I went to San Francisco back in February, for the start of my post-deployment West Coast adventure that also included San Diego and Portland. It was my third time in San Francisco, and I split the time doing ALL THE TOURIST THINGS since my travel partner had never been, and scampering through a few local haunts with my San Francisco-dwelling friend.
If I made a list of must-see American cities, San Francisco would be on it, along with cities like New York and Vegas, Chicago and Austin. It’s iconic as fuck, for one, and it’s beautiful, and also weird. The weather is inconsistent at best and requires the wear of layers, always. The food is varied and delicious, the people often crazy.
Inadvertently, our first full day in SF ended up being very San Francisco sort of day. We didn’t plan it that way, not really, but we managed to cram a good bit of San Francisco into one
4 VERY SAN FRANCISCO ACTIVITIES
1. FARMER’S MARKET @ THE FERRY BUILDING
We started at the Ferry Building. It was designed in 1892 and completed in 1898 and was, at the time, the largest project ever completed by the city. It was and still is a ferry terminal, as the name suggests, for ferries that go across the San Francisco Bay. On the ground floor, in what used to be the baggage handling area, there’s a marketplace filled with all sorts of delicious things and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, there’s a farmer’s market out front on the Embarcadero and, on Saturdays, also on the rear plaza that overlooks the Bay.
We found ourselves there early on a Saturday and figured the market would be the perfect place to grab some breakfast snacks before setting off for the day. We first walked through the Ferry Building to get some Blue Bottle Coffee and taste some olive oil, then heading outside to peruse the offerings.
I love a farmer’s market, and not just because it means I can eat food while standing in the street. That is a perk, for sure, but I also get a lot of joy out of discovering good food in a simple and attainable setting.
We split a rhubarb galette and then shared a porchetta sandwich from Roli Roti that was so good, that when we bit into it some angels came out and sang a really nice song about how good spit-roasted meat is and how glorious that sandwich was. True story.
2. ALCATRAZ ISLAND.
Alcatraz Island is administered by the National Park Service and is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It was first used as a military fortification, and was heavily fortified during the American Civil War, when it was used as storage to keep firearms away from Confederate sympathizers. It was also used as a military prison during the Civil War, and that continued through the Spanish-American War and through to World War I when it held conscientious objectors. In 1933, Alcatraz was deactivated as a military prison and control of the island was transferred to the Bureau of Prisons.
From 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz Island served as a federal prison. If you didn’t behave in regular prison, you got sent to Alcatraz. Al Capone spent some time there, along with organized crime boss and murderer James “Whitey Bulger, and Robert Franklin Stroud, called the “Birdman of Alcatraz” for the birds he’d raise in his cell.
Starting in 1969, Native Americans from San Francisco occupied the island for more than 19 months, and then, in 1972 the part became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and was designated a National Historic Landmarks in 1986.
Our tour was early, at 9 a.m., and even though I’d been through the prison and listened to the award-winning audio tour twice before, I still really enjoyed it. The tour is narrated by former prisoners and guards and it does a really exceptional job of explaining what life was like on the island and in the prison.
Also, it’s really beautiful on the island. The gardens are gorgeous and kept up by a group of volunteers, there’s a seabird colony that’s living a fantastic life, although I did encounter two geese who were probably plotting mayhem out in the old exercise yard, and the views of San Francisco both on the island and from the ferry out there are also pretty fantastic.
3. IRISH COFFEES @ THE BUENA VISTA.
The Irish Coffee was not invented here, but it’s where it got its start in America. Two men experimented their way to creating the perfect combination of cream, coffee and booze (plus some sugar cubes), that they’d had at the airport in Shannon, Ireland. They perfected the recipe in 1952 and it’s been the same ever since, served at the Buena Vista. According to their website, they serve something like 2,000 Irish Coffees every day.
The Irish Coffees are damn delicious, and it’s amazing to see them made in bulk, all lined up on the bar, by a bartender who’s been making them pretty much his entire adult life.
We had two, because why the hell not, and they were probably the best we’ve ever had, an we’ve had a lot of Irish Coffees.
The Golden Gate Bridge spans the Golden Gate Strait, and connects San Francisco to Marin County. Opened in 1937, it’s the most photographed bridge in the world according to Frommer’s, and is one of the Wonders of the Modern World and until 1964, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, at 4,200 feet.
We knew we’d only have one day of sunshine while we were in San Francisco, and my travel partner wanted to walk across so even though we’d scampered around most of Alcatraz Island, we figured, fuck it, better to cross the bridge with a little bit of sunshine than to miss it due to the raging rain that was expected the next day.
We walked all the way across and then, because there’s really not a super easy way to get back across, we walked back to the San Francisco side.
One thing I love about walking across the Golden Gate, is that the weather actually changes around you. We left to bright skies and came back to gray skies, over the course of less than an hour. San Francisco is definitely known for its ridiculous weather and walking the bridge really gives you a feel for how absolutely crazy it really is.
About the only really San Francisco thing we didn’t do that day was ride a trolley, but we made it up for the next day.