San Francisco sits on a hilly peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, in northern California. The landscape created by the hills around the city is unique and has been featured in many well-loved TV shows and movies throughout the decades. Since 1873, the iconic San Francisco cable cars have been climbing the hills through the streets, and they are one of the popular tourist attractions in the city, being the world’s last manually operated cable car network.
We spent a few days in San Francisco as a starting point for a family road trip through California. We rented an apartment in the Mission District on 17th Street, which was a great location for catching trams at each end of the street. Walking around this district we passed many Victorian style wooden houses.
Wooden houses are built as they favour the climate and are more pliable in the frequent earthquakes that can occur in San Francisco. The Victorian style houses are painted in at least three different colours, which highlight the beautiful architectural detail of the buildings.
San Francisco Muni
For our first outing we went to the corner of 17th and Market, where there are a group of shops, and we purchased a 3 day visitor pass for the San Francisco Muni – public transport system. The Muni is a comprehensive system that will get you pretty much anywhere you need to go around and about San Francisco. Just download the Muni Map, choose where you want to go, and hop the transport type that will get you there.
San Francisco Heritage Streetcars
With our “ticket-to-ride” and Muni Map, we set off for the heritage streetcars that would take us down to Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. These are separate from the Cable Cars and the more modern MUNI system electric trams, and they run along Market Street and Embarcadero. The heritage streetcars are a collection of fully restored vintage streetcars, trolleys and trams from San Francisco and many other world cities. We rode on No.1052.
Hopping off the tram we had a short walk to Pier 39, which is a waterfront attraction that is built on a pier. There are shops and restaurants, live music, and other attractions for visitors to the pier. Including sea lions. A lot of sea lions! In fact there are hundreds of sea lions that bask in the sun on rafts around Pier 39 in amorphous piles.
We found Pier 39 to be noisy and crowded and “touristy” so we moved over to the quieter poor cousin pier 41 to admire the views of San Francisco bay, Alcatraz Island, and all those sea lions sunning themselves around Pier 39.
Walking from Fisherman’s Wharf to Lombard Street
Continuing on our walk we found ourselves at Fisherman’s Wharf and passed by a little marina. Then walked around to Ghirardelli Square where we had some lunch. Walking back to Hyde Street, we decided to walk UP the very steep hill and see the famous winding section of Lombard Street. (What were we thinking? Actually – I was thinking that people in San Francisco must be really fit with having to walk all those hills all the time! ) There was an endless stream of people driving down Lombard Street in cars and walking up and down on the footpath. I think the residents would be pretty tired of tourists! We joined the throng of people and walked down the street. It is so amazingly steep!
After taking our photos, we walked back down to the Hyde St Cable Car turn-around, to line up for our chance to ride the iconic San Francisco cable car over to Powell St Station.
The Cable Cars operate by gripping on to a cable that is in constant motion beneath the tracks in the street, powered by an engine in a central powerhouse. The grip man operates the grip and rings the bell, and the conductor takes the fare and supervises the passengers, so the grip man is not distracted from his job. The car design necessitates the turning around of the car at the end of the line, where the car is rolled onto a turning platform and manually reversed to face the cable in the new direction of travel. Here’s a video of the turn-around at the Hyde St end of line.
Back in the 1870’s cable car lines serviced the entire city, but in the early 1900’s there was pressure to decommission the cable cars and refit the routes with electric street cars. There was opposition to this idea because people didn’t like the “ugly” overhead wires that this required. All the opposition was quelled after the 1906 earthquake destroyed power houses and cable barns, and the railroad company was able to replace most of the cable car lines with trams.
Today there are only three remaining cable car lines – all with steep gradients that are impassable to electric street cars:.
Powell-Hyde (Running from Hallidie Plaza to Fisherman’s Wharf via Powell and Hyde Streets.)
Powell-Mason (Running from Hallidie Plaza to Fisherman’s Wharf via Powell and Mason Streets.)
California Street (Running from Market Street to Van Ness Avenue via California Street.)
The “Painted Ladies”
Another day trip started with us catching the bus over to Alamo Square Park to see the “Painted Ladies” on Steiner St. These are a row of Victorian houses overlooking the park, which cascade down a steep hill offering views of San Francisco city in the background. These houses are probably the most photographed examples of Victorian style houses in San Francisco and were also featured in the opening title sequences of the 1980’s TV show “Full House”.
In a neighbourhood of Victorian style wooden houses, this old fire box alarm we found on the street corner is an appropriate reminder of times past. When someone pulls the alarm a telegraph wheel taps out a message to the nearest fire station, announcing the box number. The box looks antique, but it still serves its original purpose.
Japantown and Union Square
After the painted ladies, we hopped the bus over to explore nearby Japantown and eat some lunch. Back on the bus to the Union Square district for some obligatory shopping.
My siblings wanted to ride the curved escalator, because it looked like something the extravagantly rich would be seen on. So I took photos of them while they did, paparazzi style. Using our trusty MUNI Map, it was easy to catch another (modern) tram back to the end of 17th Street at the end of the day and walk back to the apartment.
Golden Gate Bridge
Our last day in San Francisco started with us catching the tram into town and picking up our hire car. We took a day trip in the car, starting with a drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, to the lookouts on the other side for photo opportunities.
Then we went into Sausalito for morning coffee and walked around the town a little bit.
I saw a fire engine with the surf board on top. I guess we’re in California, after all….
From there we drove to the Napa Valley for lunch at a beautiful restaurant called Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch in St Helena.
The food was great and we spent some time enjoying the gardens and played a game of horseshoes under the shade of a lovely old tree.
Until next time
That was the end of our visit to San Francisco and we continued our road trip on to South Lake Tahoe. I would like to go back to see more of San Francisco another time. Do you have any suggestions for more sights to see on my next trip?