By Valerie Coffey

When Mitch and I planned over a year ago to visit San Francisco on our year-(plus)-long RV trip, spending time in the city was not the goal. We were in the area to pick up a friend and abscond to enjoy Napa’s wine country on Memorial Day weekend. The City by the Bay on a holiday weekend is a crush of traffic and tourists, which should be avoided…by everyone.

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A cruise ship passes under the Golden Gate Bridge on its way out to sea. San Francisco shines in the background.

But as we got closer, my friend had to cancel and we decided to see the City by the Bay. So we designated one day, Thursday, to spend exploring.

San Francisco is like a home of sorts to me; I’ve been there numerous times since middle school for field trips from my then-hometown of Reno, for business conferences, and visits to see a college friend. I can feel my way around the city fairly well.

Mitch had been to the city for business, but he never had time to see much. So, it was up to me (Valerie) to plan the perfect one-day SFO experience for Mitch. My plan can work for anyone. So here it is!

Accommodations and Transportation

Accommodations in San Francisco are stupidly expensive (as is rent, real estate, parking, food, and everything else). Visiting by RV makes that much cheaper but you can’t drive a 45-foot-long motorcoach like ours anywhere near the city. So we booked an RV park north of the city near the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin RV Park.

The Marin RV Park is within walking distance to the Larkspur ferry terminal, but we decided to drive into the city on Thursday instead of taking the ferry so that we could stay later than the last ferry leaving the city at 9:35 pm.

This isn’t an easy decision for a visitor to make. Parking can be upwards of $45 for a few hours, if you can find it. And the nature of the streets make them difficult to maneuver: one-way avenues, extremely steep hills, cable cars and electric buses, bikes, and now-you-stop, now-you-don’t rules (stop sign? What stop sign?!).

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The streets of foggy San Francisco the Thursday afternoon before Memorial Day. The streets are lined with cables and wires for BART, the electric bus transit system.

So if you want to save money and you don’t mind plotting your route with ferry and bus schedules in hand, public transit in SFO is the way to go.

Our first stop was the Golden Gate viewpoint on the north side of the bay off Highway 101. We turned west to the Marin Highlands to get a picture of the sunlit city behind the bridge.

Next Stop: Pier 39
Then we drove over the Bridge, heading into the city. We parked at the Pier 39 parking garage on Beach Street and headed to Pier 39 — tourist heaven!

Our first order of business at Pier 39 was to get some coffee, which we did at Biscoff Coffee Corner. Then we did a little touristy shopping, and walked to the end of the pier to see the sea lions. Groups of sea lions and Alcatraz Island are always visible from Pier 39.

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Pier 39 is a tourist trap but a great place to see (and hear and SMELL) the sea lions and Alcatraz Island.

The sea lions didn’t disappoint, arf-arfing loudly, sleeping and sunning. The young sea lions wrestled and played king of the dock just like kids do. The sea lions are close enough for Pier 39 visitors to really watch their antics but far enough away so that the smell isn’t overwhelming. Any collection of wild sea lions smells to high heaven of rotten fish if you get any closer.

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A view of Alcatraz Island with its defunct prison from San Francisco’s waterfront.

From Pier 39 you can follow the signs (or the tourist walking traffic) and walk along the waterfront to Fisherman’s Wharf.

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Colorful fishing boats along the SFO waterfront near Fisherman’s Wharf. Boat captains are lined up, hawking fishing trips and tours to passersby.

Cable Cars
If you keep walking along the waterfront for a few more minutes, at the end of Jefferson Street you come to Aquatic Park, where you can catch a historic San Francisco cable car as the next adventure of the day.

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Mitch and Val catch the historic Powell & Hyde trolley at Aquatic Park.

Boarding the cable cars from the end of Jefferson Street at Aquatic Park enables you to watch the empty cable cars turn around at the end of the line. The cable car crew load the car on a turn-table, and literally lean up against the side of the car and push it to turn it around 180 degrees.

The cable cars give you great views of the city, and are actually a mode of transportation for some SFO denizens. We bought one-day multi-use cable car tickets for $17/pp, so we could get on and off at various stops.

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Standing on the outside steps of the cable car gives you the best views.

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The cable cars give you a great view of the city: the Powell & Hyde route take you past Victorian homes in Russian Hill. It also stops at the top of Lombard Street and Chinatown, where you can catch views of the Transamerica Pyramid building.

We took the cable car to the Lombard Street stop. There, we descended the “crookedest street” in the U.S. on foot to the bottom.

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Val and Mitch standing near the top of Lombard Street, the “crookest street.” Walking down by foot gives you time to stop and enjoy the view from this charming and historic street.

Then we reboarded the cable car and headed a few stops further to Chinatown for lunch.

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Red lanterns adorn the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

We ate at Hunan Home’s Restaurant on Jackson Street, which has numerous Best of the Bay awards. The wait for lunch was out the door at 1:30 pm, but by 3 pm it was emptying out. Going to restaurants in off-peak hours is highly recommended in SFO if you can.

We reboarded the cable car on a route taking us back near Pier 39 to retrieve our car from the parking garage ($45). Along the way, we walked the other side of Jefferson street and look who we met!

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Val with Leo DiCaprio! He’s better looking and taller than I thought he would be. But he was a little stiff, and he refused to sign autographs. I was going to look for more celebrities inside Madame Tussaud’s but we were out of time.


The Haight District
Next, we headed to the Haight, a quirky and cool district with vintage clothing shops, exlusive boutiques, restaurants, and a plethora of head shops. We found street parking on Oak Street near Ashbury Street and wandered the length of Haight Street on both sides.

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A crescent Moon shines above the corner of Haight and Ashbury, the center of the counter-culture movement of the 1960s. Flower power and the Summer of Love in 1967 happened here.

Haight-Ashbury features exclusive designer stores and side streets with renovated Victorians, spiced up with street musicians and vintage record stores.

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Painted ladies: Beautifully restored Victorians with flowery colors help balance out the seedy side of the Haight.

The Haight-Ashbury District is a trip. In 1967, hippies would exchange their dirty used clothing for a new set in the second-hand stores. The stores are still there, except now the price on those used clothes reflects the high price of the neighborhood real estate. Sometimes the homeless people on the street appear to me to be the same ones that were there in 1967.

We overheard an old dread-locked guy telling another man, “There’s a man sleeping over on that street who can help you.” (Drugs anyone?)

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Haight Street is home to numerous colorful shops, boutiques, restaurants, and endless head shops. It’s a trip back to more psychadelic times, but even the revitalized sections keep up the vibe. One addition today are the over-the-top drag queen shops.

The Haight stays true to its hippie roots with plenty of vegetarian and vegan options. The romantic Indian restaurant I thought I remembered on Frederick St. in the nearby Cole Valley area was missing, and it was getting cold at 8 pm, so we hiked back to the car to drive to another area.

We capped off our perfect day with Indian cuisine at Masala Dosa, a warm and cozy place on 9th Avenue.

We only had one full day in San Francisco, but other great things to do include eating fine Italian food at North Beach, sampling free chocolate at Ghiradelli Square, taking the quaint Filbert steps to Coit Tower for fine city views, or visiting the Exploratorium.

What did I forget? Does anyone have any other ideas for what you should include in the perfect one-day visit to San Francisco?

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