STANDING at the gates of Alcatraz Federal Penitent-iary, one of its last surviving inmates has a cheeky grin on his face.
William Baker, 86, says: “If the warden knew I was earning a living off this place now, he’d be spinning in his grave.”
The famous Golden Gate bridge looms over the bay[/caption]
A newbie to San Francisco, everyone said I couldn’t miss this notorious island prison, famed for the 1962 jailbreak which inspired a Hollywood classic.
It doesn’t disappoint.
Once home to America’s “rotten apples”, such as Al Capone and “Birdman” Robert Stroud, the prison closed five decades ago, but its chilling history still echoes through cold, concrete walls.
Down in C-Block, for example, is a memorial to the Battle of Alcatraz. Here, six lags locked up and shot dead two guards, in a doomed bid for freedom. You can still touch the pockmarks from grenade blasts on the ground as the net closed in around them.
Listening to Mr Baker, a counterfeiter turned memoir writer, who ended up here for escaping other jails, I can understand their desperation.
Alcatraz – you’ll never leave![/caption]
The hardest part of life on The Rock, Mr Baker says, was looking out over the shark-infested waters at the glistening bay of San Francisco — just out of reach.
Fortunately for us Brits, San Francisco has never been more accessible. Budget airline Norwegian has recently launched direct flights from Gatwick — with return fares from £284.80.
It’s a perfect for Frisco first-timers wanting to visit the home of hippie psychedelia, hike in the famed redwood forest nearby — and brave Alcatraz.
I stayed at the Hilton Parc 55 and Union Square hotels and both are excellently placed for famed department store Macy’s and lay on an irresistible all-American breakfast of pancakes and bacon.
The latter also has a slick Cityscape lounge where you can sip cocktails while gazing out over 26 skyscrapers and some impossibly sloping streets.
Yes, prepare for a workout. Frisco was built across 14 hills and your thighs feel every one. By the end of an exploratory stroll up to the picturesque Coit Tower, I’m a breathless, sweating mess.
Luckily, the Californian cabbies are well worth their fares and happy to fill you in on the city’s history — from its early Gold Rush boom to its modern rebirth as Silicon Valley.
On my first day, there is only one place to start. Celebrating its 82nd birthday during our visit, the Golden Gate Bridge looms over the bay and looks even more ginormous than in the many pictures.
If you have time, rent a bike and cycle across it to the charming houseboat haven of Sausalito. For the best view, however, pick up a CityPass — which gives you access to attractions across Frisco — and board a ferry. The tour boats get you right under the iconic suspension bridge — ideal for holiday snaps.
Famously cosmopolitan, every-one in this city has their own quirky dress sense. Yet one accessory unites them — a San Francisco Giants baseball cap.
I’m slightly scarred by my last experience of baseball — the first home-run strike of a Mets game came inches from hitting me on the nose.
So it’s with trepidation that we enter the Oracle Park stadium to see a match against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Thankfully, my fear proves unfounded.
Riding a tram makes you feel like a real San Franciscan[/caption]
The relaxed vibe in the stadium makes for a great family afternoon — adults can take beers to their seats, while kids will love the clap-along songs between innings.
Despite the Giants getting steamrolled, all the fans are good-humoured — a world away from the seething terraces of English football. On Saturdays you can wander through the nearby Ferry Building markets, ogling the fresh fish and oysters, before heading down to Pier 39 to watch the sea lions.
For a taste of the city’s world-famous chowder, Bistro Boudin in Fisherman’s Wharf is a must.
Following your stomach is also a smart way to explore.
Enjoy the bustle of the crowds at Fisherman’s Wharf[/caption]
Sitting outside at Al’s Place, one of California’s most afford-able Michelin-starred restaurants, you can cast an eye over Mission District’s Latin American street art.
Or head over to Chinatown, where R&G Lounge dish up huge plates of Peking duck and freshly-made noodles.
It doesn’t take long to walk off lunch because the city is rich in culture — I could spend all day in the Museum of Modern Art, while even the airport has impressive historical collections.
For a proper hike, though, it’s up to the hills. The Presidio, an old US military outpost over-looking Golden Gate Bridge, is a national park site that lies within the city limits — so if you want to see those iconic redwood trees without hours of driving, this is the place to be.
Most read in travel
Our young tour guide even has a nifty app to identify the Presidio’s countless wild thistles and cherry bushes.
But I sought out a different flower power — nicknamed Hashbury by US writer Hunter S. Thompson, the Frisco district of Haight-Ashbury is the birthplace of the hippie revolution.
I had planned to make a day of it — visiting the houses of Jimi Hendrix and The Grateful Dead and wandering among the colourful Victorian terraces known as the Painted Ladies.
But within minutes, the great vintage clothes shops and book-stores proved too distracting.
An hour before we were due back at the hotel, I stumble into Ameoba Music — a sea of vinyl, posters and band T-shirts, this record shop is worth the plane ticket alone.
Suddenly, I have an opposite feeling to those Alcatraz inmates: Don’t let me leave!
GO: SAN FRANCISCO
GETTING THERE: Norwegian flies from Gatwick to San Francisco five times weekly. Economy fares start at £169.90 one-way and Premium at £519.90 one-way.
Book at norwegian.com/uk or call 0330 828 0854.
STAYING THERE: Hilton Parc 55 is from £75pppn based on two sharing.
See parc55hotel.com. Hilton Union Square from £82.50pppn.
For info see hiltonsanfranciscohotel.com.
MORE INFO: See sftravel.com.