I now spend four days a week cruising on a big bus in circles around San Francisco, pointing out cool things to visitors, teaching them about the history of the city, and trying to make them smile and laugh. And I get paid for it.
But the truth is, I’m new to San Francisco, too. And a lot of the things I tell people about, I haven’t actually experienced for myself. It’s secondhand information from the internet or people who have lived here their whole lives.
So during my latest “weekend,” I spent a day being a tourist, partially to learn how to be a better tour guide, but also to have fun.
Here’s what I saw.
1) Ferry ride across the bay
I started my “tourist day” by catching a ferry ride into San Francisco. I have heard from a couple of my co-workers that it is one of their favorite ways to get to work, and it was easy to see why.
To start with, the inside of the ferry is lovely. It feels like a luxury train car, except you’re floating serenely on the water. Cruising through the Port of Oakland is quite intimidating as huge freight ships tower over you, and giant cranes play real-life Tetris games stacking up shipping containers.
Then of course, come the stunning views of the Bay Bridge and the city.
2) Cable car ride
San Francisco has a slew of different types of public transportation. There’s buses, ferries, streetcars, two types of subways (the BART and the Muni), and of course, the famous and historic cable cars.
For the most part, the only people who use the cable cars are visitors. That’s because there’s only three lines — two of which head straight for the tourist trap that is Fisherman’s Wharf — they’re slow and clunky, and they’re more expensive than the bus and streetcars.
But you know what? They’re still kinda cool. You can lean out of them, feel the wind against your face, shoot the breeze with the good-humored operators, and imagine for just a moment that you’re going back in time.
Speaking of being transported to another place in time, Chinatown is another must-see. After being completely burnt down in the 1906 earthquake disaster, Chinatown was rebuilt with a little more intention. There’s stunning pagoda architecture, flags, lanterns, and eye-catching colors. On the corners you will find Chinese men and women busking with their high-pitched string instruments, and every once in a while someone will light off firecrackers in the street.
And of course, you’d be missing out if you didn’t enjoy some traditional flavors. My personal favorite is a little hole-in-the-wall called Eastern Bakery, where you can discover all sorts of new taste bud experiences. On my first visit, I was shocked to find that sesame seeds are a delightful addition to a sweet treat. And the incredibly low prices will make you question why you ever wasted your money on a lackluster Starbucks pastry.
4) Filbert Street Steps
San Francisco isn’t for the faint of heart. Especially if you want to make it up those hills to see the postcard-perfect views.
The famous Filbert Street Steps will take you up to the base of Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. Despite it being utterly impossible to drive a car up the hill via Filbert, it is still considered an official street, complete with street signs, a parking meter, and fire hydrants.
For residents of this beautiful little garden hide-away, the steps are the only way to access their houses. The joke I tell on my bus tour is that the mailman who walks this route every day “has the best butt in San Francisco.”
The best part of the ~430 steps — well, the two best parts — are the gardens and the views.
Much to my delight, I actually saw the Filbert Street mailman on my way up. I stopped to talk to him, and we had a good laugh over my “best butt” joke.
5) Golden Gate Bridge
Ah, yes. What is a day of touring San Francisco without seeing its most famous icon? I previously drove across the bridge to get to Point Reyes, but for this special occasion, only a rented bicycle would do. I rented a bike near my company’s bus stop on Fisherman’s Wharf and rode about four miles from there to Fort Point, at the base of the bridge.
The headwinds coming in from the ocean are just incredible. Whoever named Chicago the “Windy City” had obviously never been to San Francisco.
I pedaled up a steep hill to the vista point, and then began the 1.7 mile bike ride across to the other side in Marin County. And of course, then it was another 1.7 miles back.
6) Bay Bridge at night
The Bay Bridge is often called the Golden Gate Bridge’s “older and uglier sister.” That’s not fair at all… (I’m about to give you my tour guide routine). The Bay Bridge, at four and a half miles long, more than twice the length of the Golden Gate. It brings three times as many people into the city each day. It’s double decker, which is pretty nifty for traffic control. And, they finished painting it! (The color of the Golden Gate Bridge is its rust primer, known as “international orange”).
But, the Bay Bridge is best at night. The bridge is the medium for the world’s largest LED light sculpture, which bursts to life each night at dusk and proceeds to shimmer and dazzle until dawn, visible for miles.
This is the closest thing San Franciscans get to seeing the stars each night. And even though nothing will ever rival the beauty of a clear, light pollution–free night sky, the Bay Bridge lights are still an interpretation of beauty in their own right.
Relaxing on a pier bench, watching the city’s reflection on the water and the mesmerizing light patterns on the bridge, was a perfect ending to a perfect day in the City by the Bay.