I can't say I recall the Summer of Love, having been only five at the time, but I’m old enough to have experienced a lifetime of cultural references – from films and TV shows to songs too numerous to mention that have indelibly marked San Francisco in the generational consciousness of most Canadians. We’ve left our hearts there, courtesy of Tony Bennett; flew over the city’s famous hills chasing bad guys in countless cop cars in films and TV shows (like The Streets of San Francisco); and even craved Rice-a-Roni, an odd rice-noodle side dish imprinted on our consciousness in a series of ubiquitous commercials as “the San Francisco treat.”
Throw in instantly recognizable sites from the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, cable cars and Chinatown, along with gay pride, sourdough bread, the baseball Giants and 49ers (both the football team and the historic gold rush entrepreneurs), and you’ve got a bona fide bucket list destination that should be experienced at least once in a lifetime, and which is guaranteed not to disappoint.
Surprisingly small at only 80 square kilometres – hence immensely walkable (except maybe for some of those hills) – it’s easy to see a lot in a little time, making the City by the Bay, or the Golden Gate City (don’t call it “Frisco” or “San Fran”) a perfect long-weekend getaway. Throw in nearby gems like Sausalito, Muir Woods National Monument (for the Redwoods), Santa Cruz, Monterey, Big Sur, and the wine valleys of Napa and Sonoma, and one could easily make a week of it.
Consider this primer to help make the most out of your visit.
San Francisco's famous four
The Golden Gate Bridge
Arguably the most famous bridge in the world impresses even the most experienced travellers with its stunning 2.7-kilometre span. A pedestrian walkway allows crossing on foot, and bikes are allowed on the western side. The bridge is said to be one of the most photographed structures on Earth. Golden Gate Park, meanwhile, is the city’s largest and home to the Conservatory of Flowers, Japanese Tea Garden and San Francisco Botanical Garden.
Better known as “The Rock,” the notorious former prison sitting in the middle of San Francisco Bay (and usually attractively surrounded by sailboats), is as iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge. Home to some of the United States’ most notorious criminals until closing in the 1960s, the island facility never suffered a successful escape. Visitors today get there by Alcatraz Cruises ferry from Pier 33 to explore the prison and grounds, including recorded cell-house tours. Advance reservations are recommended.
The festive waterfront marketplace and home to Pier 39 is one of the city’s most popular attractions. This is the place to see the colourful community of California sea lions and sample of bowl of chowder in a sour dough bowl. It’s also a short walk from attractions like Madame Tussauds, the San Francisco Dungeon, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and the famous crab vendors selling walk-away crab and shrimp cocktails.
In operation since the late 19th century, the cars are synonymous with the city and make a great and inexpensive sightseeing excursion ($6/ticket) along three routes that rise and descend along San Francisco’s famous hills.
But don't forget...
San Francisco is a great food city, and has more places to eat – over 3,500 – per capita than any other major U.S. city. As such, visitors are sure to find almost anything they want, though seafood – especially Dungeness crab – and sourdough bread, which, when hollowed out and filled with creamy clam chowder, stand out as the city’s signature dishes. And don’t forget that the city is home to famed Ghirardelli chocolates (around since 1852) and that Irish coffee is said to have been invented at the Burna Vista Café. A local Anchor Steam Beer (or two) from the Anchor Brewery Co. is also definitely in order. For a complete list of dining and nightlife options, visit sanfrancisco.travel/dining and sanfransico.travel/nightlife.
North Beach, the city’s Italian quarter, is a neighborhood of romantic European-style sidewalk cafés, restaurants and shops centred near Washington Square along Columbus and Grant avenues. The beautiful Church of Saints Peter and Paul is a beloved landmark.
At the foot of market street on the Bay, the Ferry Building with its iconic clock tower is not only one of the city’s top landmarks and a historical relic dating to 1898, but it has been home to a world-class public food market since 2003. Tours are available.
Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill offers a splendid vantage point for photos of the bridges and the bay.
Chinatown is 24 busy blocks filled with restaurants, food markets, temples and small museums, and is accessible through the “Dragon’s Gate” at Grant Avenue and Bush Street.
Mission San Francisco de Asís, or Mission Dolores, is the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco and also a working church. Beyond its impressive history, visitors will find a garden, restored to the period of the 1770s when the mission was founded, and a cemetery that is the resting place of many prominent San Franciscans.
For everybody’s inner hippie, Haight-Ashbury was epicentre of the Summer of Love. New to the neighbourhood is the Haight Street Art Center (215 Haight St.), a first-of-its-kind poster print shop and gallery that supports a collective of posters artists, as well as honouring San Francisco’s pioneering role in the world of concert posters.
Lombard Street, the famous “crooked” street with eight hairpin switchbacks in one block (framed by gorgeous flowerbeds), is a must-have photo – selfie or otherwise. GPS 1099 Lombard to find the right spot.
Disney fans will find an unexpected treat at the Disney Family Museum, founded by Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller to tell the story of her father and the early days the entertainment conglomerate from a family perspective. The museum is situated in the Presidio.
Sailing and speedboat tours are a great way to see the bay, with the latter often pausing for effect beside the scenic bayside AT&T baseball park. Traditional bay cruises, meanwhile, are a great way to get up close and personal with The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and, maybe with some luck, a frolicking humpback whale if the season is right.
With so much so much to see and do, and eat, there’s no question that any visit to the San Francisco is bound to be golden.