Everything you need to make sure you get the most out of your stay in San Francisco
by dkm1981 on December 15, 2011
The city of San Francisco is split into several areas, each of which have their own way of life, attractions and things to do. Here are the main things you should know about each one and what there is to do there:-Downtown-Downtown is the main hub of the city and as a result is one of the busiest parts of it. Getting their is easy enough – you can take a bus or if you are feeling energetic it is possible to walk their from almost any other area of the city in around 30 minutes – remember how steep the roads are in San Francisco! The funnest way to get there, if you are coming from Fisherman’s Wharf, is by the world famous cable car.The main part of Downtown is Union Square, which is a shopper’s paradise. All of the big hitters are here, including many of the famous New York department stores, such as Macy’s, Bloomingdales and Saks Fifth Avenue. There are also a lot of hotels in the area and you can find a good bargain as the prices are generally lower here than in other parts of the city.-Fisherman’s Wharf-This area is the tourist mecca and is a lot of fun despite its somewhat tacky facade. The area lines the ocean front and it is here that you’ll find the ferry to Alcatraz Island (at Pier 33) and the world famous Pier 39, where the adorable sea lions have taken up residence. There are so many things to see and do here, it is hard to know where to start but you should definitely grab a bowl of clam chowder from one of the many restaurants and enjoy all the fun of the fair at Pier 39. You can also find loads of places here to hire a bike to ride over to the Golden Gate Bridge. The main thing to do though is enjoy yourself and admire the amazing views over The Bay.-China Town- As is usually the case with China Towns, this area is extremely busy and has a fabulous bustling atmosphere. It is quite a big area and the streets are lined with hundreds upon hundreds of shops selling all manner of wares and restaurants where you can grab a reasonably cheap bite to eat at any time of the day.The entrance to the area is marked by a Chinese arch way that makes a great photograph. The arch way is typically ornate and has a Confucious saying emblazoned across the top of it.-Nob Hill-I loved Nob Hill. It is a great place to walk around. It is one of the poshest areas of San Francisco and the houses show this. There are some really huge ones. It isn’t quite the high society area it once was, but you can still see how it would have been in some of the fabulous architecture in the area.-Golden Gate Park-At three miles long and almost half a mile wide, the Golden Gate Park is one of the largest man made parks in the world and it is a lovely place to while away a sunny afternoon. There are lots of things to see here, not least the amazing gardens which include the Japanese Tea garden (where the fortune cookie is said to be invented), a rose garden and a rhododendron dell which are all very pretty. If you want to be more active, you can join the thousands of cyclists and skaters who always fill the parks pathways. The park is also home to the massive California Academy of Sciences complex which is home to a living rainforest containing, amongst other things, a 210,000 gallon aquarium, an alligator swamp and 38,000 animals from around the globe.So whatever you want to do in San Francisco, there is surely an area to do it – you can enjoy nature, amazing views, the fun holiday spirit and a shopper’s paradise all in one great city.
by dkm1981 on December 7, 2011
One of the best things we did whilst we were in San Francisco was hiring a Go Car. They are ridiculously garish little yellow cars that you drive around the city on set routes, taking in the major tourist sites as well as some not so familiar ones. I can't honestly remember the last time I laughed so hard for so long!===Picking Up Your Car===There is a Go Car centre near to the Argonaut Hotel in the Fisherman's Wharf area of the city, just a block from the start of the famous cable car line. Be sure to have a look at the leaflet stands in your hotel as there will definitely be one for the Go Cars. The one we picked up from our hotel actually had a 5% discount voucher on it, so it was a double bonus.We went to the centre first to make general enquiries and to see if we needed to book and the girl at the desk was unbelievably helpful. She made a booking for us to return within the hour, but I got the impression that booking wasn't really necessary and that they have enough cars to accommodate everyone even in the height of season. You need to take your driving license with you and you need a license for everyone that wants to have a go at driving. The cars are only have two seats though so if there is a group of you, you'll obviously need more than one car and you'll need a license for at least one driver per car. The are a few forms and things you have to fill in and there is the option of taking out insurance if you wish. I realised afterwards that the insurance thing is a bit of a swizz because all it does is reduce your excess from $500 to $400 - you are insured whether you take out the extra or not. Having said that, it wasn't an expensive lesson to learn because it was only $12 extra.The car hire is $30 per hour which is quite steep, but it is so very worth it! There are various set routes you can opt for and they are generally two to three hours long. Before taking the car out you simply hand over your credit card details - they don't actually take any money until you return and they charge in part hours as well so if you go over by a couple of minutes you don't pay for the full hour. I thought this was particularly good because you didn't feel the pressure of returning at a specific time, it gives you more freedom to enjoy the trip.You need to watch a short video before you take the car out. It's quite a useful video because it tells you all the essentials about using the car and what you can and can't do in it. More importantly you watch the video whilst you are sat in one of the cars so that you can actually see what buttons are being talked about and so on. The video lasts about ten minutes and this isn't charged for - the clock doesn't start until you actually set off on your tour. The last thing you need to do is get a rather attractive helmet and you are good to go!===The Car===The car is, like I said, a bright yellow thing that stands out. We found this to be both a good and bad thing. You stand out from all the other traffic and so other road users tend to give you extra room and allowance, so it takes the pressure off a little bit. On the down side, you become a tourist attraction in yourself and so draw than more than the odd look. We found that people laughed at use, waved at us and even took photos of us during our journey. I think at one point, when we were away from the car, a motorcyclist thought our helmets meant we were fellow cyclists and greeted us warmly - I'm not sure what he would have said had he seen exactly what our ride was!The car is basically a little scooter type thing encased in a carbon fibre car shell. As the instruction video tells you, it is easily damaged, so you should be wary of parking near things. The car is so small though that parking is completely easy and if you are struggling you could probably just pick it up and move it. In fact you do have to do that some of the time because the car has no reverse gear - makes you look like a real pro when you are trying to navigate a busy car park I can tell you!One other thing to bear in mind is that the car - however fun it looks - is actually classed as a proper vehicle and so must be parked in 'proper' parking spaces and if required, parking fees must be paid. It is also worth noting that you cannot cross the Golden Gate Bridge in it. To be honest I think it would take a very brave man or woman to attempt to navigate the six lanes of the bridge in what is a vehicle that is barely more powerful than a bicycle! ===The Journey===The cars are fitted with a really good satellite navigation system which is very accurate and unbelievably helpful! The satnav is audio only though and so there is a map attached to the dashboard of the car that is actually very useful. It has the main routes that you can take on it and it is quite a detailed map with all of the street names on. The satnav also doubles up as a tour guide and the narrator advises you where to go and what you can see on the way. I thought the narration was wonderful because it is designed to be the voice of the actual car and it gives it a personality. I know it sounds odd, but it really was a lot of fun and made all the difference. For instance the car would tell you take a diversion if the upcoming road was too steep for it to climb and to slow down if you were exceeding its somewhat paltry speed limit. There has obviously been a lot of research and planning gone into the navigation because everything was perfect – there was no telling us about places that we couldn’t see or sending us down dead ends. We took a two hour route that includes stopping at two viewpoints for the Golden Gate Bridge – one of which is close enough that you can park up and walk across the bridge. It also took us through the residential area of the town which I loved because it felt more authentic. It took us around the university area and past George Lucas’ film studios and finally up to Lombard Street – the crookedest street in the world. It was here that we really laughed the loudest, we rode down the higgledy piggledy street admire the views, roaring with laughter and being photographed like we were the Beckhams – it is definitely the first time in my life that I have felt like a bona fide celebrity or a tourist attraction!===Overall===I can’t recommend the Go Car tour enough – it really is a fabulous, alternative way of seeing San Francisco and the major sights. Although it isn’t the cheapest way to get around, it has got to be the best and based on an hourly rate for two people it isn’t actually that much more than hiring a bike. You can get a long way in two hours and see a lot of the things you wouldn’t ordinarily see and, above all, you are guaranteed to have a whole lot of fun!
by dkm1981 on November 25, 2011
When you think of shopping in America, you probably don’t think of San Francisco, but it is nonetheless a great place to shop no matter what you are looking for. It has little boutiques, huge department stores and gift shops galore and you are bound to find something here that will part you with your money!For the hardened shopping addicts, you’ll want to head to the Union Square area which is much like any other city centre. There are all the high street favourites – H and M, Abercrombie and Fitch and many more besides. With space being less at a premium than say New York, the stores here are much more spread out than they might be elsewhere. Although compacted in a fairly small area, the shops themselves are huge. For those that like department stores, you could be forgiven for thinking you are actually in New York because all the big hitters are here: Bloomingdales, Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue and they are worth a day of your time in themselves. Whether you want to catch the latest fashions or you want to wander around the mouth watering food halls, you’ll be in heaven here.If you are looking for souvenirs, your best bet is the Fisherman’s Wharf area, where you’ll find every single souvenir you can imagine and then some. On Pier 39 there is an Alcatraz gift shop where you can pick up things that you forgot to get on your trip over to the island, although there are many other shops that sell the same or similar for less. One of my favourite shops was the magnet shop on Pier 39. As one who collects a fridge magnet from every place I visit, I enjoyed perusing the huge displays of magnets from those with famous sayings to those with the sights on. We even picked up a ridiculously oversized tub of popcorn magnet for my sister! In Fisherman’s Wharf there are lots of galleries, so if art is your thing you can pick up works by famous artists as well as some of the local ones too.Chinatown is another great place to shop as well although it is a different experience entirely here. The streets are lined with stalls selling everything you can imagine from traditional Chinese art to tacky gifts that will make you laugh. We didn’t try it ourselves, but I imagine haggling would be more than welcome here. There’s also plenty of places you can rest your feet after a hard days’ shopping, with lots of the Chinese cafes offering extremely good value lunch menus.So whatever you want, you will find it in San Francisco, a city that is fast becoming a big player in the shopping mecca stakes!
by dkm1981 on November 13, 2011
The Best Western Plus Tuscan Inn in San Francisco was the first point of call on our recent trip across the USA and it proved to be a great starting point that set the example for all our other hotels to follow. It’s not like the usual style of basic to mid range hotel chain that it falls under. Perhaps it’s the ‘plus’ in the name that makes the difference, but unlike usual Best Western hotels, this one has a bit of character and is a little bit luxurious but is still reasonably priced and is in a good location. ===Booking and Price===We booked our room through a hotel search website and paid around £110 per night, which was about ten percent less than booking directly with the hotel. If you are thinking of booking, I’d still consider having a look at the website (http://www.tuscaninn.com/) because they do often have offers on there that aren’t available anywhere else. The price we paid turned out to be very good value for a number of reasons. Breakfast was included for one – our invoice said it wasn’t but the hotel only offers bed and breakfast, so it is automatically included for everyone. They offer free tea and coffee in the lounge throughout the morning and the manager hosts a wine evening every night where you can join him for a glass or two between five and six. So if nothing else, the hotel saves you a fortune on drinks! ===Location===The location for me was the absolute winning factor in a list of things that made this hotel pretty much perfect for our needs. Before we booked, we were certain we wanted to stay in Fisherman’s Wharf despite its reputation as being a bit tacky and brash. The other area where there seems to be a high concentration of hotels is in the city centre around Union Square. Whilst rates seem to be a little cheaper here, the main attractions (such as Alcatraz, Pier 39, Golden Gate Bridge) are all a tram / bus ride away at the very least.The Tuscan Inn is a block back from the sea front, meaning that it is quiet and away from the hustle and bustle when you want to rest, but it is literally a couple of minutes walk away from the sea front when you are ready to explore. Pier 33, where the cruises to Alcatraz depart from, is a ten minute walk at most if you turn right out of the hotel and follow the road to the end. The main cable car turn around point is a block to the left. There are literally hundreds of restaurants, bars and attractions within walking distance of the hotel as well as a grocery store and bank. There is actually nothing you could want that isn’t nearby, the location really is that good. We considered staying in the Argonaut, which is considered to have the best location in San Francisco, but on reflection I honestly don’t think it would have beaten the Tuscan Inn.===Checking In and Staff===Checking in was very easy and quick. We were offered the choice of a king size bed of two queen size beds; unlike in many cities, space isn’t at a premium in San Francisco, so hotel rooms are a little bit bigger than their counterparts in say New York for example. We were also given our breakfast cards and some useful information about the hotel and the local area.The staff were all lovely – professional yet very friendly and helpful. They have a bell boy who will help with your luggage (whether you need it or not) and the reception staff are happy to help with any queries – we asked them for help finding a cash machine in an actual bank and they gave us more than one option and even knew which one was cheapest for drawing out cash on a foreign debit card! They are knowledgeable and are happy to help out with honest restaurant recommendations.===The Rooms===As I said, space isn’t at such a premium here, so the rooms are quite generously sized. The king sized bed we went for was lovely and comfy and furnished with dark leather cushions that gave it that extra feel of luxury. We had three really good nights’ sleep. Everything about the room was good – it was clean, well designed and had a touch of class, although I do have to say that, whilst everything was in good condition, it was a little bit dated. There was a huge television that had an unnecessary amount of channels available as well as new release movies on pay per view. There was also a fridge and a coffee machine as well as the usual arm chair and desk. The bathrooms were nice and clean. There was only a toilet and bathtub in the actual bathroom, with the sink being located outside. I thought this was a very good idea and was much more convenient and it turns out that it is the common way of laying out rooms in this area of the US. There were lots of little potions and lotions provided, which I absolutely loved as well as a hair dryer and an iron (which I didn’t use, of course). My husband was quite so excited by these things although he was impressed with the free in-room safe and the free WIFI which was fast and easy to get onto (you just ask for a password at reception).===Other Things===Breakfast is lovely. Unlike the usual buffet affair where everyone queues endlessly and sneezes at the hot food counter, breakfast at the Tuscan Inn is taken in the adjoining restaurant, where the service and food is excellent. As a hotel guest, you are entitled to either a free continental breakfast or $5 off one of their hot breakfast items, which include huge portions of bacon and eggs for around $15 or even huger omelettes for slightly less. My husband doesn’t like eggs, so we opted for the free continental breakfast which turned out to be more than enough. You get a fresh fruit salad full of strawberries, melon and pineapple with your choice of toast, muffin or croissant, fresh juice and coffee as well as a selection of jams. Everything is brought to you table and the ambience is lovely and relaxing. It proved to be a very nice way to start our day.The hotel is pet friendly, with dog treats laid out in reception and certain rooms available for those travelling with their pets. I actually found that the corridors smelt of wet dogs in places. Not a problem as long as it is only in the corridors and not in the rooms!There are two huge lifts that service all floors and unlike some places, they seemed to be always in working order and they operated quite quickly.If there is anything I have missed you can find more information at the website I gave earlier.===Overall===I would have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending the Tuscan Inn as it offers a very comfortable place to stay in an absolutely brilliant location for a good price. Factor in the breakfast and free drinks and it turns it into a bargain!
by dkm1981 on November 3, 2011
==Getting There==We flew into San Francisco’s main international airport (code SFO). After a long flight with a two hour layover in Chicago, we were too tired to try and work out a cheap way to get to the city, so we just jumped in a taxi. It's a very easy process which involves heading out of the main doors in the arrivals lounge and following the many taxi signs. Our taxi into the Fisherman's Wharf area cost fifty dollars plus tip. It is metered, but anywhere in the downtown San Francisco area will cost you about the same. I think our taxi driver was in a hurry to get back to the airport though because the ride was quite hair raising to say the least! If you want to travel in style and take a limousine, it's actually not that much more expensive at about sixty dollars plus tip and you'll find a stand to hire one of these in the same area as the taxi queue.Like I said, these are the easiest options, but there are a few cheaper (in some cases much cheaper) choices available if you are willing and able. There are three bus routes operating to and from the airport and with fares varying from $1.50 to $4 there are by far the cheapest option. Two of the three buses operate 24 hours a day, but there is a catch: it is probably the slowest way to get into the city. A happier medium is to get the BART train which operates between 4am and 11pm and costs about $5 per person. It goes from the international terminal, although there is a free airport 'Airtrain' that connects it to all of the other terminals.==Getting Around==The city of San Francisco isn't particularly big and sprawling so I'd recommend walking as much as you can so that you can enjoy the quaint and laid back neighbourhoods between the main attractions. Certainly the traffic around both Union Square and Fisherman's Wharf means that walking is a much easier and less stressful option than driving. The only problem is the steep hills that San Francisco is famous for making walking a challenge at times!There is a fairly comprehensive public transport system that includes buses, street cars and cable cars. We got a map from the tourist information booth at Pier 39, which was free and very handy. We took the bus up to City Hall and the fare was $1.50 per person (there is a fifty cent discount for concessions), which I actually thought was pretty good value. The street cars are used more by commuters and locals than by tourists, although there are a couple of handy ones that run along the waterfront and up to Union Square. The most famous option for getting around though is the Cable Car that climbs some of the steepest streets in the city between Fisherman's Wharf and Union Square. There is a comparatively hefty charge of $6 to use the cars and they are fairly small so fill up very quickly. We found that the stations nearer to the Wharf were quieter than the other end, where there were long queues.==Sightseeing==There are a number of options here too. As is usually the case in cities popular with tourists, there are hundreds of 'hop on hop off' tour routes. You can get details from tourist information or from representatives that scatter the tourist spots. There is also the very popular option of biking the bridge, which basically involves hiring a bicycle and riding across the Golden Gate Bridge. There are various packages to choose from, but the most basic is approximately a two hour round trip that will cost around $16 per person, including equipment hire and route plan. By far the most fun way to see the city though is the option we took which is to hire a Go Car. It's a little yellow car with in built satellite navigation that you drive yourself. Along a choice of set routes the car will give you directions and tell you interesting and fun information about the sights you are seeing. It was unbelievably good fun although a little pricey at around $40 an hour. I'd highly recommend it though if your budget stretches that far!
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