Once you know your dates for San Francisco (assuming that you are all going now), the first thing you need to do is book your tickets to Alcatraz.
This was wise information that was passed on to me, that I now share with you. This is particularly if you plan to go in the summer months.
When we rocked up on the 18th of June for our 8:45am boat to Alcatraz island, there was a big signboard out the front saying that the next available tickets weren't until the 29th of June. Walk by that sign a day later, and we're looking at somewhere around July 9th. Not even kidding.
And make sure you get your tickets from the official ticketing page at Alcatraz Cruises, there are some other suss looking ones out there.
But back to Alcatraz, you must have heard of the famous island just a few kilometres out from San Francisco city. Also lovingly referred to as "The Rock", Alcatraz was a military fortification at birth, but functioned as a prison for most of it's working years, that housed many of America's worst criminals and gangsters back in the day.
To get there, you need to take a ferry that's serviced by the National Park Service. When you buy your Alcatraz ferry tickets online, you also have to allot which boarding time you want, the earliest being 8:45am, which is also the one I would strongly recommend. More on why later.
Brad and I had again been blessed with perfect weather and although it took a while to get the boat filled up, the 10 minute ride over was just beautiful. Fantastic views of the San Francisco bay behind you.
When you reach the island, you're given a little briefing of what you can and can't do on the island, which is actually a National Park, home to many birds and plant species. After, there's a short movie viewing giving some history to the island. Did you know that other than being a prison, in it's retirement years after, the island also played a role in politics, when Native American activists occupied the island for a good 19 months? I thought that was pretty interesting!
Whilst you could just walk the island and take in the views (it's not a long walk around), the value is in the audio tour (included in your ferry fare) that takes you around the abandoned prison.
It gets pretty crowded pretty fast though, and even though we came in on the first boat, we had to follow a line to get to the audio tours….I would hate to think how long the line would have been if we had come midday!
One of my favourite things about the audio tour, is that the narrating is done by ex-inmates and correctional officers, because there's that cool 1920's, prohibition era, gangster swag in the accent. It really made it feel as if you were being taken around the prison by the people who used to work there, when the cells were full and probably a bit noisier than they are now.
The chuckles and guffaws in the recordings, following the retelling of a story or a memory, or the heavy sighs when the officers would recall a man who was jailed in The Rock for 15 years with no visitors, it gave the whole visit so much more character.
One of my favourite stories was, funnily enough, in the dining room, which was an absolutely huge space. By law, the food served in the dining room was not only supposed to be nutritions and tasty, it was required to be well presented as well, so none of this slop stuff.
So the story goes, that one time spaghetti was on the menu, which was great for the inmates. They loved it…until it was on the menu every day…and the quality started deteriorating. The inmates weren't happy, with one inmate saying that if he was served spaghetti one more time he was going to flip…and so the next day…they started flipping tables.
Aaah. Good times.
For the most part though, I was a little surprised at the rather decent conditions the inmates lived in, as so many of the quotes appeared to paint a much harsher picture, maybe it wasn't super plush, but it looked basic and clean and I loved hearing that the inmates would play checkers with the guards, and had access to a library where many of them would end up reading philosophy.
I guess there was the occasional riot though. Not so sweet.
There are absolutely beautiful views out from the island of San Francisco, which the prisoners hardly got to see, but that you should definitely not miss out. Just a word of warning, it's incredibly windy out, especially if you decide to explore out a bit further from the safety of the buildings as I did...I was nearly blown over!
There are set times for return boats and again, the line for this got pretty long, so again, I would hate to have arrived midday and try to be leaving with the whole lot of stragglers mid-afternoon. Just saying. Get here early.
After we returned back to Pier 33, where we were subject to looking at photos of us posed in front of a faux Alcatraz in the hopes that we would buy them (I'm honestly surprised people do), we made our way down to Pier 39.
There's not really much going on down there, it's super-dooper touristy and super windy (so make sure you rug up a little), with some nice views of Alcatraz island, but importantly there are sea lions.
Sea lions! Just chilling out on a bunch of wooden platforms by the pier, where they laze about in the sun, bark at each other and roll. So freaking cute. Apparently the numbers drop in summer, but in winter there are pictures where the platforms are just piled up with them!
This guy had the right idea to chill out from the others. Clever sea lion...
From there, we strolled on down towards Washington Square to visit the famous "Mama's" to get our lunch situation sorted out. Or well, breakfast and lunch, since we merely had a few museli bars between 7am and 1pm or so. On the way we started discover San Francisco's hill situation…really worked up a bit of an appetite!
Brad had read about Mama's on a guide when doing some research online, and although we had been forewarned about lines…well…I didn't quite realise how bad it was. I mean, it was a Tuesday and at 1pm we figured most of the work lunch crowd would be wrapping up…we were so wrong.
We faced a line that stretched around the cafe and back down a couple of buildings. I was in disbelief. Whilst neither of us would normally ever wait in a line like this in Melbourne, Yelp wasn't giving me many other options nearby and we didn't know where to go…so we thought we would brave the line.
So the way the line at Mama's works is that you gotta wait right in front of the restaurant, where they tease you by having the top half of the door open, kinda like a stable (I can't think of what this type of door would otherwise be called), until there's enough space inside to join the queue at the counter to be in line to make your order.
Peeking inside, Mama's is completely adorable, like your grandmother's house, but a heck of a lot more yellow. I adored the wood blade ceiling fans, and the original menu from when Mama's first opened in 1964. Think there was hardly anything over $1 back in the day…could you imagine?!
Now once you make your order, there's still no guarantee that you'll have a table waiting for you either! Which meant after an hour and half, after watching the chefs churn out breakfast like no one's business and paying for our meal, Brad and I were evilly glaring at the table of Asian tourists who were just sitting around their table, not eating and playing with their tablets. Some of us are hungry yo.
Look, don't ask me how or why we stayed in the line that long. I thought Brad was keen to try it and he hardly ever suggests places to check out, and by the time we stuck it out for 20 minutes, it seemed like a shame to move on. So I entertained myself by yelling 'Yay! Exodus!' every time a couple of people left the cafe.
So by the time we sat down in our table, we were both a bit quiet, and rather depleted of blood sugar, but fortunately tea and coffee showed up at our table quite promptly. I had to hold back a chuckle looking at Brad's 'latte'. What would a Melbourne barista say? The foam looked just terrible. But it was caffeine, and at that point anything would do.
Our food arrived promptly after, quickly crowding our tiny table with colourful, abundant happiness. Again, why did I order three things when I know American portions are ridiculous?
Oh right, we hadn't really had anything sustaining to eat for the past 6 hours. Right.
Mama's all day breakfast menu is broken down essentially into omelettes, eggs and french toast. We had it all covered.
My 'S.O.B (South of Border)' was a fluffy, fluffy omelette wrapped around Spanish chorizo, black beans, homemade salsa and pepper jack cheese. Not so sexy when opened up, but yes, yes and yes it was delicious. I never realised I enjoyed beans so much, especially with cheese and a bit of kick from the chorizo.
Also America, I still don't understand with your obsession with potatoes for breakfast. I don't.
Brad's Huevos Rancheros came with two poached eggs, spanish rice, black beans and avocado with Ranchero sauce. I was too busy inhaling my omelette to really sample much of Brad's, but I quite liked the fluffy and tomato-y rice and the freshness of the salsa.
And although gluten is not always my best friend, I just had, had to try one of the french toast's. Had to right? Whilst the Kugelhopf did tempt sorely, I couldn't go past the chocolate cinnamon french toast with fresh seasonal berries and bananas, liberally piled on top like the prettiest red and blue bouquet I had ever seen.
Also generously covered in chocolate sauce.
Yes. Yes. Yes. Delicious. And fruit makes it healthy, no?
I'm still intrigued that french toast is such a big thing in the states, yet you'd be hard pressed to find somewhere in Melbourne, a city that I feel takes it's brunch scene much more seriously, that's well known for it. Intriguing isn't it?
Mama's was very tasty, and although I did enjoy the food, would I wait again? Hell no. Most Melbourne places would still do a much better brunch, but there's the history and character and charm that the little corner cafe has that the Melbourne joints don't have.
Tummies filled we decided it'd be a clever idea to tackle walking up Russian Hill, which I believe is the steepest hill in San Francisco. Oh my calves!
I did find it absolutely fascinating though, can you imagine what it would have been like to try and build houses here? I was also very tempted to see if it was possible to tip cars. I mean, surely you were all thinking the same thing when you see the cars on an angle like that….
After the long hike up, you're rewarded with simply stellar views, accompanied with a cool breeze.
A few blocks over, and you'll come across Lombard Street, which is famous for being zig-zaggy and incredibly beautiful with well tended flower beds in full bloom. It's hilarious watching the cars peek in and out of the flowers as they very, very, very slowly wind their way down the hill. Great if you're a tourist, sucks to be a local!
Rather than walk all the way back into town, I thought it might be fun to catch one of the cable cars down the hill. The one we flagged down had the funniest conductor and driver pair I had come across, the jovial pair sounded like a pair of cops in a comedy film!
There's a few cable cars you can catch, two of them go through Powell Street, and then split off to go up Hyde or Mason, and another goes across town, East to West (and back) along California Street. It's $12 per person, which is frankly a little steep, but as a tourist, you gotta do it right?
Unfortunately our cable car was having issues with it's grip, so after paying and squeezing onto the cable car (there's a good chance you won't get on if they can't find space for you!), we had to wait at the next stop to get a truck to push us down the hill and then again at the next stop, where they had to call someone to bring over a new grip to fix it. I was half worried we weren't going to get the full ride back, but I was very impressed with how quickly and efficiently help and services arrived (metro could learn a thing or two hey?)
And it was also absolutely fascinating to watch how they changed the grip out. Quite a lot of swinging involved surprisingly!
A short break back in our apartment, then it was off to AT&T park to watch us some baseball!
Unlike Alcatraz, you can book tickets for the baseball just a few days beforehand, like we did, at surprisingly reasonable prices. Although the official website might be out of tickets, there are plenty of legitimate sites that sell pre-bought tickets as well, Brad got our tickets for about $25 a piece from Stub Hub.
We were watching the San Francisco Giants play the San Diego Padres and it was all good fun watching and listening everyone get into it. Whilst I have a rough understanding of how baseball is played I kept poking Brad throughout to explain things to me and kept getting lost on what innings were, and why isn't he out yet, and is that a foul, and why are they taking so long?
I make a great sports girlfriend. A great one.
It did kind of surprise me how slow the game was to watch, as there's really not as much running as you see in the movies, but a heck of a lot more strikes! We at least got a few home runs though.
One thing we also weren't prepared for was how cold it got towards the end of the night! Even though we were both bundled up in jumpers and leather jackets, an extra blanket thrown over (like a lot of the other attendees had) would have been awesome.
So I was quite pleased when he headed away from the game for a bit to find sustenance. Warm warm sustenance. I was pretty impressed at the variety of food one could order, as we walked by stand after stand trying to decide what to eat.
At the end of the day though, you must simply have garlic fries. Must. And make sure your partner has some too so you don't unwittingly take them out with garlic breath. That garlicky.
And also a clam chowder for me, and a hot dog with the everything.
The game lasted quite a while, we didn't leave until just past 10pm (or possibly even later) with the hoards of people from the stadium. Tell you what though, it was a relief to hit the bed after all the walking and the early start…as we were facing yet another one the next day…to Napa Valley…!
1701 Stockton Street