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Fisherman's Wharf

More than 14 million tourists visit this world-famous historical site each year. Despite its name, it’s been more Disney than Steinbeck for decades now, but for tourists, it’s a spot with plenty to do and see along one of the city’s famed postcard-perfect backdrops. Unless you come early in the morning to watch the few remaining fishing boats depart, you won’t find many traces of the traditional waterfront life that once existed here. Originally called Meiggs’ Wharf, this bustling strip of waterfront got its present moniker from generations of fishermen who used to dock their boats here. A small fleet of 30 or so fishing boats still set out from here, but now it’s one long shopping and entertainment mall that stretches from Ghirardelli Square at the west end to Pier 39 at the east. Accommodating a total of 300 boats, two marinas flank Pier 39 and house the sightseeing ferry fleets, including departures to Alcatraz Island. The most famous residents of Fisherman’s Wharf are the hundreds of California sea lions hanging out, barking on the docks at Pier 39.

Some folks love Fisherman’s Wharf (my family falls into this category); others can’t get far enough away from it. I suppose it has much to do with one’s tolerance for kitsch. Among the most popular sites at the Wharf are the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum at 175 Jefferson St. (tel. 415/202-9850; www.ripleysf.com) and the street performers who convene on the stage at Pier 39. In the summer of 2014 two more cheesy attractions opened at 145 Jefferson St.: The San Francisco Dungeon (http://sanfrancisco.thedungeons.com; no phone), where fully costumed character actors take visitors through 200 years of colorful San Francisco history with theatrical storytelling, special effects, and dramatic sets ($26 adult, $20 for kids 4–17, 3 and under free; daily 10am–7pm), and Madame Tussauds (www.madametussauds.com/SanFrancisco; no phone), the world-famous gallery of wax statues that features legends like Lady Gaga, Leonardo DiCaprio, and—get this—Mark Zuckerberg ($26 for adults, 20 for kids 4–17, 3 and under free; daily 10am–8pm).

However you feel about these sort of attractions, most agree that, for better or worse, Fisherman’s Wharf has to be seen at least once in your lifetime. There are still some traces of old-school San Francisco character here to enjoy. In fact, nowadays more than ever, as the rest of the city is rapidly evolving with gentrification, the bric-a-brac shops, restaurants, and overall vibe of Fisherman’s Wharf remain the same, making it the new old San Francisco. Even if you only drop by the neighborhood to see it, make sure to check out the convivial seafood street vendors who dish out piles of fresh Dungeness crab and sourdough bread bowls full of clam chowder from their steaming, stainless-steel carts. And, yes, you can hop on a boat and go fishing.

At Taylor St. and the Embarcadero. Tel. 415/674-7503. www.fishermanswharf.org. Bus: 30, 39, 47, or 82X. Streetcar: F. Cable car: Powell–Mason line to the last stop and walk to the wharf. If you’re arriving by car, park on adjacent streets or on the wharf btw. Taylor and Jones sts. for $16 per day, $8 with validation from participating restaurants.

SoMa

Once little more than wide, desolate streets flanked by concrete warehouses, SoMa has become the city’s cultural hub. With the Yerba Buena District at its core, SoMa boasts a large concentration of museums, centers for the arts, and nightclubs—and plays home base for the San Francisco Giants.

FiDi (Financial District)

Though most of the buildings in the FiDi are filled with brokers and bankers, along the beautiful waterfront visitors will find a few of San Francisco’s best attractions.

North Beach/Telegraph Hill

As one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and the birthplace of the Beat generation, the history of North Beach and Telegraph Hill is as rich as the Italian pastries found in the numerous shops along Columbus Avenue.

Nob Hill

When the cable car started operating in 1873, this hill became the city’s exclusive residential area. Newly wealthy residents who had struck it rich in the gold rush and the railroad boom (and were known by names such as the “Big Four” and the “Bonanza kings”) built their mansions here, but they were almost all destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fire. The only two surviving buildings are the Flood Mansion, which serves today as the Pacific Union Club, and the Fairmont San Francisco, which was under construction when the earthquake struck and was damaged but not destroyed. Today, the sites of former mansions hold the city’s luxury hotels—the InterContinental Mark Hopkins, the Stanford Court, the Huntington Hotel, and spectacular Grace Cathedral, which stands on the Crocker mansion site. Nob Hill is worth a visit if only to stroll around delightful Huntington Park with its cherubic fountain (a copy of the Tartarughe fountain in Rome), attend a Sunday service at the cathedral, visit the Cable Car Museum, or ooh and ahh your way around the Fairmont’s spectacular lobby.

Chinatown

The first Chinese immigrants—fleeing famine and the Opium Wars—came to San Francisco in the early 1800s to work as laborers and seek a better life promised by the “Gold Mountain.” By 1851, 25,000 Chinese people were working in California, and most had settled in San Francisco’s Chinatown. For the majority, the reality of life in California did not live up to the promise. First employed as workers in the gold mines during the gold rush, they later built the railroads, working as little more than slaves and facing constant prejudice. Yet the community, segregated in the Chinatown ghetto, thrived. Growing prejudice led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which halted all Chinese immigration for 10 years and severely limited it thereafter. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943. Chinese people were also denied the opportunity to buy homes outside the Chinatown ghetto until the 1950s. Today, San Francisco’s Chinatown—the oldest in North America—is the largest outside of Asia. Although frequented by tourists, the area continues to cater to Chinese shoppers, who crowd the vegetable and herb markets, restaurants, and shops. Tradition runs deep here, and if you’re lucky, through an open window you might hear women mixing mah-jongg tiles as they play the centuries-old game. (Be warned: You’re likely to hear and see lots of spitting around here, too—it’s part of local tradition.)

With dragons at its base, the ornate, jade-roofed Chinatown Gate at Grant Avenue and Bush Street marks the entry to Chinatown. Red lanterns hang across the street and dragons slither up lampposts. The heart of the neighborhood is Portsmouth Square, where you’ll find locals playing board games or just sitting quietly. On the beautifully renovated Waverly Place, a street where the Chinese celebratory colors of red, yellow, and green are much in evidence, you’ll find three Chinese temples: Jeng Sen (Buddhist and Taoist) at no. 146, Tien Hou (Buddhist) at no. 125, and Norras (Buddhist) at no. 109. If you enter, do so quietly so that you do not disturb those in prayer. A block west of Grant Avenue, Stockton Street, from 1000 to 1200, is the community’s main shopping street, lined with grocers, fishmongers, tea sellers, herbalists, noodle parlors, and restaurants. Here, too, is the Buddhist Kong Chow Temple, at no. 855, above the Chinatown post office. Explore at your leisure. For a Chinatown walking tour, visit www.sanfranciscochinatown.com for more information.

Union Square

The square itself is in the city block bounded by Stockton, Post, Powell, and Geary streets. It’s San Francisco’s Rodeo Drive—blocks and blocks of some of the best hotels, restaurants, and shops to keep the serious connoisseur happy for days. When you tire of consuming, or your credit cards max out, grab a latte—or a glass of wine—at one of the cafes in the square; sit outside, relax, and people watch—the show is free, and always entertaining.

Mission District

This vibrant, cultural neighborhood gets its name from the oldest building in San Francisco, the haunting Mission Dolores. Once inhabited almost entirely by Irish immigrants, the Mission District has long been the center of the city’s Latino community. Although now they seem to be quickly being priced out by the young, well-to-do residents because the Mission, as gritty as it is, is by far the hippest place to live in San Francisco. It’s an oblong area stretching roughly from 14th to 30th streets between Potrero Avenue on the east and Dolores Avenue on the west. The heart of the Latin community lies along 24th Street between Van Ness and Potrero avenues, where dozens of excellent ethnic restaurants, bakeries, bars, and specialty stores attract people from all over the city. The area surrounding 16th Street and Valencia Street is a hotbed for impressive—and often impressively cheap—vintage stores, artisan coffee shops, and restaurants and bars catering to the city’s hipsters. While the area has been undergoing gentrification for years, the neighborhood can still be a little sketchy night, especially around BART stations located at 16th and 24th streets.

For insight into the community, visit Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center, 2981 24th St., between Harrison and Alabama streets (tel. 415/285-2287; www.precitaeyes.org;), to take the 2-hour tour (Sat–Sun at 1:30pm), where you’ll see a slide show covering the history of the murals that cover many walls in the area and the mural painting process. After the slide show, your guide will show you murals on a 6-block walk. Group tours are available during the week by appointment. The tour costs $20 adults, $10 seniors (65+) and college students, $6 youth (12–17), $3 under 12.

Another sign of cultural life in the neighborhood is the progressive Theatre Rhinoceros (www.therhino.org), in operation since 1977.

Civic Center

Filled with dramatic Beaux Arts buildings, showy open spaces, one of the best museums in the city, and a number of performing art venues, the Civic Center neighborhood has always made me think of a European city.

Russian Hill

This quiet residential area with stunning views of the bay is home to one of the best-known streets in the world.

This City's for the Birds!

If you're walking around San Francisco—especially Telegraph Hill or Russian Hill—and you suddenly hear lots of loud squawking and screeching overhead, look up. You're most likely witnessing a fly-by of the city's famous green flock of wild parrots. These are the scions of a colony and started out as a few wayward house pets—mostly cherry-headed Conures, which are indigenous to South America—who found each other, and bred. Years later, they've become hundreds strong, traveling in chatty packs through the city (with a few parakeets along for the ride), and stopping to rest on tree branches and delight residents who have come to consider them part of the family. To learn just how special these birds are to the city, read the book "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," or see the heartwarming movie of the same name.

Japantown

More than 12,000 citizens of Japanese descent (1.5% of the city’s population) live in San Francisco, or Soko, as the Japanese who first emigrated here often called it. After the earthquake in 1906, SoMa became a light industrial and warehouse area, and the largest Japanese concentration took root in the Western Addition between Van Ness Avenue and Fillmore Street, the site of today’s Japantown, now over 100 years old. By 1940, it covered 30 blocks. In 1913, the Alien Land Law was passed, depriving Japanese Americans of the right to buy land. From 1924 to 1952, the United States banned Japanese immigration. During World War II, the U.S. government froze Japanese bank accounts, interned community leaders, and removed 112,000 Japanese Americans—two-thirds of them citizens—to camps in California, Utah, and Idaho. Japantown was emptied of Japanese people, and war workers took their place. Upon their release in 1945, the Japanese found their old neighborhood occupied. Most of them resettled in the Richmond and Sunset districts; some returned to Japantown, but it had shrunk to a mere 6 or so blocks.

Today, the community’s notable sights include the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, 1881 Pine St. at Octavia Street (www.bcsfweb.org); the Konko-Kyo Church of San Francisco, 1909 Bush St. (at Laguna St.); the Sokoji–Soto Zen Buddhist Temple, 1691 Laguna St. (at Sutter St.); Nihonmachi Mall, 1700 block of Buchanan Street between Sutter and Post streets, which contains two steel fountains by Ruth Asawa; and the Japan Center a Japanese-oriented shopping mall occupying 3 square blocks bounded by Post, Geary, Laguna, and Fillmore streets. At its center stands the five-tiered Peace Pagoda, designed by world-famous Japanese architect Yoshiro Taniguchi “to convey the friendship and goodwill of the Japanese to the people of the United States.” Surrounding the pagoda, through a network of arcades, squares, and bridges, you can explore dozens of shops featuring everything from TVs and tansu chests to pearls, bonsai, and kimonos. Kabuki Springs & Spa is one of the center’s most famous tenants. But locals also head here for its numerous authentic restaurants, teahouses, shops, and the crazy-expensive Sundance multiplex movie theater. There is often live entertainment on summer weekends and during spring’s cherry blossom festival, including Japanese music and dance performances, tea ceremonies, flower-arranging demonstrations, martial-arts presentations, and other cultural events. The Japan Center (tel. 415/922-7765) is open daily from 10am to midnight, although most shops close much earlier. To get there, take bus no. 2, or 3 (exit at Buchanan and Sutter sts.) or no. 22 or 38 (exit at the northeast corner of Geary Blvd. and Fillmore St.). For a complete list of Japantown events, shops, and restaurants, go to www.japantown.org.

Haight–Ashbury

Few of San Francisco’s neighborhoods are as varied—or as famous—as Haight-Ashbury. Walk along Haight Street, and you’ll encounter everything from drug-dazed drifters begging for change to an armada of the city’s funky-trendy shops, clubs, and cafes. Turn anywhere off Haight, and instantly you’re among the clean-cut, young urban professionals who can afford the steep rents in this hip [’]hood. The result is an interesting mix of well-to-do professionals and well-screw-you aging flower children, former Dead-heads, homeless people, and throngs of tourists who try not to stare as they wander through this human zoo. Some find it depressing, others find it fascinating, but everyone agrees that it ain’t what it was in the free-lovin’ psychedelic Summer of Love. Is it still worth a visit? Not if you are here for a day or two, but it’s certainly worth an excursion on longer trips, if only to visit the trend-setting vintage clothing stores on the street.

The Castro

Castro Street, between Market and 18th streets, is the center of what is widely considered the world’s first, largest, and best-known gay community, as well as a lovely neighborhood teeming with shops, restaurants, bars, and other institutions that cater to the area’s colorful residents. Among the landmarks on Castro are Harvey Milk Plaza, The GLBT History Museum and the Castro Theatre (www.castrotheatre.com), a 1930s movie palace with a Wurlitzer organ.

The gay community began to move here in the late 1960s and early 1970s from a neighborhood called Polk Gulch, which still has a number of gay-oriented bars and stores. Castro is one of the liveliest streets in the city and the perfect place to shop for gifts and revel in free-spiritedness. Go to www.mycastro.com for local events, and www.castromerchants.com for a list of specialty shops. Also, check out www.sanfrancisco.gaycities.com, another resource for local gay bars, restaurants, and events. www.nighttours.com/sanfrancisco has an interactive map listing gay clubs, saunas, cruise bars and, cruising areas.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.