Ten years ago this September, my wife and I started our life together as a married couple. We decided to take a trip for our ten year anniversary and the location we decided on was San Francisco.
We were in San Francisco in mid October 2013. So how did we “do” San Francisco? Well, we had a mix of pre-booked things and spontaneous things. I have some thoughts about pre-booking things that you can read HERE if you like, but for the most part I think we made some good choices about what to pre-book.
Stuff We Did
Perhaps I should start with what we didn’t do but suspect we would have also enjoyed. We didn’t get a tour of Alcatraz and we didn’t spend much time in China town. Both of these are things we have heard are worth while, but we just didn’t get these done. The US government was shut down leading up to our trip and Alcatraz is one of the sites that wasn’t open. We weren’t sure what would happen if we pre-bought tickets only to get there and have the island be closed, so we decided to pass. When the shut down ended, we were only a week or so away from leaving so we just decided to leave it. Maybe next time… Though I have mixed feelings about paying a lot to see Alcatraz. Seems like it would be a kind of predictable place. I dunno.
We pre-booked a wine tour after searching around on the Internet for a good one. Something to be aware of with wine tour (as least in the Napa Valley) is that not all tours include the tasting fees that the vineyards charge people who visit. We happened to book a tour that included the tasting fees, so this was nice as we just got driven around places and we drank. It was easy to enjoy and you didn’t lose time waiting for a big group to all pay for their tasting individually.
We booked the Napa and Sonoma Wine Country Tour through the Viator website. It was $75 USD per person and included all the tasting fees. It was an all day tour and we enjoyed ourselves. I have not done enough wine tours though to say if this was better than average, or not. So I’m just going to stop guessing. It was good for us, it might be good for you too! We drank lots of wine and were herded around like any good American tour company would do. I’m not crazy about the lack of freedom you get from tours in general. I always find myslef looking for the real life underneath the tourism. It’s like being in a tourism tunnel. You know that just out there a little, real life for people begins somewhere, but it’s not clear where it is from inside the tourism tunnel. Still though, it was a good day. We enjoyed it.
Bike the Golden Gate Bridge
We rented bikes from Blazing Saddles and biked from the Fisherman’s Wharf areas over the bridge and down into the town of Sausalito. It was…foggy. One thing is for sure about San Francisco. You need to expect fog and lots of it. We had a couple of days without fog, so I’m happy for that. The bike ride day just wasn’t one of those days. Still, it was nice though. It took just over and hour to get to Sausalito, and there is a huge downhill section decending into Sausalito so if you plan on biking both ways, or if you are thinking you’ll ferry over and ride back, be prepared to have the hill climb of your life. Us and most other people opted to take the ferry back to the Fisherman’s Wharf area after the ride over the bridge and after spending some time exploring Sausalito. The ferry ride also gives you a chance to get some photos of Sausalito and the bridge (fog permitting) from sea level and with few obstructions.
Sausalito is a nice little place to visit, though it’s also quite touristy and the shops there likely charge a premium for what they have. Still, there are high end galleries and name brand fashion shops dotted around the town. There is also a section of Sausalito that is basically a floating houseboat neighbourhood. It’s right on the water, as you might expect, and it’s kind of neat to see. It’s also quite a picturesque place with houses perched on the side of the hills. It kind of reminds me of Dunedin in New Zealand, or perhaps a Mediterranean village built seemingly perilously on the hillside above the ocean. Kristy liked Sausalito more than I did, but I’d say it was worth a look.
Bourbon and Branch
I was referred to the Bourbon and Branch by a friend at work. The tip to go to this place might have been the single best tip we had from anyone about San Francisco.
You can read more details about this place on Yelp or at the Bourbon and Branch website, but the short description is that it was a speak easy from back in the time of prohibition. Originally it had a front as being a cigar store, but after passing through secret doors, you would move into dimly lit, cozy rooms where alcohol was served in secret. The Bourbon and Branch tries to uphold this tradition as much as possible. The interior is really neat and all done up with a twenties look and feel. Even the staff dress the part. The drinks are stiff and don’t expect to order food to go with them. This is cocktails only, but some GREAT cocktails. They all seem pretty original and well worth the high prices in my opinion. Perhaps the coolest part of the Bourbon and Branch though is the way you get in. You have to get your reservation via their web page and with your reservation you get a password. You need to find the unmarked building and ring the buzzer. The door will open and someone will discretely ask for the password. If you have one, you get in and they lead you to your table.
If you at all like to have a drink once in a while, we both would highly recommend the Bourbon & Branch. It’s guaranteed to be unique and something you will remember. For us it will probably be the one thing that stands out for us for a long time.
Whale watching is something we decided just needed to happen while visiting the coast. So we did some research and landed on doing our whale watching out of Monterey. Monterey is about 2.5 hours south of San Francisco on Monterey Bay. You will need to rent a car if you are staying in San Francisco. It’s doable in a day. It’s a full day, so planning for a night in Monterey might make sense too.
For the journey there, I’d recommend taking highway 1. It’s a little slower, but it runs along the coast and it’s far more sceneic than the interstate. Once in Monterey, we took our tour with Princess Whale Watching. This was a huge highlight for me. It was my first whale watching tour and we saw whales. I could have followed them for hours and watched and watched. In fact, one of the only criticisms I might have is that it ended too soon. Still, we saw three breaches which were spectacular to see. The only person who was perhaps more impressed than we were I think was the naturalist on the microphone. This is perhaps the only other criticism I might have. She was a little much to take. Very excitable.
One big highlight from our trip was quite spontaneous. After our wine tour we decided to go down to Fisherman’s Wharf in order to see if I could get some sunset pictures of the Golden Gate. As we were running around trying to get a good angle on the bridge, we happened to walk past the fishing fleet where one of the boats were offering last minute sunset cruises around Alcatraz for only $10 each. It was the perfect chance to get an unobstructed sunset photo of the bridge. It was a small boat called the Bass Tub. Captain Erik was a great host and gave some great information about Alcatraz. Be aware that the first mate works for tips. But at $10 a ticket it’s easy to offer up a little extra for the first mate.
So my advise to you if you want to get out on the water for as little as possible. Go down to the fishing fleet which you will find along Jefferson St between Taylor Street and Mason Street. There are about 12 boats moored right along Jefferson. Some of these boats will be offering evening cruises for far cheaper than the larger tour companies do. We highly recommend the Bass Tub. Those were good guys. And if you want to enjoy a drink, bring one along. I don’t believe captain Erik would mind.
Where We Ate
I made a point of asking locals where they would recommend we eat. This is the best way I know to not end up eating at the obvious places that have jacked prices for the tourists. We had a couple of big wins from this approach. Keep in mind this is San Francisco. They fish there. In my opinion, sea food is the best San Francisco has to offer in the food department. Though we did also have a couple of good burgers. Below are 5 restaurants we would be happy to go to again. They are all recommended.
Capurro’s – A great fish house right on Fisherman’s Wharf. There is a lot down there on the Wharf and you can’t help but feel up against it trying to see through the tourist trap to get to the good stuff. Capurro’s is a local’s joint. There were locals there and we found the place after asking a fishing boat captain where the best local sea food is served. This place is the place to go. We had crab that was cooked by a wood fired oven. I’m not sure I understand how exactly they did it, but the shell was not bendy at all and it was cooked well. Maybe a little overdone in the smaller leg segments, but not enough to spoil it. Go here if you go to San Francisco, you won’t be sorry you did. Yelp agrees too.
Nob Hill Cafe – OK. This was a great little place. Loads of character. Be warned though, there is no way to walk there without walking up some of the steepest SF hills. The reward is worth it though. The cafe is small but cozy and the staff are friendly. The food is rustic as many of the best Italian places are. We shared a caprese salad as a starter. It was good, but it wasn’t what I would call traditional. Usually a caprese is very simple with tomatoes, fresh mozarella, basil, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. This caprese had all these things as well as olives, and mixed greens. It’s wasn’t my favourite caprese salad because I was expecting the more traditional thing. For the mains, Kristy had a pear and prosciutto pizza which was awesome. I had the lasagna. I love lasagna. It was one of the best I’ve had. We would both recommend this place to people visiting San Francisco. Another winner.
The Napa Valley Burger Co. – This place was in Sausalito. We biked the Golden Gate bridge and ended up in Sausalito. That day I didn’t have enough to eat for breakfast and I was bottoming out. So a burger joint was PERFECT. Visit the site and check out the burgers. They are as good as they sound like they are. A really good place for burgers and beer.
Shake’s Old Fisherman’s Grotto – This Monterey restarant ended up being about $50 a person, but it was pretty delicious. We each liked our meals. The ambiance was nice, although some might find the decor a little dated.
Miyabi Sushi – In my opinion, it’s always advisable to try sushi when visiting a seaside city like San Francisco. Miyabi was a good one. Sushi tasted fresh and was well presented which left you feeling like they know what’s up at Miyabi. Also, it wasn’t empty, which is always something you’d prefer to see with any place that serves raw meat.
A selection of other things worth seeing…
In the End…
In the end, it was a good choice for our 10 year anniversary trip. I’m glad Kristy pushed for it. Hopefully we don’t have to wait 10 years for another trip like this. We need more vacations together I think. For our next travel opportunity, my vote is east coast, a cruise, or maybe New Zealand again. We will see.