San Francisco

The city of San Francisco was my first experience of the state of California and it was pretty much love at first sight – for both the city and the state.  This year, I was planning my fifth visit to the city until the pandemic got in the way but I can’t wait to reschedule my trip.

Here’s my guide to how I like to spend my time in this Northern California city.

Where to stay

View from my room at the Mark Hopkins InterContinental Hotel

On each of my visits to San Francisco, I’ve stayed in very different accommodations – a luxury hotel on my first trip, a budget hotel on trip number 2, a hostel on my third visit and a roadside motel the last time – but on 3 out of 4 of my visits, I at least stuck to the same area of the city – Union Square/Nob Hill.

The area is one of the most central areas of the city, convenient for the theatres and shopping malls and with plenty of transport links – including a terminus for the famous San Francisco cable cars – to easily reach other parts of the city.

The Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel, perched on the top of Nob Hill near to Grace Cathedral, was one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in – although having to walk up the city’s largest hill from the bottom of Union Square at the end of each day was not my favourite! 

At the Top of the Mark martini bar

We won our stay there on a Priceline bid so stayed there for a fraction of the usual cost and we spent most of our evenings sat in its top floor martini bar, Top of the Mark, listening to the piano player while looking out at the city through its floor to ceiling windows.

Wherever I’m staying in the city, I try to make a return visit to the Top of the Mark bar to enjoy the city view overs a drink and watch the fog roll in over the city.

If you’re looking for something a bit more budget for your stay, I found both the Hotel Beresford and the nearby USA Hostels to offer clean and comfortable accommodation also in a convenient Union Square adjacent location.

Union Square shops

My only reason for not staying in the Union Square area on my last visit was having a car.  We were visiting the city as part of a road trip so looked for somewhere within our budget that was easily accessible without too much city driving and had free parking. The roadside motel La Luna, somewhere between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Presidio area, was where we ended up and was a comfortable budget option for a couple of nights.

Getting Around

San Francisco City Hall

On my first visit to the city, we barely used public transport. In the city for 4 nights/3 days, we bought tickets for the hop on/off tour bus which lasted us for the first 2 days and used the cable car, and even a taxi, for the third day.

The hop on/off bus worked well for us on our first visit, helping us to get our bearings and to see the highlights of the city and learn a bit about it without having to navigate our way around an unfamiliar public transport system.

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on the hop on/off bus, and below, riding the famous Cable Cars

There were 2 routes to ride, one which took us from Union Square out past Alamo Square – home of the famous ‘Painted Ladies’ houses – to Golden Gate Park then back via Fisherman’s Wharf and a second which took us across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and back and we decided along the way which stops to hop off and explore at.

On my subsequent visits to San Francisco, being more familiar with the city, I have made the effort to use the public transport system, usually purchasing a 1 or 3-day MUNI Visitor Passport allowing unlimited rides on the buses, metro, streetcars and cable cars and have found it to be and easy and convenient system to navigate.

The famous, historic San Francisco cable cars are, in my opinion, the most fun way of travelling across the city but the queues to ride at the terminus for these can be quite long and often, it is difficult to hop on elsewhere as there isn’t always room for new passengers when the cars reach these stops unless people are getting off there.

Waiting to board a cable car

I try to head to the the Union Square or Hyde Street cable car terminuses either early morning or late evening/night as these are the best times to avoid long queues. If there is a queue, it is at least fun to watch the cable cars come in before swivelling around on the turntable and heading off in the opposite direction again.

When riding, I love to stand on the ledge on the outside of the cable cars, clinging on tightly as they ascend and descend the city’s huge hills but it is possible to find seats inside the cars if you prefer!

The Golden Gate Bridge

Probably the most famous of San Francisco’s sights, the suspension bridge painted the iconic shade of International Orange is a must-see on any visit to the city and there are a range of ways you can cross the bridge.

Tour bus

With the bridge not being visible from a lot of the more touristy areas of the city, it took to the end of my first visit to the city before we caught a glimpse of it while on a visit to the Presidio area. Later that day, we used the hop on/off buses’ Sausalito route to cross the bridge.

At the Palace of Fine Arts

The bus took us from Fishermans Wharf to the Marina District where we made a stop at the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts building before we drove across the bridge and see it up close. The main thing I remember about this is the wind in my face, whipping my hair into one huge tangle as we sat on the outside deck upstairs on the bus, whizzing across!

I managed to cling onto my camera long enough to take a few photos and luckily, it was a clear afternoon meaning the bridge was completely visible – which isn’t always the case!

Looking out from the viewpoint actross the bridge

Once across the bridge, the bus made a 10 minute stop at a nearby viewpoint where we could look back at it and at San Francisco city across the bay. The bus then continued to the pretty town of Sausalito where it was possible to hop off and explore. Being short on time, we instead stayed on the bus to return back across the bridge to the city.

Bike

Getting closer to the bridge, and below, photos of the views as we cycled to the Golden Gate Bridge

On my second visit to the San Francisco, we decided to hire bikes from the Fisherman’s Wharf area of the city and cycle across the bridge. Our hire bikes came with a map and detailed instructions of the route to reach the bridge, Sausalito and continue further to Muir Woods should we wish to.

The cycle to the bridge was mainly easy with some on road and steep uphill sections and it was great fun then cycling across the bridge, being able to stop along the way to take photos and enjoy the view.

Finally at the Golden Gate Bridge, and below, exploring Sausalito

The weather was mainly on our side with the unpredictable San Francisco fog only occasionally drifting in to obscure the peaks of the bridge. Mainly though, it was clear and sunny.

Once across, it was then down hill into Sausalito where we stopped for lunch and a look around this beautiful bay side town with its cafes, restaurants, galleries and boutique stores before catching the ferry with our bikes back to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Walking

Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge

My third visit to the city was as part of my Trek America coast to coast tour across the USA through the Northern states and this time, we were dropped off at one side of the bridge early morning and walked across to then meet our tour guide at the other side.

It was an easy walk across but unfortunately the weather wasn’t the best with the fog covering the bridge for much of our walk across and only clearing occasionally.

Our catamaran heads under the Golden Gate Bridge

Boat

On this trip, we also took a sunset catamaran cruise out to the bay but, as much fun as this was, the weather clouded over and the fog descended meaning we didn’t see any sunset and could hardly make out the bridge at all until we were right up close to it!

Self-drive

The fog obscures the view as we drive across the Golden Gate bridge early one morning!

On my final visit to the city, we were on a self-drive trip where we needed to make a very early start. This meant the fog hadn’t had time to clear at all and we couldn’t see the structure of the bridge at all, it could have been any other road, which was a shame!

If possible, I would definitely recommend cycling across the bridge and including a stop in Sausalito before returning, definitely my favourite way of seeing this famous structure!

Alcatraz Island

Saining across to Alcatraz

Another must-do on my first visit to San Francisco was a trip over to Alcatraz Island to explore the infamous former prison. Boats to the island leave from one of the piers near to Fisherman’s Wharf and need to be booked in advance – often well in advance! – from the official Alcatraz Cruises site. We decided on an evening visit, departing the mainland just as the sun was setting – not that we could tell as it had long clouded over.

Nearing Alctaraz Island, and below, touring Alcatraz

Once on the island, we were handed headsets and listened to a commentary which guided us around the building while explaining the significance of each room or block and recounted stories from when it was an active prison. Night had fallen by the time we completed our tour and it was an eerie experience being on the island in the dark.

I have since been back in daylight hours and after we’d finished touring the prison, it was possible to stay on the island longer to join Ranger-led talks and find out more.

Fishermans Wharf

Probably the most touristy area of San Francisco and a popular area for many visitors to stay in, Fishermans Wharf is home to a variety of shops, restaurants and tourist attractions including Pier 39.

The Pier 39 Sealions

I love walking to the end of the pier where you will usually find the famous San Francisco sealions clambering onto pontoons in the bay, barking loudly at each other. It’s always amusing to watch if you can put up with the smell!

You’ll also find the Victorian-style carousel towards the end of the pier, notable for unusually being a double-decker carousel!

The Embarcadero Clock Tower, and below, Hyde Street Pier

From Fishermans Wharf it is possible to walk along the bay front in one direction towards the Embarcadero area with the various piers and jetties and its striking Embarcadero Clock Tower or towards the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park in the other direction. It’s visitor centre is free to look inside or for a fee, you can board some of the old ships docked in the bay at Hyde Street Pier or explore the Maritime Museum.

A bust Ghirardelli Square

A bit further along from Hyde Street Pier but still in the Fishermans Wharf area is Ghirardelli Square, site of the former Ghirardelli chocolate factory and now home to various stores and restaurants including the Ghirardelli Chocolate shop and cafe for amazing ice cream sundaes!!

Lombard Street

Crowds watching the cars weave down Lombard Street

A quirkier attraction of San Francisco city, this road is often referred to as ‘the crookedest street in the World’. It is walkable to the top of the street from Fishermans Wharf if you don’t mind steep uphill walks – we had to make a few stops along the way up to catch our breath! – or the cable cars stop here. From the top, you can see the street winding down and watch the cars slowly crawl their way down before walking down to the bottom end of the street for a view of it from the other end.

Segwaying down Lombard Street

Feeling a bit more adventurous on our last visit to the city, we not only drove our hire car down it but also took an ‘advanced’ segway tour of the city which involved segwaying down Lombard Street as crowds of tourists videoed and photographed us!

Museums

The deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park, and below, the Cable Car Museum near Chinatown

If it’s culture you want, then San Francisco has plenty! As well as the previously mentioned Maritime Museum in Fishermans Wharf, San Francisco is home to a variety of museums. Golden Gate Park is home to the de Young Museum – an art museum – and the science museum, The Californian Academy of Science. If art is your thing, the Legion of Honor Museum in Lincoln Park is also well worth a visit.

A small but excellent free museum that is worth a visit is the Cable Car Museum, not far from Union Square in the Nob Hill area.

Viewing the cablecar system mechanics at the Cable Car Museum

As well as exhibits on the history of the city’s cable car system, the museum is housed at the powerstation for the cable car system and there is a viewing area where you can see the huge wheels whirring and cables shifting powering the cars along through the city!

My favourite San Francisco museum is the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio area of the city. The museum explores the life of Walt Disney and tracks the establishment of the Walt Disney company with plenty of clips from his early animated features and is really interesting for any Disney fan.

Golden Gate Park

The Japanese Tea Gardens, and below, views across the park from the deYoung Museum observation deck

Named Golden Gate Park despite it not actually being anywhere near the Golden Gate Bridge, this huge park – larger than Central Park in New York – is definitely worth a visit. Along with the aforementioned museums, the are plenty of other attractions in the park including the Conservatory of Flowers and the Japanese Tea Gardens.

Above, and below, exploring Golden Gate Park

If you don’t want to pay entrance fees into the attractions, there’s plenty to do and see for free. It’s possible to visit the viewing platform at the deYoung Museum without paying to go into the museum itself and there are plenty of gardens, sculpture parks, open spaces, lakes and even waterfalls to explore.

Ocean Beach

We explored the east side of the park before exiting and catching a bus down to the west end where the park reaches Ocean Beach.

San Francisco Hearts

The only heart permanently in Union Square and painted International Orange – the same shade as the Golden Gate Bridge!

If you’re wandering around Union Square, you might notice four heart-shaped sculptures, one on each corner of the square, each uniquely decorated. These hearts, part of an art installation and inspired by the Tony Bennett classic I Left My Heart in San Francisco, can be found all over the city.

Above, and below, heart-spotting in San Francisco

A google search will bring up various websites listing some of the locations, some in obvious, easy to access places like at the end of Pier 39, some in harder to find places – we found one in a corner of Macy’s in Union Square and another in the foyer of a bank!

It can be fun trying to track them down and a good way to explore the city!

Exploring different areas of the city

The city of San Francisco is made up of many very distinctive areas, including Fisherman’s Wharf and the Union Square/Nob Hill areas which I’ve already mentioned, all of which are worth exploring.

Haight-Ashbury

Above, and below, brightly painted stores and murals in the Haight-Ashbury area

The historic Haight-Ashbury area was made famous in the 1960s for being the birthplace of hippie culture.

Near to the east end of Golden Gate Park, the area has the quirkiness of Camden in London and Venice Beach in LA with its colourful houses, brightly painted murals and eclectic array of mainly independent stores.

The Painted Ladies houses in Alamo Sqaure

If you are in the are, it is also possible to walk to Alamo Square from the main street to see the famous ‘Painted Ladies’, a row of colourful Victorian houses. There’s also great views of the city from the top of the hill in Alamo Square Park!

Chinatown

Not far from the Union Square/Nob Hill area, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest outside of Asia. It’s always fun to walk down its bustling streets with the many market stalls and souvenir stores but my favourite place to visit there is the the Fortune Cookie Factory.

Fortune cookies piled up at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown

It’s free to enter and watch the fortune cookies being made, although if you want to take photos or videos you are asked to leave a donation, and it is even possible to write your own message to be put into a fortune cookie to give to someone!

North Beach

The view from outside City Lights bookstore in North Beach, and below, Washington Square

Right next to Chinatown is the North Beach area which, confusingly, is not actually anywhere near a beach! This is actually the Italian district of the city and a great place to head to in the evening to find a nice Italian restaurant to eat out at.

Apart from the many Italian restaurants other points of interest in the area include the City Lights Bookstore, a large independent bookstore founded in the early 1950s; The Stinking Rose restaurant – the original garlic restaurant where it’s even possible to order a dessert made with garlic! – The Beat Museum which traces the history of The Beats generation from the 1950s onwards; the pretty Washington Square overlooked by Saints Peter and Paul Church (famous for being the site of Marilyn Monroe & Joe DiMaggio’s wedding photos) and Telegraph Hill where you’ll find San Francisco’s Coit Tower.

Enjoying the sunshine in Washington Square

Above, the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, and below, views from Telegraph Hill and the Coit Tower observation deck

Often said to resemble a firefighter’s hose, and coincidentally a monument to San Francisco’s firefighters, the Coit Tower stands atop Telegraph Hill and can be seen from many points in the city.

Walking up to Telegraph Hill there are views of San Francisco bay in one direction and the financial district with the distinct pyramid-shaped TransAmerica building on the other direction. It is possible for a small fee to go up to the top of the Coit Tower to a small observation deck but there’s not lot of room up there and I found the views to be slightly obscured by scratched windows in need of a clean!

A pagoda in Japantown

There are many other areas of the city worth a visit, the Mission area is a great place to head to for a night out with its many bars and on my next visit I’m planning to visit its Delores Park which is supposed to have great views of the city skyline. Japantown offers many Japanese restaurants and Japanese-style spas and I’m yet to visit Treasure Island, an artificial island across the Bay Bridge.

Beyond the city, its also possible to take a trip out to Yosemite National Park to see the highlights – although I would argue that a day there really isn’t enough! – or to the closer Muir Woods which is on my ‘to do list for my next visit. Or head across the bay to visit the cities Oakland and Berkley.

However you spend your time in San Francisco, you’re bound to have a great time in this eclectic, beautiful city.

Spending the Fourth of July in the USA

As American Independence Day approaches, I thought it a good time to look back at my own experience of spending the 4th of July in the USA.

After booking a coast to coast tour of the USA finishing in Los Angeles at the very end of June, it seemed like the perfect excuse to stay a few extra days in order to experience the 4th of July celebrations in the USA. Seeing as I would be travelling alone, I wanted somewhere that would have plenty going on, preferably including a parade and fireworks.

I couldn’t find much information about things going on in Los Angeles itself other than an event at Hollywood Bowl, so I started to look elsewhere, researching the best places to spend the American holiday.

Eventually, I settled on the city of Huntington Beach, Orange County, just a couple of hours south of LA which seemed to have plenty going on over the holiday weekend.

Having decided where I wanted to spend the holiday, there were still a few hurdles to overcome. First of all, how to reach my destination without a car and secondly, where to stay seeing as even early on, hotels were either pretty booked out or had hiked prices to way out of my budget.

Walking towards the party.

I would be staying at an AirBnB in Hollywood at the end of my tour, the first time I had used the service so I was unsure of how it would go but with hotel prices in Huntington Beach being so high, I decided that maybe this would be the best option, the only other affordable one really being a room at a Best Western a few miles out. In Hollywood, I would have my own private bedsit just off Hollywood Boulevard but I was struggling again to find anything similar in my price range for those dates in Huntington Beach so instead, I decided to look at people offering private rooms within their homes. After narrowing my search down, I eventually settled on staying with a retired teacher who lived in a gated community on the south edge of town, from where it was a 5-10 minute walk to the beach and a half hour walk along the board walk to the main part of the city. Having mentioned in my email that I had chosen Huntington Beach because I was looking for a traditional Fourth of July experience and had heard they had a parade and fireworks, my host told me that all the residences in the gated community held a party around the pool in the afternoon which I was welcome to attend while staying with her. An American pool party and BBQ?! – this completely sold it to me that this was the right choice of places to stay!

Families set up on the beach

So with my accommodation sorted, I continued to look into transport options. While it would be less than an hour’s drive there, public transport wise, there were very few options available. Or at least, no straight forward ones as they all involved taking multiple subways and buses, not ideal when lugging a huge suitcase and bag along!

I eventually decided to get the FlyAway bus from Hollywood to LAX then a shared shuttle service straight to the door of my AirBnB accommodation, a bit pricier but worth it to save a lot of time and effort.

Star-spangled bicycles

Everything ran according to plan and after leaving Hollywood, I arrived in Huntington Beach early afternoon on July 3rd. After meeting my AirBnB host and settling into my room, I took a walk down to the beach and into town. It was already busy and buzzing with an atmosphere of excitement.

Bikes on the boardwalk

Bikes decked out with American flags raced past along the boardwalk all honking their horns, ringing their bells and trailing red, white and blue ribbons. Crowds on the beach regularly broke out into chants of U-S-A, U-S-A, getting louder and louder as more and more people across the beach heard and joined in with them before they petered out again.

A walk along the pier

As I neared the Huntington Beach Pier, the beach got more crowded. From the Pier, I could see that a surfing competition was being held. Surfers rode the huge waves, scoreboards awarded them points, crowds cheered, TV cameras rolled. Surfing is a huge deal here, even earning Huntington Beach the nickname ‘Surf City’.

Flags decorating the pier

I stood and watched for a while before making my way along the pier through the crowds, taking in the atmosphere, browsing in the gift stores and stopping to take in the beautiful views along the coast.

At the market
A stroll along Main Street

Carrying on into town, I came across an outdoor market also set up for the Fourth of July weekend. I weaved my way around stopping to buy a corn on the cob from one of the stalls before walking away the from the beachfront to find Main Street. This is the liveliest street in Huntington Beach with its restaurants, bars and shops and it would also be the site of tomorrow’s parade.

Having checked out where I would need to head to in the morning, and after grabbing an ice cream!, I returned to the beach and began a slow walk back to my accommodation continuing to drink in the atmosphere around me.

Home decorations

The next day, I was greeted by my host with a ‘Happy Fourth’, the house decorated with red, white and blue decorations. After grabbing some breakfast, I headed back into town ready to watch the big parade.

Crowds find a spot to watch the parade

Main Street was already extremely busy as everyone tried to grab a spot along the pavement. It was possible to book spaces on the bleachers for a price but as I was by myself, I figured it would be easy enough to squeeze in somewhere and sure enough, I soon found a spot right by a stone bollard to perch on when my feet became tired!

While the main parade wasn’t due to start for another 40 minutes, many of the decorated bikes I had witnessed riding back and forth along the boardwalk yesterday were now parading up and down Main Street in a pre-parade ritual. Eventually, they were cleared to make way for the main event.

Walking down Main St after the parade

As the parade began, so did the hollering and the flag waving, the patriotic cheers barely letting up as a seemingly never-ending line of marching bands, highly decorated floats and well-trained horses drifted past and getting noticeably louder at the sight of heroic firefighters and members of the armed forces. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement and goodwill.

Brunch!
A 4th of July paddle in the ocean

As the parade began to come to an end, I ducked out early to beat the crowds and go and grab brunch at the IHOP then I made my way back along the boardwalk and to my accommodation. The earlier cloud had now cleared to be replaced with glorious sunshine – perfect weather for a pool party.

Getting the party food ready

Everyone was really welcoming and it was great to experience an authentic typically American 4th of July celebration complete with hot dogs, burgers and home made potato salad!

Relaxing by the pool

That evening, I was already planning on heading to the beach to watch the fireworks but was invited by my AirBnb host to go with her and some friends rather than watch them alone. The beach was even busier than it had been during the day with everyone continuing their parties, singing the national anthem and once again breaking out into regular chants of “U-S-A!”

When the fireworks started they were breath-taking. Probably the most spectacular- and definitely the longest – display I have ever seen and, unlike in the UK where they’re greeted with traditional ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, they were greeted with rapturous cheers and applause.

Fireworks over, we packed away our blankets, food and drinks and returned home. I still had a few days left to spend in the OC before flying back to the UK but there was no way they were going to top today. Spending a traditional Fourth of July stateside had been an amazing experience and one I would definitely recommend!

Watch my vlog of my Fourth of July USA experience here:

Trek America Northern BLT Days 20-21: California Coast

The end of the tour

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

It was the last full day of our trip and after beginning the day with a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, we started to make our way down the California coast towards our final destination of Los Angeles. Too far to travel in a day, we would be spending the night at a motel around the half way point in the city of San Luis Obispo and today’s drive would include plenty of stop offs along the way at various view points along the famous Pacific Coast Highway.

The Haunted House on Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Our first stop was for lunch at an In-N-Out Burger, a fast food chain which mainly exists in California and had been requested by some group members. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about!

Santa Cruz Beach

After we’d all eaten, we continued on to our main stop of the day at Santa Cruz Boardwalk. This was a really fun stop off and although we didn’t have time to queue for some of the bigger rides, some of us did have lots fun trying out the spooky walk-through Haunted House before spending the rest of our time in the many souvenir stores, amusement arcades and on the beautiful, sandy beach.

View from Santa Cruz Pier

Before leaving we all indulged in some of the many unhealthy snacks on offer – huge Texas doughnuts, funnel cake and various other fried or sugar-filled treats!

From Santa Cruz, we continued our drive down PCH stopping at various breathtakingly-pretty overlooks along the rugged Big Sur coastline.

Elephant seals

Our final stop before we reached San Luis Obispo was to see the Elephant Seals at a beach in San Simeon.

Once at our motel and settled in, it was off into San Luis Obispo town for dinner at a local BBQ/diner before returning to our motel for last night drinks.

Santa Barbara

Our adventure wasn’t over just yet and we began the final day of the tour with a stop at the upmarket coastal city of Santa Barbara. Here we spent some time walking along the pier, souvenir shopping and enjoying the views.

Santa Monica Beach

Continuing on to Los Angeles, we avoided the city itself and instead stopped at the beach city of Santa Monica, one of my favourite places in LA. After taking a walk along the beach and yet another pier, a group of us headed inland to Third Street Promenade for some last minute shopping.

Santa Monica Pier
Venice Beach

Short on time with some of the group having evening flights to make, our original plan to walk from Santa Monica to Venice had to be abandoned and instead we hopped back on the bus to be driven the short distance along the coast.

Venice is always a fun place to visit with it’s quirky shops and stalls lining the boardwalk, fun to watch street performers and the always busy skate park where skateboarded impress onlookers with an array of stunts. We maybe didn’t enjoy or make the most of our visit as much as we should have as the impending goodbyes at the end of our tour loomed over us and we all sat in silence on the van as we left the beach cities behind to make our way to the gateway hotel near LAX airport.

Once there, the tears soon started as the first few group members started to drift away, some making their way to the airport for flights home, some, like myself, off to hotels or AirBnBs elsewhere in the city while others were remaining at the gateway hotel for another night before going home or starting another tour through the Southern states. It had been one of those groups that just really gelled from the outset. We’d all had the time of our lives travelling together across the country and were devastated it was now over but at the same time immensely happy that it had happened to start with and we’d all be leaving with amazing memories to last a lifetime!

Trek America Northern BLT Days 18-20: San Francisco

Driving into San Francisco
Entrance to Pier 39

This morning, after a stop for a pancake breakfast in a Mariposa diner, it was off to San Francisco, a city I had visited twice before and is one of my favourite cities in the USA.

City views from the pier

We arrived early afternoon and were dropped in Fisherman’s Wharf and given a couple of hours to explore. Most of us walked down to the busy Pier 39 where we looked around the many souvenir and gift stores before walking down to the end of the pier to see the famous Pier 39 sealions which gather on the decks floating in the bay. Unfortunately there were only a few there compared to the hundreds I’d seen gathered there on my previous visits but it was still fun to watch them jump on and off the wooden decks and scramble around each other before lazing in the sun.

After grabbing snacks and ice creams we spend the rest of the time walking around the Fisherman’s Wharf area visiting more souvenir stores and soaking in the atmosphere before reconvening with the rest of the group ready to head to our Union Square accommodation. For the next 2 nights, we would be staying in a hostel located a short walk from Union Square. As hostels go, it wasn’t too bad and once we were settled in our dorms, we headed back out and down the hill to the Union Square cable car turnaround.

San Francisco Cable Cars

It was early evening by now and the huge queues which gather earlier in the day for the cable cars and gone down leaving just a handful of people. 10 minutes of waiting and watching the cable car operators push the cable cars around on the turntables and it was time for us to board.

View from the cable car

The more adventurous of us in the group, including me, took our places on the outside of the cable cars, stood on the narrow steps and clinging to the bars as the cable cars climbed and descended the famous hills of San Francisco. We managed to survive and got off at the stop at the top of Lombard Street. Lombard Street is known as the ‘crookedest street in the World’ and cars line up to drive down it’s twisty turny section of road. We walked down stopping to watch the cars manoeuvre its tight turns and posing for photos from the bottom of the road from where you can see the wiggly road more clearly.

View of Telegraph Hill from Lombard St
Lombard Street

From Lombard Street, we walked towards the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, passing Washington Square Park and the church of Sts Peter and Paul – famous from many movies set in the city and as the church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMagio posed for photos outside after they married.

Church of Sts Peter & Paul in Washington Square
The Coit Tower

It was dusk by the time we reached Telegraph Hill and the Coit Tower was bathed in blue light. The city around it was lighting up and we spent some time taking in the views and taking photos before walking back down the hill towards the North Beach area of the city. North Beach is the city’s Italian quarter and we ended the night with a delicious meal in one of the many small Italian restaurants in the vicinity before catching an Uber back to the hostel.

Looking back at the city from the Alcatraz ferry

The next morning, we were dropped at the Embarcedero area of the city to catch the ferry across to Alcatraz Island. I’d toured Alcatraz on both of my previous visits to San Francisco but as this was another included extra on our tour, meaning we didn’t have to pay any extra for it, I was more than happy to return!

Nearing Alcatraz Island
On Alcatraz

Upon arrival at the prison, visitors are handed audio guides which give instructions on where to walk around the prison while talking about what it is you are seeing. It’s a really interesting place to visit, especially as many of the audio clips are narrated by previous Alcatraz workers and inmates.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Alcatraz
The Painted Ladies

After catching the boat back to the mainland, we were taken back to Union Square where the group split up to spend the rest of the day in different ways. Some went shopping in and around the Union Square while some of us went sightseeing.

In Haight-Ashbury

As I was already familiar with the city, I took some of the group out towards Haight-Ashbury. We used public transport and took the bus to Alamo Square to see the Painted Ladies houses then walked from here along to Haight-Ashbury to explore the quirky shops, cafes and see the many wall murals.

The Mrs Doubtfire House

From here we took a local bus to the Mrs Doubtfire house before heading back towards Union Square. We still had a few hours to kill before we had to meet with the rest of the group so we decided to visit the Cable Car Museum, a free museum near Chinatown before catching a streetcar to Fisherman’s Wharf for dinner at the Rainforest Cafe.

On the boat under the Golden Gate Bridge

That evening, the whole group was booked on a sunset cruise on the Bay. We could tell as soon as we arrived at the pier that we would not be seeing much of a sunset and as we cruised around, the Golden Gate Bridge repeatedly appeared and disappeared under a cloud of fog!

Sunset Catamaran trip
Dessert at the Hard Rock Cafe

It was still a fun, if a little chilly, way to spend the evening though and after, a few of us rounded the evening off with drinks and dessert at Hard Rock Cafe at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Abou to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge

On our final morning in San Francisco, and our last full day of the tour, we had breakfast at the hostel before checking out and driving to the Golden Gate Bridge. We were dropped off on the city side and told to walk across where the van would meet us at the other end.

Crossing the bridge

As I had crossed the bridge by bus and then bike on my previous 2 visits to the city, it was nice to get a different perspective by walking across this time but like the previous night, the fog kept rolling in hampering the views slightly.

Once at across the bridge, we were jumped back on the bus ready to continue our journey down the Californian coast.

Trek America Northern BLT Days 16-17: Yosemite National Park

Arriving at Yosemite National Park

Day 2 in California, the last state we’d be visiting on our tour, and we would be leaving the shores of Lake Tahoe to travel to the last National Park of our trip, Yosemite.

Making a few stops along the way at Bridgetown to pick up a few snacks and then Lee Vining for a delicious diner lunch, we still made it to the park for early afternoon. Our first stop was going to be at the highest altitude alpine lake in the park, Tenaya Lake. Some of the group had their swimming suits handy so they could take a dip while the rest of us strolled along its shores enjoying the beautiful views across the lake.

Views along Tioga Pass Road

From here, we drove along Tioga Pass, the road winding across the east side of the park, stopping every now and then to enjoy the sweeping views across the park. Our next stop was at Tuolumne Grove where we followed the trail to hike down and see the impressive giant sequoias.

Riding through Yosemite Valley

From here we drove out of the park towards our KOA in Mariposa, stopping at a lodge along the way to grab some dinner. Once at our cabins, we were provided with Yosemite National Park maps and the options for the next day were outlined for us. We had the choice of various longer hikes in the park or of spending time in Yosemite Valley where a shuttle bus ran to take us to different points of the park and there were a few shorter hikes available. Deciding to sleep on the decision we all took ourselves back to our cabins.

Views in Yosemite Valley

The next morning, we were up early to get into Yosemite Valley before all the parking spaces disappeared. The group had all decided on different activities for in the park, some had decided to do a long hike up to a waterfall, one had decided to go even further and do a longer, more strenuous hike and the rest of us had decided to have a more relaxing day in the valley area.

After enjoying our horse riding trail so much in Wyoming a few days earlier, a few of us caught the free shuttle bus to the Valley stables to see if there were any slots available that day. Unsuprisingly, they were all booked out so instead we hired bikes and followed the cycle path around the valley area. This was a great way to see the valley area of the park quickly although with temperatures reaching over 40 degrees, we had to make a lot of stops along the way!

We parked our bikes up and met up with the rest of the group who had chosen to stay in the valley to hike out to Mirror Lakes, one of the short, easy hikes available in the area but with it being summer, the lakes had pretty much dried up so the mirror effect wasn’t really visible.

After lunch at Yosemite Village and some souvenir shopping at the visitor centre, some of us decided to cool down on the river so after returning our bikes, hired a raft to spend our afternoon floating along. This was a really fun way to spend time in the valley! Once we reached the end of the float, we were returned to the starting point by a shuttle bus and we met up with the rest of the group including those who had spent the day hiking.

Floating down the river

Next we grabbed some pizza in Curry Village before making our way back to the Trek van in time to head to a park view point for sunset then returning to our KOA site.

We’d all really enjoyed our time exploring Yosemite National Park and I definitely hoped to return some day in the future.

Trek America Northern BLT Days 14-15: Idaho, Nevada and Lake Tahoe

Entering the state of Idaho

After our early morning horse ride though the hills of Jackson, it was time to wave a sad goodbye to the beautiful state of Wyoming as we continued on our adventure. It was nearing te end of our epic journey now and tomorrow we would be reaching the final state of our trip, California. But first, we had a long drive day to our overnight stop at Elko, Nevada, the halfway point between our current location and tomorrow’s destination of Lake Tahoe.

Driving past some large horned cows!

After leaving our KOA, we crossed the border from Wyoming into Idaho. We’d just be clipping a corner of this state without really having time to see anything but straight away I could tell it would be a state worth returning to at some point in the future as we passed more beautiful mountainous scenery.

We made a stop just off the highway in the city of Idaho Falls for lunch at an Applebees and then another quick stop at an Idaho tourist centre so those of us collecting souvenirs at each state could grab a magnet/pin or some other Idaho-emblazened item then continued on towards the state of Nevada.

Driving through Nevada

The day was pretty uneventful as we chatted and sang along to cheesy pop and Disney songs in the van, occasionally pulling over for a rest stop. Eventually we reached our motel in the city of Elko. After causing numerous problems for the receptionist after checking in to find we’d been allocated smoking rooms or in some cases, rooms without enough beds and therefore asking to move rooms, we eventually got ourselves settled and met back up to go out for a group dinner.

Travelling through Nevada

We ate at a family dining restaurant which basically means you individually order your main item – steak, chops etc – but the sides such as potatoes, vegetables, bread etc are placed in huge portions on the table for the group to share. When the biggest pork chop I’ve ever seen arrived in front of me, I wished I’d got one of those to share too but managed to plough through it.

On the beach at South Lake Tahoe

The next morning was an early start to ensure we had plenty of time at Lake Tahoe. We made a quick stop at a neighbouring casino (when in Nevada…!) to grab breakfast at its Starbucks before continuing on our way.

Off to get on the boat

It was a beautiful day so when we arrived at California’s South Lake Tahoe in the early afternoon, we were dropped off straight at the beach and spent the afternoon walking along the shore, swimming in the crystal clear waters and generally relaxing on the beach.

Boat trip on Lake Tahoe

After the previous night’s not-so-great accommodation, we were delighted to find we were staying in a lovely little B&B that night. We made a quick stop off to drop off our luggage and get showered and changed before catching a shuttle bus to Zephyr Cove, back on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe where we had all signed up for a sunset cruise on the lake.

Sunsetting across Lake Tahoe

The cruise included unlimited drinks – champagne or soft drinks and plenty of nibbles and we all had a really fantastic evening hanging out together watching the sun go down over the lake.

After the cruise, we were dropped back in South Lake Tahoe where the town is split across the states of Nevada and California. We wandered through the casino on the Nevada side before crossing the road into California and finding a bar with live music which was still serving food. Pizza’s ordered and eaten, we took the short walk back to our motel to enjoy a night of relative luxury before the next 2 nights in a hostel!

Southern BLT Day 1-4: Hollywood, San Diego and Las Vegas

My first small group tour travel experience – Part 1

The start of a 3-week road trip across America with 10 strangers!

Getting ready for the Oscars – red carpet lining Hollywood Blvd

Within minutes of meeting my companions for the next 3 weeks (you can read my previous blog on this here), we were all climbing into our mini-bus and being driven by our tour guide across the city to our first stop – Hollywood. Conversations in the bus at this point mainly consisted of the “What’s your name again?”, “Where did you say you’re from again?” kind and when we were dropped off and given an hour to wander around Hollywood Boulevard, we drifted into smaller groups – the 2 Swedish girls sticking together, the 20-something guys grouping up and then those of us that didn’t fit any other group wandering off together too. Hollywood was setting up for the weekend’s big Oscar Ceremony which, having been to the Walk of Fame many times before, made the stop a bit more exciting for me as we saw the preparations going on and watched through the fence as reporters broadcast from the red carpet already running down the middle of the road to the Kodak Theater.

Oscar preparations outside the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood

Once we were all back at the bus, we made one more quick hop off and on stop nearby to get a photo of the Hollywood sign from Beachwood Canyon before settling in for the 2 hour drive to San Diego. Lunch was at a truck stop just outside the city with a choice of fast food options (most of us tried Wendy’s!) and then it was off to drop our things at our hostel in the Gaslamp District. Like me, this was to be the first hostel experience for most of the group. We were allocated two 6-bed dorms to share between us, there were plenty of bathrooms along the corridor and breakfast was provided in the morning. Our room overlooked the main street in the Gaslamp Quarter, where all the bars were so we had loud music pumping through the walls until the early hours of the morning but it was only for 2 nights and our next stop would be a hotel in Vegas.

The Hollywood sign
Paddling in the sea on Mission Beach

After we had settled, we met back at the bus and were taken to Mission Beach for the afternoon. Despite it being February, the weather was a balmy 20 degrees and we wandered along the sands chatting and getting to know each other a bit more before returning to the city for our first group dinner at Bepe di Bucco’s family dining restaurant. That night, we split into those who wanted to go partying and those who didn’t with some of us opting instead to keep out of the bars and get frozen yoghurt instead as we planned to be up early the next day for a trip to the zoo.

What we did on our free day was completely up to us but with the suggestions being SeaWorld or San Diego Zoo, most of the group was keen on going to the zoo so our tour guide offered to drive us there and then we could make our own way back. Only 2 of the group – the two Swedish girls who were mainly keeping themselves to themselves at this point – decided to stay in the city and do their own bit of sightseeing. The zoo was huge, so much so that we lost one group member at one point which was a good point to decide we should all swap numbers and start a Whatsapp group! After spending most for the day there, we walked through Balboa Park and back to the hostel. Our tour guide suggested a seafood place for dinner but with none of the group too keen in that idea, we ended up in Hooters which, if nothing else, was cheaper!

It was a very early start the next morning to begin our drive to Las Vegas and most of us slept in the bus. Lunch was at a bizarre Greek-style diner in Baker, California, opposite the World’s Largest Thermometer(!) before continuing to our destination.

Watch my Trek America adventures in Hollywood and San Diego
Our seemingly luxurious hotel room at Bally’s!

After 2 nights in a hostel, our room at Bally’s Casino seemed like luxury and I was surprised we were in a hotel on the Strip and in such a good location, expecting to be Downtown from reading other Trekkers’ experiences online. With hotel rooms being for 2, the two Swedish girls shared a room, I shared with the other solo girl (we’d already become good friends at this point – 2 days can seem a lot longer when you’re spending all that time in someone’s company!) and then the guys paired up, taking it in turns to have a room to themselves with there being an odd number of them.

We had the rest of the afternoon as free time but were to be back early evening for our included Party Bus activity. As my roommate and I had decided we’d like to see Britney play the following night, we headed straight to the Planet Hollywood box office to acquire some tickets before joining the others strolling through some of the hotels on the strip. Then it was all round to our tour guide’s room for some group-bonding drinking games and Chinese food before we piled onto our private Vegas Party bus. The bus drives up and down the strip while music blasts out and the inside is like a mini-dance club.

Downtown Vegas

Unimpressed by the very clubby music, one of the group asked if he could instead plug in his iPhone and we instead sang and danced along to cheesy 90s pop tracks from the Spice Girls and 5ive and tunes from Disney’s Frozen. The bus made a stop Downtown in time for us to catch the hourly laser show at Fremont Street and then at the Welcome to Vegas sign for us to get photos before dropping us off at the Bellagio to watch the penultimate dancing fountain show of the night. We loved this so much we decided to wait 15 minutes to watch the final show of the night too before following our tour guide to her favourite karaoke bar at Ellis Island Casino just behind Bally’s.

The Bellagio Founains

The next morning we split into 2 groups – those of us who had returned to our hotel at a reasonable time and were up to spend the day exploring Vegas, and those who were sleeping it off! By the time we met with the rest of the group later that afternoon, we had already had a huge Denny’s breakfast, took a gondola ride at the Venetian hotel, and got lost in Circus Circus. We were joined by a few more group members at the top of the Stratosphere where we screamed our way through the 3 rides sat on top of the tallest building in the Strip.

Britney!

That evening, we all went off to see various shows and for me that meant the chance to see Britney’s Piece Of Me show, something I’d wanted to do since it was announced so I was ecstatic to discover she was playing on our free evening in the city. We’d managed to get our hands on pit tickets so were up close, especially when Britney came out along the catwalk and the show was every bit as amazing as I’d hoped. After, we met up with a few other group members for a late night ride on the High Roller Ferris Wheel to see the bright lights of Vegas from above.

I’d been to Vegas a few times before this trip but never experienced it quite like this. Being in a group tour situation was already taking me out of my comfort zone – drinking games, party buses, late night karaoke bars, none of these things were how I’d usually spend my time on holiday – and yet I was loving every minute and really enjoying the company of this eclectic band of individuals.

4 days in and things were going great but I should know by now to expect the unexpected…

Watch my Trek America adventures in Las Vegas

My Trek America Experience Part 2

My first solo travel adventure

Going it alone

My first solo travel adventure

Coast to coast with Trek America

If you’ve read my previous post about my decision to travel solo for the first time, you’ll know that rather than spending my entire trip completely by myself, I opted to join a small group tour. Specifically, the Southern BLT Tour with the established small group tour company, Trek America.

I booked the tour through the touradar website in their Christmas sale and the tour was to begin mid-February meaning I didn’t have too much time to dwell on my decision. With the extra nights I had added in LA and New York either side of the 3-week tour, I would be away for 4 weeks in total, the longest I had ever been away from home before.

As the departure date approached I decided to take up Trek America’s offer of a free FairFX prepaid currency card rather than just taking cash as I would on a shorter trip. This came with access to an app which I could use to top up the card with dollars if I was getting low at any point as long as I had internet access and as the tour was advertised as having on-bus WiFi and I knew from previous visits stateside that WiFi was easy to find, finding internet access shouldn’t be a problem.

The tour required us to take a sleeping bag for the night spent in a cabin and I also went out and bought a pair of special walking trainers from Sports Direct for any hiking we’d do, a quick-drying travel towel for use at the hostels and various other bits and bobs that I wouldn’t ordinarily take on holiday but I thought I might need in a trip like this!

My biggest worry was what size case to take. Or whether to take a case at all as I figured a lot of the passengers might be serious backpackers with, well, a backpack. For just a 2 week holiday, I would usually take my large case but I knew luggage was to be stored in our minibus as we travelled and would have to be dragged in and out of our accommodation every day or so (we had no more than 2 nights in any one place on the tour) so maybe a large case was too much. But would there be chance to do laundry or would I have to take enough clothes to last the entire trip?!

What to pack in itself was another problem. I’d assumed when I booked the tour that travelling through the Southern states meant that even in February/March, it’d mainly be warm although I did realise once we reached Washington DC and New York it would be chillier. But after googling the weather for some of our stops, I realised it was likely to be cool in quite a few places along the way so layers, a few jumpers, hoodies and even my winter coat might be necessary!

I eventually opted to take my medium-sized case, squashing as much as possible in and deciding if there was no opportunity for laundry, I could probably get a couple of wears out of most tops!!

Alone on Santa Monica Beach

So with lots of excitement, and some trepidation, I headed to the airport a few days before the start of the tour to begin my trip. I had booked 2 nights by myself in Santa Monica at a motel I had stayed at with my family a couple of years before and would then spend the third night staying at Trek America’s “gateway” hotel – the one the tour departed from – the night before the tour began.

Sunset over Santa Monica Pier

Whereas I would usually share a taxi with my travel buddies to get us to our hotel quickly and easily after a long flight, it was a lot of money to spend for just one person so I had researched how to get to Santa Monica on public transport. So after arriving at LAX, I went to wait for the Airbus service hoping to save a bit of money. But after waiting and waiting and seeing numerous buses come and go for Hollywood, Downtown, Anaheim and various other districts of Los Angeles but none for Santa Monica, I gave up and, just wanting to get there, ended up in a cab!

Breakfast feast for one at Denny’s

It was odd finding myself alone in a city I had visited many times before with family and friends and needing food, I was unsure what to do. Not being brave enough just yet to go to a restaurant alone, I instead opted for the food court in Santa Monica Place shopping mall before heading down to the beach to watch the sunset.

Sony Studios Tour

To keep myself busy over the next few days, I’d planned plenty of activities, again extensively researching how to reach places on public transport. After breakfast at Denny’s (eating alone wasn’t actually that bad!), my first stop was Sony Studios for a backlot tour. Using public transport ran smoother than it had the previous day and after asking for directions just once when I got off the bus, I found my way to the tour check in point with plenty of time to spare.

Walking to Venice Beach

After the tour, I wandered around the nearby area of Culver City before catching the bus back towards Santa Monica. I spent the afternoon in Venice following a self-guided walk around the canals which I had downloaded before my trip, another part of the city I had not seen before.

Exploring the canals at Venice
On a tour to Malibu

The following day, I had booked onto another tour to see the Star Homes in Malibu and then, after lunch alone at Barney’s Beanery – my favourite Santa Monica eatery – I hired a bike and rode to Marina del Rey, again ticking off a few more places I’d not been to before. In all honesty, I kept myself too busy to even notice I was by myself and I actually enjoyed not having to compromise on anything and being able to do what I liked and at my own pace.

Malibu Beach
After cycling to Marina del Rey

Watch my Vlog of my time spent in Santa Monica before the tour here:

That evening, it was time to move from my cosy Santa Monica B&B to my Trek’s departure hotel, the Custom Hotel bear LAX. Wanting to avoid paying out for another taxi, I had again looked up how to get there on public transport. One direct bus which would drop me outside my new hotel seemed doable although I hadn’t factored in travelling in rush hour with a case and bag!

6 weeks before your Trek America tour departs, participants are given access to an online group where you can ‘meet’ other members of your tour group. This only works, of course, if other members are active in the group and no one seemed to be using it for the tour I had booked. Undeterred, and curious as to whom I would be spending 3 weeks travelling with, I instead, left a message on the Trek America forums asking if anyone else was going to be on the Southern BLT tour departing that week. By the time I had left for LA, there had been no replies but a few days later, 2 people had answered saying they too would be on the tour.

So the evening before the tour departed, once settled in at the ‘gateway’ hotel, I made my way up to the hotel’s rooftop bar where I had arranged to meet 3 of my fellow travelling companions. Everyone seemed nice – we were all solo travellers who were travelling solo for the first time and it put my mind at ease slightly about the next few weeks. After a few drinks and some small talk, it was off for an early-ish night ready to start my 3-week cross-country adventure the following morning.

It was an early start the next day where I met the rest of the group in the hotel lobby. 11 of us in total, 7 guys, 4 girls, aged 20-34 from the UK, Australia, Sweden and Switzerland. After brief introductions, some form-filling and a talk from our American tour guide, it was time to load our luggage on to the trailer and board our minibus ready to get on the road!

My first Small Group Tour travel experience Part 1

Going it alone

Going it alone

Travelling solo for the first time.

After almost 10 years of fitting in city breaks around my teaching career, I finally took the plunge and quit my full time job in order to travel more extensively. Up until now, any trips I’d taken had been with friends, often fellow teacher also tied down to taking trips in the school holidays, and had mainly been short breaks with the odd 2-week trip when there was more time over the summer break. But now I was no longer tied down to travelling in the school holidays – which was great as it meant I could take advantage of the cheaper term time flight and accommodation prices – but it also meant that my teacher friends were not available to come with me and, with wanting to go away for longer than the standard week or fortnight, no one else was able, or willing, to get the time off work either. The choice was simple. Stay at home, taking the first long term supply teaching job I was offered and continue to make the odd trip at weekends and in the holidays, or really make use of the situation I had put myself in and go it alone.

I chose the latter and started to research solo travel. Having visited many of the main US cities over the last 10 years, America was a country I knew I felt comfortable in and wanted to see more of – specifically travelling outside of the cities – so that seemed like a good place to start. I’d been receiving brochures from the group travel company Trek America and it’s sister company, Grand American Adventures, for a few years after entering a competition to travel with them once and ending up on their mailing list and I had always flicked through them half-heartedly before throwing them in the recycling but now when the new brochures arrived, I paid a bit more attention and started doing some online research into the companies and their tours. I’d had a few friends do larger group tours with companies such as Contiki and was pretty sure this wasn’t for me but a small group tour sounded more appealing.

Trek America offered a wide range of tours In North America aimed at 18-38 year olds. The majority of the tours offered were camping based, which I knew I did not want to do! – but they also offered some of their tours as BLTs or Budget Lodging Tours which used a mixture of hostels, motels and cabins. I’d never stayed in a hostel in my life and it didn’t particularly appeal to me but if it was just for a few nights here and there between hotel/motel stops, I figured I could cope. The alternative was to choose a tour with another company such as Grand American Adventures which used hotels and motels only but these were a lot more expensive and were open-aged tours which worried me in case everyone else on the tour was a lot older than me. Being in my mid-30s at this point, there was always the risk that doing a Trek America tour would find me as the only ‘older’ traveller in a group of 18 year olds but I decided that choosing a BLT tour over a cheaper, more affordable camping tour plus the 21 years old drinking age in America, would minimise this risk and hopefully the tours would attract a slightly older age group.

Once I’d narrowed down which tour company to use, the next step was choosing which tour to do. There were about 6 BLT tours on offer, all varying in length and visiting different areas of the US. Having spent a lot of time in the obvious cities – at this point I had already visited New York, LA, Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Washington DC on city breaks – I wanted to find a tour that went to enough new places for me that it would make it worth while. A lot of the west coast trips mainly spent time in LA, Vegas and San Francisco and the North East BLT tour went to New York, Boston and Niagara Falls which I’d also seen before. Their Deep South BLT certainly looked a possibility as I’d always wanted to see New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville but it was only a one week tour and, not being a drinker, I did worry again about it attracting a partying, younger crowd. Also, I thought that if I was going to do this, maybe I should go all in and go for a longer amount of time rather than testing the waters on a one week tour.

The company’s most encompassing BLT tour was the Grand BLT, a 6 week trip travelling coast to coast from New York to LA through the Northern states before returning to New York travelling back through the Southern states. The trips for that year had already departed and didn’t start up again until the following summer but I was itching to get going sooner than that so I saw that the trip could be split. The company’s Southern BLT tour ran through the winter months as well as the summer months. Paired with the Northern BLT which ran just through the summer months, it creates the Grand BLT. Maybe I didn’t have to do the entire trip in one go but could split it into two 3-week trips, one now and one in the summer. That way, if it turned out it wasn’t for me, 3 weeks is less of a commitment than 6 and I just wouldn’t book onto the second leg.

The Southern BLT Tour route

So after a bit more inning and ahhing, talking it through with various friends and family members who all encouraged me to go for it, I booked myself onto the February departure of the Southern BLT tour, adding on a few days completely by myself in Santa Monica, LA before the trip and in New York after the trip – both cities familiar to me so a few days alone in both seemed manageable!

Trek America tour van

I’ll write about my experiences on the trip in a future post but suffice to say I loved it, it was without a doubt the best thing I have ever done. I did book myself onto the Northern BLT that summer and I have done numerous small group tours since with Trek America and various other companies.

So if you are thinking thinking of travelling solo but maybe don’t want to spend your time completely by yourself, definitely consider a group tour!

My first solo travel adventure

The Hollywood Sign

As mentioned in my post on Hollywood, it’s possible to see the famous Hollywood sign clearly from the walkways across the arch at the Hollywood Highland Centre and if you take a Star Homes Tour into the Hollywood Hills, you will most likely stop at the Mulholland Lookout Point. But while both of these places give you good views of the sign and enable you to get a photo of the sign if you zoom in on your camera, they are not great if you want a clear photo with the sign as it looks tiny in the background from here.

Vire of the Hollywood Sign from the scenic point on Mulholland.

If you want to get closer, you are going to need to take a hike!

Along with the Walk of Fame, the Hollywood sign will probably be a must-see on any first time visit to LA. As I’ve mentioned previously, you don’t need to leave Hollywood Boulevard to see the sign with it being visible from the arch at the Hollywood Highland Centre and other viewpoints include the stop along Mulholland included in most of the Star Homes Tours or from Griffith Observatory. But if you want to get closer and get a good photo of yourself with the sign, then you really need put on your walking shoes!

View of the sign from the road

Both times I’ve got a bit closer to the sign, I’ve taken a DASH bus from the intersection of Hollywood and Vine – by the Capitol Records Building – towards Beachwood Canyon. The first time I went looking for a good viewpoint, we got a little lost and ended up climbing Deronda Drive where we accidentally stumbled upon a great view of the sign in a residential district.

It did mean standing in the road in between cars passing by to get a photo with it though – probably not the best or safest idea!

Warning signs hiking through the Hollywood Hills

The next time I went looking for the sign, I followed a set of instructions found on line which took me onto the Hollyridge Trail via a pathway by Sunset Ranch. I followed the trail – and other hikers – to a trail that eventually lead me to a path that climbed up behind the Hollywood sign. Unfortunately, access to this trail at Sunset Ranch has now been closed but that doesn’t mean you can no longer hike to the sign.

Hiking to Mount Lee, view from behind the Hollywood sign

You can now pick the trail up at the ‘Deronda Gate’, further along Deronda Drive at it’s intersection with Mulholland. It’s about a 1 mile walk from where the DASH bus drops you in Beachwood Canyon but the path is steep making it a difficult walk especially in the LA heat. If you don’t have a car, you can get a taxi or Uber to the gate then hike the trail from there. Although the main trail takes you behind the sign, there are great views of the front of it too, close enough for you to get a photo with it, or you can turn off the main path to get a bit closer before retracing your steps and hiking back.

Getting closer to the sign

If you’re unsure of finding the sign yourself and think you might end up lost in the Hollywood Hills, there are a few companies offering guided hikes. This year, I’ve booked a sunset tour with Bikes and Hikes LA. While I’m not expecting to get as close to the sign, I’m looking forward to hiking into the hills from Griffith Park and hearing a bit about the area and the history of the sign from the tour’s guide as well as getting a few photos from a different angle.

Another different way of visiting the sign is by horse back. Sunset Ranch in Beachwood Canyon offer various guided horse trail rides into the Hollywood Hills and past the sign throughout the day.

LA Overview

Hollywood and Beverly Hills

Downtown LA

Beach Cities

LA Studio Tours