San Francisco Travel Guide


Chinatown is densely packed and colourful. There are some tacky curio shops, but the 30,000 Chinese - most of whom speak Cantonese - 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 mahjong tiles from behind screen doors.

The most colourful time to visit Chinatown is during the Chinese New Year in late January or early February, with a parade and fireworks and other festivities.

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 so much as glanced at the city's topography. They simply dropped a grid pattern onto the steeply undulating terrain, and 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.

Union Square is San Francisco's downtown tourist centre. 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 St 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 Sts.

Fisherman's Wharf
There's no getting away from the unspeakable kitschiness of Fisherman's Wharf, but it remains both fun and hugely popular. The gateway for several top attractions (Alcatraz, the Maritime Museum and the Historic Ships Pier), its focal point is Pier 39, which is as popular with a sea lion colony as it is with tourists.

Golden Gate Park
San Fransico's great playground is a cunningly designed rectangle that appears far larger than it is. Woods line the edges, and nature lovers can wander in the fern dell, the arboretum, the Japanese Tea Garden and the tulip gardens. It's hard to believe it's all artificially created on top of sand dunes.
The Golden Gate Bridge - (Highway 101 North) links San Francisco with Marin County. Before its completion in 1937, the bridge was considered unbuildable because of foggy weather, 60-mile-per-hour winds and strong ocean currents sweeping through a deep rugged canyon below. At a cost of $35 million, the 1.2-mile bridge took more than four years to build. Eleven men lost their lives during construction. Often shrouded in thick fog, the bridge sways 27 feet to withstand winds of up to 100 miles per hour. The color of the bridge, known as International Orange, was chosen because it blends well with the bridge's natural surroundings. The two great cables contain enough strands of steel wire (80,000 miles) to encircle the equator three times. The concrete poured into its piers and anchorages would pave a five-foot wide sidewalk from New York to San Francisco.

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 1960s. Today, the Haight is still colourful, but its pretty Victorian houses and proximity to Golden Gate Park have prompted increasing gentrification.

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 1950s - 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° views from here are superb.

San Francisco Bay
San Francisco's bay is curiously shy. It always seems to be around the corner, glimpsed in the distance, seen from afar. It is spanned by bridges, surrounded by cities and suede hills, dotted with sails and crisscrossed by fast-moving ferries. The bay is the largest inlet on the California coast, stretching about 60mi (100km) in length and up to 12mi (20km) in width.

The beautiful Golden Gate Bridge crosses the 2mi (3km) mouth of the 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 746ft (224m) suspension towers were higher than any structure west of New York City. The Bay Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Oakland, is five times as long as the Golden Gate Bridge, carries far more traffic and predates it by six months, but it's never had the same iconic fame.

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. North of Alcatraz, Angel Island served as an internment camp during WWII; it's now a popular place for walking, hiking, biking, picnics and camping. Both islands are accessible by ferry from Fisherman's Wharf and the Embarcadero.

Off the Beaten Track

Erstwhile seat of radical student politics, Berkeley has mellowed since its 1960s heyday but is still considered a mecca of liberalism and the bizarre. Located just over the border north of Oakland and centred 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 centre of Berkeley's colourful 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, a centre for people-watching and drum-circle jamming. Also of interest on campus is Sather Tower, the 300ft (100m) 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.

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 2600ft (770m) 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 200mi (320km) 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.

One of the most diverse cities in the US, Oakland has done it hard in recent decades, and still has a few pock marks on its cheeks. But these days it seems to be feeling alive all over again, with a bustling, gussied-up downtown and a thriving club and restaurant scene.

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' drive 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.


Air Tours

Above the West Ballooning - A unique way to see the Napa Valley is from a hot air balloon. Sunrise flights with champagne breakfast. Transportation from SF. (800) 627-2759

San Francisco Helicopter Tours - Picture perfect flight-seeing over the city, bay, bridges. Try lunch in the wine country. Complimentary pick-up from SF hotels. Reservations (800) 400-2404.

Bay Cruises

Adventure Cat - J Dock, PIER 39 (800) 498-4228

Blue & Gold Fleet - Spectacular 1-hour narrated tour of the San Francisco Bay. Cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz. PIER 39 773-1188.

Red & White Fleet - Golden Gate Bridge cruise under the Bridge, along the Wharf, Sausalito, Tiburon, Angel Island & Alcatraz. Narrated in six languages. Pier 43 1/2 447-0597

Rendezvous Charters Fare - $22.50. Sail away aboard a classic 1935 vintage Tall ship. Join in the fun! South Beach Harbor, Pier 40 543-7333

Ground Tours

SF's Finest Limousines - Providing full-day Napa Wine Charters. Ride in style and comfort in a stretch limousine. Private San Francisco tours also available. (650) 588-4556

Enjoy Your Environment - Guided trips to Muir Woods, Marin Headlands, Bolinas Lagoon, Point Reyes, more. Experience nature 30 minutes from San Francisco! Customized group tours by reservation. 389-1327

Roger's Walking Tours - SF high points: cable car ride, Lombard St., Victorians, Chinatown, Nob Hill. Golden Gate Bridge tour. Victorian San Franciscos tour. Wir sprechen Deutsch! 742-9611

San Francisco Ghost Hunt - This evening walking tour is an enchanting excursion inside authentic hunted history presented with some light, spirit-lifting entertainment. (415) 922-5590

Alcatraz - Spanish for pelican, was named Isla de los Alcatraces after the birds that were the island's only inhabitants. The island served as a military fortification in the 1850s and an incarceration facility for war prisoners during the Spanish-American War. In 1934 Alcatraz became the infamous maximum-security prison for Mafia criminals and high-risk convicts. Famous island residents have included "Machine Gun" Kelly, Al Capone and Robert "Birdman" Stroud.

Bay Bridge - The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opened in 1936 and links San Francisco with Contra Costa and Alameda counties by way of an 8.5-mile suspension / cantilever structure. Views of the City's skyline are spectacular from the bridge, however no pedestrians are allowed on the structure. A $2 toll is collected westbound.

Cable cars - operate seven days a week from 6:30 am until 12:30 am. The fare is $2 (no transfers issued or accepted) or use your MUNI Passport. Purchase your ticket from the conductor on board where exact change is required. The cable car was introduced to San Francisco on August 2, 1873. Wire-cable manufacturer Andrew Hallidie conceived the idea after witnessing an accident in which a horse-drawn carriage faltered and rolled backward downhill dragging the horses behind it. The first cable car to descend down Clay Street on Nob Hill was an immediate success. Besides creating a vital link in San Francisco's public transportation system, the cable car opened the door for building on steep hills which until this time was thought to be impossible. Throughout the 1890s, eight transit companies operated 600 cars which covered 21 cable car routes and a total of 52.8 miles. Cable cars remained the primary mode of transportation until the 1906 earthquake.

The Marina District - was built on lagoon and marshland filled for use during the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal. Remaining from the Exhibition is the Palace of Fine Arts designed by Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck. Today, the Palace houses the Exploratorium, a hands-on museum containing 650 interactive exhibits. A flat, grassy park favored by sunbathers, picnickers, kite flyers and people watchers, the Marina Green is a great spot to exercise while enjoying a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

PIER 39 - the second most-visited attraction in California, is located at Beach Street and the Embarcadero just two blocks east of Fisherman's Wharf. This renovated cargo pier hosts over 10.5 million visitors annually. PIER 39 is San Francisco port to the Blue & Gold Fleet and offers two-levels of waterfront restaurants and specialty shops, a 350-berth marina, the Venetian Carousel, Turbo Ride (a simulation theatre) and the Secret of San Francisco

Union Square - a shopper's paradise of designer boutiques and large department stores, is bounded by Stockton, Powell, Post and Geary streets. Located around the square are Macy's, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, FAO Schwarz, Tiffany, Niketown, Gucci and many more. Also located nearby (closer to Market Street) are Planet Hollywood, Virgin Megastore and the San Francisco Shopping Center (San Francisco to Nordstrom).

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