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Visiting San Francisco in 17 miles (May 8th 2019)

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Dans les rues de San Francisco...

Today, we’re visiting San Francisco. Come with us!

We are visiting San Francisco today…

Mixed weather for the day

Although I managed to fall asleep easily, the night was chaotic. Sarah and I woke up several times, and the night was not as restful as we had hoped. We finally got out of bed at 6.30am. It’s a good thing we went to bed early (given the Pacific time zone). A shower later, we’re out on the porch.

The cool, somewhat humid air outside takes us by surprise, but the weather app on my smartphone quickly reassures me. It tells me that there’s no chance of rain today and that the air will soon warm up. From the entrance of the building where we’ve spent the night, I book an Uber to take us downtown. We want to rediscover the city of San Francisco, visited by all of us many years ago. And before that, we’re meeting at Pier 33 for the ferry to Alcatraz

Uber is not talkative

Our Uber picks us up a few blocks from our pied-à-terre, and while he’s efficient, he’s not smiling. There’s no point in trying to engage in the slightest dialogue. He simply makes its way through the already busy morning traffic of the San Francisco ring road. We see many Tesla Models 3 and S, driven by men and women, often young, who we imagine to be start-up employees, entrepreneurs or engineers in their prime, even though Silicon Valley lies further south than our current route.

We’re distracted by cars whizzing past to our right and left, but also above and below us. Yeah, there are so many roads… And we realize that while our AirBnB ad only mentioned a twenty-minute drive from Daly City to downtown San Francisco, we’ve been driving for forty minutes. It finally takes us an hour to get to the Embarcadero. Sarah and I walk to Pier 39 to say hello to the sea lions that have made this place their home for several years now.

Breakfast at Boudin San Francisco Sourdough

After a tour of Pier 39, we think of our daughters as we stand in front of the huge carousel. We look for a place to have breakfast. Wishing to avoid “tourist traps”, we finally decide to buy a pastry and a hot drink. It’s hibiscus tea for Sarah and coffee for me at Boudin San Francisco Sourdough, near the Aquarium of the Bay.

We pass a still-empty market offering a good range of fresh seafood, fruit and vegetables. Then, we are reaching Pier 33 where our Ferry will pick us up. While I know what to expect on this jaunt – I visited Alcatraz on my previous trip to California – Sarah can’t wait to get to the island and find out what it was like up until the 1960s. 

Visiting Alcatraz in San Francisco

Pier 33

When we arrive at Pier 33, the first thing we see is this huge model of the Rock. It’s showing every building on the island in great detail! We then make our way through the queue forming in front of the two docked boats. Seeing the ferries, I recall that in 2014 I was struck by a detail on one of them. Strange shapes resembling small wind turbines protruded from the roof of the craft like horns on a ram’s head. The roof was lined with solar panels, and we could read that this was a recent concept for sea shuttles with considerably reduced greenhouse gas emissions.


On the ferry, we first try to avoid the crowded areas. But, we decide to head for the deck because few people remained after the boat started and the winds raged. We admire Pier 33 and the old paint on the ocean-facing wall. It proudly displays “Welcome Home” before the San Francisco skyline dominated by the Transamerica Pyramid.

Shortly after leaving the pier behind, we meet a retired man from Toulouse. He’s traveling alone and tells us he arrived yesterday, just like us. He’s going to spend five days in San Francisco. Then, he will heading off to New Orleans for another five days, and then on to New York. I tell him about my growing interest in these two American cities he’s about to visit.

On the rock

(re)Discovering the island

Once we’d disembarked on the Rock, we are already on our way up the East Road. The island is just as I remember it. As for Sarah, she’s in for an eyeful as we discover a building recently reopened to house an art exhibition retracing the Rock’s past. We take time to appreciate the works on display, read the texts recounting life here in the past, and peruse the faces of former inmates in the period photos.

The importance of audio kit

We then head for the main building, which houses the showers, toilets, laundry and, above all, the cells. We pick up an audio kit to follow the guided tour, recorded on a box. Using a pair of headphones, we began to play back the recording as we toured the premises. The guided tour, which I had chosen not to listen to in the past, is very interesting and well done. The narrator tells us about the life of inmates and guards when the prison was still in operation. On several occasions, we hear dramatizations and interviews with former residents of the island, literally immersing us in the harsh conditions of life on Alcatraz before the start of the sixties.

Al Capone was here!

Throughout our visit, we discover that the prison was in operation from 1934 to 1963. A certain Al Capone, among other infamous criminals, spent time here! We also learn more about the island’s past. It had served as a harbor defense fort, then as a military prison before becoming the federal prison. By the way, cannons can still be seen on the island. We also take a brief look at the Native American occupation of Alcatraz between 1969 and 1971, a fact not lost on any visitor arriving on the island for the first time: behind the “United States Penitentiary” sign, the text “INDIANS WELCOME” is painted in red.

Superb view on San Francisco

The visits, both inside and out, are extremely enriching, and allow for some great photo opportunities. We end our tour in the prisoners’ yard, with its breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge, then move on to the gardens before reaching the administrative offices and the lighthouse opposite. We stay on the island for just over two hours, then take another ferry back to San Francisco. Unlike in 2014, we don’t get to see the dolphins swimming alongside the shuttle, but we leave the Rock with a wealth of memories and photos on the camera’s memory card.

Visiting piers in San Francisco

But the day is far from over when we return to the mainland. We walk up the Embarcadero – the main street running along the coast and giving access to all the piers – past the imposing ship terminal (pier 35), the aquarium (pier 39), then the marine terminal (pier 41) and finally the ferry arch (pier 43), before arriving at the “musée mécanique” (written in French!) at the entrance to pier 45.

Musée mécanique

We enter. It’s a large private exhibition featuring arcade games, automata and various mechanical machines such as coin-operated pianos, antique slot machines and birdhouses. Visits are free of charge, and only the coin-operated machines charge a fee if you wish to use them. In 2011, U.S. News & World Report ranked this museum as one of the top three things to do in San Francisco.


On our way out, and while we’re on Fisherman’s Wharf, we stroll along the harbor to admire, among other things, the Jeremiah O’Brien, one of the 2,710 cargo ships built in the U.S. during World War II, with Alcatraz Island in the background. I can’t resist pulling out my camera and immortalizing the moment.

Visiting and eating in San Francisco

Junk food, street food or convenience store?

The iconic Bay restaurants we come across on our stroll along the harbor, such as Castagnola’s at 286 Jefferson Street, tempt us, but with the weather having been fine for a few hours already, we consider the idea of packing a picnic. Even though, let’s face it, our passage past the particularly visible In-N-Out on this same street doesn’t leave us indifferent, we manage to resist the urge to discover this chain representative of American culture. But that’s only a temporary reprieve.

Classic cars in San Francisco streets

We’re now at the Aquatic Park Cove, where we walk with our feet in the sand. A few brave souls jump into the cold water! Back on the particularly steep streets of San Francisco, we pass numerous classic vehicles such as Mustangs from the 60s or, more European, Mercedes from yesteryear, parked on the side of the road. It’s already a little after 2 p.m. and we’re getting hungry. We do a bit of shopping in a convenience store before heading for Washington Square, first via the famous winding Lombard Street in the Russian Hills. How do you want visiting San Francisco without going through Lombard Street?

Washington Park

As we sit down to a frugal meal on the grass in Washington Park – two salads for Sarah, a wrap and sushi for me – I receive a message telling me that I’ve won a jacket featuring Ford France and the Mustang 184 from the film “A Man and a Woman “, following a competition held a few weeks earlier. What could be better than to discover such good news in a San Francisco park?

Visiting the Coit Tower in San Francisco

Having finished our picnic, we take care to dispose of the packaging in the garbage cans provided and set off again, still on foot and still with the familiar steepness of Frisco’s streets, to reach the Coït Tower.

Various vehicles are parked along the streets with their wheels pointed towards the sidewalk, as is the rule here. The atypical street scene, with its vintage vehicles, makes for great photography. I take advantage of these moments to photograph a magnificent Chevrolet pick-up, a Land Rover 4×4 with faded paint and dented bodywork, and a VW Beetle that looks like it’s been painted with a roller, all parked on a slope of over 20%. The unobstructed view from the Coït Tower over Alcatraz and the rest of the city once again allows us to take some great shots.

Visiting the cable car museum in San Francisco

The break is short-lived, just enough time to admire the view, take a tour of the monument we’ve come to see, and we’re back on Telegraph Hill Boulevard, heading back into the winding streets of the Fog City. This time, we head for Mason Street, a mile away, to visit the Cable Car Museum.

The museum, which is free of charge, isn’t very big, but in less than an hour you can get a clear idea of the history of the famous Cable Cars that have been running around the city since the 1800s. We learn who invented them, what technologies were used over the years, how the concept spread over time and how they withstood earthquakes and other disasters in San Francisco. Artifacts, videos and photos from the era are brought together to give visitors a better understanding of where these cable-drawn streetcars came from. The museum also houses the traction system motors and gears used by today’s Cable Cars.

The system, explained with the help of various aids, is simple: a large cable is stretched along the main points of the city. Motors keep the cable in perpetual motion. The funicular conductors in the city cling to this cable to get around, then pull out when they want to brake.

Visiting China Town in San Francisco

We leave the museum with new knowledge, then find ourselves back in China Town. We’re now looking for a store where we can buy a SIM card, so we can have an American phone number and, above all, a local GPS connection. It’s hard to find such a store, but we end up finding two on the same street. The first was too expensive and didn’t satisfy us. We chose the second one and signed a prepaid AT&T contract for $65 a month. The sun, which has been shining all the day during, is beginning to set.

We return to the Embarcadero. The Ferry Building clock now reads 6:50. It’s time for a final stroll along the harbor, another look at the sea lions at Pier 39 and a glance at the Rock, bathed in evening light, which we visited a few hours earlier.

A junk-food diner in San Francisco

Before heading back to our AirBnB, we decide to have dinner at Chipotle on the corner of Sacramento and David.We place our orders and settle in, our legs tired from the miles we’ve covered during the day. We end the evening with a bowl for Sarah and a burrito (veggie) for me. This moment reminds me of another evening in SF five years earlier, after a visit to Sacramento and a return to Frisco, where I went to the same Chipotle for a burrito.

After our meal, we take an Uber back to the apartment, where I write a few lines for my blog but can’t post them on the Internet because the Wi-Fi is down. As for Sarah, she falls asleep almost instantly. All in all, today we will have taken 262 photos and walked 17 miles!