It’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world, a place travelers return to time and again. But San Francisco’s geographic beauty is only part of her allure. Dig deeper and you can easily unearth more of her charms…..especially if you spend three days falling in love with the city on the bay
By Jim Ferri
Few places can match San Francisco for its beautiful and dramatic setting.
Built on 43 hills on the tip of a peninsula, and surrounded on three sides by San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, it’s a city overflowing with postcard views, all compacted into an area of only 49 square miles.
What sets San Francisco apart, though, is not its spectacular geography but its spectacular neighborhoods. From the Presidio to the Embarcadero, the Mission District to Haight-Ashbury, North Beach to Chinatown, each neighborhood is a unique and colorful little pocket of local culture. Together they infuse the city with style and ambiance found nowhere else.
Add to that mix some of the best restaurants in America and there’s little wonder why people all over the world leave their hearts there.
While it can take weeks to see much of what San Francisco has to offer, plan to spend at least three days there. One place you don’t want to miss is “The Rock”; leave yourself a half-day for the trip.
Ever since it first opened to the public in 1973, millions of visitors to Alcatraz have realized It’s one of the most intriguing and unique places they’ve visited anywhere.
While the one-mile ferry ride out to the former penitentiary provides a multitude of photo ops of the city and the bay, it’s only when you near it that you sense its isolation.
Once you disembark you pass the faded “Indians Welcome” sign – a remnant of the occupation of the island by Native American tribes in 1969 – and you begin your walk up the ramp to the entrance to the prison. It’s then you learn you’re walking in the footsteps of every prisoner ever incarcerated in the infamous prison, including Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and hundreds of others.
The tour of the prison is fascinating, although a bit depressing when you think what it would like if you were ever locked up there. Take one of the audio tours and wander about for a few hours – it’s an experience you’ll have nowhere else.
During the popular summer months, tickets for the tours often sell out so book as far in advance as you can.
The ferry to Alcatraz departs from the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero (at the foot of Market Street), which is fortuitous since the late-19th-century building is culinary heaven inside, making it a great place to get a bite to eat before heading over to Alcatraz, or after you get back.
When you exit the building on your return, turn right and walk along the Embarcadero towards Fisherman’s Wharf. At Green Street you’ll find the Exploratorium, an interactive science museum, on piers 15 and 17.
Not long after, at Pier 39 in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, among the scores of restaurants and shops you’ll find the Sea Lion Center, where you can 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.
Further on, you’ll find the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and famous Ghirardelli Square, chockablock full of restaurants and shops.
Hop Aboard a Cable Car
Just a block away from Ghirardelli Square, near Fisherman’s Wharf, is the northern terminus of the Powell/Hyde cable car. It’s the most popular 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 fare $7.00).
Along the way hop off at the small but fascinating Cable Car Museum on Mason Street where you’ll see the huge wheels, the “sheaves,” that pull the cable through all of the streets of San Francisco. It’s fascinating to see how it’s done and to learn how the cars grasp the cable and stop, etc.
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.
The neighborhoods of North Beach and Chinatown are adjacent to one another, which makes it quite easy to wander through both in a few hours. They are fascinatingly different.
Thoroughly Italian, North Beach is crammed to overflowing with restaurants, sidewalk cafés, coffee houses and eclectic bookshops. 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, that has been 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.
Cross Broadway on the southern edge of North Beach and you’ll immediately be immersed in the hustle and bustle of Chinatown. It’s one of the most colorful and popular neighborhoods of San Francisco and the oldest Chinatown outside of Asia.
You’ll find the “Dragon’s Gate” entry at the intersection of Grant Avenue and Bush Street. Walk up Grant and you’ll quickly become immersed in a maze of herbal and tea shops, and a multitude of markets. Stop at one of the restaurants or tea houses and enjoy dim sum, or buy a moon cake in one of the bakeries you’ll pass in the area.
It’s a fascinating area that’s best seen, and understood, on a guided tour.
Crissy Field and the Presidio
Along the bay, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, is Crissy Field, a former Army airfield, now a favorite haunt of dog walkers, joggers, kiteboarders, and those who just want to soak up the sun.
Above it is the Presidio, a former U.S. Army post, which still retains its barracks, officer’s quarters, airplane hangars, etc., all scattered throughout the area. Many of these old buildings, and a few newer additions, now house businesses, both commercial and nonprofit, including the Disney Family Museum, an homage to the life of Walt Disney.
The 49-Mile Drive
Rush-hour traffic in San Francisco is horrendous, but if you want to see many of the sights beyond downtown and San Francisco Bay, you’ll need to rent a car. It’s well worth it – just time your tour, so you’re not caught downtown after 4 pm.
One of the best things to do is to take the city’s 49-Mile Drive, which guides you past many of the top sites by following a series of blue “seagull signs”. (One caveat: some of the signs can be blocked by foliage or trucks, so a GPS is quite helpful). It’s an especially good way to see the Presidio.
When you leave the Presidio, continue southward to nearby Baker and China beaches for a beautiful view of the headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge. Be aware, however, that San Francisco’s notorious fog, which you’ll encounter primarily in the warmer months, can obscure the bridge so time your trip for the late morning when the fog begins to burn off.
The 49-Mile Drive is also the perfect way to visit three great museums.
The first is the Legion of Honor, modeled after the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. It’s a beautiful little museum, in an equally splendid setting, that contains works by Rembrandt, Monet, Rubens, and Rodin.
Further on is beautiful Golden Gate Park, one of the city’s treasures. Across from the park’s Music Concourse, a concert venue during the summer months, is the de Young Museum, home to one of San Francisco’s finest art collections.
Directly across from the de Young is the California Academy of Sciences, which in addition to its planetarium and many other fascinating exhibits, has a four-story rain forest inside the building. All three museums are top-notch.
Mission and Haight-Ashbury
The drive also takes you through two well-known neighborhoods of San Francisco: the Mission District and Haight-Ashbury.
Mission, a Latino/hipster neighborhood, is home to Mission Dolores, built by the Spanish in 1791 and still standing despite the region’s continual seismic activity over past centuries.
The area attracts both tourists and locals with its funky boutiques, Latin-flavored restaurants, and outdoor murals. A favorite local pastime is grabbing a take-out lunch and heading to Mission Dolores Park for an alfresco picnic while you enjoy the vista of the city below.
If you’re looking for the remnants of the hippie culture of the 60s, head for Haight-Ashbury where Tibetan gift shops and boutiques painted in psychedelic colors do their best to keep a hippie flavor in the air.
Most of the folks you’ll find there now are 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.”
If you go:
San Francisco Travel
900 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94102