Our first experience of this incredible city occurred early the next morning and was as iconic and unforgettable as they come.
The route from our home for the duration of our San Francisco stay into the city itself took us over the magnificent red-orange suspension bridge that spans the width of the eponymous Golden Gate strait.
The fog lingered on the edges of the horizon, but managed to hold off long enough for us to enjoy a clear view of the structure and the waves beneath.
From that moment onwards, our San Francisco adventure was jam-packed with unmissable, unique sights.
With only a day to explore, we needed to plan every second to make sure we saw every highlight the city had to offer, and we decided that a bus tour of the city was the best way to guarantee we saw all of San Francisco’s greatest hits.
North Americas larger than life holiday attractions
The zigzag streets
The weather was glorious so we sat upstairs on the open top double decker, marvelling at everything we saw, from the cars painstakingly navigating the tight corners and steep zigzags of Lombard Street to the peculiar and distinctive Colombus Tower, a copper-green corner building built in the early 1900s and now owned by the director Francis Ford Coppola.
We also went back over the Golden Gate Bridge, which was a very different experience to the sedate car ride we’d enjoyed earlier in the morning – going over a huge suspension bridge in the Windy City in an open-top double decker bus is, it turns out, quite a noisy, blustery affair.
And after stopping to take photos of the bridge from a viewpoint on the other side, we found out that it’s just as exhilarating coming back the opposite way.
By the time lunch rolled around we’d already ticked off a good chunk of our San Francisco ‘must-see’ list, so we celebrated with a ‘must-try’ – a bowl of clam chowder served in a crusty bread roll bought from a stand on Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf, and wandered down to watch the sea lions on their floating wooden rafts as they soaked up the sun and honked indignantly at each other.
I would estimate there was a couple of hundred vying for spaces on the rafts and slipping in and out of the calm waters by the pier, but had we visited the week following we would have been disappointed, as I read in the news that they all disappeared briefly, chasing a shoal of anchovies across the ocean.
Top 10 things to do in the USA
We had to rush after our leisurely clam chowder to get to Pier 33 and catch a ferry over to that most infamous of islands, Alcatraz.
Unsurprisingly, Alcatraz is not a very jolly place, but it is fascinating, and very eerie. You queue up to receive your headphones for the cellhouse audio tour in the area the prisoners would have queued to be admitted.
The creepy atmosphere in the cell block once you start the tour is exacerbated if you ever remove your headphones – because everyone is listening to the audio and not conversing with each other, it’s completely silent except for the shuffling sound of people’s footsteps as they walk from cell to cell.
But away from the cells and outside the walls the island has its own bleak beauty; it’s now a national park, with beautiful flowers and interesting birdlife and boasts incredible views of the city across the bay.
I also found the leftover graffiti that remains from an occupation by Native American activists even more compelling than the cells; daubed in the 1960s this greets you as soon as you disembark the ferry with the words “Indians welcome”.
The world's largest collection of antique arcade machines!
We left Alcatraz as twilight started to descend and, armed with a pocketful of quarters, made one last stop in the Musée Méchanique, a huge dockside warehouse that houses the world’s largest privately owned collection of antique arcade machines.
Here a multitude of curiosities await from a singing barbershop quartet and a fortune teller to a basketball game and more, all lovingly collected by one man and brought to life with the magic of a quarter in the slot.
All too quickly our time in San Francisco drew to a close and we were back on the road again. As we left we went over the Golden Gate Bridge one last time; it was slightly overcast and the last thing we saw in our rear-view mirror was the fog that had held off for most of our visit rolling in.
Discover San Francisco for yourself on our Western Wonders tour
Can you buy ‘fast track’ tickets for the San Francisco cable cars – I gather queues can be horrendous?
You’re advised to buy ‘Visitor Passports’ (one-, three- or seven-day public transport passes), which give you on-and-off access to most of the city’s buses/trams/cable cars.
Queues (or ‘lines’ as they call them over there) to board can be a pain at the turntable terminals, year-round, particularly at Powell/Market streets and Fisherman’s Wharf.
If you can’t wait, decide which of the three routes you want to take and walk a few blocks up – they all go ‘up’ from the terminals – then hail a car at one of the specific cable car stops; by which time there should be a few spaces, sitting or standing, available.
Flash your travel pass or pay the flat $7 fare and then hang on for the ride of your life…