As a child growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I thought the city was magical. With its filmy fog, the clang of the cable car bells and the twinkling lights at night—San Francisco still has me under its spell.
From its role as the gateway to the 1849 Gold Rush (the city’s 49ers NFL team is named after those who came to look for riches) to its phoenix-like rise from the rubble and ashes of the disastrous 1906 earthquake and fire to its Flower Power generation lure—San Francisco consistently recasts itself to appeal to modern tastes, yet retains an Old World, European charm. The city’s current streak of reinvention is easy to witness in museums, parks, hotels and restaurants.
City of Neighborhoods
Just 49 square miles, most attractions in San Francisco are easily accessible to some form of public transportation, from bus to streetcar to cable car. Locals tend to refer to places by the neighborhood in which they’re located. Some districts were named after the ethnicity of the people who settled there, like Chinatown and Japantown. Others are named after landmarks (the Mission, after Mission Dolores). Still others are known for more modern-day settlers, such as the Haight’s home to ’60s-era hippie culture or the Castro’s vibrant gay community. [Read our Family-Friendly San Francisco article for three neighborhoods that are great for families.]
Fog engulfs the Golden Gate Bridge.
For a city relatively small in size, San Francisco is chock-full of green space—from huge Golden Gate Park to the Presidio to small neighborhood stomping grounds. The largest, Golden Gate Park, is a lush green strip that covers more than 1,000 acres from the center of the city to the far western edge. [Read our San Francisco Green Spaces article for more great park destinations.]
Don’t Miss: First Timers
There’s a reason why some of San Francisco’s main attractions are classics. Alcatraz, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge are icons of the city, and they attract tourists and locals alike.
Chinatown is one of the most colorful areas of the city.
Alcatraz—Known as “the Rock,” Alcatraz is a former federal prison and home to the West Coast’s first lighthouse and fort. It also was the site of an 18-month occupation in 1969 by Native Americans—in order to help establish tribal rights. Access is only by ferry. Daytime tours are available, and evening programs offer guided tours and cell door demonstrations. Alcatraz Cruises leave from Pier 33, tel. 415-981-7625, www.alcatrazcruises.com.
Chinatown—The best way to experience San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood is to begin at the elaborate Dragon’s Gate at Grant Ave. and Bush St. Pass through and take a look at the golden dragon streetlights. Now, just wander the streets and alleys of the neighborhood, take in the incredible food smells, and discover a treasure of Asian import shops and live markets. Nearby Portsmouth Square (at Kearney and Washington Streets) is where Mexican governor Jose Figueroa authorized Francisco de Haro to plot out a town in 1839—originally called Yerba Buena. It was also the site of California’s first public school, in 1848.
Fisherman’s Wharf—With great views of the city, fantastic Dungeness crab, street performers and barking sea lions—this is the best place for an inexpensive good time. As much as locals like to say they hate Fisherman’s Wharf, the best excuse for them to go is when friends are in town. If you’re visiting someone in San Francisco, ask him to take you. The nearby Cannery and Ghirardelli Square shopping centers offer a welcome relief from the tacky souvenir shops. The Fisherman’s Wharf area spans from Piers 33 to 45. www.fishermanswharf.org.
What to Pack
Any time is a great time to be in San Francisco, but be aware that the summer months are often foggy. The city has a more reliable Indian Summer, in September and October, when the weather is warmer and clear (most of the time).
The key to an enjoyable vacation in the San Francisco Bay Area is packing clothing choices for the area’s varied microclimates. It’s a common sight in the summer to see tourists in shorts and goosebumps, with a newly purchased I Love San Francisco sweatshirt.
Sure, go ahead and pack your shorts. But bring pants, long-sleeved shirts, a jacket and comfortable walking shoes—and you’ll be able to master the city, no matter what the weather brings.
Golden Gate Bridge—Who doesn’t want to walk across San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge? Pedestrians and bicyclists can access the sidewalks during the daytime, and linger over the spectacular views that drivers often miss. The bridge is just over a mile-and-a-half long, and has a subtle arc in the middle. Bring extra clothing for the cooler weather and ocean breeze if you plan to walk or bike across. Sidewalk access times vary with the season, and depend on whether you are walking or cycling. Directions to the sidewalks are available at www.goldengatebridge.org.
Don’t Miss: Return Travelers
If you’ve seen all the first-time attractions and are looking to round out your San Francisco experience, here are a few ways to do it:
Ferry Building Marketplace—San Francisco’s historic Ferry Building on the Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street dates back to 1898. It’s now home to the artisan food community, with shops run by local farmers and food businesses. If you’re looking for the best produce at the outdoor Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, get there by 8:30 a.m. One Ferry Building, tel. 415-693-0996. www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com. [Read our San Francisco Culinary Tour article for more information on the Ferry Building Marketplace and other great foodie destinations.]