San Francisco is a stunning city but to call it hilly is an immense under statement; it’s mountain goat territory. It’s the hilliest city in the USA and the second hilliest city in the world.
While there we stayed in one of the best hotels in San Francisco, The Fairmont. Sitting proudly atop of Nob Hill it’s one of the oldest and most historical hotels. It was here in 1945 that the United Nations Charter, as we know it today was drafted. Walking into the opulent reception area with its many marbled columns and its ‘Gone With The Wind’ grand stairway set the tone for our stay.
The main part of the hotel was built in 1906 and the 23-story tower block of the Fairmont was added in November 1961. We stayed in the tower block and the views of San Francisco Bay from our room were astounding. It felt like you could reach out and touch the island of Alcatraz and other historical sights including the famous Golden Gate Bridge.
There are 592 rooms including 62 suites and 10 balcony suites as well as the Fairmont’s famous 6000sq-foot luxurious penthouse. The penthouse is a favourite for US Presidents and world leaders. If only the walls could talk.
The Fairmont is centrally located and is the only hotel where all of the city’s cable cars meet, making it an excellent location for this famous mode of transport. Hop on one and you’ll be at Fisherman’s Wharf or AT&T Park (home to the San Francisco Giants baseball team) in minutes. Other major attractions like Union Square is only a five-minute walk while Little Italy and Chinatown are only a 10-minute walk away.
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The first morning we managed to leave the rarefied air of Nob Hill and walked downhill to where the cable cars begin their journey. We wanted to experience the entire trip as the trams rattled up to the summit and when on the steep down descent watching the drivers applying the massive handbrakes. It’s an art slowing down and stopping these historical mechanical beasts.
Our first cable car ride took us all the way to Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf to where hundreds of lazy, noisy sea lions call home. After gawking at these cute and mischievous well-fed locals we soon had our heads buried in a Fisherman’s Wharf famous clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl.
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city and is filled with a multitude of restaurants and seafood stalls and souvenir shops selling the usual array of just about everything. The added bonus is the direct views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the island that houses the famous Alcatraz prison.
From Pier 39 we attempted to walk off our seafood extravaganza as we made our way up to one of the strangest, crookedest and steepest streets in the city, the legendary zig zagging Lombard Street. The area around Lombard Street is known as Russian Hill and the neighbourhood is quite exclusive and filled with grandiose mansions and expensive real estate. We were there in late November and Lombard Street was alive with colours of blooming flowers in season.
From here we navigated our way to what is now my favourite district in San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury. It’s here where the hippy movement started in the 1960’s and today has the same vibe as you walk the colourful streets. I saw pot being freely and openly sold, with the smell of weed wafting all around us. There are hippies still living the same life there, as though time has stood still. Also there are many retro and second hand clothing stores and an array of cafes, making it difficult to leave as there’s so much to see and do.
Time unfortunately was not our friend so our next iconic San Francisco adventure saw us drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, soaking in the views over the Bay area and beyond.
One notable thing in San Francisco is that the temperature can suddenly drop from extremely warm and comfortable to artic cold and foggy in just minutes, such to the extent that in a heartbeat the Golden Gate Bridge can disappear. Crossing the bridge in an open top hop on hop off big red double decker bus was like driving through a freezing hurricane alley. Clinging desperately onto our hats when we reached the other side we were back in calm and balmy summer conditions. From the bridge we continued on to the gorgeous little town of Sausalito for some shopping therapy and a delicious Californian seafood lunch.
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The guide we had on our bus was named Gordon and he was the funniest and most knowledgeable guide I’ve ever come across. If you’re ever in San Francisco attempt to seek out this wonderful man.
Next day we left the city for a cruise up to one of the best wine districts in the world, Napa Valley. We were there only weeks after devastating bush fires wreaked havoc on many of the world-renowned wineries. In a short time many of Napa Valley and Somona vineyards were wiped out. Fortunately not all of the area was affected by the wild fires and we managed to visit one of the area’s best, the Robert Mondavi Vineyard.
Our first impressions of Mondavi were spectacular and we quickly realised that we were in one of the best wine regions in the world. At the cellar door tasting room we discovered their world-class pinos and sav blancs that are so highly acclaimed. We also did a tour of the barrel rooms and this in itself gives you a rare insight and education into their world of winemaking.
Wine tasting is hard work and we finish off our day in a well known local Napa restaurant called the Rutherford Grill and devoured a tonne of corn bread along with a succulent rack of their premium pork ribs dripping with Texas Hill Country BBQ sauce, which I rate as the best ribs I’ve ever tasted. And of course the finest reds were served with our feast along with a collection of desserts fit for gluttonous Australian sugar addicts. This Napa Valley feast has left an indelible memory on our taste buds and my ever-expanding waistline.
Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco but I left my six-pack and will undoubtedly be back one day to find it.
Photography by Daniel Resnik (accept the main image).
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This article was first published in February, 2018 and updated in December, 2020.