San Franciso is one of many amazing US destinations now open to UK holidaymakers as the US lifts travel restrictions. So what can cruise passengers do in this Californian city?
San Francisco is a compelling cruise destination and the perfect start or endpoint for a wealth of US cruises.
As you sail into the city in California you’ll experience one of cruising’s great moments: ahead, the Golden Gate Bridge, its swags of graceful cables framing the sea, an icon as recognisable as the Eiffel Tower and Taj Mahal.
Then, the heady moment as your ship passes under the bridge to enter San Francisco Bay. Angel Island starboard, the ominous profile of Alcatraz straight ahead and, port side, the city itself, in a series of high-rises making their way up from the waterfront into the famous hills.
Unlike most of the world’s large port cities, ships dock smack in the middle of San Francisco at Pier 27 and Pier 35 on The Embarcadero.
In normal times, the port hosts over 100 cruise ship calls and more than 400,000 passengers every year. Cruises from San Francisco sail throughout the California Coast, Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico and beyond.
Given your ship’s right-in-San Francisco location, it would be a shame not to linger. A day can easily be spent exploring all the Embarcadero’s palm-lined promenade has to offer.
Dotted with attractions, the waterfront promenade is a ‘gift’ of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that, in 15 seconds, pitched buildings from their foundations, sent flames spilling into the sky and buckled freeways. One of the freeways that buckled was an elevated monstrosity that had separated the city from its waterfront.
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Quickly, San Franciscans had their say: don’t repair it, tear it down. Freed from its concrete burden, the shoreline blossomed. The promenade now stretches 2½-miles from Fisherman’s Wharf to the home of the San Francisco Giants, AT&T Park.
The 1898 Ferry Building, with its landmark clock tower modelled after the bell tower in Spain’s Seville Cathedral, is the Embarcadero’s centrepiece.
These days, it services some 15,000 ferry-riding commuters a day but, more than that, the Ferry Building has become a culinary treasure house, housing dozens of produce purveyors along with restaurants offering fine cuisine.
Beginning with the Ferry Building, the Embarcadero offers plentiful opportunities to sample San Francisco’s acclaimed dining creativity.
Stroll the promenade and choose from Vietnamese at the Slanted Door; regional flavours with a French style at Boulevard; Peruvian at La Mar; vegetarian at Greens; and celebrity Napa Valley chef Michael Chiarello’s first foray into Spanish-fusion food, Coqueta.
You want to ride the colourful F Line for sightseeing – although it’s just everyday transportation for San Franciscans. The line consists of vintage trolleys rescued by a dedicated group of streetcar lovers. Lovingly spruced into mint condition, 40 trolleys rotate in service.
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Leaving the Fisherman’s Wharf terminal, the F Line’s Powell Street stop a few minutes later is where you catch the ferry to Alcatraz, the rock in the Bay where some of the country’s most notorious criminals were incarcerated.
At the Greenwich stop, next, walk through park-like Levi’s Plaza to the base of a cliff with garden-edged staircases clinging to its face. At the top is 1933-built Coit Tower with its splendid views and interior murals funded by the government to provide work for artists during the Depression.
Continuing on, the Washington Street stop is the gateway to Jackson Square National Historic District. Spared by the 1906 quake, it’s the oldest commercial district, full of antique dealers and art galleries today.
Next comes the opportunity to explore the riches beneath the Bay at the Aquarium of the Bay. Coming up is Pier 15, home to the new Exploratorium, an internationally acclaimed museum of science, jam-packed with hands-on exhibits. The café and observation terrace take full advantage of the waterfront. And don’t miss the outdoor sculpture, a harp that changes its tune according to the wind.
Jump off the streetcar at the stop just before the Ferry Building to take the back walkway at Piers 1½, 3 and 5 that puts you within sloshing distance of the Bay. At the Ferry Building, the F Line turns to head up Market Street, where the California Street cable-car line terminal beckons.
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To visit and not ride a cable-car for a cling-clanging, hill-climbing ride would be tantamount to visiting the Louvre and skipping the Mona Lisa. The California Street track offers an un-crowded alternative to the packed Powell Street lines that deliver tourists to Fisherman’s Wharf.
The California line can take you to the gates of Chinatown, the largest settlement of its kind outside Asia, and also Nob Hill, the location of four of the city’s most grand hotels. North Beach is also worth a visit. Tucked between Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf, the city’s Italian enclave is home to the 1950s Beat scene.
Returning to the F Line, the stop at Second and Montgomery puts you in the middle of the Wall Street of the West. Two blocks farther on, the fourth and Stockton stop is convenient to the Union Square area, considered the heart of the city’s upscale shopping.
Disembark at Fifth Street to catch the tourist-packed Powell Street cable car lines that deliver you over the hills to Fisherman’s Wharf. Here, too, is the enormous Westfield shopping centre, choc-a-bloc with trendy shops and the largest Bloomingdale’s west of New York.
Hop off at Ninth and Larkin for a short stroll to the Asian Art Museum, housed in a stunning architectural reconfiguration of the city’s old main library. This stop, or the Van Ness stop coming up, is where to alight for glorious City Hall or a performance at Davies Symphony Hall, the War Memorial Opera House or the newly opened concert hall built specifically for jazz, SFJAZZ.
The F Line then dips and climbs to Dolores Street. Walk three palm-lined blocks to the historic Mission Dolores, constructed in 1776 and the city’s oldest structure. Last stop puts you in the heart of the Castro District, renowned as a symbol of gay freedom but also a vital neighbourhood where people live, work, shop and dine.
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For those wanting to go further afield, board a hop On-hop Off bus, choosing the Golden Gate Park Loop itinerary from the three offered. For an overview of the entire city, you can put all three together.
In Golden Gate Park, two ageing dowagers have long faced each other over a fountain-centred esplanade – the de Young Museum, the city’s fine arts museum, and the California Academy of Sciences. The de young’s 140ft tower affords a full-circle view of the city so wondrous it puts Coit Tower in second place while the just reopened Academy of Sciences is topped by a living 2.5-acre roof of mounds planted with native California specimens.
Dedicated since 1853 to exploring, explaining and protecting the natural world, the Academy now delivers the wonders of land, water and skies in an innovative package. Step inside an earthquake simulator on October 17, 1989, with simulated views and sounds of Loma Prieta. But wait; the views change as the simulator travels back to 1906 when an earthquake 32 times stronger brought the ‘Paris of America’ to its knees. Only to rise again, and yet again.