Says Oakland is a must-do when heading to the Bay area
IT must be hard having a younger, hipper, more interesting brother.
I wouldn’t know, of course, because in my family I am the younger, hipper, more interesting brother.
Which is why I don’t really know how San Francisco feels about Oakland, the city across the Bay.
I’m joking, of course there is a lot that is hip and interesting about San Francisco, but Oakland has certainly got an edge at the moment. It is, as they say, the place to be.
And if you take advantage of the new flights from Manchester direct to San Francisco from Virgin Atlantic, the first airline to schedule direct flights on the ManFran route, you could do a lot worse than to set aside a day or three to check out all there is to offer across the Bay Bridge.
You will, of course, have to do San Francisco as well - and there are two headline activities that everyone who visits there just has to do. But more on that later. that most dreaded of urban redevelopment expressions – gentrification.
It hasn’t lost all its edge, though – it is widely regarded as being one of the most demographically diverse cities in all of the United States.
That in itself makes it a very interesting place to visit. There truly is a healthy mix of cultures that manage, on the face of it at least, to avoid clashing.
They mean there’s more to the place than the sum of its parts.
Our visit focused on the downtown area around Telegraph Avenue, a street which runs from the centre of town all the way up to the edge of the University of California campus in the neighbouring city of Berkeley to the north.
With its extraordinarily diverse collection of shops, restaurants and cafes, Telegraph Avenue is a big attraction for tourists, and you should certainly make a walk along its length the centrepiece of your visit.
Look out for the beautifully restored Fox Theatre, now a fantastic music venue.
Next door is my first eating out recommendation – Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe, a very cool diner part-owned by Mike Dirnt, the bass player from the band Green Day, which hails from these parts.
Green Day fans can also visit the guitar shop owned by the band’s frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, Broken Guitars, in the hip Temescal district of Oakland, on the way up to Berkeley just off Telegraph Avenue.
You won’t be short of places to stop for a drink or a bite to eat, but for a cut-above dining experience visit the “modern American” restaurant Flora, just opposite the Fox Theatre.
Heading the other way down Telegraph Avenue you’ll eventually come to Broadway, which takes you all the way down Jack London Square, named after the celebrated writer who hung out in these parts and has a statue here in his honour.
The square itself boasts another selection of eating and drinking options if you find Telegraph Avenue a bit too cool for you. Which you might.
Close to Jack London Square is Buttercup, the only place to visit for breakfasts (which are absolutely not for the fainthearted). My son Finn enjoyed waffles with fried chicken for his.
There’s no doubt a lot more to see in Oakland, and I loved my first toe-dip into its waters so much that a return visit has made it onto the itinerary for my next summer holidays.
We stayed at the Oakland Marriott City Centre – it’s on Broadway, close to the action, and has recently been refurbished.
It’s not too pricey, but perfectly comfortable, and it’s a great central location. We’ll be back in there next summer, too.
Our time in San Francisco was all too brief – we spent more time in Oakland than in the Bay Area’s main attraction.
But as first time visitors there were two things that we needed to tick off our list – a visit to Alcatraz Island and a cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge.
We stayed at the Parc 55 hotel close to Union Square in the city – ideally located by the Powell Street BART station, which will be your best way of getting from the airport into the city, and up to Oakland beyond.
BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is a rail system that runs from the airport, some 13 miles south of downtown San Francisco, up through the city, across the Bay to Oakland, with four lines then fanning out to connect with Richmond, Pittsburg (no, not Pittsburgh), Dublin (no, not that Dublin), and Fremont.
It’s by far the cheapest and fastest way to get from the airport into San Francisco.
How interesting can a former prison be? That was my question, as my son – who has apparently visited a virtual Alcatraz many times, shooting zombies in one or other of the Call of Duty games – as he pestered for a visit to the real thing.
Of course Alcatraz isn’t just any old prison – the famous saying goes something like “if you break the rules, you go to prison, if you break the prison rules, you go to Alcatraz”.
In other words, it housed the cream of the criminal crop - including Al Capone and Robert “The Bird Man” Stroud – during its surprisingly brief 29-year career as a federal prison.
It closed in 1963, a victim of cost-cutting. The prison buildings were eroding badly because of its salty location on an island in San Francisco Bay.
You can catch a ferry out to the island from Pier 33 in San Francisco, and once on the island are free to wander around for as long as you like.
The centrepiece of the visit, though, has to be the audio tour (included in the price).
It takes you around the prison block on the island, describing the various escape attempts and pointing out the cells of the most famous prisoners.
It’s all the more affecting as the tour is narrated in part by former guards and prisoners who actually spent time on the island.
As the announcer on the ferry told us as we made our way out to the island… ‘“Alcatraz is so much more than just a prison”.
If you want to visit Alcatraz you must book in advance – very few tickets are available on the day and you’ll have to get up very early to snag one. Visit alcatrazcruises.com for all the details – tickets cost $37.25 for a day-tour and it’s totally worth it.
The bridge from San Francisco across the mouth of the Bay to Marin County is one of the most recognisable landmarks in the world.
Opened in 1937 the Golden Gate Bridge is an absolute must on a visit to San Francisco.
It’s one of those landmarks that doesn’t disappoint – despite being so familiar, it remains more breathtaking in real life than it ever could be in a photograph.
And cycling across it, despite being a somewhat alarming prospect given the high winds, is just one of those things you must do on your first visit to San Francisco.
You can pick up a bike for hire on Beach Street at the hilariously named Blazing Saddles – it’s cheap at around $8 an hour, and you can make it across the bridge and back from there in less than three hours.
Beach Street is just up the road from another tourist hotspot in Fisherman’s Wharf, which should be avoided unless you like large crowds, tacky gift shops, and seafood restaurants.
Anyway, cycling across the bridge offers one of those wonderful travel moments when you can’t quite believe where you are and what you’re doing. And although it’s quite a relief to be out of the wind when you get back across – the sense of accomplishment is rewarding.
If you like, you can cycle all the way up to Sausalito in Marin County, ditch the bikes there and take the ferry back, which is more than we had time for.
Our 36 hours in San Francisco was packed with just those two adventures.
And that’s why SF, too, is on the list for a revisit next year. Our few days in Northern California was a mere taster for a fuller California experience.
We didn’t head home afterwards, we headed south in an RV on an altogether different adventure.
●●The view from the Oakland Marriot City Center
●●Finn and Justin Connolly after cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge