By Jim Ferri
I love San Francisco. Then again, I’m only one of millions. Or, perhaps, gazillions.
It’s a fantastic city, one of the most beautiful in the world. For much of its beauty, you can thank the 43 hills on which it’s built. And, of course, there’s that sea, which surrounds the city on three sides. And let’s not forget its architecture, which ranges from old to dazzling modern and everything in between.
You’ll find much of that old and in-between in the city’s ethnically diverse neighborhoods, each little villages in their own right. They flaunt their ethnicity in their architecture and restaurants and graffiti-covered walls, as much as downtown flaunts its wealth in soaring skyscrapers that pierce the morning fog.
But the city’s allure comes not just from its tangibles.
I love watching the soft morning fog slowly roll off the Golden Gate Bridge. Then walking along streets that jump from one cultural neighborhood to another. Later feeling the wind on my face aboard a ferry or a cable car.
San Francisco, you see, is a cornucopia of the tangible and intangible, all wrapped in 49 hilly square miles that leave you wanting to come back again and again. And many do return numerous times.
But whether you’re a newbie or a returnee, here are the ten places you’ll find well worth a visit.
Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate emblemizes San Francisco as much as the Statue of Liberty does New York. It’s a beautiful landmark, often cloaked in morning fog, that’s co-starred in several movies including Hitchcock’s Vertigo and 007’s A View to a Kill. For a beautiful view of the morning fog lifting off the bridge, visit Baker Beach (above), south of the Golden Gate.
You can drive, walk or bike across it. Start on the city side, but get off just before the end at Vista Point on the Marin County side. There break out your camera for a beautiful panorama of San Francisco and the Bay.
Interestingly, the bridge was opened in 1937 and is so “over engineered” that the wires used to make its cables could encircle the earth three times.
Alcatraz, San Francisco Bay
One place you don’t want to miss on a visit to San Francisco is Alcatraz, the infamous prison also known as “The Rock.” Set on an island far out on the bay, Alcatraz is now a U.S. National Park. You reach it via ferry from the Embarcadero, a short distance from Fisherman’s Wharf. Leave yourself a half-day for the trip and plan in advance; during the popular summer months, tickets often sell out.
The one-mile ferry ride out to the island also provides a multitude of photo ops of the city and the bay. Once you arrive and walk up the ramp to the entrance to the prison, you learn you’re walking in the footsteps of every prisoner ever incarcerated in there, including Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and hundreds of others.
The faded “Indians Welcome” sign you pass is a remnant of the occupation of the island by Native American tribes in 1969.
Fisherman’s Wharf Area
The Alcatraz Ferry departs from the Fisherman’s Wharf area, long a popular area for visitors to the city. Here you’ll find the Exploratorium, an interactive science museum, on piers 15 and 17.
At Pier 39, among the scores of restaurants and shops, you’ll find the Sea Lion Center. There learn more about the California sea lions that make their home at the end of the dock. Also don’t miss the colorful Carousel, hand-painted with famous San Francisco landmarks, nearby.
Continue walking westward, and you’ll find the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Not far beyond is famous Ghirardelli Square, chockablock full of restaurants and shops.
San Francisco’s Cable Cars
Of all San Franciscan experiences renown worldwide, the city’s cable cars are probably the most famous. Also, if you’re near Fisherman’s Wharf, you’ll find the northern terminus of the Powell/Hyde cable car right there.
This route is the most famous of the city’s three cable cars because of the great views it provides of the city and the Bay. For the best views sit on the left-hand side of the car as you set off. One-way fares are $7.00.
One thing I enjoy is taking the cable car to the small, but interesting, Cable Car Museum on Mason Street. There you’ll see the huge wheels, or “sheaves,” that pull the cable through all of the streets of San Francisco. It’s fascinating.
There’s also a small exhibit showing the city after the great earthquake of 1906 and, in particular, what happened to the cable cars during that time.
Chinatown, San Francisco
While visiting San Francisco, most travelers don’t miss Chinatown, the oldest Chinatown outside of Asia. Teeming with hustle and bustle, it’s one of the most colorful and popular neighborhoods of the city.
Enter through the “Dragon’s Gate” at the intersection of Grant Avenue and Bush Street. Walk up Grant, and you’ll quickly become immersed in a maze of herbal stores and teashops, and a multitude of markets. Stop at one of the restaurants or teahouses and enjoy dim sum, or buy a moon cake in one of the bakeries you’ll pass in the area.
While you can easily see it on your own, this fascinating area is best seen, and understood, on a guided tour.
Cross Broadway on the northern edge of Chinatown and you’ll be in North Beach. Although the neighborhoods are adjacent to one another, they are fascinatingly different. Each is quite easy to wander about for a few hours.
The original “Little Italy” of San Francisco, North Beach remains thoroughly Italian and reminiscent of the old country. It’s overflowing with restaurants, sidewalk cafés, coffee houses and eclectic bookshops, many along Columbus Avenue. If you’re able, have lunch or dinner one of the fabulous Italian restaurants you’ll find throughout the neighborhood.
In addition to its restaurants, North Beach is also famous for its “beatnik” heritage that, in some respects, still exists today. Another claim to fame is the lively and irreverent musical revue Beach Blanket Babylon, popular with both San Franciscans and tourists, and produced at the local theater-nightclub Club Fugazi since 1974.
In the middle of North Beach is Telegraph Hill, dominated by the 210-foot tall-Coit Tower, named for an eccentric 19th-century philanthropist. The tower is known both for its great view of the city, as well as for its beautiful 1930s murals inside.
Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is a beautiful part of the city, 1,000+ acres that have been described as every San Franciscan’s backyard. It’s a pastoral place that stretches from Haight Ashbury west to the Pacific Ocean. In it you’ll find art in the de Young Museum, showcasing art, as well as a Japanese Tea Garden.
You’ll find 20,000 rare and exotic plants in the Victorian Conservatory of Flowers, based on one in London. Furthermore, there’s a Dutch windmill and a tulip garden, both gifts from the Queen of the Netherlands in 1902. If you want to relax, visit the Shakespeare Garden and Music Concourse (free concerts on Sundays). If you want to view art, the de Young Museum has a collection from America, Africa, and the Pacific. There’s plenty in Golden Gate Park – leave time for a visit.
If you’re looking for the remnants of the hippie culture of the 60s, head for Haight-Ashbury. Here Tibetan gift shops and boutiques painted in psychedelic colors do their best to keep a hippie flavor in the air.
Most of those from the 60s moved on long ago, and the sidewalks are now filled with tourists. But you’ll still encounter some teenage- and twenty-something hippie wannabe’s hanging around on street corners.
Take a walk around and then amble over to the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets, for an ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s, where the sign above the door still reads “Peace, Love and Ice Cream.”
San Francisco’s Restaurants
This isn’t one place in San Francisco’s but many, since its reputation as a food city is well known.
As one would expect, San Francisco has its share of Michelin stars. But it also has legions of excellent neighborhood eateries. For many of us, that’s heaven since each neighborhood is an ethnic enclave where you’ll find delicious ethnic specialties.
North Beach, for example, is home to the Italian population and the Mission to the Asian and Hispanic. Moreover, the city is a patchwork of Latin American, Russian, European, Filipino, and others, each serving up their regional specialties.
Also, in such places as the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero (at the foot of Market Street), there are plenty of places to nibble, making it a great place to get a bite to eat before heading over to Alcatraz, or after you return.
Of course, the Wine Country – both Napa and Sonoma – aren’t within the San Francisco city limits. But a visit to either, or both, has become so popular that they’re now considered an integral part of most San Francisco visits.
Napa is the big-name in wine country tourism and has developed the infrastructure to support the masses. Sonoma, on the other hand, is more laid back but also provides an excellent experience.
You can easily visit either in a day trip from San Francisco. It’s more worthwhile, however, to make it a two-day trip. Then you can both sample the offerings at more vineyards and also enjoy top spas in the area.
Also, consider taking a trip on the Napa Valley Wine Train. The three-hour trip departs Napa and arrives in St. Helena. En route you’ll enjoy a gourmet meal with local wines in a restored 1915 Pullman dining car.