A Week in San Francisco and the East Bay
This is the story of a hastily-planned Christmas break adventure in which we embrace some touristic cliches. We’ll give you some ideas for your own week in San Francisco, but first some history:
When we first moved to the United States (back to the United States for Heide) in 2005, it was to live in the Bay Area, northern California. My job was located in the suburban sprawl east of the Oakland Hills. After giving some brief thought to living in San Francisco to enjoy the cool things in the city, sanity prevailed. To avoid a terrible daily commute, we compromised and settled in Walnut Creek. This gave us fairly easy access to San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, while being not too far from my job to drive every morning.
For an Australian and a Montanan, moving to northern California involved some culture shock. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the few years we lived there. We had the classic Californian combination of vehicles – a convertible and an SUV. It was fun going into San Francisco on a regular basis, sometimes spending the weekend there. We also enjoyed day trips to the Napa Valley, Santa Cruz and other locations.
Our enjoyment of northern California’s attractions slowed down a little when Lachlan came along. He was born about half way through our time in California. He spent the first year of his life there, so of course doesn’t remember anything. However, being born in California does factor into his self-identification. His long blonde hair seems appropriate for a California kid.
A week in San Francisco (and Berkeley)
So for all these reasons, the Bay Area holds some great memories for us. It’s a bit surprising then that it took so long for us to get back there to visit. Heide had been back to visit by herself a couple of times, but it wasn’t until about ten years after we left that we got there for a family vacation.
We usually plan summer vacations well in advance and with quite a bit of thought, but getting away around the Christmas break tends to be more spontaneous. The 2015 Christmas – New Year’s break was the time we would finally get back to northern California. The goal was to see friends, revisit some favorite places, and show Lachlan where he was born. That last objective was quite literal – we drove him past the hospital where he made his grand entrance to the world.
As it was Lachlan’s first time in San Francisco, we needed to cover some of the popular attractions. In our planning, the goal was to include some of the must-sees and introduce Lachlan to the city. However we also wanted to revisit some of our favorite experiences.
Where to Stay – San Francisco
San Francisco is a major tourist town, and a major business center. The most popular tourist hotels are located around Fisherman’s Wharf, while the hotels downtown tend to cater toward business travelers. This means that when business travel is light (e.g. between Christmas and the New Year) you can get a great deal on hotels that rely on business travel. We took advantage of this and got a great deal on a room at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square. Sure it’s big and a bit impersonal, but centrally located and handy to Union Square and the Mission District. The location is a bit removed from the ultra-touristy Fisherman’s Wharf area, but for me this is a positive.
Sure, in a week in San Francisco you will end up at Fisherman’s Wharf at some point (we did, and we were only in the city a few days), but there is so much more to see and do, so being more central is better, in my opinion. There are a lot of accommodations at different prices, so consider which area you want to stay to narrow down your choices. The area around Union Square has both hotel chain and independent options. There are also hostels for the very budget conscious.
When you do want to visit Fisherman’s Wharf you can take the iconic cable car across over the hill. However, this is best done early in the day as the wait can be very long. Do it once for the experience, then you’re better off using San Francisco’s excellent regular public transport options to efficiently get around. Day passes and multi day passes are available, and it’s a good idea to take advantage of these.
Things to Do
Our first stop in our week in San Francisco was the Ferry Building, which is full of great foodie stores, cafes and restaurants. This was a favorite place to visit when we lived in California, and there are even more things to see (and eat) there now.
Other highlights of our week in San Francisco were the Mission District, North Beach and some general wandering around, San Francisco is a great place for that – although the hills will give you quite a workout. The highest priority for Lachlan was the city’s most popular attraction – Alcatraz.
When we started planning for this trip, we immediately ran into a problem. All the Alcatraz cruises were sold out for each of the days we would be in San Francisco. Some frantic internet research revealed a solution, we could buy a package deal with a hop-on / hop-off bus tour ticket combined with entry to Alcatraz. Phew – crisis averted.
Alcatraz is one of those places that lives up to the hype. The stories are fascinating and the audio tour is very well done, it adds greatly to the experience. It exists in a state of elegant decay which evokes it’s long history, and makes for some great photo opportunities.
Lachlan was very absorbed in the stories in the audio tour and fascinated by Alcatraz. He even got to meet a former inmate in the bookstore, who was there to sign his prison memoirs. We bought a copy for Lachlan and he spent all his downtime over the next few days reading it.
We found ourselves in North Beach on a couple of different occasions. One time was after a longer than planned walk across town from the Marina District, via Lombard St. We rested our weary feet in Washington Square and enjoyed the view of Saints Peter and Paul Church at dusk. On another day we walked to North Beach via Chinatown, and browsed at the famous City Lights Bookstore. This is a historical pilgrimage site for beats and bohemians, and still a center for progressive literature and activism.
The Mission District
We took the opportunity on this trip to visit the historic Mission Dolores, which we never got around to doing when we lived in California. Afterwards, we spent some time in nearby Mission Dolores Park before taking a walk to check out some of the area’s amazing murals for a dose of more contemporary culture. Our Mission District adventure finished in appropriate fashion at a taqueria with a very hearty and inexpensive lunch.
The East Bay
There are many other things to do in the city to fill out your week in San Francisco (and beyond). You can join the hordes at Fisherman’s Wharf, or visit some of the city’s museums. The de Young Museum, SF MOMA and the Exploratorium (highly recommended for kids) are just some of the options.
We didn’t have time for any of that because we planned to spend some time on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, catching up with friends and showing Lachlan the area he spent the first year of his life. We did manage to see some sights that are worth considering for any visitors who have time to branch out beyond San Francisco to the surrounding areas. One of these was Redwood Regional Park in Oakland. Although the redwoods there are secondary growth after the area was logged in the mid 1800s, this park is a peaceful alternative to the crowds and chaos you’ll often find at Muir Woods, which is the most well-known place to see redwoods close to San Francisco.
Another place in Oakland that is well worth a visit is the Oakland Museum of California. We underestimated how much there is to see here, it’s chock full of interesting information and exhibits about Californian history. We’ll definitely go there next time we’re in the East Bay to see everything we didn’t have time to cover in our visit.
Where to Eat
A week in San Francisco is barely enough time to begin to explore the city’s restaurant scene. The East Bay has it’s own foodie highlights, like Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. We’ve listed below a few places we enjoyed on our trip:
Hog Island Oyster Co. at the Ferry Building – similar to our Sydney seafood ritual, this was the first place we headed to when we arrived in San Francisco. As well as awesome oysters, they have an amazing grilled cheese sandwich.
Alioto’s – If you’re going to go for a seafood meal at Fisherman’s Wharf (which is a fun thing to do, for sure), please go to a surviving old-school place like this, not Bubba Gump.
Piazza Pellegrini – There are many options for Italian food in North Beach. This is a good one.
Gitane – Tapas is one of our favorite cuisines, and we had a great meal with some friends here. They have an awesome bar for a pre-dinner cocktail, so build some time into your evening’s schedule for that. When we lived in California we enjoyed meals at another tapas place just around the corner, B44. Looks like it’s still going strong, so you probably should try that one, too. Tell us in the comments which one you like best.
Cafe Mason – we ate breakfast here every day we were in San Francisco. We fully intended to try a different place each day, but after our first breakfast here, we decided to stick with a good thing.
Great Eastern Restaurant – a classic no frills Chinatown eatery. President Obama ate here, you should too.
So there you have it. We hope this gives you some ideas for a week in San Francisco and surrounding areas. No matter how long you’re staying, you’ll have to make some choices because there is so much to see and do, whether you’re a family or a couple or a solo traveler.