visit San Francisco?
A favourite city with tourists, San Francisco is cool and courteous with radiant art scene and lively nightlife in a terrific waterside
location topped by appealing hills clad in Victorian houses.
Like New Orleans, this is a city that is only vaguely American,
with a European climate, ambience and a mixed dynamic
yet somehow mellow population to match. 'Frisco offers exquisite dining experiences due to the mixed race origins, accompanied by fine, good value wines produced in the Wine County nearby. This is a good compact walking city, though, of course, it's hardly horizontal.
- San Francisco's small city center can be touristy but also easily and quickly experienced.
- You may well encounter the city's infamous, sudden sea fogs, particularly in summertime, which drop temperatures considerably and shuts down views totally.
A San Francisco morning, photo by Mila Zinkova
Best San Fransisco weather: September - October (the warmest) and May - June, for dry and mild weather with average temperatures of 11C - 21C.
Worst: July and August (chilly coastal fog, hot inland) and December and January (wet and cold), with average temperatures between 8C and 19C and substantial rainfall in winter months.
Check out city sightseeing passes and cards to cover admission fees and discounts to the city's sights.
The Top Six things to do in San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge: one of the most famous
bridges in the world and San Francisco's iconic landmark with its art deco design and bright orange colour. Located in Golden Gate district in north of the city, 1,280 metres across
the San Francisco Bay, it is the USA's second longest suspension bridge and the most popular spot to commit suicide in America, if not in the world, even though three quarters of attempts are successfully discouraged by the security officers. Walking is only allowed on the east side while tourists can get a breathtaking panorama of the city and bridge from a view point on other, Marin side.
Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park; photo by Wolfman SF
• Golden Gate Park: one of USA's most visited city parks, this three mile
long park in the Avenues district (just southwest of Golden Gate district) is an excellent place to ride, skate, stroll or relax;
visit the Japanese Tea Gardens, Conservatory of Flowers and Stow Lake with Strawberry Hill. If you have spare time for a little wilderness go further to Beach Chalet and Ocean Beach which is an OK surfing spot, though with its strong rip currents and cold water is not ideal for casual swimmers.
• Cable Cars: San Francisco's mobile historic landmarks are a touristic must-ride. See the Activities section.
• Palace of Fine Arts: situated in Japantown (aka 'Nihonmachi' or 'Little Osaka'), this magnificent Roman/Greek style structure overlooks a lagoon is an 'exploratorium' and museum with a 1,000-seat theatre used for concerts and festivals. It is also a popular place for weddings.
The best time to be in Japantown, west of the downtown, is early April, during the Cherry Blossom Festival or the Nihonmachi Street Fair in August.
The famously muralled Women's Building
• The Castro: this lively, friendly gay
centre, adorned with funky shops and bars is superb for interesting shopping as well as people watching, especially at the famous Café Flore.
Don't miss the best view of the city from the Twin Peaks at the geographic centre of San Francisco, two 280 m high hills with 360 degrees views.
Other star sights are the historic movie venue Castro Theatre; Alfred 'Nobby' Clarke Mansion, an English baroque stately home (now an apartment block); Harvey Milk Plaza, a square dedicated to the murdered gay politician; Randall Museum, a kids-friendly natural history museum.
The Castro is
located in middle of the city, south of downtown, next to the Mission District.
Haight-Ashbury; photo by Daniel Schwen
• Haight-Ashbury: a historic district with a slightly tired bohemian quality, once the centre of San Francisco Renaissance, a liberal political phenomenon in late 60's. Old hippies might
like to see where Flower Power originated.
The area is home to many refurbished 'Painted Lady' Victorian or Edwardian houses, while sights around the famous Haight-Ashbury intersection include hip cafés, eccentric shops and pastel coloured terraced houses.
Check the view from Buena Vista Park or nostalgics might smoke a pipe at Hippie Hill.
Various guided walking tours are on offer such as Flower Power Walking Tours. The Haight Ashbury Street Fair attracts many tourists in June. It's east of Golden Gate Park.
Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay; photo by Bernard Gagnon
• Alcatraz Island (Alcatraz Golden Gate National Recreation Area): an island known as The Rock, with one of USA's oldest lighthouses and a former federal prison, this is a historic site as well as nature recreation and bird watching area run by National Park Service. An excellent audio tour is available.
Alcatraz is located in San Francisco Bay; get there via a 15 minutes ferry ride from Pier 33, just southeast of Fisherman's Wharf, but book ferry tickets in advance, particularly on summer weekends and during holiday times.
Pier 39 sea lions; photo by David Ball
• Fisherman's Wharf: this historic waterfront neighbourhood on the north coast of the city, is one of USA's most visited sights, but has sadly aged into little more than a hideously touristy, over-priced shopping mall with disappointing seafood (except fresh street crab) and tedious entertainment.
But check out the exceptional Musée Mécanique, a private collection of musical instruments and antique arcade machines.
Parking is almost impossible so go early or take the Hyde St cable car to get there. You can see
the seal lions on Pier 39, varied colourful buskers (street performers) and an old carousel.
• Chinatown: the largest Chinatown outside Asia, this dense and bustling immigrant district, is worth visiting especially during the Chinese New Year around February, though touristy of course.
Located around Grand Street and near Nob Hill it is good place to eat well and to shop for imported Asian produce.You can visit a couple of culture centres, a museum, temples or sample a few cookies at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.
• North Beach: adjacent to Chinatown, this Italian community known as 'Little Italy', is one of the city's oldest and most popular neighbourhoods. Telegraph Hill, a residential area, is capped by the art deco Coit Tower in Pioneer Park; Filbert Steps is a scenic route up to Coit Tower, though going up by car is NOT suggested. For art lovers, there's the San Francisco Art Institute and a couple of curious museums such as the Tattoo Art Museum and the Beat Museum.
Buena Gardens and Center for the Arts (YBCA): located in the SoMa (South of Market) district, southeast of Downtown, YBCA is a relaxing grassy hang
out surrounded by many arty places such as the highly regarded San Francisco Museum
of Modern Art (MOMA), Ansel Adam Gallery (Photography), Cartoon Art Museum and Museum of Craft and Folk Art.
Russian Hill, with San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz Island in the background.
Photo courtesy of Go San Francisco Card
• Nob Hill - Russian Hill District: Nob Hill is a classy neighbourhood with up-scale hotels such as the Fairmont and Mark Hopkins as well as flash shops, while Russian Hill is a posh residential area with elegant houses, apartments and the world's most famous serpentine roadway, the red-paved Lombard Street. You can catch a splendid city view from there, especially at the night and this zigzag street with flower-beds can be seen from Coit Tower.
Other notable sights in this area: the graceful, Paris Notre Dame-alike Grace Cathedral; Francisco Street and its collection of dazzling mansions; cobbled pedestrian Macondray Lane with precise Edwardian houses; Filbert Street, the city's 2nd steepest street (the steepest is 22nd Street in Noe Valley); the Cable Car Museum; and for fine dining head to Polk Street, even if you are a vegetarian. The district is compact enough and pleasant to stroll, though quite strenuous.
• Union Square: this one-block plaza and its neighbourhood host a large collection of department stores and up-market flagship stores, making it San Francisco's premier shopping area. Situated in the heart of downtown Union Square also features a French Quarter and fine hotels and restaurants.
There is a Half-Price Ticket Booth at the square and the city's leading theatres including Herbst Theater and American Conservatory Theater can be found in the area (Theater District and Civic Center District). San Francisco Visitor Information is nearby and it's easily accessible by streetcars or cable cars.
• Financial District: a central business area with many high-rise corporate buildings, particularly along Market Street. For
architectural splendour try the immense Bank of America Building and its
top floor restaurant with views over the city and the bay; also the Transamerica
Pyramid, the tallest building of all; the stunning Ferry Building with 70m clock tower in the Embarcadero (corniche). The Financial District is east of the city and west of Union Square.
• San Francisco Zoo: positioned next to Lake Merced in the southwestern corner of the city, the zoo is home to 245 animal species, the oldest and largest zoo in Northern California, and very popular with families.
As one of America's 10 Best Walking Cities, the best way to understand the city is on foot - Chinatown, The Castro and Haight-Ashbury in particular if you can handle steep gradients. If you feel fit then cycling is also a convenient way, if hilly, to get around this compact city.
Get a city map from the Visitor Information Center or print from their web site - Only in San Francisco maps. Also check out information on varied walking tours from the same sources.
For those who are short of time or have no need of exercise, the good news is that the city runs an efficient and fully integrated public transportation system, Muni (San Francisco Municipal Railway) with buses, Metro streetcars (both above and below ground) and the famous cable cars.
For a self-guided city tour try The Historic Streetcar F Line from Fisherman’s Wharf and Embarcadero through Market Street to The Castro. Get a passport (a travel pass) in advance from a ticket booth or board at the front and buy a ticket from the driver.
It is the best to avoid driving in this city due to heavy traffic, a disconcerting one-way system, steep hills, pricey and restricted parking. However, there is a well-prepared, tourist-oriented '49-Mile Scenic Drive'.
Bikes are common and easily rentable but the hilly aspect may be tiresome.
Air - San Francisco International Airport (SFO), is 13 miles (21 km) to the south, though some low-cost airlines use nearby Oakland and San Jose airports instead.
if time permits then approaching the city from Los Angeles and Santa Barbara direction on the magnificent Pacific Coast Highway is a gorgeous trip, whether by bus or car, or coming the other way from the north is almost as spectacular.
Next San Francisco page: Culture, Activities, Cuisine, Festivals, Short Trips, San Francisco Map
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