Exploring California: San Francisco
This post is the first in a series, that I will be posting about my road trip through California as they are so many wonderful things I want to share with you. The series takes you through the road trip I did in April (sorry work/real life go in way that first time been able to sit down and blog).
I was very lucky to be able to able to go away with my sister and her family on a road trip down the Californian coast, starting in San Francisco ending in San Diego. I have been to Cali before but only to Los Angeles before, so this was very much about exploring new places and experiences.
To be clear this wasn’t a bit blow out road trip down the coast (that will have to wait until another holiday) as with my nephew who is only five (and loves animals that will be a key thing to remember later) and only had 2 weeks to cover a lot of ground. In addition work life despite the 11 hour flight and 8 hour time difference was still front and centre in my everyday, ultimately it meant as much as I was away on ‘holiday’, I was having to wake up early and do at least four hours of work each morning, to combat the time difference. So I was at a table (normally with a kombucha or cold brew) at 4am to 9.30am roughly each day, with a bit of work emails/calls through the day. So this was a great holiday but not the most relaxing, action packed, big Cali adventure. Nevertheless, it was a true exploration and have so many wonderful memories and recommendations etc. that I was to share with you all, starting with San Francisco.
We fly straight into San Francisco and the flight was actually pretty good, brought snacks (as don’t trust there to be good plant-based food on planes) and to help fight jet lag drunk tonnes of water and powered through and stayed up. Landed now having been up 20 hours and have to say the energy was flowing. We went right into one of those truly American massive SUVs (and I mean massive, a truck would of been a better description of this SUV – Brother-in-law has a passion for large ‘cars’) and drove right into the centre of San Fran. The views of the bay were clear from the on ram of the freeway, as it was late afternoon it was still bright enough to just sit back and look at the city as it went past the window. I did have to do a little smile when we went up the classic San Fran steep hill lined with house (Always think Mrs Doubtfire).
We were staying in an Airbnb in a lovely Edwardian house in Lower Pacific Heights, it was such an amazing house. With great views across the city, with a great balcony you could sit on and a lovely open plan kitchen. With these views over the city it was a great way to really see the city and all the different aspect from the skyscraper and architecture to the hills and greenery to ultimately down to the bay and the water. Definitely would consider this house a dream house, something to aim for and and inspire me greatly too, but motivating me whilst working to keep aiming higher and bigger and ultimately working for that dollar $ so to speak.
After taking in the glory of the house and taking all our many suitcases up many flights of stairs – welcome to house sitting on hill. It was time to get some food for our first night in SF. So if any of you have figure me out well enough by now, you will know the Whole Foods is a weakness and it seems to be a family trait, so googled the nearest one and off my sister went to get supplies in. First night was able exploring local food some great Sonoma Pinot Noir, fresh veggie, chips and guacamole to keep us going before we really just wanted to go to sleep after a very long day.
My sister was very kind and know our shared weakness for not only Whole Foods but Kombucha, she good me stocked up for my early morning starts and just because really. Therefore got a number of my favourite GTS kombucha (GTS – so sad can only get it in the States – love the gingerade, trilogy too many to name really), but also found some interesting new products to try: Kevita Apple Cider Vinegar Tonic with Turmeric and Ginger (Loved it – I have AVC every morning even take it with me when I travel so great to mix it up with this tonic which was very smooth), WFM Spiced Golden Milk (think chai latte but richer with the use of cashews), Rebbl Maca Cold Brew (winning combination, again wish was in the UK) also found some great mini blueberry muffins. I have to say in San Fransisco when still suffering from Jet Lag it was the combination of waking up knowing I could try a new drink each day and have a mini muffin that helped alongside finding out that as I worked I also get to see a gorgeous view over the bay and sunrise which just allowed me to not feel like I was suffering but appreciate where I was in that exact moment. To look up from my laptop and breathe, take in the sights and experience. To be honest though that was maybe a few minutes of the hours at my laptop and on conference calls, but it helped me manage that stress. That view certainly did, how couldn’t it what you are looking at this over your laptop?
All of these were perfect for when I was up and keep me going until family got up and the really food action began, when we went out for late breakfast/brunch. Now I must confess my sister and I are obsessed and I don’t use that word lightly with brunch in general but I know no country who does it better than America. So I got tasked pre-holiday to do a bit of research and find some great places for breakfast and I am very happy to say they didn’t disappoint.
Firstly we went to and went back again it was that good that my nephew demanded we go, to Brenda’s Soul Food. Yes, you will have to wait – it is America and it is a popular restaurant but is worth it I promise. Put you name on the chalkboard, go get a coffee and wait in the sunshine, it will go faster than you think. Whilst you wait you should also think about the very many options that you have (okay no so many if you are plant-based) but this food really is soul food, from beignets to eggs and pancakes. It is a great place especially if you have a mix of plant-based and meat-eater (was going to refer to them as normal but that doesn’t feel right), as you have great food for both of them. When doing my research I looked up the menu so I pretty much knew what I was going for and it was all about the Creole Tofu Hash – oh my goodness it was good. Made with fresh big chunks of tofu, peppers, corn, potatoes, mushrooms and wilted spinach, it packed a big veggie punch – that would of been enough but the spicing with blackened Creole flavouring just took it up several taste notches. Was so good had it twice whilst visiting and am currently during recipe testing to recreate but sadly feel like I will not. I also have to give a mention to the special mimosa they do, had a great guava one and also tried the blueberry, makes it a so more refreshing but not too sweet as well as use a lovely dry sparkling wine with it. I can’t recommend this restaurant enough. Food, decoration, atmosphere and service all just came together for such a lovely experience. Just also been able to go for lunch or dinner as had a great looking tofu sandwich on the menu.
That first day, after a very nice healthy and hearty meal it was about just taking in the city. We did decide to walk, which the area around Brenda’s and City Hall isn’t the nicest on the weekend. Nevertheless, we eventually we got to Union Square and any trip to San Francisco for the first time wouldn’t be complete without a cable car ride. I will warn you all now, it is a all for the tourists and the queue especially at the bottom of Union Square are massive and long. I can’t tell you how long we waiting but definitely over an hour. We were (somewhat) happy as we in the sun, playing game, talking with others in the queue and also the entertainment of a very loud and ‘righteous’ preacher and a drummer. I have to say that the Cable cars are great piece of history and did make me think of my grandparents who stayed in San Francisco for a while. Eventually we go on a jammed pack car and I was literally hanging off but I was so happy with the smell of brakes and the wind in my hair heading down for Fishermans Wharf. Again a bit of ironic San Fran. It was completely bustling with people but all seems so happy it had a great atmosphere. We explored for a bit and a personal highlight was going to an vintage arcade, Musee Mecaninque where both the adults and my nephew enjoyed and got swept up in playing the old games from across the last century. I went into a odd school photo booth with my sister (think beaches but older) and it was so odd to see that it did take nearly 5 minutes for the photo to develop. There was game from love match, electric shock, skittles to pac man. We then just walked along the harbour to see the other piers and just take it all in. Of course as we were all the way on the harbour we had to walked to Pier 39 and had to visit the famous seal lions. I love that they are there and they were so playful when we visited, some even messing about in the water.
We also had to take in the rest of Pier 39, with all its shops and entertainment (wouldn’t go there for food is just fast food really). I even ended up on a sea lion in the end, okay, on a plastic one whilst riding the massive two-storey carousal with my nephew, definitely felt like was bit of a big kid that day. As my nephew loved all animals but his one of his top three is Otters (again you see this theme in later posts about this road trip) we couldn’t, and I mean it saw a picture and they was nothing else we go do less break his heart than go visit Aquarium of the Bay. I have to say was pretty impressive, had lots of sea life from octopus and sharks to river otters (you should of seen the glee in my nephew face) and great exhibits.
After such a busy day and as we were down by the bay, we went in search of one of my other restaurant finds, and what a star food find it ended up being with
the winning combination of Joe’s Original Bar and Tony’s Pizza in Washington Square (again we went twice, was too good not to go again). I first need to give you a little background, my brother-in-law is Sicilian, so a whole unique type of Italian and he is massive pizza lover and boarding on pizza-snob (in the most lovable way). Why this matters as again with my research I came across this pizzeria that was meant to be really good and also sold vegan pizza. When looking it up, I saw the it was run a world pizza champion, Tony with a world famous award winning margarita pizza so obviously told my brother-in-law who simple said that all city’s claim to have world winning pizza and how was that possible. Nevertheless, I then sent the link to my sister who when she read the very and I mean very extensive list of authentic pizza options said that we could go when we are there. with all good America and especially good ones there is a queue or waiting list. They were very accommodating as when said was a hour wait and I had no US mobile to text to just come back in and hour and they would sit us. With an hour on our hands we walked around Washington Square and the lovely church there, they we deemed a drink was in order. We thought to make it easy to check on table so just went to Joes directly across the road from Tony’s not expecting much but did it deliver. Think an old school new york style sports bar restaurant with dark leather, staff in tuxes and waistcoats, great buzz and tvs on most walls in the bar. So up I went to the to get the family a round, and I was undecided so the barman who was so nice and friendly suggested their signature North Beach Lemonade. Don’t let the lemonade part of name fool you, that was full of booze – just the way I like it. It was so of the love child of a lemonade, long island ice tea and a margarita. So I sat at the bar the rest of the family on a booth and all of us ended up having chats with the other really friendly patrons. I even learnt a bit more about the Golden State Basketball team. The next time we went as if we were going to Tony’s again that meant Joes too we also go a love sharing plate which was definitely for sharing was massive – if the call for pizza wasn’t too strong would of loved to try to restaurant there too.
Finally our table was ready – sadly jet lag did mean my poor nephew (first visit) was mainly about the crayons then sleeps after a few bites – but very happy bites. As you already know I had seen on the menu a really good pizza they did without cheese therefore vegan that was very excited about, and my brother and sister found it very hard to pick as I make no lie the mean is multiple pages with the widest range of pizza types, bases and toppings I have ever seen. We did decide to get the fried artichoke to start as who can say no to artichoke not I. So I went to order my pizza when the lovely waitress made my day even better and they actually had a specialist vegan pizza with their classic marinara sauce, plant-based cheese and with micro greens – doesn’t that sound divine. I am here to tell you it does. The thin crispy base, which has catch in places to add to that flavour profile and such a rich tomato sauce that had the right balance of acid to sweetness, the cheese wasn’t that horrid plastic vegan cheese (not going to say it was exactly tasting like mozzarella but personally wasn’t after that) and the choice to add micro greens (who know the joys) were genius. You can see that size of pizza, it was so light and good that I will hold my hands up I finished it all (okay minus a few crusts) both time. Again was so good that I didn’t want to order something else for fear of it not being as good and also why pass up the opportunity to eat this pizza again when I can. My sister and brother enjoyed a spicy Sicilian pizza – it a square fluffy pizza with a spicy topping – can’t go into more detail as you might of gathered I was heads down in my own. They also do really good cocktails but will also confess was little tipsy already from two North Beach Lemonades. Nevertheless, the just means that hands down if you are in San Fransisco and unless you hate pizza (but did see the other options and look amazing) you need to go. I even sent my brother and his girlfriend a few weeks later and they loved it too.
Next day was a Sunday, so of course that meant another opportunity to try another great Brunch spot, Zazie in Cole Valley. Have to start off we went super early (jet lag) so could not really explore the neighbour too much as it was all shut but looks so lovely and a great sort of family village vibe. We selected (who wouldn’t) to sit out back on the most gorgeous patio decking ever, all green and intimate. This restaurant wasn’t really vegan/plant-based minded but super friendly about it and so accommodating and still well worth a visit, especially again if in mixed company. My sister and I loved their grapefruit mimosa (one of the reason wanted to go) and also have such warm and welcoming service. They were so kind about gave me all the ingredients to make a fab avocado toast and had one of the best house fries had in so long – made with roasted garlic and the gloves were there for you to eat. My family also loved their french toast and pancakes. Also the staff were really friend and very odd for America they were a no tip restaurant as they said they pay their staff so well they don’t need to live off tips, which is wonderful as it is so rare which ultimate just means happier and better staff and customer service – we are all winners.
After brunch as we were only just a short lovely sunny stroll away we went to explore the massive Golden Gate Park, and I do mean massive at over a 1000 acres. It has tonnes to see with both gardens and museums and is very well looked after and modern. I took myself off for a walk around as walk to get a bit of exercise and also just be outside and still for a bit, whilst the rest of the family went and loved the California Academy of Sciences which include much to the extreme joy of my nephew an aquarium and lots of animals.
I was very lucky on my walk to stumble across the San Francisco Botanical Garden and it was an easy decision to spend the rest of my time in there and I was so happy I did. There was so many different areas from a garden just for smelling with lots of different flowers and herbs, gardens from all different continents, water features, and great benches for you to sit down and just take in the quiet (and it pretty much was) to have a peaceful moment and a bit of time to reflect.
Afterwards I had promised my sister that we would go to the Japanese Tea Garden together and ever since really enjoying the one in Sydney I was very excited to see another. Sadly unlike the botanical garden it was very busy mainly with tourist and it is a highlight of SF, so I would advise to go early or late if you want it a bit quieter. Nevertheless though smaller there is a lots to see, from cherry blossom, pergolas, statues, and if a very steep bridge over a pond (so steep you have to climb it with a ladder). There is a place to go and have Japanese tea but was very busy and seemed a bit too touristy for me. This garden along with the botanical garden it is very hard to get your head around there are right in the middle of a very busy major city. A great place to get some area and just really connect which with nature which personally I adore and will always seek when on holiday where I can.
I was very excited and felt very lucky when we were able to get last minute tickets to go to Alcatraz Island, one of the true highlights of visiting San Francisco, can totally see why millions visit it every year, never is nothing else like it really. I do think the enjoyment is heighten by the fact you have to travel there by ferry and you just see it getting closer and closer, also you get to truly see it in the round and three-demensional. You can’t hide from the fact it is for tourist and you have your allotted time to go but we had a late afternoon slot of 4pm which did mean the Island wasn’t as busy so didn’t feel like you were seeing it from between other tourist and had time to take it all in slowly. So when you land there is someone who gives a brief introduction to the island and also directs you to take the audio tour. Listen to him, the audio tour is so good, and I loved how they did it – they have it narrator not by some random actor but past guards and inmates of the island – which also brings home that it was only decommissioned recently. I learnt lots on the tour, firstly didn’t know that it was a US National Park and also that Indian inhabited it in protest to reclaim their land. There is so much to see on the island that is hard to take it all in on one visit even it felt – I did try my hardest. There were such great exhibits beyond those in the cell house including taking through the history and the families that lived on the island and the Indian land. After these we made our way up the hill – is steeper that it looks – to the cell house and got our audio tour which takes you perfectly around.
From the cell block and stories of the famous inmates and the planned escapes, to the administration buildings and what it was like for the guards and those that came to visit the inmates. It was probably one of the first audio guides that I wanted to make sure I stopped and did each point and I really got a much better feeling for what it was like and the stories just came alive being told by people who had lived and breathed it. Yes, you can go and take a picture in a cell but hearing what it was like whilst standing in those exact spots is pretty powerful. It isn’t short and sweet but not too long either but I highly recommend doing it all. It a true place of history and like no other in the world, so go visit to get a taste of it, is worth the hype.
Something that is of course also hyped up about when visiting San Francisco is of course the Golden Gate Bridge – it is pretty impressive. I got a much better feeling of it size and majesty when we did a small harbour boat trip.
It was a pretty windy boat trip but wash able to see kite-surfers going underneath it which was special. Driving over it you do get how long it see and I can totally appreciate how ironic it is and what a major architecture piece of work it is. I am very happy that I have seen it from all angles both sides and underneath.
One trip whilst visiting San Francisco which did really blow me away was to Sausalito and Muir Woods. I hadn’t heard about either before coming, did know that around SF there was great hiking trails etc and of course that redwoods are native to California but wasn’t prepared to have one of the best afternoons I have hate in a very long time and to have memories that will truly last.
It all started with doing what we thought would just be a quick drive through visit to Sausalito just so we could get the feel of it. We ended up stopping and my nephew need a break so we decided that we stop near the harbour and have a drink. We ended up in a really lovely place called Bar Bocce which had a fire pit in the middle right not the harbour. We even ended up playing a few games of bowls. However the food and drink was so good. Starting with the blood orange margarita and then had patron peppers but the true knock you back why is this so good please bring another one before first the first portion was the asparagus. No original asparagus, fresh grilled but with this amazingly complimentary tarragon sauce – so good we did have two orderings of it and also I asked if they knew the recipe. Sadly didn’t know exactly but could tell me most of the ingredients so again recipe testing until I get it right then I will share. Was just such a lovely calm restaurant with great views, service, food and drink.
After eating a ton of asparagus was happy to get back into the car and drive to Muir Woods National Park. Even before we got there the views on the drive was stunning, the rolling green fields and hills, California is a truly beautiful state and I haven’t seen it all and know there is even more beauty to be seen. We had a late space at 4pm as we didn’t appreciate how popular it is so only sadly and I really do mean sadly had an hour, so couldn’t go for a long walk or really go that far to fully explore the woods. It wasn’t need to fully appreciate and fall in love with the woods. It also meant even though it wasn’t too quiet (even had people taking engagement photos) it wasn’t too loud or busy really which really helped with the atmosphere. You instantly walk in and greeted with dense greenery of variety of colour and textures, but also this wall of smell which was so intoxicating, it was that of a combination of pine and redwood and nature all rolled together. You see this beautiful path in front of you and your legs just take you but then you get to this might trunk of a tree and you look up and what a view that is a well. The sun was also beautiful that day just playing peek-a-boo between the trees and just making it have a even more magical glow.
I can’t really describe (not good for a blogger) the feeling that came over me whilst walking through the woods – it was calming, peaceful, happy, centring, mindful, energising, inspiring and I could go on. I have only had this feel once before when along on a shoreline in Devon just listening to the waves and just as I knew then I knew here in the woods that this places was going to be one of the now two that when I need to be reflective, or having a hard time or just need to breathe and feel happy I will think of and put myself back into. It was bordering on an out of body experience and felt very enlightened whilst there. That at the same time being able to be there with my family and made me want to share my love with all of them. I actually made a point to walk for a few minutes separately with my sister, my brother and my nephew and let them know how much they meant, and that I felt truly special for allowing me to be there in that moment having that experience. This was a true highlight of the entire trip and went beyond traveling in a way. I was lucky to take a lot of truly magical photos to try to help bring me back there, I even went to the gift shop to get memento include redwood incense. I can’t wait to go back at some point and go deeper in to the woods and explore.
San Francisco is a great city and I completely see why people say that and want to move there. It has it all, water, greenery, history, food and culture. We were only there for 4 days and we jammed a lot in and I am sure there was so much more I could of seen, there was lots of neighbours that drove by such as Haight-Ashbury. In addition we didn’t even dent Muir Woods or Golden Gate Park, all the museums and restaurants. It will be a city which I would be more than happy to go back and explore.
Now on to the next part of our Californian road trip – Monterey which will be in another post.