Location: San Francisco, California
In April this year, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit the West Coast of the United States. Simon and I had saved up a bunch of Amex points which we converted into air miles, and got a really good deal on British Airways return tickets to San Francisco. You can read more on that here.
I’m the sort of person that doesn’t plan holidays. I like to show up, chat to the hotel staff and locals, and take their advice on what I should be doing. It’s through this that I got to have so many amazing experiences, like being brought to a family birthday party at the home of our guide in Tobago or joining in with Omani locals at a street-side BBQ, which was actually the best food I had in Oman.
Visiting the West Coast was a little different. We had booked a ten day trip and were fully conscious that ten days was nowhere near enough to see everything we wanted. We had to prioritise what we saw and how we navigated through California and Nevada. Internal flights needed to be booked. Now that we’ve done the trip, I thought it might be useful to share our West Coast itinerary, to inspire some readers if they are planning their own holiday. I’m going to be writing about all of our activities, hotel bookings, internal flights, car rental, the route we took and what we munched on throughout our travels! It’s a whole lot of info divided into two posts, but I have a long plane ride ahead of me, so let’s get going!
We began our journey in San Francisco. After doing some research, we ended up booking the Westin St Francis on Union Square. Perfect location!! You are right in the middle of all the major department stores, yet can walk to a lot of the main attractions. If you’re not up for walking, don’t forget San Francisco is the home of Uber, and getting around is really easy.
Whilst in San Francisco, we really wanted to try out The French Laundry, a three Michelin star restaurant based in Yountville, about 1.5 hours outside of downtown San Francisco. It is almost impossible to get a table at short notice, but we managed! Whilst obviously feeling super lucky about this, the reservation was for the day we landed in San Francisco. I think I should spell it out here – it took 10.5 hours to fly to San Francisco, with an 8 hour time difference, followed by a 1.5 hour drive out to Yountville. The food was sensational, but booking it on the day of landing was not our smartest moment. We were totally exhausted before the food came out, didn’t order wine for fear of falling asleep and struggled eating a big meal at what would have been 4am London time when we hadn’t been to bed yet. Travel advice: definitely book a table at The French Laundry when you are in town, but not the day you land. If you can, book three months before as getting a table can be really tough. It’s also near Sonoma and Napa, so maybe factor this in if you are doing a wine tour in those areas.
Day II! We woke up really early (jet lag kills me) so that we could get the ferry over to Alcatraz. Travel advice: you cannot just show up on the day and buy a ticket. It’s another one of those activities that you really need to book well in advance. Here’s the link to do so. We went for the earliest entrance option so that there would be less people around and it was a good move. By the time we left, the place was so much busier!
Alcatraz is an incredibly interesting place. I’m a big fan of crime writers and documentaries so for me it was such an experience. We heard the slamming of the doors, walked around the cells and looked out to the mainland from the courtyard. They say that on NYE, if the wind was right, you could hear the festivities on the bay across the water. That must have been so difficult for the inmates to stomach. The cells were tiny and it’s amazing to think that prisoners lived their lives here. On the day I was there, I actually got to meet an ex-inmate who was promoting his autobiography – a signed copy of which is now sitting in my living room for my future kids to see. I’ve linked the book here in case anyone is interested in buying it.
After taking the ferry back to the mainland, we spent the rest of the afternoon checking out some of the stores and doing a little shopping. The sales were so good! I bought so much stuff from Banana Republic! It was marked down by about 50% and of course significantly cheaper than London.
Day III was a day of walking around and exploring the city. We started by walking back to the bay, to check out Pier 39. We went really early in the morning when everything was closed and not much was happening, so we didn’t think it was anything to write home about. I’m sure if you went there later in the day it would have been bustling with tourists. It didn’t really feel authentic to us, but we did really enjoy seeing the sea lions lounging about on the docks!
From the pier, we continued walking to Fremont Street, a super pretty floral stairway with houses on either side. They were so beautiful! It can be a little hard going up if you’re not used to being on your feet much, but it’s so quaint it’s worth it!
We moved on to Coit Tower. Lifts take you to the top where you get a perfect panoramic view of all of San Francisco. If the weather is nice, you can see all the way out to the Golden Gate Bridge!
We walked to Lombard Street – the one you see in the movies and travel books. It’s a windy hilly street covered in pretty flowers. It was packed with tourists though, so we just took a few pictures and tried to escape the madness as quickly as possible.
We ended a day of sightseeing by catching an Uber to the Golden Gate Bridge and walked our way across. Don’t be fooled – at an average pace, it took about 45 minutes to walk from one side to the other!
Lastly, we stopped by China Town to check out the area and the food. We ate at House of Nanking, but all honesty, the food wasn’t great and the staff were pretty rude. Sigh. That being said it was recommended to us by some friends so maybe we just didn’t order well or caught them on an off day.
Day IV. You don’t visit San Francisco without experiencing a wine tasting tour in Napa and Sonoma. Just like Yountville, it’s about an hour and a half away from the downtown Bay Area. We booked a tour through City Sightseeing, that picked us up from our hotel and drove us out to Wine Country. We visited three vineyards across Napa and Sonoma and it was lovely to walk by all the barrels and check out the vineyards in the sun, but I’m going to recommend some better ones below. That’s not to say the ones on the tour weren’t fun, but maybe a little commercial. I had been to the most incredible vineyard in Chile last year, and no other vineyard has come close to it. We lunched in Sonoma, which was beautiful. The trees were blossoming, the sun was shining and the wine was flowing. It was a perfect dreamy day.
Day V: Our San Francisco travels came to an end on Day V. Starting with a big breakfast at 8am – the restaurant, not the time – we had our final tour to Muir Woods, a stunning woodland area just outside of the city, and ended with lunch in Sausalito, a quaint little town with a little yacht marina and pretty parks. Have a stroll around and catch the ferry from Sausalito back to the Pier 39 area.
We then headed back to our hotel, packed up our stuff and took a cab to our car rental place, ready for the drive through the Big Sur.
Like I said above that’s a whole lot of information so to make things easier, I’ve summarised it all below, including links to tours, vineyards and restaurants.
By this point, I’m now about an hour away from landing and will leave the rest for Part II!
I hope the above was useful. If you’ve been to San Francisco and have any other tips or recommendations, please do leave them in the comments below!
Suggested West Coast Itinerary
Travelling to San Francisco is a long journey, particularly if flying over from Europe like me. Take the first day to aclimatise yourself, walk around, become familiar with your surroundings and just take it easy.
Shopping at Union Square
Walking Tour of the City. Be sure to check out:
Pier 39 (Fisherman’s Wharf & Sea Lions)
Golden Gate Bridge
Wine Tasting Tour of Napa and Sonoma
Dinner at The French Laundry
Muir Woods Tour
Tip: If you are booking vineyards independently and not with a tour, don’t forget to organise transportation. If you are renting a car, you are probably going to want to spend the night given that you will be drinking wine all day.
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Some other tips for San Francisco:
Overall it’s pretty safe, but like every big city, be aware of your surroundings. The city has a big problem with homelessness and drug addiction, which is mainly in the Tenderloin area. Probably best to avoid this at night.
San Francisco is expensive – really expensive. Prepare yourself for it. It’s definitely not for a budget holiday.
As the home of Uber, getting around is really easy. Uber drivers are everywhere so if you don’t have it already (I’m talking to you fellow Maltesers), download the app before you go!