I spent a long weekend during autumn in San Francisco, which was a beautiful time to visit. The sun was warm, the skies were bright and there was a pleasant crispness in the air. I explored the Mission District as well as visited the ominous Alcatraz prison. But what I enjoyed most about San Francisco was strolling around some of the quieter neighbourhoods and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. This is a very doable half day guide to the quieter side of San Francisco, which includes great coffee, an indulgent chocolate sundae and crossing the famous Golden Gate Bridge.
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A great day must start with a great cup of coffee. Begin your San Francisco tour with a strong latte at Ritual Coffee Roasters in the Hayes Valley. Ritual are a local coffee roaster who import fair trade beans from Costa Rica. But it’s all about the details, with the staff dedicated to creating the perfect cup of coffee and all well trained in coffee art. Be prepared to queue as the locals love Ritual Coffee and it is always busy, but well worth it.
Even better, you can enjoy your coffee whilst people watching on one of the many outdoor benches overlooking Patricia’s Green and the very happening Hayes Street. Right on!
Finish up your coffee and take a relaxed stroll to the Painted Ladies just a few blocks away. If you were born in the early 80s then you probably grew up with the Tanner Family on Full House. The Painted Ladies are a row of six Victorian homes that were painted different colours to show off their exquisite architectural detail. The Tanner family lived in the blue house, second from the right. If you are not a fan of the show, a walk down Steiner Street, across from Alamo Square park, is still worth the visit. The Painted Ladies are symbolic of the famous California Gold Rush. With so much money coming into the city, San Francisco builders wanted to show off their newfound wealth with these grand homes. That’s why they have so many dramatic windows, decorated rooflines and turrets that are stunning to behold. It’s also a great opportunity to practice your photography skills and get that perfect, uninterrupted shot of all six houses against a blue backdrop. A stroll up the hill at Alamo Square Park, just opposite, will show you breathtaking views of the San Francisco skyline as well.
Golden Gate Bridge
Next up is the Golden Gate Bridge. You’ll want to hop on the 22 bus on the corner of Macallister and Filmore, and then change for the bus 28 at North Point and Van Ness. Download the MuniMobile app for bus directions and you can also pay for your bus fare via the ap as well, which is super convenient.
When you arrive at the Golden Gate Bridge you will know it. Aside from the fact that half the bus will alight here, the tall red arches are unmissable and breathtaking. San Francisco is known as the misty city because there is a great deal of fog. It is caused by the confluence of cold air from the icy Pacific waters and warmer air blowing in from Northern California, which create a dense fog near the coastline. You need to be very lucky to appreciate the Golden Gate Bridge in all its glory on a clear and fog-free day.
There is a statue of Joseph Strauss outside the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Centre accompanied by the plaque titled Men of Vision. It tells the praiseworthy story of how the bridge came to be thanks to the entrepreneurship of great men. It’s a capitalist legend that might make you gag but is nonetheless worth retelling.
Joseph Strauss dreamed of a golden bridge spanning San Francisco Bay.
But people opposed it fearing it would never survive the strong tides, it would lower property value, it would ruin the view. More than 2,000 lawsuits were filed to stop the project.
Strauss persevered and, in 1980, at last won approval for a bond issue. But then the Great Depression settled over America and no one dared buy the first six million dollars in bonds to start construction.
Finally, Strauss came to A.P. Giannini, founder of Bank of America. Giannini also had a vision – of serving fully California’s growth.
Giannini asked one question: “How long will this bridge last?”
Strauss replied, “Forever!” If cared for it should have “life without end.”
Gianni said, “California needs that bridge! We’ll buy the bonds.”
In 1933, the Golden Gate Bridge was begun.
Unfortunately it was a very foggy day when I crossed the bridge. It took me forty minutes to walk across at a relaxed pace. I probably took a hundred photos of those iconic, red arches emerging from the thick, white mist. It was an incredible and very surreal experience to walk across that larger-than-life bridge. When you reach the end there is a vista point to appreciate the bridge from the northern perspective.
Ghirardelli Chocolate Sundae
Cross the bridge again and take bus 24 to North Point Street and Hyde Street for Ghirardelli Square. I originally discovered this nook quite by mistake when walking back to my hotel late at night. During the evening it is all lit up with fairy lights and has a fun yet mystical ambiance. I came back during the day just to try the ice cream.
Domenico “Domingo” Ghirardelli was born in 1817 in Rapallo, Italy. He worked as a confectioner’s apprentice in Genoa before embarking for South America at the tender age of twenty to become a coffee and chocolate merchant. Inspired by tales of the gold rush, he came to San Francisco in 1849 and setup a general store supplying mustard, coffee, spices and chocolate. In 1852 he established four successful chocolate factories and gained a reputation as San Francisco’s favourite chocolatier.
Ghirardelli Square is the site of one of the original chocolate factory’s converted into a retail and dining complex. The building holds a prominent location along San Francisco Bay and due to its rich in history and stunning architecture it has also earned National Historic Register status.
There are two Ghirardelli Chocolate Stores here where you can purchase those famous Ghirardelli chocolates squares filled with gooey caramel, which make for great gifts. But I recommend you grab a table at the cafe and order one of the amazing Ghirardelli Hot Fudge Chocolate Sundaes. It comes with two scoops of vanilla ice cream, hot fudge sauce, whipped cream and a cherry on top. After all that walking to and fro over the Golden Gate Bridge, you will deserve it!
Views at Aquatic Park Pier
After your ice cream, walk through Aquatic Park and down to the waters edge. To the left you can stroll down the Aquatic Park Pier, where there are some great and uninterrupted views of Alcatraz Island as well the Golden Gate Bridge minus all the tourists.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
It’s time to finish the half day tour with a dose of culture. Get back out on the main road and take bus 30 from the corner of Van Ness Avenue and North Point Street. Get out where Kearny meets Geary Street and walk down 3rd to get to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). If it’s a weekend, expect ridiculously long queues but what you can do is buy a ticket from their website using your mobile phone instead. It takes only five minutes and then you can bypass all the queues.
The SFMOMA is average at best, compared to the MOMA in New York and Tate Modern in London. Many of the exhibitions feel superficial, with minimal descriptions and historical context shared in relation to the work. Pop, Minimal and Figurative Art, which is an on-going exhibition, is a bit of a wank. The depth of work by any one artist is shallow and by the end of the exhibition I didn’t feel I had learnt anything more about the pop art movement.
Louise Bourgeois Spiders is pure Instagram fetish, featuring a collection of larger-than-life spider sculptures. It is intended to reveal the artists obsession for a creature she viewed as both fierce and fragile, capable of being protectors as well as predators. With that said, the SFMOMA exhibition on Art and China after 1989 was very well-thought out and combines video, sculpture, painting and narrative.
And that is your half day in San Francisco done! I hope you enjoyed my guide to strolling San Francisco and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.