Driving into San Francisco was nothing short of chaotic. Admittedly, I was already feeling anxious this afternoon as cities can be pretty overwhelming and we hadn’t nailed down a place to sleep. I had been counting on free parking apps such as iOverlander to show us a reliable and safe place to park the van for the night, but none of the options were ideal. I started to worry about how unsafe it would be to sleep in our car in such a large city with a high crime rate, particularly for carjackings. I am usually the first to say that “bad things can happen anywhere,” but I had to be realistic and air on the side of caution. I am grateful that I was able to put those thoughts aside temporarily to focus on having a great afternoon in such a vibrant and historic city.
We drove straight to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. Parking was surprisingly easy to find and we left the van to stroll the waterfront where we watched some fun street performances and enjoyed some yummy street food. A small part of me wishes we hadn’t spent so much time at Pier 39– it’s super overrated (a bit like Santa Monica Pier) and I think we could have enjoyed a more authentic local experience. We came across a bike stand and made a last-minute decision to rent some for a couple of hours to ride out to a Golden Gate Bridge Viewpoint. This turned out to be a really good choice and we will remember this ride for a long time; it got us out of the tourist trap, got us breathing some fresh air and feeling active, and had us enjoying the city from a fun perspective.
When we had returned the bikes and started back to the van, those nagging feelings about where to sleep were creeping back. We were also pretty hungry. I had the idea to head north across the Golden Gate Bridge toward more rural communities where it might be easier to find a place to sleep with some peace of mind and we agreed we would stop at a random restaurant along the way. On the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge is an excellent viewpoint of both the bridge and The Golden City itself– it’s totally worth the traffic and the toll. It was remarkable to be so close to a global landmark, a simply iconic structure.
Almost immediately after crossing the bridge is the turnoff for the tiny coastal town of Sausalito. We decided this would likely be a great place for dinner– little did I know my worries and anxiety from throughout the day were about to completely melt away. We pulled the van into an almost entirely empty parking lot where the rates were astronomical… astronomically cheap! I was blown away that the rates were as low as $1 per hour just outside the city. Then we realized that the lots are open 24/7. It felt like a miracle. To be clear, these are the lots for the marina and there are some posts on apps such as boondocking.org and iOverlander by others who have successfully camped there. I started to notice some other (stealthier) vans around the parking lots and realized that it is a little-known but perfect spot for boondocking near San Francisco. We immediately decided to stay the night in Sausalito.
We strolled up the main street in Sausalito and marvelled at how quiet and quaint this community is with its swanky hillside homes and sparking marina. Salito’s jumped out as a good choice for some local seafood so we got ourselves a table. Our instincts were right as the meals were fresh and delicious and the atmosphere was clean and coastal. After supper, we were out for a walk in search of dessert and stumbled on a little dive bar called Smitty’s. We ended up staying for hours playing pool and pinball and enjoying some beers and good tunes with the locals.
If this day taught me anything, it’s that the unplanned, spontaneous adventures always end up being the most memorable.
A peaceful slumber, morning beverage and croissant at Firehouse Coffee, and a restock at Target were exactly what we needed to kick off another great day in the Golden State. We crossed the scenic Golden Gate for the last time and headed back to the SF waterfront to explore before our Alcatraz Island Tour and cruise in the harbour (check out our Alcatraz Visual Diary). We strolled around the piers and Embarcadero, taking in some of the city’s funky architecture, cool outdoor exhibits at the Exploratorium, and iconic San Francisco streetcars.
We ended our day in San Francisco with Rocket Sushi and a quick stop at the Painted Ladies where I spent five minutes singing the Full House Theme Song. We left the city via the Bay Bridge, which felt like an experience in itself. We were headed for Yosemite but knew we wouldn’t make it all the way that night. We made it from Oakland to Oakdale (not joking) where we spent the night in a Best Western parking lot. It was not as good as the marina in Sausalito, but it was good enough for us.
San Francisco is a fascinating city and a day and a half is a fraction of the amount of time needed to truly experience it, but we are grateful for our time there and would not trade it for anything.