First time in San Francisco?

Roberta Ortolan

Ah, San Fran! Here I am for the first time in the city that has sunsets in pastel shades of pink, yellow and blue.

It’s amazing how San Francisco embraces the vintage and the new, the classic and the modern, the quiet and the extroversion at the same time. If I had to sum up San Fran in one sentence: eccentricity with a lot of charm!

What I have spent my whole life watching in movies and series, I have been able to see for myself:

  • People hurrying around in the morning, talking on their mobiles and holding their hot coffees,
  • Cable cars and the steep streets,
  • Yellow taxis and Golden Gate Bridge,
  • Victorian houses and Lombard St.

For those who were used to the nightlife of São Paulo, Brazil, San Francisco is not a Bohemian city. As much as it is the cradle of the hippie movement, the hustle, and bustle and LGBTQ+, culturally much of this city sleeps and wakes up early.

To understand this ethnical and cultural confluence, I had to research a little bit about the history of the city.

Once upon a time in San Francisco…

San Francisco
Font: / San Francisco in 1851.

Indians inhabited the region and the Bay Area. The main tribes were in Coast Miwoks and Ohlone (or Coastnoans), and lived peacefully until the arrival of the Europeans, who totally changed their culture and customs until there was no more Indian legacy to tell the story.

The San Francisco Strait and the Bay Area went completely unnoticed by the Spanish captaincies in 1542 and in 1595:

  • The first exploratory voyage up the Californian coast was commanded by the Portuguese João Rodrigues Cabrilho. Sailing through northern Mexico, his intention was to discover the Strait of Anián, as he believed that this passage connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, providing a shortcut to Asia.
  • The second voyage along the Californian coast occurred 53 years later, with another Portuguese representing the Spanish crown, Sebastião Rodrigues Soromenho. This time he found Drakes Bay, 3.72 miles (ca. 6 km) wide. What he didn’t know was that Drakes Bay was located 62.13 miles (ca. 100 km) north of the Golden Gate Strait.

However, in 1769, more than 2 centuries later, Portolá y Rovira, a Spanish officer who led the expedition to California, found the Strait of Golden Gate and the San Francisco Bay Area. He was taking the Franciscan friars to replace the Jesuits in Baja California.

Only in 1775, was Juan Manuel Ayala, a Spanish naval officer, assigned to explore and map the Strait and the Bay for the first time. When he reported his trip to his superiors, he said that Drakes and San Francisco Bays were two separate bodies of water and named some locations that we know today: Angel Island (Isla de Los Angeles), Sausalito (Saucelito – little thicket of willows), and Alcatraz (Isla de alcatraces – Isla of the pelicans).

The colonization

San Francisco
Font: / San Francisco in 1860.

In 1846, the first settlers were 200 American Mormons. The discovery of gold in the region attracted immigrants from the eastern USA and other parts of the world.

The location facing the Pacific and Asia brought Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos and native Hawaiians, forming one of the largest Asian communities in the West.

News about earthquake and fire in san francisco

The earthquake followed by fire in 1906 destroyed the commercial center and five hundred people died. The rebuilding of the city took a little less than ten years and, starting in 1915, it became the largest port in the USA with the opening of the Panama Canal.

The Golden Gate Strait separates the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco Bay and is 4.9 miles (ca. 8 km) long.

What to do once you arrive in San Francisco

San Francisco
Font: Electric Tour Company / Chinatown


San Francisco is a very big city with many things to do, so I recommend walking to absorb the local culture. With that in mind, the ITH Pacific Tradewind hostel is in Chinatown and is a strategic point for those who want to explore the city on foot. Close to everything!

I want to point out that it is fall, so be prepared for the cold, the constant wind, and the Christmas lights – yes, the city is lit up and beautiful – especially in Union Square!

Regarding the local cuisine, in Chinatown, I went to Hynodeya restaurant. I tried a vegetarian ramen in which the noodle was made of spinach. It was very well served and warmed up the soul!

San Francisco Chinatown
Font: own picture / ramen veggie food at Hynodeya.

By the way, did you know that the fortune cookie originated in San Francisco? The Japanese landscaper, Makoto Hagiwara, responsible for the maintenance and expansion of the Japanese Tea Garden at the Golden Gate Bridge Park, invented the cookies as a form of thanks in 1907.

Coffee Shops

A lot of them … But they close early: 8 pm at the latest! I visited Joe & Juice, which is five minutes walking from the hostel. Excellent options of coffees, shakes and natural juices, including wonderful sandwiches. I am writing this article while enjoying a delicious Joe’s Club, cappuccino and chocolate muffin, by the way.

San Francisco
Font: own picture / Joe & Juice at Montgomery St.

From the streets to the screens

Cable cars, Lombard St, Golden Gate Bridge, Painted Ladies

Go for a cable car ride and get to know up close the steep streets that we always see in the movies. There is an app, Muni, that you can buy a discount ticket for one or more trips, and for the period you want.

Tip: take the tour during the day and at night. The view is amazing! It stops in front of Lombard St.

San Francisco
Font: SF City Guides – street construction in 1906 / Adob Stock and Travel Book nowadays.

The block of Lombard St between Hyde and Leavenworth streets is a tourist attraction: long curve and zigzag, down the hill. It has also appeared in several movies.  Get ready for pictures.

Golden Gate Bridge takes you to Sausalito. The view from San Francisco is beautiful, the sunset at the wharf is unique, and Sausalito is pure charm.

You can also choose to do the trip by ferry boat, by car, by bike, or on foot across the most famous bridge in California.

San Francisco
Font: Adobe Stock, Travel Raval and own pictures / Sausalito.

Another scenery that has been on the big screen is the Painted Ladies – Victorian architecture from the 19th century that resisted the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Since these buildings are in Alamo Square, I would say that one of the best ways to get to know San Fran, while saving money and having fun, is to take a picnic in the Alamo Square Park.

There is an incredible view of the San Francisco financial market behind the Painted Ladies and the sunset is a must. Get ready to take some great pictures!

San Francisco
Font: and Hoodline / Alamo Square Park and Painted Ladies Houses.

I’ll be back with more cultural tips in the next posts.

Historic font: (2007) Richards, R. Historic San Francisco – A Concise History and Guide.

Food, Wine Culture and Travel Blogger / Freelance and Content Writer / Ph.D. student and Master degree in Cultural Sciences at Universidade Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro (UTAD - Portugal).

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