Some say San Francisco is overrated; just another generic, straight-out-of-Google-images, excessively expensive destination. There’s that one red bridge everybody seems to give a shit about, an old prison on an island, and something about Chinatown. San Francisco is overall criticized for being a city that is “too ideal.” Such point of view concluded my first visit. However I went back the second time and discovered the kernel of truth behind the San Francisco hype that never seems to die down.
San Francisco perfectly captures the essence of life on the West Coast. From the first breathe of fresh air, walking pass the sliding glass door of SFO, seeing the highway covered in sunshine, to waiting with our carry-ons at a bus stop at Stanford, the campus dark with a mild degree of traffic, the city did not fail to entertain. San Francisco has the romantic appeal of a small town, while maintaining the livelihood of a city.
I flew an overnight flight from Toronto Pearson to SFO that arrived around noon on Friday. Friendly advice: airport shuttle fee may be worth it in a strange city. I took my chances with the public transit and ended up on a spontaneous tour around 16th Street Mission for much longer than I would have preferred.
I arrived at the hotel on the historical Van Ness Avenue booked by Paul, my travel companion (Side note: this trip was planned entirely though text message on the basis of “plan as we go”). Our 23rd floor suite had half the wall made entirely of glass, offering a decent view of the city. I was able to catch one of the most memorable sunsets I have ever seen. The neighborhood consisted of an older crowd, comprising of both tourists and locals. The mellow, Friday afternoon vibe, accompanied by smooth jazz music from the bar, signals the transition from weekday to weekend, tense to relax.
Paul made his way there at around 10 pm. After half a bottle of wine the night came to an end for us, but not for the rest of SF. The street view from our suite had led us to believe that this city full of young spirits will be lit throughout the night.
We started our morning with a walk to Chinatown. I highly recommend getting around the city by walking. The streets in SF have quite a personality, leading us up and down the hills differently at every turn. Let me be clearer; we would be walking uphill and once we make a 90-degree turn we’d be walking downhill, and then we’ll make another turn which leads us back uphill. At first I tried to make sense of where the elevating ground starts and where it stops, and the only conclusion that seems to make sense is that San Francisco purely is a magical city and let’s just leave it at that. On the way it started to rain a little but that did not seem to stop the Saturday brunch crowd from bombarding Chinatown. We had an excellent meal of dim sum with some friends. The restaurant was pleasantly generic and the food was up to my standard. All my expectations were met at under 10USD. Though don’t take this as an advertisement for SF’s Chinatown; I have been to enough Chinatowns in my life to conclude that they are all pretty much the same. They are unlike Disneyland or University campuses, where you try to visit as many as you could and it’s fun to compare and see the difference between them. IMO Chinatowns are pretty much overrated and you would be fairly accurate to generalize the experience of visiting one to having been to all. Unless you are there to buy something, or time is not of essence, you wouldn’t miss out too much crossing Chinatown off your list.
From there we were off to the Fisherman’s Wharf, my personal favorite spot. You could probably spend all day there if you wish, as there is lots to do while letting the locals warm your heart and the tourists uplift your soul. There is a bunch of places there worth checking off your list: Alcatraz, Pier 39, Ghirardelli square, and the Maritime Museum. However the amusement goes beyond the tourist attractions. Simply put, San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf is essentially a bunch of really cool things put together in one beautiful spot. There is really great food (including In & Out Burger and Chipotle), lively street performers, and gift shop displays that will make you chuckle. Other things there we enjoyed were candy shop, bubble tea, and if you go out to the right wharf, you will catch an amazing panorama view of Alcatraz in the middle of the ocean and the town building up to the Coit Tower while the silly seals bark for your attention. Fisherman’s Wharf has an absolutely charming atmosphere and is home to an exuberant crowd.
From there we made a brief stop at Union square, walking through the more industrial part of San Francisco. Personally I am no big fan of the city feel (think office buildings and people in suits), though SF’s eccentricity can still be spotted here and there, from overpriced boba served in a glass jar, a hidden alley full of obscure bars, to a hotel lounge resembling a circus occupied by Chinese businessmen, and women of course. It started to rain again, a little harder than before.
Giving the public transit a second chance, we made our way to the globally acclaimed Golden Gate Bridge, riding the bus across town as the last of the sun shine disintegrates into the darkening sky. The bridge is not only an idol of architectural aesthetic value, but is also culturally significant. It connects San Francisco to Northern California, cutting the commute time by hours, making San Francisco more accessible to civilization. The structure is also especially admired by civil engineers for its design and construction. It was foggy and still raining when we got to the bridge, though being an optimist I thought the haunting atmosphere added colors to the overall experience. I understand now the difference between looking at photographs of pretty places and actually being in one. We were able to better admire the great red bridge, seeing it from multiple angles. From our experience the closer you are to the bridge, the prettier it looks. Photographs were taken and pennies were thrown into the fountain, we waved goodbye to the golden city and off we went to the train station, en route Santa Cruz!