McWay Falls #1, Big Sur
California is one of my eternal loves, having been many times, I love how quickly you can go from high Sierra to the coast in a short period of time. Many drives in California are one-in-a-lifetime, and you can easily get away from the hustle and bustle of the mega cities and be in the outdoors, woods or desert in no-time, some times within 30 minutes. California is nothing short of spectacular!
No one, not even San Francisco natives will ever fully experience the city; it changes often, and while relatively small (7 square miles?), it has many nooks, corners, passages, allies, and places to explore to even list or mention...but here are a few.
- Fisherman's Warf: get there early morning and eat the first batch of crab and shrimp sandwiches you can get before the mad crowds invade and the tourist-trap shops even open. I am taking out the food spots on the NE corner of Taylor St and Jefferson. Boudin is ok too. Get the food and explore around: Hyde st pier Historic Ships, Ghiradelli square, the Hyde+Beach cable car 'turn-table', Maritime museum, municipal pier. On the east side of the warf is Pier 39, a tourist trap, but if you get through it, head to the northwest part of the pier to look at the sea lions.
- Alcatraz: must do. buy the tickets in advance as they run out often.
- Chinatown & Union Square: experience the hustle of this side of town
- Golden Gate: you can walk it, bike it, drive on it, go to the north or south viewing spots, whatever...you'll see it from anywhere anyways, but get close and personal.
- SF MOMA & DeYoung museums: they always have great collections and exhibits.
- Japantown: while 'hard' to find on the map, look up for Kabuki spa and the shopping center. Great Ramen at: Marufuku Ramen & Suzu Noodle House
- Haight-ashbury: epicenter of the 60-70's music, social and sexual revolution, gritty but cheeky.
- Lands-End & Presidio: there are a number of smaller attractions nested here; Walt Disney family museum, Lucas film studios, Marshall beach, Sutro Baths, China Beach, Crissy Field, Fort Point, lands end labyrinth.
- The Castro: gay Mecca. Check the LGBT history museum, Castro Theater (if the gay mens chorus is playing make sure you get tickets). Eat at: Mama Jis (Dim sum), Kasa Indian Eatery (Indian), Osaka Sushi or Squat & Gobble.
- The Mission: Mexican-rooted neighborhood.
- Twin Peaks: while it can be tricky to find the route up (google maps), do it if you can (you can also take the bus), the views of the city are breathtaking.
- Little Italy & Coit Tower: little known neighborhood with tons of good Italian restaurants and shops, it is on the way up to Coit tower.
- Pacifica & Half Moon Bay: south of the city, Pacifica is 20 minutes away, it is the start of a short but amazing drive down PCH. If you want a much longer drive, then you need to continue into Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel and down to Big Sur (I cover Big Sur further down)
- Muir Woods National Monument & Sausalito: About 45 minutes north of the city, it is a great way to see the massive redwood trees without driving several hours in either direction. Plan to walk around the main path but also head into the trails if possible. On the way back (or over) you can stop by Stinson Beach, Muir Beach, Mount Tam(alpais), Sausalito. Noticeable points: if you can get there by sunrise (or sundown as second option), stop by the Marin Headlands or Battery Spencer for views of the Golden Gate and the City; breathtaking.
- Golden Gate Park & Presidio: considered the Central Park of San Francisco, beautiful for walking, having a picnic, and checking out some of the smaller attractions like the Japanese Garden, Botanical Garden, paddling the lake, and others.
Here are my favorite places to eat in the city:
- The Bird (Sandwich) - Financial District: all they serve is a darn chicken sandwich but DAMN it its GOOD!
- Mama Jis (Dim sum) - Cantonese: just hurry up and get here, its wayyyy too good! you may need to wait.
- Perilla (Vietnamese) - Inner Sunset: probably the best yellow curry chicken noodle soup I have ever had.
- Wow Naan N Curry (Indian) - Inner Sunset: dirt cheap, hole in the wall, but very good.
- Pacific Catch (American) - Inner Sunset: great menu, food and service.
- North Beach Restaurant (Italian) - Telegraph Hill: great Italian food and service, pricy.
- DOSA on Fillmore (Indian) - Fillmore: they have 2 menus: Lunch and Dinner, both different in price and menu, both outstanding.
- Yank Sing (Dim Sum, Cantonese) - Financial District: great dim sum experience.
- Jasmine Garden (Vietnamese): great Vietnamese food at good prices, great family service.
- Kasa Indian Eatery (Indian) - Castro: think Indian meets Chipotle!
- Serpentine (American): ginger ice cream with pumpkin cookies and some sort of coffee float
- Golden Star Vietnamese Restaurant: cheap, great authentic food.
- Osaka Sushi - Castro: great, yummy and creative sushi rolls.
- Squat and Gobble Cafe & Crepery (American, Breakfast): multiple locations. great portions, awesome menu, you can't go wrong here.
- Slanted Door (Vietnamese) - Embarcadero: great food, pricey, and you may need to wait.
- Marufuku Ramen & Suzu Noodle House - Japantown: both are inside the shopping center, which is convenient for parking and to stroll before/after. The Ramen is great!
Golden Gate Dawn
Big Sur & Monterey
If you think the drive from Pacifica down Half moon bay and beyond is breathtaking, wait until you drive through Big Sur. If you are coming from the north you would either enter the bay via Santa Cruz or Monterey. Santa Cruz is laid back, so is Monterey but it is a bit more lively. Do not miss the Monterey Bay Aquarium, it is one of the best in the world. Eat at Canary Row (Cannery Row Brewing Company is good).
Carmel is a few minutes away from Monterey and it is quite a picturesque town, small streets, antique shops, golf courses, great beaches. Take the 17mi drive road and stop at your leisure, once you get to Carmel-by-the-sea, walk down Ocean Avenue (eat at 'Mediterranean Restaurant'), hit the beach. Head over the Point Lobos and check the sunset over at China Cove.
Big Sur, aprox. 1 hour from Carmel, is a large rugged yet breathtaking area where the hard Pacific Ocean meets the mountain range, it is mostly undeveloped and there are a few places to stop by so the drive can be longer/shorter depending on your needs, you can also head deeper into the woods for a different experience away from the cliffs. The principal stops are Pfeiffer Beach and McWay Falls. If you want to relax under the stars then make a reservation at the Esalen Institute for the midnight hot springs, highly recommended, but it is clothing optional and you need to make reservations at 9am the day before due to limited availability.
Due to its remoteness and ruggedness, there are limited options for eating and hanging out, by limited I mean only a handful, literally. Check out Nepenthe (American) and Post Ranch Inn, both with amazing views, outdoor and indoor spaces, also Deetjen's Big Sur Inn, which is listed in the National Registry of Historic places.
Yosemite requires its own book, well, an entire library! This national park can be a spiritual experience for many, the views cannot be described and photos do not do it justice. There are layers to Yosemite; not only elevation but depth and purpose (photography, hiking, rock climbing, etc). Here are some worthy spots:
- Yosemite Valley: as you come into the park from the west, the road drops you directly into the valley. Within the Valley you can see El Capitan from below, Bridalveil falls, Yosemite Falls (Upper and Lower), Mirror Lake (below Half Dome), Vernal & Nevada Falls. Yosemite Valley village has places to eat, shop, relax, lodging etc. There is a bike rental in the village, RENT a bike and wander in the valley as the roads cross the Merced river and create some great vistas. Each of the trails is different in length and difficulty, but try Yosemite falls and Vernal/Nevada Falls. Check the Ansel Adams gallery and the lobby at the Lodge.
- Half Dome: you can hike up to half dome, but it is not for everyone, and it is an all day grueling experience.- Tunnel View: accessible by car and only 10 minutes from the village, it will grab your attention as you can see most of the park's highlights in one breathtaking view.
- Glacier point: 30-45min from the valley, it gets you to a vantage point where you can see Half dome right in front of you. You can also hike the rim of the cliffs and see the village below you as you hike west.
- Mariposa grove: about 1 hour south of the valley on Wawona road, this grove holds hundreds of redwoods.
- Toulumne Meadows: sitting at the tops of what you see from the Valley are these meadows, a change of scenery, flatter, with some lakes and rivers, and still quite beautiful.
Where to stay
Yosemite Village has a few options: the Majestic, the Lodge, and the tents. You'd be surprised how modern and tough those tents are. However, booking has to be done 6+ months in advance. For a very good alternative, look up Yosemite West; it has a number of resorts and privately owned villas you can rent for great prices and a variety of sizes/accomodations, plus it is only 30 min from the valley.
You cannot go wrong in Napa, a winery cannot just open shop like a taco truck can. So, there are large wineries (Robert Mondavi) that while large and great, do attract large crowds, as opposed to smaller ones that are more intimate and still of great quality (Hendry Wines comes to mind). Depending on what you are looking for, do some reading ahead of time, but again, you can't go wrong. Great chefs flock to Napa too, as a result there is great food all around, I liked The Boon Fly Cafe and Taste of the Himalayas.