This installment of our series of insiders’ guides to great places to visit in the United States takes us to iconic, beguiling, vibrant, trend-setting, resilient, iconoclastic, beautiful San Francisco, a small city with a huge presence. Sharing his tips, insights, and memories today is my Embassy colleague David Edginton, a frequent visitor to the Golden Gate City starting when he was a youngster.
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I Left My Heart in San Francisco
by David Edginton
While living in Eugene, Oregon my family often made the ten-hour drive down to the San Francisco Bay Area where all (and I mean all) of my relatives hail from. My grandparents relocated from the Midwestern United States to California in the early 1950s, a common American story in the post-World War II era. I’ll never forget the first time we made the trip down to “The City” – my father drove an extra hour to bring us into the city across the Golden Gate Bridge, which really is the best way to arrive for the first time.
San Francisco is truly a magical place. Whether you are enjoying the diversity of its eclectic neighborhoods, exploring the culinary delights of Chinatown, catching a show at the Fillmore, taking a stroll in Golden Gate Park, or just sitting on the dock of the bay, San Francisco is one of the great cities of the world, and wonderful place to visit.
It sits in an ideal location, on a peninsula at the mouth of a large scenic bay in Northern California, with picture postcard views in all directions. A relatively small city (with a land area of only 47 square miles and a population of about 825,000 residents), it is the commercial, financial, and cultural hub of a metropolitan area that includes the cities of Oakland, San Jose, Santa Clara, and the smaller municipalities of Silicon Valley such as Palo Alto and Cupertino.
San Francisco is the 14th most populous city in America, but the 2nd most densely populated (after New York City). It is both a city and county, one of the few such consolidated city-county jurisdictions in the United States. The overall metropolitan area has approximately 9 million people and possesses extraordinary cultural richness and ethnic diversity, owing to its strong immigrant history. For context I’ll talk a bit about that history, a little geography, and then get to what I think’s best to see and do when you visit.
Prior to European settlement of the area, the northern part of the peninsula that now contains the city of San Francisco was home to the Yelamu tribe, part of the Ohlone language group that stretched south from the Bay Area to the Big Sur region of California. Spanish explorers and missionaries began arriving in the 1700s, establishing in 1776 the Presidio San Francisco (a fortified military installation) and Mission San Francisco de Asís (in order to convert the Ohlone people to Christianity).
The area became part of Mexico in 1821 when Mexico gained independence from Spain. In 1835 the town of Yerba Buena was founded, the first significant European settlement on the peninsula. It began to attract American settlers and was seized by U.S. forces during the Mexican-American War. The entire territory of California officially became part of the United States — and the name of the town was changed from Yerba Buena to San Francisco — at the conclusion of the war, in 1848.
The population of San Francisco in 1848 was just under 1,000 people. The California Gold Rush that started that year brought waves of immigrants from all corners of the globe. Within just 12 months, the city grew to 25,000 people and then more than doubled in size in just 10 more years. By the turn of the century San Francisco was known for its flamboyant style, thriving entertainment and culture, and displays of great wealth.
On April 18, 1906 a devastating earthquake with an estimated magnitude of between 7.8 and 8.2 hit the city. Hundreds of buildings collapsed, an estimated 3,000 people were killed, and ruptured gas lines set off fires that raged for several days. The U.S. Artillery Corps attempted to create firebreaks by dynamiting neighborhoods. The city center was entirely destroyed by the quake and fires, and more than half of the population of 400,000 was left homeless, camping in tents in public parks and on beaches. As author Jack London wrote of his home town at the time, “San Francisco is gone.”
The city was wholly rebuilt in just a few years with an emphasis on public transportation, boulevards, and public spaces. It later weathered the Great Depression by mounting large public works to generate employment, including simultaneously building the Golden Gate Bridge and the Oakland Bay Bridge. After World War II, it experienced more rapid population growth, in part due to large numbers of U.S. servicemen (like my grandfather) who returned and settled in the city. In the 1960s and 1970s it became a magnet for counter-culture movements, including the memorable 1967 “Summer of Love” based out of the Haight-Ashbury district.
More recently, the San Francisco Bay Area has been a hub of innovation and technology development, fuelled by a confluence of elite universities like Stanford and U.C. Berkeley, post-World War II investment in the tech sector, and a creative workforce that learned how to think out of the box during the counter-culture 1960s-70s. Today Silicon Valley is home to the world’s leading tech companies including the likes of Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Google, Facebook, eBay, Oracle, Intel, and many others.
The economy of the city of San Francisco is diversified and driven by financial services, professional services, and tourism. It ranks #12 among global financial centers, and is the headquarters of Wells Fargo Bank, the world’s largest bank by market capitalization. San Francisco is clearly a dynamic place to live and work, but it is also one of the most visited cities Earth, hosting about 17 million tourists each year.
Whether you walk, bicycle, or drive, San Francisco often feels as if it has more hills than any other city in the United States. In fact there are dozens of named hills in the city, but most visitors focus on what is commonly called the great ”Seven Hills of San Francisco” – Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Rincon Hill, Mount Sutro, Twin Peaks, and Mount Davidson. The famous Coit Tower can be found atop Telegraph Hill. Some say that the best views of the city can be found at Twin Peaks. Check out this great article by Dave Schweisguth for more detailed info about the various hills.
The heart of San Francisco resides in its funky, eclectic neighborhoods that each brings a unique flavor to the city. The historic center of the city is anchored by Market Street and the waterfront on the northeast side. Here you will find the Financial District and the distinctive Transamerica Pyramid building (the tallest in San Francisco) as well as Union Square. From here cable cars carry riders up the steep inclines to Nob Hill, or down to the waterfront attractions of Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. Russian Hill, home to famously crooked Lombard Street, is nearby, as well as North Beach, Little Italy, Chinatown, and Telegraph Hill.
Moving west across Van Ness Avenue you’ll find the Western Addition, a neighborhood that includes Hayes Valley, the Fillmore, and Japantown. The Western Addition survived the 1906 earthquake with its Victorians largely intact, including the famous “Painted Ladies” situated along Alamo Square. To the south is the Haight-Ashbury district, synonymous with the hippie culture of the 1960s and 1970s. West of downtown is the Presidio of San Francisco, a decommissioned military base that is now part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
In the southeast quadrant of the city lies the Mission District, home to San Francisco’s vibrant Latino community and Mission San Francisco de Asís (now known as Mission Dolores), the original Spanish mission in the area and oldest surviving structure in the city. Next to the Mission District is the Castro District. Once a working-class Scandinavian and Irish area, the Castro was North America’s first and still its best known gay neighborhood. Moving further away from the city core are the Twin Peaks and then one of the great urban green spaces in America, Golden Gate Park.
Now that you have the lay of the land and some historical context, we’ll explore some of San Francisco’s more appealing attractions. Our tour of “The City,” as San Francisco is called by locals, can only start in one place. With its towers, sweeping cables, and majestic span across the mouth of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge is without question one of the world’s most iconic bridges.
When it was built in the mid-1930s, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. The bridge remains one of San Francisco’s, and in fact America’s, most recognizable landmarks, stretching almost two full miles towards Sausalito and soaring 4,200 feet above the bay. Visitors can both walk and bike across the bridge. For a guided option, you can join the three-hour Bike the Bridge tour that heads through the Presidio, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and into Sausalito.
Locals know to head to the Ferry Building on Saturday mornings for the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, which offers a huge array of fresh produce, meats, and cheeses. Opened in 1898, the Ferry Building sits as one of the most prominent points in the city’s skyline, with a clock tower modeled after the Giralda bell tower in Seville, Spain. Check out La Cocina Community Kitchen, a non-profit which helps launch local, lower-income food businesses. It is a great place to sample a kaleidoscopic range of tastes including all-natural jams, fresh spring rolls, or plantain chips. From the Ferry Building, I suggest you walk north on the Embarcadero to one of San Francisco’s most popular destinations with …
… fishing boats, sea lions basking in the sun, food stalls, steaming crab cauldrons, sourdough French bread bakeries, and much more. I’m talking about the world-famous Fisherman’s Wharf. Here visitors join in with locals eating freshly cracked Dungeness crab in season and fish and chips from the dockside stalls, while taking in stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the Marin County headlands. From Fisherman’s Wharf you can take a sightseeing boat to out to the iconic Alcatraz prison, Angel Island, and other points of interest around San Francisco Bay. Several streetcar and cable car lines terminate here, making it a great base of operations to explore the rest of the city.
Fisherman’s Wharf gets its name and flavour from the original Italian/Sicilian immigrants that came to the city in the mid to late 1800s, settled in the North Beach area close to the wharf, and set up the first commercial fishing operations on the Bay. Since that time it has remained home to San Francisco’s fishing fleet, and can claim some of the world’s best seafood. Fishermen’s Grotto, Pompei’s Grotto, and Alioto’s are among the most historic restaurants in the area, all going back generations under the same family ownership. For more casual fare, I suggest heading over to Lou’s Fish Shack on Pier 47 for a steaming bowl of clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl.
Must see spots in and around Fisherman’s Wharf include the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39, the U.S.S. Pampanito Submarine Museum, and the National Liberty Ship Memorial where the SS Jeremiah O’Brien is docked. Ship lovers can explore the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park at the Hyde Street Pier, home of the world’s largest collection of historic ships by tonnage. Children and adults enjoy the hands-on experiences at the Exploratorium, one of the best science museums in the world according to Scientific American magazine. You can also see hundreds of sea lions basking, cavorting, and barking around Pier 39 most of the year.
After filling up on crab and clam chowder, consider a sail over to Alcatraz Island. Part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, “The Rock” is one of San Francisco’s most recognizable landmarks. The federal penitentiary on the island once housed America’s most notorious criminals including Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. It is also the site of the first lighthouse to be built on the west coast of the United States (in 1854), historic U.S. military fortifications built in 1858 to defend the entrance to San Francisco Bay, and the site of a major American Indian protest in 1969.
Visitors to Alcatraz can enjoy one of the best views in the Bay Area (fog permitting), tours of the cellblock and other prison facilities, and interestingly bird watching. The island is an outstanding spot to view nesting seabirds including cormorants, pigeon guillemots, snowy egrets, gulls, and black-crowned night herons. You can also add a stop to nearby Angel Island. If you time your visit right, you can take a more vigorous approach and swim the Annual Alcatraz Classic, a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) race held in September each year from the island back to Aquatic Park in the city.
Once back on the mainland, you should explore the self-indulgent side of the city with a stop at iconic Ghirardelli Square, the original headquarters of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company. Founded in 1852 by Domenico Ghirardelli, the company is the second oldest chocolate company in America.
The factory itself has long since relocated, but chocoholics can still get their fix at the Original Ghirardelli Chocolate Manufactory and Soda Fountain, one of the many shops and restaurants now housed in the handsome brick buildings of the square. If you are here in September, check out the annual Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival where you can attend Chocolate School and learn how to make this confectionary delight from the professionals.
Nearby is the Buena Vista Cafe , where you have have an original Irish coffee before continuing your explorations. There is no better way to experience San Francisco than aboard one of the city’s famous open-air cable cars, the world’s last manually operated transportation system of its kind. First used in 1873, the cars are pulled by a cable running below the street, held by a grip that extends from the car through a slit in the street surface between the rails. The system comprises three lines – the California Street line, Powell-Hyde line, and Powell-Mason line — which ferry tourists and commuters alike throughout the city.
From Fisherman’s Wharf, you should hop a Powell-Hyde line car south to San Francisco’s Cable Car Museum. Located in the historic Washington/Mason cable car barn and powerhouse, the museum is mandatory for first time visitors to the city. From the museum deck you can see the huge engines and winding wheels in action as they pull the cables that are the heart of the system. The museum also houses antique cable cars from the 1870s including the only surviving original car from the first cable car company, the Clay Street Hill Railroad No. 8 grip car.
From the Cable Car Museum it is just a short walk of a few short blocks to the Gateway Arch (Dragon Gate) that marks the entrance to Chinatown on Grant Avenue at Bush Street. It is the oldest Chinatown in North America and home to the largest Chinese community outside Asia. Full of sights and smells to feed the senses, this area is a dynamic sea of fish vendors, herb shops, acupuncture clinics, tea houses, and Buddhist temples.
The soul of Chinatown is Portsmouth Square, one of the few open spaces in the area. It is common here to see groups of people practicing Tai Chi in the morning and old men playing Chinese chess into the night. Nearby you can enjoy Kong Chow Temple and Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, as well as Chinese-influenced buildings like the Bank of Canton (the old Chinese telephone exchange) and the Sing Chong Building. Additional spots of note for tourists include the Chinese Cultural Center, Chinese Historical Society of America, Great Star Theater, and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.
The community plays host each year to the Chinese New Year Festival and Parade, one of the highlights of San Francisco’s event calendar. Held two weeks after the start of Chinese New Year, it is the largest Asian event outside of Asia and draws more than a million people. Capping the festival is the Chinese New Year Parade, regularly named one of the world’s top ten parade events. It features an explosion of sights and sound that includes elaborately decorated floats, martial arts group, stilt walkers, lion dancers, Chinese acrobatics, and a 200-foot-long Golden Dragon manned by 100 puppeteers and accompanied by 600,000 firecrackers. If you miss New Year’s, you can still enjoy the Autumn Moon Festival.
Japantown is another popular destination for visitors looking to explore the rich diversity of San Francisco’s communities. The neighbourhood’s iconic Peace Pagoda towers over Japan Centre, an indoor shopping mall buzzing with activity. In April Japantown hosts the annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, celebrating Japanese and Japanese-American culture with exhibits featuring ikebana flower arrangement), taiko drumming, Japanese tea ceremony, and minyo (Japanese folk dance and song). Also check out the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park which features classic elements such as an arched drum bridge, pagodas, stone lanterns, stepping stone paths, native Japanese plants, serene koi ponds, and a zen garden. Cherry blossom trees bloom throughout the garden in March and April.
Cultural colour gets no brighter than in San Francisco’s historic Haight-Ashbury District. Once the epicentre for the peace-and-love hippie days of the 1960s-70s, the Haight still has an alternative vibe with smoke shops, tie-dye retailers, and music stores aplenty. In the 1980s the area became home to San Francisco’s comedy scene, with clubs like The Other Cafe club helping to launch the careers of famous comics like Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, and Whoopi Goldberg. Finish off your visit in the Haight with a stop at Magnolia Pub & Brewery for a great meal and a cold beer.
And don’t miss the Castro, whatever your orientation. Geographically and existentially the heart of Gay San Francisco, the Castro has great cafes, bars, and shops, as well as interesting historical spots. (It was the home district of Harvey Milk, the slain city councilman who was the first openly gay government official elected to office in the United States.) The Castro bursts its seams each year when San Francisco hosts the world’s largest Pride Celebration and Parade each June. The event features live entertainment, speakers, and hundreds of stalls and booths. If you can, catch a performance of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, a 150-strong, first-in-the-world, all-gay choir that has been wowing audiences since 1978. Also check out the GLBT History Museum, the only stand-alone museum of LGBT history and culture in the United States.
San Francisco also has one of the world’s most dynamic museum and arts scenes, and in fact the downtown is practically a village of museums. The centrepiece is the ever expanding, four-story San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, founded in 1935 as the first museum on the West Coast devoted to modern and contemporary art. Check out the SFMOMA on the Go exhibit while the museum is temporarily closed for construction of a major new wing. The nearby Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is also well worth experiencing, as are the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.
Worthy of special note is the California Academy of Sciences, one of the world’s premier natural history museums. It includes the world’s largest all-digital planetarium, a natural history museum, an aquarium, and a four story rainforest. The 412,000 square foot structure that houses the Academy is perhaps the greenest museum on the planet mirroring its commitment to sustainable living. It features a 2.5 acre Living Roof, an expansive solar canopy, an extensive water reclamation system, and walls that are insulated with recycled blue jeans.
Golden Gate Park is a 1,017-acre sanctuary stretching from the Haight to the Pacific Ocean. It houses a multitude of attractions, from museums to botanical gardens and recreation facilities. Designed by noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead (of New York’s Central Park fame), Golden Gate park’s meadows, lakes and gardens offer something for everyone, including golf, tennis, walking and bike paths.
If you are a runner, consider timing your visit for Bay to Breakers, the oldest annual footrace in the world, a city staple since 1912. In May each year more than 100,000 racers start on the eastern side of the city (the Bay), wind their way west for 7.46 miles through the city, and finish in sight of the surf of Ocean Beach (the Breakers). It’s a quintessential San Francisco experience with runners sporting elaborate costumes or simply nothing at all (public nudity is a regular feature of the race). House parties line the race course, giving the event a party like atmosphere.
If you prefer to watch rather than run, the city is home to a number of great professional sports franchises including the San Francisco 49ers (American football) and the San Francisco Giants (baseball). Both teams have had both historic and recent success, with the Giants winning the Major League Baseball World Series championship in 2010 and 2012.
Watching a Giants game at AT&T Park (their home ballpark) is a special treat, as the facility sits right on the water at China Basin. Choose a bleacher seat in the upper deck to simultaneously enjoy the game and a stunning view of the Bay. If you a lucky, you might see a “splash hit,” a home run that is hit so far out of the park that it goes into the water. A flotilla of boats routinely assembles to listen to the game and try to catch those splash hits.
There is simply too much nightlife in San Francisco for me to talk about. Check the community papers and posted notices when you get to town. I’ll only say now that in my view, no visit to San Francisco would be complete without taking in a show at The Fillmore, arguably one of the most influential music halls of the 20st Century.
Opened as an Italianate-style dance hall in 1912, the Fillmore reached its musical pinnacle in the late 1960s. Everyone played the Fillmore. The careers of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Janis Joplin, the Butterfield Blues Band, and countless others were launched here, and the most significant musical talent of the day including Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Cream, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and The Who all played here. Today, The Fillmore still books in the top acts in music including shows by Tom Petty, No Doubt, Radiohead, The Cure, Sonic Youth, Prince, The White Stripes, and even Tom Jones.
If you have the energy and time, there are great day-trips just outside the city including … Jack London Square across the Bay Bridge in Oakland … the USS Hornet (an aircraft carrier that was the recovery ship for the Apollo 11 and 12 lunar missions) in Alameda (next to Oakland) … the galleries, cafes, and boutiques of Sausalito just across the Golden Gate Bridge … Muir Woods National Monument (560-acres of old-growth coastal redwood forest with six miles of trails) … extensive trekking options in the nearby Mt. Tamalpais State Park … the beautiful Stanford University campus and Silicon Valley towns down the peninsula … and the Pacific beaches, including the historic and still great fun Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (with its iconic deep-fried Twinkies, saltwater taffy, and BBQ chicken pizza).
And then there’s the extensive wine country of the Napa, Sonoma, and Alexander Valleys just short drives from the city. They offer breath-taking views at every turn with vineyards hugging the picturesque rolling hills and old wineries dotting the landscape. Select from countless vintners for a wine tasting tour, rent a bike and cycle from winery to winery, dine at renowned restaurants like the French Laundry, pamper yourself with a mud bath in Calistoga, and/or settle in for a romantic evening at one of the area’s quaint bed & breakfasts. Some of the happiest of tourists (and locals) are those who pair the excitement of San Francisco with the authentic charm and leisure of the wine districts.
Although I’ve gone on too long, I’ve really just scratched the surface of what San Francisco and the Bay Area have to offer. For more details about what to see and do, where to stay, and how to best plan your visit, check out the city’s official travel portal as well as the San Francisco City Guide and Visit California.
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I have visited San Francisco many times and have seen and done everything that David mentions above that does not involve swimming or running. Although I am an Angeleno by temperament, I have a great appreciation for the beauty, depth, and energy of San Francisco. You’ll discover something new and wonderful every time you visit. Come see for yourself.