Known for its iconic bridge and painted ladies, San Fran also has a four-legged celeb, discovers Jude Dobson.
My one regret is we didn’t leave enough time to mooch around this charming seaside town. I could have happily parked the bike and swung in for a cool ale or two.
San Francisco is my kind of town, and despite the hills it’s a perfect spot to explore on foot or on bikes.
An easy destination holiday or a two-to-three-day stopover before your next adventure, its appeal is threefold: it’s one flight away from Auckland, English-speaking and it has a bunch of stuff to do year-round for all ages.
For us, it was the stopover for all ages. “Us” was the tight five of old. Pretty unusual these days, with the oldest two overseas, but as parents of older kids have often said: “Pay, and they will come.” So, there we all were — the bill-paying parents in our 50s, our 22 and 14-year-old daughters and Mr Middle, the 19-year-old son.
Arrival afternoon was spent coming to some form of consensus on what our together-time might constitute. The family’s group chat pinged away via social media from two separate rooms.
San Fran is Wellington on steroids, with generous, gracious homes sprawled over the hillsides. These beautiful old buildings coupled with trams (even the new ones look retro) make for a majestic cityscape.
Lombard St is a classic start to a walking tour. A crazy, suburban zigzag hill that cars struggle to master as tourists strive for photos.
Next stop, about a 45-minute walk away, is the home of Mrs Doubtfire. I loved Robin Williams — Mork and Mindy in the 70s, Good Morning Vietnam in the 80s, What Dreams May Come in the 90s, and then, with kids on board, I introduced them to Mrs Doubtfire.
640 Steiner St was the address named in the movie, and it’s a real house at that real address in Pacific Heights, with real people living in it — don’t knock on the door.
From here, head in the direction of Alamo Square. When you get to 710-720 Steiner St, you’ll find more gorgeous Victorian “painted ladies”, some of the thousands of Victorian and Edwardian-style homes that have been repainted from the 1960s onwards, using colours which enhance their architectural details. The ones on Steiner St were made famous when they appeared on the Full House television series.
From Alamo Square make your way to Hayes Valley. Quite my favourite district. Cute boutiques, interesting stores, pretty streets, and my favourite: a designer clothing store called Cary Lane. There’s also lots of fab wee bars and eateries. Noir Lounge was a standout. Beautifully vintage themed, it’s a place to relax, enjoy wine and divine nibbles, all while enjoying the jazz maestro on the piano out front. Or go for the full experience and head out back for a screening of the classic noir films from the owner’s private collection.
Despite the TV and movie stars, San Francisco’s grandest icon is still the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s easily cycled. Get a good brekkie in you first — we found a classic American diner that delivered great food at a good price. Then, wobble out of there and get yourself on two wheels. There are a bunch of places that hire bikes and we chose one that took us through a couple of parks and some city streets before we reached the beautiful piece of architecture that is the bridge. Once over the bay you’re downhill to Sausalito. My one regret is we didn’t leave enough time to mooch around this charming seaside town. I could have happily parked the bike and swung in for a cool ale or two. The ferry back to the city waterfront is efficient and goes right past Alcatraz, so even if you don’t book a tour you’ll have some close-up appreciation of the effort it would take to escape that hellhole.
Back cityside, you might like to wander along to Pier 39 to refuel and rest your weary bones. It’s busy though.
After an afternoon of shopping — lots of great shopping here — we made our way to China Town. I found myself laughing out loud at a shop with an eclectic mix of goods.
Ten differently labelled bottles of hand sanitiser, each with varying comical reasons for use, handcrafted bone erotic art, cannabis incense sticks — you can find anything useful or non-useful here it seems. The street is pretty at night with all the lanterns. Worth a wander.
We went Italian for dinner at Mona Lisa — a restaurant recommended by an airline friend. He was right. It was packed, and good. Get there early or you’ll be lining up outside by the Bambina.
If you’ve got access to some other wheels, get out of town for the day and head to Silicon Valley. Take a picture outside Hacker Way at Facebook’s entrance, ride those multicoloured bikes around the Google campus, or visit the playground and its huge android sculpture. Drive through Stanford University’s extraordinary campus, get out and have a wander and feel learned or buy some merch at the store.
If you want a view to cap off your San Fran visit, grab a nightcap at Top of the Mark, at the very top of the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental on Nob Hill. Have a nosy next door, too, at the magnificent Fairmont — the one with the 2.5m-tall bronze statue of Tony Bennett on the lawn. The singer has been a regular guest, having cemented the union with his 60s hit I Left My Heart in San Francisco.
If you’re lucky you might meet another famous local, as we did, having a little wander around Huntington Park. Lilou the pig was out for an evening stroll with her human. She is the only non-canine member of San Francisco Airport’s Animal Assisted Therapy programme (aimed at stressed travellers), and also visits hospitals and rest homes.
Having met her, I can see she would take your mind off things. As I watched her (nail polish and all) totter up her portable stairs to the bespoke porcine-friendly car seat for her drive home, I mused she definitely added to those great San Francisco memories.
has return Economy Class flights with Air New Zealand and United Airlines from Auckland to San Francisco from $1925, with three nights at the Hotel Carlton from $465pp twin share. (Based on November travel.)