Perched on the end of a peninsula that straddles the San Andreas Fault and surrounded on three sides by water, San Francisco has always been hanging off the edge of the world.
Built up by the Gold Rush in the late 1840’s and then devastated by a massive earthquake in 1906, the city has always reinvented itself which still defines modern San Franciscans today as some of the most innovative and independent people in the USA.
The city’s best assets are its distinct neighbourhoods many of whom command magnificent Bay and Pacific views. With parking so difficult and the city so compact, these places are best visited on foot or by Cable Car.
While the city nowadays has been taken over in large part by wealthy suburbanites in search of the urban life, San Francisco still retains a lot of its charm and independent spirit and for many visitors to America San Francisco is their favorite city.
- Have an authentic Chinese meal in Chinatown or grab an Italian espresso in North Beach.
- Brave the tourist hordes in Fisherman’s Wharf and find out what convict life was really like on Alcatraz.
- Enjoy the vibrant street life of the Castro and enjoy some delicious Mexican food in the Mission.
- Shop for hippie souvenirs in Haight Ashbury and go clubbing in SOMA.
- Head across the Bay to visit the radical 60’s headquarters that was Berkeley.
- Walk among giants in the magnificently serene Muir Woods.
- Brave the cold Pacific and surf it’s mighty waves.
- If you time your visit right walk the Bay to Breakers or take a walk on the wild side during Leather Pride Week’s Folsom Street Fair. Or just take part in the growing worldwide phenomenon that is Critical Mass
San Francisco is totally different from LA where cars and freeways completely define the lifestyle. While parking and traffic in recent years have become serious problems throughout the city, San Francisco is still very much a walking town and has such a good public transport system that many residents don’t even have cars (Something people from LA will never understand!)
If you’ve got a rental car you really won’t want to use it as finding a parking space will waste time and raise your blood pressure; also drivers in the city (unlike most other Californians) take a more ‘New York’ approach to driving that means a higher chance of an accident and confirming the city’s reputation as ‘Manhattan West’. It’s a good idea if you are not travelling onwards to use the car to see sights around the city and then drop it off before tackling the city itself.
Taxis are everywhere and though they are expensive for single travellers they are perfect for groups of three or more. They are very difficult to find in outer suburbs so don’t plan on one picking you up to get to the airport in time for your flight!
By Cable Car
The 2nd most famous sight in San Francisco besides the Golden Gate Bridge, the city’s Cable Cars operate from 2 downtown locations: the intersection of Market and Powell, and the base of California street, also at Market street. They don’t cover a whole lot of the city though they will get you to Fishermans Wharf, Union Square, North Beach and Chinatown though with such a compact downtown walking is faster as the lines can be incredibly long. Expect a two hour wait for some peak hour rides during the August crush.
By Bus or Tram
MUNI covers all buses and trams in the city. The buses leave much to be desired but do get to remote areas though smoother trams also often make the same journey. The best way to get to Fishermans Wharf or the Castro is one of the historic trams that come from all over the world and make the journey colorful and lively. The journey costs a $1 and transfers are issued by the driver upon request.
BART (not the cartoon character) is the Bay Area’s ‘subway’ and although it does not go to the western suburbs it is extremely convenient to get down to the Mission from downtown; up to the Embarcadero and the business district; or across the Bay to Berkeley and even the Oakland (where a free shuttle operates to the Oakland airport). Bicycles are allowed on the trains during certain hours and although it can be crowded at rush hour, it’s by far the easiest way to get around. Tickets are bought from machines and with so many of them out of change, and the staff refusing to give you change, its best to carry lots of quarters and dimes for the fares that start at $1.10.
An extension to the San Francisco International Airport is finally being completed and will be finished in 2003.
Website: Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)
This service is primarily for commuters between San Francisco, San Jose and Gilroy. Most trains leave at least once an hour (though there are more at rush hour and can get very crowded) and are good ways to get to peninsula cities like Atherton and Palo Alto (for Stanford University). It’s a cheap alternative way to get to the San Francisco Airport where a free shuttle operates to all domestic and international terminals. As the train runs all the way to San Jose there is also a stop near the airport in Santa Clara.
Golden Gate Bridge
By far the most famous sight in San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge has in fact become a world renowned icon, instantly recognizable in films and photos. The bridge’s color is in fact not entirely ‘golden,’ and many a visitor has exclamined, “Its not golden, its brown!” Still the bridge attrracts thousands of people who pose for photos at both ends; you can walk across the bridge though don’t attempt this in the foggy summer months when the chilly air blasts through the narrow channel that the bridge spans; its best done in October or May when the weather is more stable. As the most popular suicide spot in San Francisco some people have actually survived the fall off the bridge to tell the tale; however the swirling currents and large numbers of Great White sharks that cruise underneath make that a lucky escape.
The Bay Bridge
The ugly stepsister to the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge is a more working class version that is a vital link to the East Bay cities of Berkeley and Oakland. Famously damaged in the 1989 earthquake, where images of the collapsed structure were beamed around the world, the current fate of the bridge is unknown; its been deemed structutally unsound to survive an 8.0 earthquake and current plans are underway to replace it with a new bridge that will cost several billions of dollars.
The largest Chinese community outside China call this small area home. Wedged between Union Square and North Beach, Chinatown is perhaps the busiest part of San Francisco and offers an authentic slice of Chinese life. Packed with local restaurants and dim sum shops, it’s a great place to get a cheap and fresh ethnic meal while walking this fascinating neighbourhood.
With its own newspapers, schools and temples, Chinatown is very self contained and has often paid the price for this isolation by being overlooked by the city’s politicians. But visitors who penetrate this warren of back streets and alleys will find a wealth of things to see. A smile goes a long way here and knowing a bit of Chinese doesn’t hurt.
The heart of the city’s Italian neighborhood, North Beach is known for the Beat Generation writers who gathered here like Jack Kerouc. Its also one of the ‘foodiest’ places in this very foodie city and some great Italian food can be had in the bistros and trattories that line Colombus Avenue. Coffee houses abound and you can get some terrific Italian pastries to go with it.
The most serious shopping district in SF surrounds Union Square, a park that is used by office workers on lunch breaks and as a crash pad for the city’s homeless. Shops like Gucci, Macy’s and Cartier face the square and the area is home to the ‘flagship’ stores to Nike, Eddie Bauer, and FAO Schwartz. Sutter Street is a particularly rich trove of stores for those looking for expensive retailers like Prada. Theres not much to do aside from shop although the nearby Theatre District puts on top shows currently on tour.
Located in the southern part of the city, the Mission District is the heart of Latin San Francisco. The Spanish Mission that was built here by missionaries is where the neighbourhood gets its name and in recent years its become the hottest place to live for inner city trendies, particularly dot com employees and computer programmers.
The areas around 16th Street and Mission Street is where 20 somethings party the night away in alternative bars and clubs. The area around 24th Street and Mission Street is more authenticly Latin, and has some excellent Mexican eateries where a delicious taco can be had for about $2.
The epicenter of the Dot Com craze that swept the city in the late 1990’s, SOMA (South Of MArket) is a quiet almost residential area near the highrises of downtown. Clubs, internet companies, furniture stores and abandoned warehouses line the streets here. It’s the place to head on the weekends when the clubs are rocking though take a cab because the streets are sometimes unlit, dark and can be dangerous.
Also known as ‘The Haight,’ Haight Ashbury will forever be associated with the Flower Power movement and the anti-Vietnam demonstrations of the 1960’s. Though the hippies are gone and the place has almost completely gentrified, with the power of marketing The Haight still exudes this anti establishment feel mainly through Peace T-shirts and other 60’s trinkets sold here. It’s a good place to pick up some vintage clothes and the numerous shoe stores that line the area offer lots of alternative styles.
One of the most avoided neighbourhoods in the city by locals, Fishermans Wharf is San Francisco’s tourist wasteland of “I left My Heart in San Francisco’ t-shirts and shops offering tacky ‘Earthquake Sales.’ The whole area is a tourist trap, what with the Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum here and the overpriced clam chowder served in sourdough bowls, but Fishermans Wharf has a fantastic view of the Golden Gate Bridge and it’s home to a colony of sea lions displaced after the 1989 earthquake that are now an attraction in themselves. If you can’t hear the seals, then just follow the smell. If you’re looking for some of the cheapest accomodation in the city, rooms can be found here for around $75 dollars a night; and with the cable car terminating here its an convenient way to get to downtown. As the best jumping off point for Alcatraz, Fishermans Wharf is the place to come to get tickets.
In the late 1960’s the Castro was a strong Irish Catholic neighborhood, but in 1972 the opening of the first gay bar began the exodus that would eventually transform the area into the ‘gayest four corners on earth.’ Stretching from the intersection of 18th Street and Castro along Market street restaurants, bars, bookstores, gyms and clubs are humming day and night. Much of the surrounding streets have been gentrified by the many same sex couples that call it home. The Castro Theatre puts on interesting films and documentaries mostly with a gay theme. Sunday’s are a great time to stroll around window shopping and drinking in the scene.
Top Sights outside of the City
A bedroom community overlooking the Pacific Ocean south of San Francisco, Pacifica is a great place to learn to surf. Yes, the water is freezing, there are Great White Sharks, and the currents can be treacherous, but locals have been surfing the waves for years and with an experienced instructor you can learn to stand during your first lesson.
Across the Bay Bridge is Berkeley, also known as ‘Bezerkely’ for its crazy and alternative inhabitants. Its definitely a place leftover from the 60’s where even by California standards you’ll see a higher concentration of Volvos and Birkenstocks. Home to one of the world’s most famous universities, Berkeley is a university town and a good place to look for cheaper accomodation if you don’t mind commuting to San Francisco by subway.
One hundred years ago Giant Redwoods covered much of the landscape around San Francisco, and much of the wood logged here went into the famous Victorian mansions of the cities wealthy elite. Today, Muir Woods is one of the few places around the Bay Area where you can get a glimpse of these awesome trees in their pristine state. Names after John Muir, an avid conservationist, the woods are a short drive over the Golden Gate Bridge towards Stinson Beach on Highway 1.
Thousands of acres of orange groves and apple orchards in the 1970’s made way for the world’s densest concentration of high tech industries to become what is known as Silicon Valley. The place is not an easy one to navigate as its really a loosely connected group of business parks housing tech giants like IBM, Dell and Sun Microsystems, though many headquarters have sprung up all over the Bay Area diluting Silicon Valley’s dominiance of the chip industry.
It was here where the Dot Com fever began and quickly spread to San Francisco and across the USA. While the ‘gold rush’ is now a faded memory practically every computer and program is developed here and Silicon Valley’s status as the premier technology center will not go away any time soon.
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