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Spotlight: San Francisco

Peer beneath the surface of the City by the Bay

The ring of cable car bells and the sound of foghorns on the bay are synonymous with legendary San Francisco. But there’s much more to this metropolis than the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island.

Founded more than 200 years ago, the iconic city’s cultural treasures and rolling landscapes have made it a favorite travel destination for over a century. Stay at one of the many RV parks located just outside the city, then take the area’s mass transit into its legendary neighborhoods.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Cosmos and Culture

Explore the mysteries of the planet at the California Academy of Sciences, where far-away galaxies, dense rainforests and deep-ocean creatures are brought to life through stunning displays. Step into the Kimball Natural History Museum to learn about the planet’s past, present and future evolution, then visit the Exploratorium at Pier 15 for more remarkable hands-on exhibits in science and art.

Fans of Mickey Mouse must make time for the Walt Disney Family Museum, which chronicles the life and work of the creator of the eponymous media empire. Special exhibits highlight Disney’s love of trains and Hollywood glamour portraiture.

The Chinese immigrants who helped build San Francisco are recognized in the Chinese Historical Society of America. Exhibits detail the hardships and triumphs of Chinese in America, and personal narratives and compelling artifacts shed light on this influential immigrant culture.

Fine art finds its way into the halls of the de Young-Legion of Honor museums, where special exhibitions range from tapestries to costumes to rare porcelain. Permanent collections include European sculpture, Greek and Roman antiquities, and graphic arts.

See how the cable car became an icon of San Francisco at the Cable Car Museum, which chronicles the vehicle’s colorful history from its first run in 1873 to the present day. Preserved cable cars, mechanical displays and more are part of the museum experience.

The city’s steep, winding streets are legendary in their own right. Some tours will take visitors up the winding Lombard Street, which climbs the steep terrain in a distinctive serpentine pattern.

Confront your fear of heights by taking a trip to the top of the Coit Tower, which rises from the top of Telegraph Hill. The observation deck provides a 360-degree view outside, and intricate murals are painted on the inside of the tower’s base.

Timeless Japanese tradition lives on in the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. Created as an exhibit for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, it remains the oldest public Japanese garden in the U.S. The 5-acre park includes a teahouse that overlooks a tranquil pond and the surrounding landscape.

The Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park encompasses hundreds of aquatic, tropical and potted plants. Visitors can thrill at the aquascapes—underwater gardens—and walk paths that wind through vibrant displays. The expansive Victorian-era greenhouse hosts several special exhibits throughout the year.

To the north, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area incorporates units on both sides of the Golden Gate Bridge along 60 miles of bay and ocean shoreline. The park was cobbled together from a menagerie of out-dated government properties that included forts, a prison, and an airfield. The total area of the urban park is more than twice the size of San Francisco and its surrounding county.

Deep Roots

The city’s connection to ocean trade is the focus of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, where Pacific Coast maritime history is displayed in a collection of exhibits and historic ships. Square-riggers, paddle-wheelers and steamers are moored side by side at Hyde Street Pier. The park surrounds Aquatic Park Cove, where sailboats and other non-motorized boats can cruise the famous harbor.

The city’s religious roots go deep, and Mission Dolores—first named Mission San Francisco de Asisi in 1776—is the oldest original intact mission chapel in California. It’s also the oldest building in the city. The cemetery and gardens remain intact, and both reflect the history of native peoples and early settlers. Guided tours are available to the public.

San Francisco Travel Association—Scott Chernis Photography

San Francisco Travel Association—Scott Chernis Photography

Cute, sometimes friendly and always entertaining, sea lions are the stars of the Sea Lion Center, which is managed by the city’s Aquarium of the Bay. Free programs educate visitors about the importance of preserving and protecting sea lion populations and their habitats.

San Francisco is known for quirky characters, and the denizens of The San Francisco Dungeon fit the bill. This mix of live-actor shows, a scary boat ride and spooky storytelling about the early days of the city might have you jumping out of your seat.

The Haas-Lilienthal House is a hallmark of San Francisco heritage; the home’s original owner was a prominent businessman whose family legacy includes denim magnate Levi Strauss. The Queen Anne-style home is the only period residence in the city open to the public for touring and exemplifies Victorian life for upper-class citizens.

Harvest from the Sea

Fisherman’s Wharf, with it shops and restaurants, is one of the busiest tourist destinations anywhere, but is worth the visit if only for the Dungeness crab. The season for one of the West Coast’s most commercially important crustaceans doesn’t open until November, with a celebration along Fisherman’s Wharf. Dodging the passenger ferries to Alcatraz Island, an active fishing fleet still brings fresh seafood from the seas to the dock for the “catch of the day” specials.

San Francisco Sweets

You’ve probably tasted the delicious chocolate with “Ghirardelli” on the label, but did you know why these morsels are packaged in square shapes? The answer lies in the chocolate factory established in 1852 by Italian immigrant Domenico “Domingo” Ghirardelli. The fantastic flavors created by the chocolatier drew sugar addicts from across the city, and today, the chocolate continues to be sold in Ghirardelli Square, which also boasts restaurants and shops.

For More Information

San Francisco Travel
California Travel and Tourism Commission