We visited San Francisco for Christmas 2021. Our main consideration for selecting SF was that we needed somewhere to do our long marathon training runs, so no snow and good running routes! It ended up raining every day of our trip (some days just a little) but we still had lots of fun sightseeing, eating tasty food and of course clocking up some miles!
Golden Gate Bridge
We had a few experiences with the Golden Gate Bridge during our time in San Francisco. My first view of the bridge was during a marathon pace run, glimpsing it through the fog to whilst trying to work out which hill I needed to climb to get across. By the time I ran across, the cable wires were shrieking, cold rain was stinging my already tired muscles and I was getting severely buffeted running around the towers! I was concerned it was going to start hailing and there was nowhere to take shelter on the 2.7 km long bridge. But I survived, though on the way back a guard came past on a golf buggy to check I was ok! In retrospect it was type 2 fun and it was pretty special to have the bridge all to myself as there were no other crazy pedestrians or cyclists out whist I was going across.
As it wasn’t great conditions for taking photos or admiring the engineering (completed on time and under budget!), we went back later another day when the weather was nicer. It was still a little rainy, with the sun bursting through the clouds every so often, creating lovely rainbows. We enjoyed views from Warming Hut and from the overlooks on the southern side.
On the way to Sonoma we also drove across which good fun and more pleasant than our running adventure! We stopped at the lookouts on the northern side which provide great views back across the bay of the San Francisco skyline, and other attractions such as Alcatraz Island.
We were lucky that the morning we went to Alcatraz Island was a nice sunny day (about the only one on our trip!). The crowds weren’t at pre-covid levels and so it wasn’t too crowded on the first ferry of the day. We braved the chill winds on the top deck, being rewarded with good views of the city and ‘The Rock’.
We didn’t really know much about Alcatraz other than it being home to the famous prison, so we were surprised to learn about the rest of the history with the island originally operating a a military fortification, then military prison, followed by being a federal penitentiary and also the site of First Nations occupation in the 1970s to protest native rights. There were old bricks, moss and artful dilapidation everywhere.
We took the audio tour of the cell block, which had lots of interesting anecdotes and gave us the opportunity to walk through the old building, recoil at the size of the cells and view facilities available to the inmates. It sounds like lots of bridge was played!
What was most surprising was the gardens which were originally maintained by the prisoners and have recently been restored by volunteers. There were lots of succulents and aloes as well as roses and vegetables. The island also has many nesting birds (in the right season we didn’t spot many) and great views of the Bay region. We really enjoyed our visit.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
As we enjoy visiting modern art galleries, we had to stop in at the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). There were lots of engaging exhibitions ranging from Joan Mitchell’s multi-panel abstract masterpieces, some interesting buildings by Tatiana Bilbao Estudio, math/craft hybrids from Tuaba Auerbach and some very unique pieces by Rafael Lozano Hemmer. The standouts were Contemporary Optics, with a very instagrammable piece by Olafur Eliasson; Hemmer’s Sphere Packing: Bach which played all of Bach’s compositions at once and the huge Pan American Unity mural by Diego Rivera.
San Francisco Botanic Gardens
Most major attractions were closed on Christmas Day, but not the San Francisco Botanic Gardens which was not only open, it was free for the day! Taking the bus out was a bit eye opening, like many cities there are lots of homeless people in San Francisco and it was sad to see how many had nowhere to go on Christmas.
We took a picnic lunch (deli items from Molinari’s – see below) and strolled around the gardens between the rain showers. There were different sections for various parts of the world including Australia and New Zealand – the banskias make me a bit homesick! There were hummingbirds flitting amongst the aloes in the succulent area, a stand of redwoods and some beautiful ginkgoes in the Japanese garden.
Neighbourhood Walking (& Eating)
Fisherman’s Wharf & Embarcado
Probably the most touristy area of San Francisco, I was not expecting to see hummingbirds during the winter, feeding on the nectar of flowers in the small planter boxes! Pier 39 is also home to more famous creatures – the sea lions lounging on their pontoons. For some reason, they were all napping on three very full pontoons, even through lots more were available! When a new sea lion swam up and jumped on, there would be a lots of jostling, honking and carrying on until a new equilibrium was reached. It was quite amusing.
Although Mark made as walk around the outside of the tourist trap Pier 39, we were allowed to do the mega touristy lunch of clam chowder in hollowed out sour dough bread roll at Boudin Bakery. In cold weather it was great to have a warm, tasty item for lunch! We also tried the crab chowder which had a bit more kick of flavour.
Further around the waterfront is the Embarcadero district. There are many piers, the Science Museum (we didn’t visit but it had a cool light display), street art and views of the Bay Bridge. It was a nice place to run in the morning and I ended up trotting up and down a couple of times.
A main attraction of Embarcadero is the Ferry Building, with restaurants and gourmet food shops. We ate delicious sandwiches from Acme Bread, empandas and of course Mark had a coffee. The main issue was the overzealous birds at the outside tables swooping in for crumbs!
Our hotel was at the northern end of North Beach/Fisherman’s Wharf so it was easy walking distance to check of North Beach’s predominantly Italian heritage. Nicknamed “Little Italy” we tucked in the cuisine.
We had great pizza at Tony’s Napoletana Pizza, an 11 time winner of the World Pizza Championships in Italy. The restaurant had a crazy long menu with different pizza types and four different ovens to cook them at precise temperatures according to the style of pizza! Further down the road we purchased some nice meats and cheese at the very busy Molinari Delicatessen. For sweets we had traditional gelato and also cannoli from Victoria Pastry (in a string tied box). There are other good non-Italian restaurant options too – for dinner at Chubby Noodle we ate amazing miso mushrooms and other pan-Asian delights.
North Beach is also home to the City Lights bookstore, a haunt of the Beat Poets; Joe DiMaggio park where he learned to play baseball; and the Coit Tower which we saw from afar but didn’t climb up.
San Francisco Chinatown is the largest outside of Asia and the oldest in North America. We did a self guided walking tour, as well as catching the bus through and seeing how many older people were doing their shopping at the markets there (the bus became very full and then some pomelos got loose). A highlight was the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory where we watched fortunes being inserted into the warm cookies before they are folded into their customary shape. Fresh fortune cookies also taste much better than stale ones at Chinese restaurants!
Russian Hill & Nob Hill
Exploring San Francisco and minimising hill walking isn’t very feasible in some neighbourhoods. We tried not to tire the legs too much before our marathon pace runs and then afterwards couldn’t really walk properly up or down inclines… Luckily, there were the famous cable cars running through the Russian Hill area. We bought a day pass for unlimited public transport and made good use of this! The cable cars were great fun and had excellent views.
These districts are home to nice (expensive) residences, cute cafes and restaurants. For Christmas dinner we indulged at Abrazo and had a lovely meal.
Russian Hill also has the iconic “most crooked street in the world”, Lombard Street, with eight hairpin bends. It was fun to walk down and see the constant stream of tourists driving down in a variety of different vehicles. The gradient is 27% and recommended speed is only 8km/h!
After hauling our tired bodies up to the top of Nob Hill, we headed to the Fairmont Hotel. Along with a beautiful Christmas tree and lots of nutcrackers (I don’t fully understand why they are so popular in the US) they also bake a huge gingerbread house. At 6.7m high, 7m wide and 3.2m deep the culinary team takes 375 hours to make and decorate the gingerbread, and the engineering department take 520 hours to construct the framework. Not sure what that says about the efficiencies of the kitchen… Walking through we were surprised at how ginger-y it smelt and amazed by the intricate decorations using lots of candy! For the adults there was also a Moet & Chandon tree.
At bottom of Russian Hill area is the famous Ghirardelli Chocolates shop. The line up for hot chocolates was crazy so we just bought a whole lot of items. (Unfortunately the Cheese School in Ghirardelli Square was closed for Christmas – one of our work colleagues had told us it was really good).
Sausalito & Muir Woods
We visited Sausalito on the way back from Healdsburg in the Sonoma region, but it is also an easy day trip from San Francisco. The weather was pretty terrible, so we drove along the seafront and went to a couple of shops. It definitely looked like a lovely place for a stroll on a sunny day or for a family holiday. We were recommended to have lunch on the water’s edge and did enjoy a meal at Joinery – with a great chicken sandwich and super tasty kale and radicchio salad. We didn’t partake in the craft beer though, after indulging in enough wines in Sonoma!
Also on the north side of the bridge, we visited Muir Woods National Monument. It is ridiculously popular attraction, being so close to the city, requiring park permits or shuttle to visit. However, even with the crowds the majesty of the Redwoods was inspiring.
The park protects a grove of Coastal Redwoods, the tallest trees in the world but less ‘bulky’ than their sequoia cousins. We walked along the trails in the mist and rain, which is necessary for their growth. There was lots of fungi in the undergrowth and the trail winds around a stream home to lots of salmon (which we didn’t spot).
Other Parts of Town…
Only being in San Francisco for a short time there were plenty of neighbourhoods we didn’t get to experience. We didn’t spend much time (if any) in Union Square. We went through a couple of times on public transport and were a bit taken back by all the homeless people but it was probably worse than usual with all the shops & buildings closed over the holidays. We didn’t get time to go to The Castro, and only took the bus through Haight Asbury (from which we could still sense the counter-culture vibe).
It would have also been fun to have a famous Mission burrito but we did have an enormous and very tasty ‘super burrito’ from Taqueria San Bruno near the airport. Recommended by Michelin, my giant steak and shrimp burrito with beans, onion cilantro, salsa, cheese, guacamole and sour cream was more than one meal!
Until next time…