The City By The Bay: charm, fine-dining, and avant-culture in one of the world’s greatest natural settings. Ride a cable car, windsurf near the Golden Gate Bridge, or scribble poetry in a North Beach cafe.
By the numbers
Population: 864,816 (city); 4,656,132 (metropolitan)
Elevation: 52 feet / 16 meters
Time Zone: GMT -8 (GMT -7 Daylight Saving Time); Pacific Standard Time (PST)
Average Annual Rainfall: 23.6 inches / 60 centimetres
Average January Temperature: 51.5°F / 10.8°C
Average July Temperature: 60.5°F / 15.8°C
Did you know?
The United Nations Charter was drafted in San Francisco.
San Francisco’s iconic cable cars are the country’s only mobile National Historical Monument.
San Francisco is situated on a peninsula right between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean,
San Francisco is quite small, yet its hilly terrain and patchwork demographic profile gives it more distinctly defined neighbourhoods than a city five times its size. As a result, the sights, sounds and flavours of this community – and even its climate – can change within a single block.
Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square & Aquatic Park
This area was once the thriving center of San Francisco’s fishing industry. Many fishing boats still dock at the Wharf, but Fisherman’s Wharf today is more of an extended tourist trap. Pier 39 is a great place to catch a view of the bay thanks to the delightful colony of sea lions. Aquatic Park features a beach of sorts, and a long pier spiralling out into the Bay. Old sea-dogs will enjoy adjacent Hyde Street Pier, where several historic ships are docked, along with the Maritime Museum. Ghirardelli Square, a chocolate factory turned shopping and restaurant complex, features some of the city’s better dining and views. This area is nice for an evening stroll.
North Beach & Telegraph Hill
Originally settled by Italians, North Beach became a magnet for Beat Generation writers and poets in the 1950s. City Lights Bookstore and the cafes and shops on upper Grant Avenue still exude Beatnik funk. A new wave of entrepreneurial Italians has brought a sense of Roman style to exciting new restaurants along Columbus Avenue. On Broadway, barkers still pull tourists and sailors into charmingly seedy strip joints. Clapboard sea captains’ cottages and mossy flower gardens seem to dangle in space from the cliffs of Telegraph Hill. Coit Tower, at 210 feet (64 meters), commands a stunning panorama from the hilltop. The Filbert Steps lead from the Tower down through the Grace Marchand Gardens to Levi’s Plaza Park at the base of the hill.
The greatest single concentration of Chinese people outside of Asia – a population of roughly 80,000 – live in the approximately 24 square blocks of Chinatown, making it the most densely populated area of San Francisco. As you walk around, you’ll be richly rewarded by the sights, sounds, aromas and tastes of this vibrant community. Grant Avenue is the decorative showpiece of Chinatown, each year hosting the Autumn Moon Festival Street Fair and the ever-popular Chinese New Year Festival & Parade. The neighbourhood is also known for its excellent Chinese dishes including freshly-prepared poultry, seafood, and the staple, Dim Sum.
Financial District & The Embarcadero
“The Wall Street of the West” – Bank of America, Charles Schwab, and the Transamerica Corporation (in its landmark, 48-floor Pyramid) are among the many banks and corporations headquartered here. The Embarcadero Center features dining, shopping, a fine art cinema, and a health club, while Justin Herman Plaza is the site of many New Year’s Eve bashes. The Embarcadero itself fronts the Bay for miles on either side of the imposing Ferry Building Marketplace, modelled on the cathedral tower in Seville, Spain.
South Beach/China Basin
One of the city’s most popular residential areas for young professionals, South Beach arose from a virtual wasteland at the southern end of the Embarcadero and the western edge of SoMa. Apartment complexes and boat marinas squeeze together between the foot of the Oakland Bay Bridge and the San Francisco Giants’ waterfront baseball stadium, AT&T Park. Warehouses and factories have either been converted into stylish lofts or are being razed in a swath of development extending down Third Street to the Mission Bay development.
Downtown & Union Square
Union Square is the heart of San Francisco’s bustling and stylish downtown shopping district. Posh department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Macy’s ring the one-block square park. Hundreds of other exclusive stores, boutiques and shopping centres, such as the Westfield San Francisco Shopping Centre, lie within a three-block radius of the square. If you’ve shopped till you’ve dropped, pick yourself up at an outdoor cafe in tiny Maiden Lane, and restore the soul at one of the many art galleries on Sutter and Geary Streets. This is also the home of San Francisco’s modest Theatre District.
Once an unglamorous stretch of warehouses with a seedy undercurrent, an exciting modern San Francisco has emerged in the area South of Market Street—SoMa. Conventions, art, and entertainment possibilities abound in the Moscone/YerbaBuena Center area. Locals can be seen at leisure at fashion-forward restaurants and watering holes.
Castro Street & Noe Valley
The center of San Francisco’s gay community and a landmark for gay culture everywhere, the Castro is full of bars, dance clubs, restaurants, and one-of-a-kind shops, located in the commercial area around 18th and Castro Street. There’s arguably more street life in the Castro than anywhere else in the city, especially on weekends. The gleaming neon sign of the Castro Theatre greets visitors as they make their way down the street, with its Spanish colonial architecture and various blockbuster and independent film screenings. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence sometimes make an appearance at special events (they’re really men in nun drag) such as the Castro Street Fair, and take it from us – this is the place to be on Halloween. Trek up Castro to Liberty Street to see exceptional Victorian homes. Over the hill lies Noe Valley and its main shopping strip, 24th Street. Cute and relatively quiet, Noe Valley has enough great restaurants and gourmet food shops to make it sophisticated, but not enough chromed-up bars and Italian clothing boutiques to make it stuffy.
Civic Center & Hayes Valley
Stately Beaux Arts buildings like the War Memorial Opera House and the domed, renovated City Hall are situated near the modern Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall and the Public Library’s graceful Main Branch. The Asian Art Museum is also in the area, housed in the former Main Library building. Nearby Hayes Valley offers fine dining and apres-symphony toddies for concert-goers, as well as tastefully creative stores for clothing and gifts.
Haight-Ashbury & the Panhandle
This small but densely concentrated cradle of the hippie movement has tried to retain much of its flower-power, peace and love appeal. While real Summer-of-Love generation hippies may be hard to find, young people, dreadlocked, skinheaded, or skateboard-crazy have continued to come to the Haight to break boundaries. The colourful bars and restaurants of upper Haight Street, however, are always packed with professional 20-somethings. The annual Haight-Ashbury Street Fair is quite a scene. Architecture buffs will want to take a look at the regal Victorians on the Panhandle—the grassy, tree-lined strip extends east from Golden Gate Park along Fell and Oak Streets.
At once, the area around Haight and Fillmore feels more bohemian and less unsavoury than the Haight Ashbury to the west. The streets are usually packed with college-age inhabitants who tote guitars and well-worn paperbacks. Ethnic restaurants like Persian Aub Zam Zam, unpretentious cafes, and independent bookstores are mushrooming in this neighbourhood. The street life is lively on nights and weekends at popular haunts like Nickie’s and Toronado.
Fillmore Street & Japantown
Fillmore Street, Pacific Heights’ commercial spur, features noteworthy restaurants, epicurean food, and antique shops, all attended by a lively trade from young professionals. Fillmore and Geary have become a popular nightlife destination, thanks to John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom Room and the Fillmore Auditorium. Be advised that the neighbourhood gets a bit sketchy to the south and west of Geary and Fillmore. The Kabuki Springs & Spa is part of the Japan Center, the commercial heart of Japantown. A sort of miniature Ginza, the Japan Center features a 100-foot (31-meter) pagoda, bonsai gardens, sushi bars and other businesses. Each spring it holds the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival.
Nob Hill & Russian Hill
On impossibly steep Nob Hill, California’s early industrialists built fabulous mansions that looked down upon the rest of San Francisco. While only the imposing Flood Mansion remains – now the Pacific Union Club – the area’s five-star hotels bear the names of other Nob Hill denizens: the Mark Hopkins, the Renaissance Stanford Court Hotel, and the Huntington. Facing Huntington Park is Grace Cathedral, a 3/4 replica of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Adjoining Nob Hill is Russian Hill, where San Francisco’s old money has a great view of the Bay. The “Crookedest Street in the World” resides here and snakes down Russian Hill for the 1000 block of Lombard Street. The traffic is generally impossible – walk it!
The Marina DistrictTanned, fit and energetic 20-somethings run and rollerblade along the Marina Green, a vast expanse of grass fronting the Bay between two yacht harbours. Mountain bikers crowd cafes, restaurants, and brunch hangouts along busy Chestnut Street after Sunday morning rides to Mount Tamalpais. The graceful Palace of Fine Arts houses the Exploratorium, the one-of-a-kind, hands-on science museum—a must-see for those with kids. At the southern end of the Marina Green is Fort Mason Center, a waterside arts and cultural center.
14,000 acres (5,666 hectares) of forests and beaches, 75 miles (121 kilometres) of bicycle-friendly roads, a golf course, and scenic grandeur without end make this the jewel of the Fort Miley Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Presidio was a military base from 1776 to 1994; antebellum Fort Point, under the Golden Gate Bridge, is a favorite for cannon enthusiasts, as well as for surfers, sailboarders, and Hitchcock aficionados (it’s the site of Kim Novak’s attempted suicide in Vertigo).
Pacific Heights & Presidio Heights
Stately homes and high-rent apartment buildings line the ridge high above Cow Hollow in old-money Pacific Heights. Genteel, renovated Victorians ring the peaceful Alta Plaza Park. Washington Street between Presidio and Arguello features exceptionally palatial residences. Those fortunate enough to live here shop for antiques and dine in quiet refinement on a few understated blocks of nearby Sacramento Street. San Francisco’s largest synagogue, Temple Emanu-el, can be found on Arguello Street.
Cow Hollow & Union Street
The grand, imposing homes of Cow Hollow (so named for its original bovine residents) are nestled against the Presidio where Pacific Heights dives to the Marina. Spectacular views are the norm. Straight, single yuppies pack the Balboa Cafe, Sushi Chardonnay, and other bars and restaurants on Fillmore and Union Streets. Clothes hounds can easily fritter the day away in Union Street’s many upscale and tasteful boutiques.
The Richmond District
Fog-bound and quiet residential streets stretch to the Cliff House and Sutro Baths at the ocean, with the occasional Irish pub along the way. Some of the city’s best Chinese restaurants are to be found in “Little Chinatown” on Clement Street, and Cyrillic lettering fills store windows around the imposing, gold-domed Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Cathedral on outer Geary Boulevard. Exclusive Seacliff, home to Robin Williams and other celebrities, is next to Lincoln Park, site of the California Palace of the Legion of Honour and a spectacular golf course.
A quiet and intensely foggy residential district, the principal attractions of the Outer Sunset are the San Francisco Zoo and the natural amphitheater at Stern Grove, where free concerts are held on summer Sundays. As well as being home to the Strybing Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, the Inner Sunset features a lively stretch of shops on Irving Street, near 9th Avenue where students from nearby UCSF Medical School crowd ethnic restaurants of every stripe, from Ethiopian to Thai.
The Mission District
The nexus of Hispanic culture, and a mecca for edgy bohemians, the Mission now houses increasing numbers of young professionals and their sport utility vehicles. Mexican and Central American businesses line teeming Mission Street. Visit popular La Taqueria, and be assured that the wait is worth it. Along the Valencia Corridor, one block to the west, bars, cafes, and restaurants of every description, notably Casanova Lounge, lead to the buzzing 16th and Valencia hub. Paxton Gate stands as one of the most unique among the array of shops in this stretch. The neighbourhood draws its name from nearby Mission Dolores, founded in 1776. The dolled-up, postcard-perfect Victorians on Dolores Street are worth a look—in the daytime—from adjacent Dolores Park.
Golden Gate Park
With 1000 acres (405 hectares) of gardens, meadows, lakes, golf, archery, and internationally recognized art and science museums, Golden Gate Park offers endless recreational possibilities for visitors and locals. The DeYoung Museum and the Japanese Tea Garden are some of the main attractions of the famous park, drawing millions of visitors each year. At the western edge of the park, Ocean Beach, although unappealing for swimming, attracts hard-core surfers with its rough, frigid and unpredictable waves.
Dining and drinking
As a restaurant town, San Francisco is rivalled only by New York. As varied as San Francisco’s ethnic patchwork is, so is the plethora of dining choices. One can eat Chinese in Chinatown and Italian in North Beach, but a rainbow spectrum of ethnic cuisine awaits you in central and outlying neighbourhoods. Have you enjoyed the specialties of Eritrean, Afghan, and Tibetan fare? In San Francisco, you can. Shining out over this sea of ethnic delights are the downtown beacons of fine dining that have really kept San Francisco on the culinary map, such as the stylish downtown restaurant Fringale. Chic and elegant or funky and loud, in San Francisco you’ll eat better than you ever have. Bon Appetit!
Castro Street & Noe Valley
In the Castro, casual, inexpensive and fun dining prevails along with lots of gay bars. Orphan Andy’s serves what may be the best hamburgers in the city. The loud and lively Detour, one of the most popular bars in the Castro, is a favorite cruising spot while Harvey’s offers more relaxed conversations. Noe Valley contains more than its share of the City’s better, smaller, less pricey but well-reputed eateries. The Firefly and Eric’s, both favorites with locals, often have lines out the door.
Avoid the upstairs restaurants on Grant Avenue, which cater to the tourist trade. Instead, head up the side streets and take your chances at one of the scores of great and inexpensive Cantonese rooms that feed locals. Try the sedate and elegant Imperial Tea Court for a rare and exquisite selection of the finest Asian tea, or the frenetic House of Nanking on Kearny. On the edge of North Beach and Chinatown, Brandy Ho’s carries the banner of “spicy Hunan cooking.”
One of the few bars in Chinatown, dimly lit Li Po’s, is a legendary literary hangout. Check out its over-the-top facade.
Civic Center & Hayes Valley
If dining before the opera, Hayes Valley, west of the Civic Center, has its share of the city’s finest dining. One of the stars of the area, Jardiniere, features a dining room so remarkably styled that it’s worth a peek even if you can’t get a reservation. On Hayes Street, Absinthe offers innovative California-French fare in a fanciful, dark velvet surrounding. Then there’s the Caffe Delle Stelle’s more homey, trattoria-style ambiance with clever and unerring renditions of Italian specialties. The Hayes Street Grill is a reliable favorite. Up the street, Suppenkuche offers modern renditions of German favorites and dozens of beers on tap in an ambiance as boisterous as it is spartan.
Cow Hollow/Union Street
The clientele here is young, brash, beautiful and successful. Great restaurants line Union Street and side streets. For wonderful neighbourhood Italian, duck into Pane E Vino on Steiner, just off Union.
Downtown & Nob Hill
Boulevard offers variations in the spectrum of French/California cuisine, all of them expensive, and all of them worth it. For lovers of seafood and creative design, Farallon, also pricey, is styled on an undersea grotto theme. Don’t think of going to these places without a reservation. A large number of great sushi restaurants are to be found in the area south of Post Street. For drinks, try some of the great bars and lounges in Nob Hill hotels, especially if you can’t afford to be a guest there. The Top of the Mark (at the Mark Hopkins InterContinental), Harry Denton’s Starlight Room (atop the Sir Francis Drake), and the classic Tonga Room (at the Fairmont Hotel) will all let you say you’ve “been there, done that” without breaking the bank.
Embarcadero & Financial District
Restaurants here, whether stylish or traditional, are informed by discretion and lack of pretense as befits a business environment. On California Street, in the heart of the Financial District, is the Tadich Grill, the City’s oldest restaurant. Heavy on tradition, this seafood house hasn’t changed much during its extensive existence. The shiny >Fog City Diner, near the Embarcadero Center, tips its hat to the American railroad diner, but serves excellent food. Nearby Il Fornaio, at Levi’s Plaza Park, offers an exhaustive Italian menu, as well as a takeout deli and bakery. The Royal Exchange is a popular after-work destination for the young movers and shakers of Montgomery Street.
Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square & Aquatic Park
One word: seafood. Places like Alioto’s and Scoma’s have been here forever, serving serviceable seafood to tourists, and of course have tremendous views with their bayside seating. Ghirardelli Square offers a mind-boggling array of seafood at McCormick and Kuleto. For anyone with a sweet tooth, the huge sundaes at the Ghirardelli’s Chocolate Shop are big fun.
For young bohos around the corner of Haight and Fillmore, Nickie’s is a favorite watering hole and dance hall. If you’re hungry, go to the Indian Oven around the corner. This area also has more than its share of comfortably scruffy cafes, as well as bars such as the Noc Noc, Toronado, Mad Dog in the Fog, and Ad Bodhran.
You’re in the culinary heart of the city! What to eat? Italian, of course! Mangia! The only problem here is deciding just what kind of Italian. Check out unpretentious, hearty North Beach institutions like the family-style Calzone’s. Off-kilter Sicilian, with gargantuan proportions and chairs on the ceiling? Well, that could only be Caffe Sport. But if you’re just looking for a quick snack before scaling Telegraph Hill, have a panini sandwich and espresso at venerable Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store or cross Washington Square Park for fresh focaccia at Liguria Bakery.
But there’s more to North Beach than Italian food, of course. Cocktail hour? If you want to get close to the beatnik soul of North Beach, Vesuvio, Saloon, the Tosca Cafe and Savoy Tivoli are where you must go.
Fillmore Street & Japantown
Fillmore Street has dozens of great restaurants so it’s hard to know where to begin. Enjoy tasty Middle Eastern at La Mediterrane. Harry’s On Fillmore serves drinks and food and features jazz on weekends. At Fillmore and Geary, pay a cover charge and drink your blues away (or blues your drink away) at the Boom Boom Room. Great noodle houses and sushi bars like Sanppo pack Japan Center.
Edgy cafes like the Universal Cafe and Thee Parkside attract the bohemians and black-clad yuppies in this transitional loft/industrial area.
The dynamism of this emerging area can be felt in its restaurant scene, with more “important” restaurants than almost anywhere else in the city, as well as places where the atmosphere’s the only thing that counts. Fringale is considered among the very best French restaurants in the entire city, if not the entire state.
South Beach/China Basin
Town’s End and Delancey Street are among the better restaurants at the end of the Embarcadero, serving wholesome but refined California cuisine. Recently relocated from the Mission, the Slanted Door styles Vietnamese dishes with a California sensibility and consistently makes top SF restaurant lists. Momo’s, ideally located across from AT&T Park, suddenly has the best address in San Francisco, and the powerful and glamorous clientele to match.
Haight-Ashbury & Cole Valley
Colourful, funky and intensely popular restaurants like Cha Cha Cha draw a young and festive crowd in the Haight Ashbury. Nearby Cole Valley is less unkempt but features quite a few good restaurants for its tiny size, most notably the wine bar EOS.
The Marina District
On and around Chestnut Street, the college sweatshirt crowd dines and socializes at quick, comfortable, stylish-but-not-edgy places like Ace Wasabi’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Sushi. Nightlife centres around lively singles bars like Bar None, and on Sundays brunch is hugely popular with bicyclists and rollerbladers at numerous places in the area.
The Mission District
The city’s hippest, most popular, inexpensive restaurants are to be found in the area around Valencia and 16th Streets, referred to as the Valencia Corridor. Picaro is among the dozens of imaginative, vibrant places to dine without spending a fortune. Be forewarned of lines and waits, however. For drinks, there are scads of places to go along Valencia Street, among them, the Elbo Room offering drinks, music, and photo booths. In a parallel universe to this boho scene are the dozens of great burrito places on Mission and Valencia. Each have their adherents but El Toro Taqueria, Cancun and the legendary La Taqueria are the most popular. All serve popular Mexican beers.
The Avenues: The Richmond & Sunset Districts
In Clement Street’s “Little Chinatown,” you’ll find Chinese food rivalling (some say surpassing) the best Chinatown has to offer. Ton Kiang Restaurant, a Martha Stewart favorite, is one of the many remarkable places to eat here, with every one of them unpretentious and a good value. On the other side of Golden Gate Park, on Irving Street around 9th Avenue, are dozens of lively and inexpensive restaurants catering to medical students at nearby UCSF. Sushi, curry, won ton, pad thai, pizza, falafel, crepes, burritos, hamburgers, and Ethiopian favorites can all be found shoehorned into that one intersection. Some of the city’s best Chinese restaurants can also be found on outer Irving and Taraval, as well.
San Francisco is a unique city of steep hills and beautiful architecture, bordered by the Muir Woods, the Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Seeing everything is possible; the city is rather small, but the terrain often poses a challenge. Be sure to have a schedule in mind, and take advantage of the convenient public transportation options.
Union Square is a haven for shoppers: look in any direction and you will see upscale department stores. Nearby, visitors can hop onto a cable car on Powell Street, or walk up Stockton Street to the pagoda-style roofs of Chinatown. The St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral can be found here. Explore the many shops with their inexpensive wares and souvenirs, then grab a bite at the nearby Imperial Palace.
The Saints Peter and Paul Church is North Beach’s defining feature, and its lawn is the site of many summertime picnics and pickup football games. City Lights Bookstore, a shrine of the “Beat” culture, can be found nearby. The store features a collection of literature, poetry, and avant-garde theory and criticisms, some of it published under the City Lights label, which you won’t find anywhere else. The Tosca Cafe and the Caffe Trieste are former Beat hangouts that offer tasty dining options. Take note of the sign for the Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard, and if you’re in the mood for satirical sketches, stop in for a show.
The climb to Coit Tower is very steep, be warned. You can stop at the Liguria Bakery for a bite before. At the top of Coit Tower, take in the spectacular panorama from Nob Hill past the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, and the East Bay. Then hop on a bus and visit Fort Mason and Ghirardelli Square.
A trip to Fisherman’s Wharf on the Embarcadero is on every visitor’s to do list. Shop at Pier 39 and be sure to try the fresh seafood at Lou’s Pier 47. Ferries embark to Alcatraz Island and Angel Island State Park from the Ferry Building Marketplace. Be sure to check out the culinary shops and restaurants while you wait for your ferry.
Yerba Buena Center
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is located in the area south of Market Street. The unique, temporary exhibitions here draw huge crowds. If you are in San Francisco for a convention or other event at the Moscone Center, it’s just around the corner. Above the Moscone Center, whose business end is underground, is the successful Yerba Buena Center complex and Yerba Buena Gardens. The Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center features a year round, indoor skating rink. It’s a handsome and airy facility with a glass wall that faces the skyscrapers Downtown. Across Howard Street, you can see the back end of the imposing Metreon, a four-story, sixteen-screen entertainment megalith.
If you’re looking for an affordable way to hit all San Francisco’s hotspots, try one of these tour companies.
Barbary Coast Trail ( +1 415 454 2355/ http://www.barbarycoasttrail.org/ )
Alcatraz Island ( +1 415 705 5555/ http://www.nps.gov/alcatraz/ )
City Guides ( +1 415 557 4266/ http://www.sfcityguides.org/ )
Heritage Walks ( +1 415 441 3000/ http://www.sfheritage.org/events+tours.html )
San Francisco Parks Trust Golden Gate Park Tours ( +1 415 750 5105/ http://www.sfpt.org/ )
Flower Power Haight-Ashbury Walking Tour ( +1 415 863 1621/ http://www.hippygourmet.com/)
S.F.African-American Historical and Cultural Society Walking Tour ( +1 415 441 0640 )
Dashiell Hammett Walking Tour ( +1 510 287 9540/ http://www.donherron.com/ )
Ultimate City Tour ( +1 415 777 2288 / +1 888 868 7788/ http://www.supersightseeing.com/ )
Farallon Islands Nature Cruises ( +1 800 326 7491/ http://www.oceanicsociety.org/whale )
Blue & Gold Fleet ( +1 415 705 8200 / +1 415 705 5555/ http://www.blueandgoldfleet.com/ )
Mr. Toad’s Tours ( +1 877 467 8623/ http://www.mrtoadstours.com/ )
Yosemite with Green Tortoise ( +1 415 956 7500/ http://www.greentortoise.com/yosemite.national.park.html )
Gray Line Tours ( +1 888 428 6937/ http://www.sanfranciscosightseeing.com/ )
Starline Tours ( 1-800-959-3131/ http://www.starlinetours.com/san-francisco-tours.asp )
California Canoe & Kayak ( +1 510 893 7833/ http://www.calkayak.com/ )
Segway San Francisco Electric Tour ( +1 415 474 3130 / +1 877 474 3130/ http://www.electrictourcompany.com/ )
Anchor Brewing Company ( +1 415 863 8350/ http://www.anchorbrewing.com/ )
Fire Engine Tours
San Francisco Fire Engine Tours & Adventures ( +1 415 333 7077/ http://www.fireenginetours.com/ )
Wok Wiz Chinatown Tours and Cooking Company ( +1 650 355 9657/ http://www.wokwiz.com/tours/index.html )
The Haunted Haight Walking Tour ( +1 415 863 1416/ http://www.hauntedhaight.com/)
Chinatown Ghost Tours (+1 415 793 1183/ http://www.sfchinatownghosttours.com/)
Since the days of the Barbary Coast, San Franciscans have packed blues and comedy clubs, plays, movies, and the opera into their nightly routines. San Francisco also has a long tradition, by American standards, of celebrating a vital visual art scene.
Museums and Galleries
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA) and its excellent temporary exhibitions draws tens of thousands of San Franciscans who might not otherwise bother to come to an art show. Across 3rd Street, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has interesting exhibitions, often of larger multimedia installations and kinetic sculpture, in its two-floor gallery. The De Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park and the California Palace of the Legion of Honour (a handsome classical pavilion with Rodin’s “The Thinker” at its entrance) are San Francisco’s fine art museums. The world-famous Asian Art Museum in the Civic Center is also a must-see.
Most of San Francisco’s private art galleries are clustered downtown, to the east of Union Square on Geary and Sutter Streets. The more experimental galleries operate in SoMa lofts and Potrero Hill.
San Francisco’s other museums include the Museo Italoamericano and the African-American Historical & Cultural Society Museum, both at Fort Mason Center, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and for natural history, the California Academy of Sciences. Zeum and the Exploratorium are designed for kids but are great for grown-ups, too. Kids will also love the Musee Mechanique, a fabulously low-tech collection of arcade games from the turn of the 20th Century. Formerly located at the Cliff House, the Musee can now be found at Pier 45 on Fisherman’s Wharf.
San Franciscans seem to enjoy movies more than most, and popular features can be sold out for weeks. New theatres open all the time to meet the demand, with the AMC Van Ness 14 offering 14 screens, and the AMC Lowes Metreon 16 housing 16, including one IMAX. These city-dwellers love independent cinema, too. In spite of the multiplex phenomenon, San Franciscans strongly support quirky rep houses like the Castro, with its mighty Wurlitzer organ, and the Roxie, with its funky and eclectic programming.
San Francisco Ballet has long been one of the world’s premier companies. The globe trotting and award-winning ODC/Dance also make San Francisco their home base. More experimental modern dance has found a friendly venue at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theatre.
The American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) presents innovative productions of excellent plays, both old and new, at the Geary Theatre. The Curran puts on commendable plays and musicals. Aside from the big touring productions at the Orpheum Theatre and the cavernous Golden Gate Theatre, and a handful of small houses like the Theatre on the Square, there is quite a fringe theatre scene in San Francisco. The Magic Theatre, a leading interpreter of Sam Shephard plays, and a few independent, theater-less companies do mount entertaining productions here and there. Performance spaces, such as The Marsh in the Mission, occasionally host experimental plays.
The award-winning San Francisco Symphony Orchestra performs at the ultra-modern Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall. Touring soloists and symphonies play at Davies, Masonic Auditorium, and other venues throughout town. In the summertime, the natural amphitheater at Stern Grove (on Sloat Boulevard in the Sunset District) features outdoor concerts by the Symphony, the Opera, and other performers.
San Francisco is inextricably linked with the history of rock ‘n roll. The Fillmore Auditorium (of Hendrix fame) is a boon for rock fans. Slim’s and the Great American Music Hall are engaging venues for performances on a smaller, but no less intense, scale.
Many of San Francisco’s Stand-up Comedy Competition winners have virtually been guaranteed television contracts. Cobb’s and the Punch Line are two of the oldest, and most popular, comedy clubs where many got their start.
San Francisco’s shopping scene is a diverse as the city itself. From earth-friendly stores and home-grown fashion to the biggest luxury labels, this city has it all. If big-name brands and chain stores are what you’re after, you’ll find them around Union Square while more off-beat finds abound in neighbourhoods like Hayes and the Mission District. Other places to explore include Chestnut Street, Chinatown, Fillmore Street, Haight Street and Polk Street. From vintage finds to off-the-runway looks, you’ll find it all in SF.
If you enjoy the outdoors, San Francisco has plenty of fun ways to enjoy the open. From surfing on Ocean Beach to hikes along Land’s End, urban adventures at Seward Street Slides and wild-life adventures on Angel Island, there’s more than enough to keep you engaged for an afternoon. If none of these sound appealing, you can always find something to do at Golden Gate Park. From disk golf to cycling and paddle boating there’s more than one way to get your heart racing here.
There are nightclubs all over the city, but locals especially favour North Beach and SoMa. While these clubs mostly have DJs running the show, live bands are still common. Bimbo’s 365 Club (a sexy, must-see, retro fantasy spot that puts on more blues and jazz than it does rock ‘n roll), the Independent, and the Bottom of the Hill have all hosted well-known acts that draw the crowds and pack the halls.
For a well-crafted drink, San Francisco’s speakeasy-style bars and cocktail lounges invite you in to linger over a drink. Among the popular favorites, Trou Normand’s exclusive spirits add an extra touch to every drink while Bar Agricole’s artisanal concoctions will have you savouring every sip.
One of the world’s most gay-friendly city’s and a pioneer in the LGBTQ rights movement, SF has a plethora of bars and nightclubs catering to the community. Among the top few, Cinch Saloon is one of the most longstanding institutions while those like the Stud have seen more than their fair share of celebrity patrons.
Whether you’re a dance-till-dawn or savour-each-drink kind of person, San Francisco’s after-hours scene will leave you in a happy place.
Miwok Indians to the north and the Ohlones to the south lived a peaceful existence before the coming of Europeans. The Kule Loklo Miwok village, re-created near the Bear Valley Visitors Center at Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, provides an insight into their daily life.
With an overland expedition by Don Gaspar de Portola, Europeans first laid eyes on the Bay in 1770. In March 1776, Captain Juan Bautista de Anza founded the Presidio and Mission of as-yet unnamed San Francisco. The Spanish presence at the Mission San Francisco de Asis (now Mission Dolores—completed in 1791; the oldest building in the city) and at the Presidio, three miles away, did not amount to much over the succeeding years. The Mexican revolution of 1821 led to the Secularization Act of 1833, ending the Mission Period. Mission Dolores fell into disrepair. Conversion and disease had done much to destroy the culture of the Miwoks and Ohlones; by the early 19th Century, native tribes had effectively ceased to exist.
In 1792, British explorer George Vancouver, visiting San Francisco Bay, discovered a protected anchorage east of the Presidio, called Yerba Buena by the Spanish after the sweet smelling grasses growing around the base of what is now Telegraph Hill. Vancouver pitched and left a tent there, creating the nucleus of what became Yerba Buena, a small English-speaking community outside Spanish and Mexican authority. In 1846 with the Mexican-American war, the Presidio and Yerba Buena came under American control.
In 1847, Yerba Buena, with a population of about 1,000, changed its name to San Francisco. The next January, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, which created only a minor stir. It was left to newspaper publisher and merchant Sam Brannan, trying to drum up trade for his Sacramento Street hardware store, to really trigger the Gold Rush. He brandished a bottle of gold pellets in Portsmouth Square and shouted, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” Within a year or two, Brannan was a millionaire. 100,000 “forty-niners” came to San Francisco from all over the world within the next year. Brannan’s announcement practically emptied San Francisco of its citizenry in 1848, and most forty-niners stayed only long enough to get picks and shovels before they were off to the hills.
By 1854, the gold fields had been exhausted, and San Francisco sank into an economic depression from which it would not emerge until the early 1860s with the discovery of the Comstock silver lode in western Nevada. It was this boom, richer and longer-lived than the California Gold Rush, which began to make a real city out of San Francisco, and millionaires out of some of its citizens. Comstock “bonanza kings” like James Flood, whose home is now the elegant Pacific Union Club, built mansions on Nob Hill. Fabric merchant Levi Strauss created a clothing empire by sewing pants for miners out of his leftover tent canvas.
The wild and woolly Barbary Coast roared through the ups and downs of San Francisco. The city gained a justly deserved reputation for vice of every sort. Brothels, gambling halls, and Chinese opium dens were everywhere on the city’s eastern waterfront, and unwitting patrons were frequently “shanghaied” into service as sailors. The remnants of the Barbary Coast’s scandalous “dance” revues can be seen in the slowly declining strip joints along Broadway in North Beach.
Early in the morning of April 18, 1906, an earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 8.1 on the Richter Scale ripped through San Francisco, destroying hundreds of buildings. As gas mains ruptured, a fire spread through the city, causing far greater damage than the quake itself. 500 or so were killed, but an estimated 100,000, who were left homeless, either fled in ferries and watched their city burn from the Oakland hills or joined a tent city of 20,000 in what is now Golden Gate Park.
The city quickly rebuilt itself after the earthquake and fire, like the phoenix rising from ashes on the San Francisco flag. Celebrating civic triumph over adversity, San Francisco hosted the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915, a glittering architectural fantasy built on 635 acres of what is now the Marina District. A great success, the Exposition’s steel-reinforced plaster buildings were bulldozed shortly after it closed, leaving only the domed pavilion of the Palace of Fine Arts (site of the Exploratorium).
Throughout the 1920s, plans were put forward for bridges to connect San Francisco with the East Bay and Marin. Finally in the early 1930s, work began on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which opened in 1936, and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937.
Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other young writers and thinkers of what was to be known as the Beat Generation established themselves in the cafes and bars of North Beach, continuing the city’s literary, bohemian tradition, albeit with a dreamy, druggy, jazz-inflected twist. Rising North Beach rents forced beatniks (a term coined by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen) out to the Victorians of Haight-Ashbury, where their boundary-breaking prose had already inspired a new movement of long-haired young cultural mavericks.
Derisively dubbed “hippies” by the beats, who saw them as junior beat wanna-bes, the hippies took their cultural and psychic explorations to different extremes, aided by LSD, a synthesized hallucinogen. Bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane came up with the soundtrack to “tune in, turn on, and drop out,” and the 1967 Summer of Love drew over 100,000 young seekers to the Haight.
Flower Power began to manifest itself more and more stridently with political unrest as demonstrations and even riots became a feature of life at San Francisco State University and, even more so, at the University of California, Berkeley. “Peace and love” began to turn into a bad trip.
San Francisco’s gay community began to assert itself with greater confidence and urgency in the 1970s, electing Supervisor Harvey Milk as the nation’s only openly gay politician. Milk was killed in 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone by former Supervisor Dan White. White’s subsequent conviction on a mere manslaughter charge prompted riots and the burning of police cars by angry gays and their supporters in front of City Hall on “White Night.”
During the 1980s, the gay community reeled under the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic. Though incidences of the disease have levelled off and more effective drugs prolong the life of those afflicted, the Castro has drawn even more tightly together to promote awareness of the disease and to support those whose lives have been affected by it.
In 1989, just as the Bay Area was sitting down to watch the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics play each other in the third game of the World Series, it was rocked by the 7.1 Loma Prieta Earthquake. The legacy of the quake can be seen in the sometimes nightmarish San Francisco traffic, caused by irreparable damage to important sections of freeway.
Today San Francisco is a a city of extremes. The magic of a thriving downtown business sector, explosive dot-com businesses South of Market, and a real estate boom in the southern corridor does not seem to be enough to dispel concern over an ever-rising homeless population and intractable problems with San Francisco’s public transportation system, Muni. Despite these issues and economic swings, it would be hard to dim the luster of the abundant charms of, as Herb Caen put it, the “Baghdad by the Bay.”
Getting there and getting around
From the Airport
Shuttle: AirTrain shuttle will take you from your terminal to the rental car center 24 hours a day. It also services the parking garages and the BART station connection at the airport.
Alamo ( +1 800 327 9633 / http://www.alamo.com/ )
Avis ( +1 800 831 2847 / http://www.avis.com/ )
Budget ( +1 800 527 0700 / http://www.budget.com/ )
Dollar ( +1 800 4000 / http://www.dollar.com/ )
Enterprise ( +1 800 325 8007 / http://www.enterprise.com/)
Hertz ( +1 800 654 3131 / http://www.hertz.com/)
National ( +1 800227 7368 / http://www.nationalcar.com/ )
Payless (+1 800 729 5377 / http://www.paylesscarrental.com/)
Thrifty ( +1 800 367 2277 / http://www.thrifty.com/ )
BLS Limousine Service (+1 800 843 5752 / http://www.blslimo.com/)
Public Transit: BART Rapid Rail to northern San Mateo County, San Francisco and the East Bay from the airport. The SFO BART station is located on the Departures/Ticketing Level (Level 3) of the International Terminal, on the Boarding Area G side of the terminal near the Berman Reflection Room. (http://www.bart.gov/)
Train: Caltrain rail service between San Francisco and San Jose, with weekday commute-hour service to Gilroy. BART connects SFO to the Caltrain rail system at the Millbrae Station. (http://www.caltrain.com/)
SamTrans 24-hour service connecting SFO to San Mateo County and parts of San Francisco and Palo Alto. SamsTrans buses stop at Terminal 1, 2, and International. (http://www.samtrans.org/)
Greyhound ( +1 800 231 2222; +1 512 458 4463 / http://www.greyhound.com/) accesses San Francisco daily.
Amtrak services two San Francisco stops daily from nationwide locations ( +1 800 872 7245 / http://www.amtrak.com/).
San Francisco can be reached via I-80, I-280, and I-101.
When you have a transportation query, you can pick up a phone and dial 511, or visit 511.org. Whether you’re driving, taking public transportation, or looking into carpool options, 511 has all the information you need. It’s available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The Muni Buses service the entire city (http://www.sfmuni.com/) and is San Francisco’s main transportation system.
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) services downtown San Francisco as well as Oakland, Pittsburg, Fremont, and other Bay areas. (http://www.bart.gov/)
For ferries to Alcatraz Island, use Alcatraz Cruises, departing from Pier 33. ( +1 415 981 7625 / http://www.alcatrazcruises.com/)
Bayshore Cab ( +1 415 648 4444 )
Luxor Cab ( +1 415 282 4141 )
Yellow Cab Cooperative ( +1 415 282 3737 )
Green Cab ( +1 415 626 4733 )
To find out city traffic information go to http://www.traffic.com/
If traveling overseas, take the safety precaution of registering your trip at https://travelregistration.state.gov and for helpful, practical advice about traveling technicalities and safety standards check out http://travel.state.gov/.