How was it that I had swum in the Adriatic Sea, but never even seen the Pacific Ocean? I was plagued by this thought last year, at a time when I hadn’t travelled in over a year and was feeling the itch to explore. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I really wanted to find a way to see California – start exploring my own country – and get that itch scratched a bit.
I get emails from travel sites all the time and one from Cheapflights Travel Deals stuck out – it seemed I could go to San Francisco from Newark for really cheap. I ended up paying $357 round-trip, plus my baggage, through Virgin America. There was a slight delay on the way back, but otherwise, the flights were smooth. In the city, I used BART, MUNI, walked, and used a service through the hostel for airport pickup and drop off ($10). MUNI is the metro system, including buses and trolleys and the fare is $2.25.
I spent the fall semester of my senior year in London, but I used the close quarters to the mainland to travel as much as possible – Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain, and France. It was during this trip that I found the beauty in hostels and living out of your suitcase. I decided I would stay at a hostel in San Francisco for financial reasons and so I could meet people – I love travelling alone, but it can get lonely. I stayed at Hostels International – San Francisco, at the Fisherman’s Wharf location. I’ve stayed at cleaner places, but I definitely have never stayed anywhere in such a beautiful location. The building is located in Fort Mason, owned by the government, and is perched on a cliff that overlooks the bay, where you can see the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin County, and Alcatraz. I was there for nine nights and paid $269.
Places I explored
I took an early morning run everyday down to Fisherman’s Wharf and loved seeing the sunrise on the water. Fisherman’s Wharf itself is a bit of a tourist trap, but it’s still worth a visit and you can find great crab and great sourdough bread. I preferred it before it got busy. San Francisco is a magical place to exercise in – it has a good vibe for it, where people leave work early to go surfing, everyone goes for runs, there’s bikers everywhere, and you can oftentimes catch people going for a swim in the bay. On one of my firsts days, I did the traditional bike-ride-across-the-bridge-and-ferry-back-from-Sausalito trip. Not only was it fantastic exercise, the views are picture-perfect. This trip costs about $35, if memory serves.
One of the reasons I went to San Francisco was to see a play at A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theater) called Mr. Burns: A Post Apocalyptic Play by Ann Washburn. Though the play was not to my taste, the production value was fantastic and I would love to see more by them. I splurged on this ticket; it was $55 for mezzanine seating – a deal compared to Broadway, but I’m used to paying no more than $25 for a play.
I spent a good deal of time walking (building muscle) and looking at all the houses. San Francisco has many architectural styles, and just seeing an old Victorian mansion built into the same hillside as a lofty, contemporary home was thrilling. I walked along the bay, through the Presidio, the Castro District, the Financial District, and Japantown.
Of course, one cannot visit this city without a trip to Alcatraz, which is a horrifying spit of land that is continuously beaten by the treacherous waves of the bay. The tour is self-guided, with the help of headphones, so you can take as much or as little time as you want learning about the infamous prison. Honestly, I think it’s enough to both make any American question our penal system and to make to-be criminals rethink their motives. I was lucky, because Ai Weiwei had a special exhibit going when I was there, themed around people wrongfully imprisoned or exiled. Edward Snowden was prominent.
I rented a car one day and went across the bridge to Marin County, where I had a glorious time driving the switchbacks on the way up to Muir Woods. The redwoods are absolutely breathtaking, that place an ancient cathedral of trees, a place that is holy, sacred and peaceful, and should be worshipped in a country that has one of the highest carbon footprints. After wandering through them, I hiked through newer woods, breathing in fresh, clean, and invigorating air and admiring the vistas. On my way back, I stopped at Muir Beach, which is tiny, but natural and rocky and beautiful.
Ashbury-Haight was a standout for me. I had a great time hunting thrift stores, shopping boutiques, soaking in some leftover hippie culture, and searching for gems in Amoeba Records. I also had some pretty good pizza – I’m originally from Jersey and my parents are from Hudson County, so my pizza standards are high (Philly has terrible pizza).
On one of my last days, I fulfilled my dream of seeing the Pacific. I started at the de Young Museum, seeing some art and going to its observatory deck. I then took a very long walk through the Golden Gate Park, stopping once to observe small phenomena such as a grandma roller dancing to hip-hop and a group of people hosting a dance-a-thon. Once I finally reached the (windy) beach, I braved walking through the surf and gazing north at the craggy terrain of Marin County. I watched the sunset, another phenomenon for someone who has only ever seen the sun rise over an ocean.
I took a trip to the wine country with Green Dream Tours, which was such a spectacular journey. Since I was a hostel guest, I got a discount - it was $110 for the day. That included – transportation in a luxury van with a small group of people, a stop at the Golden Gate Bridge for pictures, visiting three small, family-owned vineyards with tastings included, and a fun guide. The most important part is the vineyards, which all had great wine, had a welcoming environment, and gave us an introduction into tasting wine. It’s much warmer in the wine country than the city and I would suggest bringing a light jacket that you could leave on the van when it warms up. We went to two vineyards in Sonoma Valley, Larson Family Winery and Nicholson Ranch, and one in Napa, Hagafen Cellars (which is also one of the only Kosher wineries in California). The group I was with was very friendly and since no one had to drive, everyone got a little tipsy and rowdy, which just added to the fun.
Food and drink
If you can get out to some wineries, definitely go to smaller, family-owned boutique ones. They are going to have higher quality and a better environment. Buying wine in the city will be costlier and most of it will come from bigger vineyards of less quality.
I always had breakfast at the hostel (free) and would get early supper out on the town.
If you’re from California, this is not for you – go to In-N-Out! I’m not a fan of fast food, but holy hell, this stuff is great. It has a cult following for a reason.
Seafood, particularly crab, is always great here. I had a few crab sandwiches lathered in hot sauce at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Explore Chinatown and Japantown for their cuisine.
I spent one night barhopping downtown with a group from the hostel. We went to several dive bars that featured cheap drinks and rich atmospheres.
Notes on the city
San Francisco rivals Chicago for the “Windy City” title, in my opinion. I have to also share this quote: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” which is attributed to Mark Twain even though its true source is unknown. The wind really cuts through you, so you must carry layers – hoodies, sweaters, windbreakers – because it can also warm up dramatically when the wind dies down. The city is also terrifyingly hilly, so be prepared to develop calves of steel. If you’re not, get very well acquainted with the bus and trolley systems. In terms of safety, I’m from Philly and feel pretty comfortable in cities. That being said, I kept aware of my surroundings, especially when I was downtown. There is an enormous population of homeless people, far more than I’ve ever seen, possibly due to the warmer climate. They’re pretty harmless, but are almost everywhere, especially in parks.
Green Dream Tours
Golden Gate Park
Wild SF Walking Tours
Bridge bike – Sausalito ferry.
Wine. All the wine.
BART/MUNI: About $30
Dream Tours: $110
Food and Drink: About $175
Car rental: $80
Total: About $1180