Arriving in San Francisco concludes the Amtrak journey from East Coast to West. After over 75 hours on the train, it was only a from Emeryville to San Francisco to go! After crossing the Bay, the coach stops at various places in the CBD. These include near AT&T Park, The Ferry Building and a few stops along Market St including my stop at the San Francisco Shopping Centre Bus Stop (the shopping centre is actually a Westfield…). From there, it was a short walk up Mason St to my hostel on O’Farrell St. With 3 nights in San Fran, I had a rough idea of the things I wanted to check out. These included Fisherman’s Wharf, the Ferry Building and surround area, Alcatraz, a ride on one of the city’s historical cable cars, Japan Town, AT&T Park, Land’s End, the Golden Gate Bridge and whatever else I could fit in between.
Fisherman’s Wharf and the F-Line Street Car
To get a feel of down town San Francisco, I walked all the way down Market St and up the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf. As it was a Friday evening, things were wrapping up in the city as the sun started to set.
If you read Wikipedia, Fisherman’s Wharf is where James Bond in A View to Kill meets with CIA Agent Chuck Lee as they plan to take down arguably the most sinister Bond villain, Max Zorin, masterfully played by Christopher Walker! However, I can say that the area has significantly changed since that movie was filmed. Also, if you’ve ever seen the movie Down Periscope (starring Kelsey Grammar), the submarine used to portray the USS Stingray is actually docked at Fisherman’s Wharf – the USS Pampanito. With the sun slowly setting as I walked past the docks near the Ferry Building at the end of Market St, I couldn’t quite shake this song from my head, particularly on the lazy Friday afternoon which it was.
After walking past the Pier 43 Ferry arch, you basically arrive at Fisherman’s Wharf. Like the sea lions on Pier 39, you can hear the buzz a mile away. There was certainly more happening here than on Market St!
Fisherman’s Wharf however wasn’t lazy at all! On a Friday night, it was packed full of people, locals and tourists alike. Every single shop was busy and there was plenty of live music being played from the various establishments in the area.
If you’re after a healthy dose of quality seafood, you can’t go past this area! For me, it was the chowder and calamari which made my evening… After being fuelled up, I decided to take the F-Market line streetcar all the way down to Castro and back up to where my hostel was to finish up the evening.
Riding the streetcar all the way to Castro was certainly an experience for many reasons. Firstly, once you head past the UN Civic Centre, the atmosphere changes from a buzzing city to almost that of a 1980’s Robocop OCP Detroit (ok, not quite, but you get the picture…) Castro however, was back to the ‘cheerful’ side of San Francisco. I’ll just say that it is Oxford Street (Sydney) on steroids and that the reports are true- people do sporadically dance on the streets here…
Anyway, it was back onto the next F-Line car to head back up Market Street to my hostel. Walking the four blocks from Market to O’Farrell was pretty eye opening. I swore I must have walked past more homeless and drugged up people in those couple of minutes than I have during my entire journey across the States so far, including New York. This was only beaten the next morning when I walked down Market Street in search for a cafe…
I swear there were more than a dozen on most street corners and dozens more scattered in between, all sleeping, sitting or aimlessly walking around, tugging their suitcases or carrying their decomposing shopping bags filled with their belongings right in front of prime retail shopping space as the morning contingents of fluoro-coloured spandex wearing cyclists and runners and early-rise retail shoppers dressed in their heels walk past. This juxtaposition of wealth and poverty and of health and mental illness was, well, I wouldn’t say surprising but more so confronting; everywhere you look, you can see it.
Noting this observation to a friend of mine back in Oz who is from California, he just said “Just wait til you get to LA…”
The overwhelming presence of homeless and mentally ill people certainly freaked out Ans, one guys in my dorm and a visiting tattoo artist from New Zealand/Vietnam (pretty talented guy- I saw his portfolio!). In a discussion with him and a guy from France, Ans asked if we had seen anything like that where we came from, to which Gabriel replied “In France, we have a social system…” Couldn’t have said it better myself. 😛
On the topic of dorm-mates, I’ll again count myself lucky as the guys I met in all the cities across the States have been pretty cool. From a guitar builder to a tattoo artists, from a quantum physicists, an economist-cum-hopeful-programmer and a PhD candidate (Gabriel was in town searching for a place to do his post-doc, having had dinner with his potential boss whose wife was a Nobel Laureate… She did the cooking…).
The next morning it was over to AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants for a 10:30am tour. Basically, I made it a point that some way along my trip to the States, I would visit a ballpark. Now I’ll be the first to state that I don’t know that much about baseball history and the Major League. Sure, there’s Babe Ruth and the Yankees but if you’re in Giant’s territory, the answer to every question on the tour is basically “Willie Mays”.
Like most stadium tours, you start and end in the giftshop where you have a chance to buy every form of San Francisco Giants merchandise available and get it customised with your own name and/or number. From there, you’re led to the change rooms, practice areas, press area, corporate box and then finally to the grandstand for a view of the park.
In the visitors change room, you get to go past the office of the change room manager (the guy who cooks up the waffles, bacon, eggs etc and cleans uniforms), Harvey Hodgerney. Inside you get a glimpse of his personal bobble head collection.. It was also nice to see a bit of “Australia” on his door as well!
I’ll repeat Mark Twain here when he supposedly claimed, “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.” Even though the sun was out in all its glory, I reckon it was easily below 15’C…
The Ferry Building and Markets
Feeling pretty hungry after the tour, I decided to head on over the markets outside the Ferry Building for a coffee and a bite to eat. The Ferry Building as per its name is a terminal building and marketplace for the Bay area. Before the construction of the many bridges which cross the Bay, it was the second business transit terminal in the world, second only to London’s Charring Cross Station. After deteriorating away from the mid 1900’s (and after damage from several earthquakes), it was renovated and reopened in 2003.
Inside the Ferry Building are a range of cafes and fresh ‘artisan’ produce stores. Doing a bit of research online and it turns out that the Blue Bottle Coffee Co. in the building has one of the highest ratings in San Francisco. So, after weeks without a proper cup, I gave it a go…
Now I would have never thought I would write this, but a cup of coffee here certainly gave me the taste of Australia… Think Percy & Percy if you’re from Bendigo haha…
Anyway, coffee along wasn’t going to fill my stomach, so it was outside to the San Francisco Farmer’s Markets!
With a tonne of people and a tonne of stalls to go through, one sign caught my eye…
Seriously, it was good. I was tempted to go back for a cheeseburger but decided that San Francisco was too big to eat at the same place twice and so after summoning my willpower, I headed off.
Nearby to the Ferry Building is California St, one of the few streets remaining which operate the famous San Francisco Cable Cars.
These cable cars are not gondolas (as we are accustomed to associating the term with in Australia) but are trams pulled along by a continuously running cable loop in the ground. The car basically grips onto this cable and is pulled along.
Trips on the cable car are actually quite pricey at $6.00 for a single adult fare (vs. $2.00 for other modes in San Francisco). However, as I bought a 3-day visitors pass (covering transport on all buses, trams, cable cars trains etc) for $23.00, I wanted to get my monies worth! After buying RFID or magnetic strip multi-modal transport cards from all of the major cities in my trip to the US, I was brought back down to earth with the “instant scratch-it” type paper booklet in San Francisco. I mean come on,with Silicon Valley around the corner, surely some entrepreneur has proposed a paperless unified ticketing system?!
Walking north up Polk St from California and I stumbled upon a place called “The Crepe House”. Having only eaten 2 hours earlier, I just stopped in for another coffee. But when I saw that they were offering waffles with bananas, strawberries, icecream and maple syrup for $4.20, I was sold… After two minutes, the plate was clean 😛
Feeling pretty satisfied, I decided that I better do some more walking… So I continued north on Polk St past a whole heap of trendy looking cafes and restaurants towards the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, going past ‘attractions’ such as Lombard St, the crookedest street in the world.
Going over the hill towards the water, you get a pretty good view of Alcatraz Island. Basically, my plan was to hit the water, then find a bus stop to take the No. 28 bus to the Golden Gate Bridge. On the note of buses, I found the MUNI Transport Map for San Francisco a lifesaver when finding public transport options. It can be found here.
I will say that the views of the Bay and San Francisco from the top of these hills is pretty cool – you get a really good perspective of the place!
The Golden Gate Bridge
The two MUNI bus lines which go to the Golden Gate Bridge are the No. 28 and No. 76X. The 28 takes you to the Golden Gate Bridge Visitors Centre, just before the toll gate, whilst the 76X takes you across the bridge to the Marin Headlands. However, the 76X service is quite limited, with one service an hour and they only run on the weekend.
The last service back to San Francisco for the 76X leaves the Marin Headlands visitors centre at 6:30pm.
With full intentions to take the 76X, I waited along with half a dozen other people at the designated bus stop on Lombard St for an hour and yet no 76X buses came our way, even though it was a Saturday. With an hour and a half passing, we all decided to hop onto the the next 28 bus.
Either way, you get a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge, if and only if the weather cooperates. Luckily for me, I was able to get there and walk over the bridge to Lime Point before the sea fog blowed over, which was what happened when I walked back across the bridge back to the city.
With a total length of 2.7km, it took me just over 1.5 hours to walk over and back. Unlike most bridges, the railing along the main span is pretty low. Whilst this allows for great views over the Bay, it does make it really quite easy for people to commit suicide. So easy in fact that the Golden Gate is the ‘most popular’ final item on a lot of people’s bucket list, with an attempted suicide every other day. Therefore it wasn’t really surprising to see a heap of “suicide” help lines along the span with a sign, “There is hope. Make the call”
Anyway, nearing the end of the bridge, I notice something quite peculiar. Basically, there was a guy crying on the shoulder of another guy, whilst their partners, visibly agitated were frantically talking to each other. As I walked past them, I could hear the crying guy saying to the other, “Thank you so much, thank you for listening to me…”
In my mind, I was thinking, Bloody hell, that guy was going to jump off the bridge! Luckily that other guy somehow convinced him otherwise and got him back onto land!
So to me, it looked like the situation was defused; it was over, the guy was far from the water and had someone who wasn’t going to let him do it… But then on my return walk over the bridge, I noticed some flashing lights through the fog. Approaching the lights, I see the same crying guy pinned to the ground, a group of cops, the other guy being questioned by the cop saying that “he could press assault charges on you if he wanted to!”
Meanwhile, the guy on the ground was screaming “Why won’t you let me take my own life!”… When questioned by the cop pinning him down, “What school do you go to?” he screamed, “I’m a student at UC Berkeley and I want to end my life!” Based on all of this, I can only assumed that the group tried walking back over the bridge to San Francisco, only for the guy to make another attempt at jumping over. In terms of ‘assault’, I reckon the good samaritan somehow tackled him to the ground, preventing him from committing suicide whilst their parters called the police. Either way, this was a pretty hectic afternoon! It got me thinking… If I was in that guy’s shoes (the good samaritan, not the jumper), what would I do? Would I have been able to pull it off? How would I feel if I tried to save that guy from jumping but failed? Would it totally screw my mind over?
Luckily for me, the rest of the walk back was pretty uneventful, even peaceful as the sun started to set below the sea fog which had moved over the Bay.
After a filling shabu-shabu dinner (hot pot) at Shabu-sen in Japan Town and some lively conversation with a few locals over a bottle or two of sake- eg. “What is a good American?” “What is the symbol of a free man?” “Has World War 3 begun?” “What’s a good Aussie beer?” (answer at the end of this section), it was another early start to get on the 9:10am ferry to Alcatraz.
Luckily for me, I was able to catch the 8X bus from near my hostel to pretty much Pier 33 where the Alcatraz Cruises’ ferries depart. With a cost of $30.00 for an adult, the ferry to Alcatraz was the first thing I booked when I arrived in San Francisco. From what I’m told, tours fill up 1-2 days ahead, so I was lucky to be able to get on one of the first tours on Sunday morning having booked on Friday.
The ride to Alcatraz only takes 15 to 20 minutes, but the bar on board the boat sells food, beers, coffee in case you’re feeling peckish like the seagulls you meet.
Upon setting foot on The Rock (you gotta watch the movie, if only because Sean Connery is in it, especially the car chase scene to get some good views of San Francisco!), you’re greeted by the park rangers who give you a brief introduction on the Rock, what visitors can see and do and most importantly, information about how to get off the Rock.
Unlike in the movie, Alcatraz is self guided. The fee to the island includes a free audio guide which is narrated by actual prison officers and former inmates and a screening of a History Channel documentary on the history of the island, including the period when it was under occupation by Native American Indians.
As you make your way around, you hear stories about life in the prison, escape attempts, life as an officer on the island and life as children of the officers who live on the island; that’s right, families lived there!
All in all, I spent around 3.5hrs on the Rock, which allowed me to walk around open areas and through all of the buildings. Much of the areas around the island are closed to the public as they are either under repair or are restricted conservation areas for the many bird and wildlife species that call the place home. When you get there, you soon realise that it’s not a very big place at all!
Answers to conversation questions: A: A free man, A: Guns, A: Yes, the Crimea and Obama is letting the Russians get away with it…A: XXXX! But for you, I’d get a James Boag’s Lager…
After Alcatraz, I faced the greatest challenge of my trip so far, which was trying to find a place for Sunday lunch in San Francisco which didn’t have a massive line out the front. Okay, maybe this is a slight exaggeration, but basically give up on trying to go to any of the ‘popular’ places unless you’re willing to wait 2 hours and go to pretty much any place around, as they’re all offer pretty decent food.
After this, it was on the 38 bus westbound on Geary Boulevard to Lands End. Getting off on 39th Ave, I walked north to the shore, then followed the coastline all the way around to the USS San Francisco Memorial.
Once again, the weather that afternoon was just superb, but you could tell that even in such weather, the ocean currents at the opening to the Bay are still treacherous for ships entering and leaving.
If you have an afternoon free, it is definitely worth checking out this area as there are miles of walking tracks to cover and lots to see, certainly more than I could cover in my short time there. These include the Suttro Baths, the Cliff House and various lookout points.
With the evening settling in, it was time to head back to the city with a quick stop at the Palace of Fine Arts. Again, if you have a copy of the San Francisco Public Transport map, using the buses to get where you want to go quickly is fairly easy.
Farewell San Francisco!
After a night of live music at 50 Mason Social House and some pretty horrendous IPA, it was time to say goodbye to San Francisco.
With an early afternoon flight our of San Francisco to Austin, Texas, I decided to head down to Palo Alto via the Caltrain and catch up with an ol’ mate of mine from Sydney who was studying his Master’s at Stanford.
As he was literally having his last exams when I visited, it was a quick lunch, talk about space startups (how would you like to design a satellite as an engineering intern?) and how engineering in Australia and funding for engineering in Australia is abysmal compared to the opportunities in the States, it was back onto the Caltrain for the short trip to San Francisco International Airport.
Overall, San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area was definitely a different experience to all the cities I have previously visited in my trip across the States. It also seems to be the spiritual home of engineering in the States. I mean, there were bus stop ads and advertising billboards spruiking engineers, engineering, technology, programming and software development like it is the global norm. Conversations between people on the train and buses were often about the latest tech start ups, discussing entrepreneurial ideas and the next upcoming trends – what is this strange place? Go back to Australia and people often roll their eyes if you say you’re and engineer, associating the profession with picks and shovels.
On the flip side however, it was also a city filled with homelessness and metal disorders. Basically, if you fell through the cracks, you hit rock bottom with little or no relief in sight.
This divide in wealth and prosperity brought on by the latest wave of tech booms has been labelled as “ruthless” by many publications, and there doesn’t seem to be anything to slow it down. Either way, I’ll repeat my comment before that none of this is at all surprising. Like how the term “This is Africa” was used in the movie Blood Diamond, all of this can simply be described as “This is the USA, this is California, this is San Francisco…”