A Travellerspoint blog

We meet a bank robber

California day six

View California 1991 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Exploring San Francisco

In San Francisco

It was strange to wake up in the morning and not have to pack our bags! Also strange, after the last few days, to see cloud – the first since Avila Beach. Worse, it was decidedly chilly cloud, so we wrapped up as well as possible (we hadn’t packed for such cold weather) before heading out for our day’s exploration of the city.

We had breakfast in a fairly basic café across the road, Clown Alley, with the worst American coffee to date, then caught the bus to the Fisherman’s Wharf area. We had decided to devote part of the morning to Alcatraz, despite having such limited time in San Francisco, as it seemed a sight not to be missed. We were not disappointed!


Fisherman's Wharf postcard and page from my scrapbook

The ferry took us the short distance across the bay and we landed on the island, where we were met by a warden who gave us an introductory talk. Then we started the climb up to the gift shop, where an ex-inmate, Leon ‘Whitey’ Thompson, was signing copies of his autobiography (he is now a reformed character and spends his time talking to schools etc. about his past). We bought a signed copy of the book as a gift for Chris’s father John, and Chris posed for a photo with the ex-bank robber.

2017 comment: Leon ‘Whitey’ Thompson died in June 2005. A local newspaper said of him in his obituary ‘He was a tough guy of the old school, a bank robber and hardened criminal who spent 24 years in prison including four years of hard time in Alcatraz. He also turned his life around, becoming a best-selling author who spent his last free years riding motorcycles and gardening, painting and raising two wolves, among other pets, at his home in Fiddletown, an old Gold Rush town in Amador County.’

Unfortunately the photo of Chris with the bank robber was lost when the snapshot camera I had used was dropped later in the trip and, unrealised by us at the time, the film came off its sprockets and got stuck.

We passed a few outbuildings on the way up the hill but there was little of great interest until we reached the prison itself (and the views were disappointing because of the cloud). Inside the prison we exchanged our tickets for a Walkman with a taped tour of the building, which proved a great asset in bringing its past to life as, in addition to background information, it had interviews with ex-prisoners and guards, and atmospheric sound effects.

We saw various cells, including that of the famous Bird Man, the segregation row, the route of the best-known escape attempt, the dining hall, hospital etc. The whole tour was well worth the money and well worth taking the time for.

The Birdman's cell

Another cell, and dining room

Telegraph Hill

By the time we returned to the mainland it was nearly lunch time. We started to walk towards Telegraph Hill, pausing at a deli en route to buy tuna sandwiches and finishing the journey by bus when the hill grew steeper. At the top of the hill we sat to eat our sandwiches, before taking the elevator to the top of the Coit Tower to see the view of the city, the Bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge (still shrouded in cloud). Alcatraz was visible in the bay but the coastline beyond very hazy. Nearer the tower we could pick out landmarks such as the Transamerica Pyramid, and the ‘crookedest street’ (part of Lombard Street).

Postcard showing the Coit Tower and Telegraph Hill

Alcatraz from the Coit Tower

Golden Gate Bridge and the 'Crookedest Street' from the Coit Tower

Transamerica Pyramid from the Coit Tower

Walking the city

On Telegraph Hill

When we returned to the foot of the tower we made our way down winding paths on the south side of the hill, through an attractive ‘arty’ area (where my camera disappointingly, although luckily only temporarily, jammed). We went back to the area we had visited last night, North Beach. We passed Washington Square and the church where Marilyn Monroe married Joe di Maggio, before stopping for coffee and more excellent cheesecake at an Italian café.



In North Beach

After our coffee we walked through North Beach to the neighbouring quarter, Chinatown, where we took lots of photos of the shops and the local people.

In Chinatown

Our walk continued into the edge of the financial district, a great contrast with the previous two areas. We saw the Transamerica Pyramid and stopped for a rest and a cold drink before returning through Chinatown and up a hill to a tram stop. Here I tried, with little success, to capture the iconic ‘cable car plunging downhill to the sea’ shot!

In the financial district

Postcard of iconic cable car

My less effective attempt at the same shot!

Our cable car ride took us to the top of the ‘crookedest street’. We then walked down that street and through to the Fisherman’s Wharf area to catch a bus back to the motel.

In the evening it was very cold so instead of returning to the centre of the city we walked a few blocks along nearby Chestnut Street to find a stylish (but not expensive) restaurant, the Pixley Café - a nice ending to our too-brief time in San Francisco.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:19 Tagged road_trip views california city alcatraz

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We visited Alcatraz in '94, but did not meet any crooks!


Hi Adam. That was a highlight of the holiday for Chris and he's always been sorry we lost the photo of him with Whitey

by ToonSarah

How fun. Fiddletown is near where we buy our wine. It's about a half hour drive from our place and we love the Amador wine country.

Never been to Acatraz. I can't bring myself to enter such a depressing place. We have seen much of San Francisco because both daughters live in that general direction and we have BART passes, but must admit we like Los Angeles and San Diego much better . . . probably the only people in the world to feel that way. You're right; it's cold in SF, nearly always.

by Beausoleil

Thanks for visiting Sally. I would find to hard to say how I feel LA compares as I liked some parts a lot and others less so. It didn't feel like a coherent city but rather a collection of places. I loved Melrose Avenue and some of the beaches but as a whole I preferred San Francisco I think, despite the weather (San Diego we did't spend enough time in to judge)

by ToonSarah

A lovely day in SF .. what with Walkman and all!

by Wabat

Thanks Albert :) I think in those days the concept of an audio guide was pretty new, to us at least (maybe already more common in the US?) so it was a real novelty and a great way of conveying what life was like for the inmates and officers there

by ToonSarah

the title says it all! :)
I loved my visit as well, it was more than interesting but even with sunny weather it was cold on the island, I wouldn't liked staying there for the night! :)

by Ils1976

Me either Ils!

by ToonSarah

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