Nomad by Trade

A travel blog for the kid at heart.

Category: Evening Tourist (Page 1 of 2)

Albany dining guide

Albany, New York Dining Guide

One of my favorite things about traveling for work is getting to try new restaurants in the areas I visit. After eight weeks in Albany, New York, I’ve compiled my list of my nine favorite places to eat. Read on for my Albany dining guide.

C.H. Evans Brewing Company at the Albany Pump Station

Food at the Albany Pump Station - Albany Dining Guide

This brewery is housed in an old water pumping facility that was originally used to pump water from the Hudson river to supply the city. Nowadays instead of water tanks, it holds vats of beer, although the still-operational crane from its previous life still hangs above the dining room as a reminder of the past.

I was determined to order a salad, but a delicious BBQ pork entree caught my eye on the menu. The dish is layered with scalloped cheesy potatoes on the bottom and topped with pulled pork, melted white cheddar, and delicious BBQ sauce. Health-wise, it’s about as far away from a salad as you can get, but it was well-worth it.

Public House 42

I loved the atmosphere at this Irish pub. You had to climb down a few stairs to get into the half-street level bar felt a little like entering a secret hideout. There was a decent sized bar and a handful of tables, so between that and the low ceilings and dim lighting, it felt very intimate.

Shepherd's pie at Public House 42 - Albany dining guide

Their menu was pretty standard Irish pub food, so I went with a shepherd’s pie since that’s my perfect collection of foods all thrown together in a dish that warms your heart. I was a little disappointed by my first bite, but I think I just happened to get a dry part because the rest of the dish was amazing. When the mountain of food was set down in front of me, I figured I’d maybe get through half of it and take the rest home for leftovers the next day. I was wrong; I inhaled all but a few bites because I just couldn’t stop eating it. The veggies were crisp, the mashed potatoes were delicious, and the cheese baked on top had a perfect little bit of crunch to it.

Dinosaur BBQ

Pulled pork at Dinosaur BBQ in Troy, NY - Albany Dining Guide

You’ll have to head out of Albany a bit to visit this spot, but Troy is only a few minutes up the road and Dinosaur BBQ is well worth the short drive. It’s a New York chain, and I’ve been to several of their locations, including the original in Syracuse. Whenever I’m in New York state for work, I try to have dinner at one of these restaurants if I can find one nearby. All of the locations I’ve been to feature eclectic décor, and the  Troy location has the added benefit of an outdoor patio overlooking the Hudson River.

BBQ sauce at Dinosaur BBQ in Troy, NY - Albany Dining Guide

There are two different sauces on the table for you to dress your own meat – a regular and a spicy. I’m partial to pulled pork when I get BBQ, but I’ve been told by co-workers that their chicken is phenomenal as well. I always get their BBQ fried rice as a side because it’s both delicious and unique, and their macaroni and cheese and baked beans are great as well.

Pulled pork at Dinosaur BBQ - Albany Dining Guide

The Recovery Sports Grill

This small chain of sports bars has a few locations around the area, and it’s a great location to watch a game if you’re looking for good food to accompany it. The original location in Albany is fittingly right across from the medical center, and they’ve expanded to other locations in the area.

Thai chicken salad at the Recovery Room - Albany Dining Guide

I fell hard for their Thai peanut salad – I’m a picky eater, and I’m pretty sure this is the first time in my life that I’ve ordered a salad exactly as it appeared on the menu without asking for them to keep certain items off of it. it’s unique because it doesn’t come with dressing, substituting a delicious peanut sauce that is perfect for dipping the grilled chicken in. The cold noodles seemed like an odd choice at first, but they ended up being my favorite part of the salad.

Recovery Room in Albany, New York

Parish Public House

Ham po'boy from the Paris Public House - Albany Dining Guide

I inadvertently visited this bar/restaurant on Mardi Gras – I should’ve seen this coming since the menu is Cajun themed – and was pleased to find the place draped in beads and full of people celebrating. There was a live band playing for the first couple of minutes I was there, but they went on break when they finished that song. Unfortunately, the large crowd meant that most of the menu items I was interested in were gone, so I ended up with a ham po’ boy sandwich to go. I was a little disappointed because I’m used to po’ boys being served hot, so when I got back to the hotel room and found out that it was cold, I wasn’t thrill. The ham was fantastic though, and the bread was top notch.

Macaroni and cheese at the Paris Public House - Albany Dining Guide

I naturally had to go back again to try what I really wanted, and was thoroughly delighted by their crawfish and tasso ham mac and cheese (I ordered it with just ham). It was incredible. It’s some of the best mac and cheese I’ve ever had.

The Olde English Pub

English phone booth at the Olde English Pub in Albany, New York

This English pub is adorable. It really looked like a little cottage, and the interior was well-themed. There’s a cute little garden in the front that  features a classic red English photo booth. The first level of the restaurant has a perfect neighborhood-style bar that was lined with patrons. I happened to stumble across trivia night, so while I didn’t play, I also enjoyed listening to the questions being read off.

Fish 'n chips at the Olde English Pub - Albany dining guide

I chose to sit upstairs where it was a bit quieter and had some fantastic fish and chips. I’m not generally a fan of fish, but theirs looked good enough that I decided to try it and I was not disappointed. The batter was perfectly crispy, and I left completely stuffed.

Wellington’s

Wellington’s caught my eye as I was walking back to my car from another restaurant, so I made a point to visit it later in the week. I was mostly drawn to the sleek décor seen through the large windows, so I checked out their menu online and decided to give it a try. I got a fantastic seat in an armchair by the window, and I even got a view of the capitol building.

I started off with their Saratoga kettle chips since they were only 99 cents. I was glad they were so cheap, because I didn’t like whatever seasoning they used and only ate a few of them. The restaurant was redeemed by the next two courses though.

Though their menu has numerous fine dining options, I opted for a simple caesar salad with grilled chicken added. I really liked it despite the fact that I forgot to ask for the dressing on the side so it had a little more on it than I usually use. The lettuce was chopped into the perfect size to eat it gracefully – a vastly underrated quality in salads if you ask me – and there were large croutons that offered a delicious crunch. The chicken on top was what blew me away though. Most of the time when you add chicken to a salad, you get a sad, bland little piece of luke warm meat. This was not the case at Wellington’s. The chicken I got was so good that I’d gladly order it for an entrée if that was an option. It was steaming hot and coated in a delicious seasoning that gave it just a little bit of a spicy kick.

I almost never order dessert when I’m eating out, but there was a “pumpkin pie” option that was so different that I couldn’t pass it up. It came with two cinnamon waffle triangles with pumpkin gelato and cinnamon whipped crème all stacked together. It was a little melted by the time it was brought to me, but it still tasted fantastic. I love finding unique things like that, and I especially love pumpkin pie.

City Beer Hall

City Beer Hall in Albany, New York

This bar and restaurant was recommended by a local. It has a cool, biergarten-like atmosphere with large tables and benches on the first floor. There’s a large bar area with tons of beers on draft and in bottles and cans. If you’re feeling adventurous, they even have a mechanical bull to try.

Food at City Beer Hall - Albany Dining Guide

I had an incredible pulled pork sandwich with a side of fries. I’m somewhat picky about pulled pork, and this was perfectly moist and not too fatty. The fries were also my favorite style of battered crispiness.

Capitol Melts

I found myself in Albany on National Grilled Cheese Day, so what better way to celebrate than by having lunch at Capitol Melts, a grilled cheese place just down the hill from the capitol building? I had an incredible mac & cheese melt with added bacon. The mac & cheese was good enough that you could just eat that – you can, in fact, just order it as a side. It was the perfect way to celebrate Grilled Cheese Day.

Grilled macaroni and cheese at Capitol Melts - Albany dining guide

Capitol Melts is a great place to grab a quick lunch during the week. It’s only open until 2 pm on weekdays, so you’ll have to time your visit for the workweek. It’s a fast counter-service style place, so you’ll be able to grab your food and get back to work quickly if you’re in the area.

Have you visited any of these restaurants? Did I miss any favorites that I should hit if I go back again? Let me know in the comments.

Read more posts about my work travels here:

Enjoy the Albany dining guide? Don’t forget to pin it for later.

From BBQ to beer halls, Albany, New York has some great restaurants. Check out the Albany dining guide for the best places to eat.

From BBQ to beer halls, Albany, New York has some great restaurants. Check out the Albany dining guide for the best places to eat. From BBQ to beer halls, Albany, New York has some great restaurants. Check out the Albany dining guide for the best places to eat.
Alamo in San Antonio, Texas

An Evening in San Antonio

After spending a week in the much smaller border town of Laredo, I got to have one whirlwind night in San Antonio. It was exactly the kind of Evening Tourist adventure that I specialize in. We made the drive up after work on a Thursday inght so we could catch a direct flight home first thing in the morning. We didn’t leave Laredo until almost six, so by the time we got to San Antonio, it was getting close to nine.  Even with our late arrival, I still got to have a great evening in town. Read more about the fun things you can do in San Antonio after work.

Dinner time

After checking into the hotel, our first stop was a nearby Mexican restaurant/bakery that I had read about. After three days of authentic Mexican food in Laredo, Mi Tierra felt like a return to the cheesy (both atmosphere and food) Tex-Mex I’d grown up with. The décor was close to being over the top, but things like that amuse me so I kind of loved it.

Mi Tierra restaurant in San Antonio, Texas

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Sunset at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA - The fun side of business travel

The Fun Side of Business Travel

I’ve spent the last few years traveling for work almost every week. I’m notorious amongst my coworkers for spending my evenings out exploring town and finding interesting things to do after work. The chance to travel the country on my company’s dime is too good to waste watching tv in the hotel, so I try to take advantage of this opportunity to see and do as much as I can. Along with some other travel bloggers, here are some of my favorite fun things to do on business trips in the United States.

Waldameer Water World – Erie, PA

Waldameer Park in Erie, Pennsylvania

One of my most surprisingly fun buisness trips was to Erie, Pennsylvania. I found Waldameer, a little amusement park near the lake, and was thrilled to discover that it was pay-per-ride. That meant that instead of having to buy a full admission ticket to ride a couple of roller coasters, I could buy just enough credits to ride what I wanted. Their biggest ride is a coaster called the Ravine Flyer II. I wasn’t expecting much, but I was absolutely blown away. I ended up going back to buy more credits just so I could ride it again. Afterward, I looked up the ride, and it turns out that it’s one of the highest rated wooden roller coasters in the country. It deserves every accolade. I finished the evening at nearby Presque Isle State Park, watching the sunset over Lake Erie from one of the many beaches.

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Minelot Falls in Thacher State Park

Thacher State Park

If you’re a fan of waterfalls, Thacher State Park might be a perfect escape in the New York capital region. Located about half an hour west of Albany, it’s a great spot to visit if you find yourself in the area. It’s an easy drive, and at only $6/vehicle for a day pass, it’s an affordable place to explore.

I visited in the evening after work, so I didn’t have time to explore the whole park. Even though I only had a couple of hours before dark, playing in nature beats sitting in a hotel room watching bad tv reruns any day. Based on recommendations from some of the locals I was working with, I focused on the Indian Ladder trail. It’s a relatively easy hike that can be completed in less than an hour if you don’t spend too much time enjoying the scenery. From end to end, the trail is about half a mile.

Minelot Falls in Thacher State Park

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View of the Strip in Las Vegas, Nevada

5 Things that Surprised Me in Las Vegas

Las Vegas never really seemed like my kind of place, but I’ve always been curious about it because it also kind of seems like somewhere everyone should try to see at least once in their lives. Due to a last-minute booking for a recent work trip, I ended up with a six-hour layover there, and since LAS is right next to the Strip (I’m not joking – it’s basically across the street from the Luxor and Mandalay Bay.), I decided that it was the perfect opportunity to get a taste of the town. Plus, I got to check off Nevada (hey, #45) on my list of states that I’ve visited. Here are five things that I learned in my four hours in Las Vegas.

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Niagara Falls State Park

After spending the weekend on the Canadian Side of Niagara Falls, I decided to pay a visit to Niagara Falls State Park, on the New York side. Not only does it offer the closest overlooks of the falls, but it’s the oldest state park in the country. Even better: it’s open 24/7, so you can experience the majesty of the falls any time of day.
American Falls lit up at night viewed from Niagara Falls State Park in New York

I went back at night a few weeks later to see the lights.

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The Evening Tourist – The Pez Factory

I love crazy evening adventures. Especially ridiculous ones that are a little cheesy. They’re exactly the kind of thing needed to break up the monotony of hotel living and keep you sane on the road. And also I’m pretty much just an overgrown child.

 

While on a business trip to southern Connecticut, I discovered that we were only a few minutes down the road from the Pez factory in Orange, CT. Not only does the factory have a visitor center and museum, but it was also open until 6 pm, giving us exactly one hour between when we would finish working and when it would close. (Hours vary seasonally, and winter closings are a bit earlier.)
Giant Pez candies at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, CT

I’d like to take these giant candies home, please.

I had convinced a co-worker to go with me, so at exactly 5:00 we shut our laptops down and headed to the car. It was a quick ride down the interstate and we found the factory easily. As part of your admission, you also get a store credit (it’s a great way to encourage you to spend even more money in the shop, and sadly worked quite well on both of us).

 

We also got bingo cards that had a bunch of specific Pez dispensers on it and to mark off each square, you had to locate that dispenser and write the year it was manufactured. You only needed to get a bingo to earn a free Pez dispenser, but we were determined to fill out our entire cards. Thanks to some excellent teamwork, we were able to find all but two of them. The ladies behind the counter spun the Wheel of Pez (A very catchy name I made up myself) and I earned a polar bear one that I regifted to my sister when I got home.
Giant Pez dispenser at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, CT

That’s one tall Pez dispenser.

You’re greeted at the door by an enormous Pez dispenser that opens and closes with a motor. It would’ve been a lot easier to pose with it if I wasn’t so darn short.

 

The museum isn’t huge, but it was a fun way to kill a couple hours if you’re in the area. There is some history about the candy and dispensers along the wall. I had no idea that Pez started out as peppermints from Vienna. It does explain the name though, as pfefferminz is the German word for peppermint.

 

The main display is cases upon cases of old Pez dispensers. Looking at the oldest ones was interesting because some of them were pretty creepy.
Vintage Tinkerbell Pez dispensers at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, CT

Tink is looking a little scary there.

I was also pretty jealous of a set of Canada-exclusive NHL ones that I would’ve loved to have had a chance to buy.
Zamboni Pez dispensers at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, CT

I would totally shell out for a Red Wings one.

I quite liked these Pez dispenser guns and totally would’ve purchased one if they’d had them in the store.
Vintage Pez dispenser guns at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, Connecticut

 

This display showing how different colors are molded together to make the figures on top was interesting too.
Anna from Frozen Pez dispenser at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, Connecticut

 

You could peek into the factory through some windows at the back, but there wasn’t much to see. The area closest to the viewing spot had a couple workers mixing different shaped dispensers together for individual wrapping, followed by grouping into a variety pack.

Pez dispensers being packaged at the Pez factory in Orange, CT

 

My favorite part might’ve been the Pez dispenser head photo op. You can basically pose for a picture with your face on top of a Pez dispenser stick so it looks like you’re about to eject some little candy tablets. There were a variety of hats you could use as props, but I went with just plain, old me.
Pez dispenser photo op at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, Connecticut

I guess I’m famous now that my head is on a Pez dispenser.

Nearby, there was an opportunity to make your own Pez dispenser. There were a bunch of different shaped bases that kids (or fun adults) could color to make their own designs. These cost money, but weren’t any more expensive than the other items in the store. I didn’t make one for myself because I’m pretty lacking in the creativity and drawing department, but in hindsight, I kind of wish I had given it a shot.
Detroit Tigers Pez dispensers displayed at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, CT

After the obligatory pass through the Pez store (We had to spend the free credits that came with our tickets, after all), we headed out, with five whole minutes to spare before closing time. Not bad for an after-work adventure.

The Pez Visitor Center in Orange, Connecticut offers fun for families and adults.The Pez Visitor Center in Orange, Connecticut offers fun for families and adults.

A Weekend in Niagara Falls

While I was working in the Buffalo area, I had to stay out there for a weekend. Since it’s so close to Niagara Falls, and Niagara Falls is only a few hours from home, I invited my boyfriend to join me on a semi-work-funded mini-vacation. Niagara Falls is the perfect weekend destination. There’s just the right amount of scenery, attractions, and nightlife to keep you entertained in any season.

Wandering Buffalo

He had to drive in from Detroit after working a full day, so I had Friday evening to kill on my own. I decided to head to downtown Buffalo to find some dinner, but quickly realized that that wasn’t in the cards because the Sabres had a home game that night. I wandered around a little looking for somewhere to pull over so I could look up some other areas on my phone and ended up stumbling across an outdoor hockey rink with a bar and restaurant attached. That was good enough for me, so I grabbed a seat at the bar and watched some kids play through the glass. It was such a cool location right along the river and as a life-long hockey addict, I loved hearing the sounds of pucks and skates echoing while I had my dinner.

Outdoor hockey rink in Buffalo, New York

When I was done eating, I decided that it was time to head up to Niagara Falls to check into the hotel. I had booked the Holiday Inn on the Canadian side because it’s super cheap (at least during the winter), only a couple blocks from the falls, and I generally have good experiences at IHG properties. I had looked and looked to try to find a reasonably priced room with a view of the falls, but I ended up choosing price over such niceties and was generally pleased. I also appreciated the free parking right on site.

Waterfall Fireworks

I was planning to wait to go see the falls until the next morning with my boyfriend, but the hotel clerk mentioned that there were fireworks displays on Friday nights and I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to see fireworks over a waterfall. I walked down to the overlook and tried to find a spot that would allow me to see the fireworks over the Canadian falls. This would’ve required a lot more walking than I was prepared to do at that point because the location the fireworks were being shot off from was further down by the American falls.

Fireworks display at Niagara Falls

The fireworks show was nothing mind-blowing, but it was kind of neat. It’s definitely a unique setting for a display like that. It wasn’t very crowded on a Friday night in December, but I would imagine it could be pretty crowded in more popular tourist seasons. The fireworks don’t go up very high, so getting there early to grab a spot by the railing would be a good idea if it looks like it’s going to be crowded.

Of course, the lights on the falls provide a spectacular enough view that there’s really no need to dress them up any further, but fireworks are always appreciated by this blogger.

The Main Attraction

If you’re visiting Niagara Falls, you’re obviously going to spend some time enjoying the view of Mother Nature’s handiwork. When we got up the next morning, we grabbed breakfast across the street from the hotel at the Fallsview Casino. We ate at the Famous Diner, a little restaurant with thoroughly cute décor and delicious food.

American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls in Niagara Falls, New York

The American side. The Canadians definitely won the waterfall game.

After that, we started our walk along the overlooks at the falls. We stopped to take pictures from every imaginable angle, of course. My boyfriend had never been there before, and it had been years since I visited, so we took our time enjoying the view. You get the best wide-angle view from a little ways down the walkway, but don’t miss the chance to look straight down at the brink of the falls. The thunderous roar and sight of the water rushing over the edge really gives you a feel for the power of the river as it tumbles downward.

Brink of Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario

Clifton Hill

I had discovered a coupon for a thing called a Beaver Tail in one of the guidebooks at the hotel, and as a lover of all things sugary, I absolutely had to have one. We walked down to Clifton Hill, what I would classify as the cheesy tourist area of Niagara Falls, and hunted down the delicious fried pastries covered in an assortment of sugary toppings. It’s both very good and infuriating that there isn’t an easily accessible location where I can get these little bites of heaven on a regular basis.

Beaver tails on Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls

This was eight kinds of delicious.

If you’re looking for family fun, this is the place you want to be. Every corner had attractions ranging from fun houses to wax museums to Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Even on a chilly day in the off-season, it was bustling with people.

Exploring outside of town

We opted out of the cheesy tourist attractions (sadly, the Maid of the Mist boats were not running since it was winter) and instead hopped into the car to drive up to the whirlpool where the river takes a sharp turn to the right. It’s so pretty up there and we got a good view from the cable car platforms that were closed for the season. We decided to keep going up to Niagara-on-the-Lake and stopped at a few other scenic overlooks along the way.

Whirlpool at Niagara Falls

Niagara-on-the-Lake was a cute little town, but it was swarmed with crowds of people that day. There appeared to be some sort of festival going on, but we couldn’t figure out what it was. We ended up finally finding a place to park at a little lakeside park, so we walked down to Lake Ontario and climbed around some of the boulders on the shore.

Dinner with a view at the Skylon Tower

We had dinner reservations at the rotating restaurant at the Skylon Tower for their early prix fixe meal. This also entitled us to a free trip to the top of the tower. Don’t make the mistake we did – go early for your reservation. We showed up with enough time to ride to the top before our time slot, but we ended up seated in the interior of the restaurant behind a tall group of people (seriously good genes in that family) so we couldn’t see anything out the windows.

American Falls in Niagara Falls, New York lit up at night

Since that was kind of the point of eating there, I asked if there was anywhere to move. All of the window tables were full, but we were offered a pager to wait for one to clear. We decided to do that and headed up to the observation deck to kill some time before we could eat. When our buzzer rang, we went back down and were seated at a perfect table, but discovered that we were no longer allowed to order off of the prix fixe menu. It made dinner a LOT more expensive, and I wished that the staff had told us that waiting for a table would mean that we’d have to take the late dinner menu.

The food was delicious though, and even my boyfriend who hadn’t been feeling great all day downed his entire dinner. You really can’t beat the view from up there, and my boyfriend was excited to have his first meal in a rotating restaurant. I’d never been up in the tower on my previous visits, and getting an aerial view of the falls was amazing. They’re especially beautiful at night, and spending that much time up in the tower gave us a chance to see the lights rotate through the different color patterns.

We had also gotten free tickets to the Skylon Tower from the hotel, so we decided to use those the next morning to check out the view during the day. I wouldn’t have paid to go up again, but since they were free there wasn’t much sense in letting them go to waste. Daylight definitely brings a different perspective to the falls. Whereas the lights at night give them a soft, dreamy feel, seeing the roaring water tumbling down into the gorge during the day gives a much more impressive insight into the raw power of mother nature.

Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Canada from the Skylon Tower

Ice wine

This part of Ontario is actually quite famous for its wine. The Canadian climate also provides for a unique type of treat: ice wine. This super sweet local specialty is made by allowing grapes to freeze on the vine and then very quickly harvesting them while they’re still frozen. I don’t know a lot about the wine-making process (outside of that one episode of I Love Lucy), but the freezing process somehow makes the wine extra sugary, which, as noted above, is exactly my kind of thing.

We took the ice wine home and drank it a couple weeks later and it was incredible. I’m not a wine fan at all, but this was so sweet it was more like drinking juice. It’s hard (and expensive) to find elsewhere, but if you find yourself in the Ontario wine region at any point, definitely make a point to try it.

Have you visited Niagara Falls? What’s your favorite thing to do there? Let me know in the comments.

Read about another winter weekend adventure in Canada, and my visit to the other side of the Falls:

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Niagara Falls is the perfect weekend destination. There's just the right amount of scenery, attractions, and nightlife to keep you entertained in any season.

Niagara Falls is the perfect weekend destination. There's just the right amount of scenery, attractions, and nightlife to keep you entertained in any season. Niagara Falls is the perfect weekend destination. There's just the right amount of scenery, attractions, and nightlife to keep you entertained in any season. Niagara Falls is the perfect weekend destination. There's just the right amount of scenery, attractions, and nightlife to keep you entertained in any season.

Highlights of a couples weekend in Niagara Falls, including the best sights, dining, the Skylon Tower, and ice wine.Pin - Niagara2Pin - Niagara3Pin - Niagara4

Reykjavik City Guide

This week I had a very exciting opportunity to contribute a guest post at The Wednesday Edit, a wide-ranging blog with travel, fashion, and lifestyle tips. I wrote about attractions, dining, and day trips in Iceland’s capital city, Reyjkavik.

Check out my post here, and spend some time exploring all that The Wednesday Edit has to offer.

For more Iceland coverage, check out my post about Your Perfect Six-Day Southern Iceland Itinerary, including a stop in Reykjavik

Read about the best that Reykjavik, Iceland has to offerRead about the best that Reykjavik, Iceland has to offer

One Evening in San Francisco

I was recently sent to the Sacramento area for work, and as I had to fly in Sunday to be at the office first thing Monday, I hopped an early flight that landed around 12:30. It was almost two hours to San Francisco, but I’d never been there before and had always wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge so I went for it even though I wasn’t feeling great when I got off the plane.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

I began my visit in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the large park north of the bridge. I could easily have spent two days there because there’s so much to do. I had an hour.

I started out winding up the scenic road with overlooks offering great views of the bridge, but forced myself to keep going deeper into the Marin Headlands. I wanted to stop at the visitor center there to grab a National Parks passport stamp and some maps.

After considering my options for such a quick visit, I decided to see a couple things nearby and then head back to the bridge overlooks so I could enjoy that view before it got dark. There is an old Nike missile launch site in the park and I tried to visit that, but discovered that it’s only open for tours for a few hours on Saturdays.

South Rodeo Beach in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Instead I continued on to the Rodeo Beach parking lot. There were two trails available, and I picked the shorter one that took me to South Rodeo Beach. It was only a couple minutes of reasonably easy walking and opened up to some great views of the Pacific Ocean crashing against rocks along the shore. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I’ve seen dozens of pictures of sunsets behind the rocks off of the northern part of Rodeo Beach online, and I sort of regret not venturing further up. Unfortunately, it started raining that point, and I had to hustle back to the rental car to avoid getting soaked. The hike seemed a lot easier when I was casually walking downhill than it did when I was half-jogging back up.

Rodeo Beach in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area
I continued up the road to the Point Bonita Lighthouse parking area, but I decided to just snap some pictures of the bridge from the overlook there instead of making the walk out to see it. My queendom for more daylight.

Though there were some other tempting places on the map of the park, I decided it was time to head back to see the Golden Gate Bridge up close. I stopped at a couple of the overlooks with parking areas along the way and took some pictures. The two that were closest to the bridge looked like they’d had parking or at least a pull-off area at one point, but those were blocked off with barricades and accessible only to pedestrians walking on the sidewalk. (Recurring theme here) I wished I’d had time to park and really explore the area.

I parked in the lot at the north base of the bridge and found a stairway that led to a path underneath it, and without having any idea where it led, I followed along, listening to the cars rumbling above me as I passed under the lanes of traffic.

After climbing up the stairs on the other side, I emerged into a much busier viewing area that had a better angle to see it from. It was cool to see the bridge straight-on from the end with traffic flowing in both directions. I also got my first view of Alcatraz. I had considered doing a sunset cruise to see “The Rock,” but time would’ve been tight and I would’ve had to pre-purchase my ticket because that departure was almost sold out, so I decided to pass on it for this trip. There was also an entire family posing for a picture while standing on top of the rock wall keeping people away from a pretty significant drop, which reminded me of the old proverb, “The family that tempts natural selection together stays together.” Or is that not a thing?

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

After that, I crossed back under the bridge and hopped in my car for the drive into San Francisco. As you approach from the north, there are electronic signs regarding the cashless toll. Several of them said that the Fast Track pass is required, which concerned me a little as I didn’t have an account. I had checked with a park ranger when I stopped in the visitor center to find out if that meant that I actually had to open an account or if it would just be billed to my license plate if I didn’t have one. I was concerned that I’d get a ticket later on in addition to the toll and rental car company’s service fees if I didn’t have the Fast Track, but she assured me that it worked just like other cashless tolls that I’ve been to in other areas. She also cautioned me to NOT STOP at all because tourists occasionally get rear-ended when they try to stop at the old toll booth that still spans the southbound lanes.

I later found out that I could pay my toll online within 48 hours and avoid the rental car fees. After my first cashless toll experience (I hate toll roads with a passion) on a business trip, I was surprised by a $30 bill from the rental car company three months later that covered about $7 in tolls and $23 in fees. I was thrilled to be able to avoid this on the Golden Gate. The system they use there is fantastic for rental cars because you enter your plate number and the dates and times you’ll have the car there and any crossings that occur during that time are billed to your credit card. It’s great because you can be very specific with the times you enter to avoid paying another customer’s toll if the car you’re driving happens to get rented out again the same day, and you don’t have to worry about the rental company charging you a bunch of fees later on.

I thought it was neat to drive across the bridge, but it’s not worth renting a car or paying the tolls ($7.50 for people who don’t have an account, but you can save a dollar if you register beforehand) if you don’t have any other reason to cross. Still, it’s cool to say that you drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. As an admittedly biased Michigan native, I actually found the drive less spectacular than the Mackinac Bridge (ours is longer, just saying), and even though the Golden Gate is taller, the gratings in the Mighty Mac definitely make it a more intimidating drive.

Golden Gate Bridge
The visitor center on the south side of the bridge has a much bigger parking area, a large gift shop, and even some cafes. I discovered that it’s apparently the vantage point of most of the iconic bridge pictures that I’ve seen online before. Unfortunately, my visit was hampered by pretty steady rain while I was walking around the area so I didn’t stay as long as I had planned. The gross weather did give me a chance to see a little bit of the famous San Francisco fog though.

Golden Gate Bridge

The cables are actually made up of thousands of tiny ones.

There was a neat exhibit showing how the bridge towers were engineered to provide the least amount of tension when holding the roadway up. By pulling on the chains for the three miniature bridges, you could feel that the mid-range one took the least amount of strength to hold it up. The two options with tall and short towers required much more effort to support the bridge.

Golden Gate Bridge

I was pretty soaked at this point, so I tore myself away from the view to go find dinner.

Fisherman’s Wharf

After picking up a gorgeous puzzle (addict here) in the gift shop, I headed off in search of Fisherman’s Wharf for a much-needed dinner. The drive didn’t take too long, and on this rainy, miserable Superbowl Sunday, finding parking in the area was fairly easy, though decidedly not cheap at $6/hour for a meter. Luckily they take credit cards because I don’t think I’ve ever had $6 worth of quarters in my possession at any point in my life.

Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, California
I had no idea where I wanted to eat, so I grabbed an umbrella and wandered around for a while. I was almost roped in by a food truck selling custom made ice cream sandwiches, but decided that I wanted somewhere warm, indoors, and serving actual food since even though it was only around 5 local time, my stomach was still on an Eastern time zone eating schedule and my weird travel day hadn’t given me much opportunity to eat anything but junk so far.

During my wanderings, I was excited to catch a glimpse of some of the famous street cars. I was strongly tempted to hop on one for a ride, but I didn’t actually have anywhere to go, and I wasn’t sure how the fares worked.

Streetcar in San Francisco, California

I eventually found my way to a place called Tugboat Sally’s and ordered some fish and chips and beignets. They had a fairly small menu, but it was exactly what I was looking for. It was fast and cheap, and had a fun, quirky interior. They appeared to have some sort of outdoor seating (by the water?) because an employee was hauling in and stacking chairs while I ate, but I didn’t venture around outside. I should’ve, but I was exhausted by that point and really just wanted to get started on my 1.5 hour drive to the hotel I was staying at.

Fish and Chips at Tugboat Sally's in San Francisco, California
I wandered through some of the cheesy tourist stores for a little while because I was determined to use up most of the expensive parking I’d paid for and then hit the road. There’s so much to do in this area, from museums to Pier 39 that you could easily spend a whole day down there, but sadly a lot of the cool stuff was closed by the time I made it over.

I made one more regrettable choice along the way – I didn’t stop on Treasure Island on the way across the Bay Bridge. I saw the signs for it, but had no idea what it entailed, or what kind of area it was, so I passed right by. I did some googling later on, and was pretty disappointed in myself. It had mostly stopped raining by that point, so I suspect that I missed some good views, but I’m going to have to visit the city for real someday, so I’ll just add that to the list of things I missed.

There’s only so much you can do in three hours, but I felt like I got a pretty good taste of the city. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I left my heart in San Francisco, but I’ve wanted to see it for as long as I can remember and was thrilled to have even a rushed visit. Because the San Francisco airport is so far outside of the city (Google Maps clocks the trip to Fisherman’s Wharf at 30+ minutes by car or an hour on public transit), you might not be able to do a visit like this on a layover, but if you had an overnight stopover, it’s pretty doable.

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How to see the best of San Francisco in one evening

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