San Francisco, California, is a world-class destination, a favorite of international travelers and domestic tourists alike. An unmatched spectrum of dining experiences, first-class cultural events, exceptional scenery and a pleasant climate combine for an enjoyable visit. Compared with cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Paris or London, San Francisco is a small, almost provincial city. It is a mere 8 mi/13 km from the Embarcadero, on the Bay, to the Great Highway and the Pacific Ocean.
Despite the notable influx of tech companies such as Google, Facebook, SalesForce and Twitter, tourism remains its prime industry, and the city has a thriving convention business that keeps its hotels and restaurants busy throughout the year.
You'll find San Francisco one of the world's most scenic cities—the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, Chinatown, the crazy quilt of Victorians, precipitous hills, extraordinary restaurants and, of course, earthquakes and fog. See the white-capped waters of San Francisco Bay, eat crab cakes along Fisherman's Wharf, attend a free concert in Golden Gate Park or a game with one of the Bay Area teams—the Warriors, 49ers or the Giants.
San Francisco's roller-coastering landscape cuts through dozens of distinct neighborhoods and its diverse population is every bit as colorful as the city's iconic landmarks and topography.
Perched on the northern tip of a peninsula, San Francisco is surrounded on three sides by water—to the west by the Pacific Ocean; to the east by San Francisco Bay, with Berkeley and Oakland on the other side (across the East Bay); and to the north by the narrow mouth of the Bay, spanned by the Golden Gate Bridge, which stretches to Marin County.
More than 50 hills stud "the City" (as San Franciscans call it), accounting for the bounty of breathtaking views. These hills break up and isolate otherwise contiguous communities. It's a city of neighborhoods, each with its own distinct character and attractions. Some of the most visited are Union Square, the Financial District, SoMa (the area south of Market Street), the Embarcadero, Chinatown, North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf, all clustered in the northeast corner of town.
Other neighborhoods well worth visiting are Japantown, the Mission, the Castro, North Beach, Russian Hill, the Marina, Pacific Heights, Hayes Valley, Nob Hill, the inner and outer Richmond and Sunset districts, and Cole Valley and Haight-Ashbury, which adjoin the eastern tip of Golden Gate Park. The park itself stretches westward to the Pacific Ocean, dividing two large residential neighborhoods—Richmond to the north and Sunset to the south.
The San Francisco Bay Area was originally inhabited by the Miwok and Ohlone people about 10,000 years ago. However, after Spanish explorers arrived in 1775, the Native Americans were almost wiped out by disease and mistreatment.
The Spanish established an army base at the Presidio and the Mision San Francisco de Asis (more commonly known as Mission Dolores). The Spanish themselves were pushed out in 1846 when U.S. forces captured San Francisco during the Mexican-American War, and a small outpost founded by Mormon priest Sam Brannan became an official part of the U.S.
Just two years later, a sawmill owner named James Marshall discovered gold around the American River (a little more than 100 mi/160 km from San Francisco). Brannan publicized the discovery, setting off the largest peacetime migration in U.S. history. The population leaped from 500 to 50,000 in one year, as people from all over the world rushed to the area in search of riches. A few years later in 1858, just as the gold rush was waning, the Comstock Lode of silver was discovered.
In the following decades, the city grew from a collection of tents to a world-class metropolis where the new gold and railroad barons could enjoy the finer things in life. San Francisco also became known for its many brothels, saloons and opium dens. The city developed in size and importance as a shipping port and military garrison. Abandoned fortifications can still be explored along the coastline, and tourist destinations line some of the old piers.
In April 1906, an immense earthquake struck, and one result was a fire that raged for three days. Some 400 people were killed, and half of San Francisco was destroyed. The city rebuilt itself quickly—much of the renowned architecture you see today dates from that era. City leaders, however, thwarted plans to rebuild the red-light district.
In 1915, the Panama-Pacific Exposition was held in the Marina District. The Palace of Fine Arts was built for it. During that same year, San Francisco's city hall was rebuilt.
San Francisco was a major staging area for troops during World War II, and its burgeoning shipbuilding industry attracted a diverse mix of people. As an international port linked to distant cultures, and as a destination for a multitude of Americans with various backgrounds, San Francisco became known for its liberal leanings and a tolerance for differences.
During the 1950s, the Beat Generation writers—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti—congregated in San Francisco, creating a subculture of poets and writers in the North Beach neighborhood. Their music was jazz. When North Beach rents went up in the 1960s, many bohemians moved to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood; out of that grew the hippie movement and a steady stream of literary and musical innovation. The city's tradition of diversity continued in the 1970s and 1980s as the Castro District became a mecca for the LGBTQ community.
Despite another major earthquake in 1989, San Francisco's economy has prospered. Another "gold rush" erupted in the 1990s with the technology boom. San Francisco and neighboring Silicon Valley became a hotbed of dot-com innovation. Renovations at City Hall, the development of the area South of Market (or SoMa) and the construction of the main library reflect those indulgent times. Today, San Francisco is still fueling the digital revolution and leads the way in green technologies.
San Francisco offers a combination of scenic beauty, artistic accomplishments and brash character that is unmatched in the U.S.
Start by viewing the Golden Gate Bridge and Golden Gate Park and walking down one of the most crooked streets in the world (Lombard). Explore some art museums and one of the world's most innovative, hands-on science museums. Stop by one of the country's few fortune-cookie factories, too.
As you're walking around downtown San Francisco, don't forget to look up: You'll find extraordinary architectural detail on the upper levels of buildings, above the storefronts. Some fine examples of Victorian architecture are the often-photographed Painted Ladies, the row houses lining Alamo Square that have been seen in many a movie and TV show. A leisurely drive through Pacific Heights and the tony Sea Cliff neighborhood is a must for fans of grand homes and mansions, with the latest wave of dot-com millionaires pushing prices well into the eight-figures arena.
With the reclamation of the Presidio from the military and the Embarcadero from the freeway, it's theoretically possible to walk or bike the entire 10-mi/15-km stretch of U-shaped shoreline that hugs the northern tip of San Francisco. But don't attempt to do it all at once—break it up into separate sections or you'll exhaust yourself. Besides, there's just too much to see on the way.
The whole waterfront area underwent a complete structural renaissance after the massive Loma Prieta earthquake that tore up the Bay Area in 1989. It led to the construction of AT&T Park, now Oracle park, the Giants' stadium.
What makes San Francisco even more appealing is that it's the nucleus of the larger Bay Area, whose many sights and activities augment San Francisco's beauty and culture. Among the choices are the giant redwoods of Muir Woods, the charming bayside city of Sausalito (with its slew of art galleries and inviting cafes), and the collegiate atmospheres of Palo Alto (Stanford) and Berkeley (University of California, Berkeley).
A CityPASS is useful if you plan on visiting multiple points of interest. The pass (US$89 adults) is good for nine days and is valid for four major city attractions. Other perks include shopping discounts and additional admission discounts, as well as unlimited use of Muni buses and street cars—including cable cars—for seven days. http://www.citypass.com/san-francisco.
At night, the city offers something for every taste, from quiet piano bars on Nob Hill and trendy SoMa hot spots to colorful saloons downtown and in North Beach.
There is no smoking indoors. Closing time at most nightspots is 2 am, which is when bars are legally bound to stop serving alcohol.
The city's stellar restaurants representing cuisines from around the world are a source of pride for San Franciscans, who claim they have more restaurants per capita than any other city.
A diverse set of neighborhoods makes ethnic dining a lively option: Chinatown and Inner Richmond for Chinese dishes; Polk and Larkin streets for Vietnamese and Cambodian; North Beach for Italian; and the Mission District for Mexican, Latin American and contemporary American. Then there's Fisherman's Wharf for seafood; SoMa (south of Market) for trendy, avant-garde cuisine; and Haight-Ashbury for inexpensive, eclectic menus geared to the bohemian crowd.
Though no longer nouvelle, California cuisine still makes use of ultrafresh, local ingredients—vegetables, fish and meats—in imaginative and colorful presentations. The dishes are often complemented by terrific California wines. You'll find fine restaurants serving California cuisine throughout the city, but many are around Union Square and in the Financial District.
Restaurants tend to be busiest for dinner between 7 and 9 pm, and most close their kitchens by 11 pm.
Smoking is illegal inside public buildings, including restaurants and bars. Be aware that many restaurants, theaters and stores in San Francisco have banned the use of cell phones, as well.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$35; $$$ = US$36-$80; and $$$$ = more than US$80.
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