Compared to many famous cities in the States, San Francisco is relatively small, so you can easily get around by foot. However, to get a more authentic experience you might want to opt for cycling, which has become increasingly popular in the past few decades – there’s even a Bike to Work Day in May! There are cycle lanes everywhere across the city, including the Golden Gate Bridge. I found a deal to rent a bike for $13 for 24 hours (helmet and lock included), and spent the day cycling to and across the Bridge, exploring the Sausalito city on the other side, and coming back just in time to catch the sunset over the ocean. Besides being fun and all, a day of cycling also proved to be good cardio – the city is so hilly that I could easily skip all my leg days that month (JK, I don’t exercise).
The pride of the city – the Golden Gate Bridge – offers mesmerising views of the Bay on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, with many white yachts ‘decorating’ the blue waters. According to Google Maps, crossing the bridge by foot takes around 30min (I wouldn’t know because I cycled, i.e. sat still on the bike while the strong ocean wind was pushing me forwards). The east pavement is used exclusively by pedestrians, while cyclists have access to both sides.
Another famous attraction is Lombard Street, the so-called ‘crookedest street in the world’ that winds down a steep hill in sharp turns, surrounded by patches of greenery and blossoms. You can also check out Telegraph Hill – filled with beautiful fauna, it overlooks the Bay and is home to Coit Tower.
San Francisco also has the world’s largest Western Chinatown, more popular among tourists than the Golden Gate Bridge. Besides numerous food and souvenir shops, bars, and restaurants, you can enjoy the views of colourful Chinese-style buildings as well as awesome street art on every corner. My personal favourites were a wall decorated with red envelopes and a huge mural representing all Chinese Zodiac signs.
Another interesting landmark is the city hall, which reminded me a bit of St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s also close to a neighbourhood containing Victorian houses that have been beautifully re-painted in various colours and are famously known as the “painted ladies”. I visited the place late at night so I didn’t get to fully appreciate the colours, and the park nearby felt a bit dodgy, but I enjoyed the breath-taking views of the city skyline unfolding behind the low-rise Victorian buildings.
Finally, you can visit Union Square, a busy and vibrant place with shops, restaurants, and bars, where you can chill in the evening. And you simply can’t miss Fisherman’s Wharf, especially Pier 39 where you’ll find sea lions (you’ll immediately recognise the distinctive noise and smell) as well as cute souvenir shops and cafes.
San Francisco also prides itself on its cable cars, which had served as the main means of public transport before buses were introduced. There are currently three lines left, and they are used by both tourists and local commuters. You can also visit a free-of-charge museum of cable cars to learn more about their history and importance.
And of course don’t forget to visit Alcatraz – the infamous former prison for world’s most dangerous criminals, known for being impossible to escape from. The guided tour (about $40) includes a ferry ride from the city to the Alcatraz Island and back, and an informative audio guide with stops all over the prison.
Outside the city
If you opt for cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge, you can visit Sausalito city on the other side. It resembles Nice, France and is therefore sometimes called California’s French Riviera. You can also visit the Black Sands Beach if you want to see and walk on some black sand.
If you still have some time left, you can go south to visit Stanford University. The campus is larger than any university campuses I’ve seen in the UK, it’s almost a town of its own: they have shopping malls, a massive stadium and pools, a church, and more. The lawn in front of the main entrance is incomparable to our cute and tiny Queen’s Lawn. It can take a while to walk across the campus, so students get around by cycling or by one of the many shuttle bus lines. I happened to visit on the UG arrival day which left me with all kinds of nostalgic feels as I reminisced about my first weeks at Imperial.
Further south, in Mountain View, which is a part of Silicon Valley, you can find many famous high tech companies and their campuses, a future workplace for some of us. I visited the Googleplex, where staff members cycle between buildings on bikes painted in Google’s colours. You can’t get inside the buildings as a visitor unless you know anyone who works there but you can enjoy a walk outside where you’ll see many Google-themed objects, including life-size Android statues. However, I would suggest going there only if you really have nothing else to do as it’s not as interesting as other sights.