USA travel: How to make the most of a quick visit to San Francisco – NZ Herald

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As well as taking in the view, a bike ride across the world’s most famous bridge is a must-do in San Francisco. Photo / Getty Images

Even if you’re only in town for a short time, you can still cram a lot into a quick trip to the Golden Gate City, writes Brett Atkinson.

Day 1


Framed by the historic Ferry Building, San Francisco’s Saturday morning Ferry Plaza Farmers Market showcases fresh produce from around northern California, and there are plenty of options for a harbourside brunch. Combine fair trade coffee from the family-owned Proyecto Diaz roastery with a cardamom and orange blossom bun from the Saltwater Bakeshop, or join the queue of loyal regulars for chilaquiles (eggs with salsa and fried tortilla) from Primavera’s busy stall. It’s strictly cash only for a plate of spicy Mexican goodness.

Catch the historic F-line street car 1.5km west along the Embarcadero waterfront and board the Alcatraz City Cruises ferry from Pier 33 to San Francisco’s infamous prison island. Booking ahead online is recommended, and return departures include a self-guided audio tour of the island’s fascinatingly grim cellblock. Allow about three hours for the full experience back to Pier 33. Other Alcatraz tour options include an after-dark tour as San Francisco’s skyline segues to a Bay Area twilight.

From Pier 33 it’s an easy 500m stroll to San Francisco’s North Beach neighbourhood, first settled by Italian fishing families in the early 20th century. Take in city and harbour views from atop Coit Tower before refuelling on espresso and cannoli at Caffe Trieste, or buying a mortadella and focaccia from the Palermo II deli. In the 1950s, North Beach was the epicentre of the Beat Generation, the bohemian literary movement that was the liberal precursor to San Francisco’s hippie culture and 1967’s Summer of Love.

Learn about writers, including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs at the Beat Museum before adjourning nearby to City Lights Books. A copy of San Francisco Poems by City Lights’ late founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is an essential purchase from quite probably America’s best bookshop. Downstairs are plenty of convenient nooks and crannies for relaxed reading and browsing.

From Union Square, catch San Francisco’s Powell-Hyde cable car up Powell St to the heights of Nob Hill. Options for a pre-dinner cocktail include the tiki-bar ambience of the Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel – monsoon rain showers sweep across the bar’s indoor “lagoon” every 20 minutes – or combining million-dollar after-dark views with live jazz and a 19th-floor martini at the Top of the Mark bar in the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Nearby spots for dinner include wood-fired pizza at Del Popolo or Japanese flavours at Izaka ya Yoki.

Cable cars and crammed hilly streets are signature sights of the city. Photo / Getty Images
Cable cars and crammed hilly streets are signature sights of the city. Photo / Getty Images

Day 2


After an American diner-style breakfast at the Sutter Street Cafe – try a plate-covering omelette or a stonking breakfast wrap – catch the Powell-Hyde cable car north to Blazing Saddles’ location near Fisherman’s Wharf. Rent a Blazing Saddles bike to embark on the mainly flat 13km adventure across the Golden Gate bridge to the seaside village of Sausalito, before catching one of the frequent ferries back across to Fisherman’s Wharf. Guided bike tours taking around three hours are also available, along with e-bikes making it a straightforward journey along San Francisco’s Embarcadero waterfront and across the Golden Gate bridge.

After checking out the California sea lions mooching around touristy Fisherman’s Wharf –
aka Pier 39 – catch the F-line street car back to the Ferry Building and transfer to the Blue, Red or Yellow line and continue southwest to the Mission District. San Francisco’s historic hub of Hispanic culture is a great spot for a late lunch. Try a lengua (beef tongue) burrito at La Taqueria before exploring the street art and murals enlivening the neighbourhood’s alleys and laneways. Search “Mission District Murals” on for the locations of the best of the Mission’s colorful outdoor galleries.

Catch an Uber around 4km northwest to Haight-Ashbury, the incense-infused intersection that was the hub of San Francisco’s Summer of Love in 1967. Head shops, vintage clothing stores and long-established businesses such as the Bound Together Anarchist Bookstore all hint at Haight-Ashbury’s collectivist and LSD-fuelled past, and there are occasional live gigs at Amoeba Records’ sprawling store on the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park.

After buying tunes from famous San Francisco bands including the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Dead Kennedys, continue downhill to the Lower Haight neighbourhood for good-value dining from around the world, and the city’s best craft beer meets dive-bar vibe at the legendary Toronado. A grilled gourmet sausage from Berliner Berliner’s hole-in-the-wall location next door is a fine way to top off a San Francisco sojourn.

Getting There:

Air New Zealand has direct flights from Auckland to San Francisco.

Where to stay:

With decor inspired by the Beat Generation, Hotel Emblem is conveniently located near Union Square. Look forward to occasional poetry slam events in the hotel’s Obscenity Bar & Lounge.

For more travel ideas, see

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