A Golden Handcuff: Our Trip to San Francisco
Updated: Jan 9, 2019
Steinbeck once wrote that San Francisco is "a golden handcuff with the key thrown away." Having never been on the West Coast, I didn't know what exactly Steinbeck meant. I began asking myself, Despite it being golden, is a key-less handcuff a good thing? Won't my wrists hurt after a while? I know I don't enjoy being contained for a long period of time. Regardless of my questions, I was intrigued by Steinbeck's statement. This city must contain some beautiful quality, enough for Steinbeck (who is one of the most painstakingly-detailed author I've encountered [i.e. the turtle chapter in Grapes of Wrath...]) to record his opinion. Thus began my impulsive desire to journey to the City by the Bay.
In the middle of June, I decided that I wanted to spend my upcoming fall break exploring San Francisco. I'm a teacher, and the school district in which I work gives us a full week off the first week of November. To me, early November seemed like a fitting time to travel to California. After tracking flights on Hopper, I discovered (around 10:30pm on a Monday night in late June) a direct, round-trip flight opportunity between Philadelphia (my closest airport city) and SanFran for only $356 per person via Virgin America. I immediately jumped on the deal and secured three tickets: one for me, one for my father, and one for my mother. Our family unit would be traversing SanFran. I was excited not only because it would be a new travel destination for me, but because it would be my parents' second time there in over 30 years. The last time they were in San Francisco was for their honeymoon in 1981. The three of us were eager to explore the city together.
Because my dad is typically in charge of our vacation logistics (i.e. booking the hotel, scheduling excursions, etc.) and because he had some familiarity with the city, he was responsible for finding a suitable hotel. I am a Marriott Rewards Member, so he decided to research our options. With several solid choices, he ended up selecting the Courtyard in Fisherman's Wharf. With our flight and hotel booked, we truly were ready to go.
We stayed in San Francisco, California from Saturday, November 4 to Wednesday, November 8 (2017). Less than 5 people gave us recommendations for things to do and places to eat, so the majority of everything we chose to see and eat was either researched or based off reviews. What follows is an overview, including top-three selections, of what we did, what we ate, and where we stayed.
Top three to see
Once we established our trip to San Francisco, the first place we all agreed on visiting was Alcatraz, the infamous federal prison turned public museum. We booked a day tour through Alcatraz Cruises. A ferry boat transported us from Pier 33 to "The Rock," where we were greeted by a National Park Service volunteer. He explained a bit of the history of the island, and then prompted us to explore. We chose to take the scenic agave trail up to the main building, which is only open seasonally. Once inside the prison, we received our audio packs & headphones and began our guided tour of the prison. The audio tour was one of the most informational, engaging tours I've ever experienced. The narrator provided the perfect amount of details so that we weren't left with holes, nor overwhelmed with the narrative. The audio tour took us around to every corner of the prison: the main cell block (Broadway), C-D Street, the recreation yard, solitary confinement, and the mess hall, among others. We learned about attempted escapes, the Battle of Alcatraz, (in)famous prisoners, post-prison statements from actual prisoners, and general prison life. Despite it being daytime, the eerie atmosphere was totally palpable (I wouldn't even enter a cell block for a photo opp!). We spent approximately two hours exploring the island and it was a sufficient amount of time for us. We did not visit the gardens, so if that interests you, I would dedicate about 2.5 hours. Overall, our Alcatraz tour was absolutely the best excursion of the trip due to its history, intriguing audio tour, and sublimity. I'd recommend Alcatraz Tours to anyone who is compelled by historical accounts; wishes to gain insight into the multi-faceted prison industrial complex; &/or seeks an experience unique only to San Francisco.
Napa and Sonoma Valleys
A trip to SanFran is incomplete without an excursion to these areas. Being a wine-o, I knew I wanted to tour Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, even if that tour was not extensive. I booked our full-day excursion on Viator because it provided round-trip coach service and included three wineries (with tastings). Overall, our excursion was fun. Our bus driver, Danny, was hilarious and created a positive experience for all of us on board. As we were about to drive across the Golden Gate, he pulled over to designated photo-opp areas so that we could capture the majesty of the bridge. As for the wineries, all three were very generous with their explanations of fermentation and their winery's history (and generous with their pours!). I didn't realize, though, how difficult it is to have ~15 tastings of wine, even over the course of 6 hours! I would suggest a journey to Napa and Sonoma to anyone who enjoys beautiful scenery, and to the wineries for those who either love wine or want to become lovers of wine. I need to include the fact that we encountered some issues with initial travel. At the start of our day, one bus had to transfer us to the main bus, which was located downtown [we were being picked up from Fisherman's Wharf, and SanFran traffic is horrendous]. It completely stressed me out and I couldn't help but think that we'd miss our main coach (we didn't, but still). Also, the wineries listed on the Viator description were not the wineries we ended up visiting (actually, one was, but still). All in all, I'm glad we went out on a wine tour of two areas that have so much cachet attached to their names. If I return to Napa & Sonoma, I'd consider going on the Wine Train!
Lombard Street by Cable Car
Although it doesn't take up too much time, Lombard Street is an iconic feature of San Francisco. Comprising of eight hairpin turns, this steep street is unlike anything I've ever seen. We took a cable car (my first time!) from the Wharf to Lombard, and were dropped off at the top of the hill. Here, you get an amazing view of the city's hills. My parents and I walked down the left side of the street and the up the right side. Along the street are gorgeous condos that all have different facades. You can rent a condo on Lombard for $6,500/month! With all the tourist action, I'm not sure I'd want to reside there full-time!
Alcatraz, a Napa & Sonoma Wine Tour, and Lombard Street were my top-three "to see" in San Francisco. We also visited: Pier 39 & its barking seals, Coit Tower (we only went inside for the free ground level that contains murals), the Painted Ladies (pretty underwhelming to be honest; I thought their colors would be more vibrant. There is a fun dog park across the street, though!), Ghirardelli Square (totally awesome! Didn't make my top three, but it is definitely in 4th place. A variety of dining options [not just chocolate] and boutiques), and Muir Woods (we booked this as a separate excursion; definitely neat to see once in your life, but I don't feel compelled to go again). Had we had better weather on our last day, I would have liked to explore Chinatown and Sausalito. Next time, I'd plan on going to the Museum of Modern Art (it was closed the only day we had no plans - bummer!), the Museum of Ice Cream (you have to subscribe to their newsletter to find out when tickets will be next available), the Mission District, and the Ferry Building (on an empty stomach, so I can try a variety of foods!).
Top three to eat
Our brunch at Eight AM was, hands down, the best meal of our entire trip (& possibly one of the best meals of my entire life). It was in walking distance of our hotel (~3 mins - score!). We went on Tuesday morning around 9:30 and we were seated right away (I tell you the day and time because I can imagine this place gets super crowded during peak hours. They aren't on OpenTable either, so reservations don't seem to be their thing). My mom ordered the french toast (which I was going to order, too, but it came with either a berry compote or caramelized bananas [I'm allergic to strawberries & I hate bananas]) and hers looked delicious! Four huge pieces of french toast smothered in berries. My dad got the Russian Hill frittata, which comes with bacon or sausage and cheddar cheese, hash browns, and a fruit cup. After much contemplation, I decided on the bagel two ways. From a list of six options, you can choose two to be spread on either side of one bagel. I thought this was such a distinct menu item (I've never seen it before!), and the flavor combinations were totally inventive - I just had to order. I went with the peanut butter/bacon/granny smith apple/maple syrup on one side (AMAZING!) and the orange marmalade/butter/chopped cashews on the other (a bit underwhelming compared to the other side). My meal also came with a large fruit cup. Overall, our brunch experience at Eight AM was remarkably noteworthy; the food, service, and atmosphere were cozy, welcoming, and exceptional.
We picked Alioto's, an Italian seafood restaurant on the Wharf, for our final meal. Nobody recommended this restaurant to us; we decided on it after researching dining options along the wharf. The reviews were the most positive compared to other restaurants' reviews and the prices were more reasonable than others' as well, so we said okay & took a chance. We were so pleasantly surprised. The hostess seated us at a window table (without our requesting one), which allowed us to have incredible views of the Wharf & Golden Gate at dusk. Additionally, our waiter treated us warmly and offered his honest recommendations for meal options. Furthermore, all our food choices were very appetizing. To start, my mom ordered a cup of clam chowder; my dad, a house salad; and I, a glass of red wine. For our entrees, we chose the Bouillabaisse (a Sicilian seafood stew), the swordfish involtini (swordfish stuffed with crab meat), and the scallops. Each were cooked to perfection and truly allowed the seafood from the area to shine. To end, we splurged and each ordered a dessert: the cheesecake, creme brulee, and a dessert sampler (I had to!!). Alioto's was a wonderful way to conclude our trip!
San Francisco is known for its sourdough bread, and Boudin Bakery is the place to buy your loaf. Opened in 1849, Boudin stands as the oldest continuously operating business in SanFran. We went to Boudin at the Wharf, where you can not only buy breakfast, lunch, or dinner, but actually witness the bakers in action! It was really neat to see them kneading dough, especially in the shape of different animals (they make bears & alligators even!). This location also allows guests to take a tour of the factory (we didn't do this, but I'd love to next time). We visited the bakery for breakfast on Wednesday morning (around 9:30), and there were seats available. We ordered the sourdough french toast, which came with four pieces of toast & a side of bacon. I have to say, I might begin using sourdough at home to make my french toast! It was delicious, and I didn't feel as heavy after eating like I typically do. I'd definitely go back to Boudin and recommend it for any visitor. This place is fun and satisfying for the whole family.
We dined at other noteworthy restaurants, including Las Margaritas (Mexican place located in The Cannery ~ excellent & inexpensive), The Blue Mermaid (seafood restaurant located in the Argonaut Hotel ~ amazing clam chowder), Yountville Deli (tasty, inexpensive sandwich shop in a promenade full of hoity-toity restaurants), and Pompei's Grotto (seafood restaurant on the main drag in the Wharf ~ decent, but the food quality was more in-line with a bad diner than a Wharf restaurant). Next visit, I'd love to eat at the Japanese Tea House and the Stinking Onion, and have some west-coast sushi!
Where we stayed
As I said, we stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott in Fisherman's Wharf. Overall, our hotel experience was great. Our hotel was in walking distance of a multitude of restaurants, art stores, and main sites (i.e. Pier 39-33, Ghirardelli Square, The Cannery). The hotel was clean, in a safe (albeit expensive) area, run by a friendly staff, and had a pretty decent daily breakfast (although, it was not continental). The bed was also super comfy!
Truly, our trip to San Francisco, California was satisfying on several levels. From the good food to the rich history, SanFran has an endless amount of areas to explore, landmarks to encounter, and places to dine. Five days wasn't enough, but we savored & utilized every moment we had. Next time, I'd plan to visit in the late spring. November in Northern California proved to be colder than I anticipated/wanted, so it would be nice to not have to wear my peacoat and long-sleeves every day. Despite the brisk weather, I really grew fond of the city. We experienced a culture that seems untouched by the chaotic noise of the world. Although I love where I live, San Francisco is a great place to lose your keys for a handful of days.