When you first rock up to a famous city, you probably think you’re going to love it from the get-go. Especially if you’ve if you’ve been lusting after this city for a while and gushing over all the Instagram photos. San Francisco is a city I’d longed to see for years, and when I first visited 7 years ago, I was awestruck. I was actually there, standing at the Golden Gate Bridge and riding the cable cars, I was in my element.
I fell in love with the city almost immediately on my first visit, and with so many amazing things to do, I knew one day I would return. I was eager to come back and do the things I’d missed the first time around. Surely I would love the city upon returning? And everything would be just as I remembered? Sadly not.
San Francisco was the last stop on my G Adventures tour, and I was keen to see it again and tick off the things I missed on my last visit. My sister was joining me from Los Angeles and she’d never visited. I’d told her how cool the city was and I was excited for her to see it like I did. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case, the city had changed for me. The areas I loved so much became places I wanted to get far away from.
I told myself I would not be returning – I admit now I was being a little dramatic (As I sometimes am!) and have learned that I need to change my perspective in order to love it again. I found some negatives on my most recent trip and wanted to be honest about the place, and hopefully help prepare others for their trip and what they might expect when visiting.
So as there are some not-so-positives in this post, I’ll start with the “bad” and end with the good! While the following reasons wouldn’t necessarily stop me from returning, they are reasons that I view the city in a different light and think are important to prepare future traveler’s for what they can realistically expect.
I wouldn’t consider myself a stranger to homelessness, I’ve seen it everywhere, and when visiting a major city it’s something that you will almost always run into. Unfortunately Homelessness is alive and well in San Francisco. It was something I’d seen all over California, so when I visited San Francisco 7 years ago, I wasn’t surprised to see people living on the streets. My return visit however, was worse. The city seemed to have somehow gotten 10 times worse than I remembered.
A few people on my tour had mentioned how bad the homeless problem was. Having been before I brushed it off and said “Well that’s something you’ll encounter everywhere” but I wasn’t ready for what I witnessed.
The bus dropped us off at the HI Hostel in the Tenderloin area, which I now know to be a no-go area. The Hostel was located on Ellis Street, and from that moment on, I avoided it at all costs. A couple of other girls and myself were staying another HI closer to Union Square. We walked for what seemed like forever along this street with heavy bags and suitcases. I saw at least 200 homeless people here, possibly more. The sidewalk was completely full with people. I’d never felt this unsafe anywhere in the world before. I was shocked.
While I felt very uneasy witnessing this, it was also a very sad sight so see. I think what made it all the more shocking is that San Francisco is not a cheap city. There seems to be money flowing everywhere. Some of the worlds biggest companies operate here, and yet there is nowhere for these people to go.
2) The City Was Dirty
This one kind of goes hand in hand with the previous reason, but San Francisco is the dirtiest city I’ve been to. I always hear everyone say London and New York are dirty – but San Francisco topped them all. There was trash all over the streets, the smell of urine so bad that it burned my nostrils. This was all outside of my hotel which was close to Union Square. We chose to stay in this area based on my recommendation and experience from my previous visit.
I remember during my last trip, sitting in Union Square drinking a coffee, people watching and thinking to myself how nice this area was. Union Square was not the same, the smell alone was enough to make me want to leave. I used the bathroom in a Starbucks close to Ghiradelli Square, and the floor was covered in used sanitary pads, tampons and toilet paper. Maybe that’s not a good example because it could simply be that customers are just disrespectful or the staff are too busy to clean it.
3) I Didn’t Feel Safe
On this visit I was excited to finally see the Painted Ladies – who doesn’t love a cute row of brightly coloured gingerbread houses? On my walk to the Painted Ladies I couldn’t help but notice how the area leading up to Alamo Park didn’t seem overly safe. Lots of shady characters and metal bars on every window on every house. I’ve never seen bars on any window in England (or Canada!) – surely having bars on your windows only mean one thing? The area is not safe. I felt very uneasy and was relieved when we finally reached Alamo Park as there were tons of other tourists and the area we popped out at was far nicer.
I felt the same way in Haight-Ashbury. My sister and I really wanted to visit Haight-Ashbury as we both enjoy the music culture of the 60’s & 70’s. I imagined it to be something similar to London’s Camden Market. But once again I felt incredibly uneasy here. Lots of homeless staring at me – in an incredibly creepy way! It just wasn’t nice, which was a shame because there are some very unique and cool stores here. We spent some time at the Ameoba Music store where we had to hand in bags before stepping into the store, not something I’m used to!
It’s Not All Bad…
Okay, so you’re probably thinking “Why would I want to visit San Francisco then?” While San Francisco did have some negatives for me personally (on this particular trip) there are far more reasons to visit! So let’s end this post on some positives!
Reasons You Should Visit San Francisco
1) That Pretty Red Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is an icon of San Francisco and one of the most picture-perfect spots in the city. Surprisingly, this area of the city is far different than that of Union Square. I’ve seen the bridge on several occasions, my first visit had bright blue skies and sunshine. On my most recent trip I did a sunset sailing trip and was actually one of my favourite experiences on the west coast! What a way to end my two weeks with my G Adventures group, and views of the bridge you won’t get anywhere else! Even on my most recent trip, I loved seeing the bridge with low clouds.
2) “The Rock”
Alcatraz is enough reason to make me want to return. This is such a unique part of San Francisco’s history and an experience not to be missed. The audio tour is included in the ticket price, and taught me so much more about it’s fascinating background.
3) The Diverse Food Scene
San Francisco is made up of several neighbourhoods, each one unique and different from the next. I absolutely love trying different foods when traveling and San Francisco has a plethora of eateries that you’ll never get bored. Chinese food? No Problem! Italian? They’ve got you covered! Sushi? American Diners? Sourdough bread bowls? Desserts? It has everything!
4) The Views
San Francisco has such a unique landscape that you’ll find it hard to match the views in this city. The hilly roads and streets make for an exceptional perspective. My personal favourite was the view of San Francisco from Alcatraz Island, it’s almost like something from a dream.
5) You Can See The Top Sights In A Day
San Francisco has an abundance of things to do, but the city itself is geographically small. Which means you’ll be able to see the cities top sights in a day. Obviously I’d recommend staying at least three days to really enjoy and see all the the city by the bay has to offer. But should you find yourself only getting one day here, it’s safe to say you can do a good chunk of the city in that time, and no car necessary!
6) The Chocolate!
One word… Ghiradelli. I’m generally not a fan of American chocolate, Hershey’s will never be edible to me. But then… I found Ghiradelli. San Francisco is proud of it’s famous Ghiradelli Chocolate, and I’m not surprised why. You’ll find their stores all over town, but make sure you take a special visit to Ghiradelli Square. Not only is it an Instagrammer’s paradise but it features one of Ghiradelli’s Soda Fountains – which means only one thing, Chocolate heaven!
7) The Art Scene
I know I said I didn’t have a great experience in Height-Ashbury, but I did find some of the coolest independently owned stores there. There was one in particular that showcased the artwork of many local artists. It was full of zines which became my favourite things to make during my time at Art School. Zines are kind of like home-made magazines or comics, usually hand illustrated. Unfortunately I didn’t purchase any, which I now regret as they would have made for a very unique souvenir!
San Francisco is full of Art Museums, MoMa, de Young Museum and Legion Of Honor are some of the cities most popular.
What Did I Learn In San Francisco?
It’s taken me almost a year to really put into perspective my feelings of my visit to San Francisco. It’s rather obvious in this post that my return to San Francisco just wasn’t the same. I had a completely different experience to when I first saw the city. I left after four days telling myself I would never return, but after reflecting on my trip I’ve come to realise that perhaps it’s not just the city that’s changed but perhaps my point of view has changed too.
San Francisco is a city that needs your patience. Don’t compare it to other cities and appreciate it for what it is. I feel that in reality I’ve only seen a fraction of what this city is about and what it has to offer. I’ve let a small portion ruin the whole place, but there were areas I loved! I just didn’t love the places I had high hopes for. In a way I kind of want to return just to prove myself wrong. Maybe next time a tour guide would be a better option, or a walking tour, so I can really get a locals point of view.
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