I became very excited when our plane finally touched down in San Francisco, a city I hadn’t visited in over 15 years but had frequented in my 20s. Memories of climbing Coit Tower, driving on Lombard Street, visiting Golden Gate National Park, touring Alcatraz, exploring Fisherman’s Wharf and attending the latest opera came flashing back like it was yesterday! As soon as I found myself walking the streets again, or should I say climbing, I felt in my 20s again…except for my body. Oh, I had forgotten how much I liked this city, with its cable cars, steep sidewalks and so many free things to do.
One of my favorite free things to do in San Francisco is visiting the Twin Peaks. I was so happy that we had the benefit of a car; otherwise, we would have had to climb all the way up the hill, something I was too tired to do after our travel day. As the car winded around the turns, I reminisced about coming up the hill in my 20s. My first time was at night and I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful San Francisco looks with all the lights on. During the day once fog rolled over the bay right before my eyes.
When we reached the top, I was once again awed by the panoramic view of this iconic city. I loved seeing the large Pride flags flying in the Castro District, the skyline, the very visible Market Street and the Golden Gate bridge, all to the backdrop of the gorgeous blue water of the bay. We stayed for awhile, despite the cold air that whipped around us, climbing one of the peaks for an even higher view, taking lots of pictures and getting reacquainted with the layout of the city. What a great way to start our trip!
How to Get There
The Twin Peaks are located at 501 Twin Peaks Blvd and the easiest way to reach the top is to drive (there is free parking at the top), however public transportation can take you close and still many others choose the hike there from the intersection of Castro Street and Market Street. If the 2 mile hike of up does not appeal to you, public transportation can get your closer to the peaks. While no bus goes all the way to the top, busses 33 and 37 will get you the closest and then there is a pedestrian walkway that will take you the rest of the way (takes about 15-20 minutes).
My absolute favorite of the free things to do in San Francisco is to go to Pier 39. I could care less about the carousel, the restaurants, the aquarium or the endless line of souvenir shops – I go there for one reason and one reason only: the sea lions!
As I walked along the Embarcadero counting down the piers, I got more and more excited as I neared 39. Finally, I was able pass the aquarium and turn right onto the pier. My friend, with whom I had just had lunch and who is a local San Franciscogian, warned me that the sea lions migrate and so they may not be there. But I remained hopeful.
As I continued walking towards the end of the pier, I got a glimpse of the sea lions and so quickened my pace with the excitement of a small child. A crowd of other onlookers had gathered and so I shuffled into one of the sides and every time the person next to me left, I moved over.
Before I knew it, I was in the center, where I stayed for several hours, watching them greet each other, struggle to find the perfect spot on the dock, jump in and out of the water, sleep and argue with each other.
How to Get There
Pier 39 is located at the corner of Beach Street and The Embarcadero and is clearly marked with flags and all kinds of signs. If you are still not sure of where you are going, you can simply follow the crowd as this pier is one of the hot spots for tourists. Or if you are driving you can park ($9 per hour) at the Pier 39 Parking Garage located just across the street from the entrance plaza. If taking public transportation the Historic F-line street car as well as busses 8X, 8BX, 39 or 47 will take you right you right to the pier.
I was so happy to see that the hotel we had booked was within walking distance of Chinatown, a place I had always enjoyed just walking around. I loved hearing a different language around me and trying different foods and people-watching – I liked feeling like I was in a foreign country. And I always thought that because San Francisco’s Chinatown was the largest outside Asia, it was the perfect place to explore China without the expensive flight.
But since I had visited San Francisco last, I had traveled to China and several other countries in Asia and even lived in northern Thailand, where there were many ancestral Chinese and many Chinese festivals, traditions and even holidays. So I wasn’t sure if visiting Chinatown would have the same affect on me as it did in my 20s.
I walked the couple of blocks over to Dragon Gate and began climbing the hill to Grant Street and began walking around and taking everything in. I loved walking by conversations in Mandarin, seeing the lanterns hung across the street, looking at the architecture of historical buildings (this is something that I hadn’t noticed in my 20s) and eyeballing all the fresh fruit for sale. I bought some plums from a man who said he got them from his yard and they were delicious.
I enjoyed a delicious vegan lunch at Lucky Creation Vegetarian Restaurant and then head over to the small fortune cookie factory where I got to see women make them and even place the fortune message inside by hand. Unfortunately, they were not vegan (contained egg) so I did not take a free sample but it was still so neat to see how fortune cookies were created.
As it turned out, my travels had not spoiled San Francisco’s Chinatown for me; instead, it made me reminisce about my Asian adventures. Somehow being the only White person in a Chinese restaurant, and one of only a few walking along the streets, hearing a foreign language spoken all around me felt familiar and I loved it!
How to Get There
Chinatown is located between Broadway and Bush and Kearney and Powell the main streets inside being Grant and Stockton streets. Dragon’s Gate can be found at the corner of Bush and Grant. Street parking is available in China Town but it is limited so it is recommended to use public transportation or walk. Both Powell Street cable cars stop along the edge of Chinatown and then you can just walk down a block or two to Stockton or Grant. Also bus 30 goes through Chinatown.
It was impossible for me to come to San Francisco without visiting Grace Cathedral, one of the most interesting Episcopal churches in the world, in my opinion, and yes I’ve been to the Vatican. While it’s true that nothing can beat the iconic Sistine Chapel, there is something special about the Grace Cathedral that I haven’t experienced anywhere else in quite the same way. Something about the energy there seems to act as a magnet for various religious practices.
What first struck me about Grace Cathedral as unique was not the beautiful architecture nor the colorful stained glass nor the fact that it played a role in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. Instead, it was the labyrinths – one outside and one inside. Labyrinths are designed to receive guidance from the spiritual world as well as the let go of troublesome thoughts or feelings. The idea is to ponder a question on the way in, be open to receive guidance in the middle and to release the question on the way out.
As I walked up the many blocks to get to Grace Cathedral (and tried not to feel badly when an older man with a limp passed me while carrying his cane – it was very obvious I was not a local), I contemplated the many wonderful memories of visiting this holy place every time I was in town. I always walked the labyrinth, usually the one outside unless it was raining, but I also enjoyed just sitting in what I consider a peaceful space.
My favorite memory, however, involved visiting on a bright sunny day and I had just finished walking the labyrinth and had sat to the side on a stone bench and began to people watch. An Episcopal wedding party began filing out of the church with such joy that was demonstrated with hugs and kisses and tears and laughter – the jubilation was infectious. A Chinese woman then walked up and, after setting down her many shopping bags, began doing Tai Chi right there next to the labyrinth. It was incredibly beautiful to watch such a graceful display of balance. Another woman joined the scene and began walking the labyrinth I had just walked. It was amazing to me that on one afternoon I was in the midst of three distinct practices within feet of each other.
This time while climbing the steps to the church, I wondered what I would experience that day. I felt the familiar cool air that seems to exist in all cathedrals around the world and decided to walk the labyrinth inside before joining the midday mass in one of the side rooms, something I had never done before. Indeed like before, however, I left Grace Cathedral with the same wonderful feeling I remember experiencing in my 20s, full of inner peace and direction.
How to Get There
Grace Cathedral stands in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood and is located at 1100 California Street and the entrance is at the corner of California and Taylor. Street parking can be difficult to get so you can consider parking at the Cathedral Garage. If you wish to avoid the very lofty parking fee of $3 per 15 minutes or $33 for 24 hour period, consider taking public transport. The California cable car will drop you off right at the corner, the 1 California bus stops a block away and the Powell-Hyde and Powell Mason cable cars stop only two blocks away. Grace Cathedral is also within walking distance to China Town so consider this when making your itinerary.