photos by Gregory Moreno | staff photographer | set on Flickr
“In San Francisco we are surrounded by dense concrete and raging traffic. The park allows me to escape the city and rekindle with nature.”
A double-decker bus full of sightseers drives by Alamo Square, the tour guide barely audible from the sidewalks below. Tourists huddle together for warmth on the top portion of the bus, which is exposed to the elements on this typical overcast San Francisco afternoon. The park is full of casually dressed neighborhood folks—people walking their dogs, taking their children to play at the park and some just lazing around in the grass. The relationship between city residents and tourists can be summarized by this fleeting interaction—tourists come and go, while those who live here go about their day-to-day lives. Yet, it was not until recently that I realized what a compliment it is for vacationers to come to the place you call home.
When I was younger, my family and I would embark on a vacation every summer. Many years we stayed in California, our home state, and went camping or did the obligatory Disneyland pilgrimage. Other times we went the tropical route and flew to Oahu or Puerto Vallarta. The trips were always a great escape from my day-to-day life and signified the importance of a summer vacation—actually going somewhere and doing something outside of the norm.
These days, however, I live the life of a broke college student, stressed over school, work, rent, bills and the like. Needless to say, there is no summer vacation in my future. But just because I cannot afford to travel to a far off destination, does not mean I cannot enjoy the fabulous city that I live in, which just so happens to be ranked the number one tourist destination in the United States by Condé Nast Traveler.
Last year, San Francisco hosted nearly sixteen million visitors, from all over the world—that is almost twenty times the population of the city. Tourists come to see our famous landmarks, eat in world-class restaurants, and explore the diverse neighborhoods. As a city resident, I know how easy it can be to take all of this for granted. But after thinking of all the people who spend their hard-earned money for a vacation in the place I call home, I am once again reminded how lucky I am to consider myself—after six years of living here—a San Franciscan.
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Which brings me to the realization that just because there is not a tropical or scenic vacation scheduled in my near-future, does not mean there is not a vacation to be had in my own backyard. Normally, it is not hip to hang among the tourists, but I happen to think tourists are on to something. There is more beauty to the city than we usually confine ourselves to. For instance, there are only so many days I can sit at Dolores Park chomping on a burrito and drinking out of a paper bag before even I get bored with the scene. So, if you feel as I do, and are craving to explore a side of San Francisco so often relegated as merely tourists traps or are looking for an exciting adventure right underneath your nose, I encourage you to come along for the ride, for there is much to see and do.
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the city’s most well-known landmarks, averaging an estimated nine million visitors each year. Completed in 1937, the bridge is an architectural marvel, with its streamlined design, distinct towers, and rusty red coloring, which was chosen partly because of its visibility in the fog.
For most city folk, driving over the bridge is a necessary form of commuting in and out of the city, the beauty of the architecture and views often overlooked as drivers concentrate on the road ahead. But, if you take the time to walk or cycle the nearly two mile long bridge, you can fully appreciate the enormity and grandness of standing atop the deck, bone-chilling Pacific waters rushing into the bay, two hundred and forty-five feet below—weather permitting. On days when thick fog, casting a grey wet haze, engulfs the bridge, it can be hard to see ten feet in front of you, much less the picturesque city skyline.
Pedestrians are allowed to walk on the east sidewalk, which is open to the public three hundred and sixty-five days a year, between the hours of five a.m. and six p.m. Cyclists can use both the east and west sidewalks twenty-four hours a day, though the hours vary for each direction.
While near the Golden Gate, be sure to check Fort Point, located along the pier under the southern side of the bridge. Originally built just before the American Civil War, the brick fortification was used to protect the San Francisco harbor during conflict. Currently open Friday through Sunday from ten a.m. to five p.m., Fort Point offers sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge in a uniquely historic setting.
You can learn all about Civil War soldiers’ lives, cannons, and architecture through a free staff guided tour offered daily. Staff members also lead a cannon loading demonstration, where you can learn about the Napoleon twelve-pounder field cannon, a massive bronze piece of artillery.
If going rogue is more your style, historical booklets are available to aid those who prefer to take a self-guided tour. The rounded arches, windowless brick stairwells, and endless corridors, paired with historical artifacts, create a time-warping effect—the perfect place to escape modern life. Be sure to come prepared for the elements by bringing a jacket, it tends to be cooler so close to the water.
Another bayside attraction, so often regarded as a tourist trap, is Fisherman’s Wharf, and to an extent, it is. Yes, I will admit the kitsch factor is a bit unbearable, but the historical significance is worth appreciating. The neighborhood’s name dates back to the Gold Rush era, though these days it is better known for being home to Ghirardelli Square, The Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Musée Mécanique.
While it is not often I find myself on the wharf, it is always a festive experience. The sidewalks are usually crowded to the point of claustrophobia, as street-side merchants vie for potential customers’ attention. The scents of sidewalk seafood and salt water combine to create an unforgettable aroma. Seagulls fly above as the smelly sea lions bark in the distance. For me, being at the piers is a most foreign experience when compared to my everyday life in the city, a welcoming escape; however, the hectic atmosphere is not for everyone. “I just can’t stand all the people,” Bay Area resident David Velasco, 26, says, “I like going to Aquatic Park more.”
One of the first things I usually do when I reach the wharf is fill up on seafood. The Fisherman’s Wharf Chowder and Crab Sidewalk Stands have provided fresh street food at reasonable prices, since long before street fare was chic. Offering fresh steamed crab, crispy calamari, and, of course, bread bowls full of piping hot clam chowder, the stands have become almost as iconic as the neighborhood itself. I enjoy grabbing my food and taking a seat along the water’s edge to watch the sailboats float by—but be warned, the seagulls can be sometimes be aggressive about food.
After a satisfying meal, I head over to the Mechanical Museum of San Francisco, known also as the Musée Mécanique, located at Pier 45. The building buzzes with music and dings, laughter and conversation. Music and noise from arcade games, and the adults and children alike enjoying them, reverberate in the big warehouse, creating a cheerful vibe. The museum is one of the world’s largest privately owned collections of mechanically operated antique arcade machines and musical instruments.
“It is a great place to visit, have a little fun, and forget about worries for the moment,” SF resident John Foley, 24, says.
Admission is free, but make sure to dig out the change in your couch so you can play a few games, like Skee-Ball, or to watch an old nickelodeon. The museum is open everyday between ten a.m. and seven p.m.
As you gaze out over the bay, through the floor to ceiling windows in the Musée Mécanique, it is hard to miss the famed Alcatraz Island over to the west.
Like other coastal vantage points, Alcatraz once served as a military fortification and later as a federal prison, which housed famous criminals like Al Capone. The Rock, as it is commonly called, though I never hear any locals refer to it as such, or at all for that matter, later gained notoriety because of the infamous escape attempts. The island was also the location of political strife. In November 1969, a group of American Indians occupied the island and demanded reparations for the treaties broken by the United States government. The occupation lasted nineteen months and fires damaged many buildings.
Today, Alcatraz Cruises offers tours of the island that shed light on this rich history. The tours start at Pier 33 and last about two and half hours on average. The daily tour is twenty-six dollars per person and includes visit to the island’s garden, an audio presentation, and a chance to experience the famed Alcatraz from the inside. For the daring, there is also a night tour offered every Thursday to Monday for thirty-three dollars per person. Since the tour starts at sunset, it is best to go when the sky is clear, to fully appreciate the speckled city skyline, gleaming and glittering in the sunlight.
For those who have never been on a boat in the bay, these tours are a fantastic way to experience viewing the city from a different perspective—a postcard perspective. Floating on the waters, I was struck by the familiar sights from an unfamiliar point of view. The Golden Gate lit up to the west, the Bay Bridge cutting through Treasure Island to the east, the lights from the skyline twinkling, and the piers, all lit up, jutting out into the dark waters.
San Francisco’s harbor is of one of the reasons why this city is famous, but there is lots to see away from the water. At just over one thousand acres, Golden Gate Park spans more than fifty city blocks and attracts millions of tourists yearly. Since its conception in the 1870s, the park has been a refuge for city dwellers, offering museums, lakes, meadows, gardens, and more.
“I’ve always seen the park as an oasis in the city,” SF State graduate John Roston, 25, says. “In San Francisco we are surrounded by dense concrete and raging traffic. The park allows me to escape the city and rekindle with nature.”
Having lived off Fulton Street and Lincoln Way, the park’s north and south borders, I have spent many days exploring Golden Gate Park, and am regularly surprised by new discoveries. The sweet smell of eucalyptus and fresh cut grass reminds me of my life before the city. Whether the misty fog creeps through the trees and into the valleys, or sunshine illuminates the lush green foliage, there is never a bad time to take a stroll through the park.
“I love to take runs through Golden Gate Park,” SF State student Brinna Benesi, 24, says.
Heading into Golden Gate Park from the east at Stanyan Street, I always make sure to walk by the Conservatory of Flowers, the oldest remaining municipal wooden conservatory in the United States, according to the park’s official website, golden-gate-park.com. The stark white Victorian greenhouse has a magnificent dome and is surrounded by pristine, manicured gardens. The lawns are great for lounging in the rare sunny summer days, and a drum circle often plays on a nearby bench.
Inside the conservatory, is a wonderland of plants—exotic flowers, ferns, trees, and the like, from all over the world, create a pleasing experience, both aesthetic and aromatic. The doors are open every Tuesday through Sunday between nine a.m. and five p.m. Admission is five dollars for adults, three dollars for students, and free the first Tuesday of every month.
Another of my favorite park getaways is the Golden Gate Park Disc Golf Course, located off John F. Kennedy Drive, right next to Marx Meadow. Created by the San Francisco Disc Golf Club, the eighteen-hole course is densely wooded, which makes for a fun, albeit challenging, game. The course is free of admission, making it a popular spot for people surviving on limited means, such as myself. Another bonus about being in a park, I can bring my dog along for the fun.
While some of the ways to explore this city can be costly, most of the best attractions in this city are free and at everyone’s disposal. So whether you are looking for a whole summer of vacation-like activities, or just an afternoon outside of your normal routine, there are many new experiences waiting. And if being misidentified as a tourist is holding you back, not to worry, seeing as there are more of them anyway.