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The Un-Planner’s Guide to Seeing the Sights in San Francisco

Un-planner reporting for duty! I’ve been to San Francisco a couple times when I was younger, but this last trip was the first time I really had a chance to check out the city for myself. As I always say, travel tastes vary, but here’s a handful of things I enjoyed during my visit and hopefully you will, too!

Sights:

Dolores Park – Dolores St &, 19th St, San Francisco, CA 94114

I only took a stroll through Dolores Park, but if you can find a spot on a sunny day, it would be a great place to lounge and picnic. Pet-friendly, but also has a part of the park separated for those who want some peace from pets. Plus, at the top of the  park’s hill, you can get a great view of the city.

Downtown

I didn’t spend a ton of time in downtown San Francisco, mostly just walking through to get to other destinations. However, if you’re a fan of old buildings/architecture, they have some beautiful ones to look at.

Plus, you’re not too far from the Orpheum Theatre if you want to see a show. Or, The Embarcadero if you’re itching to see the bay.

The Embarcadero – Along the City’s Eastern Shoreline

The Embarcadero has plenty of things to see along its numerous piers, including the famous (or infamous) Fisherman’s Wharf. You’ll recognize the Ferry Building when you see its iconic clock tower – a building that’s both a marketplace and an outlet that leads to actual bay ferries.

Sausalito – Across the Golden Gate Strait

Out behind the Ferry Building, you can take a 15-ish minute ferry ride to Sausalito – a sleepy little city on the bay. (Remember that Clipper card? Only $8 to take the ferry!). On this particular ferry ride, we rode through a bit of chilly fog only to be rewarded with a picturesque view of it rolling down the Sausalito hillside in late afternoon sun. I only spent a short time there, but it seems a good place to relax and eat a quiet meal before you either take the ferry back (if it’s early enough in the day) or drive across the Golden Gate bridge.

Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park is absolutely enormous park – over 1,000 sprawling acres. Entrance to the park itself is free, but it’s chock full of attractions like the Botanical Garden, Conservatory of Flowers, California Academy of Sciences and more that have paid admission. I only had time to visit the Botanical Garden, which was still a good couple of hours of strolling.

I honestly think I could have spent most of my vacation here, visiting a new part of the park each day. I look forward to being able to explore more of Golden Gate on my next trip.

Dutch Windmill/Land’s End

At the north end of  Golden Gate Park, you’ll find the old Dutch Windmill. No longer functional, but still worth a look for its impressive size and the various colorful flora surrounding it. It’s about 6-minute drive or a 45-minute to an hour walk from the Botanical Garden to the Dutch Windmill (we opted to ride share). When you’ve had your fill of the windmill, you basically walk right across the street to the beach.

If you keep walking north up the hill, you’ll find the Camera Obscura. Which is exactly what it sounds like – a large camera obscura. I didn’t enter the Camera Obscura (just a small fee or $2 or $3 admission, I think) or keep walking further still to the Land’s End recreation trail, because I was getting hungry and a search for food prevailed. (If you are looking for a bit of hiking, Land’s End has trails and pretty views.)

Travel Tips:

  • Pack your bag for weather that really can’t decide whether it wants to be warm or cold. If you’re visiting in late summer, like I did, you could see some warm, sunny days that turn quickly to grey fog (thanks to the actual fog rolling in, lovingly named Karl – no really, Karl the Fog even has its own Twitter).
  • Try not to drive, if you can help it. Not only are some streets terrifyingly hilly if you’re not used to parking/driving on steep hills, but the traffic seems to move pretty slowly (especially downtown or during rush hour).
  • Use public transportation, instead! The BART, bus system and streetcars are pretty reliable and if you get a Clipper card, you can use it to pay for basically all major public transport and not have to try to get cash/change together to pay for each ride. (The Clipper is reloadable and you can get one at a BART station.)
  • Speaking of BART stations, there is one right outside the SFO airport, if you want a convenient and inexpensive (only a $9 ride!) option of getting to and from the airport.

Well, that’s a little slice of San Francisco for ya. Looking forward to the next adventure!

A Pin-ny for Your Thoughts

 

Things to Do in Phoenix in the Summer: 12-Hour Travel Challenge

About the 12-Hour Travel Challenge

The goal of the 12-Hour Challenge is to explore new places throughout the Phoenix-Metro area. Specifically, our first challenge forced us to discover new things to do in Phoenix in the Summer. For each one, we define a distinct area within which we have to limit our explorations, based on the different boundaries between cities. We also avoid hiking during the challenge, in Phoenix at least, because we are working on in-depth guides to the trails in the area.

For our debut challenge, we limited ourselves to activities in Central Phoenix. Mapped below with the help of Google.

things to do in phoenix in the summer

The Search for Breakfast

The day began with a search for some of the best restaurants in Central Phoenix. We planned to have our morning start with a hearty breakfast at the Original Breakfast House, but unfortunately, our 9 a.m. start time ruled that option out. Despite its unassuming location, the OBH is VERY popular in the area, and waiting visitors were filling the patio by the time we arrived. With no time to spare, we decided to try an alternative option. (Tip: If you do visit OBH, they are a cash-only establishment.)

Oink Cafe

4326 E Cactus Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85032

Oink Cafe is one of R. and my favorite places to get breakfast in Central Phoenix. This little place is located in a strip mall next to a Target and REI. They specialize in bacon (surprise, surprise), and giving one of their bacon flights a try is real fun. The flavors aren’t crazy, just really savory and delicious. Any of them are available for pairing with a regular breakfast meal as well, and you can even enjoy a bacon donut from the bar. I usually enjoy one of their waffles.

With its slight cinnamon/vanilla flavor, these sweet breakfast treats are some of the best in the city. This time, however, I opted for the Oink French Toast, which turned out to be more of a challenge than I expected.

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The Un-Planner’s Guide to Surviving San Diego Comic-Con (When You Don’t Have a Ticket)

Q: What do you do when you accidentally take a trip to San Diego during one its busiest events of the year (i.e. San Diego Comic-Con)?

A: You use all your Un-Planner skills to find out ways to have fun, even without a ticket.

Free SDCC Shenanigans

Even if you don’t have tickets to San Diego Comic-Con, there’s still a ton of fun stuff to get into downtown. Plenty of the entertainment networks and companies that are hosting events inside of the convention center also are hosting activities outside for free!

Me, gazing adoringly upon one of my favorite no-nonsense TV characters, Captain Holt.

They had plazas with giveaways and games to play, a karaoke bus, an axe-throwing club, stand-up comedy shows and more! It all just depended on what you wanted to to and how long you were willing to stand in a line.

Tips for More Fun and Less Frustration:

  1. If you hate crowds or waiting in line, this is uh… probably not for you. Organizers seem to have this down to a science though, because the lines move pretty quickly.
  2. If you want to do an event or activity that has limited hours, they’re not joking when they tell you to show up early. We showed up to something at noon that was already booked until it was closing THREE hours later.
  3. If you want to avoid steep parking fees and traffic, rideshare/cab your way downtown. Or, if you are driving, use a parking app to pre-pay for parking downtown. If you don’t mind walking an extra ten minutes toward the convention center, the parking garages and lots are basically half the price of those closer.
  4. Maybe this tip is obvious, but if you’re meeting people downtown, don’t make them try to find you in the crowds. I thought the Coin-Op Game Room bar and arcade was a pretty good meeting place for those 21+. It was easy to find and being farther away from Comic-Con made it way less crowded.
  5. This is less of a tip and more of a helpful suggestion for food, especially in the packed Gaslamp Quarter. Cafe 21 has plenty of seating and killer happy hour (just look at this precious fondue board).

If you find need a break from all the fanfare, may I suggest these activities/places:

The Balboa Theatre

If you enjoy the theater (or even funky architecture – the building was built in 1924!), check out what’s going on at the Balboa Theatre. We saw a live podcast show here and it was both an entertaining and relaxing end to our day.

Convoy Street

About 15 minutes from downtown (without traffic), in the Kearny Mesa area, there is an amazing cluster of Asian restaurants and shops along Convoy Street. Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese food – you name it, it seems to be there.

Tip: Once again, parking can get kind of dicey here. So either rideshare/cab it to the area or if you’re driving, you might have some luck parking in the complex that Mitsuwa Marketplace is in and then walking from there.

Here are a couple popular places that I visited that I really enjoyed:

Mitsuwa Marketplace

I wish we had a Japanese grocery store like this in Arizona! In addition to Asian grocery and beauty items it would be hard to find in most stores in the U.S., they also have five little restaurant/food stands inside.

We grabbed some tasty ramen bowls at Santouka Ramen – there were a ton of different options and combos to choose from. I got my usual Shoyu.

Tip: This stand is cash only.

Somi Somi/Sul & Beans

Somi Somi and Sul & Beans are two excellent Korean dessert establishments in one building. We ate Somi Somi, which has soft serve and taiyaki (a fish-shaped cake with filling). Or you can go nuts and get the soft serve IN the fish-shaped cone with a filling.

Matcha and black sesame soft serve in a goldfish waffle cone with Nutella filling. Honestly, can you believe this thing?

Hillcrest Farmers Market

If you really want to wind down your weekend, it’s worth taking a trip out the Hillcrest Farmers Market.  The market is open every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Normal Street. Here you can take in some live music, check out the craft stalls and of course, enjoy a wide variety of food from their many vendors.

Veggie dumplings and BBQ pork bun from House of Bao.

See? Even if you don’t make it into Comic-Con, there’s plenty to do! (But maybe next time, I’ll plan ahead. Maybe.)

Until We Meet Again,
Katie

In My Humble O-PIN-nion

Fourth of July Fireworks in NYC (How to Not Lose Your Mind, Save Money & Actually Have a Good Time)

Just like the Thanksgiving Parade, Macy’s annual Fourth of July fireworks show in New York City are, as you might have guessed, kind of a big deal. And definitely something worth seeing at least once in your lifetime, in my humble opinion. But Katie, you ask me, with eight million (in 2017) New York City residents and roughly 65 MILLION tourists a year, how am I even going to see the dang things?

Well, for one, most of the locals don’t seem to want to battle traffic, crowds and tourists. So that just leaves… you to do it. But, if you consider some of my tips I’m about to lay out here, I think you’ll have an easier time navigating the hubbub and will actually – gasp – HAVE A GOOD  TIME.

 

Tips for a Fun Fourth Fireworks Experience

  1. It’s freeeeeeeeeeeeeee. That is, if you go to the fireworks viewing stations that are laid out specifically for the event. (Plenty of hotels and other venues were offering rooftop views for $$$.)
  2. Speaking of viewing stations, if the event for the year is on the East River or centered on the Brooklyn Bridge (like this year’s) and they have stations on Manhattan side and Brooklyn – PICK BROOKLYN. Pros for the Brooklyn view based on our experience:
    1. Brooklyn Bridge Park had multiple piers to view the fireworks so it was never too crowded.
    2. It’s a park! Easier to keep the kids occupied when there’s space to run around and basketball courts to play on.
    3. There are actually places to sit. Turf on the ground, benches, tables, etc.
    4. Last but not least, there are BATHROOMS. I mean, nothing fancy,  just port-a-potties, but at least it’s something. Complaints from relatives who were on the Manhattan side was that there wasn’t an easily accessible bathroom anywhere.
  3. Continuing the pro-Brooklyn for fireworks viewing thread, you can get there pretty easily by subway. It’ll be much cheaper and faster than attempting to rideshare, especially with traffic.
  4. When they say get there at least a couple hours before show time, they mean it. You’ll get a better seat if you get there early, plus when the pier stations started reaching capacity, they started closing off the entrances for safety reasons. IMPORTANT NOTE: They are SUPER serious about safety, so if police/security has closed off an entrance and you’re thinking about leaving an area, check with them to make sure you can get back in. 
  5. I’m sure you already know this, but it bears repeating – cell service can (and DID) get spotty when there’s crowds around so always know where your people are at and stick together!

Things to Bring (Or Wear)

Keeping in mind that they did a quick bag check when we were walking to Brooklyn Bridge Park, I think I still would have wanted to come a little better prepared with  the things below.

  1. Food! Double check what’s allowed at the viewing stations (I just searched for the event at Brooklyn Bridge Park on the Googs and found a super helpful guide), but it seems like most food and drink is welcome EXCEPT for alcohol. Some people brought snacks, some families made a huge event of it complete with serving trays, coffee carafes, etc. There also are usually a bunch of vendors outside the area selling food and beverages.
  2. Something to sit on! People brought chairs and blankets to relax on, or even a jacket will do.
  3. Games! Maybe a deck of cards to help pass the time before the show starts.
  4. Comfy clothes and shoes. It’s July – so most likely, it’s going to be humid during the day. And if you’ve chosen to take the train and walk to the viewing stations, you’ll want to do so in comfort.

Why I Enjoyed the Show (And Am Pushing the Brooklyn Side So Hard)

Despite my hesitation and worries about how difficult it might be to see the fireworks, it was actually a wonderful time. Getting to Brooklyn Bridge Park was easy and so was getting swept up in all the excitement. Kids ran around laughing with their friends and waved at helicopters flying by. People ‘ooh-ed’ and ‘ahh-ed’ at the FDNY boats spraying red, white and blue water streams for their hoses. Everyone settled in close to showtime as breezy air from the water cooled down the area. Then, the Brooklyn Bridge lit up in a shower of pyrotechnic sparks signaling the start of the show with huge barges now launching huge bursts of color into the NYC skyline.

Anyway, you don’t have to take my word for it. Try it for yourself! But keep these tips in mind so you can stress less.

See ya next time travelers!
Katie

In Case You Find This Pin-Teresting

A Guide to History & Hiking in Napa Valley & Sonoma

hiking in napa valley

(c) ABR 2019

Napa Valley is a mecca for wine lovers the world over, but what about those of us who find themselves in or invited to a trip to the Valley who aren’t so interested in that wine-life experience? What is there to do in Napa besides wine tasting? Well, I’m here to tell you that there is plenty to do in Napa Valley for everyone. In particular, I would like to share three of my favorite places for hiking in Napa Valley, along with a weekend-length itinerary for anyone interested in having a unique outdoor and cultural experience in this area. Feel free to use this guide as an inspiration for your own weekend in Napa or just as a short list of places that we loved in the area.

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Escape the Napa Vineyards at Denman Ranch with Cider, Aperitif, Sparkling Mead and More

Everyone goes to Napa, California for wine. And really, how could you not? It is wine country, after all. The vineyards are unbelievably beautiful and an almost endless assortment of wines to sample. But if you are like us, you will eventually tire of all the wine, or you may have gone to Napa for reasons other than wine (maybe a friend’s birthday, perhaps… or wanting to see Jack London’s house). In either case, a place called Denman Ranch in Penngrove, CA is the place for you! They’ve got some absolutely tasty beverages for tasting, and just as importantly, very friendly faces.

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Explore the Washington DC Monuments and More

washington dc monuments

There are so many amazing Washington DC Monuments, parks, and attractions in the DC area that it can be hard to narrow down what you’d like to do. At the same time, the Mall is the primary section of the city that tourists flock to. This guide will help you both narrow down the locations that you’d like to see, as well as help you plan for an in-depth itinerary that will allow you to thoroughly explore the United States capital. In particular, national park service geeks will appreciate the focus of this guide. Anyone collecting stamps will amass a new section of their collection following our itinerary.

Day 1: Museums and the Washington DC Mall

Stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the State Capitol building, the Mall is the most famous part of Washington DC. If you take the time to stroll from one end to the other you will pass by most of the Smithsonian museums, the White House, and many Washington DC monuments.

washington dc monuments

If you start at the State Capitol, and head east, you can begin your day with the Smithsonian museum that is most interesting to you. I always love to visit National Museum of Natural History. As an environmental scientist, I find all of the massive collections and endless opportunities to learn more about the nature of Earth fascinating. My inner space nerd also really enjoys the National Air and Space Museum. But you honestly can’t go wrong with any of these, as they are all free.

After spending the first part of the morning in the museums, snap a picture of the beautiful Smithsonian Castle, and then work your way out into the memorial section of the mall.

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Wasson Peak Trail: Explore the Sonoran Desert

wasson peak trail

Trail Summary

The Wasson Peak trail is a great option for hikers in the Tucson area looking for a trail with some fair length (around 8 miles). There is just a bit of elevation gain, and some beautiful views of the Sonoran Desert. It is moderate to difficult due to its length and the climb to the summit of the mountain peak. If you are prepared, however, the climb offers some amazing vantage points on the city. You can also see the sky islands that surround it, making Wasson Peak the perfect place for photographers.

This is a great hike for challenging yourself without tackling the massive slopes of the Catalinas or the Rincon mountains. It is also a wonderful place to explore and enjoy the Sonoran Desert. There is a huge array of desert plants that you can enjoy on this trail, as well as the artifacts of Arizona’s extractive, mining industry. There is also a beautiful picnic area towards the beginning of the trail for people looking for a more relaxing day with the family. In short, the Wasson Peak Trail is a moderately difficult track that can cater to a wide variety of (prepared) travelers. It is also near some great attractions that you can check out for a full day of exploration.

wasson peak trail

If you’d like to learn more about some hiking options in the area, check out our Guide to Arizona.

Length: 8 miles

Elevation Gain: 1863 ft

Difficulty Level: Moderate to difficult

Cost: Free

Bathrooms: None

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What To Do In Illinois: Roadtrips, Hiking, and More

what to do in illinois

(c) ABR 2019

When I told people that I was going on an Illinois roadtrip, I either got looks of disbelief or a sympathetic laugh. “There’s nothing out here,” more than a few people told me, as I trekked through the waves of agricultural lands dotted with picturesque farms and homesteads. As an outsider, however, I am here to tell you that there is, in fact, more than enough in the state for a weekend or even a week-long roadtrip. If you, like many of the people I met on the road, are wondering what to do in Illinois, this is the guide for you. I will give you the low-down on some of my favorite spots so that you can build your own trip, and I will provide a short itinerary based on my travels as well.

Hiking in Illinois

what to do in illinois

(c) ABR 2019

Considering that Illinois is known for being a plains state, flat with [insert agricultural plant] it might be surprising to some that there is good hiking to be had there. But where there is a trail there is a way! And there are actually some really amazing parks to explore on your Illinois itinerary.

Shawnee National Forest

Shawnee National Forest is nestled down at the southern tip of Illinois, making it somewhat hard to get to (from Chicago anyway), but it is well worth the drive. Not only is the forest free to use but it is home to some absolutely otherworldly and beautiful landscapes that even a world traveler would enjoy. For a very comprehensive guide to the forest, please see the Unofficial Shawnee Forest website. I used this to pick out a few places that I visited during my own roadtrip, the Garden of the Gods and the Little Grand Canyon; it is a great resource.

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Design Your Perfect Chicago Itinerary

chicago itinerary

The “Bean” (c) ABR 2014

Chicago has to be one of the most exciting and culture-rich cities in the United States. It is also likely to be one of the most well-known Midwest cities. As such, Chicago is a great place for both domestic and international travelers. If I am being honest, the nature enthusiasts out there might find that there is something left to be desired (although I have it on good authority that there is some good hiking just outside of the city at Starved Rock State Park and Waterfall Glen). But almost any other traveler preferences can be found in the city. People watchers will likely find no where better in the US, besides NYC. Shoppers can find everything from big, brand names to small businesses with finds that you can get no where else. Selfie pros and adrenaline junkies will enjoy the views of the tall buildings that welcome visitors, and fishers and boaters will of course be entertained by one of the largest lakes in the world. In short, if you are considering Chicago, the city likely has something to offer you. This guide will help you design your perfect Chicago itinerary.

Museums

There are TONS of museums in Chicago, many of which are world class. No matter your interests, I would highly suggest visiting at least one of the city’s museums. If you want to my absolute favorites, you can check out the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, and Adler Planetarium all in one beautiful, lake-side complex.

chicago itinerary

The Field Museum (c) ABR 2014

The Field Museum is highly immersive, which is my favorite kind of museum. You can waltz yourself through past versions of the Earth, learn about the history of Chicago and the many cultures of the planet, while also visiting grand rooms showcasing models and skeletons of some of the world’s most fantastic, inspiring animals. Whatever you are learning about, however, you will often find yourself feeling transported and surrounding by the different themes of the halls.

chicago itinerary

The Shedd Aquarium (c) ABR 2014

The Shedd Aquarium caters to anyone interested in learning more about and enjoying the marine world. A basic ticket will get you in to see all kinds of beautiful fish from around the planet. The place is so big it’s easy to get lost in wonder as you wander its halls, and there are plenty of ticket additions if you want to see more. There are also special exhibits, movies, and even small cetacean shows.

These two amazing museums are also really close to eachother, making them the perfect day trip, particularly when coupled with the Adler Planetarium. After all that, if you still have energy, you can also explore Northerly Island for some perfect views of Lake Michigan.

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