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.
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!