I’ve always loved San Francisco. I’ve been coming here since I was a kid with my family–to the Exploratorium, the Asian Art Museum, the MOMA, Pier 39…it helps that I have family living an hour out, too. However, this time I decided to stay in a youth hostel. I’d stayed in a youth hostel once before in San Francisco–the San Francisco International Hostel–just for the night, as we were making a school presentation in Daly City the next day. Daly City, if you didn’t know, is the new business hub of the Bay Area, I would say. The San Fran International Hostel is great. I recommend it to everyone. It cost me $20, you get a free make-your-own pancake breakfast, there’s free wifi, a free “club” downstairs–sponsored by Rockstar and some vodka company, clean sheets, and it’s really easy to get to from BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) from the airport.
Unfortunately, on this occasion I didn’t book far enough in advance to secure the $20 rate–it was looking like an upwards of $40/night, for a shared bunk bed in a co-ed room–so I decided to go with the A.A.E. Amsterdam Hostel, on Taylor. It, too, is clean and features free wifi. Our room also included an ensuite bathroom, which was great (I went with a friend). What really irritated me was the tax appended upon check-in. I had to pay an extra $20 in tax, on top of an almost $100 room fee (for 2). I guess it doesn’t add up to much for a 2-night stay in a nice place, but as I had strictly budgeted for the trip, it came as a slap in the face. However, it ended up costing ~$30/night, which is certainly doable for most people. As it’s located just a few blocks from Union Square, it’s also highly convenient. The staff was friendly, and they even let us keep our luggage in a locked room the whole day after we checked out until we left town in the evening. SF is constantly full of tourists, both domestic and international, so a hostel is a great way to meet other travelers and practice your foreign language skills.
Speaking of transportation, you guys should really look into taking the Megabus for your next trip. I, who went to school 7 hours away from my hometown, had been driving the 411 miles for 5 years when a schoolmate who lived nearby (generally speaking) asked why I didn’t take the Megabus. I wish I had known about it 5 years ago! It’s amazing, the rates are stupid low–as they say–it’s almost non-stop, you can bring whatever luggage you can jam under the bus, you can eat, you can sleep, you can work online, they run all hours, in multiple states, and several countries (Belgium, France, The Netherlands, the UK, and Canada). TAKE THE MEGABUS! I caught it to San Francisco from Sacramento for $1. That’s cheaper than driving! There are toll bridges the whole way! I read a book instead! The night I left San Francisco, I caught the bus around 7:50PM at the CalTrain station–you can take a bus, tram, or metro there, IF THEY’RE RUNNING PROPERLY–and slept all the way to my 3:00AM Los Angeles destination for $24. It’s cheaper the earlier you get your tickets, I’ve seen tickets from Los Angeles to San Francisco for $9. The only issue is that the Megabus only stops in a couple places, and each route only runs to specific cities; therefore I can’t take a bus straight from LA to Sac, but must instead take a bus to SF from LA, then a bus from SF to Sac (pardon the abbreviations, but it gets old typing out such long names). In any event, however, the bus is way cheaper than driving, and you can do whatever you want on the way.
Beyond getting there and staying there, let’s talk about what there is to DO in San Fran. By the way, San Francisco can be called San Fran or even SF, but never Frisco. That’s something I constantly hear people say in Southern California, and it just grates on the ears. Wild SF Walking Tours even sings a song entitled, “Don’t Call it Frisco”, for this very reason. Another side note: all of Northern California does not consist of the Bay Area. There are many more regions above Fresno than the Bay Area, people! Anyways…
If you’ve never been to SF with people who live there or live near there, and you haven’t gone with your middle school and/or high school + 5 times, I’d recommend taking a tour. Wild SF Walking Tours offers free tours almost every day of the week, and alternates routes by day, so you can hit a different area of San Francisco each time. They start in Union Square at 10AM, and your options include the Barbary Coast, and the Mission/Castro District. You are highly encouraged to donate, but we didn’t, because we’re broke. The tour is fun and informative, lead by one of two guys–Wes or Jo–each with a musical instrument in hand and a song in their heart. I elected for us to take the Mission/Castro District, as the Barbary Coast tour goes through Chinatown and the surrounding area–I region I know like the history of the fortune cookie factory that is situated there, eg. by heart. We did have to take a streetcar up to the Castro District–luckily, we’d purchased a 3-day transit pass a priori; you should definitely do that. The SFMTA card is acceptable on buses, trolleys, streetcars and the metro; you’ll really need it if you plan on not having a car.
After the tour ended in the Mission District, we wandered around to see some of the famed murals, I got a delicious burrito at Taqueria Vallarta, and my friend got a fancy beer at The Monk’s Kettle, which was a pretty cool place, featuring upcycled architectural elements ranging from Victorian to Art Nouveau. To find the murals, you basically walk down any of the alleys running perpendicularly to Mission St.; they’re all in a constant state of change, with people creating new work over old. Some of the pieces are in memorandum, some are just art for art’s sake, as far as I can tell. You never knew American street art was like this.
If you’re looking to get away from the urbanity for awhile, you should go to Golden Gate Park. Golden Gate Park is a massive win for those looking for something to do, and not wanting to spend money doing it. It’s a huge green spot and houses several museums and gardens, including the de Young Museum–fine arts; the Academy of Sciences–features a planetarium and a living roof (last time I went to the planetarium, it was uninspiring); the Rose Garden–free!; the Japanese Tea Gardens–free before 10AM M/W/F!; the Conservatory of Flowers–free the first Tuesday of every month! (Otherwise, $5 for students, and $8 for those who consider it incorrect to present a student ID post-graduation); and many others. We took several buses there early one Wednesday morning, to meet the free Japanese Garden entry criterion. The garden was beautiful, although full of families who had the same idea.
After we left the garden, we watched a group of older Asian ladies performing sword dancing practice near the fountain in the center of the park. They were awe-inspiring. Definitely an unexpected boon. The Conservatory of Flowers was the next stop–each conservatory is like another in my opinion, but I still wanted to go. I love plants. This conservatory featured a butterfly garden on one side, and it was pleasant to be amongst the happy children and fluttering butterflies. One landed on my head! Bring your kids here for sure.
We hit the Dutch Windmills at the bottom of Golden Gate Park, and then walked across the street to the beach. It’s a really, really nice beach, especially being so near to a city; no trash, no barely-covered coal pits, no debris floating in the water. The water is cold and there are always waves.
Aside from public parks, you should consider going to one of San Francisco’s many museums. The SF Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is a great one, and you can definitely get student discounts. It’s currently closed for renovations, but they’re apparently having open installations all over SF, so keep your eyes open for that. The Asian Art Museum is another good place to go. Besides having a really well-designed website, the museum is free the first Sunday of every month, and has very affordable prices the rest of the time. I saw a great exhibit there on the Ramayana and the Ramakien that really stuck with me. I’ve already mentioned the de Young and the Academy of Science; the last museum on MY list is the Exploratorium.
The Exploratorium is my single favorite museum of all time. I always thought it was geared towards getting children interested in science and science-type things, but when I was in SF last, I found that not only has the Exploratorium moved from it’s long-time locale down to the Embarcadero, but they now also offer an Adult Night! It is, hands-down, the best thing ever. It’s $15, which is cheaper than the usual entry, and you don’t have to lurk over the shoulder of a small child that hasn’t yet developed the social cues to understand silent guilt “Hello, I want to try that, too” pressure. You also get free drinks! The Exploratorium is crammed with all sorts of little experiments, if you will, that explore each sense–optical, aural, tactile, and so on. They were offering a talk on color mixing the night we went, and I was rather excited–graphic designers love color mixing talks–but the lecture ended up being quite banal. Don’t waste your time in the lecture! I always feel as though I’m racing against the clock while I’m there; so much to see, so little time!
If you’ve never been, San Francisco’s Chinatown is definitely something to see. Unlike LA’s Chinatown, this one remains true to the spirit of the Chinese immigrants who arrived during the Gold Rush. The buildings are high and narrow, and they are interspersed with ornate temples. Each street has at least one bakery on it, and my favorite bakery, who’s name I can never recall, features almost life-size photos of Bill Clinton, and the story of when he came to that very bakery. They also have amazing moon cakes. Get the ones with the lotus filling, you probably don’t like red bean paste. The many temples in the area allow you to walk up and look around, and having seen temples in Hong Kong, I can tell you that the interior is exactly the same–smoky, gilt, red, tasseled, and full of doll-sized statues of the gods. You can buy a fat pack of incense for $1, and either light a few sticks, or take some home for the memories. The best restaurant in Chinatown, in my opinion, is The Four Seas; you’re seated upstairs and it’s very similar to a teahouse that I went to in Sheung Wan. The food is good and authentic, and the decor is old-fashioned and ornate.
Don’t walk alone through downtown San Francisco at night if you can help it. People will constantly heckle you, even with a male companion. I usually try to keep my eyes down when I’m out on the town anyways at night–being 6 feet tall in heels doesn’t spare you a lot of anonymity. I’ve never had any issues with anyone trying to grab me or take my purse, but like I said above, SF is full of vagrants, and it can be stressful being torn between wanting to help them and worrying about what they might do in their infirmity. If you need help finding something, ask a bus driver, because they won’t get anything out of telling you the long way around, and they probably will know.