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San Francisco

San Francisco encourages people to embrace the new, the different, the quirky. It’s a high vibe thing not specifically having to do with tolerance, which is usually nothing more than a kind of grudging passivity. This goes for outdoor recreation as much as for the tattooed and pierced folks who fill the city’s coffee houses. If there’s anywhere to try something you’ve been dreaming about, it’s here in the City by the Bay.

San Francisco Bay defines the economy and hence the history of the region. The Golden Gate opens onto a natural harbor that attracted the Spanish settlers in the 18th century. Later, San Francisco became the major port of the California Gold Rush of 1849. The wallop of capital brought by the Gold Rush gave San Francisco a jumpstart start over any other west coast city. San Francisco enjoyed a century-long reign as the west’s busiest port, which goes a long way in explaining the rich heritage of Victorian architecture that makes the city such a pleasure to wander through today.

City of San Francisco viewed from the bay

Introduction

The mass convergence from around the world during the 1849 Gold Rush helped shape San Francisco’s special character. No single creed or national group dominated, so tolerance was required. As a port city open to the world, San Francisco remained receptive to ideas and cultures from around the globe. In a matter of blocks, you can go from the bustle of Chinatown to the streets of North Beach, where Italian opera and the scent of garlic drift from the restaurants. The locals have seen extremes nurtured in San Francisco become mainstream or perish as the fad of the moment. Celebrities are not worshipped or mobbed here, but merely accepted as part of the scene.

Old-money Montgomery Street bankers do business with T-shirted Silicon Valley whiz kids. It wasn’t long ago that savvy Bay Area techno types were puzzling over a new software, a browser for something called the Internet, by Netscape. Entrepreneurs always have been assured an audience, whether they’re street musicians or software developers.

San Francisco Fire Memorial

For all their tolerance, there are a few things San Franciscans can’t abide. Don’t step in front of cable cars; they have the right-of-way. Don’t admit to any association with Los Angeles. And never call the city Frisco.

A trip to San Francisco comes with certain expectations: cable cars, Chinatown, North Beach, pastel Victorian homes fronting steep, lawnless streets. But what’s a little surprising is that it’s all so unfamiliar. The bell of the cable car sounds different when you’re onboard, rounding a corner that goes both abruptly up and sharply to the left. The bell rises above the ratcheting of the cable and is as distinct as a foghorn floating through the early morning mist. In photos, the hills of San Francisco merely provide its setting; in person, there’s nothing ordinary about this roller-coaster landscape.

San Francisco’s reputation as a dining, sight-seeing and cultural mecca is well-deserved. It is said that the city has more restaurants than any other in the United States and features almost every cuisine. A renowned opera house, symphony and ballet, along with a multitude of bars and clubs, make up its diverse night life.

The city is divided into distinct districts, making it fairly easy for visitors to work their way around. Haight-Ashbury, SoMa (South of Market), Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, Nob Hill, Chinatown and North Beach are a few notable micro-cities among the maze of streets.

San Francisco is famous for its two Bay bridges. The Golden Gate Bridge, opened in 1937, links San Francisco to Marin County. The almost two-mile span was built to withstand winds of up to 100 mph. The six-mile San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was completed in November 1936. For those of us outdoors folks, San Francisco boasts three great parks in relatively close proximity the Presidio, Lincoln Park and Golden Gate Park.

Despite its steep hills, San Francisco is easy to explore on foot. Three world-famous cable car lines cost just $2 one-way on the Powell-Mason, Powell-Hyde or California routes. Trying to navigate the city by car can be a nightmare due to traffic, more than 40 steep hills and a lack of parking spaces.

San Francisco will lure you back, again and again. You’ll forget the fog, the chilly summer days and the exhausting hills but remember the mystique that makes it one of the world’s most popular travel destinations.

The famed Golden Gate Bridge

History & Culture

Remarkably, the first European visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area missed the massive inlet altogether. In 1579, Sir Francis Drake landed at Point Reyes, about 35 miles north of San Francisco, claiming it for Queen Elizabeth and then sailing south straight past the Golden Gate. Not long after, Spanish explorers renamed the Point Reyes bay (now known as Drakes Bay) La Bahia de San Francisco, but then proceeded to wreck their ship on Point Reyes and had to crawl south to the safety of Acapulco in a vessel lashed together from the wreckage. They too failed to notice the San Francisco Bay. Its European discovery had to wait nearly another 200 years. In 1775, Juan Manuel de Ayala became the first European to enter the Golden Gate. He was followed in 1776 by Captain Juan Bautista de Anza, who built a presidio (fort) above the Golden Gate and the mission Dolores in the heart of today’s mission district. A tiny village known as Yerba Buena sprang up between the two and became the birthplace of modern San Francisco. Yerba Buena was renamed San Francisco in 1847, just before a momentous discovery was made in the Sierra Nevada mountains to the east: there was gold in them thar hills. The news was soon out and prospectors began to flood in; over 100,000 hardy ’49ers (the year they made their voyage) endured the long overland trek or the dangerous sea voyage to San Francisco and the city’s population exploded from 500 to 25,000 within a year. In 1850, California became the 31st state in the union and by 1854 the booming gold-rush town already had hundreds of saloons and dozens of theaters to entertain miners.

The initial gold rush fever had subsided by 1859, when a second rush took place, this time for the even richer wealth of silver near Reno, Nevada. The late 1870’s saw the boom years of the gold and silver rushes dry up. Still, the city grew steadily and at the turn of the century the population was rapidly approaching 350,000. The Spanish-American War in 1898 and the Klondike Gold Rush in Canada’s Yukon in 1896 underlined the city’s importance as a port, while the opening of numerous banks established its continuing importance as a financial center.

Then the ‘Big One’ brought a severe shake up. There had been major earthquakes in San Francisco in 1812 and 1865, but the Big One of May 18, 1906 is estimated to have come in at around 8.3 on the Richter Scale (which had not, at that time, been invented), a magnitude still unmatched in California history. The quake was centered near Point Reyes, but it was not the quake itself that was to devastate San Francisco. The real damage came from the fires lit by toppling chimneys and fed by fractured gas mains that swept across the city. Water mains had fractured too, so by the time the conflagration had burned itself out, half the city was in ruins. A decade of frantic rebuilding followed the quake and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition saw the city bigger and brighter than ever.

Like the rest of the United States, San Francisco suffered through the Great Depression and enormous public works projects attempted to yank the economy out of the doldrums. The two most prominent, the Bay Bridge of 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge of 1937, are still magnificent symbols of the area. During WWII, the Bay Area became a major launching pad for military operations in the Pacific, with gigantic shipyards springing up around the bay, breathing more life into the local economy.

But it wasn’t until the mid-1950’s that national attention was first focused on ‘the City’ as the birthplace of a scene of its own. When Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, upstart students at Columbia University and Gregory Corso, 17 years old and fresh out of jail, fled the indifference of New York City and joined forces with a San Francisco poets’ movement begun by poet and literary critic Kenneth Rexroth, the Beat Generation was given a voice. Kerouac became their premier author, Ginsberg their poet and cool jazz the sound of North Beach, hub of the new Bohemia.

Hippies followed in the 1960’s and Haight-Ashbury bloomed as the new hotspot. Local bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane set the tune for the movement and the ‘Summer of Love’ was born,when 20,000 people congregated in Golden Gate Park for a free concert in 1967. While the hippies were in the Haight, Berkeley revolutionaries were leading worldwide student upheavals, slugging it out with the cops and the university over civil rights.

San Francisco’s second ‘Big One,’ the Loma Prieta earthquake, came at 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989 and measured 7.1 on the Richter scale. Sixty-seven people died in all, but the damage would have been far worse were it not for a baseball game. That year, baseball’s World Series was a local affair between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s. When the quake struck, the game was about to begin at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park and a large chunk of the Bay Area population was at home watching it on TV, not out on the freeways stuck in rush-hour traffic.

Since the quake, San Francisco has experienced another period of urban renewal, with a building boom that is sprucing up neighborhoods and historic buildings all over the city and making it a very expensive place to live. Although the new media boom gone bust, it still has done much to further growth and brought a new generation of thinkers to the bay.

Attractions

San Francisco’s densely populated downtown is squeezed into the hilly northeastern corner of the peninsula. The often dramatic cityscape came about because the streets were laid out as if their planners had never even glanced at the city’s topography. They simply dropped a grid pattern onto the steeply undulating terrain and did the best to make the hills fit the roads. The result is that streets often climb or drop at ridiculously steep gradients. It makes parking hazardous, breeds bicycle messengers of superhuman strength and provides a hairy setting for car chase scenes in movies.

Downtown
Union Square is San Francisco’s downtown tourist center. It’s a mishmash of glitzy shops and hotels, flower vendors and homeless people. Cable cars rumble down the west side of the square; try looking down Hyde St towards Aquatic Park, down Washington St to Chinatown and the Financial District, or down California from Nob Hill. And if you’re in Nob Hill, you’ve just got to ride the elevator to the Top of the Mark, the famous view bar at the top of the Mark Hopkins Hotel. SoMa (‘South of Market’ St) is a combination of lofty office buildings spilling over from the Financial District, fancy condos along the Embarcadero, a touristy gallery and museum precinct around Yerba Buena Gardens and the late night entertainment scene along Folsom and 11th streets.

Chinatown
A few blocks north of Union Square is Chinatown, the most densely packed pocket of the city and one of its most colorful. The tacky curio shops along Grant Avenue are monuments to the role tourism plays in the neighborhood, but the 30,000 Chinese most of whom speak Cantonese as their first language, live in a tightly-knit, distinctly un-Western community. It’s a great place for casual wandering through narrow alleys, where on quiet afternoons you can hear the clack of mah jongg tiles from behind screen doors. The most colorful time to visit Chinatown is during the Chinese New Year in late January or early February, with a parade and fireworks and other festivities.

North Beach
North Beach is sandwiched between Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s a lively stretch of strip joints, bars, cafes and restaurants that started as the city’s Italian quarter and gave birth to the Beats in the ’50’s City Lights Bookstore is here, at the corner of Columbus Ave and Jack Kerouac Alley. The neighborhood is hemmed in on the east by Telegraph Hill, which features tree-shaded stairways that ramble down the steep eastern face of the hill and Coit Tower. One of the city’s most famous landmarks, the tower is a prime spot to let loose your postcard-vista voyeurism. The 360 degree view from here are superb.

Fisherman’s Wharf
The much-maligned but massively popular Fisherman’s Wharf is directly north of Russian Hill. There’s no getting away from the Wharf’s unspeakable kitschiness, but it’s still fun. Packed with shopping centers, hokey museums and countless accommodations, it’s also the gateway for several top attractions (Alcatraz, the Maritime Museum and the Historic Ships Pier). Pier 39 is the area’s focal point it’s become as popular with a colony of sea lions as it is with tourists.

Haight-Ashbury
Keep on truckin’ southwest of downtown and you’ll hit Haight-Ashbury (‘the Haight’), the locus of San Francisco’s brief fling as the home of flower power in the late 1960’s. Today, the Haight is still colorful, but its pretty Victorian houses and proximity to Golden Gate Park have prompted increasing gentrification.

Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park stretches almost halfway across the 6 mile wide peninsula, from the Pacific Ocean to the Haight’s Panhandle. Apart from gardens (including a flower conservatory and a charming Japanese tea garden), lakes (rowboats, pedal boats and motor boats can all be rented), sporting facilities (including horse riding, archery, softball, golf, lawn bowling, horseshoe pitching and petanque), the park also has a host of museums and an aquarium, making it a useful escape even when the fog rolls in and the temperature plummets.

The city has plenty of other wide open spaces. Lincoln Park Coastal Trail is an interesting walk from the ruins of the Sutro Baths at Ocean Beach to the northwestern tip of the city, known as Lands End; there are some great views of the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge. South of Golden Gate Park, the city’s hilly terrain makes its final skyward lunges at Twin Peaks and Mt Sutro. The 900 foot summit of Twin Peaks offers a superb viewpoint over the whole Bay Area, especially at night.

Golden Gate Bridge
The beautiful Golden Gate Bridge crosses the 2 mile mouth of San Francisco Bay. Completed in 1937, the bridge remains the symbol of the city despite competition from modern constructions. At the time of its completion, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world and the 746feet suspension towers were higher than any structure west of New York City. There are viewpoints at both ends of the Golden Gate Bridge, but Vista Point, the northern one, not only gives you the bridge, but the San Francisco skyline as well.

Alcatraz
The bay’s other attractions include Alcatraz Island, which operated as an ‘escape-proof’ prison from 1933 to 1963. Al Capone, ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Robert Stroud, the ‘birdman of Alcatraz,’ were among the prison’s unsavory residents.

What makes San Francisco even more appealing is that it’s the epicenter of the larger Bay Area, which adds a whole gamut of sights and activities to San Francisco’s culture and good looks. Among the choices are the giant redwoods of Muir Woods, the charming bayside city of Sausalito and the collegiate atmosphere of Palo Alto and Berkeley.

Recreation

Road Cycling
San Francisco’s hills breed cyclists of superhuman strength. Because of this San Francisco can be an extremely difficult place to ride but there are some good, relatively flat areas to explore including Golden Gate Park, along Ocean Beach, the mission District and Embarcadero. As for other, less conveniently level neighborhoods, low gear ratios-and good brakes-are essential. San Francisco bikers develop strategies for circumventing the steepest inclines, which means that the fastest, safest route to a given destination may not be as the crow flies, even if the crow were oriented to a grid system. One strategy to deal with the hills is when you find yourself faced with a seemingly unsurmoutable hill is to turn and see if you can pedal around it.

Once you cross one of the bridges life really opens up. There are plenty of excellent cycling routes in Marin and the East Bay. And if you have the chance don’t foget to ride across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Marin Headlands.

Camping
For a densely populated as the Bay Area is you can camp right in the middle of San Francisco Bay on Angel Island State Park. This is a great place to while away the hours watching boats pass in the harbor and the spectacle of city and open space that is the bay. You can camp among the redwoods at Butano State Park, south of the city. The state park offers some pleasant rambles among the trees and across creeks and such, but nothing to strenuous. Plus its near Ano Nuevo State Reserve, which offers excellent wildlife watching.

Venturing north, Manchester State Beach is all things to those who like it wild and windy. Manchester is just the place for moody beach combing and if you can muster up the ambition, hiking and wildlife watching along the creeks and rivers that flow through the area, or steelhead fishing in the Garcia River in January and February.

Climbing
California is blessed with two world class climbing destinations Yosemite, during the summer and Joshua Tree, during the winter.

For that Spring and Fall in between time, many Bay Area climbers stay a little closer to home and scale the rocks at Pinnacles National Monument. Careful though, the rock here is brittle volcanic brecia. Because of this, Pinnacles is a place known more for staying in shape for meeting the bigger challenges.

In the city, mission Rocks Climbing Center is a magnet for mid-week climbers. They offer lessons, a childrens program and other climber services.

Hiking
Seems like we always come back to the Golden Gate Recreation Area, which has scores of good trails. On the San Francisco side, the trail system at the Presidio is evolving, with excellent beginnings: rugged coastline, surprising views, interesting historical sites. The discussion on where to put the main ridge trail has been a tough one, mostly because there’s so many close calls about what would be the most spectacular way.

Marin County’s Marin Headlands has got to be one of most magical place in the world. Austere, with far reaching views, it’s a place to go for inspiration. Mount Tamalpais, affectionally called Mount Tam by the locals, is another local favorite, besieged on summer weekends, it calms down a lot during the week. The Cataract Trail on its eastern slopes is a good, easy introduction to Mt. Tam’s charms. Next door at Point Reyes hiking doesn’t get much better, with dozens of trails to choose from, from easy to strenuous and even some backpacking options. For a walk in the woods, you can’t do much better than Muir Woods, home of the BIG trees.

If you want to go the distance, the Bay Area Ridge Trail circles the ridgeline for a breathtaking 400 miles. The East Bay Regional Park District manages 55 parks covering 88,000 acres, featuring Chabot, Tilden and Del Valle regional parks, several Bay wetland habitats and a chain of six parks connected by the 31-mile East Bay Skyline National Trail, a nice-bite size challenge.

Paddling
Ocean plus Bay plus Estuary equals top notch sea kayaking. Angel Island is probably the most popular destination. You can circumnavigate the island, exploring its many interesting coves. And with permit you can spend the night.

Other excellent kayaking spots include the wetlands in the south bay and San Pablo Bay, which has some mighty fine deep sea fishing. Things really open up along the Marin Coast. Drakes Estero at Point Reyes National Seashore and Tomales Bay are excellent sheltered spots.

If your thing is the open water, there are many, many possible trips along the Marin coast.

In The Area

Marin County
Across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, Marin County is wealthy, laid back and right in tune with every trend that comes by. From hot tubs and cocaine to New Age spiritualism, mountain biking and designer pizzas, Marin was there first. It’s a wonderfully varied peninsula with fiercely expensive Sausalito on the bay side and the wild Pacific coastline stretching north to popular Stinson Beach, hideaway Bolinas and fog-swept Point Reyes National Seashore, which is the best spot in the Bay Area for whale watching. Between bay and ocean, the central hills rise to the 2600 foot peak of Mt. Tamalpais, overlooking the redwood stand of Muir Woods. The view from Mt. Tam is a breathtaking 360 panorama of ocean, bay, cities, bridges and hills. Over 200 miles of hiking and biking trails wind around the mountain and deer, fox, bobcat and even the occasional mountain lion dwell in the forests and dells.

You’re in Marin once you’re over the Golden Gate Bridge: Highway 101 cuts directly through the region; Highway 1 branches off at mill Valley and heads to the coast. Plenty of buses run from San Francisco; there are also ferries from Fisherman’s Wharf to Sausalito, Larkspur and Tiburon.

Wine Country
Northern California’s glorious Wine Country is a feasible day trip from San Francisco, but an overnight stay will give you a much better taste of the vineyards and circumvent any ‘who’s gonna drive’ conversations. Only about 5% of Californian wine comes from the Wine Country, but it’s the quality stuff; plonk ordinaire is churned out by the barrel in the Central Valley. The best time to visit is autumn harvest, when the grapes are on the vine, or in spring, when the hills are brilliant green.

The two valleys, Napa and Sonoma, lie between 60 and 90 minutes north of San Francisco. Both offer the same rustic beauty of vineyards, wildflowers and green and golden hills, but the characters of the valleys are quite different. Napa Valley, further inland, has 200 or more wineries, many of them with gorgeous gardens, knock-out views, interesting architecture and art collections. Of particular note is Stag’s Leap Winery, famous for its 1973 cabernet sauvignon that beat the French in a blind tasting in Paris. Calistoga, a spa town in northern Napa, is probably the most attractive option for overnighting. Sonoma Valley is low key and less commercial, with only about 30 wineries. Happily, free tastings are still the norm in Sonoma Valley.

You pretty much need a car to get to and around the Wine Country, though with planning, patience and picnics you may negotiate the bus system. Bicycle riding is an increasingly popular way to wobble from winery to winery, or if you just don’t trust yourself to forgo that fifth glass of cabernet, it’s possible to slaver over the valley from above, either by hot air balloon or glider.

Oakland
Head across the Bay Bridge to Oakland, largest city in the East Bay. There’s nothing dazzling about downtown Oakland, but amid the slightly decrepit buildings there are a few treasures, such as the mosaic-fronted 1931 Paramount Theater, home of Oakland’s ballet and symphony and the abandoned 1928 Fox Oakland Theater, an Art Deco beauty. Oakland’s untouristy Chinatown is focused on Franklin and Webster Sts. Jack London Square is a converted industrial zone on the waterfront now stuffed with restaurants; in the neighboring Jack London Village, the Jack London Museum has exhibits about the native author. Downtown Oakland’s visual centerpiece is Lake Merritt, an artificial estuary that was the nation’s first wildlife refuge. The nearby Oakland Museum’s terrific collection focuses on California art and history and the state’s endangered ecosystems.

Berkeley
Erstwhile seat of radical student politics, Berkeley has mellowed since its 1960’s heyday but is still considered a mecca of liberalism and the bizarre. Located just over the border north of Oakland and centered around the oldest of the University of California campuses, Berkeley sprawls from the bay all the way to the crest of the East Bay hills. Telegraph Ave is the center of Berkeley’s colorful student zone, where street vendors hawk their tie-dyed wares among mohawked urban urchins and streetcorner proselytizers. From Telegraph Ave, the beautiful campus is entered via Sproul Plaza, center for people-watching and drum-circle jamming. Also of interest on campus is Sather Tower, the 300 foot campanile modeled on St. Mark’s in Venice.

Oakland and Berkeley are both a quick BART ride from San Francisco. You can also take a ferry from San Francisco to Oakland’s Jack London Square or hop a bus, taxi or (during commute hours) a ride-share across the Bay Bridge. You’ll want a car (or a meaty set of biking legs) to get into the hills behind the cities.

Coastal Range
The essence of San Francisco is the coastline, the meeting ground between ocean and land. Heading up or down the coast means not having to cross the Central Valley, which takes several hours and can be tedious. Every American should make the pilgrimage to Yosemite National Park at least once in their lifetime but since you’re already on the coast, why not take advantage of it If a camping trip is what you’re after, Manchester Beach to the north and Butano Beach to the south should more than fit the bill. Adventurous hikers and backpackers will want to explore the Ventana Wilderness, perched high in the Santa Lucia Range, south of the city in Big Sur country. The vegetation here is stunningly diverse: on a shortish hike you might pass through redwood forest, oak savannah, dense chaparral, meadow grasslands. Styles Hot Springs is by far the most popular trail and it is amazingly beautiful, But if you want isolation, choose anything else.

Mendocino National Forest to the north has two wonderful wilderness areas, the Yolla Bolly-middle Eel and Snow Mountain. Snow Mountain is a gently rounded crest, barely reaching 7,000 feet. It is the most popular hiking destination in the wilderness and offers glorious views of the Sierra Nevada and the North Coast ranges. The Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness provides the experience of deep mountain forests and swift rivers. If you really want to get out of town, the Trinity Alps Wilderness is, in some people’s mind, the most spectacular mountain wilderness in northern California. Even from a distance these peaks are inspiring. When you actually arrive on their slopes you’ll discover a diverse, lake and river filled region offering many excellent treks.

When To Go

San Francisco is a popular location any time of the year. Summer is the prime tourist season, so prices are higher, lines are longer and finding a parking place becomes even harder and it is quite a feat on a good day. San Francisco’s summer weather is none too hospitable anyway: the bay is often foggy, while inland or north in the Wine Country it’s often too hot and dusty for comfort. Local weather patterns are highly unpredictable, but generally the best months weather-wise are between mid-September and mid-November.


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