When travelling, I have a tendency to try and plan out our days as much as possible. In the case of San Francisco however, I didn’t have much time to do so (I was still frantically reading guidebooks on the plane ride over). But because we had ten glorious days to spend in the Bay area, having a lack of itineraries actually worked out quite well – day two was a great example of that.
We started our day on a walking tour, something that has become a bit of a tradition on each of our last few trips. I was happy to find out that San Francisco is home to a bonanza of complimentary tours: San Francisco City Guides is a non-profit organization that offers over thirty different walks each month that span all areas of interest, for free (though donations are gratefully accepted).
We decided to start in Chinatown, given our hotel’s proximity to the neighbourhood. Our group of over thirty people trailed a guide for two hours or so, and though we were hoping it would get better along the way, we were disappointed.
Sure, we did learn some history (our guide pointed out some tiny windows that captive prostitutes would have used to solicit customers), and he did lead us through a live seafood and poultry shop that we probably would not have stepped foot in on our own, but having prefaced his tour with not wanting to perpetuate stereotypes, he seemed to create some of his own (among other things, he claimed that all Chinese, even those with several generations of American ancestors, were fluent in Chinese).
Such narrow alleys
One of the tour stops was the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, which was on our “to visit” list anyway. It was rather underwhelming as well – dim, and set-up almost like a front with two women forming the v-shaped cookies out by hand, the owner seemed to be more annoyed with visitors than anything else, which just seemed counterintuitive given tourists probably made up most of his business. We left with a few bags of cookies, and also the following photo which cost us 50 cents to take.
Inside the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company
The guide did make one impression – he said that in the past, restaurants in Chinatown would build their restaurants on the ground floor so that customers would be able to “conduct their own health inspections” as they walked past to the seating area on the upper floors. The only relic left from this era of dining was Sam Wo, and since it was lunch time anyway, we thought it was a good choice as any.
The food was definitely westernized, but was decent (and really, for $15, pretty darn cheap). The broccoli was the better dish, nicely cooked and coated in a savoury sauce.
Broccoli and beef, and yang zhou fried rice
Satisfied, we decided to continue on to Fisherman’s Wharf (aka Tourist Mecca).
The Wharf/Pier 39 turned out to be a great place to wander, especially on a hot day – the cool breeze off the water was refreshingly welcome.
Mack with Alcatraz in the background
I could have easily spent the afternoon watching the sea lions belch and flop
We did some browsing (it was hard to imagine the shops pre-tourist days – what did they sell if not t-shirts, postcards and cameras?), and eventually ended up at Ghirardelli Square.
After sampling free chocolate (the pumpkin spice chocolate tasted exactly like a pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks), we skipped the crazy line up at the Ghirardelli ice cream bar in favour of a treat from Kara’s Cupcakes.
It’s a lovely pink store, with the pricey $3.25 cupcake justified by Kara’s dedication to using local ingredients. My Fleur de Sel cupcake was rich, but the salty-sweet combination is slowly growing on me, and better yet, it had the perfect icing-to-cake ratio. Mack enjoyed Kara’s Carrot, pointing out that the cake was studded with raisins, and liked the cream cheese icing.
Being an adult fan of Chuck E Cheese, it was no surprise our next stop was the Musee Mechanique on Pier 45 (something I had read about in one of the guides).
A different kind of football
The Musee Mechanique is an interactive celebration of antique arcade machines and mechanically operated musical instruments – instead of viewing the machines from behind a rope or pane of glass, you could actually play them!
Mack tried twice, but couldn’t beat the machine
I had such a blast! And given most machines cost a quarter to play, it was probably some of the cheapest fun we had in San Francisco (and one of my favourite destinations overall).
Aim and fire!
Back on the tourist path, we stepped inside Boudin Bakery, where San Francisco sourdough was invented. They had quite the little empire – a bakery, grocery/gift shop, and a formal restaurant. I loved the moving baskets whizzing overhead, “delivering” bread to the counters.
I had a good time just browsing the pretty bottles of olive oils and vinegars and marvelling at their novelty loaves shaped like crabs, turtles and teddy bears.
Bread, glorious bread!
We settled on a sourdough baguette ($2.69), just to get a taste of something made with the same wild yeast from 150 years prior. The bread was distinctly sour (too sour for our palates, anyway), but we loved the crackly crust.
I love me some bread
All the bread in the world couldn’t have prepared us for the “hill of death” though (seriously, if it wasn’t paved, it would have been a cliff of magnificent proportions), which we chose to walk up to reach Lombard Street.
Mack smiles through the burn
Lombard Street has the distinction of being the “crookedest street in the world”, with eight hairpin turns. Being the tourist destination it is, with people walking down either side, or driving through it, Mack and I could hardly believe it was a residential street – who would want to live with gawkers constantly in your front yard?
Like visiting Lombard, riding a streetcar in San Francisco is another tourist must, so we thought we’d check it off early, and hopped on one to take us up the rest of Powell. It was standing room only, and rather uncomfortable with the jolting stops and sardine spacing inside the car. We did love that the streetcar had complete right of way though – it would stop right in the middle of intersections, immune to traffic laws.
We hopped off the streetcar at Union Square (a five minute walk from our hotel), and spent the rest of the evening exploring Westfield Shopping Centre. They had an intense food court (both in terms of options and decor) as well as a Bristol Farms (similar to Whole Foods). We didn’t have plans for dinner, so the cafeteria seemed like a good choice as any. And how could you not order from a place called Jody Maroni’s Sausage Kingdom?
I had the 100% Kobe beef wiener ($6.89) – it was unbelievably juicy, but would have been enhanced with some caramelized onions. The onion bun was a great choice. Mack’s chili dog ($4.69) was piping hot, but he would have appreciated a thicker ‘dog.
Hot dogs from Jody Maroni
Since we scrimped on dinner, we treated ourselves to dessert – cream puffs ($2.50) from Beard Papa. The vanilla custard filling was tasty (and seemed to be made with real vanilla beans), and the pastry shell was fresh, but to me, was nothing special. Mack liked his chocolate cream puff a little more than I did.
Beard Papa cream puff
We returned to our hotel, ready to rest our feet, as day 3 would see us behind bars – in Alcatraz!