San Francisco Travel Guide
San Francisco is unequivocally the most popular and most visited city in America. It's a city of bohemians and high-tech hotshots, and, historically, of yuppies, hippies and the Beats. This is where Allen Ginsberg waxed poetic in the 50s and the "flower children" of the Summer of Love made out in the 60s, while Greyhound's "Hippie Hop" tours treated middle-America to the lifestyles of a new generation – aka the counterculture. And it remains a city of inspiration, the liberal bastion of not only America but that of the world, at once chic, cosmopolitan, multi ethnic, cultured, creative, brimming with optimism and perhaps among the most resilient cities on the planet, which has risen from the ashes of fires and the rubble of earthquakes on more than one occassion, the last in 1989. It is a city of culinary innovation, haute couture, and the arts. It is the home of the world-renowned San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Ballet, San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and myriad art galleries and museums. It is a city filled with gourmet restaurants and funky cafés, and bookstores where Ginsberg's and Rimbaud's verses hold sway. It is a place where Nieman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany's vie for space on the same block. It is a city of neighborhoods that are as disparate as the ethnicities they embower, yet remarkably cohesive on a grander scale. It is a city of hills that rise and fall like a roller coaster to amaze and delight, offering spectacular views of the bay from their crests. It is a city of cable cars, Victorian homes, murals, bridges, flower vendors, sophisticates and panhandlers, where even its criminal past (to wit, Alcatraz) is proudly on display. And of course the city's essence is captured in many a song, not least among them, I Left My Heart in San Francisco.
San Francisco, which encompasses an area of just over 46 square miles, is situated at the head of San Francisco Bay on the coast of Northern California, some 420 miles (672 km) north of Los Angeles.
How to Get There
San Francisco has an international airport located just to the south of the city, which is serviced by scores of domestic as well as international carriers. By train, the city can be reached on Amtrak from the north, south or east. When journeying by road, the east-west Interstate 80 leads directly to it; from the north or south, such as from Portland, Seattle or Los Angeles, take Highway 101 directly to the city.
San Francisco is a city that can keep visitors enthralled for days, if not weeks. But among its most popular draws are Fisherman's Wharf, particularly Pier 39; Ghirardelli Square which still houses the famous chocolatier's retail outlet; Chinatown, one of the oldest and most colorful outside China; Golden Gate Park, which is a treat for outdoor recreation enthusiasts and museum-goers alike; North Beach, the city's Italian neighborhood, filled with Italian restaurants and San Francisco's most famous Beat-era bookstore, City Lights; the Castro, traditionally the home of San Francisco's gay community, but with a superb offering of bars and clubs as well; Union Square, the heart of the city's shopping district; and Alcatraz, one of the world's most celebrated prisons, now a tourist attraction. Among San Francisco's many hills, the best-known and most tour-worthy are Nob Hill, Russian Hill and Telegraph Hill, the last crowned with the landmark Coit Tower. While among the museums here, the pick of the bunch is SFMOMA, which has world-class rotating exhibitions. And then there's Haight-Ashbury, the birthplace of hippiedom and still quite colorful with vestiges of a bygone era. As for things to do, a cable-car ride through the city is a must-do, as is a trip across the Golden Gate Bridge. Oh, and don't forget to drive or walk down Lombard Street, "the crookedest street in the world!"
Chinatown - One of San Francisco’s oldest and most colorful neighborhoods, dating from the 1850s. It is also one of the most densely packed enclaves of the city, with a population of around 30,000, mainly ethnic Chinese, residing in a 24-block pocket bounded by Broadway, Montgomery, Powell and California streets. Grant Street is the main tourist drag, with dozens of shops overflowing with Chinese goods such as laughing Buddhas, colorful kites, masks and lanterns, rice paper drawings, red and gold fabric, and assorted trinkets and souvenirs. While on Stockton Street you can soak up the real flavor and atmosphere of Chinatown, with all its sights, sounds and smells: there are plucked ducks hanging from store fronts, herbal vapors rising from Chinese teashops, the aroma of deep-fried foods and piquant spices emanating from real-time Chinese eateries, alleyways running off between little businesses and fortune cookie factories, the clicking and clacking of mah-jong tiles mingling with a smattering of authentic Chinese dialects.
Union Square - Union Square is San Francisco's premier shopping district, situated in the heart of the city, just to the southwest of the Financial District, between Geary, Post, Powell and Stockton streets. Scores of upscale boutiques, department stores and prestigious national and international retailers jockey for position around the square, among them the likes of Tiffany’s, Gucci, Versace, Armani, Christian Dior, Cartier, Gumps, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Macy's, Nordstrom...The city's "theater district" lies between Union Square and the Tenderloin, bound by Powell, Geary, Sutter and Taylor streets.
Civic Center - The Civic Center is a triangular tract situated just southeast of Union Square and east of SoMa, described by Market Street and Van Ness and Golden Gate avenues. This is where San Francisco's City Hall and local government offices are located, housed in a group of Beaux Arts-style buildings that are among the finest examples of that style of architecture in the U.S.
Tenderloin - Historically the city's red-light district, the Tenderloin encompasses roughly 50 square blocks along the south side of Nob Hill, between the Civic Center and Union Square, with Geary, Mason and Market streets describing its northern, eastern and southern borders respectively, and Van Ness Avenue the western periphery. Some of the seedier clubs and bars can be found here, along with sex shops and curbside hookers. This is also where Dashiell Hammett based and wrote his famous 1930 detective novel, The Maltese Falcon.
- Nob Hill - Nob Hill is one of San Francisco’s most famous hills, situated adjacent to and south of Russian Hill. It overlooks both Chinatown and North Beach, and offers great views of San Francisco Bay. It became the chosen locale of the rich and famous in the 19th century, who built palatial mansions here in the late 1800s. The main draw today is the Cable Car Museum on Mason Street, where you can get a close-up look at the cable car machinery, with its giant cogs and wheels and cables that control the Powell-Mason, Powell-Hyde and California Street lines.
- Russian Hill - A twin-peaked hill adjoining to the north of Nob Hill and overlooking North Beach, Russian Hill is among the city’s foremost neighborhoods, with landscaped paths and tucked-away stairways dashing off between steep streets, offering grand views of the city and bay. The principal lure here is Lombard Street, between Hyde and Leavenworth streets, billed as “The Crookedest Street in the World.” Besides which, the Macondray Lane pathway and the Vallejo Street stairs (between Mason and Taylor) also offer picturesque walks and scenic vistas.
- North Beach - North Beach is one of San Francisco’s oldest and most vibrant neighborhoods. It is nestled between Russian and Telegraph hills, directly north of Chinatown, largely centered on Columbus Avenue and Broadway. It is home to the city’s Italian community, and is filled with Italian restaurants and scores of jazz clubs, bars and cafés. Principal draws here are the Vesuvio Café and the adjacent City Lights Bookstore, both located on Columbus Avenue and with associations to the Beat Generation of the 1950s; as well as Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store and Café, a popular hangout for locals, and Molinari Delicatessen, the oldest deli in the West.
- Telegraph Hill - Telegraph Hill, a 274-foot hill adjacent to North Beach, is one of the city’s prominent landmarks. It overlooks San Francisco Bay, with superb views, too, of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, Angel Island, Marin County, Russian and Nob hills, Treasure Island and East Bay. The principal attraction here is the 212-foot Coit Tower, which has fabulous frescoes from the Depression era, and the steep Filbert and Greenwich Steps.
- Fisherman's Wharf - Fisherman’s Wharf lies largely along the waterfront at the northern tip of the city, between Hyde and Taylor streets, offering up a colorful, festive jumble of seafood restaurants and eateries, and souvenir shops, amusement venues and museums. Main attractions here are Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square – where you can sample Ghirardelli chocolates – the Cannery and the Embarcadero.
- Financial District - San Francisco’s Financial District, a triangular section of prime real estate, crammed with skyscrapers housing major banks and financial institutions, lies immediately to the north of Market Street, or south of Chinatown. Montgomery Street is the heart of the district, dubbed “Wall Street of the West.” A majority of the city’s financial powerhouses are located here – including the 48- story Transamerica Pyramid which has an observation deck with bird’s-eye views of the city and the 52-story Bank of America Center – creating a glass, steel and concrete skyscraper-lined canyon.
- The Castro - The Castro, directly east of Mission and south of Market Street, is where San Francisco’s gay community makes its home. It’s a vibrant neighborhood brimming with Victorian homes, restaurants, bars, funky shops and hip boutiques, especially colorful along the two blocks of Castro Street that lie just south of the Harvey Milk Plaza.
- Mission District - The Mission is San Francisco’s Latino neighborhood, lying to the south of SoMa and east of the Castro, with much of the activity here centered on Dolores, Mission and Valencia streets, the last with ethnic bistros and bars and a colorful jumble of shops and galleries.
- Haight-Ashbury - Haight-Ashbury, which lies north of the Castro and south of Japantown, centered on the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets, is the birthplace of the Summer of Love and the counterculture. Haight Street, between Central Avenue and Stanyan Street, remains as flavorful as ever, with its eye-catching public art, second-hand record, book and clothing stores, a liberal sprinkling of bars and coffee joints, and sidewalks populated with a colorful and steady stream of people, many of them as outlandlish in their attire as those at the height of the hippie era.
- Pacific Heights - North of Japantown and south of the Marina, and comprised of the steep east-west ridge that runs along Broadway, Pacific and Washington streets, Pacific Heights is the enclave of San Francisco’s rich and famous, its streets lined with lavish historic homes and mansions, many of them with grand views of the city and bay.
- Marina - The Marina makes up the city’s northern waterfront, built largely on landfill and with most of the activity centered on Chestnut Street, its main street, between Fillmore and Divisadero streets.
- South of Market - South of Market (or SoMa), which lies south of Market Street, is the heart of the city’s contemporary art scene, home to myriad museums and galleries, largely centered around 3rd and 4th streets, anchored by the Moscone Convention Center.
- Japantown - Japantown, north of Haight-Ashbury and the Western Addition, is the place for sushi, tempura and traditional Japanese dishes, as well as imported Japanese wares of sorts. A proliferation of Japanese restaurants and karaoke bars, many of them in the Japan Center, and the landmark Kabuki movie theater off Fillmore, collectively give the neighborhood its distinctive character.
- Sunset District - Largest district of San Francisco, wedged between the Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach. Historically an Irish neighborhood, it is now populated mainly by Chinese Americans, with an informal Chinatown sprouting along the commercial part of Irving Street.
How to Get Around
San Francisco's principal mass transit system, which combines commuter trains and buses and services all communities in and around the city, is BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport), and is perhaps the best way to get around the city. Taxis and limo services are also readily available throughout the city, particularly in the downtown area.
Where to Party
Where to Eat
Where to Stay
In San Francisco, while winter temperatures are moderate and autumns offer generally crisp, clear blue skies, the summers are notoriously chilly, with some of the coolest temperatures of any city in the continental United States, interspersed, of course, with those trademark rolling banks of fog.
Know Before You Go
- Best Time to Visit: April-October
- Cost Per Day: $250-$850 (€185-€655)
- Currency: Dollar USD (€1 ~ US$1.30)
- Electricity: 120 Volts - 60Hz | T-slot socket with 2 flat parallel prongs and a round pin
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