Exloring San Francisco

After an early night and a decent sleep in, I was feeling more energetic today. My throat was still a bit sore, and my nose a little snuffly, but not enough to stop me from going out and exploring San Francisco.

I started the day with breakfast back at the French patisserie. I had found somewhere else on Google Maps that looked really good, but after walking the few blocks (and very steep hills!) to get there, there was a 30 minute wait for a table so I just went back to the French patisserie. It was after tackling those hills that I decided it was worth getting the bus, even if it’s only a couple of blocks.

While I ate breakfast I browsed my Lonely Planet guide and flipped through the Events section for San Francisco. It just so happened that the weekend I was there is when they hold their annual Carnaval San Francisco celebration down in the Mission District. I’d wanted to explore that area during my stay, so it was good timing that the parade was also on that particular morning.

I actually didn’t get there until a bit after 11am, and thought that I’d missed the parade. About 8 blocks of road are closed off for Carnaval, and I came in at the northern end and slowly made my way down the road looking at the various stalls. There were a lot of food stalls, and various craft and general market stalls. There were quite a few small stages set up too, although there were only a couple of performers out at that stage and most of the stalls were still setting up. Overall the atmosphere was pretty quiet and it wasn’t what I was expecting. I was just about to head back and go somewhere else, when I came out at the other end of the street and stumbled across the parade!

This was much more like what I was expecting. I don’t know how many blocks the parade covered, but there were heaps of people lining the streets and the parade was slowly going past. Each float was pumping out lively music and was surrounded by a group of dancers in colourful costumes. Quite a few people in the crowd were getting into it and dancing as well, while others were clapping and cheering them on.

I stayed there for about an hour watching the parade, then the last float went past and everyone started heading back to the main strip. Then sun had come out and it was warming up to be a nice day. I was standing right next to the entrance of the Carnaval street to watch the parade, which meant I was right at the start of the queue to get through security – very handy because there were suddenly hundreds of people trying to get through!

Walking back past the stalls, it was much more lively now. All the market stalls were open, food was ready, and most of the stages had performers. People were sitting on the sides of the street to eat lunch, and some of the residents had pulled out tables and chairs and were enjoying the party. The whole strip had a fun and relaxed feel, with everyone out to have a good time. I grabbed some tacos from a truck, and sat on the footpath to eat and people watch for a bit. I moved on a bit then stopped to watch one or two bands before reaching the other end again.

There were a couple of sights I wanted to see in the Mission District. The first was the Mission San Francisco de Asis, or Mission Delores, which is the oldest building in San Francisco, dating back to 1776. From my experience in the morning, I decided it would be easier to get the bus rather than walk, and I was there in no time.

The white mission building stands on the corner of an intersection, and looked quite impressive against the bright blue sky. For a small fee you can take a self guided tour, so I went inside to see what it was like.

They gave me a brochure and map at the information desk, and it provided interesting information about the mission building, church, museum and graveyard, along with a brief history of the area at the time the mission was established.  While it only covers a small area, it was an interesting place to visit and worth stopping in.

Choir balcony in the Mission San Francisco de Asis church
Choir balcony in the church of the Mission San Francisco de Asis

Just around the corner from there is Clarion Alley, where the council allows artists to paint murals. I was keen to check them out, so I went there next. It’s quite a long alleyway running along the back of houses. All the fences and brick walls are covered with murals of all shapes and sizes, and there are also some artists with galleries along the alleyway selling there works. One of them was painting a wall as I went past, glueing paper shapes onto the wall like paper mache.

A mural in Clarion Alley
A mural in Clarion Alley

My plan for the afternoon was to hire a bike and ride over the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge is to the north of San Francisco and I was right down south. The best way to get there was public transport, and since I’d already caught a couple of buses and street cars I decided I would be better off buying a 3 day pass.

I made my way to the nearest subway station, stopping for a massive slice of pizza on the way, and bought a single trip ticket to Union Square where I would be able to buy the 3 day pass. The pass is only for MUNI transport, which covers all buses, street cars, trams and cable cars, but not the subway. The subway tickets here were similar to DC, in that for a single trip the price was dependent on how far you’re travelling. The size of the network seems similar too, and there were only a couple of platforms at this station. The train came in a few minutes, and in a couple of stops I was at Union Square.

Unfortunately the ticket booth at Union Square didn’t sell the 3 day passes, so I walked down to Market Street and the Powell Street cable car terminal. I bought my pass, and had planned on getting the cable car up to the Golden Gate Bridge, but there was a massive queue waiting for the cable car.

A little bit disappointed, I made my way back up towards Union Square where I thought I’d get a street car instead. As I walked, I went past another cable car stop where people were waiting. I thought they would  be waiting a long time since all the cars that went past would be full from the start of the line, but when a car went past they stopped and took the next 4 passengers. It turns out, they saved enough space at the start of each trip to collect a couple of people at each stop along the way.

After realising that, I decided to get the cable car afterall, and in about 20 minutes I was on my way. When it pulled up the driver said there was only room to stand on the railing. I was really excited because that’s exactly where I wanted to be! And, even better, the front spot was free so I was able to stand right up the front!

Riding the cable car!
Riding the cable car!

It was really cool riding on the outside of the cable car, but a little bit scary when we went past cars and, sometimes, buses. I was on the right hand side, so cars and other traffic were going past on my side. When we passed another cable car, the driver called out for the people on the left to lean in so they wouldn’t bump into the people on the oncoming car. I was surprised they still let people ride on the outside for safety reasons, but I’m really glad they do.

The cable car doesn’t go particularly fast (9.5mph, 15.3 kph), and stopped at a lot of stops to begin with. As we got further from the downtown area it stopped less because there were less people getting on and off. Most people seemed to be riding it all the way to the end, and I’m pretty sure everyone was a tourist. It’s probably not the most efficient mode of transport, with all the street cars and buses that travel around the city, so the locals would be more likely to use them instead.

Riding the cable car and looking out towards the bay
Riding the cable car and looking out towards the bay

When we got to the end, the cable car stopped to let everyone off, then rolled onto the turntable where the two operators got off the car and manually turned it around. I was surprised it was such a manual activity, but I guess it’s mostly the original system that was built, dating back to over 100 years ago, so that make senses.

After that exciting trip, I made my way to the bike shop, keen to get a bike before it got too late. The bike shop is near Fisherman’s Wharf which is a very touristy area. There were lots of shops selling souvenirs, postcards and cheap t-shirts and hats. It had a real market feel to it. I found the bike shop and gave them my details. They quickly measured me up against a bike and I was ready to go. They provided me with a map, and a ticket I could use to catch a ferry back if I wanted to. After crossing the bridge, there were a few smaller towns they recommended riding to, but the last ferry at the end leaves at 8.20pm. It was about 5pm when I hired the bike, so I decided to just see how far I got and figure out when to turn back. The shop was open until 9pm, but they also had a secure garage where the bike could be dropped off after hours.

Boats in the marina

Concerned by the cars on the road, I walked the bike the few blocks from the shop to the beach where there is a bike and pedestrian path that goes all the way to the bridge. I cruised along the path past Fort Mason and the marina and on to Fort Point which sits just below the bridge. Until now, the sky had been clear and it had been a nice day.

Fort Mason
Fort Mason

As I got closer to the Golden Gate Bridge, however, the wind picked up and a big cloud blew in, coming to rest right on top of the bridge! I almost considered taking the bike back and trying again the next day, but remembering that a friend had said that when she visited San Francisco the bridge was fogged over almost every day of her stay, I decided to just do it in case there wasn’t a clearer day. It turned out to be worth it once I got to the other side.

A cloudy, foggy view of the Golden Gate Bridge
A cloudy, foggy view of the Golden Gate Bridge

From Fort Point I had to double back a bit to get up the hill and onto the bridge. It was a really steep hill up from the beach, and I was stuck behind two cars which were behind two cyclists! The cars and I passed the other cyclists, and I made it to the top, puffing. The west side of the bridge is reserved for bikes, and the east side for pedestrians, so I followed the signs and found my way on to it.

Atop the Golden Gate Bridge
Atop the Golden Gate Bridge

It was super windy on the bridge, and when I stopped I was worried I might blow off! There were a lot of other casual cyclists crossing the bridge, and a few more serious riders who raced passed in the opposite direction. The cars kept flying past, making a loud noise on the bridge. It was a lot of fun, but with all the noise and wind it was a bit scary too. I managed to find some other riders who had stopped and got them to take a couple of photos for me, then I got back on my bike and kept riding, worried that if I stopped I might fly over the edge…

Once I got off on the other side the fog had cleared, and the bridge looked amazing. There was a nice view across the water of San Francisco, and a lookout towards national parks on my side of the bay. I spent some time there enjoying the view, and considering the ride towards the ferry. Since the sun had come out, I decided to ride back across the bridge and look out over the ocean without the fog. I was glad I chose to ride back because the view was really good. It also meant I would have time for a leisurely dinner, rather than racing to get to the ferry and eating really late.

Finally the fog had cleared!
Finally the fog had cleared!

I rode back slowly, stopping off at a few more places along the way. I could see out to Alcatraz, sitting in the bay, and saw some colourful town houses lining the beach. The wind had died down a bit, but as the sun was setting it started to get quite cool. I made it back to the bike shop at about 8pm, then decided it was time for dinner.


I went to a place near the wharf called Lou’s Fish Shack, and had (surprise, surprise) fish and chips. I pulled out my Lonely Planet again and had a look to see what I might want to do the next day, then walked along the shops back to the street car to head to the hotel. I couldn’t be bothered with the queue for the cable car at that time of night, and I’d need to get the street car at the other end anyway.

I found that night that the Route F street car, which goes past my hotel, is a very popular route. It goes from the Fisherman’s Wharf, past the pier and ferry building, then down Market Street through downtown San Francisco and on to Castro. I got on at the start of the route and it was very full. After a couple of stops it was packed to the point that the driver didn’t stop to let any other passengers get on. I was just grateful I got on at the first stop and had a seat.

It was good to get a glimpse of the pier and downtown area, since I hadn’t been there yet and now had a rough idea what to expect. My plan for the next day was to come back and explore in more detail.

I got back to the hotel easily enough, then went upstairs to my room for ready to crash and have a good night’s sleep.

Posted from San Francisco, California, United States.

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