The Presidio and Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco: The surprising highlights

On my last day in San Francisco, I get chatting to a local on the headland of the bay, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He's out walking his dog and asks what my plans are for the day.

I'm going to walk over the Golden Gate Bridge, I tell him. The weather is beautiful and clear around the iconic structure – a rare sight since the bay around the bridge is often filled with fog, even in the middle of the day.

"Well, keep your eyes open for the whale," he says. Whales are not uncommon in the bay, but it's very late in the season for one to still be hanging around, he tells me.

I tell him I will, and head over towards the bridge.

I've walked here from my accommodation, the Inn at the Presidio, one of only two places to stay in the a large national park and former military base that sits on the hills on the edge of the city.

Being able to stay in the Presidio is a relatively new experience – the Inn opened to guests in 2014 and the park's second accommodation option, The Lodge at the Presidio, opened in June.

The history of the area, more than 600 hectares in size, goes back hundreds of years. In 1776 it was the home of a Spanish fort, later becoming controlled by Mexico before being taken over by the US in 1846. It was occupied by the US military until 1994, when it became a national park.

As such, it has been protected from further development, but the former military buildings remain and are now occupied by restaurants, cultural centres and corporations. The Inn is the former officers' barracks. Other former residences are now occupied by some 4000 members of the general public, who are allowed to rent properties here but not to purchase them.

Walt Disney's family has a museum here dedicated to the creator of the entertainment empire, and George Lucas' Lucasfilm headquarters are also here (though Star Wars fans will be disappointed to find there's not much to see here for visitors, other than a small statue of Yoda outside).

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San Francisco is a densely populated centre with some of the highest real estate prices in the country, so it's strange to find this vast, relatively empty parkland just a few minutes' drive from the city centre. The manicured front yards and wide streets give the occupied area an otherworldly feel, like I've wandered into a film set from the 1950s.

Elsewhere, the Presidio is wild, with walking tracks flanked by forests of pine and cypress (which were originally planted by the military).

From the Inn, the Golden Gate is visible and it's a lovely walk along a dirt track to get to the bridge. San Francisco's most famous icon celebrated its 80th anniversary last year and, despite Hollywood's constant depictions of it being destroyed (by Godzilla, tsunamis, earthquakes and many, many more), it remains an architectural marvel and perhaps the most famous bridge in the world.

While traffic roars across it all day and all night, there is a pedestrian path on the eastern side (the western path is now closed to pedestrians and reserved exclusively for cyclists). At 1.6 kilometres long, walking across the bridge takes a bit of time, particularly as we stop regularly to admire the view, looking out across the bay to Sausalito on the northern shore and the infamous island prison, Alcatraz, to the east – the latter now another national park and major tourist attraction.

The big surprise when looking down into the bay is how much life can be seen down there, even from 67 metres above the water. Sea lions frolic on the surface and my partner spots a dolphin leaping.

I miss the dolphin so we stop and wait for it to resurface. After a few seconds we see a dark shape rise from the water.

"There it is," I say, pointing at the shape. But the shape keeps rising … and rising. It turns out not to be a dolphin, but the large whale the local had told us about earlier. It heads beneath the bridge, directly under us and disappears back beneath the surface.

We don't see it surface again; perhaps it is finally making its way to the ocean and north to the feeding grounds of the Arctic. It's also time for us to leave and make our way to the airport for our long haul back to Australia.

It's the end of my second visit to San Francisco and the second time I've spent my final day crossing the Golden Gate. With the sun shining, the bright support columns of the bridge stark against the blue sky, and the marine life frolicking beneath us, it's the perfect way to finish a stay in one of America's greatest cities.

Five more San Francisco highlights

Chinatown

San Francisco's Chinatown is not just the largest in America, but claims to be the largest outside Asia. The historic district offers plenty of what you might expect – restaurants galore, Chinese grocers, interesting antiques and knick-knacks. Among the highlights are the architecture, which includes modern buildings topped by traditional Chinese rooves, and the famous Dragon Gate entrance. There is also a cultural centre and historical society.

Alcatraz

Alcatraz
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Photo: National Parks Service

Along with the Presidio, Alcatraz is another of the strangest national parks in the region. The former prison island, made famous through its representations in Hollywood along with some of its most notorious guests (including the most famous mobster of all, Al Capone), a visit here is a must-do. Ferries leave regularly from the Embarcadero but be sure to book your tickets in advance – Alcatraz is highly popular and daily visitor numbers are limited. See alcatrazcruises.com

SF MOMA

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), 151 3rd Street, is about 10 minutes' walk from the hotel. It's the largest modern art museum in the USA and one of the oldest, though it has only been at its current location since 1995. The exhibits include paintings, sculpture, sound and multimedia from a wide array of artists. SFMOMA also houses, on 100-year loan, the vast collection of Doris and Donald Fisher, founders of retail chain The Gap, with works from the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. The museum's Michelin-starred restaurant, In Situ, features a menu curated from dishes contributed by more than 80 chefs around the world. See sfmoma.org

America's most beautiful street

Lombard Street, San Francisco. Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

It's been called the most beautiful street in America and it's also probably the least practical for drivers. Overcoming the notorious steepness of the San Francisco hills, Lombard Street winds down one block in a series of hairpin turns between Hyde and Leavenworth streets. The nature strips are filled with brightly coloured flowers and two sets of pedestrian stairs are on either side of the road. The site has become so popular with tourists that a security guard is now stationed here to keep them off the road and out of the garden beds while they're trying to get that perfect selfie.

The Pirate Supply Store

This little-known attraction is the brainchild of author Dave Eggers. As the name suggests, the store sells everything an aspiring pirate could desire and touts itself as "San Francisco's only independent pirate supply store". Doubloons, eye patches, compasses, treasure maps – there's everything an aspiring pirate could want. The staff are a lot of fun too. There are various hidden items to discover in the nooks and crannies of the store. The location also runs writing workshops for local disadvantaged youth. Located at 826 Valencia Street. See shop.826valencia.org/

Trip notes

MORE

traveller.com.au/san-francisco

sftravel.com

FLY

Qantas now flies direct from Sydney and Melbourne to San Francisco, while United flies direct from Sydney. Virgin Australia, Delta and American Airlines have connections through Los Angeles, while Air New Zealand flies direct to San Francisco from Auckland.

STAY

Rooms at the The Inn at the Presidio start from $US353. See innatthepresidio.com

Rooms at the Lodge start from $US313. See lodgeatthepresidio.com

The writer travelled as a guest of Brand USA and San Francisco Travel.

See also: Airline review: Qantas' new non-stop route to San Francisco

See also: One of the world's most spectacular coastal roads has finally re-opened

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