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Explore San Francisco

San Francisco is a compact and approachable place, where downtown streets rise on impossible gradients to reveal stunning views of the city, the bay and beyond, and blanket fogs roll in unexpectedly to envelop the city in mist.

Explore San Francisco
One of the most proudly distinct places you can find.

In a conservative America, San Francisco's reputation as a liberal oasis continues to grow, attracting waves of resettlers from all over the US. It is estimated that over half the city's population originates from somewhere else. It is a city in a constant state of evolution, fast gentrifying itself into one of the most high-end towns on earth thanks, in part, to the disposable incomes pumped into its coffers from its sizeable singles and gay contingents.

Gay capital of the world, San Francisco has also been the scene of the dot.com revolution's rise and fall. The resultant wealth at one time made housing prices skyrocket often at the expense of the city's middle and lower classes but the closure of hundreds of start-up IT companies has brought real-estate prices back down to (almost) reasonable levels. Despite the city's current economic ebbs and flows, your impression of the city likely won't be altered it remains one of the most proudly distinct places to be found anywhere.

Alcatraz.

Before the rocky islet of Alcatraz became America's most dreaded high-security prison, in 1934, it had been home to little more than the odd pelican ( alcatraz in Spanish). Surrounded by the freezing, impassable water of San Francisco Bay, it made an ideal place to hold the nation's most wanted criminals - men such as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly.

The conditions were inhumane: inmates were kept in solitary confinement, in cells no larger than nine by five feet, most without light. They were not allowed to eat together, read newspapers, play cards or even talk; relatives could visit for only two hours each month. Escape really was impossible. Nine men managed to get off the rock, but there is no evidence that any of them made it to the mainland. Due to its massive running costs, the jail finally closed in 1963.

At least 750,000 tourists each year take the excellent hour-long, self-guided audio tours of the abandoned prison, which include some sharp anecdotal commentary and even the chance to spend a minute (it feels like forever) locked in a darkened cell.

<<< Read more about Alcatraz >>>

Chinatown.

Its 24 square blocks smack in the middle of San Francisco make up the second-largest Chinese community outside Asia. Almost entirely autonomous, with its own schools, banks and newspapers, it has its roots in the migration of Chinese laborers to the city after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, and the arrival of Chinese sailors keen to benefit from the Gold Rush.

Gold ornamented portals and brightly painted balconies sit above the souvenir shops and restaurants of narrow Grant Avenue ; pass under the entrance arch at Bush Street to be met by an assault of plastic Buddhas, cloisonné "health balls," noisemakers and chirping mechanical crickets in every doorway.

Parallel to Grant Avenue, Stockton Street is crammed with exotic fish and produce markets, bakeries and herbalists. Inside the Ellison Herb Shop at no. 805 Stockton St, Chinatown's best-stocked herbal pharmacy, you'll find clerks filling orders the ancient Chinese way - with hand-held scales and abacuses - from drug cases filled with dried bark, roots, sharks' fins, cicadas, ginseng and other staples. Here, between Grant and Stockton, jumbled alleys hold the most worthwhile stops in the area.

The best of these is Waverly Place, a two-block corridor of brightly painted balconies that was lined with brothels before the 1906 catastrophe and now home to three opulent but skillfully hidden temples (nos. 109, 125 and 146), their interiors a riot of black, gold and vermilion, still in use and open to visitors. North of Waverly Place, between Jackson and Washington streets, Ross Alley features the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, no. 56, specializing in X-rated fortunes, and, next door, a barber who will cut your hair to resemble that of any Hollywood star's.

Financial District.

North of the city's main artery, Market Street, the glass-and-steel skyscrapers of the Financial District have sprung up in the last twenty years to form its only real high-rise area. Sharp-suited workers clog the streets and coffee kiosks during business hours, but after 6pm, the area pretty much shuts down. Stop at the corner of Kearny and Market streets to admire the refurbished Lotta's Fountain, San Francisco's most treasured artifact
Once cut off from the rest of San Francisco by the double-decker Embarcadero Freeway, the Ferry Building, at the foot of Market Street, was modeled on the cathedral tower in Seville, Spain. Before the bridges were built in the 1930s it was the arrival point for fifty thousand cross-bay commuters daily. The area in front of the Ferry Building is the site of the much-loved Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, a great place to buy or merely gawk at the colorful local produce.

Since the freeway was pulled down, the area around it, known as The Embarcadero, has experienced a dramatic renaissance into a swanky waterfront district with the city's most fashionable restaurants and hotels springing up beside palm trees and views of the bay.

From the vast and unimaginative Embarcadero Center shopping mall and the fountains of Justin Herman Plaza at the foot of Market it's a few blocks down to Montgomery Street, where the grand pillared entrances and banking halls of the post-1906 earthquake buildings era jostle for attention with a mixed bag of modern towers. For a hands-on grasp of modern finance, the World of Economics Gallery in the Federal Reserve Bank , 101 Market St (Mon-Fri 9am-6pm), is unbeatable: computer games allow you to engineer your own inflationary disasters, while exhibits detail recent scandals and triumphs.

Golden Gate Bridge.

The orange towers of the Golden Gate Bridge , perhaps the best-loved symbol of San Francisco, are visible from almost every high point in the city. The bridge, which spans 4200ft, had taken only 52 months to design and build when it was opened in 1937. Some quarter of a million people turned up for a sunrise party to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 1987; the winds were strong and the bridge buckled, but fortunately did not break. Driving across is a real thrill, racing under the towers, while the half-hour walk across allows you to take in its enormous size and absorb the views. It's also a favorite with the suicidal - in a typical year dozens jump to their deaths. Those jumping are said to hit the water at a speedy 80mph - few have survived the leap.

<<< Read more about the Golden Gate Bridge >>>

Golden Gate Park.

In a city with an abundance of green space, Golden Gate Park stands out as not just the largest, but also the most beautiful of its parks. Spreading three miles or so west from the Haight as far as the Pacific, it was constructed on what was then an area of wild sand dunes, buffeted by the spray from the ocean. Despite the throngs of joggers, polo players, roller-skaters, cyclists and strollers, it never seems to get overcrowded and you can always find a spot to be alone.

The M.H. de Young Museum houses a large and diverse range of painting and sculptures.  The Asian Art Museum is located next to the new Main Library in the Civic Center district and is considered one of the largest and most impressive museums devoted only to Asian art in the Western Hemisphere.

The California Academy of Sciences opposite is a good place to amuse restless children, with its 30ft dinosaur skeleton, life-size replicas of elephant seals and other California wildlife, and live colony of black-footed penguins. Over 6,000 specimens of aquatic life can be viewed in its Steinhart Aquarium, the best are the alligators and other reptiles lurking in a simulated swamp.

Slightly to the west is the Japanese Tea Garden dominated by a massive bronze Buddha. Bridges, footpaths, pools filled with carp, bonsai and cherry trees lend a peaceful feel. Busloads of tourists pour in; by far the best idea is to get here early for a breakfast of tea and fortune cookies in the tea house.

The beautiful National AIDS Memorial Grove is in the eastern end of the park, near the tennis courts. Inaugurated in 1991, it is a pleasant and thought-provoking place to stroll.

Nob Hill.

From Nob Hill, looking down upon the business wards of the city, we can decry a building with a little belfry, and that is the stock exchange, the heart of San Francisco; a great pump we might call it, continually pumping up the savings of the lower quarter to the pockets of the millionaires on the hill .
- Robert Louis Stevenson

If the Financial District is representative of new money in the city, the posh hotels and masonic institutions of Nob Hill exemplify San Francisco's old wealth; it is, as Joan Didion wrote, "the symbolic nexus of all old California money and power." Once you've made the stiff climb up (or taken the California cable car), there are very few real sights as such, but nosing around is pleasant enough, taking in the aura of luxury and enjoying the views over the city and beyond.

The area became known as Nob Hill after the robber-baron industrialists who came to live here while running the Central Pacific Railroad. Grace Cathedral here is one of the biggest hunks of sham-Gothic architecture in the US. Construction began soon after the 1906 earthquake, but most of it was built, of faintly disguised reinforced concrete, in the early Sixties. The entrance is adorned with faithful replicas of the fifteenth-century Ghiberti doors of the Florence Baptistry. A block east, be sure to go inside the Fairmont Hotel , 950 Mason St, to get a sense of the opulence that once ruled the hill. Take its elevators up for a great view of the city.

North Hill.

Resting in the hollow between Russian and Telegraph hills, and split by Columbus Avenue, North Beach likes to think of itself as the happening district of San Francisco. It has been a focal point for anyone vaguely alternative ever since the City Lights Bookstore opened in 1953. The first paperback bookstore in the US stands amid the flashing neon and sleazy clubs of Columbus Avenue at Broadway, open until midnight seven days a week, and is still owned by poet and novelist Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The Beat Generation made this the literary capital of America, achieving overnight notoriety when charges of obscenity were leveled at Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl in 1957, which he first performed over in Cow Hollow at 3119 Fillmore St. It was the hedonistic antics of the Beats, as much as their literary merits, that struck a chord, and North Beach came to symbolize a wild and subversive lifestyle. The roadtrips and riotous partying, the drug-taking and embrace of eastern religions were emulated nationwide; tourists poured into North Beach for "Beatnik Tours."

Next to the bookstore, Vesuvio's , an old North Beach bar where the likes of Dylan Thomas and Kerouac would get loaded, remains a haven for the lesser-knowns to pontificate on the state of the arts. At the crossroads of Columbus and Broadway , poetry meets porn in a raucous assembly of strip joints, coffee houses and drag queens. Most famous, the Condor Club was where Carol Doda's revealing of her silicone-implanted breasts started the topless waitress phenomenon. Now reincarnated as the (fully-clothed) Condor Sports Bar , the landmark site still preserves her nipples, once immortalized in neon above the door, in its museum, along with photos and clippings from the Condor Club 's heyday.

As you continue north on Columbus Avenue, you enter the heart of the old Italian neighborhood , an enclave of narrow streets and leafy enclosures. Explorations lead to small landmarks like the Café Trieste , where the jukebox blasts out opera classics to a heavy-duty art crowd, toying with cappuccinos and browsing slim volumes of poetry. From Columbus's Washington Square , head up the very steep steps on Filbert Street to reach Telegraph Hill and the Coit Tower , featuring grand views of the city and beyond.

To the west of Columbus, Russian Hill was named for Russian sailors who died here in the early 1800s. In the summer, there's always a long line of cars waiting to drive down the tight curves of Lombard Street . Surrounded by palatial dwellings and herbaceous borders, Lombard is an especially thrilling drive at night, when the tourists leave and the city lights twinkle below. Even if you're without a car, the journey up here is worth it for a visit to the San Francisco Art Institute , 800 Chestnut St, the oldest art school in the west, where the Diego Rivera Gallery has an outstanding mural created by the painter in 1931. Walking south from the institute for four blocks on Jones Street, you'll find Macondray Lane , a pedestrian-only "street" thought to be one of the inspirations for Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City .

The Castro.

Progressive and celebratory, but also increasingly comfortable and wealthy, the Castro is the city's gay capital, providing a barometer for the state of the grown-up and sobered gay scene. Some people insist that this is still the wildest place in town, others reckon it's a shadow of its former self; all agree that things are not the same as ten or even five years ago, when a walk down the Castro would have had you gaping at the revelry. Most of the same bars and hangouts still stand, but these days they're host to an altogether different and more conservative breed. Cute shops and restaurants lend a young professional feel to the place. A visit to the district is a must if you're to get any idea of just what San Francisco is all about.

Harvey Milk Plaza , by the Castro Muni station, is dedicated to the assassinated gay supervisor (or councilor), who owned a camera store in the Castro. The man who shot Milk and Mayor George Moscone, Dan White, was a disgruntled ex-supervisor who resigned in protest at their liberal policies. At the trial, his plea of temporary insanity caused by harmful additives in his fast food - the "Twinkie defense" - won him a sentence of five years' imprisonment for manslaughter. The gay community reacted angrily; the riots that followed were among the most violent San Francisco has ever witnessed, with protesters marching into City Hall, burning police cars as they went.

Before heading down Castro Street into the heart of the neighborhood, take a short walk to the former location of the Names Project at 2363A Market St, which sponsored the creation of " The Quilt " - a gargantuan blanket in which each panel measures six feet by three feet (the size of a grave site) and bears the name of a person lost to AIDS. Made by lovers, friends and families, the panels are stitched together and regularly tour the country and the world; it has been spread on the Mall in Washington, DC several times to dramatize the epidemic. The 54-ton Quilt and Names Project Foundation moved to a permanent home in Atlanta in 2001; San Francisco will continue to be recognized as the birthplace of the Quilt and efforts are underway to come up with the best way to mark the project's local history.

The junction of Castro and 18th Street , known as the "gayest four corners of the earth," marks the Castro's center, cluttered with bookstores, clothing stores, cafés and bars. The side streets offer a slightly more exclusive fare of exotic delicatessens, fine wines and fancy florists, and enticingly leafy residential territory.

The Mission.

Vibrant, hip and ethnically mixed, the Mission is easily San Francisco's funkiest neighborhood. A mile or so south of downtown, it is also the warmest, eluding the summer fogs. As the traditional first stop for immigrants, the Mission serves as a microcosm of the city's history and, for the time being, ensures that the neighborhood never transcends the "transitional" stage it has been in for years.

The heart of the Mission lies east of Mission Street between 16th and 24th streets. Here you'll absorb the district's original Latin flavor, with Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Costa Rican and Mexican stores and restaurants, along with markets selling tropical fruits and panaderias baking traditional pastries.
In the last few years, however, the "in" crowd has descended on a strip of Valencia south of 16th, site of a new crop of hip bars, cafés and restaurants.

The profusion of independent bookstores and thrift stores around here makes for heavenly browsing and the vicinity of 22nd Street has become a new gourmet-dining ghetto. Worth a visit is the Levi Strauss & Co factory , at 250 Valencia St, built after the original factories were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Though tours have been discontinued, you can admire the yellow brick facade of where the world's most famous jeans are made.

What really sets the Mission apart from other neighborhoods, though, are its murals - there are over two hundred in all. A brilliant tribute to local hero Carlos Santana adorns three buildings where 22nd Street meets South Van Ness, while every possible surface on Balmy Alley , between Folsom and Harrison off 24th Street, has been covered with murals depicting the political agonies of Central America.

Union Square.

The city's heart can be found around Union Square , located north of Market Street and bordered by Powell and Stockton streets. Cable cars clank past bustling shoppers and theater-goers who gravitate to the district's many upscale hotels, department stores and boutiques. The statue in the center commemorates Admiral Dewey's success in the Spanish-American War, though the square takes its name from its role as gathering place for stumping speechmakers during the US Civil War. (The woman who posed for the monument became a local celebrity, marrying into the wealthy Spreckels family.)

The square witnessed the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford outside the (now Westin) St Francis Hotel in 1975, and was also the location of Francis Ford Coppola's film The Conversation , where Gene Hackman spied on strolling lovers. Many of Dashiell Hammett's detective stories, such as The Maltese Falcon , are set partly in the St Francis , in which he worked as a Pinkerton detective during the Twenties. Hammett fans should check out John's Grill , 63 Ellis St, for Sam Spade's favorite eating spot (though it probably won't be yours), and Burritt Alley , two blocks north of the square on Bush Street, near Stockton Street. Here's where Spade's partner, Miles Archer, met his end, shot by Brigid O'Shaughnessy. A plaque marks the spot.

On Geary Street, on the south side of the square, the Theater District is a pint-sized Broadway of restaurants, tourist hotels and serious and "adult" theaters. On the eastern side of the square, Maiden Lane is a chic urban walkway that before the 1906 earthquake and fire was one of the city's roughest areas, where homicides averaged around ten a month. Nowadays, aside from some prohibitively expensive boutiques, its main feature is San Francisco's only Frank Lloyd Wright building (now occupied by the Xanadu Tribal Art Gallery), an intriguing circular space which was a try-out for the Guggenheim in New York.


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