SAN FRANCISCO Last year, more than 16 million visitors flooded into this 49-square-mile metropolis, with more expected this year, reports the San Francisco Travel Association.
Which is reason enough for many Northern Californians to stay away. But, hey, why should Australian, Italian, German, British and Japanese tourists have all the fun? After all, it's a playground in our own backyard.
Still, there are reasons why many Sacramento day-trippers and weekenders avoid a visit in the summer months. Crowds of tourists. Nerve-jangling traffic. Scarce parking, with fees that seem more like extortion.
We found a no-stress way to avoid those hassles when we boarded a hop-on, hop-off open-top double-decker tour bus. You can, too. Put on your tourist masks and buy an "I Heart SF" T-shirt. Take hundreds of photos and point at landmarks.
Be one of them.
Before we signed up with City Sightseeing for the first of our three tours, we needed to know how the on-off template works.
On-off bus companies operate in major cities globally, and are expert at keeping their operations as foolproof as possible.
Essentially, you board a bus and listen to a tour guide's informative and (sometimes) humorous running commentary over a PA system as he/she points out highlights along the route, which is a loop. The guides stay abreast of current events in their cities (a new art show at a museum, for instance) and pass on such tidbits, as well as restaurant and shopping tips.
City Sightseeing's fleet of 15 buses travel loop routes for the tours, allowing passengers to get off their bus at designated stops to explore, then hop on another bus later. The intervals between pick-ups are 20 to 60 minutes, depending on which tour you're on.
If you remain aboard, expect a 90-minute ride. And expect to hear a United Nations' worth of foreign languages.
"We get a lot of Europeans, especially Italians, and many visitors from Australia," said City Sightseeing operations manager Jamie White.
A break and some views
Tour buses aren't just for out-of-towners, though.
"Economic conditions being what they are, more (Northern Californians) are coming to San Francisco as a vacation-destination alternative, and they're taking our tours," White said.
Also, when expediency counts, locals use them as means of transport that can easily be more cost-effective than a taxi.
Tour buses can also serve as a respite. Say you're visiting from Sacramento, your car is parked in a garage, and you've been walking around Union Square for three hours. An on-off bus would be just the thing for tired feet, a fresh perspective and the chance to visit, say, Pier 39 or Fisherman's Wharf.
About a dozen large tour-bus companies operate in San Francisco, but not without occasional complaints from some city residents who resent the constant disruption of buses lumbering through their neighborhoods and the guides' monologues broadcast over the buses' PA systems.
In some instances, street-use restrictions limit the number of buses allowed in certain neighborhoods, or effectively prohibit them altogether, said Kristin Holland, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.
To stay on good terms with the city, tour-bus operators police themselves, rerouting buses or reducing the numbers that visit certain neighborhoods, such as exclusive Alamo Square.
On a recent weekday morning, we bought tickets at busy City Sightseeing headquarters, next to the Cannery along Fisherman's Wharf. We climbed the stairs to the open-air upper deck, sat near a couple "on holiday" from Australia, and rolled out onto the street.
This was the Downtown Loop Tour, with 12 chances to hop off. It was a day to get sunburned, and sitting 12 feet above the street in a "convertible" gave us an exhilarating feeling of freedom and the chance to see the city as never before.
The incredible architecture of vintage and modern buildings, and astounding views of the bay constantly reminded us why this is a worldwide travel destination.
The bus cruised past landmarks (the Ferry Building, City Hall, Chinatown Gate) and through notable areas (Barbary Coast, South of Market, the Financial District) as guide Dominiun Sims narrated fables, facts and more history than we'd ever heard in one place.
Statistics, too: "About $1.7 million a day is collected from tolls over the Bay Bridge, and the city collects $250,000 a day from parking tickets," he announced.
At one point, Sims warned, "Now I'm going to show you the scariest part of San Francisco. Look to the right, but don't make eye contact."
We passed the UC Hastings College of the Law. "That's where our lawyers are trained."
The scene at night
At 7 p.m. we boarded another double-decker for the night tour and took a different route, with City Sightseeing guide Calvaleigh Rasmussen doing the commentary. There's no hop-on, hop-off for this tour, though passengers can disembark at Union Square and there is a brief walkabout opportunity atop Nob Hill.
Highlights included a close look at the Painted Ladies (a row of gorgeous Victorian homes) in Alamo Park, a stroll through the opulent lobby of the Julia Morgan-designed Fairmont Hotel, and walk-bys of massive Grace Cathedral and the exclusive men-only Pacific Union Club, originally the brownstone Flood Mansion.
The next morning we boarded an open-air "single decker" jitney for the Golden Gate-Sausalito Tour, with six hop-off chances. We rolled past Victorians along Union Street, through the Marina District, past the Palace of Fine Arts and across the Golden Gate Bridge, the wind whipping off the bay.
Sausalito is one of City Sightseeing's most popular stops, and the monied enclave bustled with tourists on foot and bicycles.
Sitting at an outside table at Copita Taqueria downtown was Barbara Beaumont, a graphics artist and Sausalito resident for 27 years. Earlier that week, she had taken the Sausalito Tour.
"The tour buses are part of life here, so a friend and I finally decided to get on one to see what the attraction is," she said. "It was fun and we met some interesting people from Europe. It's a great way to see things you wouldn't normally notice, but I wouldn't want to do it on a foggy day. That would be too cold."
LOOK AROUND IT'S EASY
During three City Sightseeing bus tours over two days, we learned the most popular hop-off stops for tourists are Union Square, Pier 39/Fisherman's Wharf and Sausalito. We found some cool spots within walking distances of the three hop-on hop-off stops:
William Glen & Son, 360 Sutter St., (415) 989-5458, www.wmglen.com: Fine wool clothing imported from Scotland; single-malt Scotch whiskies from more than 400 sources. Super-rare Black Bowmore from Islay was distilled in 1964, bottled in 2006, and sells for $6,000.
Rasputin Music, 69 Powell St., (415) 834-0267, www.rasputinmusic.com: Five floors of used vinyl, CDs, Blu-ray and DVDs.
Press Club, 20 Yerba Buena Lane (beneath the Four Seasons hotel), (415) 744-5000, www.pressclubsf.com: Choose from 100 bottles or 30 by-the-glass reds and whites in a dramatically furnished, 9,000-square-foot wine bar.
Grand Hyatt, 345 Stockton St.; (415) 398-1234, www.grand.hyatt.com: Inspired views of the city and the bay from the 35th floor of the Grandviews Lounge; small plates and full bar.
Café de la Presse, 352 Grant Ave., (415) 398-2680, www.cafedelapresse.com: More than 200 foreign magazines and newspapers are for sale, adding European flavor to the French-accented menu and Paris vibe.
Chocolate Heaven, Level 1 at the pier, (415) 421-1789 (the online store has closed): How many ways can you say "chocolate"? You'll lose track at this shrine to the cacao bean.
Marine Mammal Center Gift Shop and Interpretive Center, Level 2 at the pier, (415) 289-7373, www.marinemammalcenter.org: This satellite of the Marine Mammal Center in Marin County monitors the well-being of the pier's sea lions, a top tourist attraction. Theme- related books, clothing and toys, with educational displays.
Musee Mecanique, Pier 45, Shed A (end of Taylor Street), (415) 346-2000, www.museemechanique.org: Rows of antique arcade machines. Join Laffing Sal from Playland at the Beach. The Career Pilot predicts your future job: "A dishwasher or doctor, a lion tamer or stooge." Plenty of laughs and wonder for free.
Alioto-Lazio Fish Co., 440 Jefferson St., (415) 673-5868, www.crabonline.com: Invisible to the tourist eye and owned by fishing families, this mini-warehouse sells fresh and frozen fish and crabs, smoked salmon and albacore, clam chowder, and sauces and seasonings. Holding pens are full of live Dungeness crabs. Fresh seafood-sourdough bread combos are delivered anywhere overnight.
Mark Reuben's Sports and History Gallery & Tour de Sausalito, 12 Princess St., (415) 332-8815, www.markreubengallery.com: More than 5,000 historical and contemporary mounted photographs. Most popular: Taken during Prohibition, it shows a picket line of men with signs saying, "We want beer." Also: Rent a bike and follow miles of bike trails throughout Marin County.
Bridgeway Hamburgers, 737 Bridgeway, (415) 332-9471: Lines spill out the door for one of the best burgers in the Bay Area; takeout only.
Sausalito Ferry Co. (known locally as "the Crazy Store"), 688 Bridgeway, (415) 332-9590, www.sausalitoferry.com: Thousands of clever odds and ends from China and Japan world's smallest rubber ducky, telescoping metal shot glass, a Canon 70 mm lens that's really a drinking glass. Outstanding selection of greeting cards.
Copita, 739 Bridgeway, (415) 331-7400, www.copitarestaurant.com: The new restaurant-tequila bar excels at rotisserie chicken, grouper tacos, cerviche, carnitas and tortilla soup.