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  • Writer's pictureDes & Sandie Nichols


Updated: Aug 16, 2023

There are few, if any, cities whose names bring such a tingle of excitement for the traveller as San Francisco. Even going back to the times before we old'uns arrived on board a smokey old Boeing 707 in the late sixties, with flowers in our hair, love in our hearts and our skinny bodies squeezed into paisley and crushed velvet, this has always been a very special place.

The thrill is that it is packed, as full as your suitcase, with so much history, so much drama and so much color - earthquakes, the Gold Rush, Chinatown, cable cars, precipitous streets, the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf, Pier 39 and, of course, its black sheep of the family, Alcatraz.

Today, this jewel of a metropolis has taken on all the glows and woes of almost every American city. The skyscrapers stand as symbols of success and affluence, reaching for the sky like standard bearers of the new technology boom which abounds here, while on the streets outside, teems of homeless lost souls stand or shuffle aimlessly on street corners, protectively holding their sorry bundles of possessions. The young, smart/casual tekkies stride energetically along the sidewalks with their Starbucks in one hand and their trendy white  i-phone listening devices in their ears, passing the tragic, rag-bag casualties in life without so much as a glance. You will not find such an extreme of rich and poor anywhere in the world as you do in the US. Just as the historic old buildings rub shoulders with the sleek new office blocks, so do the extremes of humanity on the busy, jostling streets of San Francisco.

But it is still easily one of the best destinations in the world. It oozes adventure. 

Our first stop was Chinatown for dim-sum. Anyone who knows her ladyship will know this is one of her real treats. She is an afficinado. And she was not disappointed. It is hard for some of us to understand Chinese food in its rawest form. Butchers' windows display ranks of scrawny, bronzed ducks, skewered by their necks. Outside other shops, boxes of weird, uninviting, unrecognizable produce are pored over and prodded by gaggles of elderly, unsmiling Chinese customers. Some of the things being admired looked to us more like internal organs ripped from a human corpse and left to dry in the sun on someone's windowsill. The Oriental diet finds the most peculiar things a delight. It is no good asking a local what restaurant they recommend because you can be sure it will be serving all the bits of the animal that we Western folk throw in the trash with a retch. 

But we tracked down the well-reviewed City View Restaurant hiding in a small alley off Clay Street. The trolleys raced round with gusto and with the regularity of London taxis and her ladyship was in Chinese heaven.

 The City View carts of dim sum.

 Californians have their jars of cannabis, Chinatown has its teas.

 The Hong Kong gaudiness of Chinatown

After gorging on pancake rolls and large shrimp wrapped in scrotal gossamer sacs, we strolled down to Pier 39, a tourist magnet. It still has that end-of-the-pier attraction. The Americans do this sort of thing better than anyone. It's packed with interesting fast-food stops and overstocked gift shops and is all spotlessly clean. It even has Covent Garden-style street entertainers. But the highlight as ever is the congregation of sea-lions who have made home here and which seem to be either completely comatose or fighting raucously with one another.

The best way to end the day is to take the elevator to the Top of the Mark bar at the classy Mark Hopkins Hotel which rises up from the highest hill in San Francisco. There are spectacular 360 degree views from 20 floors up, and the sunset cocktails are sensational. Try the 'Ginger Rogers' with Hendricks and ginger beer amongst other ingredients worthy of an alcoholic alchemist.

 Views from the Top

But, as ever, the lure of Alcatraz cannot be resisted. No matter how many times you have done this prison pilgrimage, it is de rigeur to board the ferry and cross the Bay to 'The Rock'. It never fails to be a fabulous day out - the boat ride looking out towards the Golden Gate Bridge, the tour of the grim cells, the stories of scary inmates and their ingenious escapes, and, at this time of year, the birds who are nesting everywhere. White Gulls in the side of the rock faces, Cormorants paired up on the ground on their circle of grass, Canadian Geese with clutches of young amongst the wild flowering flora and the fluffy Egrets, with their hat-feather plumage, in the shrubs. It is an aviary wonderland.


 Canadian Geese


If you have never done the extraordinary trip to Alcatraz, please try harder. It never disappoints. Here is a brief photo tour...

 The dock

 The cell block

 The solitary confinement cells

The cell and the hole an escapee squeezed through into the utility corridor (below), before climbing on to the roof and getting away. Three got out in this manner. No-one knows if they survived as they have never been found.

 The ruins of the Governor's house

 The Officers' Club

The lighthouse

 The school-house for the wardens' children

 An evocative watch tower

 The wardens' garden

 Inside the Laundry Room

 On the steps of the Exercise Yard

The view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Exercise Yard

 The view of the city from Alcatraz

One last thing needed to be done - a trip on the iconic cable cars. Rising up the mountainous slopes of San Francisco in these museum pieces is an experience not to be missed.


Driving towards San Francisco on Interstate 280, you will cross the Doran Memorial Bridge. Look to the right. One gaudy monstrosity hits you like a migraine. This globular abortion has become known as the 'Flinstone House', an experimental (an experiment that gloriously failed) domed indulgence painted in deep orange and purple. It is also known as the Gumby House, the Worm Casting House and the Bubble House. But we just called it the Bloody Ugly House. It isn't helped by a huge rusty dinosaur, a mammoth and even a giraffe in the garden.

Hardly a surprise then that the horrified neighbors wanted something done about it. “Yabba Dabba Doo”, they shout, “turn it into Barney Rubble - and quickly”.

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