San Francisco. An American city that I always wanted to visit on the delicious West coast. It’s a young, happening city full of great cocktail bars, sunny weather plus tons to see and do. You may remember in November when we went to Cuba as my birthday present from Josh? Well, this was his December birthday trip from me: a world-wind three-night adventure to San Francisco. And since we recently booked another trip to this great city, I figured that I had best get blogging about this trip before it’s too late!
In October, Josh saw that one of his favourite bands, Good Riddance, was playing at a small venue called Bottom of the Hill in San Fran the day after his birthday. Since Good Riddance are from Santa Cruz, this was almost a hometown show for them. Josh joked that it would be hilarious to go and I said, “Why don’t we?!” He looked at me like I was nuts but I said, “Let’s book the show tickets and figure out the rest later.” So we spent all of $30 for two tickets to the show and a couple of weeks later, we booked flights and a hotel which cost a heck of a lot more.
I love love love a city that has great public transit and San Francisco may be the king of it all. Within an hour of landing at SFO, we were checking into our hotel and I am not exaggerating. SFO airport is connected to BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) which is a super easy way to travel. To use BART, you get a refillable card that you then use to the enter the subway system. The fare for your trip depends on how far you are traveling. We traveled from the airport directly on thePittsburgh/Bay Point line to the Powell Street stop which was then all of a three minute walk to our hotel. The subway took thirty minutes and cost us all of $8.25 each. The BART website is incredibly helpful and let’s you know exactly what stop you should get off of and what your fare will be so that you can plan things out (and therefore also making it not a stressful journey).
Josh had briefly been to San Fran when he used to tour with bands but this was my first time. I did a bunch of research for where we wanted to stay in the city. Everyone that I talked to said to stay in the Mission which to me sounded a lot like our own neighbourhood of Parkdale. Cool restaurants, shops and bars all within a few blocks. It sounded great. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of hotel options here so we opted to stay near Union Square. The area is a little more touristy but it was also central to a lot of the places that we wanted to visit. We stayed at Hotel Fusion on Ellis. For three nights we paid $344 USD and that included wifi plus a great continental breakfast. The biggest complaints that I read about for Hotel Fusion was that on weekends it is loud as there is a club on the ground level. Since we were staying there during the week, there was no issues with noise. I would stay here again.
We arrived in the evening, dumped our bags at the hotel and immediately headed to Smugglers Cove. Since this was Josh’s birthday trip and since he’s a bartender, he had a big list of bars that he wanted to visit. Smugglers was walking distant to the hotel so it made sense to head there. It’s a tiki bar and he’s big into tiki these days. I did not take a single photo at Smugglers. Instead, I soaked in the awesome atmosphere and drank delicious drinks, all while feeling exhausted after the day’s journey (and also trying to immediately adjust to West Coast time!). Smugglers looks like you’re inside a big wooden ship. It’s three levels and the bartender was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. I loved everything about this place.
The next day was Josh’s actual birthday and we had big plans: Alcatraz and dinner at Tonga Room. How better to spend your birthday than with prisons and tiki food/drink?! We woke up earlyish, and headed towards the water. Originally we were going to take one of the city’s famed trolleys but opted to instead walk down Market Street. We had the time and a little exercise never killed anyone. We arrived at Pier 33 for our Alcatraz tour a little early so kept walking to Pier 39 where all of the cheesy tourist shops and restaurants are. This is also where you can see the sea lions but we didn’t walk out on the pier that far to see them (I really wish that we had).
Oh Alcatraz. There is so much to say about this part of our trip. If you ask us about San Francisco we will definitely bore you to death with details about it. Visiting this former prison had not even crossed our minds until our friend Shawn told us that it was his favourite thing when he had been in SF. Since I believe everything that Shawn says, I knew that we had to go. The website recommends booking your tour tickets in advance so I did that before we flew down, making line ups and things like that much easier. I had no idea what to expect but we were on a ferry heading to an island which are two things that I really love.
There is so much that I can say about the Alcatraz tour. The audio tour is incredible. It’s narrated by former inmates and employees of the prison. Did you know that Alcatraz, one of the most well-known prisons in the US, was only open for thirty years? During that time, only about 1,500 prisoners were held here, although some of America’s worst offenders stayed here during that time including Al Capone. The first prisoners were brought here on train cars. The families of the employees also lived on the island which means kids were actually raised here. They grew up beside the notorious prison and traveled by ferry to the mainland to attend school. How wild is that?! I could seriously go on and on about this place. I loved the tour and at times when the sun streamed in, the space almost seemed beautiful.
Alcatraz Island is managed by the National Park Services so it also a bit of a nature reserve. There are incredible gardens here and apparently it’s a great spot for birding. The one thing that I should say is that it was chilly here. I am glad that we had read the warnings about the weather here so were prepared but even in a sweater, fall coats and mittens, I was still a little cold. The weather in San Francisco is pretty consistent so even if you came here in the summer, I bet it would be similar in temperature.
After the tour, we were famished (there is no food or drink available on Alcatraz Island) so we walked over to the Ferry Building for some tacos and Mexican beer. There were lots of great stalls here selling cool stuff and food, including the famous Blue Bottle Coffee.
I love seeing Christmas trees and other decorations in countries when there is no snow. I also loved that the Macy’s windows were decked out in wreaths almost resembling an advent calendar. And in Union Square people were ice skating.
For Josh’s birthday dinner, we had reservations at the Tonga Room which is located in the bottom floor of Fairmont Hotel. We walked from our hotel to the Fairmont. On the map it was only a few blocks but what that map did not show is that it was a fully steep uphill walk. I was thankful that I had not worn heels. I also then realised how fit everyone in this city must be. When we arrived at the Fairmont lobby we were out of breath and were also a little confused. Just where was this big tiki restaurant that we had heard all about? There was no signage anywhere. The man at the front desk told us to take the elevator down to floor T. What an incredible place this was! Originally it was a pool and fitness area of the hotel until 1945 when they transformed it as a restaurant and tiki bar. The 75′ pool became a lagoon and is the centre of the restaurant. In the pool is a moving boat where a band sits and plays. Throughout the evening there are “rain storms” which may sound a little cheesy and Rainforest Cafe-like but it was actually pretty cool. All of the cocktails and food are true to the tiki theme. If you ever go to San Francisco, you have to come here even just for the atmosphere.
After our awesome dinner, we headed out to do a little bar hopping. From Tonga, we walked over Comstock Saloon where we met up with our friend Max Valiquette. Comstock was a great, classy bar with a friendly Irish bartender who gave us shots from boot glasses (a warning to Canadians: shots in the US are actually two ounces, not one like we are used to.) Things went downhill from there, in all senses. After Comstock, we took a cab to Trick Dog where Josh knew some of the bartenders. I liked that their cocktail menu that was a book of records. From there, we wandered and I couldn’t tell you what divey bars we ended up in. I do know that at one of them, I had a bottle of White Ale from Hitachino Nest that I couldn’t stop talking about. We ended the night by having a drink in the lobby of Max’s hotel before rolling back to ours. All in all, it was an awesome nice and definitely a successful birthday for Josh.
Our last afternoon in San Francisco was spent with our friends Barb and Brian. Since they recently got engaged, we planned for an engagement portrait session before heading to the Mission for dinner and then to our show at the Bottom of the Hill. For the engagement photos, I wanted to capture some of that glorious California light. We headed to a great spot to get a view of the famous Gold Gate Bridge before driving to the Sutro Bath Ruins to finish up the portraits. The Sutro Baths opened to the public in 1896 as the world’s largest indoor swimming pool and in 1966, a fire destroyed the buildings. All that is left today is the outline of what once was.
Once my camera was down, we opened a bottle of bubbly there while watching the sun sink. It was all pretty dreamy.
We had a nice Tex-Mex dinner with our friends before heading to Bottom of the Hill. The Good Riddance show was pretty great. We pretty much laughed the whole time that we were there since they were the reason that we had planned the trip. At one point, the singer Russ said, “You know, when we tour around, we sometimes say that we are from San Francisco because no one actually knows where Santa Cruz is. But we aren’t from here, we’re Santa Cruz. It’s like saying you’re from Toronto. No one is actually from Toronto.” To which we both raised our hands and laughed some more. The guy standing beside Josh looked at him and said, “Really? You’re actually from Toronto?!” “We are. Came down just for this show.”
Our flight home the next morning had a stop in Las Vegas for a couple of hours. Aww Las Vegas, the city of gambling, even in the airport! I loved the Benefit Cosmetics vending machine. I also love love love the landscape as you fly over Nevada. Dinosaurs lived here, you can just imagine it.
Tips for San Francisco
• Bring comfortable shoes. And by comfortable, I mean, the most comfortable things you own. If you are like us, you will do some walking and a lot of said walking will be up and down hills. I thought that I had packed sensible shoes but ended up picking up some sparkly Converse sneakers that were a little bit better.
• The weather in San Francisco is great and pretty consistent. During the day it can be warm but it does get chilly at night so be prepared for that.
• A great way to get around the city besides public transit and taxis is to use Lyft. It’s a ride-sharing program where regular people with their own cars, can give you rides. Everything is done through the Lyft app on your phone. Drivers are screened before becoming a part of Lyft so you don’t have to worry about safety. We took a ride with a girl who lives in Oakland and she told us how it’s a great way for her to make extra money when she’s not working her regular job. The bonus part of using Lyft is then meeting locals and hearing their takes on things.