Our Golden highlights from three days in San Francisco

Our Golden highlights from three days in San Francisco

Cycling from Fisherman’s Wharf to Sausalito across the Golden Gate Bridge and a visit to Alcatraz were my highlights of San Francisco.

For my seven-year-old son the massage chair and Etch-A-Sketch in the reception area of our characterful accommodation, the couple of hours spent playing with local kids zooming down a concrete slide on a piece of cardboard, and getting a pesky wobbly tooth knocked out during a game of rugby with an American family were also up there.

Three days in the city felt long enough to get a reasonable flavour of its diverse attractions. We hopped on and off cable cars, craned our necks at skyscrapers, chilled out on Ocean Beach and in Golden Gate Park – the home of the concrete slide my son enjoyed so much as well as being host to a free open air opera event on the day we visited, saw the sea lions at Pier 39 and took in the frequent pungent whiff of hash which seemed to pervade off all the main city drags (excuse the pun).

It was a place that felt laid back (not related to the aromas I don’t think), incredibly tourist friendly and on the whole unintimidating.

The only unsettling element was the amount of drunk and drugged up homeless people we encountered. At least half a dozen times each day someone would be lurching in our direction or collapsed and unconscious in the middle of a city centre pathway. It was an uncomfortable glimpse into their sad reality, though my husband felt the issue was no greater than in any other city.

Regardless, on the whole, the central shopping streets felt clean and safe as did the area around crooked Lombard Street and the bay in front of Ghiradelli Square.

Pier 39 and surroundings surprised me in its touristy tackiness and wackiness. It was an experience to pass through on a Saturday night, the pavements rammed, street entertainers holding court and a cavalcade of pimped cars showing off circus-like motorised suspension systems.

Also surprising to me was how much of a ‘thing’ cycling the Golden Gate Bridge was. We joined hundreds of others pedalling the mainly flat route, but it was no less enjoyable for it.

The fog, which San Francisco regularly experiences, enveloped the higher parts of the Golden Gate Bridge on the day we cycled over it
The coastal route via Crissy Field was picturesque with many views of the famous bridge and mesmerising fog which rolled avalanche-like, hiding and revealing parts of the surrounding hills and structure itself. On the route, there were a few inclines steep enough for us to have to get off our bikes and push but short enough not to be a dampener.
Crossing the bridge, had it not been the ‘iconic’ element, would actually have been the least pleasant part of the ride being accompanied by roaring traffic, albeit thankfully separated by a barrier.
The audio tour of Alcatraz was better than any other we’ve ever come across

 

Conversely, when it came to Alcatraz, the oft-stated highlight of the audio tour, did prove to be so. Delivering the story of the notorious prison in a variety of voices direct to your ear, the pacy tour was more immersive than any audio or live guided tour I have experienced anywhere previously. The recording leads you throughout the mass of cells and wider areas with a perfect amount of detail and totally engaged us and our son.

Our visit also coincided with another rare visitor in the form of an appearance from a surviving ex-prisoner – William Baker. The perverse nature of the ‘attraction’ of Alcatraz summed up as he sat hero-like signing copies of his autobiography.

“Go on ahead, son,” we found ourselves saying to our seven-year-old. “You can ask the ex high security inmate a question.” Hmmm.

The gift shop offered the ‘opportunity’ to purchase items such as a replica tin prison mug. Not for the first time we pondered the ridiculousness of the clamour both of our own and thousands of others to book weeks in advance and pay top whack to get to the prison.

Yet still it was great. There our son completed his second free National Parks Service Junior Ranger programme (the first having been done in the maritime area of the city). The programmes are excellent, consisting of a fun workbook packed with information and education, free ranger talks and the incentive of a ranger badge. It gave the trip added depth and value and he loved it. Almost as much as he loved the sport of swatting the endless flies on the ferry back.

We’re learning it’s best when travelling with kids not to get hung up on what their highlights are!

Mission accomplished: Kian gets his Junior Ranger pack signed off in San Francisco Maritime Historical Park
Where we stayed: Green Tortoise Hostel, Broadway.
Good:
Staff were very friendly and helpful
It was by far the cheapest accommodation we could find (though still not cheap at more than £100 per night)
Very central location, although a bit grotty
Breakfast included and evening meal three nights per week, pulled together with aid of volunteering guests
Shampoo and shower gel in bathrooms which were kept clean
Detailed and vast information on where to go and how to get there
Little extras: a live band in common room one night; collections from nearby cafés of free sandwiches and pastries that would otherwise be binned
Characterful
Computers and printing available
Two washing machines and dryers – $2 each to use
A lot of social activities on offer for young drinkers
Not so good:
As expected we were the only family staying, though guests were varied (not all 20 something drinkers)
Room was small and hot
Guests’ fridge space in the shared kitchen overwhelmed
Obviously cared about but a bit worn and used looking
Often a short wait or hunt for an empty bathroom

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