What To See in San Francisco

Downtown
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.

Cable Cars 
949 Presidio Ave, Phone: (415) 923-6162
The Powell-Hyde line begins at Powell and Market streets, terminating at Victorian Park near the Maritime Museum and Aquatic Park; the Powell-Mason line also begins at Powell and Market streets to end at San Francisco’s Victorian Park near the Maritime Museum and Aquatic Park; the Powell-Mason line also begins at Powell and Market, but ends at Bay and Taylor near Fisherman’s Wharf; the California Street line runs from California and Market streets to Van Ness Avenue.

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, a sight without which no San Francisco vacation is complete. 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 SF 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.

Fisherman’s Wharf 
Embarcadero and Taylor St, Phone: (415) 474-8796
San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most popular spots for tourists. The area offers numerous shops, boasts some silly museums, and there’s a lot of fun for the entire family. Fisherman’s Wharf is a working wharf, and the vendors here are actually selling thousands of tons of fresh fish and seafood. You can take an early morning stroll down “Fish Alley” and watch the fisherman do their work. Later on in the day, the Wharf boasts a lot of family entertainment on the boardwalks with many tourist attractions, Noteworthy are the Red & White Fleet, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum, the Wax Museum, and the San Francisco Maritime Museum (at the foot of Polk Street). See also this article about some famous SF artists.

Golden Gate Bridge 
US Hwy 10, Phone: (415) 921-5858
Arguably the world’s most beautiful bridge, the mammoth rust-red deco San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge connects San Francisco with Marin County and can be experienced from near countless angles. Drive, bike, or walk across the two-mile long suspension bridge or get down to the base and look up from the tide pools at Baker’s Beach or from a Frisbee toss at Crissy fields, both in the adjoining Presidio.

Chinatown 
You can enter San Francisco’s Chinatown at “Dragon’s Gate” (located at Grant Avenue and Bush Street). The City’s bustling Chinatown district is an interesting and tightly-packed conglomerate of Chinese shops, restaurants, temples and, of course, many Chinese street vendors. This is THE location for gifts and the best fireworks to be seen on Chinese New Year. Read more here.

Union Square
Union Square is San Francisco ‘s downtown tourist center. 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 Street’) 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 Streets.

Over the coming months, I will write more about places that you absolutely must explore when (re)visiting the City this year. 

Mark Thomas