Belfast Telegraph

TRAVEL GUIDE: San Francisco

I’ve always felt it was the lazy way to explore a city

Never had much time for them, preferred to walk or get a quick tube here and there.

Sitting on an open top tour bus for 90 minutes while you take in the delights of a major worldwide location simply didn’t appeal to me.

Until San Francisco when a tour bus turned into an ingenious form of sightseeing.

For when you only have four days to explore an enchanting city that Van Morrison once called home and is a perfect place for that post Christmas getaway in 2011, it pays to be selective with your itinerary.

Around 30 dollars will allow you to witness this sophisticated, extremely hilly but ultra cool city of San Francisco in its entirety. Go in Janaury or February and the temperatures should still be a pleasant 14 or 15 degrees centigrade. A welcome break from the freezing conditions in Northern Ireland at the moment.

You’ll take in the hippy district of Haight Ashbury, view Jimi Hendrix’s house, see the hustle and bustle of China Town, marvel at the Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill and magnificent City Hall, drive through the vast Golden Gate Park which contains the Museum of Modern Art, Academy of Sciences and Conservatory of Flowers and be left envious of the rich and famous living in the grand and ostentatious houses in Pacific Heights.

But while all these attractions are notable in their own right, they only held a passing interest for me.

I was in San Francisco – a city that is home to Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, North Beach, the 49ers, the Giants, Union Square, Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, world famous Cable Cars and of course fog!

There was no time to be astounded by museums or stare at magnificent architecture when pre-ordered tickets for the world’s most feared prison needed to be collected, bikes had to be hired, a route to the ball game devised and a place sought out in Little Italy for Sunday brunch.

Thankfully, that’s where Rex comes into play.

You see, around the world there are thousands of good concierges and indeed in some of the finer hotels you may also have great concierges. But at the four-star Omni Hotel in San Francisco, they believe they have the very best.

Rex, who is stationed beside the main reception, is a larger than life character, always eager to chat — a chief concierge who takes great delight in giving you plans and directions to make your day memorable.

There are more lavish and expensive hotels up the street on Nob Hill, but you’ll find the Omni is a four-star hotel that offers five-star service.

Situated in the financial district of the city, that can sometimes send alarm bells ringing about it being unwelcoming to the general tourist.

But in fact, the Omni Hotel on California Street is the complete opposite in that its location is one of its main strong points. For a five minute walk south will have you standing in San Francisco’s main shopping district Union Square with Macy’s, Bloomingdales and every other major shop you can think of all around you or head north 20 minutes and you’ll either be in the trendy North Beach or down at Pier 39.

The rooms are a decent size but it’s the sumptuous beds that will make the biggest impression with you.

Indeed, the beds have become such a huge hit with guests that the Omni group have actually agreed to sell beds to their clients.

But in San Francisco your hotel should only be a base — no matter how cosy the bed is. There is simply too much to enjoy.

So after some guidance from Rex, a gentle walk around the place followed by the bus tour, head for Alcatraz Landings on The Embarcadero and Pier 33.

The tour of the Rock is understandably popular so it’s well worth booking at least a month in advance on-line to avoid major disappointment.

After a 20 minute boat journey through the icy and choppy waters of the Bay, that guarded the prison during it’s time in operation between 1934-1963, you land on the island to be met with the intimidating sight one of the toughest and most unforgiving US penitentiaries.

As you walk around the prison, a former guard through headphones handed out on arrival, gives you an marvellous insight into the harsh conditions and the everyday life of an inmate on Alcatraz — from their cell, to the dining room to solitary confinement.

It is truly fascinating as you to view corridors what the prisoners called Broadway and Times Square. You’ll even get the chance to get an up close and personal look into Al Capone and Robert “Birdman” Stroud’s cell.

Once back on the US mainland, only a few blocks down from Alcatraz Landing is the tourist heaven, Pier 39. Full of bars, restaurants and shops, this place is always a hive of activity and noise — especially when the resident sea lions are in full voice. It’s also a great place to pick up a $10 fleece as San Francisco, no-matter what time of year, can suddenly drop in temperature.

The Golden Gate Bridge is only a short walk from Pier 39 but to really experience it in all its glory, hire a bike.

And if you want to save a few quid, before you travel order a GO card from Smart Destinations and this will enable you to make huge savings on bike hire, bus tours, all the major local attractions and restaurants.

The cycle over the Bridge with the strong, gusty winds blowing in your face is an absolute joy as you take in the majestic scenery and magnificent structure which opened in 1937.

Then cycle on for a good seven miles, up some steep hills, to the beautiful town of Sausalito.

Enjoy an ice cream as you walk about this quaint and picturesque town and then after an hour or so pay $10 for the ferry, along with hundreds of other cyclists, back to Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf.

San Francisco, despite being a laid back place, is a huge sports mad city and the 49ers (American Football) and Giants (Baseball), who have just won the world series, enjoy a fanatical following. It’s a marvellous experience to watch a game live so it’s definitely worth trying to get tickets for either Candlestick Park or AT+T Park.

After a game, especially on a cool night, head down to Lou’s Pier 47 Restaurant and Blues Club in Fisherman’s Wharf for some seafood chowder as the music blares down from upstairs!

But if you’d prefer fine dining in the evening then Gary Danko is the city’s most exclusive restaurant — a two month waiting list is proof of this.

The food, as you would expect from a high priced restaurant, is delicious but the service can be a little over bearing with five or six waiters constantly swarming around you ready to pounce if you so much as drop a crumb.

If you’d prefer excellent cuisine without the three figure bill, then Scoma’s, at Fisherman’s Wharf, is the perfect restaurant. While specializing in fish, it also caters for every palate.

Scoma’s doesn’t accept reservations so it’s simply a case of waiting your turn at the bar.

San Francisco, just like any other major city around the world, has a plethora of nightspots to suit all tastes and the place is a hive of activity well into the small hours at weekends.

But on a week night it can be tough to get a late night drink away from your hotel.

So, head to the bar frequented by waiters — The Globe — and they’ll only be too glad to welcome your custom.

On a Sunday morning, the locals love to relax over Sunday brunch and the best area in the city for this is North Beach (Little Italy).

Enjoy a lazy walk around its parks and intriguing streets before settling down in one of its many cafes for a delicious brunch. Bacon and Sausage pancakes with maple syrup on the side, steaming hot coffee and of course the mandatory Bloody Mary.

Despite the hills and Lombard Street, America’s crookedest street, San Francisco is a great walking city however if you do get tired there is always the world famous cable cars. But at $5 per person per journey, my advice, especially if there are two of you, is to get a quick picture on the cable car and then hail a cab, which will probably work out cheaper.

The wine region of Napa Valley and Sonoma, only a 90 minute drive from San Francisco, should definitely be on the itinerary when visiting the west coast and northern California. Napa and Sonoma though are for another day.

San Francisco with all it has to offer, deserves your full and undivided attention.

Time to hop back on that tour bus...

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