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San Francisco

Explore a diverse bayside city with picturesque neighborhoods and a dynamic culture

Over the decades, Northern California’s San Francisco has forged an identity all its own. This hilly and easy-to-navigate bayside city has long been a favorite among tourists from around the world, thanks to its rich cultural diversity, excellent restaurants and world-class art museums. Adding to the city’s allure are the iconic, old-fashioned trolleys that still navigate the streets, the world’s only remaining manually operated cable cars in use.

San Francisco stands out among California’s most picturesque cities, with undulating cityscapes characterized by majestic bridges, a sprawling bay and steep streets lined with ornately painted Victorian townhouses. Regular blankets of rolling fog create an otherworldly ambiance that only adds to the City By the Bay’s mystique.

The city began life as a small settlement of Spanish explorers who took advantage of the vast natural harbor in the 1700s. After California passed into U.S. hands, the city grew to be a vital hub of wealth-seekers during the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century. Luminaries ranging from writer Mark Twain to opera star Enrico Caruso were seduced by the town’s charm, and despite a devastating earthquake and subsequent fire in 1906, the city’s Victorian appeal endured. The influx of tech money has gentrified many of the city’s neighborhoods, but the iconoclastic spirit of San Francisco can’t be tamed.

Bay-Area Athletics

Sports fans may know San Francisco as home of two storied teams: the San Francisco Giants (baseball) and the 49ers (football). Neighboring Oakland, separated from San Francisco proper by the Oakland Bay Bridge but still very much a part of the Bay Area’s cultural landscape, has pro teams of its own: football’s Raiders, baseball’s Athletics and basketball’s Golden State Warriors. San Francisco also hosts a number of running events throughout the year, including the San Francisco Marathon and the annual Bay to Breakers, purported to be the longest-running footrace on earth.

Scenery and Attractions Galore

San Francisco showcases a bevy of historic and cultural attractions, and travelers could easily spend upward of a week here without getting to everything the city has to offer. There are plenty of excellent art museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the enormous Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and Golden Gate Park’s de Young Museum. For architecture buffs, the city showcases a wide mix of Mission-style and Victorian architecture, including the oft-photographed “painted ladies,” a row of Victorian-era townhouses known for their vividly colored exteriors. The best-known examples of this elegant style stand near Alamo Square at Hayes and Steiner streets; this particular grouping of structures is known as “postcard row” (you can guess why).

Prison on an island in San Francisco Bay — Alcatraz

Other popular attractions include Alcatraz Island, a former federal penitentiary located 1 mile offshore. Now run by the National Park Service, this grim complex once housed some of America’s most notorious criminals, including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Arthur “Doc” Barker, part of the notorious Barker-Karpis gang. The former prison is now open for tours and is accessible by boat. Visitors can walk the main cell house, check out the prison library and stroll the recreation yard, where escape plots hatched when the guards weren’t looking.

The 1.7-mile-long Golden Gate Bridge is another must-see. The iconic span, which carries six lanes of U.S. Route 101 and connects San Francisco to Marin County, has become a dazzling symbol of the town’s promise. Completed in 1937 at the height of the Great Depression, the bridge’s 746-foot-high towers and graceful suspension cables seem to defy gravity. Driving across the bridge is a thrilling experience, and folks who want a closer look can traverse the walkways that run parallel to the road. Twice weekly walking tours offered by City Guides, a nonprofit organization sponsored by the San Francisco Public Library, focus on the historic construction of what was once dubbed “the bridge that couldn’t be built.”

On the San Francisco side of the bridge, visitors can experience Civil War History at Fort Point. Overlooking the entrace of the bay, the imposing brick fortification, built at the outbreak of the war between the states, was designed to repel enemy ships. National Park Service rangers give tours to the impressive structure.

Architecture buffs should cruise to the Marina District for a tour of the Palace of the Fine Arts, a sprawling structure built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Highlighted by a central rotunda and built around a lagoon, the complex continues to serve as the setting for special events and weddings.

A Diversity of Neighborhoods

San Francisco’s legendary neighborhoods express different facets of the city’s personality. The historic Mission District has long been a melting pot of diverse ethnic populations. Gentrification has dramatically changed many parts of this district, but the colorful streets retain their vibrant identity.

San Francisco’s Chinatown (the largest Chinese enclave outside of Asia, as well as the oldest Chinatown in North America) is another landmark neighborhood. Browse shops selling rare ingredients, kitchen items, finely crafted housewares and decorative knickknacks that are unique to Chinese culture. Savor delicious Chinese dishes at restaurants that specialize in bringing authentic flavors to the states. The party really gets started during the weekendlong Autumn Moon Festival, a community celebration held every mid-September to mark the transition into the harvest season.

Lanterns hang from cables in beautiful Chinatown, SF

A Stellar Seaside

Most tourists make a point of visiting Fisherman’s Wharf, one of the city’s top attractions and a charming neighborhood unto itself. Located on the bay, this area’s best known for the popular Pier 39 shopping area, a great spot for people-watching and a regular haunt for street performers. The pier also attracts sea lions from time to time.

Seafood lovers who stick around for lunch can reap the reward of local treats ranging from chowder (usually served up in a bread bowl made from San Francisco’s celebrated sourdough) or locally caught Dungeness crab. From Pier 39, it’s seven blocks to Ghirardelli Square, where the beloved Ghirardelli Chocolate Company serves its distinctive, square-shaped treats. The Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival, held every September, tantalizes the taste buds of chocoholics needing a fix.

Groovy by the Bay

Folks old enough to hum along to Scott McKenzie’s famous 1967 pop tune, “San Francisco,” should make the pilgrimage to the Upper Haight (aka Haight-Ashbury, after its most famous intersection). The song instructed visitors to “wear some flowers in your hair,” and it was apt advice; the neighborhood was ground zero for the flower child subculture during the Summer of Love (the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin held court here). Today, the bohemian vibe still flourishes.

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