When you think of San Francisco, what's the first thing that comes to mind? For me, that was Full House, Charmed, Princess Diaries and Alcatraz Island. I had no idea Napa Valley was a drive away. I had no idea that taking a cab through the city would be like a medium-level roller coaster ride. I had no idea it would feel so squashed. Thanks to pop culture, we sometimes build expectations that may or may not be the reality. For example, walking in Paris in the rain is not romantic. It's cold and uncomfortable. Chicago is windy but it's not like walking into a wind tunnel of Beyonce hair fan proportions. And when it does get that bad, it's not glamorous by any means. You get what I'm trying to say? Sometimes having these expectations are great but other times they can lead to a let down.
I'm not saying I was disappointed in San Francisco. It was just far from anything I had pictured in my mind. I was expecting a granola lifestyle, lots of restaurants and coffee shops, pretty houses and cool weather. I got all that but the experience wasn't quite right. It threw me off a bit which caused me to not enjoy my trip as much as I was prepared to and quite honestly, as much as I should have. To put it in perspective, I acclimated better to France than I did to San Francisco. I felt very northern and that in itself made me feel as if I stood out. Looking back, I now realize this was absolutely ludicrous considering San Francisco is full of tourists and no one gave a rat's behind about me. But at the time, I was feeling incredibly insecure. I have come to the conclusion that this was a moment of growth for me but I'll discuss more on that in another post.
With all that noted, I think that it's important to break a few expectations for anyone else planning to travel to San Francisco as well as note anything that might come as a surprise. I truly believe that if I had a more realistic idea of what to expect, I would have had a much better initial experience. So here are a few top notes I feel are important to share...
- The Full House credits are not an accurate portrayal of the city. It's more like a cookie cutter suburban neighborhood. Taking a picture with the Painted Ladies is definitely a must but the park in which you take those photos is nothing special. It's essentially a giant grassy hill.
- There are homeless people everywhere. I'm not saying this to speak ill of them or the city but because you truly do not expect to see that many homeless people. I live in Chicago and have seen my fair share but SF is another level. People told me before I left but I was genuinely shocked by the amount of people living on the streets. Supposedly, it's because of the year-round beautiful weather. I cannot say for certain but I'm sure it has something to do with it.
- It is as cool as you'd expect but the temperature fluctuates throughout the day. The mornings start out brisk but the day warms dramatically and cools off at night. Prepare by packing outfits with layers so you can remove and replace as needed.
- The hills are a nightmare if you're not use to them. I was constantly terrified of rolling a (weak) ankle and literally rolling down a hill. They are so steep I'd feel like I was going to fall forward. Imagine the nosebleed seats at an arena without stairs but instead a smooth ramp.
- Riding in a cab on those hills is far more terrifying than walking. I thought I was going to die. I'll just leave it at that.
- One street will be nice with beautiful hotels, restaurants and other businesses. But the next street over will smell like garbage and urine and have abandoned stores. Just because you're in a "nice" neighborhood does not mean all the streets are going to be movie quality. This was probably the largest surprise to me. Turning a corner often felt like I entered a whole different neighborhood altogether.
- It's expensive. Prepare to spent a pretty penny in San Francisco. My cheapest meal was a croissant and cappuccino which cost me $8 and I actively looked for low-prices and deals. Full meals will cost no less than $15 and that is ordering water, no drinks. A friend told me after I returned that this is California in general but I cannot confirm or deny. Thoughts?
So, what now? Don't change a thing! Go to San Francisco. Enjoy this city because it has an incredible history, lots of cultural attractions, fantastic restaurants and more. Break out of your shell. Learn from my mistake of withdrawing and step out of your comfort zone to experience the city for all the amazing things it has to offer. Yes, it's great to have realistic expectations but it should not keep you from visiting. I want to go back to San Francisco. I want to go back so I can tell my inner type-A, paranoid, anxiety-driven voice to shut up and let me explore. There is SO much I still want to do in this magnificent city. If I had stayed a few more days, I would have most definitely broken out of that shell and wandered all over.
Have you ever traveled somewhere that didn't live up to your expectations? How did you handle it?