Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco to visit friends from college and explore the city first-hand. Despite living in California most of my life, I’ve largely stuck to SoCal, and merely passed through the northern half to greener pastures in Oregon and Washington. As such, I’ve only heard of San Francisco through friends, family, and, of course, tour itineraries.
Beyond a few suggestions from friends on where to eat and what to visit, I had no idea how to go about exploring San Francisco. Luckily, Extranomical offered to show me around aboard their “Summer of Love” themed San Francisco Treasures, Parks & Coast Combo Tour.
Having arrived in the city earlier that morning, I had plenty of time to explore on my own. I checked into my hostel in Fisherman’s Wharf and enjoyed 4 hours of pure walking, much to my poor feet’s discomfort. I made a loop along Fisherman’s Wharf through North Beach, up Lombard, and back to Pier 39 for lunch, stopping in at the Aquarium of the Bay.
I quickly discovered why so many people got hop on, hop off passes around the city, rented bikes, or took guided city tours: San Francisco is small, but rough on your feet. It was only halfway through day one and my legs were already drained, but I got in a lot of sightseeing in a short amount of time.
When I caught my bus at the Zephyr Hotel, I slunk down into my chair and enjoy the moment of respite from walking. Being as it was Pride weekend, the bus was a little late (plus a few no-shows slowed us down) but given the city’s traffic it was understandable. The bus was a bit older than expected, but the seats were comfortable and a great escape from the summer heat. Plus, free water bottles always help.
Our driver-guide Constantine started us off with an introduction to North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf, pointing out iconic spots like Pier 39 and Coit Tower, filling in the history and highlights I’d missed during my wandering.
Just on the edge of North Beach we made our first stop at the Beat Museum. We were free to explore for 30 minutes either at the museum (admission included for everyone on the bus), take in one of the local and historical pubs, or visit Vesuvio Cafe, famous host of many Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
As a poet, this one of the key reasons I wanted to take this tour. Much of my literary education passed over the Beat Generation, so I approached it all with fresh enthusiasm. Our guide gave us an introduction to the poets and museum, but stayed with the bus while we toured on our own, giving us the freedom to explore as we like.
After meeting back up, we continued on through Chinatown, passing under the famous Dragon Gate and by dozens of shops and boutiques. All the while Constantine regaled us of the neighborhood’s history and influence on the city. Much like North Beach, it added to the city’s immigrant identity and shaped the diverse demographics to today.
Next, our route took us to one of the highlights of the tour: the Presidio and stunning Golden Gate Bridge. I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of major tourist spots (I napped on the Statue of Liberty ferry while my mom took photos) and wasn’t expecting to enjoy seeing the Golden Gate. However, I was pleasantly surprised.
The fog had rolled in and an overcast sky forced us to view the bridge from Fort Point – which is beneath the bridge – instead of Battery East Vista – which overlooks it. Our entire group enjoyed the detour however, as it was eerily enchanting to see the bridge disappear into the fog. The viewpoint also offered good shots of Angel Island and Alcatraz, despite the weather.
As we left the Presidio we passed by the Lucasfilm Digital Arts Center and Walt Disney Family Museum, as well as numerous hidden houses riddled throughout the park (which, to no-one’s surprise, has a waiting list just to rent). Then we arrived in Golden Gate Park, another display of San Francisco’s lush green landscapes. As an LA resident who grew up in the suburbs of Temecula, having this many trees nearby was a blessing.
We stopped outside the DeYoung Museum and California Academy of Science and Art, having time to explore either of the two for 30 minutes or enjoy free admission to the Japanese Garden. I chose the latter (free is always on my to-do list) and enjoyed strolling through the gardens.
I briefly considered the idea of pursuing an Art History major, so I knew a bit about the construction and theory behind the garden. Though my feet still ached from the morning stroll, I enjoyed the relaxation of wandering through the garden.
Finally, we all climbed back aboard and continued on the last leg of our tour. Due to traffic and Pride, we couldn’t fully tour Castro and Mission, but we got a good overview of the architecture, hot spots, and history of the twin neighborhoods.
Driving up and down Haight-Ashbury was a real treat as our guide could expertly point out the different architectural designs that made up the classical houses.
To round things off, we dared to make a loop downtown and, despite all the set up going on for Pride, got to spot City Hall.
Our trip ended back at the Zephyr Hotel, right in Fisherman’s Wharf. Overall, it was a perfect introduction to the city and I even got to show some of my friends to the Beat Museum or Golden Gate Park over the following weekend. Despite any traffic delays, we made good time and got to see a lot that otherwise would’ve passed by the wayside if I’d planned the trip on my own, and wouldn’t have received such a deep cut into the city’s history without Constantine’s aid.
What I liked most of all was how diverse our group was, with travelers from England, Spain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. A pair of older couples from Australia were a delight as they had so many inquisitive questions about the city, from the architecture to the immigrant communities, that I wouldn’t have thought to ask.
If you get the chance to visit San Francisco over the Summer I highly suggest the Treasures, Parks, and Coast Combo Tour or any of their other tours and excursions.