Number 37 - February 2012
Welcome to "Rick's Tips," Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel's quarterly newsletter of fun and interesting things to do in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and Northern California. Whether you are visiting San Francisco or hosting visitors, Blue Heron can provide an unforgettable experience. Visit our website, www.BlueHeronTours.com, to learn more about our private, custom tours.
San Francisco is a popular tourist destination. An estimated 16 million visitors came to San Francisco in 2011. There are days when it feels like all of them are in the line in front of you. Here are some tips for avoiding the crowds and making your visit to the City by the Bay more enjoyable.
Over 1.5 million people visit The Rock each year. During the busy season, tours frequently sell out a couple of weeks in advance. Plan ahead and buy your tickets well ahead of time at www.alcatrazcruises.com. A few tickets go on sale each morning but who wants to wait in a long line first thing in the morning.
The two Powell Street cable cars are frequently packed during the busy season. Hour-long waits are not uncommon. You can usually avoid the crowds if you ride the cars before 8:30 a.m. If you want to start your journey at Fisherman's Wharf, the wait for the Powell-Mason line, which ends at the corner of Taylor and Bay Streets, is usually shorter than the wait for the Powell-Hyde line at Aquatic Park. A good trick for both lines is to try to board a car a few blocks from the end of the line. Hopefully, you'll be able to squeeze on. Other good spots to board the cars are the corner of Powell and California Streets and the Cable Car Museum as a good number of folks get off at both spots. You can always ride the California Street line, which is seldom crowded, but the views aren't as good.
Golden Gate Bridge Vista Points
The north and south vista points can have lines of cars extending back onto US 101. The south (San Francisco) vista point is the more crowded of the two. Do not try to enter the vista point from US 101/CA 1 as you can find a long line of cars in front of you. Enter the vista point from Lincoln Blvd. in the Presidio. On really busy days, even Lincoln can be backed up. You can try parking at the Battery East parking lot, a short walk from the vista point. The vista point is also serviced by bus #28.
When these vista points are full during my tours, I take guests to alternate vista points for equally great views. Some of my favorites include Fort Point, Battery East, Crissy Field, and Lincoln Park in San Francisco and Fort Baker and Conzelman Road in the Headlands on the Marin County side.
I am continuously amazed at the line of cars extending down the hill waiting to drive the crooked part of Lombard. I've seen the line extend westward on Lombard for as long as four blocks. Two-block long lines are not uncommon on busy Saturdays and Sundays. When I drive down Lombard Street on my tours, I almost never wait as I drive up Russian Hill on Union Street, turn north on Hyde Street, and then right on Lombard to begin my descent down the Crookedest Street in the World. Do not drive south on Hyde expecting to turn left onto Lombard as left turns are prohibited at this intersection.
San Francisco is a great town for food. I have heard the city has over 3,000 restaurants, more per capita than any other city in the U.S. While you can always find a good place to eat at the last minute, the most popular restaurants book out well in advance. Some require reservations up to two months ahead of time. If you want to dine at one of San Francisco's top restaurants, be sure to make a reservation before you arrive for your visit.
Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower
Parking at the top of Telegraph Hill is extremely limited and is prohibited on summer weekends. The wait for a parking space can easily be 15 minutes or more on the busiest days. Avoid the wait and get some exercise by walking up the hill. If you find the hike up too daunting, take the #39 bus up the hill and walk back down. You can also get a transfer on the bus so you can go up and down on one fare if you don't spend too much time in Coit Tower.
Parking is very limited at Muir Woods. I've seen cars parked on the side of the road 1.5 miles away from the entrance to the park. To avoid the crowds, visit before 9:00 a.m. or after 4:00 p.m. If you arrive before 9:00 a.m., admission is free. Better yet, avoid parking completely by taking a tour, such as Blue Heron's Those Magnificent Redwoods, or driving to Sausalito or Mill Valley and taking Golden Gate Transit's shuttle to Muir Woods. The bus runs on weekends and holidays between Memorial Day and the last weekend in September. More information should be available on the Muir Woods website later this year.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
On weekends and school holidays, the aquarium can have a line to purchase tickets. Avoid the wait by purchasing your tickets from the aquarium's website. Tickets are for a specific date; however, you can enter at any time during that day.
Avoid Napa and Sonoma Valleys on Saturdays during the summer and early fall if at all possible. Traffic can be awful. If you must go on a Saturday, taste at wineries that require appointments. Another option is to visit small wineries that many visitors overlook. You may not be familiar with the winery, but the wines are usually good.
Make your lunch reservations in advance as the most popular restaurants will not have tables available.
If you are driving through the Napa Valley, try to use the Silverado trail as traffic is much lighter. Better yet, visit my favorite parts of wine country - the Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River Valleys of Northern Sonoma County. The wines are very good and crowds rare. The town of Healdsburg is charming but, even here, a lunch reservation is recommended.
Crowds are bigger everywhere on Saturday. Plan your Saturday activities so you avoid the worst of the crowds.
The National Park Service limits the number of visitors to Alcatraz, so you could visit "The Rock" on a Saturday. Just buy your tickets well in advance.
Crowds are good at sporting events so, if the home team is in town, check out college football at the University of California or Stanford University. If it's baseball season, the Oakland Coliseum, where the A's play, is easily accessible by BART (our subway) and AT&T Park, where the Giants call home, is a 15-minute walk from Union Square.
The Ferry Building, at the foot of Market Street, hosts a big farmers market every Saturday from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. It's fun to stroll among the high-end food stalls. There's much prepared food available, so have breakfast or lunch at the market. On a nice day, you'll encounter a fair number of people, but Saturday's market is the best.
Get away from the crowds on a sunny day by walking the Land's End Trail from Lincoln Park to Fort Miley. You'll be rewarded with great views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands, and the Pacific Ocean.
If you visit San Francisco this tourist season, you'll have a great time. Follow a few of these tips and you'll have an even better vacation.
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See you on the road,
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San Francisco, CA 94112
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