Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay. Photo by Mike Peel
Alcatraz Golden Gate National Recreation Area is 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.
Some comments from American visitors to Alcatraz
“So it was a prison on an island. Big deal. ”
“The boat ride there is very nice. For me, that was the best part. ”
“Skip the long, pricey, boring tour and instead take one of the commuter ferries which pass right by Alcatraz and, if you’re lucky, will have a full bar on board. ”
“Not a decent restaurant in the place. ”
“The day we went, a ex-convict was there to sign autographs of the book he wrote. Really? We have an ex-con who is a celebrity? He robs people. “
Pier 39 entrance, Fisherman’s Wharf. Photo by Besopha
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.
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.
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.
Yerba 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.
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.
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.
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.
Arts, Culture and Nightlife
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Caroline Culler
Thanks to its creative inhabitants all kind of arts – visual, performing, fine, fashion and literature – are big in San Francisco. The city offers many first-class museums and galleries as well as a huge variety of entertainment and music at a range of venues from grand theatres to tiny piano bars to mega night-clubs.
Performing Arts – the highly regarded San Francisco Symphony Orchestra is based in the (grotesquely named? ) San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center; there’s opera and ballet in the War Memorial Opera House; musicals in Golden Gate Theater and Orphem Theater; or try the New Conservatory Theatre Center for plays.
Museums and Galleries
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in SoMa; California Place of the Legion of Honour; San Francisco National Maritime Museum; Hyde St Historic Ships Pier; the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, located in Civic Center.