San Francisco was warm when I arrived. Twelve-hundred miles, five days, and two cities later, I was exhausted. I bid Martha the Rental Car adieu, took an Uber, and trekked up two hills to get to my Airbnb. I was happy to “settle in” and have the chance to explore everything I had missed the first time around. When I first visited the City by the Bay two years ago, my friend and I were on our way home from our grand adventure through South Korea and Southeast Asia. Thanks to a flight change, a delay, and a two-hour-turned-half-hour layover, we only had 36 hours in California. We squeezed in as much as we could in our short time, but it wasn’t enough. I’d been longing to get back ever since.
As I’ve mentioned plenty of times, I am no good at public transportation. So, naturally, I started off my first full day in San Francisco by getting on the wrong trolley! (Seriously. If I ever tell you I know where I’m going, I’m probably wrong.) After I sorted out that embarrassment and turned myself around, I rode the trolley to Lombard Street. Perched at the top of “the crookedest street in the world,” I could see San Francisco beaming in the sunshine. And I was very happy I didn’t have to drive down the twisty road myself! A couple blocks away, I tucked into a little Brazillian cafe for a late breakfast and took a seat at the counter overlooking the city. It was a quiet morning, and still warm—especially for February. I enjoyed a sweet strawberry and Nutella crêpe (second only to the crêpes my friend Catherine makes) and a cold brew coffee.
I walked to Ghirardelli Square next, a public square filled with shops and restaurants near Fisherman’s Wharf. The area originally served as the headquarters of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company from the late 1800s until the early 1960s, when it was converted into the retail complex it is now. It was quiet on that mid-winter Thursday morning. But I imagine the square (complete with ping pong and corn hole) and restaurant tables overflow with conversation and laughter on a summer weekend, string lights twinkling overhead.
Once I finished perusing the shops, I crossed Beach Street and hung out in Aquatic Park for a while, soaking up more sun. I moved onto the Embarcadero next, a waterfront roadway along the San Francisco Bay, and kept walking. More shops, restaurants, and tourist attractions lined either side and I had to bob and weave through the crowd as I continued down the street. I stopped only to watch a boisterous bunch of California sea lions lounge on docks in the Pier 39 marina. They first showed up in the marina in 1989 and have been happily hanging out there ever since. As I listened to them bark and splash, I realized that I had seen seals or sea lions in all three of the states I visited that week. My sea-creature-loving heart was so happy!
I meandered through the Ferry Building Marketplace to escape the afternoon heat. From the ferry dock behind the building, I looked out at the Bay Bridge and sipped a strawberry mango smoothie. When I finished, I continued wandering around the city. I had considered visiting some of the local museums, but I didn’t feel like paying ridiculous admission fees. Instead, I opted to just keep walking (and with my track record with public transportation, it was a good choice). I visited Yerba Buena Gardens and wandered through the park for a while before I scoped out a picnic bench perfect for some people-watching.
San Francisco has served as the backdrop to a number of popular TV shows and movies, and I couldn’t resist stopping by the Painted Ladies (again) or the house from Mrs. Doubtfire. Nothing beats seeing the landmarks or attractions you’ve seen in pictures or on your screen for years in person for the first (or second) time. By then, I had clocked 22,500 steps throughout my first day—at least half of them uphill. I made dinner in my Airbnb and called it an early night.
The next morning, I stopped for breakfast at Philz Coffee, a San Francisco-based coffeehouse I fell in love with on my first trip at the recommendation of two friends. The iced mint mojito coffee and cream cheese, olive oil, cucumber, and tomato topped bagel were delicious. (My mouth is watering just thinking about them!) I spent the rest of the day exploring parts of the city I hadn’t yet seen. I sought out the Hidden Garden Steps; the community-based public art project consists of a flight of 148 mosaic steps, a public garden, and a wall mural between two of the city’s blocks. I stopped after each section to marvel at the colors and designs (and to catch my breath while walking up the stairs). I spent most of the afternoon wandering along the Lands End Trail, marveling at the coast and the wildlife with each step, and continued up into the Presidio, a 1,500-acre park on a former military post. The sun was warm and the air was cool. I kept walking, all the way up to the Golden Gate Bridge, and stood in awe of the view in front of me.
I couldn’t leave town without stopping by at least one museum, so I opted for a visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum. The museum, which features the life and legacy of Walt Disney, is tucked into three historic buildings on the Presidio’s Main Post. Although I was exhausted from a long day on my feet, I was so enamored by each exhibit and interactive gallery that I gladly kept going. I wouldn’t say that I’m a diehard Disney fan per se, but I did grow up alongside his movies, his characters, and his imaginative worlds, and it was a joy to relive those stories throughout the museum.
After my detour, I found my way over to the Palace of Fine Arts and arrived smack dab in the middle of golden hour. It was stunning. The structure was originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, part of the world’s fair, in order to exhibit works of art. That evening, the lagoon glistened and the rotunda glowed in the setting sun.
I met up with my friend and her boyfriend for a late dinner that night. Angela and I hadn’t seen each other in close to six years, so it was wonderful to catch up. We met at Tommaso’s Restaraunt, a quaint Italian restaurant tucked on a quiet street in North Beach famous for having the West Coast’s first wood-fired brick pizza oven, and split the most delicious arugula and shaved parmesan pizza. Just around the corner, Angela pointed out a Banksy piece and an art installation with “flying” books and their words spilled on the sidewalk. We drove around for a bit after dinner and then stopped for liquid nitrogen ice cream (which was extra creamy and delicious). When we parted ways later that evening, I had a new list of places to explore on my last day.
There was more sunshine on Saturday and I was happy to keep adventuring. I walked over 42,000 steps in the two days before, but there was still so much of San Francisco I had not seen. Every inch of my legs ached, but I kept walking. I perused the shops in Hayes Valley, relaxed (and dog-watched) at Dolores Park, grabbed a burrito from La Taqueria, and hung out by Golden Gate Park. It wasn’t anything glamorous, but the quiet day of park-hopping was the perfect way to spend my last day in San Francisco. I had soaked up as much Vitamin D (and sea) as possible in anticipation for my return back to the cold and unpredictable New York winter.
In the evening, I picked up my bags from my Airbnb and headed for the airport. My week on the West Coast had been filled with so much adventure—but twelve hundred miles by car, over sixty miles by foot, and three states later, it was coming to an end. Leaving San Francisco wasn’t quite as complicated this time. There were no rain delays or unaccounted-for pilots or broken middle seats. I scored a full row to myself again on an otherwise-full red-eye and managed a few hours of rest on the way home.
I was happy to check my first true road trip off my list, but I was ready to go home too. As with every trip I’ve embarked on so far, I saw and experienced new things and learned so much more about myself in the process. I was unbelievably excited when I was planning this trip, but as soon as I started booking things, the nerves began to settle in. I was anxious and frankly a bit sad that I was going to travel alone for most of the trip. As an introvert at heart, I knew it would be a challenge. It was a challenge, but I did it anyway. And every moment was worth it.