One of the nice things about living in the San Francisco Bay Area is people like to visit. There is so much to see, and with time at a premium, we’ve become very adept at showing our friends the highlights of our lovely region in a very short period of time.
The first stop when we have visitors is always San Francisco. We’re lucky if we have a day or two to really show off our favorite museums, sights and restaurants, but we usually just have a few hours. As a result we’ve perfected the 4 hour tour.
San Francisco’s one of the most storied cities in the world, and if you can catch it on a sunny day, it’s natural beauty takes your breath away. It’s even lovely on the quiet, murky, foggy days where the amazing sights are swathed in a misty fog that makes it all seem ethereal and somehow surreal.
Our first stop on the 4 hour tour is the Golden Gate Bridge. The drive to get there through San Francisco takes you through either Golden Gate Park or the Marina, two must-see sights – even from a car window. Most of our visitors express amazement that the color of the bridge is orange vermillion, not gold. That’s because the Golden Gate is actually the aquatic entrance to the Bay and was so named in the 1800’s – not just the name of the bridge. For more information, see the history.
Driving across the bridge is an experience on any day. Seeing the throngs of walkers, bikers and prams all traveling faster than you are in your car is a true California moment. If you’re lucky and aren’t there during any sort of a rush hour, the trip is about 7 minutes of pure gawking bliss. The views are incredible from both sides of the bridge. Once you get across the bridge, there is an excellent vista spot where you can park and snap pictures of the bridge, the skyline and Alacatraz Island to your heart’s content.
Next stop is to drive through the Marina district, driving slowly to see the incredible houses on your right, and the St Francis Yacht Club, Chrissy Field, and Fort Mason on your left. Your next destination is Fisherman’s Wharf. There are several parking garages along the wharf area, from Ghiradelli Square on down to Pier 39. Pick one – they’re pretty much all the same price. We usually park somewhere in the middle to keep our options open.
Ghiradelli Square is fun to see, and fun for shopping, but if you’re on a 4 hour tour, it’s best to point it out as a neato building and walk along the famous portion of Fisherman’s Wharf on your way to Pier 39. Be sure to walk through the food stands, where freshly steamed dungeness crab and sour dough bread abounds – here is a good place to grab a quick bite of lunch on your way. There are a lot of tourist-traps and cheapo trinket stalls if you’d like a souvenir. Or, you can keep walking. Going through the marina area, you will see many tour boats available for private or public tours of the San Francisco Bay. Your next destination is the area by Pier 39 where the sea lions hold court to a group of transfixed tourists. I’ve posted a short video so you can see their capers.
Back to the car and a trip up Hyde Street. This is an amazingly steep street with the View that Launched a Million Postcards. Alert – if you’re in a car with a manual transmission, you may want to give this a miss. There is a stop sign at the top of the street and you WILL lose your clutch. Once you get to the top, and have managed to avoid hitting the idiotic tourists standing in the middle of the street getting pics taken of themselves, then a trip down Lombard Street – the crookedest street in the world – is in order. Every time I go down this street, I’m happy I don’t live there. Tourists are not the nicest people in the world, not to mention the lack of privacy! (but I digress…)
Once you’re out of the mess on Lombard Street, take a right on Columbus and head into North Beach. This quaint Italian neighborhood has some incredible restaurants, cafes and other sights that never fail to get our visitors to say “this looks just like a city area in (insert European city here)”. It’s one of our favorite areas to walk in, but on a 4 hour tour, it’s worth just a drive by.
The last stop on the tour is Chinatown. This is 5 blocks where time has stood still, and it always reminds me of the years I spent in Hong Kong. The streets are hung with lanterns and banners and it’s very bright and cheerful. Unlike the Chinatown in New York or Los Angeles, this area has not expanded or changed much in the past 50+ years. The herb and tea shops still abound on the streets, along with local businesses and some of the best Chinese food outside of Asia. Many signs are only in Traditional Chinese, and you can hear a mix of Cantonese and Mandarin spoken by the residents and shopkeepers. There are some great places to buy souvenirs, taste some exotic teas, as well as gawk through the stores selling traditional medicines, deer horns, and something that looks like an elephant turd. Don’t ask – I didn’t dare, and it probably IS an elephant turd…
Once you’re done with Chinatown, your 4 hour tour is over. You can use the time remaining to find an excellent restaurant in Union Square, or head up California Street to the Top of the Mark for a drink in their amazing bar. Whatever your plans, you have just spent 4 hours in one of the most beautiful cities on this planet, and I hope you have great memories. No matter what people say about California, just take a look at San Francisco, and you will see why we pay so much to live here and call this city home.