San Fran is home to the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf and Alamo Square (also known as the Painted Ladies, made famous by the 90s TV show ‘Full House’). It’s also home to the only manually operated cable car network in the world, and to the ‘world’s most crooked street’. A few lesser known attractions are Golden Gate Park, Washington Square and Coit Tower. Oh who can forget Alcatraz??
We excitedly jumped on our first cable car down to Fisherman’s Wharf. Despite being horrendously cold, the thrill of riding the jerky cable cars made you forget about the cold. I didn’t realise until I was riding one, that the guard manually pulls on and releases the breaks. I thought I was stressed in my job – imagine not pulling the breaks hard enough and have the cable car roll into a car or a group of people! It almost seemed like an amusement park ride when the cable car went up or down a steep hill; you held on for your life!
We had dinner at a restaurant called the Blue Mermaid that night. I ate my most expensive meal of the trip – a $20 Linguine with Manila Clams in a white wine and garlic-basil broth and worth every penny. There was an abundance of clams and the sauce was magnificent. My boyfriend ordered the New England Clam Chowder which was equally as yum. Would definitely recommend a meal at the Blue Mermaid if you’re around Fisherman’s Wharf. After walking up and down the wharf, my boyfriend was hungry again and opted for a $2 In-and-Out burger. I personally wouldn’t eat meat that costs $2 at retail but he said it was amazing (and other friends have concurred).
We managed to cram a LOT into the next 2 days – went to see the Painted Ladies (as exciting as some townhouses can be), Golden Gate Park (boring), Golden Gate Bridge (amazing), Fisherman’s Wharf (again! But this time during the day so a lot more was happening/open. Chowder Hut chowder was a huge disappointment after Blue Mermaid’s chowder the night before; typical tourist fodder), Lombard St (which is actually NOT the most crooked street but the most well-known), Cable Car Museum (go if you’re really interested but it’s really small and there’s not a great deal to see), Union Square (awesome for shopping), Fillmore St (more high-end stores), Washington Square (not a whole lot going on), and Coit Tower (we didn’t go up but Coit Tower’s on a hill so even at the base of the tower you had a great view of San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge/Bay Bridge).
And now I’ve saved the best for last – Alcatraz! I knew embarassingly little about Alcatraz before going there (almost don’t want to mention I didn’t know it was a prison, nor an island). We booked in for the Alcatraz Night Tour which I would highly recommend and advise to book in advance. We caught a boat over and upon arrival at Alcatraz we were given headsets so we could do the tour at our own pace. The first room was the communal shower room with no doors, dividers, curtains, or anything. I now fully understand the saying ‘don’t drop the soap’! You saw the normal cells, then the solitary confinement cells which are pitch black inside, and the exercise yard which has the most gorgeous views of sunset across San Fran. We heard about some attempts to escape Alcatraz and even saw the cell where Clint Eastwood’s character in ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ dug a hole and contorted his body through it. The kitchen was impressive and the menu actually sounded delicious (apparently prisoners were quite well fed), although they lost many large knives from the kitchen over the years. Prison guards and their families actually lived in the island in housing about 10 metres away from the prisoners. Imagine growing up on Alcatraz!
Some fun facts I learnt about the island:
- It was initially built as a military fort, but the costs of running it were too high and they wanted to knock it down
- The US Department of Justice bought it and converted it into Alcatraz prison
- “Break the rules of society and you go to prison. Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz”. Alcatraz was meant to house criminals who were disruptive in normal prisons, so they took in prisoners from all over the country
- It was horrendously expensive to run Alcatraz – power came from large generators, everything including food had to be transported in by boat, initial refurbishment costs to convert it into a maximum security prison, saltwater corroded the prison and it required a lot of upkeep. The tour guide claimed it would have been cheaper to take each prisoner to Manhattan, New York and put them up in a 5 star hotel every night than to run the prison
- The prison was closed after 29 years of operation and was abandoned for a while until Native American Indians settled there. Today it’s a National Park and used mainly for tours
Kay’s tips for San Fran:
- Invest in a MUNI pass which entitles you to unlimited public transport on their buses and cable cars ($21 for a 3 day pass)
- BART is the name of their train system and we caught the BART from SFO Airport to the city
- Public transport in San Fran is really easy – we didn’t catch cabs anywhere
- Be prepared for the ‘interesting’ people of San Fran. We encountered someone who seemed to have turrets, a few people who were yelling at each other on a crowded bus, saying they were going to bash each other up, and another person who had a nervous twitch every 20 seconds and would wave his crooked fingers frantically in the air. We saw all of this on the buses and I overheard someone saying almost everyone in SF catches buses because it’s so cheap so you get to meet all walks of life.