San Francisco, the Northern Californian city of undulating hills and iconic landmarks, is located on the northern tip of a peninsula, with the mighty Pacific on its west coast and the San Francisco Bay on its east – the two water bodies connected by the one-mile wide Golden Gate strait. It is this strait that the iconic Golden Gate Bridge spans to connect San Francisco with Marin County.
Charming neighborhoods, an interesting mix of modern and Victorian architecture, world-class museums, beautiful parks, pristine beaches, great cuisine, and a host of entertainment options are some of the hallmarks of this year-round-foggy American city, nestled against the water, islands, and rolling hills.
San Francisco Municipal Railway’s manually operated cable cars are, probably, the last of their kind in the developed world and among the major tourist attractions of the city, along with the Golden Gate Bridge, the island of Alcatraz, and Fisherman’s Wharf, to name a few.
In so far as the city’s attractions go, nobody can say it better than the Irish Poet and Playwright, Oscar Wilde.
“It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world,” he once said.
One wonders, what he would have added to that, had he seen the Golden Gate Bridge, built more than thirty years after his time.
So, let’s check out some of these “next world” attractions that Mr. Wilde was so passionate about and all that he didn’t see.
Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge that spans the Golden Gate – the mile-wide strait linking San Francisco Bay with the Pacific Ocean – opened to the public in 1937 and has, since, been one of the major attractions in the city.
From a tourist’s perspective, the first picture that comes to mind when you talk about San Francisco is not the Alcatraz, or the Fisherman’s Wharf, or, for that matter, the Transamerica Pyramid, but this strikingly orange suspension bridge against the blue backdrop of water and sky, the Golden Gate Bridge, that has become so synonymous with this great city.
The Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.
Driving over the bridge is not the only option to get across to Marin County, where the pleasant waterfront town of Sausalito awaits you.
Sidewalks on either side of the bridge allow you to walk or pedal over to the other side. While pedestrians are restricted to only the East Sidewalk, cyclists have access to, both, the East Sidewalk as well as the West Sidewalk.
For views of the bridge in all its orange-red splendor, fog permitting, Nob Hill is a fantastic vantage point, and so is the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. However, for the best, uninterrupted views, and awesome angles for those looking to photograph the structure, there’s no better place than the Alcatraz Island.
Golden Gate Park
The Golden Gate Park in the heart of San Francisco is more than 1000 acres of green space, home to museums, immaculate gardens, thousands of plant and tree species, picture-perfect lakes, walking trails and cycling paths, aquariums, and even a buffalo paddock. It’s hard to imagine that this magical space was once a barren area of arid dunes.
The California Academy of Sciences Museum, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, the Japanese Tea Garden, the de Young Museum, and the Steinhart Aquarium are some of the must-see attractions within the sprawling park.
Only three other city parks in the United States attract more tourists every year than the Golden Gate Park – they are the Central Park (New York City), the Mission Bay Park (San Diego), and the Lincoln Park (Chicago).
‘Education through entertainment’ is the premise around which the Exploratorium has been conceptualized. Incredibly popular with children, the Exploratorium is a fine example of a participatory museum where visitors, particularly children, get to explore the world of science through wide-ranging hands-on exhibits.
The NEW YORK TIMES has aptly described the place as “a mad scientist’s penny arcade, a scientific funhouse, and an experimental laboratory all rolled into one.”
With most of everything in its vicinity, the Fisherman’s Wharf is a good place to start your sightseeing, especially if you are visiting for a day or two.
Very popular among visitors, the spot is known for its shops and eateries and some of the major attractions in San Francisco, including the Maritime State Historic Park, Telegraph Hill, USS Pampanito, Ghiradelli Square and more – even a colony of sea lions.
Going forward, we’ll talk a bit more about some of these fabulous landmarks.
And, while you are at it, don’t forget to take a sightseeing cruise from Fisherman’s Wharf to treat yourself to some mind-blowing views of the city and the famous Golden Gate Bridge.
Once an industrial neighborhood, the Ghiradelli Square, today, features a shopping center, restaurants, a five-star hotel, rose-gardens with fountains, and more. The restored square opened to the public in 1964.
Some of Ghiradelli Square’s stores include names such as Elizabeth W, Fairmont Sales Office, Peekadoodle Kidsclub, Lola of North Beach, Mashka Jewelry, Helpers Bazaar, SF Brewing Co.’S Beer Garden, and Gigi + Rose, among others.
San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park
Formerly known as San Francisco Maritime Museum, the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park boasts a maritime museum, historic ships, a library|research facility, and a visitor center.
The oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest outside of Asia, San Francisco’s China Town was almost completely devastated in the 1906 earthquake. From its ashes rose the Chinatown of today, rebuilt better than before, with emphasis on Chinese style of architecture.
Accessed through the iconic Dragon’s gate, the pace is a labyrinth of streets and alleyways, chock-a-bloc with souvenir shops, bakeries, bars, karaoke joints, and shops selling all kinds of herbal products and concoctions, not to forget the throng of shoppers and loiterers.
Some of the top landmarks in this exotic neighborhood include the Chinese Historical Society of American Museum and Tien How, the oldest Taoist temple.
The best time to visit Chinatown is during the Chinese New Year when the place comes alive with some of the best Chinatown celebrations in the whole of North America.
Located over two kilometers off the bay-side coast of San Francisco, the Alcatraz Island is a looming reminder of its rather grim past. The small island with the iconic lighthouse was a federal penitentiary from 1934 until 1963, with some of America’s most notorious criminals, including Al Capone and the “Birdman, “having spent time there as inmates.
After being opened to the public as a national recreation area in 1972, Alcatraz Island was declared a National Historic Landmark fourteen years later, in 1986.
A ferry ride from Pier 33 in the Fisherman’s Wharf area takes just about 15 minutes to reach the former prison island, where you can explore the various attractions including the oldest working lighthouse, and different areas of the former prison, with an audio recording in the voice of former inmates and prison guards helping you get an idea of the prison’s grim background.
Not only is there plenty of history on the island, it is also home to a variety of nesting seabird species.
California Academy of Sciences
One of the main attractions in the Golden Gate Park, the completely rebuilt California Academy of Sciences, covering an area of 400,000 square feet, boasts a natural history museum, a planetarium, an aquarium, rainforest, and millions of specimens and exhibits.
The Steinhart Aquarium itself is home to over 38,000 live specimens and a magnificent coral reef, 25 feet deep.
The four-story rainforest boasts a wide range of animal and amphibian species, while the Kimball Natural History Museum houses T-Rex and blue whale skeletons as well as a variety of amazing exhibits.
Some of the other must-see landmarks in San Francisco include the:
Twin Peaks: Twin Peaks is a pair 922-feet-high summits with a lush hilltop park with hiking trails and sweeping views of the Bay Area.
Cable Car Museum: The Cable Car Museum, located in the Nob Hill area of the city, is dedicated to the history of the San Francisco cable car system with an impressive collection of historical and explanatory exhibits.
Angel Island: Part of the Angel Island State Park, Angel Island is a fabulous lookout point offering panoramic views of the San Francisco skyline, the Marin County Headlands, and Mount Tamalpais.
“Leaving San Francisco is like saying goodbye to an old sweetheart. You want to linger as long as possible.” — Walter Cronkite