Every adventure has a beginning, and mine started with warm sunshine, soft breeze and the soothing sound of ocean waves. Sounds idyllic? Welcome to The Bay Area.
During the first few days in the U.S. we stayed with my university friends in Oakland, a sprawling city in the East Bay that’s currently undergoing rapid gentrification. Using Oakland as a base we explored some of San Francisco and the surrounding areas, and I thought I’d put together a collection of my favourite snapshots from our wanderings that I hope you enjoy as well.
This has been one of my favourite spots in the city ever since my first trip to San Francisco. Built in 1934, the Municipal Pier at the Aquatic Park used to host big waterfront events and has long been an iconic landmark offering up-close views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate bridge. There’s something very beautiful and nostalgic about its current state of decay, which is at once a memorial to the days long past and a reminder of the dysfunctional public funds system in the United States today.
Today the Pier is crumbling, quite literally, with large sections of the walkway blocked off and boarded up. To repair or replace it would cost at least $68 million, a sum that is larger than the entire National Parks Service construction budget for a given year. And so the Pier stands still, a monument to America’s public funding woes, awaiting its fate beneath restless Pacific waves.
A short walk from the Municipal Pier, at the very heart of Fisherman’s Wharf, lies another special treasure from the past. Hidden in plain sight among the overabundance of seafood restaurants and seagulls is a large disused depot housing the Musée Mécanique.
This antique arcade is cluttered with dozens of coin-operated games and artefacts from the 20th century. Everything in here is operational for as little as a couple of quarters per game. My personal favourites were the fortune telling machines and a vintage photobooth. This place is a must-see!
Keep heading east along the coastline, and you will soon come across Pier 39. This place is full of eateries, shops, and even has a vintage carousel – all huge tourist traps. The main attraction though are the sea lions sunbathing on the docks against the gorgeous backdrop of the Golden Gate bridge and the beautiful Forbes Island lighthouse restaurant.
The Coit Tower is an art deco gem built in 1933 in the memory of a local socialite and firefighting enthusiast Lillie Hitchcock Coit. The views from its upper floor are grand, there’s no denying it, but what fascinates me even more are the workers’ rights murals. I kid you not, there is even a painting of a worker reaching for Karl Marx’s Das Kapital on one of the walls! That made me giggle pretty hard.
I went up to the top of the tower last time I visited San Francisco. This time, however, we were ten minutes to late to catch it open. If you’re adamant about seeing the city from the top of the tower, make sure you get there before 5pm. (Yes, that #GirlBoss scene was a blatant lie!)
Financial District and Chinatown
If you want to get a feel for San Francisco’s city centre, take a walk through the Financial District and Chinatown. I wouldn’t go too far into the Financial District though, only far enough to marvel at the ugliness of the Transamerica Pyramid up close (seriously, who gave the permission to build that monstrosity?).
By the time we got to Chinatown we were hungry, exhausted, and in a rush to a date with puppy-sized burritos at Papalote in the Mission, so we didn’t have a proper wander around. It’s definitely worth a longer visit – last time I spent at least an hour exploring this neighbourhood, and there’s definitely much to see!
We spent our second full day in San Fran driving to different vista points in search of the best views. Twin Peaks is definitely up there on the cool views list but it’s super touristy as a result!
A better place to go for tourist-free horizon are Marin Headlands located just to the other side of the Golden Gate bridge. There are a few ways to get here: you can walk, cycle or drive over the bridge, or you can take a ferry to Sausalito and hike to the bridge from there.
On the other side of the bridge there are a couple of vista points and Hawk Hill – these are very crowded but breathtaking nonetheless. We took a road less travelled. First it took us to Rodeo Cove, a small scenic beach tucked away in a cosy spot between the cliffs, a perfect location for a Sunday picnic, stroll, or swim if you’re willing to brave the cold waters of the Pacific.
Further wandering brought us to a nearby hill where the trail head for the Point Bonita Lighthouse is located. The lighthouse is open very rarely – only Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays 12:30-3:30pm – but before we found that out, we captured some stunning (and windy!) views of San Francisco and the Bay.
On our last day in the Bay Area – after a two day stay in Yosemite that was so epic it deserves its own story – we ventured out to Muir Woods, a gorgeous redwood forest just north of San Francisco. It’s a National Monument with a $10 entrance fee for adults and has a number of trails suitable to all.
Muir Woods is one of those places on Earth where you feel so close to the nature, to the billions of years of history that have shaped this landscape, that your whole being sort of freezes up at the sheer age and awesomeness of it. Unfortunately, because of the monument’s proximity to San Francisco, it can get quite crowded. However, an inside source tells me though that if you’re after a quieter and more serene redwoods experience away from the crowds, Armstrong Redwoods reserve is the place to go.
Outside the frame
As you can see, San Francisco and the Bay Area are a real eye candy. It’s a pretty special place to live in. You get a bit of city life, a lot of nature, and the place definitely sends out all the right vibes, just take the phenomenal San Francisco Pride or the Folsom Street Fair for example.
Yet amid the gorgeous views and vast construction projects, hip vegan doughnut shops and huge outdoor events to celebrate human rights and progressive values lies an entirely different world, somehow visible and hidden at the same time – the world of homeless America.
I purposely did not photograph the sprawling tent cities or any homeless people on this trip. It felt wrong, unethical to take photos of human suffering while visiting California as a tourist on my honeymoon. One day I hope to be in a position to return as a storyteller to engage, listen to, learn from, and record some of these stories. But in the meantime I’m making California’s homelessness crisis the first social issue I will discuss as a part of In Search of Americana series in two weeks time. If you’re curious to know more, make sure you’re subscribed to rouge & coffee on social media of your choice to get the latest updates and never miss a post.
Bonus: Grizzly Peak Vista Point
Of course I saved the best for last! Grizzly Peak Vista Point in Berkley – this was my favourite viewpoint of them all. Located in the hills right above UC Berkley campus, Grizzly Peak isn’t much more than a parking lot with a small sitting area next to it but the view… The View!
My friends drove us here on the very first night of our stay. Maybe it was the jetlag, maybe tiredness, or hunger, or excitement. All I know is that the Bay Area looked breathtaking from here at sunset.
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