The second stop on our journey on the west coast was The City by the Bay itself; San Francisco. I had never been to San Francisco before, so there was a lot of anticipation upon arriving and if I'm honest, initially, I was slightly disappointed. Being the home of Facebook, Apple, Google etc, I was expecting something more futuristic, clean and urbane (I.e. Tomorrowland). The reality of it is more grounded - it can be quite dirty and gritty in areas and it's more brick and mortar than steel and glass. However, despite the initial disappointment, San Francisco grew on me and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the city - the grittiness and quirkiness being part of the charm and attraction of the city.
One thing that really shocked me was how vertical the city is. Even though it's famous for its hills, I didn't expect it to be so tiring (especially back to the hotel). I tried to convey this in some of much pictures but they don't really do it justice. My one key advice for you if you're visiting San Francisco; bring a good pair of walking shoes. The first day will be tough, but after that your legs will get used to it.
We went in May where the weather is quite cool. During the day, the weather is pleasant, however, at night it can get quite chilly - so bring a coat or a windbreaker.
The Intercontinental Mark Hopkins
999 California St
Located on the top of Nob hill, the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins boasts an impressive heritage - meetings for the founding of the United Nations occurred here. Being located at one of the highest points in the city, the views from the room are spectacular. However, that comes at cost - the walk up to the hotel after a long day of sightseeing can be incredibly tiring. However, two cable car lines pass directly by the hotel incase you're too tired. Club Lounge access is also nice, although calling it a lounge is a bit of a stretch. The club lounge shares the space with the main restaurant, so there's no discernible sense of privacy or exclusivity, nor was there any difference in breakfast (usually club lounges have a separate, quieter breakfast area).
The rooms, breakfast and service was up to the mark for a hotel of this calibur. Despite the location on top of the hill, the location is pretty good, with a only a 7 minute walk (downhill) to get to Union Square. The only thing I can complain about is that our room was near the elevator shaft, which, whilst being soundproofed, some sound still leaked through. So, if you ever book the King Bed Junior Suite (they're all located near to the shafts), take note.
Cheesecake Factory @ Macy's
8th Floor, Macy's, 251 Geary St
Located on top of Macy's, the Cheesecake Factory has astounding views overlooking Union Square. If you've been to any Cheesecake Factory before, there's not much here to say as it's pretty similar to all other Cheesecake Factory's out there. If you haven't, apart from the titular Cheesecakes (which are numerous in flavours and varieties), Cheesecake Factory is the epitome of American cuisine. Both huge in size and the sheer variety of choices available, Cheesecake Factory is a shrine to the American way of eating. Worth a visit for the view although it's pretty noisy and crowded.
The Stinking Rose
325 Columbus Ave
One of the more unique restaurants in San Francisco, this restaurants main twist is that it serves everything with a hint of garlic. I personally love garlic so there's not much I could have been disappointed with. Thankfully, there's no real smell of garlic proliferating throughout the restaurant, so you'll emerge from your meal stink free, but maybe bring a breath mint. All the dishes we tried were enjoyable, however the garlic and onion dip that was served with the bread was the highlight for me. The prices were reasonable and the staff were friendly, so there's not much to complain about. Definitely worth a try.
Pier 39 - Fisherman's Wharf
Beach Street & The Embarcadero
No visit to San Francisco would be complete without a stop over at Pier 39 - Fisherman's Wharf. There's an eclectic mix of shops, sights and street artists to behold - so there's a lot to see and do. Well worth going too. The tours for Alcatraz also launch from here, however, unfortunately for us, they were sold out by the time we got there, so book in advance when you go.
One highlight of Fisherman's Wharf is viewing all the sea lions jostling for the perfect place in the sun - it's nice break from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco and watching them can be almost hypnotic.
Anchorage Shopping Center, 333 Jefferson St
I can't think of a fast food chain that has been hyped more than In-N-Out burger. The allure of this burger chain is now on global level - pop up stores occasionally appear in Singapore and the last time they appeared, they sold out of 300 burgers within five minutes. So when the opportunity came, I could not but try.
Personally, I don’t believe the burger lives up to the hype. The burger is just standard cheese burger, with seemingly fresh ingredients and a ‘secret’ sauce which is just a variation of a Thousand Island dressing. It’s a not a bad burger per se but it certainly didn’t blow me away as the extreme hyperbole lead me to believe, especially in the day and age of gourmet burgers. If you haven’t tried it before, I would suggest you to try; if only to see the hype for yourself and make your own mind up about it; you’ll either love it or wonder why people love it so much.
San Francisco Open Bus tour
As cliched as it is, If you don't have a car, the best way to view San Francisco quickly is through an open top bus. The views from the top of the bus whilst on the Golden Gate bridge as great but the problem we had was the difficulty in hearing the driver/tour guide in explaining the different areas - although that could just be with the specific bus/tour company that we had. In May, wind chill really affected the temperature up top and made it absolutely chilling. Bring a windbreaker to help make it more pleasant.
If you have the time and money, I would advise renting a car for a day instead.
The Westin St. Francis San Francisco on Union Square, 335 Powell St,
We were drawn to Bourbon Steak House due to a prior visit years ago which resulted in a delightful meal and memories. This reminiscence obviously made for high expectations which were unfortunately not met. They serve a wonderful trifecta of chips as an appetiser, each seasoned differently and with an accompanying sauce.
As for the main starter, the Ahi Tuna Tartare was the highlight with the scotch bonnet peppers delivering a subtle kick. Whilst the starters delighted, the mains disappointed. For a restaurant of this calibre, the steaks were astonishingly unremarkable (I had the 8oz Delmonico Rib Eye) – they lacked taste and flavour which American beef is known for and there was just something ‘off’ about the beef. The Mac & Cheese was too ‘wet’ and didn’t present much of an appetising side. To their credit, the restaurant’s service was astounding. We hadn’t actually voiced our complaints (the food was edible after all) but they had noticed the dissatisfaction on our faces and they offered to replace the steaks (we didn’t take them up on this as we didn’t want to waste) and gave us desserts on the house – I was genuinely impressed.
Would I go back? Probably - I would give it a shot as I’m willing to accept that this was a one-off disappointment. However, would I recommend it to someone else right now? No, notuntil I’m satisfied with my return visit.
101 Spear Street
Even before I told people that I was going to San Francisco, everyone had their two cents on what were the ‘must try's’ in San Francisco. One consistent mention was that I must try Yank Sing – it’d be the best Xiao Long Bao that I would ever try. Lofty claims but I was extremely curious to find out – could there be an affordable, casual restaurant that serves better XLB than what I could get in Singapore? (Din Tai Fung, Crystal Jade, Paradise Dynasty and Imperial Treasure all serve exceptionally great Xiao Long Bao here)
Much like In-N-Out Burger, it doesn’t live up to the hype. Maybe it’s good for America (and the food wasn’t bad, just distinctly ordinary) but it certainly isn’t special when compared to what’s on offer here in Singapore. I had a nice meal but I can’t honestly recommend this place if you’re coming from Asia – you will have had it better at home.
Word of advice, there’s two Yank Sings in San Francisco – the smaller one has, unfortunately, a smaller, incomplete menu. The bigger one is on 101 Spear Street. The food is exactly the same, but you get a bigger variety to choose from.
Cable Car Museum
1201 Mason St
Not your conventional tourist attraction, but I would highly recommend a visit to this museum. The museum not only houses collections, memorabilia and articles about the history of the famous San Francisco cable cars, it also serves a practical function - the cable cars are run and serviced from here too. I enjoyed it quite a lot. Spoiler alert! The cable cars aren't actually powered, they 'latch' on the constantly running cables around the city. It's spectacular to watch. It's also free, so there's nothing stopping you from going.
As a side note, after we arrived at the cable car museum, we walked to Lombard Street, Coit Tower and China Town before heading back into the city (a pretty nice looping route).. It'll give your legs a good workout. Maybe it's something you can try!
Another famous San Francisco landmark, the 8 hair-pin turn Lombard street is synonymous with the city as much as the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the cable cars. Not much can really be said about this street (it is just a street with many tight turns after all), but as part of the walking tour, it's unmissable and something to strike off the list. Do what we did and quickly take your photos and then walk on to Coit Tower.
1 Telegraph Hill Blvd
Funded by Lillie Hitchcock Coit as a gift to the city upon her death, Coit Tower is a 64m solid concrete tower overlooking the city. You can take a lift all the way to the top which gives you an uninterrupted 360 degree view of the city and bay area. We walked here from the aforementioned Lombard Street and it is quite a walk (the tower is located on top of Pioneer Park) but not an unpleasant one. If you have a good pair of shoes, its definitely worth the walk and view. (In the first picture in this post is from Coit Tower and you can actually see Lombard Street.)
The view is a just reward for the walk however, as there is only one elevator, the wait to go up and down is a tad boring. The walk back to the city starts from here and goes through China Town, it's just one straight road. Good place for dinner should you be famished.
Duelling Pianos at Johnny Foleys
243 O'Farrell St
If you’re not familiar with duelling pianos; on stage there are usually two grand pianos with skilled players on each and they will ‘duel’ for more money by playing increasingly bombastic and energetic songs with a dash of humour added in. As a result, a great night of entertainment is usually had at one of these events. In San Francisco, the preeminent one is at the basement of Johnny Foley’s Irish Pub & Restaurant.
The atmosphere, food (the apple pie at least), music and entertainment were fantastic – with the pianists were particularly skilful and jolly. How much you will get out of the night will also depend on the audience, but we went on a weekday evening and there was still a substantial crowd, so you don’t need to be picky on what day you go.
Be prepared to be called out though, as there’s a lot of audience participation. Definitely worth going.