Sunday, 5 July 2015

Week 28: USA - Los Angeles

Image of the week; Santa Monica Beach on a Monday afternoon - school's out
More images at the end of post
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Where in the world

A fifty minute flight from Oakland to our second stop in the state of California, Los Angeles.
 



Thoughts

A few people I know mentioned, that when they visited LA themselves, they 'couldn't find much to do there' and one even said that 'they found it quite boring'. After being here for nine days, I can understand where those sentiments likely stem from. 

I think it's all to do with the size of the place - LA is big. Really big. It's about 44 miles by 30 miles, compared to San Francisco last week, which is only 7 miles by 7 miles. It is categorically not a walking city. Everyone has a car, and everyone drives, all of the time.

It also doesn't have much in the way of iconic landmarks - no recognisable bridge or sky scraper, for example. So I think people get stumped as to what they should be doing and where they should be visiting.

wonderful light at Venice Beach at sunset, Los Angeles
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But this of course, does not mean there isn't stuff to see and do in LA. It probably couldn't be further from the truth. The playground of the rich and famous, a place full of nonsense and delusion and egomania, a town where status is everything - it all makes for a lot of stories, and dark ones at that. Why else have there been so many songs written about the place?

I remember reading a quote about a city once. It was along the lines of 'I love living here, but I'd hate to visit'. I think this can be applied to LA, in a sense. I get the feeling that to really understand the place and all it has to offer, you need to be here for longer than nine days. Longer than a month, probably. 

When it can take 90 minutes to get anywhere by public transport, you find yourself stuck with only dropping by the tourist spots. I'm sure there are some fascinating neighbourhoods to spend the day wondering around in, but it all needs more time to let the place do itself justice. 

What a visitor really needs is a local to take them off the beaten track, reveal LA's underbelly, and all the fun that can be had there.

view from the Starline open-top bus, Los Angeles
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But for those who do visit, it's likely your time here won't be for weeks. And if you're combining a short trip with a large city, and don't plan on hiring a car, there have got to be few better ways of getting your bearings and seeing all the main points of interest than with a hop-on-hop-off bus tour, such as with Starline. The routes they offer combined covers a whopping 100 miles of LA.

Some people say they're touristy. And of course, tourists use them. But so what? I am too, a tourist, and I love the idea of being driven around to the parts of town I should be seeing, with a commentary telling me a load of interesting stuff about what I'm looking at (see Did you know? below for the interesting things about this city I learnt on the tours), whilst catching some rays and being able to look up at the city's great architecture (of which there is a lot, by the way). I've done one of these in San Francisco, in Spain, and even in my home town of London.

Starline offer a range of sightseeing excursions and guided tours that highlight everything from LA's most iconic sights to forgotten chapters of the city's captivating past. Some of their most popular options include the Grand City Tour of LA and their hop-on hop-off sightseeing bus (what we did), but they also offer multilingual tours of Los Angeles attractions, excursions to movie studios and local theme parks, and beach tours that showcase the city's spectacular Pacific coastline (you can see a picture of Santa Monica Bay at the top of the post, for example).

view from the Starline open-top bus, Los Angeles
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They have a GPS tracker for all their buses so you know when the next is due, meaning you don't have to hang around waiting an age for one. And the photo opportunities from the roof are great (see above), as well as all the places we hopped-off at, most images of which can be found at the end of this post. 

We got a three day pass, allowing us to comfortably ride the three main routes, allowing plenty of time to hop-off and explore. Whilst we used public transport to get us to and from town from where we were staying near Korea Town, we pretty much exclusively relied on the Starline buses to get us around once we were there, and they were really enjoyable rides.

There are a whole host of
different ticket options available from Starline, but the three day hop-on-hop-off passes we got are $74 (£48) for adults and $45 (£29) for children.


Note: Starline kindly hosted our passes as part of a media package. All views remain my own.

The best things I ate this week

Where to eat in Los Angeles

Taco Tuesdays

Tuesday's in the USA are also known as Taco Tuesdays. Meaning, if you find a place selling tacos and it's a Tuesday, they'll likely be on offer. Such as at Calle Tacos, a family-run Mexican joint on on Hollywood Boulevard, where they're half price at $1 a pop. 

Have them with carnitas (pork), beef, chicken, fish and fill your boots at the self-serve bar with pickled veg, roasted chilli peppers and homemade sauces. A good pitstop if you're doing the Hollywood walk of fame.
Calle Tacos, 6508 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028

Snickers doughnut

California Donuts is a 24/7 retro-style bakery doling out warm doughnuts, muffins, milkshakes, coffee, and stuffed croissants the size of your face. It's had a queue of at least 15 people whenever I've gone past it, and they dress their baked goods with the likes of Lucky Charms, crushed Oreos, M&M's, and maple bacon. 

They're light, fluffy, and despite those sugar-loaded topping options, they're not too sweet. They've also put a Snickers bar inside a doughnut. And it's a 10 minute walk from where we're staying. So well done them.

California Donuts, 3540 W 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90020

In-N-Out Round 2: Animal (+ green juice)

Here's a food equation for you. An In-N-Out double-double + the LA arm accessory that is a cold-pressed green juice from Juice Crafters = no harm done? Pretty sure that's how it works. 

(This time, I asked for the burgers Animal (see last week's post for reference); could have had another)

In-N-Out, 13425 W Washington Blvd, Marina Del Rey, CA 90292

top: Taco Tuesdays, 24/7 doughnut flavours
bottom: In-N-Out and green juice, Brazilian BBQ, deep-fried Oreos
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Brazilian BBQ

Sirloin cap and lamb churrascaria (Brazilian BBQ), roast yucca, feijoada (Brazilian black beans), yucca flour, and collard greens. Pampas Grill does a buffet of sorts - pile up what you fancy from the bar, get your meat carved to order, get the plate weighed and pay per pound. A solid feed.

Pampas Grill, Farmers Market, 6333 W 3rd St #618, Los Angeles, CA 90036

Hot beach biscuit

There may or may not be deep-fried Oreos to be found at Venice Beach.. 

Seek them out.

Salvadoran feasting

We've been staying in a fully Hispanic neighbourhood, near Korea Town, where absolutely everything is written and spoken in Spanish. And you know what that means, great eating. Los Molcajetes is a local Salvadoran joint (the country of El Salvador being in Central America) full of locals with their families or getting take out.

They claim to make the best pupusas in LA. A traditional Salvadoran dish of stuffed and griddled disks of slaked cornmeal or rice flour, the ones pictured with revueltas (pork, beans and cheese).

The chicken tamal - a cornmeal dough shell filled with an ingredient, often meat, then steamed in corn husks - was full of flavour, as was the salpicon - minced beef with mint, coriander, onions, radish, beans and rice. And there was a thick, piping hot tortilla. It was a hearty, and inexpensive, feed.

Los Molcajetes, 2748 W Temple St, Los Angeles, CA 90026

Buttermilk short stack

We'd been in the States for almost a month before realising we'd failed to have any fluffy buttermilk pancakes. Which everyone knows whilst visiting America, is against the law. This was swiftly rectified at downtown LA institute, The Original Pantry. Open 24/7/365, it hasn't closed since its first day in 1924. A proper old school diner, great service, frequented by stars, presidents, and the rest. I bet it's a lot of fun at four in the morning

The Original Pantry Cafe, 877 S Figueroa St, Los Angeles, CA 90017

top: Salvadoran pupusas, tamal and salpicon
bottom: short stack of buttermilk pancakes, Japadog, a take on an Oreo
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Japanese hotdogs

A street food vendor starting in Vancouver, Cananda, the guys at Japadog on Santa Monica Pier have forged a loyal following over the years. They fuse Japanese flavours with the all-American hot dog, so you can expect your dogs topped with bonito flakes, daikon, soy sauce and even noodles. Pictured is their most popular, the Kurobuta Terimayo - Kurobuta pork, fried onions, teriyaki sauce, Japanese mayo, seaweed. 

Japadog, Bike Path, Santa Monica Pier

Oreo-style

You'll find high-end sandwiches and French desserts at this tiny counter-serve nook in Beverly Hills with parkside patio seats. Bouchon Bakery is a venture from chef Thomas Keller, sitting alongside the Bouchon Bistro. Make a beeline for the TKO or Thomas Keller OreoAn elegant, giant Oreo, deeply chocolatey, with a white chocolate based cream that's far more satisfying than sugar paste.

Bouchon Bakery, 235 N Canon Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90210

Did you know?

I learnt a heap of interesting stuff from the audio commentary on the different Starline Tours Hop on Hop Off LA routes we took around Los Angeles (here's the map of all their routes), including Beverly Hills, Hollywood, and Santa Monica.

Little Tokyo

Little Tokyo is one of the only three official Japan towns in the USA. All three can be found in California, with the other two in San Francisco and San Jose.

The Muppets on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Hollywood Walk of Fame

The internationally recognised Hollywood Walk of Fame stretches a whopping 15 blocks down Hollywood Boulevard, and celebrities are not limited to just one star. 

There are five categories: Motion Pictures, Television, Recording or Music, Radio, and Theatre/Live Performance, with the category depicted by the icon used on the star. If a celebrity is famous in more than one category, they can have more than one star. 

House of Bijan, Rodeo Drive
Beverly Hills
Oil county

Los Angeles is the most populus county (that's a subdivision of a state) in the USA. If it was a state, it would be the 9th largest in the country. It also lies over four major earthquake faults, and is actually one giant oil field. There's oil being pumped from under the Beverly Shopping Centre right now, and there are 3000 active oil wells throughout LA county.

Beverly Hills nuances

The residential streets of Beverly Hills have separate alleyways that run behind and parallel to the houses. Their purpose? For the garbage trucks to skulk down out of sight, so the residents don't have to endure their horror whilst out on their morning powerwalk with the pooches. 

Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills
In addition, whilst all of the fire hydrants in the state of California are painted yellow, the ones in Beverly Hills are silver. Because you know, the residents thought it would be a good thing to spend money on.

Rodeo Drive

Rodeo Drive - arguably the most expensive stretch of shopping street in the world - was made famous by Julia Roberts when she strutted down it in a mini-dress with a wallet full of Richard Gere's plastic, only to be turned away by snobby sales assistants. 

Well, this road also has the House of Bijan, "the most expensive store in the world" we're told. It's a menswear boutique that is by appointment only, and the average spend in one hit is $100,000. These guys dress film stars, presidents and royalty. 

I had of course, never heard of it.

My insider tips

uberPOOL

Uber is a great service as it is. We've used them both in San Francisco (where it was launched, but then everything seems to start in SF) and in Los Angeles, but only this week did we discover the UberPOOL option. If you switch it on, the service matches you with another rider heading in the same direction. You both use the same car (up to two people per pick-up) and the fare you pay is greatly reduced for it. Trips are up to 50% less than a standard Uber fare.

We used this option a few times. On one occasion, we were still only charged half price even though there was no second pick-up. So it looks like you still get the savings even if you don't end up sharing the car. Another time, we joined a single traveller heading in our direction. We were in the car for around 40 minutes, going right across LA, and it only cost about $10 (£6). Which is bloody brilliant.

Los Angeles skyline - view from the Starline open-top bus
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Griffith Park

My other tip would be to definitely hike some of the trails in Griffith Park. The views from the Griffith Observatory at the top are the best you'll get in the city, and if you hang around until the end of the day, you'll get to see the sun setting behind the Hollywood sign. 

It's a perfect way to spend half a day closer to nature, away from the endless cars, and get a perspective on just how sprawling Los Angeles is.

The observatory itself is also free, and you can take a look through the telescopes once they set them up around sunset.

the view after hiking up to Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles
sunset from Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles
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Highlights / Lowlights

Highlight  

Arnie
On our first day here, whilst I was stuck indoors finishing off last week's post on San Francisco, Matt popped over to Hollwood and stumbled across the premier of the new Terminator Genisys film. And Arnie was there. Our collective one and only celebrity spot during out time in LA. 

We're big fans of the multi award-winning American sitcom Modern Family (on Sky 1 if you're in the UK, ABC in America). 

The houses of the families used for the exterior shots in the show can be found in LA, and Matt is a big enough fan to drag the both of us on the very long slog to them - a combination of buses and a lot of walking up and down hills (we hadn't yet realised how long it takes to get everywhere at this point) - for a photo op.

If the names Pritchett, Tucker and Dunphy mean anything to you, you find yourself in LA, and you're a big enough fan to want to seek out the houses yourselves, they can be found in very well presented neighbourhoods between Century City and Culver City. These are the addresses - I'd advise to get a cab:

  • Phil & Claire Dunphy’s house: 10336 Dunleer Drive
  • Cam & Mitch’s house: 2211 Fox Hills Drive
  • Gloria & Jay Pritchett’s house: 121 S. Cliffwood Ave. in Brentwood

Cameron and Mitchell's House from Modern Family, Los Angeles



Lowlight

As I've mentioned a few times, Los Angeles is not a small place. Public transport is good, frequent, and cheap - $1.75 (£1.10) for a bus fare that could take you right across town - but despite this, it can still take what feels like forever to get somewhere, especially if you're based on one side of the city. 

For example, it took over two hours to get to Venice Beach from where we were staying, and that's with hardly any waiting time at the bus stops. We could have flown to San Francisco and back in that time.

Next week

To country number 11, and possibly the one I've been looking forward to the most - MEXICO. We'll be travelling through it for around a month. I'm pretty excited.

Postcards

climbing ropes at Santa Monica Beach, Los Angeles
The Original Pantry, Los Angeles
Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

Griffith Park hiking trails, Los Angeles




Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles (taken from Starline open-top bus)
terrapins at MacArthur Park, Los Angeles





Los Angeles architecture (taken from Starline open-top bus)




Venice Beach, Los Angeles







basketball at Venice Beach, Los Angeles

Related posts

Week 0: Gone travelling. London - see you in nine months

Week 1: INDIA - Mumbai → Goa
Week 2: INDIA - Bangalore → Mysore → Wayanad
Week 3: INDIA - Kochi → Allepey → Kollam → Madurai
Week 4: INDIA - Pondicherry → Chennai → Mumbai

Week 5: INDIA - Varanasi → Udaipur → Jaipur → Delhi
Week 6: TAIWAN - Taipei
Week 7: CHINA & VIETNAM - Hong Kong → Hanoi
Week 8: VIETNAM - Sapa → Hanoi → Ha Long Bay → Hanoi

Week 9: VIETNAM - Hue → Hoi An
Week 10: VIETNAM - 6 day / 5 night motorbike tour from Hoi An to Da Lat
Week 11: VIETNAM - Da Lat → Nha Trang
Week 12: VIETNAM - HCMC → Mekong Delta → HCMC

Week 13: CAMBODIA - Siem Reap (and Angkor Wat) → Phnom Penh
Week 14: CAMBODIA - Sihanoukville & Koh Rong Samloem Island
Week 15: CAMBODIA - Kep
Week 16: THAILAND - Chiang Mai

Week 17: THAILAND - Songkran Festival in Mae Rim & Chiang Mai
Week 18: THAILAND - Bangkok → Koh Phangan
Week 19: THAILAND - Bangkok
Week 20: MALAYSIA - Penang → Borneo

Week 21: AUSTRALIA - Melbourne
Week 22: NEW ZEALAND - Auckland → Rotorua → Turangi → Whanganui
Week 23: NEW ZEALAND - Wellington → Nelson Lakes → Hanmer Springs → Christchurch
Week 24: NEW ZEALAND - Lake Tekapo → Mount Cook → Queenstown → Milford Sound

Week 25: NEW ZEALAND & USA - Queenstown → Hawaii
Week 26: USA - Hawaii (Big Island) → San Francisco (Oakland)

Week 27: USA - San Francisco

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Week 27: USA - San Francisco

Image of the week: a steep Nob Hill, where the side streets that come off it are at a 45 degree incline
More images at the end of post

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Where in the world

Still based in Oakland, but this week we ventured across the bay to explore San Francisco.




Thoughts

Why, out of the whole of the USA, did we decide to only visit San Francisco and Los Angeles (next week)? Well, I can certainly answer for SF - a combination of things. 

climbing San Francisco's hills
(disclosure: angle may have been slightly
exaggerated by camera tilting..)
Firstly there's the obvious constraints of time and money, otherwise we would have done many more cities in the States.

But San Francisco has been on my list for a while - a mix of friends having visited, telling me they really liked the vibe, and other friends who have up and left London to make a life out here on the West Coast

The fact it's hailed as "the best restaurant city in America" might have also played a part (see The best things I ate this week below).

It's also a really 'doable' city. It's been built up rather than out, meaning that even though its population is under a million, they're packed in, making it the second-most densely-populated city in the country. 

That means it's a lot smaller than people think, roughly square in shape and only about 7 miles each side, making it easy to get around.

I like the fact it's on the San Andreas Fault line, and regular readers will know how much I'm attracted to a place that threatens to shake the very ground beneath my feet. It's also this tectonic movement that's given the city it's famous topography - no less than 71 hills. Steep ones at that.

(Side: I think it only fitting to watch the newly released San Andreas - a disaster movie about the aftermath of a massive earthquake that hits California - while we're here. Must Google film showings.)

the top of Russian Hill that has a 45 degree incline - great views
San Francisco
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And then there's the weather. Think strong sunshine without being too hot, enough for red noses and cheeks by the end of the day because you didn't realise you needed sunscreen. The evenings are chilly, with the occasional moody fog rolling in for atmosphere. 

San Francisco is actually famous for its fog, which is heaviest in June and July, and can drop the temperature by 10 degrees in just a few minutes. San Franciscans don't leave home without a jumper, any time of year.

Some sort of political protest I think. Note on his chest was written backwards - of course
San Francisco
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It's also a place that's very accepting of people who are a bit different, and there's a lot of charm in that. 

"The world's most gay-friendly city" is now even more friendly since California allowed same-sex marriage in 2013. And even though New York may have surpassed it in diversity, San Francisco is the world's original gay Mecca, with its Castro District still feeling like the center of the gay universe.

I'm a bit gutted we left just the day before San Francisco Pride, actually.

the flags are up in preparation for San Francisco Pride 2015
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The best things I ate this week

Where to eat in San Francisco

Smoked salmon bagels

A breakfast of large proportions. But then, we are in America. This is the lox platter at Hollywood Cafe in Fisherman's Wharf. There's always a bit of a queue here, probably because it's one of the few places in this touristy strip that does food that's both good and reasonably priced. Only open for breakfast and lunch, closed by 13.45

Hollywood Cafe, 530 North Point Street, San Francisco, CA 94133

BBQ smoked meats

This was a great dinner. As much sensationaly smoked meat at 4505 Burgers & BBQ as you can shake the proverbial at. There were six of us, so we ordered the The Presidential for $99 which feeds six and includes all meats, all fixins, and all sides. Such good value for $18 a head. 

Brisket, pulled chicken, pulled pork shoulder, spicy sausage, pork spare ribs, beef ribs, coleslaw, posole (a pre-Columbian stew from Mexico), potato salad, fries with chimichurri, Frankaroni (deep fried macaroni cheese with frankfurter - also pictured), chiccharones (pork crackling) - the very first product they started making. 

Note, there's only outside seating, although most of it is covered - but wrap up. And expect queues around dinner time. Get there early for the brisket, which had 'run out' by the time we got there, but some of it thankfully still appeared on our plate.

4505 Burgers & BBQ, 705 Divisadero (at Grove St.), San Francisco, 94117

top: lox platter from Hollywood Cafe, deep fried Frankaroni, and all the meat at 4505 Burgers & BBQ
bottom: In-N-Out burgers, pastry and tart from b.patisserie, awesome pizza from Ragazza
Where to eat in San Francisco
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Cheap and cheerful failsafe burgers

Most of the people I know who visit America from the UK make a trip to an In-N-Out. Firstly, because they have yet to reach our shores, and secondly, because they make fresh and good quality burgers, with great flavour, that are really very good value. This was my first experience, and I was impressed.

I only learnt about the not-so-secret secret menu after - ask for it Animal style when you place your order and in addition to the standard toppings, you'll get pickles, extra spread, grilled onions, and mustard fried onto each meat patty, for no extra charge.

In-N-Out, Anchorage Shopping Center, 333 Jefferson St, San Francisco, CA 94133

Baked goods royalty

Lots of people told me I had to visit b.patisserie, and it's pretty clear why. It's so good we went twice in the few days we were in SF. Expect Parisian and Viennese-style pastries, sandwiches and coffee with an open kitchen and an almost fully female workforce.

They're known for their kouign amann - an uber-buttery and caramelised pastry from Brittany - which I scoffed still warm from the oven with a bit of melted chocolate poured on top. It was pretty busy there on a Sunday afternoon, but I think this may be better than the one I had at Dominique Ansel in New York

b.patisserie, 2821 California St, San Francisco, CA 94115

Unmatched pizza bases

Divisadero Street has a very cool feel about it with loads of great restaurants. Including neighbourhood joint Ragazza serving Neopolitan style thin crust pizza, and a load more. 

Pictured: wild nettles, portobello mushrooms, Olli pancetta, red onion, aged provolone. This was, hands down, the best pizza base I've ever had. Unmatched crispness, almost like it had been deep-fried, but without the grease. Amazing the next day cold too. 

Ragazza, 311 Divisadero St. (Between Page & Oak), San Francisco CA 94117

top: fish & chips in Sausalito, Kaui ice cream from Hawaiian chain Lappert's
bottom: Californian strawberries, fish tacos in Sausalito
Where to eat in Sausalito
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Where to eat in Sausalito

Fish & chips

The houses of Sausalito - the first city you hit when crossing the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco - are occupied by celebrities, the retired well-off, and those Silicon Valley techies that make enough money to secure seats on the intergalactic Virgin spaceship. Which means it's hard to find lunch for less than $30. 

Except for long-standing, family-run fast-food joint Fish & Chips of Sausalito, doling out fried and grilled seafood, burgers and sandwiches. They get really busy, filled with visitors popping over the water to pay a visit to this very pretty city, rather than locals. Fish and chips, fish tacos, a park bench, Californian sunshine. Job's a good'un.

Fish & Chips of Sausalito, 817 Bridgeway, Sausalito, CA 94965

Hawaiian ice cream

Lappert's Ice Cream is a Hawaiian cafe chain with its mainland outpost in Sausalito, offering coffee and ice cream in tropical flavors, and considered some of the best in the bay. Try the Kauai Pie flavour - coffee ice cream with coconuts, chocolate fudge and macadamia nuts. Lovely stuff.

Lappert's Ice Cream, 689 Bridgeway, Sausalito, CA 94965

Californian fruit

As I mentioned last week, the fruit in California is quite something. As well as eating all of the peaches, I've been scoffing plenty a deep red strawberry too. And when you go into a grocery store, pretty much all the fresh produce is grown within the state - from avocados and melons to asparagus and apples - making it really easy to keep those air miles low. That's the Californian climate for you.

the Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco
Did you know?

Some interesting snippets I learnt from various people and places during our time in San Francisco.

San Francisco facts

1) You can earn up to $70,000 (£47,000) a year walking dogs in San Francisco, there are that many of them. It's a profitibale indsutry, and people make very successful careers out of it.

2) The iconic Golden Gate Bridge was constructed between 1933 and 1937, and was the longest suspension bridge in the world for 40 years. 

Eleven men died making it, falling victim to the 60-70 mph winds the bay sees almost on a daily basis, plummeting to their death in the frigid waters below (they were climbing with no harnesses). 

They then decided to put up a safety net - that net saved 19 lives that would have otherwise seen the same fate.

3) The house of Mrs Doubtfire used in the 1993 film is a regular and occupied house in San Francisco, near Billionaires Row in Pacific Heights

It turned into a shrine when Robin Williams passed away a year ago, with hundreds laying flowers and lighting candles outside the property. His untimely death hit the locals particularly hard, as his home, and where he was found, was in San Francisco.

the Mrs. Doubtfire House, San Francisco
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4) A one block section of Lombard Street on Russian Hill has a famous and quite ridiculous zig-zagging stretch of road at around a 45 degree incline, with eight hairpin turns. It was originally built like that in 1922 to prevent drivers losing control of their cars at the top and crashing. But we have better brakes these days. 

It's now driven down mostly by tourists for the novelty. Residents who live on it of course, hate it. But then no one told them to live there.

Lombard Road at Russian Hill, San Francisco
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5) The "inescapable" federal penitentiary and maximum security star of the 40's and 50's, Alcatraz, can be found on its own little island in San Francisco Bay. Several films have been based on this prison, and infamous inmates included Al Capone, who eventually lost his mind to syphilis.

Out of the 14 separate escape attempts by 36 Alcatraz inmates during its 29 years of operation, no one is known to have successfully made it to the mainland - frigid water, strong currents, and the 1.25 mile swim made sure of that. 

However, three men who managed to break out in 1962 remain unaccounted for, still with rewards on their heads, listed by the FBI as "missing but presumed drowned". Some believe they've been living it up in South America; all three were learning Spanish in prison at the time of their escape.

Another interesting nugget: Alcatraz was the only federal prison in the USA at the time to provide hot showers. The reason? So the inmates couldn't acclimatise to cold water, which might have given them a better chance of surviving the bay's waters, had they escaped.

Alcatraz, San Francisco Bay
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Being a prisoner on the island must have been worse than most. Seeing and hearing normal life continue just over the water, dangled right in front of you, but just out of reach. 

At New Year's Eve the prisoners could hear the laughter from the parties on the piers carried over to the island on the breeze, wafting through the building's windows and cell bars. The torture. 

If you visit the prison, the audio tour (included in the ticket price) mostly consists of first hand accounts from the inmates who called Alcatraz home - really interesting to hear the stories from them directly.

prison cells in Alcatraz, San Francisco



















prison cells in Alcatraz, San Francisco

My insider tips

I didn't realise until it was too late that you can in fact walk or cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge - it's not just for vehicles. It's about 1.7 miles, and the winds can really pick up, but that's part of the fun. I really wish we'd done it - next time.


On the other side of the bridge to San Francisco is the very gorgeous city of Sausalito tucked away in the base of the hills that line the San Francisco Bay, where you could stop to have lunch (see The best places I ate this week above for where).

It's certainly worth popping over and spending at least half a day there.

Sausalito, California

Sausalito, California
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Highlights / Lowlights

Highlight  

Matt's parents and his aunt and uncle joined us for this week in San Francisco, which was lovely :)

other people - hooray!


Lowlight

San Francisco certainly lives up to its other name - the "homeless capital of America". I've never seen as many people living on the street, or as many raging crack heads shouting at police at the top of their lungs or stripping on the side of the road, as I have in this city.

As is so often the case, there are many complex layers to why homelessness is so rife here, and why so many of these people seem to have mental health issues. This blogger has done some pretty good research into it, if you're interested in knowing more.

Once you've been here for a few days, you become immune to the people rifling through rubbish bins to eat the leftovers others have thrown away, and cardboard signs asking for whatever cents can be spared to get some food.

East Bay Bridge, San Francisco
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One guy got to me though. 

We were sitting on a tour bus on the top deck waiting for it to leave from Fisherman's Wharf. Below on the street corner, there was an elderly man with a full beard, who had obviously been homeless for a while. He wasn't begging or holding up a sign, but was deftly making balloon animals and handing them out to passing kids, with a genuine warm smile. He was hoping to catch the eye of the parent to ask if they could spare any change for it, but it rarely happened.

I watched him for a while. Somtimes, a parent would stop to fish out some coins. Other times they'd look at him in disgust and tell their child to give the balloon back. Many saw the child had taken the balloon and just walked off without even acknowledging the man. But he carried on, quietly making these balloon animals on the corner of the street, handing them out with a smile, too proud to beg.

I noticed he also had some tennis balls in his pocket for juggling, and some other similar parifanalia. Was he once a kids entertainer? How did he know how to make these balloons, and so quickly? What series of unfortunate events lead him to live on the streets? Whilst he was chatting to himself occasionally, he wasn't drunk, and he wasn't high. We had a little whip round and someone popped downstairs to give him a few bucks. 

A couple of hours later when the bus returned, he was still there. I went up to him and asked him how it was going. "Not bad," he said, with kind eyes. "Still working." I handed him another couple of dollars. The smile that broke out on his face and the several thank you's that followed - heart wrencher. 

He tried to give me a balloon. I said it was ok, he could keep it for the next kid.
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Next week

We're off to La-laa Land, also known as Los Angeles.


Postcards

the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
San Francisco hills



Port of San Francisco




the residents of Pier 39, Californian sea lions - San Francisco



City Hall, San Francisco






houses on zig-zagging Lombard Street, San Francisco



Related posts

Week 0: Gone travelling. London - see you in nine months

Week 1: INDIA - Mumbai → Goa
Week 2: INDIA - Bangalore → Mysore → Wayanad
Week 3: INDIA - Kochi → Allepey → Kollam → Madurai
Week 4: INDIA - Pondicherry → Chennai → Mumbai

Week 5: INDIA - Varanasi → Udaipur → Jaipur → Delhi
Week 6: TAIWAN - Taipei
Week 7: CHINA & VIETNAM - Hong Kong → Hanoi
Week 8: VIETNAM - Sapa → Hanoi → Ha Long Bay → Hanoi

Week 9: VIETNAM - Hue → Hoi An
Week 10: VIETNAM - 6 day / 5 night motorbike tour from Hoi An to Da Lat
Week 11: VIETNAM - Da Lat → Nha Trang
Week 12: VIETNAM - HCMC → Mekong Delta → HCMC

Week 13: CAMBODIA - Siem Reap (and Angkor Wat) → Phnom Penh
Week 14: CAMBODIA - Sihanoukville & Koh Rong Samloem Island
Week 15: CAMBODIA - Kep
Week 16: THAILAND - Chiang Mai

Week 17: THAILAND - Songkran Festival in Mae Rim & Chiang Mai
Week 18: THAILAND - Bangkok → Koh Phangan
Week 19: THAILAND - Bangkok
Week 20: MALAYSIA - Penang → Borneo

Week 21: AUSTRALIA - Melbourne
Week 22: NEW ZEALAND - Auckland → Rotorua → Turangi → Whanganui
Week 23: NEW ZEALAND - Wellington → Nelson Lakes → Hanmer Springs → Christchurch
Week 24: NEW ZEALAND - Lake Tekapo → Mount Cook → Queenstown → Milford Sound

Week 25: NEW ZEALAND & USA - Queenstown → Hawaii

Week 26: USA - Hawaii (Big Island) → San Francisco (Oakland)

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