San Francisco is foggy, windy and chilly in the summer. It isn't an easy town to walk or drive in because of its famed hills. But it sure has some beautiful sights.
“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”
— Source unknown (but usually attributed to Mark Twain)
San Francisco is not an easy walking town. It doesn’t lend itself to a leisurely drive either, though — unless you’re perfectly fine with speeding up hills and slamming to a stop going down the other side. But, those hill sure make for a beautiful and unique city with fantastic views.
Beautiful though the city may be, even if you’re going at the height of summer, tourists would do well to pack a heavy sweater, sweatshirt or even a jacket. I often found myself double or triple layering my clothing and still shivering in the shade if the wind blew.
The hills of San Francisco give you amazing views and clearly inspired this painter, who set up shop right on the sidewalk.
Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghiradelli Square are heavy tourist areas, complete with bikers (both residents and visitors) riding along the waterfront to the backdrop of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Also, there’s the occasional swimmer in the bay, braving the cold water.
On the first day we could just catch a glimpse of that infamous San Francisco fog, wreathing the top of the Golden Gate Bridge (we would get to experience the fog in full force the next morning, though). From the mainland, Alcatraz sits in the Bay, looking barren and unremarkable.
Fisherman’s Wharf has one of the turnaround spots for San Francisco’s famed cable cars, so be prepared to wait on an incredibly long line filled with tourists just like you if you want to hop on there.
The entire area at the waterfront clearly caters to tourists, with souvenir shops aplenty. At the popular Pier 39, you can buy all sorts of seafood and stare at the Dungeness crab piled high. Further on, you can walk to Pier 33, where the ferry to Alcatraz Island leaves from.
We opted for the nighttime tour of Alcatraz, which is probably a lot more eerie in the fall or winter when the sun sets earlier. As it was, we were on The Rock as the sun set and on the ferry back to the mainland as it finally grew dark.
But the light doesn’t affect the experience of actually standing in Alcatraz. The island was a military prison first before it became a maximum security federal prison, which held the likes of Al Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly and “Whitey” Bulger.
The island wasn’t just home to the prisoners though, it was home to the prison staff and the families and during the tour, we learned from the recording that one of the little girls who grew up could remember hearing the prisoners getting rowdy and making a lot of noise. When she asked what that was, her mother said, “just the prisoners.” What a way to grow up.
It’s unknown if there had ever been a successful escape attempt from The Rock. More than half of the escapees were caught while others died in the process, either from the guards or the waters between the island and the mainland. However, five were never found and simply “presumed dead.” Three of those missing prisoners pulled a Shawshank Redeption-style escape, using a metal spoon to chisel away at the concrete and slip into the utility corridor. No one knows if the three made it, although the movie Escape from Alcatraz implies that they did.
(Top to bottom) A view of the mainland from Alcatraz; the remains of the Warden’s House; and leaving Alcatraz.
After the prison had been shut down, American Indians occupied the island in 1969 to gain control over the island and protest numerous Indian treaties that they accused the U.S. government of breaking. During that time some of the buildings on the island were destroyed from fires.
Another famous site in San Francisco is the “crookedest” street in the world. Between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets, Lombard Street is a one-way road consisting of eight sharp, hairpin turns. It was only after returning home that I learned there is another street in San Francisco vying for the title of the “most crooked.” A section of Vermont Street —three-and-a-half miles south of Lombard Street’s Russian Hill location in Potrero Hill — might only have seven turns, but its hill is steeper.
Lombard St. has stairs on either side of the zig-zagging street for tourists to walk up (although just as often they end up in the street taking pictures). Cars can only drive 5 mph down this section of the street, and as the day wears on, the line to drive down the hairpin turns extends all the way down Lombard through multiple intersections. Not only is the wait long, but the view is probably better outside of the car and on foot.
The Golden Gate Bridge is lost to the early morning fog.
The fog was in full force the morning we traveled over the Golden Gate Bridge to visit Muir Woods. Not only was the bridge disappearing from view, but the fog was so thick, it gave off the eerie sense that there was nothing out in the fog.
Muir Woods, originally known as Redwood Canyon, escaped logging when it was saved by a U.S congressman in the early 20th century and then named a National Monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.
The Coast Redwoods of Muir Woods are relatives of the Giant Sequoia, and although they don’t grow as wide around, they can grow much taller. Even while crowded with tourists, a visit to Muir Woods is surprisingly quiet as people marvel at nature.
If you take a short trip as part of a bus, you’ll only get an hour-and-a-half to two hours, which doesn’t give you many options for trails to walk. However, if you have the time, there are plenty of other trails that will take you further up the mountains. Or, there are usually daily presentations about the woods if hiking isn’t your thing. (Presentations are not guaranteed and rely on staffing for the day).
But since Muir Woods is located in the canyon, those afraid of heights might want to close their eyes on the way back up, when you’ll be on the outside of the road, looking down at a pretty steep drop.