24 Hours in San Francisco

I visited San Francisco in 2001, during my first visit into the US, when it was the final stop during our cross-country drive all the way from Florida. It was a bit of a crazy trip, on a ludicrously low budget, and the route was the result of a compromise among all five of us. Someone wanted to visit New Orleans, another person wanted to see the Grand Canyon and someone else Las Vegas. For my part, I wanted to visit San Francisco. So we went.

And that’s how, after 10 days and well over 5000km of driving, we finally approached the famous city. Luckily (and totally unplanned), we approached it via the impressive Bay Bridge which offers one of the best vistas of the downtown SF. The Bay Bridge, connecting SF with Oakland, is a real marvel of engineering and an attraction in itself, especially for anyone interested in engineering and impressive construction. The bridge consists of two major crossings connecting each shore with a natural outcrop located mid-bay that is part of the city of San Francisco. The Western crossing lies between Yerba Buena and the rest of San Francisco and it is composed of two complete suspension spans connected at a center anchorage. It is also a double-decked bridge and, driving into SF, you travel on the top deck which guarantees some really splendid views.

We were driving in the late afternoon, just a short time before sunset, so the view was as good as you can get. Especially amazing was the fog from the Pacific rolling over the hills and approaching the city. It looked like a massive wave trying to engulf it.

Entering San Francisco via Bay Bridge you drive right into the center, literally on the rooftops of the buildings. It feels crazy. Our plan was to spend the night camping north of the Golden Gate so we had to leave the freeway and cross the city on the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. It was evening rush hour and driving and navigating was a nightmare. As a geographer and map enthusiast, I was responsible for the navigation. I was trying to follow our progress and plan the route on a tiny inset map of downtown SF in our USA road atlas, but it wasn’t easy and I still feel sorry for my driver friend who had to follow my messy and usually late instructions. Fortunately we reached the world famous bridge without a scratch or getting seriously lost.

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the icons of San Francisco, California and probably even the whole USA. For me, crossing it was probably the climax of our journey, which in itself wasn’t short of landmarks by any means. However, it was getting dark and we had to find some campground, so there was no time for admiring the views. Using the same battered road atlas, we were trying to locate campsites in the Muir Woods National Monument when we got lost. The seriously hilly Marin County lies just north of San Francisco, right across the Golden Gate Bridge, and is covered by a really chaotic web of narrow and curvy roads leading to many of the most expensive houses in America. I still don’t know how we finally managed to find the campsite in total darkness.

When we got up the following morning we had the chance to experience the famous dense fog which so often appears in the Bay Area. I have to say that our forest campsite looked really magical in such circumstances, with rays of light beaming between the massive trees and illuminating fog in some really crazy ways.

Soon we were crossing the Golden Gate again on the way back into San Francisco. Opened in 1937 it is in my opinion still one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. Actually, I think it is probably one of the most beautiful man-made structures ever built. I know it sounds a bit exaggerated but I really love this bridge and so will you once you see it yourself, especially on a beautiful sunny day.

A short time later, after leaving the car in some ugly parking structure, we finally started our exploration of the city. And what a fantastic city it is. You simply can’t beat its location. Surrounded by water on three sides, it contains around 50 hills within the city limits. It is also second-most densely populated large city in the United States after New York City. And for all that we had only one day.

With such a short time available the best option was simply to walk around without much plan, to immerse ourselves in this eclectic and diverse city. It turned out to be a great idea and I had a really good day.

I started my tour in Chinatown, which is the densest part of this already dense city. It is also the oldest Chinese district in North America and the largest Chinese community outside Asia. You can easily become immersed in a microcosmic Asian world, filled with herbal shops, temples, pagoda roofs and dragon parades. It is an absolutely tantalizing experience and time passes quickly when you are in Chinatown. It is also a great place to get some cheap but delicious food. I spent a big part of the day exploring this crazy and colourful place.

But San Francisco has so much more to offer. Right next to Chinatown, in a neighbourhood called Financial District, is located one of the most iconic skyscrapers in the US, the Transamerica Pyramid. Built in 1972, this 260-meter building is also the tallest in San Francisco. Don’t worry, you won’t miss it due to its four-sided pyramid shape, which is in fact so unique that it was only recently that the Shard building in London adopted a similar design.

Heading north, I entered another interesting neighbourhood, the North Beach, which has historically been home to a large Italian population. Nowadays, due to white flight, and gentrification, the neighbourhood has seen its native Italian American population rapidly shrink but it still retains an Italian character with many Italian restaurants, cafes, and bakeries that line Columbus Avenue and Washington Square. Here I also visited a lovely small bookshop, full of maps and travel books, but it was so long ago that I can’t remember its name or location. I was trying to find it on the internet, but to no avail. Maybe it closed like many other small independent bookshops? That would be sad.

We kept walking around the city for hours. Other points on our route included some of the San Francisco piers, right next to the spectacular Ferry Building, located at the Embarcadero, which offers great views of The Bay Bridge, and a steep climb to Russian Hill. And I really mean steep. It is so steep that one-block section of Lombard Street consists of eight tight hairpin turns. They are necessary to reduce the hill’s natural 27% gradient to somehow more of a manageable angle. In general, walking in San Francisco involves a lot of climbing due to all these hills. Many streets are so steep that they even have steps rather than simply walkways.

By the end of the day we were all exhausted. All this climbing really got into our legs and it was time for us to leave. We left the spectacular city of San Francisco less than 24 hours after initially crossing the Bay Bridge and started our 5000 km long drive back to Florida.

And if you ask if it was worth driving around 10000km in total to see it, I can definitely and loudly say yes.

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