In 1985, at the ripe old age of 30, I boarded a commercial airplane for the first time in my life. My destination was San Francisco, California, and I fell in love with that city immediately. We have been back dozens of times for various reasons, and I never get tired of it. It is a fantastic destination unto itself and a jumping-off point for destinations up and down the coast.
Everything about the city is unique, including the weather. Not only do you have the famous fog, which both delights and frustrates photographers, but the climate, in general, is challenging. I have been there in February wearing shorts and t-shirts, but even in the middle of summer, you'd best pack a jacket.
And walking shoes. Really good, sturdy walking shoes. Because even though San Francisco, California, has a great transit system, and the hills are enormous, it is still very much a walking city. You will want to take advantage of the buses, cable cars, trolleys, and the Muni to get to different areas, but once there, each neighborhood is fantastic and unique.
Although we have stayed a few times in what is called "East Bay" and taken the Muni into the city, most of the time we stay somewhere in the North Beach area. And of course, we have visited the city many times from a cruise ship that docks at Pier 27.
There is a good reason for staying in that area, and that is The Embarcadero. The walk along the once commercial shipping district is admittedly touristy but a lot of fun. You could easily kill a couple of days just wandering up and down the waterfront. You can also take a tour over to Alcatraz at Pier 33, a must-see at least once. And you can catch a ferry over to Sausalito from the Ferry Building or down at Pier 41.
The Ferry building is interesting and has local vendors inside and out, but Pier 41 is where we like to catch the ferry. Located between famous Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf, you could spend all day in that three-block area shopping, eating, or visiting the Aquarium of the Bay. Don't get to full-on Pier 39 because you will want to walk around the corner to the Boudin Bakery Cafe for the most fantastic bread in the world. Just walking into the place will make you hungry again.
Because of the hills and distance, most areas of the city will require transportation. You can always take an Uber, but the public transit in San Francisco, California, is fantastic. And of course, you have to take a cable car. Note that the trolleys, which look similar to cable cars, are a different form of transportation. And there are plenty of buses. The streetcar that runs up and down The Embarcadero is a tourist attraction all its own.
Despite the hills, there are some excellent walking tours from the waterfront for those in moderate shape. One route I always take covers many of the city's more famous and infamous neighborhoods. Start at the Ferry Building and take California, Sacramento, or Washington Street west. You will know you are heading in the right direction if you are going uphill. If that's not enough direction, just head toward the Transamerica Pyramid.
Continue until you get to Kearny Street. If it's not apparent to you, you are now in the heart of Chinatown, and it's time to eat. But not too much, this is very much a gastronomic tour. You are also at the top of a hill, so spend some time in the area. There is much to see in almost any direction, but I like to take Columbus and head back toward the waterfront.
This is a leisurely, mostly downhill stroll for about a mile. It will take you through Chinatown and Little Italy. You can take a side trip at Filbert Street, just beyond Washington Square, to walk back uphill to Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. The view from the top of the tower is worth the claustrophobic climb up the spiral staircase.
The neighborhoods will change several times as you make your way back down toward Fisherman's Wharf, and each one has its own flavor and food. You should head left toward the park and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy when you get down to Bay Street. If that is too much at this point, at least go as far as the Ghirardelli building for a rest and some chocolate.
After a break, head on down to the waterfront for a magnificent view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Visit the Hyde Street Pier just to the east for some interesting historical ships, then walk back up the waterfront a few blocks, and you are back to Fisherman's Wharf. If you are too tired to take the completely flat one-mile walk back to your starting point, don't forget that cable car that runs back and forth all day for free.
This country has many great cities that I like to visit often, but number one on my list by a wide margin in San Francisco, California.