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San Francisco, California, is a world-class destination, a favorite of international travelers and domestic tourists alike. An unmatched spectrum of dining experiences, first-class cultural events, exceptional scenery and a pleasant climate combine for an enjoyable visit. Compared with cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Paris or London, San Francisco is a small, almost provincial city. It is a mere 8 mi/13 km from the Embarcadero, on the Bay, to the Great Highway and the Pacific Ocean.
Despite the notable influx of tech companies such as Google, Facebook, SalesForce and Twitter, tourism remains its prime industry, and the city has a thriving convention business that keeps its hotels and restaurants busy throughout the year.
You'll find San Francisco one of the world's most scenic cities—the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, Chinatown, the crazy quilt of Victorians, precipitous hills, extraordinary restaurants and, of course, earthquakes and fog. See the white-capped waters of San Francisco Bay, eat crab cakes along Fisherman's Wharf, attend a free concert in Golden Gate Park or a game with one of the Bay Area teams—the Warriors, 49ers or the Giants.
San Francisco's roller-coastering landscape cuts through dozens of distinct neighborhoods and its diverse population is every bit as colorful as the city's iconic landmarks and topography.
Must See or Do
Sights—The Golden Gate Bridge; a cable-car ride over Nob Hill; the exquisitely restored Palace of Fine Arts; views of the city atop Coit Tower and Telegraph Hill; Saints Peter and Paul church in North Beach; Golden Gate Park; Fisherman's Wharf; a ferry ride to Sausalito; the postcard Victorian homes at Alamo Square, Haight-Ashbury and famed mansions of Pacific Heights; goods at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market outside the Ferry Building; Lombard Street, the crookedest street in the U.S.
Museums—The Asian Art Museum; the Legion of Honor; the de Young Museum; Beat Museum; the Cable Car Museum; SFMoMA; Renzo Piano's iconic California Academy of Sciences; Contemporary Jewish Museum; Musee Mecanique; Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD).
Memorable Meals—Vegetarian fare at Greens; dim sum at Ton Kiang; sushi at Ozumo; dinner, dancing and great city views at Top of the Mark; Irish coffee at the historic Buena Vista Cafe while watching the sun set.
Late Night—Cocktails and film noir at Lone Palm; dancing at Harry Denton's Starlight Room atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel; local music and comedy at the Independent (Dave Chappell regularly tries out sets there); dinner and dancing at Bimbo's 365 Club.
Walks—Hiking across the Golden Gate Bridge; strolling anywhere along the 10-mi/15-km coastline from the Embarcadero through the Golden Gate Promenade (in the Presidio); shopping around Union Square; exploring the smaller streets and alleys of Chinatown; climbing the garden-lined stairway to Coit Tower.
Especially for Kids—Aquarium of the Bay and watching the sea lions at Pier 39; hands-on science fun at the Exploratorium at Pier 15; a plethora of kid-friendly attractions at the Children's Creativity Museum, at the Rooftop at Yerba Buena Gardens; paddleboats on Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park; the living roof at the California Academy of Sciences; a nature trek along the Presidio's ecology trail; the San Francisco Zoo; The Walt Disney Family Museum.
San Francisco Travel Agents
Perched on the northern tip of a peninsula, San Francisco is surrounded on three sides by water—to the west by the Pacific Ocean; to the east by San Francisco Bay, with Berkeley and Oakland on the other side (across the East Bay); and to the north by the narrow mouth of the Bay, spanned by the Golden Gate Bridge, which stretches to Marin County.
More than 50 hills stud "the City" (as San Franciscans call it), accounting for the bounty of breathtaking views. These hills break up and isolate otherwise contiguous communities. It's a city of neighborhoods, each with its own distinct character and attractions. Some of the most visited are Union Square, the Financial District, SoMa (the area south of Market Street), the Embarcadero, Chinatown, North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf, all clustered in the northeast corner of town.
Other neighborhoods well worth visiting are Japantown, the Mission, the Castro, North Beach, Russian Hill, the Marina, Pacific Heights, Hayes Valley, Nob Hill, the inner and outer Richmond and Sunset districts, and Cole Valley and Haight-Ashbury, which adjoin the eastern tip of Golden Gate Park. The park itself stretches westward to the Pacific Ocean, dividing two large residential neighborhoods—Richmond to the north and Sunset to the south.
The San Francisco Bay Area was originally inhabited by the Miwok and Ohlone people about 10,000 years ago. However, after Spanish explorers arrived in 1775, the Native Americans were almost wiped out by disease and mistreatment.
The Spanish established an army base at the Presidio and the Mision San Francisco de Asis (more commonly known as Mission Dolores). The Spanish themselves were pushed out in 1846 when U.S. forces captured San Francisco during the Mexican-American War, and a small outpost founded by Mormon priest Sam Brannan became an official part of the U.S.
Just two years later, a sawmill owner named James Marshall discovered gold around the American River (a little more than 100 mi/160 km from San Francisco). Brannan publicized the discovery, setting off the largest peacetime migration in U.S. history. The population leaped from 500 to 50,000 in one year, as people from all over the world rushed to the area in search of riches. A few years later in 1858, just as the gold rush was waning, the Comstock Lode of silver was discovered.
In the following decades, the city grew from a collection of tents to a world-class metropolis where the new gold and railroad barons could enjoy the finer things in life. San Francisco also became known for its many brothels, saloons and opium dens. The city developed in size and importance as a shipping port and military garrison. Abandoned fortifications can still be explored along the coastline, and tourist destinations line some of the old piers.
In April 1906, an immense earthquake struck, and one result was a fire that raged for three days. Some 400 people were killed, and half of San Francisco was destroyed. The city rebuilt itself quickly—much of the renowned architecture you see today dates from that era. City leaders, however, thwarted plans to rebuild the red-light district.
In 1915, the Panama-Pacific Exposition was held in the Marina District. The Palace of Fine Arts was built for it. During that same year, San Francisco's city hall was rebuilt.
San Francisco was a major staging area for troops during World War II, and its burgeoning shipbuilding industry attracted a diverse mix of people. As an international port linked to distant cultures, and as a destination for a multitude of Americans with various backgrounds, San Francisco became known for its liberal leanings and a tolerance for differences.
During the 1950s, the Beat Generation writers—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti—congregated in San Francisco, creating a subculture of poets and writers in the North Beach neighborhood. Their music was jazz. When North Beach rents went up in the 1960s, many bohemians moved to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood; out of that grew the hippie movement and a steady stream of literary and musical innovation. The city's tradition of diversity continued in the 1970s and 1980s as the Castro District became a mecca for the LGBTQ community.
Despite another major earthquake in 1989, San Francisco's economy has prospered. Another "gold rush" erupted in the 1990s with the technology boom. San Francisco and neighboring Silicon Valley became a hotbed of dot-com innovation. Renovations at City Hall, the development of the area South of Market (or SoMa) and the construction of the main library reflect those indulgent times. Today, San Francisco is still fueling the digital revolution and leads the way in green technologies.
Denim jeans were invented in San Francisco by German immigrant Levi Strauss. The miners, who went there for the gold rush, needed strong but comfortable pants.
The song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" was written by a gay couple—George Cory and Douglass Cross—in Brooklyn, New York, in 1953. Tony Bennett first recorded it in 1962 as the B-side for "Once Upon a Time."
Filbert Street between Hyde and Leavenworth (in Russian Hill) is reportedly the steepest street in San Francisco at an angle of 31.5 degrees. As for the city's most crooked street, it's actually not the legendary Lombard Street, but rather Vermont Avenue, between 20th and 22nd streets in Potrero Hill.
Local legend says fortune cookies were first served in the U.S. at the Golden Gate Park's Japanese Tea Garden in the early 1900s by a landscape designer named Baron Makoto Hagiwara. You can see how they are made and enjoy them fresh from the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown in narrow Ross Alley.
Bison have lived in Golden Gate Park since 1892, when the park used to be a free-range zoo. Although elk, bear and goats are no longer residents, the bison can still be seen grazing in the Bison Paddock near Spreckles Lake.
In 1901, San Francisco outlawed further burials in town because of a lack of space. All bodies were shipped to the city of Colma, just south of San Francisco. Fans of the macabre enjoy pointing out that, in Colma, which was incorporated as a necropolis in the 1920s, dead residents outnumber those still living by a margin of more than 1,000 to one.
The Golden Gate Bridge was originally painted "International Orange" as a temporary primer before it got that color permanently.
The Port of San Francisco's cruise terminal is situated on the city's famed Embarcadero. Terminal 27 totals 88,000 sq ft/8,180 sq m on two levels and features overhead gangway for boarding passengers along the Pier 27 apron and shoreside power infrastructure to permit docked ships to shut down their onboard engines. A 3-acre/1-hectare triangular paved area between Pier 27 and Pier 29 serves as a ground transportation and provisioning area. The terminal at Pier 35, at the intersection of North Point Street and the Embarcadero, continues as a secondary terminal when there is more than one cruise ship in port.
Pier 39, the popular waterfront shopping area, is just a few blocks west, and just beyond that is Fisherman's Wharf. To the east lie Embarcadero Center and Market Street. Both are connected by the historical streetcars (Muni's F-line) running along the Embarcadero, and there are paid parking lots and meters nearby.
Have your camera ready when your ship sails under the Golden Gate Bridge and past Alcatraz (the famed penitentiary) and Angel Island (once the detention center for Chinese immigrants). The bridge farther ahead is the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. From the cruise terminal you can see two of San Francisco's architectural landmarks, Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid.
Typical excursions may take you on a tour of the city's sights or on a motorized cable car (lots of fun for large groups), a ferry ride to Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, a tour of Fisherman's Wharf, shopping in Union Square and a walk through North Beach.
Farther excursions take you through the majestic redwood forests of Muir Woods, wine tasting in the Napa or Sonoma valleys, relaxing in scenic Carmel, dramatic coastal views of Big Sur or sightseeing in Yosemite.