California Travel Articles
Highlights Of San Francisco
We visited San Francisco last October. First time either of us had been there and we quickly fell in love with the place. Our hotel was the Grand Hyatt in Union Square, providing an ideal location for sightseeing and we felt close to the hustle and bustle of the city. We already had read a number of pocket guide books so were keen to do the “must-see” sites as soon as possible. Our stay was for 6 nights. We had originally considered doing 3 nights in the city then 2 days in Las Vegas but opted for all 6 nights here. We were glad we did as this proved to be a wonderful city.
Our first surprise was the weather. We had lovely sunshine throughout the week, very different to the cold damp conditions we left behind in England. Walking around the city was a delight, jumping on and off trams made it easy to get around although taxis cost around the same. We took a tram to Fisherman’s Wharf, up and down the steep hills.
It looked to be hard work for the driver at the front of the tram having to constantly pull the brake levers to slow or stop the tram. We strolled leisurely around Fisherman’s Wharf, a mixture of carnival attractions, chain restaurants, souvenir stands and the sea lions at Pier 39, barking and posing for pictures. We elected to book a trip to Alcatraz immediately as we were tipped off that these trips could be books up days in advance.
The morning of the trip arrived and we headed to the wharf to board the ferry. Its a short 10 minute trip to Alcatraz island. For 29 years, up to 1963 it operated as a penitentiary. A walk around the cells and yard reminded me of the “Escape from Alcatraz” film, a headset relays the history and describes some of the famous convicts who stayed here, such as Al Capone.
We are told that 34 prisoners were involved in fourteen attempted escapes, two men trying twice; seven were shot and killed, two drowned, five were unaccounted for and the rest were recaptured. Two prisoners made it off the island but were returned, one in 1945 and one in 1962.
The most famous escape attempt involved Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin, popularised in the motion picture Escape from Alcatraz. The three disappeared from their cells on 11 June 1962 in one of the most intricate escapes ever devised.
The prisoners chiseled away the moisture-damaged concrete from around an air vent leading to this corridor, using tools such as a metal spoon soldered with silver from a dime and an electric drill improvised from a stolen vacuum cleaner motor. The noise was disguised by accordions played during music hour, and their progress was concealed by false walls which, in the dark recesses of the cells, fooled the guards.
The escape route then led up through a fan vent; the fan and motor had been removed and replaced with a steel grille, leaving a shaft large enough for a prisoner to climb through. The escapees also stole many raincoats to use as a raft for the trip to the mainland. Leaving papier-mâché dummies in their cells, the prisoners are estimated to have entered the bay at 10pm. They were never found. Suggestions are that they drowned in the strong freezing currents.
The cells are tiny and the constant wind whistling through the building is chilly and uncomfortable. Certainly staying at this prison would not have been pleasant.
Golden Gate Bridge
We decided it would be nice to hire some bicycles and cycle to and over the bridge. These were hired at Fisherman’s Wharf and the pleasant trip to the bridge took about 30 minutes. One side of the bridge is designated for cycles and it took us about 15 mins to cycle to the 1.7 miles to the other end.
In the sunshine the bridge takes on a wondrous reddish colour, and is such a dominant feature of San Francisco , cycling across is a great way to fully appreciate it and stop and enjoy the views.
The views were stunning. It’s possible to continue the cycle route across the bridge to Sausalito with an optional ferry back if the legs are feeling the strain!
We did not see any of the famous fog shrouding the bridge.
Golden Gate Park
This is a huge park and worth visiting for the Japanese Tea Garden alone in my opinion. Taking a cab to the park resulted in a lengthy history lesson from our driver, an aging hippy, with opinions on every aspect of American policy it seemed. The Tea Garden is a joy to stroll around. Lovely displays of trees and Buddhist replicas with the backdrop of sounds of running water.
Also worth seeing are the Conservatory of Flowers, including butterflies of all colours landing on you, and the Arboretum & Botanical Gardens.
As a lover of seafood, the city provided some great opportunities for clam chowder, lobster and crab. One visit you may consider is the Cheesecake Factory at Macy’s. A 20 minute wait is typical but the food’s very good.
Shopping is a delight. We were surprised how San Francisco did not feel like a big city as there was no major traffic to be seen, and for UK tourists the prices are a bargain. We were paying in dollars what would have cost us pounds in the UK. Everytime we commented on the prices, the shop assistant instantly seemed to guess we were from England!
I would highly recommend the city. Yes you could do the sites in 3 days, but you will miss out a lot by not taking the time to stroll around some of the more ignored areas or just spend time shopping or enjoying a coffee sat out in the sunshine, watching the people. We will definitely return. You could certainly leave your heart here.
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