Recommendations for exploring The City By The Bay.
By Bill Vossler
If you’re planning a trip to San Francisco, you needn’t wear flowers in your hair, as the 1960s song suggests, but it behooves you to use your head, especially when planning your transportation around the area. This popular city offers many one-of-a-kind sights and attractions, and you’ll want to take in as many as possible. Park your motorhome on the outskirts and take advantage of the various transportation options.
The Bay Area Transit System, called BART, is the area subway. Be prepared; it’s noisy at times. Another option we used, the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus line, travels to more than 35 major attractions in town. (Other companies offer similar tours.) You can buy 24-hour or 48-hour passes. Hop-On, Hop-Off buses run all day, with times varying by season. The buses have open tops that afford great freedom to see many city highlights, with the wind blowing through your hair, and all the while your attendant explains the sights and may even sing a song or two.
You can take city buses to sports or arts events. Trolley cars are another option. They are hooked to overhead electric wires and operate similar to Hop-On, Hop-Off buses, with narrated tours. And don’t forget the cable cars, a true San Francisco travel experience.
We spent one week exploring San Francisco; following is a partial list of what we saw. More attractions are listed at the end of this article. It could take several days at least just to be able to say that you truly experienced the town.
Cable Car Museum
The famed “wire rope street railways,” or cable cars, will drop you at the museum’s doorstep, where gigantic reels continually wind and unwind the 1.25-inch-diameter, under-the-street cables that pull the cars around San Francisco’s avenues at a steady 9.5 mph.
After Andrew Hallidie saw a carriage, complete with horses, tumble backward down a city hill, he was moved to invent the cable car system, which began service August 2, 1873. This new form of public transportation also meant that homes and businesses could be built on San Francisco’s steep hills, something previously thought impossible.
Along with old cable cars, tools, sample cables, diagrams of how it all works, and so on, the Cable Car Museum details the history of the storied vehicles. At one point, 600 cable cars provided the city’s primary transportation. Most of the system was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake, and with the subsequent adoption of the automobile, mass transit needs were met by a city railway instead. The remaining cable cars were slated to be removed in 1947.
But then Friedel Klussmann founded the Citizens’ Committee to Save the Cable Cars, and the situation changed. “Nothing terrifies politicians more than a delegation of women marching up the steps of city hall,” she said. The ensuing ballot amendment was overwhelmingly approved, demonstrating the cable cars’ value was far greater to San Francisco than their operational cost.
Today’s four remaining cable cars hum along via their invisible tracks beneath the streets, pulled by a 510-horsepower electric motor visible from the museum deck. The cables range from 9,300 feet to 21,700 feet long and must be replaced every six to eight months, spliced at night while the system is shut down.
Golden Gate Bridge
Even super-hyped stops like the Golden Gate Bridge are worth a visit. A good way to go is to board a Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus, one of which stops at the park by the bridge every half hour, as well as at other points of interest.
The bridge, once thought impossible to build because of fog, high winds, and strong ocean currents, was completed in 1937. Constructed to withstand 100-mph winds, the International Orange-colored bridge sways 27 feet on cables containing 80,000 miles of steel wire, enough to circle the equator three times. During certain hours, pedestrians and bicyclists are allowed on bridge pathways that offer stunning views of the city and of Alcatraz Island out in the bay.
For a fee you can take a 45- or 60-minute guided tour, and/or while you’re there, try the Bridge Photo Experience. This enables you to create a virtual image of yourself or a group on or even atop the bridge. Some virtually created photos make it appear as though visitors are climbing the cables hundreds of feet above the water.
Golden Gate Park
From the name, you may think this place is associated with the Golden Gate Bridge. Not so. It was created long before the bridge and, according to the “Bay City Guide,” “Golden Gate Park is among the world’s greatest urban parks. Approximately 3 miles long and a half-mile wide (1,017 acres), this treasure is covered with grassy meadows, wooded bike trails, secluded lakes, open groves, and gardens.”
Bring a bicycle to truly see this park, or be prepared to walk quite a bit. Also note that many museums and sites within the park’s boundaries charge an admission fee. Some fees are higher for non-city residents. Highlights include the Conservatory of Flowers, modeled after London’s Kew Gardens; the newly rebuilt de Young art museum; the California Academy of Sciences; the 108-year-old Dutch Windmill; a visitors center with 1930s-era frescoes; and the Beach Chalet Brewery & Restaurant.
The park also contains the San Francisco Botanical Garden, where you can go back millions of years along a circular path called “The Ancient Plant Garden.” Flora from major geologic eras — Paleozoic and Mesozoic — grow along the path, including 30-foot-high tree ferns, conifers, cycads, and ginkos. The route traces the appearance of ferns to the development of flowering plants, with expert information from a docent helping to guide the way. The path includes the Jurassic and Carboniferous periods, showing footprints from the Age of Dinosaurs, and further back to the continent-forming Eocene series.
Yet another attraction in Golden Gate Park is the Japanese Tea Garden. The oldest form of transportation invented — shoe leather — will take you through this stunning outdoor site. With pagodas and temples set near mirrorlike ponds, a walk through this garden, with its ornamental and carefully pruned and designed bushes, is like visiting a silent cathedral. A four-acre refuge of traditional Japanese architecture, the garden includes koi ponds and bamboo trees set amidst tranquil scenery.
On Wednesdays and Fridays in the Tea House, you can participate in the rich Japanese tradition of preparing, serving, and drinking powdered green tea, or matcha, as well as cleaning the special utensils, and receiving and drinking the tea, presented by a woman in a kimono. A fee is charged to enter the garden unless you arrive before 10:00 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and the tea ceremony costs extra.
Stops on the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus line include the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, and the Chinatown gate, whose dragons usher you into the largest Chinatown outside Asia. Here your senses will be exhilarated by the smell of ethnic food, herbs, produce, and seafood, as well as foreign languages and bright lights.
Stockton Street is filled with traditional herb pharmacies, temples, fortune-cookie factories, garment factories, produce markets, seafood and poultry shops (with dressed chickens hanging in the windows), and many fine restaurants.
Shop windows also offer a feast for the eyes, exhibiting gorgeous and extremely expensive jade carvings and antiquities, which generally clash with the ATMs and SUVs seen on the streets.
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco
With more than 18,000 pieces, this museum is one of the largest in the Western world dedicated to Asian art, spanning more than 6,000 years. The artworks introduce all the major cultures of Asia. Some collections include miniature jades, lacquers, furniture, textiles, arms, armor, paintings, porcelains, ceramics, puppets, baskets, and monumental sculptures, as well as contemporary pieces by Asian artists. The building houses other special exhibits as well, such as China’s terra-cotta warriors.
A trip through the museum offers the sense of being lost; lost in a different time and culture with different deities, and tremendously talented artists. A short course titled “How Jade is Worked” can be followed near a cabinet filled with dozens of gorgeous artifacts. Items made of gold and a wide variety of teapots and ceramics show how different the lives of ancient Asians were compared to today.
Muir Woods National Monument
Muir Woods National Monument is located 12 miles north of Golden Gate Bridge on a winding road suitable mainly for automobiles. It’s best not to drive a large RV to the monument, anyway, because parking is an issue. It’s worth the visit, nonetheless.
To protect one of the last bands of uncut redwoods, William Kent and his wife, Elizabeth Thatcher Kent, donated 295 acres of redwoods to the federal government. In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the area a national monument. Visitors today can explore six miles of walking trails, many of them paved and mostly level, which loop beneath the high, thick foliage of redwoods and sequoias that peak hundreds of feet up, creating a cool atmosphere that requires a jacket. Bridges in the 560-acre park allow walks to be shortened, and paved trails are wheelchair-accessible.
Muir Woods was named for the conservationist John Muir, who said, “This is the best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world. [William Kent has] done me great honor and I am proud of it.”
Other Places To Visit
Even our full week in San Francisco left tons of sights left unseen. Here are some of them, in alphabetical order. For a more expansive list of what you can see and do, visit www.sanfrancisco.net or the San Francisco Visitor Information Center at www.sanfrancisco.travel; (415) 391-2000.
- Alcatraz Island: Located in San Francisco Bay. Includes a historic maximum-security prison now operated by the National Park Service.
- California Academy Of Sciences: Features an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum, rain forest, and 40,000 live animals.
- Coit Tower: Built in admiration of the fire fighters of the 1906 earthquake.
- Fisherman’s Wharf: Includes a Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum for family fun, a wax museum, restaurants, and many maritime shops.
- Haight-Ashbury: The area retains the uniqueness and creative flavor from the 1960s, with brightly colored buildings and unusual stores.
- Lombard Street: Known as the crookedest street in the world, because it has eight sharp turns on a 40-degree slope. The switchbacks were built in the 1920s to allow traffic to negotiate the steep hill.
- North Beach: A favorite gathering spot for visitors and locals alike, because waves of immigrants have created a diverse ethnic mix, often compared to Paris’ Left Bank.
- Orpheum Theater: A historical landmark producing dramatic events.
- Walt Disney Family Museum: Learn about the man behind the world-famous entertainment company through more than 1,000 artifacts.
- Wineries: San Francisco is a short drive from California’s renowned wine-producing region.
The following is not a complete list, as the area offers many more camping facilities. Consult your favorite campground directory or the Family Motor Coach RV Marketplace, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at www.familymotorcoachrvmarketplace.com.
Candlestick RV Park
650 Gilman Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94124
Golden Gate Trailer Park
2000 Redwood Highway
Greenbrae, CA 94904
2140 Redwood Highway
Greenbrae, CA 94904
San Francisco RV Resort
700 Palmetto Ave.
Pacifica, CA 94044