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Fisherman's Wharf

Once known as Meiggs’ Wharf and extending 200 feet farther out into the bay than it does now, the pier was built by developer Henry Meiggs as part of his get-rich-quick plan to draw business from the lumber shipping trade and further develop what is now North Beach. Unfortunately, Meiggs’ Wharf wasn’t built with the currents and tides in mind, and he soon discovered that most ships preferred to dock closer to shore, in calmer waters. To avoid financial ruin, Meiggs foolishly tried to steal from city funds and wound up fleeing to Chile in 1854 to escape arrest. In 1856, the Cobweb Palace Saloon Eatery opened at the foot of the wharf and fishing boats began docking close by, laden with delicious local Dungeness crab.

Today, Fisherman’s Wharf (fishermanswharf.org; tel. 415/674-7503; for parking info go to visitfishermanswharf.com/parking) is a lot more Disney than Steinbeck, as it has been for decades. Even with the crowds of 15-plus million annual tourists that visit (as well as longtime residents like me, who relish its kitschy fun and appreciate that it’s more “authentic” than most of the city), it’s a spot with plenty to do and see, along one of the city’s most 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 traditional waterfront life here; the primary draw of Fisherman’s Wharf is the sprawl of shops and entertainment venues stretching from Ghirardelli Square at the west end to Pier 39 at the east. Two marinas flanking Pier 39 house sightseeing ferry fleets, including the ferries to Alcatraz and Angel islands. The most famous residents of Fisherman’s Wharf are the hundreds of California sea lions that hang out, barking on the docks at Pier 39.

Perennially popular sights at the Wharf are the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum at 175 Jefferson St. (ripleys.com/sanfrancisco; tel. 415/202-9850) 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 Street: The San Francisco Dungeon (http://sanfrancisco.thedungeons.com; tel. 855/753-9999; see website for show times), where costumed character actors take visitors through 200 years of colorful San Francisco history; and Madame Tussauds (madametussauds.com/SanFrancisco; tel. 866/223-4240; daily 10am–9pm), the world-famous gallery of wax statues that features legends like Lady Gaga, Johnny Depp, Martin Luther King, Jr., and—get this—Mark Zuckerberg. While the wax museum is perfect for all ages, some 10-year-olds might find the Dungeon frightening, and parents may find some of its content inappropriate for children under 13. Check both websites for ticket prices, which include advance purchase discounts and combo packages if you visit both attractions.

Alongside these sorts of attractions, there are still some traces of old-school San Francisco character here to enjoy. In fact, now more than ever, as the rest of the city rapidly gentrifies, Fisherman’s Wharf’s bric-a-brac shops, restaurants, and overall vibe remain the same as they have been for decades. 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, or 47. Streetcar: E, 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 a somewhat desolate industrial corner of the city, SoMa is now the city’s cultural hub after decades of development. In successive waves, the area has seen the arrival of world-class museums and hotels, the dot-com startups in the 1990s, the Giants’ baseball stadium, and most recently, tech companies such as Twitter and luxury high rises such as Salesforce Tower. At its heart lies the Yerba Buena cultural complex, which takes up a few city blocks across the street from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the underground Moscone Convention Center lies beneath. SoMa is also home to the oldest public park in the city: the small but charming South Park (64 South Park Ave.).

FiDi (Financial District)

Bordering Union Square and South of Market, most of the area known as the Financial District is a sterile forest of concrete office buildings mingling with a few business-oriented hotels. Yet the area offers more than a sea of suits. Alongside a smattering of destination restaurants and some gorgeous historical landmarks like the Sentinel Building (916 Kearny St.) and the oddly stunning modern Transamerica Pyramid (600 Montgomery St.), the Financial District also offers the simple pleasure of walking down a corridor of bustling urbanity to the end of Market street, where it hits the Embarcadero right by the Ferry Building. Suddenly the sky opens up and you can get a wide panorama of the bay and the Bay Bridge—an opportunity to see the forest for the trees, so to speak.

North Beach/Telegraph Hill

As one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and the birthplace of the Beat generation, North Beach has a history as rich as the Italian pastries found in the numerous shops along Columbus Avenue. Take a stroll down Columbus and pop into one of the many cafes for espresso, biscotti, and people-watching, or find a bench in Washington Square and take in the scene. For a detailed walking tour of the neighborhood: https://www.frommers.com/destinations/san-francisco/walking-tours/walking-tour-2

Nob Hill

When the cable car started operating in 1873, this hill, previously known as California Hill, became the city’s most exclusive residential area, soon dubbed “Nob Hill” after the newly wealthy residents who’d struck it rich in the Gold Rush and the railroad boom. These tycoons built their mansions here, but the homes were almost all destroyed by San Francisco’s disastrous 1906 earthquake and fire. Today, the sites of former mansions hold the city’s grandest luxury hotels—the InterContinental Mark Hopkins, the Stanford Court, the Scarlet Huntington Hotel —while the spectacular Grace Cathedral occupies the former site of the Crocker mansion.

Although there are few formal attractions here, Nob Hill is well 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 (see below), or ooh and ahh your way around the Fairmont’s spectacular lobby. Nob Hill’s incredibly steep streets are also great for a workout—some are so steep, the sidewalks have steps!

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 their fortunes in America, or “Gold Mountain,” as they called it. By 1851, some 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. In spite of their challenges, this segregated community of mostly southern Chinese people thrived. Of necessity, however, they remained in this tight-knit neighborhood—Chinese people were unable to buy homes outside the Chinatown ghetto until the 1950s, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed and they began to face less prejudice.

Today, San Francisco’s Chinatown, bordered by Broadway, California, Kearny, and Powell streets, is the oldest in North America and the largest outside of Asia. Although frequented by tourists, the area continues to cater to local Chinese shoppers, who throng 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 mahjongg tiles as they play the centuries-old game. (Be warned: You’re likely to see lots of spitting around here, too—it’s part of the culture.)

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 practicing tai chi in the mornings, playing lively games of cards, 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. Explore at your leisure. For a Chinatown walking tour, visit sanfranciscochinatown.com for more information.

The Secret Life of Waverly Place: Ironically, temple-lined Waverly Place was also once the site of two infamous broth-els owned by Ah Toy, a Cantonese woman who arrived during the Gold Rush and became the first Chinese prostitute and madam in San Francisco. She lived from 1828 to 1928, ending her days in comfort and wealth in San Jose.

Union Square

Technically, Union Square is a landscaped plaza bounded by Stockton, Post, Powell, and Geary streets, but to the locals, the entire surrounding area is referred to as “Union Square.” It boasts one of the nation’s most concentrated collections of boutiques, department stores, flagship chain stores (imagine the largest Victoria’s Secret you’ve ever seen) and art galleries. 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 neighborhood gets its name from the oldest (standing) building in San Francisco, the haunting Mission Dolores. Once inhabited almost entirely by Polish and Irish immigrants, the area saw a large influx of Mexican immigrants beginning in the 1940s, when they were displaced from other parts of the city. In the 1960s, immigrants from Central America began to arrive, recognizing that the neighborhood was becoming a center for the Latino community. Today, however, many Latino families who’ve lived here for generations are being priced out by young tech workers who can afford higher rents. What draws them here? The Mission, as gritty as it is, has some of the best weather in this city of mini-climates and is by far the hippest place to live in San Francisco, alive at night with casual-chic restaurants, bars, and nightclubs that overflow onto the busy streets—especially on warmer evenings.

On the map, 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 Latino community still lies along 24th Street between South Van Ness and Potrero avenues, where dozens of excellent Mexican, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Guatemalan (and more!) 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 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, 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 (precitaeyes.org; tel. 415/285-2287), to take the 2-hour neighborhood tour (Sat and Sun at 1:30pm). You’ll start by watching 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 for kids under 12.

Alamo Square

San Francisco’s collection of Victorian houses, known as the Painted Ladies, is one of the city’s most famous assets. Most of the 14,000 extant structures—rare survivors of the 1906 earthquake—date from the second half of the 19th century and are private residences. Many have been beautifully restored and ornately painted. They are spread throughout the city, but one of the greatest concentrations of Painted Ladies are located in the small area bordered by Divisadero Street on the west, Golden Gate Avenue on the north, Webster Street on the east, and Fell Street on the south, about 10 blocks west of the Civic Center. One of the most famous views of San Francisco—seen on postcards and posters all around the city—depicts sharp-edged Financial District skyscrapers behind a row of Victorians. This fantastic juxtaposition can be seen from Alamo Square, in the center of the historic district, at Fulton and Steiner streets. A Victorian Homes Historical Walking Tour is a great way to stroll past, and learn about, more than 200 restored Victorian beauties.

Civic Center

The Civic Center is a study in contrast. While filled with dramatic Beaux Arts buildings, showy open spaces, one of the best museums in the city, and a number of performing arts venues, the neighborhood is also filled with homeless people, and it is sometimes necessary to step around panhandlers and makeshift shelters while en route to the area’s attractions.

Russian Hill

Despite the name, you won’t find babushkas peddling piroshki here, or even a sizeable Russian community. Many locals don’t know this, but the neighborhood got its name when settlers during the Gold Rush discovered a small Russian cemetery at the top of this hill. Apparently, Russian ships passing through San Francisco during the 1800s chose this spot to bury crew members who hadn’t survived the voyage. Today, this quiet residential area with stunning views of the bay and quaint neighborhood restaurants is most famous for being home to one of the best-known streets in the world.

Japantown

The first Japanese arrived in San Francisco, or Soko, as they called it, in the early 1860s. After the 1906 earthquake uprooted the Japanese community that had settled South of Market, they moved to the Western Addition neighborhood and began building churches, shrines, and businesses. By 1940, “Japantown” had grown to cover 30 blocks. Then came World War II. The U.S. government froze Japanese bank accounts and, in 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering the removal of 112,000 Japanese Americans—two-thirds of them legal U.S. citizens—to camps in California, Utah, and Idaho.

Upon their release in 1945, the Japanese returned to find their old neighborhood occupied. Most of them resettled in the Richmond and Sunset districts; some returned to Japantown, but it had shrunk to an area of around 10 blocks. It wasn’t until 1960 that today’s Japantown began to take shape, when the city razed the 3-square-block section that had been Japantown and sold the land to a Japanese corporation whose goal was to build a “Japan Center.”

Today, the community’s sights include the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, 1881 Pine St. at Octavia St.; 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.); the Nihonmachi Mall, on the 1700 block of Buchanan Street between Sutter and Post streets, which contains two steel fountains by renowned local artist and sculptor Ruth Asawa; and the above-mentioned Japan Center, a Japanese-oriented shopping mall. There is often live entertainment on summer weekends and during spring’s Cherry Blossom Festival—Japanese music and dance performances, tea ceremonies, flower-arranging demonstrations, martial-arts presentations, and other cultural events.

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 funky-trendy shops, clubs, and cafes. Turn anywhere off Haight, and instantly you’re among the clean-cut, young urban families 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 Deadheads, 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 only here for a day or two, but it’s certainly worth an excursion on longer trips, if only to visit the trend-setting vintage and absolutely wild clothing stores on the street, where the “burners” go to get their outfits before they set off on the famous annual desert festival of arts, music, and free expression that is Burning Man.

The Castro

Castro Street, between Market and 18th streets, is the center of what is widely considered the world’s largest and best-known gay community. It’s a lovely neighborhood teeming with shops, restaurants, bars, and other institutions that cater to the area’s colorful residents. The Castro’s landmarks include Harvey Milk Plaza (at the intersection of Castro and Market streets), The GLBT History Museum and the Castro Theatre (429 Castro St.; castrotheatre.com), a 1930s movie palace with a Wurlitzer organ that hosts sing-a-longs to old musical favorites like The Sound of Music.

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 bars. The main drag (so to speak), Castro Street, is one of the liveliest streets in the city and the perfect place to shop for gifts and revel in free-spiritedness. Go to mycastro.com for local events and castromerchants.com for a list of specialty shops. Also, check out sanfrancisco.gaycities.com, another resource for local gay bars, restaurants, and events.

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.