Where is the one place in the world you would love to live given the chance? If money were no object and you could up-sticks and relocate no questions asked? I think about this often, and hands down I’d pick California every day of the week.
There’s something about the rugged coastline, endless sunshine and abundance of outdoor adventure that makes my heart skip a beat every time I step off the plane in the Golden State. California dreamin’ is a daily, if not hourly, occurrence for me. I imagine grabbing an iced latte on my way to a morning paddle boarding session, hiking in the Hollywood Hills with an adorable rescue crossbreed or sipping a cold glass of rose whilst weekending in a stylish-yet-rustic beach house in Malibu.
Whilst my California dreams may not become a reality any time soon, my obsession with a move stateside has been tempered with three visits to the Pacific Coast haven, each one slightly different to the last. I like to think of myself as a bit of a California taste-tester, soaking up the culture like a sponge every time I’m there. I’m never happier than when I’m drinking in the sights, sounds and smells of my favourite state – much like the opening sequence of La La Land. So, it seemed fitting that I put my knowledge to good use, and write about how to experience the very best of what California has to offer, starting with San Francisco.
Best known for The Golden Gate Bridge, colourful cable cars and of course, Alcatraz, San Francisco is a vibrant, bohemian city full of character and history, and with so much more to offer than just your typical tourist landmarks. Made up of its own unique neighbourhoods, each very different from the last, you could easily spend hours wandering from place to place, getting lost in the charm of the city. Although the cityscape is pretty sprawling, it’s relatively easy to cover a lot of ground in 3 days, even if you venture off-the-beaten-track.
Top tip – If you are planning on doing a roadtrip, I would highly recommend not hiring a car in San Francisco. The hire car queues at the airport are incredibly long, plus hotel parking in the city is often extortionate! Hire car companies will drop your car off at your hotel for a small fee, so it’s worth investigating and booking your car to arrive at your convenience the day you plan to leave San Francisco.
We started our trip in Nob Hill, staying at the über luxurious Fairmont Hotel, thanks to an incredible Booking.com deal. Boasting beautifully elegant decor, a grand lobby and the best views of the city, The Fairmont is one of the most famous San Francisco properties and one of its best-loved hotels. Whilst it wasn’t somewhere we would ordinarily choose to stay, the central location is one of the best in San Francisco and at a discounted price, it was too good to resist.
Situated just a short distance away from Union Square and adjacent to China Town, it was the perfect location to serve as a base for our stay. For a bit of cheesy fun (when in San Francisco ey?) we visited the hotel’s restaurant, Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, a tiki-themed bar with live music, Asian fusion dishes and blow-your-head-off cocktails, built around the hotel’s old pool. The pool is the main feature of the restaurant, and a live band plays on a moving platform that sails lengths across the water throughout the night. Tonga room has a real party atmosphere and I challenge you not to take to the dancefloor when the band starts playing classic hits to the sounds of very realistic micro-rainstorms.
Pier 39 and biking the Golden Gate Bridge
On our first morning, the air thick with San Francisco fog, we took advantage of our jetlag and hitched a cable car to Pier 39 to grab an early morning coffee and watch the famous herds of seals splashing about in the bay. Whilst it can get quite busy with tourists during the day, the morning is the perfect time to explore Pier 39 as there is little to no footfall and it feels like you have the place all to yourselves. Perched on one of the wooden benches, we were able to soak in the views of the bay to the sound of water lapping around us, and seals bickering down below.
Still early, we decided to drop in on Blazing Saddles, one of the several bike hire companies along the waterfront, and spend the day cycling across the Golden Gate bridge to the sleepy town of Sausalito. I’m not the most confident of cyclists, so the morning was the perfect time to start our journey as the roads and the bridge were relatively quiet. Wobbling along at our own pace, we never once felt rushed by other cyclists and there were ample places to stop for photos and rest our legs after navigating some pretty huge hills. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge were second to none, and it was so cool to be able to get up-close-and-personal with the amazing architecture as we travelled across the bridge. Thankfully the stretches of road were few and far between and we found ourselves reaching Sausalito just before lunch – the perfect time to enjoy some fresh crab cakes and a glass of chilled rosè al fresco, overlooking the bay at upscale eatery Scoma.
Fun fact: Otis Redding allegedly wrote ‘Sitting on the dock of the bay’ whilst perched atop one of the stoops of the houses lining the road between San Francisco and Sausalito. It’s easy to see why he was so inspired by the chocolate box houses and beautifully unspoilt views of the bay.
Feeling refreshed, and bolstered by dutch courage thanks to a rather large glass of wine with lunch, we decided to carry on our journey across to Tiberon before we caught the boat back to the Embarcadero. Tiberon is a picturesque northern Californian town, bookended by majestic redwood trees, with a central harbour and a smattering of bars and restaurants overlooking the water. It’s well worth checking out these neighbouring towns away from the hustle-and-bustle of San Francisco. On our next visit, we would love to take a day trip to Half Moon Bay.
Embarcadero and the Financial District
That evening, we decided to stop off for a drink at The Embarcadero before dinner, taking the opportunity to check out The Ferry Building on the way. The historic Ferry Building houses a cute market selling local produce and souvenirs, and once we finished perusing the stalls, we took our pick of the numerous bars overlooking the bay for a swift beverage. Most had a great selection of happy hour options on offer (winning!) and friendly staff. After enjoying our hard-earned libations and watching the sun set over the bay, we wandered down to the Financial District for sushi at Pabu. The Financial District is probably the least ‘typically San Francisco’ area of the city. It’s not the most characterful of places, thanks to a sea of high rises and busy people rushing about in suits, but Pabu is a hidden gem and not to be missed! We feasted on delicious sushi and other Japanese treats (including chicken skin – who knew?!) and bellies full, we stumbled up the hill back to our hotel.
Golden Gate Park & Haight Ashbury
The next morning, bleary eyed after a little too many drinks the night before and still feeling a tad jetlagged, we hopped in an Uber to explore Golden Gate Park. Amassing over 1,000 acres of land, its enormous, sprawling gardens were totally deserted when we arrived at the unsavoury hour of 8am, aside from a couple of eager joggers. We took full advantage of our seclusion and meandered around the grounds at our own pace, making the most of the fresh air. The park is home to the Japanese Tea Garden, the San Francisco Botanical Garden and the Conservatory of Flowers, so it’s easy to get lost amongst the thousands of flora and fauna that are planted here. We could have spent hours stopping to smell the roses (literally) but eager to tick a few of the tourist traps off our bucket list, we decided to pay a visit to ‘postcard row’ in upscale Haight-Ashbury, to see the Painted Ladies; a row of storybook-worthy Victorian and Edwardian houses, each painted in its own sugary pastel hue. Sadly, we didn’t get the best view as the park opposite was closed, but we managed to get that all-important photo we were hoping for.
Mission was high on our list of places to visit due to its reputation for incredible Mexican food, its famous brunch culture and the urban oasis that is the area’s central Dolores Park. This trendy area is full of cool and quirky shops and restaurants with a hipster clientele to match. We grabbed a coffee and wandered around the area before heading back to Chinatown for lunch. If we had more time, we would definitely have spent longer here but we are really glad we ventured out to this eclectic, up-and-coming part of the city.
San Francisco is home to the oldest Chinatown in north America, and with so many restaurants to choose from, we had a hard time deciding where to eat! We settled on one of the tiny dim sum joints tucked away amongst the traditional gift shops and authentic Chinese supermarkets. I’d highly recommend paying a visit to this vibrant part of town, spending time exploring the hidden treasures nestled among endless narrow alleyways. The colourful decorations, traditional music and general hubbub of daily life make for a really immersive experience. We definitely had a bit of a fish-out-of-water moment when we ordered our meals and then were suddenly blindsided by the dim sum trolley. As dim sum virgins we had no idea that they brought round miniature dumplings in addition to our main meals, but once the waiter explained, we all had a good chuckle!
Chocolate sundaes and crooked hills
From Chinatown, we took the cable car to the world-famous chocolate shop Ghirardelli (a San Francisco institution since 1852) for a gooey chocolate brownie sundae, before walking it off by trekking up Lombard Street, a zig-zag tree-lined avenue named ‘the most crooked street in the world’ and for good reason.
This immaculately maintained, winding road has so many twists and turns to it, it looks like it was lifted straight out of a film set. Its quirky, fun and downright bizarre appearance sums up San Francisco to a tee – colourful, unexpected and full of never ending entertainment.
I really hope you enjoyed the first of my California series. Next up: how to spend 48 hours in Napa Valley.