By Holly Smith – Wellesley College, MA
My post-study travels include a variety of places in the U.S. but one headliner is definitely San Francisco. I write this blog post having just got off an overnight bus from San Fran to L.A so all reflection are fresh and honest.
What did I do?
Saturday: evening arrival from Chicago. I had major problems with public transport from airport to SF city. Should have just got an Uber – lesson learned. Airport was also not the best signed inside either so it wasn’t all that clear which way to go for airport shuttle versus train station versus airtrain. I stayed at Music City Hotel & Hostel for about £30 a night and was refunded money for lack of breakfast due to their supplier pulling out.
Sunday: day tour with Dylan’s Tours. I am so glad I scraped myself out of bed for this, the emotional chaos of the night before really made me question if I should take a mental health day but I had already paid and the Muir Woods was calling me. I went on Dylan’s Famous Tour With Muir Woods and Alcatraz Island Tour. It cost $179 with a discount for signing up to the emailing list (worth doing). It is not a budget activity but you get your money’s worth for sure. Sunday was the Bay to Breaker SF marathon so we did things in a different order than on the website. First we went to Muir Woods to see the tall Redwood trees then came back to SF via Sausalito for lunch. By noon, the fog had cleared for some great pictures with the Golden Gate Bridge. Then we did a tour round the neighbourhoods of SF including billionaires row. Then we were dropped off to Pier 33 for our ferry to Alcatraz, the historical federal prison. After a long day I got a cheap takeaway from near my hostel called Modern Thai.
Monday: another day tour this time with Extranomical Tours (booked via Dylan’s Tours, I got a discount for it being my second tour with the company). I took the Yosemite and Giant Sequoias 1-Day Tour from San Francisco which was also $179. This is definitely more worth the money than the other tour which was already decent. I was picked up from my hostel around 5:45am and then driven to Yosemite, stopping off at a small town for breakfast and lunch supplies. We drove to the Giant Sequoia Groves (where my parents visited 30 years ago!) then drove through the valley stopping off regularly for picture points. Eventually we made it down to the valley floor at Yosemite Lodge where you can go on hiking trails right up to the base of Bridal Falls and have a clear view of Half Dome and El Capitan. On the way out of the valley we stopped at the base of El Capitan and spied some adrenaline seeking climbers half way up the nose. The guide provided information and historical context the whole time and then let us sleep on the drive back. I was dropped back at my hostel around 9pm to find someone in my bed lol. The hostel was having trouble with a particular resident and things got a little mixed up. They sorted it out very quickly though and soon I was able to collapse into bed.
Tuesday: a slightly more relaxed day. I went on a day trip to Stanford University which was so beautiful. Eduroam hooked me up to the Wi-Fi so I sat in the student outdoor hub and did some work. I tried to get into Zimbardo’s infamous prison experiment exhibition (I’m a psychology student after all) but Stanford academic buildings are still closed to the public. Toward the end of the day, I made my way back to San Francisco and made my overnight bus by the skin of my teeth. Well, I did technically miss the bus but someone got travel sick and so the bus driver was having to clean up. SF traffic is unpredictable – leave PLENTY of time to get to places.
Both of my tour days were incredible. Yosemite National Park is breathtaking and even though it is a very touristy attraction, there were long periods of time where I could not see a single person. It was just me and the valley. I would highly recommend seeing San Francisco via group tours for 3 main reasons:
- Small groups equal more personalised and better quality service. There is more time at each destination and it feels more authentic and less like a tourist gimmic.
- They are a great opportunity to meet people. I am solo travelling the States and it can get quite lonely sometimes, meeting people on these tours was really comforting even if just for a day. It’s interesting to hear what has brought people to the same location and where they are going next.
- Transportation. It is hard to travel the U.S if you do not have a car and given that Yosemite is a 4 hour drive from San Fran, a minibus pick up at 5am and drop off 9pm maximised sightseeing.
I really struggled with the public transport in San Francisco. For the first time since being in the U.S I had a real problem with my Starling card. Up until then, my international debit card had not caused any issues (only the odd occasion when my app disabled the magstripe for security). It was something about processing it as a credit card instead of debit or providing a false zip code for the machine to accept it. ATM machines were also hard to find. Getting from the airport to the hostel was a challenge and then just getting around in general. There are buses, airtrains/trolleys, and trams but I just didn’t get on with it. Chicago, New York, Boston – fine. San Francisco – a nightmare. I had many a cry, perhaps exacerbated by the long adventure days.
The second lowlight was the safety of the city. It it not obvious where is and isn’t safe and at what time of day. I found myself in scary situations multiple times and felt very vulnerable. San Francisco is very hilly as well so was not suitcase friendly, and my day tours had a lot of hiking so I was not in a fit state to run away from danger. A street can go from well lit to dingy alley very quickly or go from deserted safe to busy unsafe, busy safe and deserted unsafe. In the end I just started paying for Ubers because my safety is more important than saving money.
The third lowlight was the unpredictable traffic. I almost missed a train and an important bus twice. Uber app might say 10 minutes but be prepared for 20-30 minutes with unexpected road closures, traffic congestion and strange times of rush hour. I think this also added to my stress, not only was I scared and feeling unsafe but I was also experiencing anxiety by watching the timer change on my Uber app, on top of the long adventure days. I think altogether it was both the best and worst moments of my travelling thus far haha!
My bus arrived in L.A, Hollywood Boulevard at 6am. The café opposite the bus stop opened at 5:30am and the hostel was a 30 second walk away. The reception was 24hours so I was able to walk straight in and use the common room, luggage storage and bathrooms straight away. Feeling much better, much safer. As soon as my room is available I will be taking a shower and a long nap!