America. That might be the reason why I love this city, though in general I do like cities with a huge waterfront and some mountainous topography. Think Vancouver, Sydney, Hong Kong, Seattle and San Francisco. I have visited the city several times since then and every new visit I seem to discover something new so this time around I did not miss for a chance to stay in the city again. It might not be necessary to get around SF with a car but I think it helps especially considering the hilly terrain that can mean quite a hike by walking.
Starting at Union Square, this can be considered the epicentre of the city. Lots of high-end boutiques and department stores surround this area and the dense urban lifestyle of the city is felt here. I remember tourists usually could spend the whole day shopping here and that makes more sense during the cold and wet winter in Northern California.
A couple of blocks away, Market Street is probably the most significant major street in downtown San Francisco dissecting the downtown into 2 distinct regions. Though most of the attractions are north of Market (NoMa). More shopping can be found here including a branch of the Blue Bottle Coffee conveniently located behind the Old Mint Building across from the sprawling Westfield Shopping Complex that houses both a Bloomingdales and a Nordstrom.
Market Street is also notable for leading towards the Ferry Building in one end, which is a historical waterfront landmark that has been renovated to be a high-end market of sorts showcasing the best food and crafts from the Bay Area. The backyard of the Ferry Building is also a nice place to enjoy the sea breeze with view of the Oakland Bay Bridge, a more modern version of the Golden Gate.
The area around Ferry Building is dubbed the Embarcadero and houses the skyscrapers of the financial district along with a lot of restaurants. Street buskers entertain the tourists by the sidewalk as old trams buzz by in the background. During peak hours in the weekdays, men in suits walk briskly to head out for lunch makes for crowds all week long in the Embarcadero. In my eyes, this is what makes a very good urban revitalization project. While the area makes for a very pedestrian friendly area, getting a parking spot during peak hours by the roadside here is like winning a lottery ticket.
Connected along the waterfront from the Embarcadero is the famous Fisherman’s Wharf which is home to a lot of seals and fresh seafood stands serving clam chowders and dungeness crabs. Another focal point in every tourist’s itinerary, the piers along the waterfront also offers a great view of the bay and Alcatraz island along with the San Francisco skyline and the Coit Tower.
At the end of the Fisherman’s Wharf is the Ghirardelli Square, also once the headquarters for the chocolate company that became famous in this city. Even though the Square is not owned by the chocolate company, there is a huge chocolate store inside along with an ice cream cafe at the street side facing the bay.
Heading further west from Fisherman’s Wharf, travellers can find the iconic Palace of Fine Arts and the Yacht Club along the Marina District. Quaint waterfront townhouse grace the streets in this area making it a very bike-friendly district. In fact bikers would probably enjoy the ride from the Yacht Club towards Crissy Field and the Torpedo Wharf for a lookout of the Golden Gate Bridge which is undoubtedly one of the famous bridges of the world.
The San Francisco waterfront does not stop at Golden Gate bridge, as it actually opens out into the Pacific Ocean past the bridge where another magnificent sight can be had around rocky Point Lobos. From the Ocean Beach in this area, more attractions can be found in the other end of the huge Golden Gate Park and the San Francisco Zoo along the Great Highway. It is probably best to drive around here as this is quite a distance from the downtown core and the ocean view along the highway makes it one of the best city driving spots in San Francisco.
When visiting San Francisco, a walk around Chinatown should be in the cards as the city is home to one of the most vibrant Chinatowns in the world and offers great cheap dim sums to the Asian seafood dining in the well-known R&G Lounge along Kearny Street that serves a salt and pepper fried crab as their specialty dish. Though I enjoy visiting Chinatown with its riot of noise and colourful signboards giving it a festival atmosphere. And not to mention, some of the best views of the landmark Transamerica Pyramid skyscraper can be seen from Chinatown itself. San Francisco’s Chinatown also harks back to the migration of Chinese labourers in search of gold that gave the city its traditional Chinese name 舊金山 (literally ‘Old Gold Hill’)
It is fascinating to see the city grow to become a significant centre of finance for the high-tech industries of Silicon Valley today with the vibrant urban core in the downtown and yet still near to a relaxing waterfront that offers a nice respite from the busy lifestyle in the city. Unlike some cities where the attractions lie beyond the city itself, I think the attraction for visiting San Francisco lies in the downtown core itself and that makes a good case in itself to stay inside the city and enjoy the cool waterfront breeze amidst the dense skyscrapers.