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.
Alcatraz Island - If you can only take one tour in San Francisco, make it Alcatraz. Probably the most famous prison in America, if not the world, this was where the worst of the worst criminals were marooned to suffer and freeze. The building has barely changed from its days as a “grey-bar hotel.” It’s like stepping into the past.
In 1775, Juan Manuel Ayala was the first European to set foot on the island, naming it after the many alcatraces, or pelicans, that nested here. From the 1850s to 1933, Alcatraz became the site of a U.S. Army fortress and prison. Then, in 1934, the federal government converted the buildings of the military outpost into a maximum-security civilian penitentiary. It soon became known as one of the roughest places in history to be incarcerated. Inmates suffered psychologically and emotionally. The wind howled through the windows, the concrete was chilly and dank, and everything good and right in the world seemed an unreachable distance away. Worst of all, given the island’s sheer cliffs, treacherous tides and currents, and frigid water temperatures, it was believed to be totally escape-proof.
Over the next 30 years, among the famous gangsters who occupied cellblocks A through D were Al Capone; Machine Gun Kelly; Robert Stroud, the so-called Birdman of Alcatraz (an expert in ornithological diseases); and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, a member of Ma Barker’s gang. It cost a fortune to keep them imprisoned there, however, because all supplies, including water, had to be shipped in. In 1963, after an apparent escape in which no bodies were recovered, the federal government decided to close the prison. The prison complex moldered, abandoned, until 1969, when a group of Native Americans chartered a boat to the island and symbolically reclaimed Alcatraz Island for “Indians of All Tribes.” They occupied the island until 1971—the longest occupation of a federal facility by Native Americans to this day—but eventually were forcibly removed by the government. (See www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/timeline/520.html for more information on the Native American occupation of Alcatraz.) The next year the island was given over to the National Park Service, natural habitats were restored, and the wildlife that had been driven away during the prison years began to return. Today, you can see black-crested night herons and other seabirds here on a trail along the island’s perimeter.
Admission to the island includes a fascinating audio tour, “Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour,” narrated by actual former convicts, who are less grizzled than you might guess. Don’t be shy about pausing the recording with the stop button—otherwise it rushes you along a bit too quickly. And don’t be afraid to break away after your first pass through Broadway (the main corridor) so that you can explore the recreation yard. Wear comfortable shoes (the National Park Service notes that there are a lot of hills to climb) and be sure to wear plenty of warm layers, because even when the sun’s out, it’s cold and windy on Alcatraz. Although there is a beverage-and-snack bar on the ferry, the options are limited and expensive; you might want to bring your own snacks for the boat. Only water is allowed to be carried onto the island.
Note: The excursion to Alcatraz is very popular and space is limited, so purchase tickets as far in advance as possible (up to 90 days) via the Alcatraz Cruises website at alcatrazcruises.com. You can also purchase tickets in person at the Hornblower Alcatraz Landing ticket office at Pier 33. The first departure, called the “Early Bird,” leaves at 8:45am, and ferries depart about every half-hour afterward until 4pm. For a wonderfully spooky experience, try one of the night tours, or if you’re looking for the extreme Alcatraz experience, take the 5-hour “Behind the Scenes” tour, which lets you explore areas previously closed to the public.
Pier 33, Alcatraz Landing near Fisherman’s Wharf. alcatrazcruises.com. tel. 415/981-7625. Admission (includes ferry trip and audio tour) $37 ages 12–61, $35 seniors 62+, $23 children 5–11, free for kids 4 and under; family package (2 adults, 2 kids ages 5–11) $113 (must be purchased in person or by phone, not available for night tour). Night and special tour prices slightly higher. Arrive at least 20 min. before departure time. Streetcar: E/F. Cable car: Powell-Mason.
Aquarium of the Bay - While this nonprofit aquarium is pricy and fairly small, it does provide a pleasant change of pace from the noise and crowds of the bustling streets outside, and knowing that you’ll be helping to fund its conservation work and sustainable practices may make paying the ticket price a bit less painful. With over 20,000 sea creatures swimming about, you’ll see the usual eels, octopuses, and jellyfish; you can pat bat rays and leopard sharks at the touch pool, or check out the otter exhibit. The highlight for most kids, aside from getting to touch the sea stars and rays, is the conveyor-belt floor that moves you along a clear tube through a 700,000-gallon tank while sharks, rays, and all sorts of fish swim beside you and over your head. If you buy your tickets online, you’ll save a few bucks.
Pier 39, the Embarcadero at Beach St. aquariumofthebay.org. tel. 415/623-5300. Aquarium admission $25 adults, $20 seniors 65+, $15 children 4–12, free for kids 3 and under; family package (2 adults, 2 kids) $70. Behind-the-scenes and feed-the-sharks tours for an additional fee. Open daily; hours vary but generally 10am–7pm. Closed Christmas. Parking: Pier 39 Garage across the street. Bus: 8X, 39, or 47. Streetcar: E/F. Cable car: Powell-Mason.
Boudin at the Wharf - After more than 30 years of being simply a bread shop in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf, Boudin Bakery super-sized into this swank, 26,000-square-foot flagship baking emporium, creating a place to eat and learn. Nearly half a block long, it houses a demonstration bakery, museum, gourmet marketplace, cafe, espresso bar, and restaurant. You can see the bakery by taking a free, self-guided tour (call ahead to make sure there are no special events happening that might close the tour). The Boudin family has been baking sourdough French bread in San Francisco since the gold rush, using the same simple recipe and original “mother dough” for more than 150 years. About 3,000 loaves a day are baked within the glass-walled bakery. Visitors can watch the entire process from a 30-foot observation window along Jefferson Street or from a catwalk suspended directly over the bakery (which is fun). You’ll smell it before you see it: The heavenly aroma emanating from the bread ovens is purposely blasted out onto the sidewalk.
160 Jefferson St. (btw. Taylor and Mason sts.). boudinbakery.com. tel. 415/351-5561. Tours daily 11:30am–9pm. Bus: 19, 30, or 47. Streetcar: E/F. Cable car: Powell–Mason.
Ghirardelli Square - This National Historic Landmark property dates from 1864, when it served as a factory making Civil War uniforms, but it’s best known as the former chocolate and spice factory of Domingo Ghirardelli (pronounced Gear-ar-dell-y), who purchased it in 1893. The factory has since been converted into a three-level mall containing 30-plus stores and five dining establishments. Street performers entertain regularly in the West Plaza and fountain area. Incidentally, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company still makes chocolate, although its factory now is on the other side of the bay. Still, if you have a sweet tooth, you won’t be disappointed by the company’s fantastic (and very expensive) old-fashioned soda fountain here at the mall; their “world famous” hot-fudge sundae is good, too.
900 North Point St. (btw. Polk and Larkin streets.). www.ghirardellisq.com. Stores generally open daily 10am–9pm in summer; rest of year Sun–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat 10am–9pm. Ghirardelli chocolate store and ice cream parlor: tel. 415/474-3938; Sun–Thurs 10am–11pm, Fri–Sat 10am–midnight. Bus: 19, 30, or 47. Streetcar: E/F. Cable car: Powell–Hyde.
Musée Mechanique - Less of a traditional museum and more a source of classic interactive amusement, this old-fashioned penny arcade (with some modern video games thrown in for good measure) has been one of my favorite places to go since I was a child. Once located at the Cliff House, this mechanical-minded warehouse of more than 200 antique, coin-operated penny arcade diversions is guaranteed fun. Because it’s located among the pap of the Wharf, it’s easy to confuse this one as a tourist trap, but in fact, the lack of an admission fee (you’ll part only with whatever change you deposit into the machines of your choice) prove that’s not the case.
Most of the machines require a few quarters to reveal their Coney Island–era thrills, and almost all of the machines are representatives of a form of mechanical artistry rarely found in working condition anywhere. My favorite machines are the Opium Den, a morality tale in which a diorama of smoking layabouts comes alive with serpents and demons, and the Bimbo Box, in which seven monkey puppets respond to your loose change by playing “Tijuana Taxi.” There are also newer, yet still classic arcade games, like Whack-a-Mole. But the standout machine is creepy old Laffing Sal, a funhouse figure that roars with laughter (and horrifies small children) upon the dropping of a coin. Don’t miss the photo booths, which produce the old-fashioned, quality black-and-white shots that make everyone look good.
Ensuring that guests have as much fun now as they did in the 1930s, when a guy named George Whitney was his generation’s leading impresario of cheap entertainment, descendent Daniel Zelinsky—a true aficionado of such amusements—can be found on hand every day but Tuesday, repairing and polishing his beloved machines; he wears a badge reading “I work here.”
Pier 45 at Taylor Street. museemecaniquesf.com. tel. 415/346-2000. Free admission. Open daily 10am–8pm. Bus: 19, 30, or 47. Streetcar: E/F. Cable car: Powell–Hyde.
Pier 39 - Anchoring the eastern boundary of Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 is a multilevel waterfront complex constructed on an abandoned cargo pier. It is, ostensibly, a re-creation of a turn-of-the-20th-century street scene, but don’t expect a slice of old-time maritime life here: Today, Pier 39 is a bustling mall welcoming millions of visitors per year. Still, don’t let that put you off; touristy as it is, Pier 39 is a lot of fun and offers something for everyone. You will find more than 50 stores (personal favorites include Lefty’s, where you can buy things like left-handed scissors and coffee cups; Krazy Kaps, where more people spend time trying on ridiculous hats than actually buying them; and Candy Baron, which offers barrels and barrels of candy, with adult-themed candy hidden at the back right), as well as 13 full-service restaurants, a two-tiered Venetian carousel, bungee jumping, the Aquarium of the Bay, Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze, and a stage for street performers who juggle, ride unicycles, and tell corny jokes. Kids love Trish’s Mini Donuts, where you can put your nose on the glass and watch a machine drop blobs of batter into boiling oil and make tiny, fat, sugar-powdered rings.
Best of all, Pier 39 has the California sea lions. Decades ago, hundreds of them took up residence on the floating docks, attracted by herring (and free lodging). They can be seen most days sunbathing, barking, and belching in the marina—some nights you can hear them all the way from Washington Square. Weather permitting, naturalists from Aquarium of the Bay offer educational talks at Pier 39 daily from 11am to 4pm (Memorial Day through mid-October) that teach visitors about the range, habitat, and adaptability of the California sea lion.
Pier 39 - is the place that some locals love to hate (present company excluded), but kids adore it. Considering that Fisherman’s Wharf, including Pier 39, is rated one of the top tourist attractions in the world, my advice to you is: Don’t listen to the naysayers. Go check it out for yourself, and grab a bag of donuts.
On the waterfront at the Embarcadero and Beach St. pier39.com. tel. 415/705-5500. Shops daily 10am–9pm, with extended summer/weekend hours. Restaurant hours vary. Parking: Pier 39 Garage across the street (1 hr. parking free with validation for diners at full-service Pier 39 restaurants). Bus: 8X, 39, or 47. Streetcar: E/F. Cable car: Powell-Mason.
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park - Since 1962, the Hyde Street Pier has been lined with one of the world’s best collections of rare working boats, maintained by the National Park Service’s San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. They include the Glasgow-built Balclutha, a gorgeous 1886 three-masted sailing ship that, most famously, appeared in the classic Clark Gable movie Mutiny on the Bounty; the Eureka, an 1890 paddlewheel ferryboat that was once the largest of its kind on earth; the Hercules, a 1907 tugboat that worked towing logs up the West Coast; and the lumber schooner C.A. Thayer from 1895. The Alma, built in 1891, was once one of many schooners that plied the waterways of the Bay Area; today, it’s the only one left.
Although it’s free to admire the boats from the dock, $10 will get you aboard the Balclutha, the Eureka, and the Hercules as much as you want for a week (National Park Service annual passes also get you on for free). All of the vessels are designated National Historic Landmarks and it’s worth seeing them—particularly the Balclutha, a 300-foot square-rigger cargo ship that moved goods like grain and coal between San Francisco, England, and New Zealand from 1886 to 1939. Especially interesting are the tiny crew bunkbeds up front, compared to the lavish captain’s quarters farther back. In 1899, the wife of Balclutha’s Captain Durkee gave birth to a baby girl while aboard the ship; they named her India Frances as they were sailing between India and San Francisco at the time. For more tidbits of history, use your cell phone as an audio guide by dialing tel.415/294-6754 and entering one of the 28 tour codes found at nps.gov/safr; click “Plan Your Visit,” “Things To Do,” and then “Cell Phone Audio Tour.”
Before heading to the boats, be sure to pop into the park’s signature Maritime Museum, technically the Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building, on Beach Street at Polk Street. Shaped like an Art Deco ship, it’s filled with seafaring memorabilia, and entry is free. Check out the maritime murals. Next stop is the Visitor Center (also free) at Hyde and Jefferson Streets, where you can look at “The Waterfront,” a surprisingly impressive, informative, and interactive exhibit about San Francisco’s waterfront history, including a map and photos of some of the literally dozens of ships buried beneath the wharf and parts of the financial district. Even if you don’t usually like history museums, you’ll find this one compelling and so will your kids; allow a good 40 minutes to explore.
Visitor Center: Hyde and Jefferson sts. nps.gov/safr. tel. 415/447-5000. Admission free. Tickets to board ships $10, free for children 15 and under. Daily 9:30am–5pm. Maritime Museum: Polk and Beach sts. [tel] 415/561-7100. Admission free. Daily 10am–4pm. Park open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Bus: 19, 30, or 47. Streetcar: E/F. Cable car: Powell–Hyde.
USS Pampanito - This sub has been through a lot—it sank six Japanese ships during four tours of the Pacific in World War II. The vessel has been painstakingly restored to its 1945 condition by admirers, who also run a smart, war-themed gift shop on the dock alongside. Tours inside the sub are available (though not recommended for the claustrophobic). She’s still seaworthy, although sadly, the last time she was taken out into the ocean was to film the abysmal 1996 Kelsey Grammer film, Down Periscope. How glory fades . . .
Pier 45, Fisherman’s Wharf. maritime.org. tel. 415/775-1943. Adults $20, seniors 62+ and students $12, children 6–12 $10, free for ages 5 and under. Open daily at 9am; call for seasonal times. Bus: 19, 30, or 47. Streetcar: E/F. Cable car: Powell–Hyde.
SoMa (South of Market)
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.).
The Bay Lights - If you stand at the waterfront anywhere along the Embarcadero, your natural tendency will be to look left, toward our beautiful Golden Gate Bridge. If it’s after sunset, however, look right—at the much-less-fussed-over Bay Bridge that connects San Francisco to Oakland and Berkeley. To celebrate 75 years of connecting San Francisco to the East Bay, artist Leo Villareal was commissioned to cover the bridge with the world’s largest LED-light sculpture, creating a light spectacle that appears to dance on the bridge’s cables. Now a permanent installation, it’s a sight that perfectly showcases San Francisco’s blend of art and technology.
Nightly dusk–2am. thebaylights.org.
Children’s Creativity Museum - In Yerba Buena Gardens you’ll find this innovative, hands-on multimedia, arts, and technology museum for children of all ages. Kids howl tunes to the karaoke machine and make art projects from boxes and scraps of material. One of the most popular stations is the Claymation area where visitors make clay figures and learn all about stop-motion animation by making a quick movie, Wallace and Gromit–style. Next door is the fabulous 1906 carousel that once graced the city’s bygone oceanside amusement park, Playland-at-the-Beach; there’s also a Children’s Garden, a cafe, and a fun store.
221 Fourth St. (at Howard St.). creativity.org. tel. 415/820-3320. Admission $13; free for ages 2 and under. Tues–Sun 10am–4pm. Carousel: Daily 10am–5pm; $4 per ride ($3 with paid museum admission). Bus: 14, 30, or 45. Streetcar: F. BART: Powell St. or Montgomery St.
Contemporary Jewish Museum - Set in the heart of the Yerba Buena cultural hub, this museum is dedicated to the celebration of L’Chaim (“To Life”). Inside, under the skylights and soaring ceilings designed by celebrated architect Daniel Libeskind, are displays of art, music, film, and literature that celebrate Jewish culture, history, and ideas. Past exhibit subjects have been as varied as Curious George, Gertrude Stein, and Allen Ginsberg. When you’re ready for a culture break, nosh on bagels and lox, matzo ball soup, or pastrami on rye at the on-site Wise Sons Jewish Deli.
736 Mission St. (btw. Third and Fourth sts.). thecjm.org. tel. 415/655-7800. Adults $14, seniors/students $12, ages 18 and under free. $5 for all Thurs after 5pm; free 1st Tues of the month. Mon–Tues 11am–5pm, Weds closed, Thurs 11am–8pm, Fri–Sun 11am–5pm. Closed Passover, July 4, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day. Bus: 5, 9, 14, 15, 30, or 45. Streetcar: F. BART: Powell St. or Montgomery St.
Pier 24 Photography - At over 90,000 square feet, this former warehouse-turned-museum is one of the largest galleries in the world devoted exclusively to photography and video. But even with this amount of space, the main worry here seems to be that it will get too crowded. So, in an eccentric move (hey, this is San Francisco, after all), the Pilara Foundation, which owns the institution, allows only 30 people in at a time. That means you must make advance reservations online (entry is free), but these exhibits tend to be so dazzling that the advance planning is worth it. In the past, they’ve featured iconic works by Diane Arbus, Man Ray, and Walker Evans—though you might never know those were the photographers: In an attempt to make the viewers’ experience of the art more immediate and unfettered, the gallery posts no wall text whatsoever. Instead, viewers can borrow a loosely organized gallery guide to lead them through the mazelike space. It’s rather like an art scavenger hunt.
At Pier 24 (near Harrison St. and the Embarcadero). pier24.org. tel. 415/512-7424. Admission free, advance reservations required. Mon–Fri 9am–5:15pm. Streetcar: E.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) - I’ll be honest: Until now, I was disappointed in our MOMA. Small, with cramped museum spaces and a design that seemed more about itself than about showcasing art, it wasn’t world-class enough for a destination city. But in 2016, after a 3-year closure for renovation and expansion, SFMOMA is a positively spectacular museum. It begins with 45,000 square feet of art-filled public space, all free of charge. But pay the (admittedly steep) entry fee, and you’ll be able to explore a maze of rooms and floors featuring ongoing, temporary, and showcase exhibitions. You’ll typically find at least one multimedia or experiential exhibit. Adults and children alike will enjoy PlaySFMOMA, a museum initiative supporting the creation of artist-made games—recent examples range from a pop-up virtual reality arcade to experimental art games and an art game laboratory. As in the past, the gift shop holds finds worth buying, but the cafe has taken a turn for the better, transformed into a ground-level Manhattan-chic lounge with a menu designed by chef Cory Lee of nearby Benu ★★ (see p. ###), plus a light-washed upstairs restaurant that reminds me of the dining room at NYC’s MOMA—and that’s a good thing.
151 Third St. (across from Yerba Buena Gardens). sfmoma.org. tel. 415/357-4000. Adults $25, seniors 65+ $22, ages 19–24 (with ID) $19, 18 and under free. Thurs 10am–9pm, Fri–Tues 10am–5pm, closed Wed. Bus: 14, 30, or 45. Streetcar: F. BART: Powell or Montgomery.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts -The YBCA, which opened in 1993, anchors the sprawling Yerba Buena complex, with two buildings that offer music, theater, dance, and visual arts programs and shows. It’s a bit of an architectural showpiece in its own right as well: James Stewart Polshek designed the 755-seat theater, and Fumihiko Maki designed the Galleries and Arts Forum, which features three galleries and a space designed especially for dance. Exhibits range from architecture to activism as well as traveling versions of shows for other museums. Tip: For the cost of viewing YBCA’s curated monthly series of video or film screenings—mostly experimental film and documentaries—you can get into YBCA’s galleries for free.
701 Mission St. www.ybca.org. tel. 415/978-2700. Gallery admission $10 adults; $8 seniors, teachers, and students; free ages 5 and under. Free to all 1st Tues of month. Tues–Sun 11am–6pm, Thurs open until 8pm; closed Mon and major holidays. Contact YBCA for times and admission to theater. Bus: 14, 30, or 45. Streetcar: F. BART: Powell St.
Yerba Buena Gardens - This 5-acre patch of grass and gardens is the centerpiece of Yerba Buena’s cultural activity, and a great place to relax in the grass on a sunny day. The most dramatic outdoor piece is an emotional mixed-media memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. Created by sculptor Houston Conwill, poet Estella Majozo, and architect Joseph De Pace, it features 12 panels, each inscribed with quotations from King, sheltered behind a 50-foot-high waterfall. There are also several individual garden areas, including a Butterfly Garden, the Sister Cities Garden (highlighting flowers from the city’s 13 sister cities), and the East Garden, blending Eastern and Western styles. Don’t miss the view from the upper terrace, where old and new San Francisco come together in a clash of styles that’s fascinating. May through October, Yerba Buena Arts & Events puts on a series of free outdoor festivals featuring dance, music, poetry, and more by local musicians and performers.
Bounded by Mission, Folsom, Third, and Fourth sts. yerbabuenagardens.com. Admission free. Daily 6am–10pm. Contact Yerba Buena Arts & Events, tel. 415/543-1718 or ybgf.org, for details about free outdoor festivals. Bus: 14, 30, or 45. Streetcar: F. BART: Powell St.
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.
The Exploratorium - Relocated in 2013 to hip concrete-and-glass digs on Pier 15, the “world’s greatest science museum”—according to Scientific American magazine—is cooler than ever, though it’s also annoyingly crowded. This hands-on museum is all about demonstrating scientific concepts in such a sneaky way that kids think they’re just playing. They learn about the properties of motion by swinging a pendulum through sand or watch a chicken’s heart beating through a microscope focused on an egg yolk. (Warning: That exhibit may put them off scrambled eggs.) With myriad rooms loaded with things to play with, you can spend an entire afternoon here—and may want to plan on it, since you’ll likely need to wait your turn to play with bubbles or discover how sound travels.
If anyone needs to refuel, there’s the Seismic Joint Café for grab-and-go fare or the Seaglass Restaurant if you’re in the mood to sit down and enjoy a meal. Also, if you’re looking for something unique to do at night, there’s an adults-only event every Thursday evening. My favorite is Pairings nights (every second Thursday of the month), when the focus is all about science and food.
Pier 15 (on the Embarcadero). exploratorium.edu. tel. 415/528-4444. Adults $30, seniors/students/visitors with disabilities $25, ages 4–12 $20, free for ages 3 and under. Sat–Thurs 10am–5pm, Thurs also open 6–10pm (for 18+), Fri 10am–9pm. (Some shorter hours in winter.) Parking across the street $10 per hour. Streetcar: F.
Ferry Building Marketplace - Completed in 1898, the Ferry Building was, in its heyday, a travel hub serving as many as 50,000 people a day. After the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge opened in the late 1930s, however, cars quickly replaced ferries as the preferred mode of transport. It would take until 2003 for the building and its iconic clock tower be opened to the public once more, after a four-year renovation that reimagined its ground floor as an epicurean marketplace. Conveniently located at the foot of Market Street, this shrine to gourmet living features shops and restaurants and high-end take-out eateries run by popular local food vendors. Fresh-baked bread, exotic mushrooms, fancy chocolates, killer hamburgers, and the best Vietnamese fast food you’ll ever have—it’s all here. A thrice-weekly farmers’ market (Tues and Thurs 10am–2pm; Sat 8am–2pm) surrounding the building is one of the city’s best local scenes, where everyone from chefs to hungry diners converge to load up on fresh produce for the week, not to mention indulging in everything from Korean tacos to Arab street food to freshly made pies and pastries.
Ferry Bldg., the Embarcadero (at Market St.). ferrybuildingmarketplace.com. tel. 415/983-8030. Most stores daily 10am–6pm; restaurant hours vary. Bus: 2, 12, 14, 21, 66, or 71. Streetcar: F. BART: Embarcadero.
Wells Fargo History Museum - Far from being just a corporate PR site, the Wells Fargo Museum paints a surprisingly vivid portrait of early California life by using the company’s once-vital stagecoaches as a centerpiece. For generations, the Wells Fargo wagon was the West Coast’s primary lifeline; if you didn’t want to or couldn’t afford to use it (a ticket from Omaha to Sacramento was $300), then you’d be forced to take a long boat trip around Cape Horn. The curators have done a good job of bringing this past to life. You’ll read biographies of some of the grizzled drivers of the 1800s, pore over old advertisements, climb aboard a nine-seat wagon, read a reproduction of a “mug book” of highway robbers from the 1870s, and even follow a sort of “CSI: Stagecoach” re-creation, investigating how the company would catch thieves after the fact. Especially after recent financial scandals, Wells Fargo has lost a lot of its cachet in American culture; the Western theme that so fascinated kids in the 1950s faded long ago. This well-assembled, two-story museum (budget about 45 min. to see it all) helps restore some of that magic. There’s a free audio tour, too, although the signage is so thorough you won’t need it.
420 Montgomery St. (at California St.). wellsfargohistory.com. tel. 415/396-2619. Admission free. Mon–Fri 9am–5pm. Closed bank holidays. Streetcar: F. Cable car: California St. BART: Montgomery St.
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.
Coit Tower - In a city known for its great views and vantage points, Coit Tower is one of the best. Located atop Telegraph Hill, just east of North Beach, the round stone tower offers panoramic views of the city and the bay. Completed in 1933, the tower is the legacy of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy eccentric who left San Francisco a $125,000 bequest “for the purpose of adding beauty to the city I have always loved.” Though many believe the tower is a fire hose–shaped homage to San Francisco firefighters (Coit had been saved from a fire as a child and became a lifelong fan and mascot for Knickerbocker Engine Co. #5), the tower is merely an expression of Coit’s esteem; an official memorial to firefighters lies down below in Washington Square Park. Inside the base of the tower are impressive and slightly controversial (by 1930s standards) murals entitled “Life in California” and “1934,” which were completed under the Depression-era Public Works of Art Project. Depicting California agriculture, industry, and even the state’s leftist leanings (check out the socialist references in the library and on the newsstands), the murals are the collaborative effort of more than 25 artists, many of whom had studied under Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. The only bummer: The narrow street leading to the tower is often clogged with tourist traffic. If you can, find a parking spot in North Beach and hoof it. The Filbert and Greenwich steps leading up to Telegraph Hill are one of the most beautiful walks in the city.
Telegraph Hill. tel. 415/362-0808. Admission free; elevator ride to top $9 adults, $5.50 seniors/ youth 12–17, $2.25 children 5–11 (discounted prices for SF residents). Daily 10am–6pm. Closes 5pm in winter. Closed major holidays. Bus: 39.
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. (See “The Big Four and the “Bonanza Kings”. 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!
The big four and the bonanza kings - Nob Hill earned its nickname in the late 19th century when millionaire businessmen raced to see who could build the largest, most lavish mansion atop this high ground. Sadly, their fortunes could not protect them from the devastation of the great 1906 earthquake, when most of those showplaces were destroyed. Their legacy, however, lives on.
A powerful quartet known as “The Big Four”—Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker—was also called The Central Pacific Railroad group after the railroad they financed, running from the Mississippi River all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
The first to build on Nob Hill was limelight-loving Leland Stanford, president of the group, who also served as governor of California and as a U.S. Senator. At one point, he could brag his mansion had the largest private dining room in the West, and it’s on this site that you’ll find the Stanford Court Hotel. His name lives on elsewhere, too: After his 15-year-old son passed away, Stanford converted his horse farm in Palo Alto into a university named for the boy, and now Stanford University is a world-famous institution widely considered the Harvard of the West.
While Stanford loved to spend money, Mark Hopkins, the group’s treasurer, was much more frugal; he was happy living in small, rented quarters on Sutter Street, but his social-climber wife had other ideas. At a cost of $3 million, she commissioned a Gothic-style wooden fairytale castle, complete with towers and spires. Hopkins died just before it was completed and his wife lived there only a few years before moving to the East Coast. On the castle’s site today is the InterContinental Mark Hopkins.
Known for his ruthlessness, Collis P. Huntington spent time behind the scenes greasing palms and lobbying politicians for favorable treatment of the group’s interests. The site of his mansion is now Huntington Park (at California and Taylor sts.). The last of the Big Four, Charles Crocker was the group’s construction supervisor, which makes it ironic that he unwisely chose to build his mansion out of wood. After the 1906 fire, the Crocker family donated the entire city block where their home once stood to the Episcopal church, which built the beautiful Grace Cathedral on the site.
While the Big Four made history, the Bonanza Kings—four Irish buddies who made their fortunes from a silver mine in Nevada—were much wealthier at the time, although their names have since faded from popular memory. John William Mackay and William S. O’Brien left little mark on San Francisco, but the mansion of partner James C. Flood can still be seen today at 1000 California St. on top of Nob Hill as home to the private Pacific-Union Club. Because it was built using Connecticut sandstone, it was one of the few structures in the area to survive the 1906 earthquake and fires. You can’t go inside, but you can see the facade and admire the original bronze fence, which still exists on three sides of the property.
The last Bonanza King partner, James Fair, died before he could build his mansion on Nob Hill. His daughters, Tessie and Virginia, decided to build a hotel to honor their father, but they got in a little over their heads financially and had to sell it to the Law brothers. The property changed hands on April 6, 1906, less than 2 weeks before the great quake. The hotel burned, but the bit of the structure that survived was completely rebuilt with the help of architect Julia Morgan of Hearst Castle fame, and reopened in 1907, exactly 1 year after the quake, as the Fairmont San Francisco.
Cable Car Museum - This museum doesn’t just offer an inside look at the inner machinations of the cable car system, it is the hub of the entire actual operating system, with four mighty winding machines working the underground cables that propel the entire system. If there’s a cable break, this is where engineers splice it back together using some seriously medieval-looking implements. From decks overlooking the roaring machines, you’ll see the cables shoot in from the streets, wind around huge wheels, and disappear back underground to carry more tourists up the city hills. You’ll learn how the whole system works, plus get a look at the gripping mechanism that every car extends below the street level. I find it remarkable to think that nearly every larger American city once had systems just like this, but now only San Francisco maintains this antique but highly functional technology.
Don’t miss the chance to go downstairs, under the entrance to the building, where, in the darkness, you can peer at the whirring 8-foot sheaves that hoist in the cables from their various journeys around the city. Now and then, a real cable car will stall as it attempts to navigate the intersection outside, where drivers have to let go of one cable and snag another, and a worker will have to drive out in a cart and give it a nudge.
1201 Mason St. (at Washington St.). cablecarmuseum.org. tel. 415/474-1887. Admission free. Apr–Oct daily 10am–6pm; Nov–Mar daily 10am–5pm. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Cable car: Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde.
Grace Cathedral - Although this French Gothic cathedral, the third-largest Episcopal cathedral in the nation, appears to be made of stone, it is in fact constructed of reinforced concrete beaten to achieve a stone-like effect. Construction began on the site of railroad magnate Charles Crocker’s ruined mansion in 1927, but work was stalled during the Great Depression and not completed until 1964. Grace Cathedral offers a veritable feast for the eyes; its iconic faceted rose window is only one of 68 stained glass windows, which include such unexpected subjects as Albert Einstein and John Glenn. Adults and children alike will enjoy walking the cathedral’s labyrinths; there is one outside and a larger one just inside the cathedral. If you want to dive in and learn more about Grace, take the Grace Cathedral Grand Tour (90 min.; $25) or take a shorter, free, docent-led tour. There’s also a free cellphone app, GraceGuide.
Where Grace really stands out is in the compassion of its congregation, in no finer display than in the Interfaith AIDS Memorial Chapel that’s located to the right as you enter. Two weeks before his own death from the disease in 1990, pop artist Keith Haring completed a triptych altarpiece called The Life of Christ. The final 600-pound work in bronze and white gold patina sits in the chapel’s place of honor.
Along with its unique ambience, Grace lifts spirits with services, musical performances (including organ recitals and evensong, or evening prayer, Thursdays and Sundays). It’s a lovely place to pray, meditate, or simply look at the beautiful building, and its doors are open every day to everyone.
1100 California St. (btw. Taylor and Jones sts.). gracecathedral.org. tel. 415/749-6300. Bus: 1 or 27. Cable Car: California St.
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 brothels 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.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory - Not much has changed at this tiny Chinatown storefront since it opened in 1963. Workers sit at a conveyer belt, folding messages into thousands of fortune cookies—20,000 a day—as tourists line up to watch the cookies being made and buy a bag of 40 for about $3. You can purchase regular fortunes, unfolded flat cookies without fortunes, or, if you bring your own fortunes, they can create custom cookies.
56 Ross Alley. tel. 415/781-3956. Admission free. Daily 9am–6:45pm. Photos 50. Bus: 8, 30, 45. Cable car: Powell-Mason.
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.
Glide Memorial United Methodist Church - Back in the 1960s, Glide Memorial’s now legendary pastor, Texas-born Cecil Williams, took over this downtown church and began his famed, 90-minute “celebration” services, preaching diversity, compassion, brotherhood, and acceptance. Williams has since retired the pastorship but he is sometimes on hand anyway, like a kindly high school principal. He’s a solid American institution, counting Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones among his fans, and having appeared as himself in the Will Smith movie The Pursuit of Happyness. His wife, Janice Mirikitani, San Francisco’s second Poet Laureate, has also been working at the church since 1969. Glide’s Sunday morning services are a little like a late-night TV talk show, accompanied by a skilled six-piece jazz band (Leonard Bernstein was a fan) and backed by a 100-plus-voice choir (the Glide Ensemble, and man they’re good). Don’t miss an opportunity to attend a service here if you can; there’s nothing else like it, and it’s impossible to feel unwelcome. Services are at 9 and 11am, but don’t show up with less than 15 minutes to spare or you will almost certainly have to participate by TV from a nearby fellowship hall, and that would be a shame. It’s not just about Sunday mornings, however: Glide Memorial is also the largest provider of social services in the city, offering help with housing and healthcare and jobs training.
330 Ellis St. (at Taylor St.). glide.org. tel. 415/674-6000. Services Sun 9 and 11am. Bus: 27. Streetcar: F. BART: Powell.
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.
Dolores Park - If it’s a sunny day and you want to hang with the locals, head to this hilly 16-acre park. Blanketed with lush green lawns and dotted with palm trees, a soccer field, tennis courts, a basketball court, a playground, and great views, it can be quite the scene of modern bohemia, with picnickers lounging on blankets covering nearly every open patch of grass and the occasional beloved marijuana-edibles dealer happily offering goods at cash prices. It’s a fantastic place to relax and take in good San Francisco vibes. And with lots of great food to be found along 18th street, a picnic can be thrown together in a snap.
Bounded by Church, Dolores, 18th, and 20th sts. sfrecpark.org/destination/mission-dolores-park. Bus: 22. Streetcar: J.
Mission Dolores - The history of this church, more formally known as Misíon San Francisco de Asís, is the history of the early city, and there is no other surviving building that is more intrinsic to the early days of the town’s formation. The tale goes back to the storied summer of 1776, when this site, then an uninhabited grove, was selected for a mission in a network that ran up and down the coast. Its first Mass was celebrated under a temporary shelter. The current adobe-walled building, which dates from 1791, is the oldest in town, and a rich representative of a city that has lost so much of its history, offering a rare glimpse into the not-so-distant past and the troubled origins of California. With its 4-foot-thick walls and rear garden, this precious survivor from California’s colonial days is a hushed and transporting place indeed. It’s also almost entirely original, having survived the 1906 earthquake by dint of good old-fashioned craftsmanship—its trusses, lashed together with rawhide, are made of redwood, although in 1916, after the quake, they were reinforced with steel. As you roam around the place, you’ll encounter gorgeous altars brought from Mexico during the days of the Founding Fathers.
Following the chapel and the sanctuary, the tour’s path visits a modest museum in the back before proceeding outside. In its heyday, the mission was home to some 4,000 people, but of course, most of that land was long ago sold off; look for the diorama, built in 1939, for a clearer picture of how it was all laid out. The back garden contains the graves of California’s first governor and the city’s first mayor, as well as, shockingly, the bodies of at least 5,000 Indians who died “helping” (read: working as slaves for) the mission. Sad to say, while few people know about the mass extinction, the mission is famous for the one grave that isn’t there: The headstone of Carlotta Valdes, which Kim Novak visits in the movie Vertigo (1958), was a prop. Around the same time (1952), the compound was named a Basilica, an honorary Church of the Pope, and in 1987, Pope John Paul II swung by for a visit.
16th St. (at Dolores St.). missiondolores.org. tel. 415/621-8203. Suggested donation $5 adults, $3 seniors and children. May–Oct 9am–4:30pm; Nov–Apr 9am–4pm. Closed Thanksgiving, Easter, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Bus: 22. Streetcar: J. BART: 16th St. Mission.
The Painted Ladies of 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.
Steiner, between Hayes and McAllister sts. Bus: 5, 21.
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.
Asian Art Museum - The largest collection of Asian art in the United States, this stellar museum boasts over 18,000 treasures from Asian countries as varied as China, Tibet, India, and nations in the Middle East. With items spanning a 6,000-year history, it’s also the largest museum of its kind in this hemisphere. The concept of a museum devoted solely to Asian culture began in 1960 when Chicago industrialist Avery Brundage agreed to donate his personal collection of Asian art to the city of San Francisco. Over time, the collection outgrew its space in a wing of the de Young Museum, and Italian architect Gae Aulenti (famed for the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Palazzo Grassi in Venice) was hired to convert San Francisco’s former main library into a contemporary showcase. Skylights, glass, and concrete hold three stories of treasures sorted by country. To better understand what you’re seeing, I highly recommend taking a free docent-led tour, on which you’ll learn about the role of the elephant as the ancient SUV of India, the reason jade can’t be chiseled, and, while looking at a Koran from the 14th century, find out what the word “Koran” means. A highlight: one of the only collections of Sikh art in the world. With items of different mediums—including furniture, statues, clothing, paintings, jewelry, and sculpture—the pieces are varied and intriguing, even for kids. The collections change regularly, there is usually a visiting exhibition, and you can borrow an iPad Touch for a free self-guided tour. The museum store has handsome gifts for surprisingly good prices, and Café Asia serves a fabulous Asian chicken salad and a wide-ranging selection of teas.
200 Larkin St. (btw. Fulton and McAllister sts.). asianart.org. tel. 415/581-3500. Admission $15 adults; $10 seniors, students (with college ID), youths 13–17, free for children 12 and under. Free 1st Sun of the month. Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; Thurs and Fri evening 5pm–9. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Bus/streetcar: All Market St. lines. BART: Civic Center.
City Hall - San Francisco’s Beaux Arts City Hall was not built to be just another city hall. After its predecessor crumbled during the [‘]06 quake, residents wanted to show the world that San Francisco was still an American powerhouse. In 1913, the new City Hall was designed to be as handsome, proud, and imposing as any government capitol building; it was finished in 1915, just in time for the World’s Fair. Most visitors are shocked to learn that its mighty dome is 42 feet taller than the one atop Congress in Washington, DC. (Only four domes in the world are bigger: the Vatican, Florence’s Duomo, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and Les Invalides in Paris). Should another horrible earthquake strike, a 1999 seismic retrofit saw to it that the structure can swing up to 27 inches in any direction; if you look closely at the stairs entering the building, you’ll notice they don’t actually touch the sidewalk because the entire building is on high-tech springs that had to be slipped, two by two, beneath a structure that already existed and was conducting daily business.
City Hall’s most imposing attraction is indeed its fabulously ornate rotunda, a blend of marble (on the lower reaches) and painted plaster (high up), swept theatrically by a grand staircase where countless couples pose daily for their “just married” shots right after tying the knot (Friday is the busiest day for that). You’ve probably seen this staircase before—it is featured in one of the final shots of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as a stand-in for the U.S. Capitol. It was here, in 2004, that thousands of gay couples queued to sign up for their weddings; the first couple in line was an octogenarian lesbian couple who had been together for 51 years. Also, in 1954, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were married here and posed for photos on these steps. Not all the famous happenings at City Hall have been so hopeful. In 1978, the infamous assassination of mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk occurred in two places on the second floor; the resulting trial, in which their killer got a light sentence because, as his lawyers argued, he was high on junk food (the so-called “Twinkie Defense”) became a lynchpin of outrage for the gay rights movement. In the rotunda, look up: Sculptures of Adam and Eve can be seen holding up the official seal of the city.
Across the hall at the top of the grand staircase, the sumptuous Chamber of the Board of Supervisors is worth a peek if it’s open; its walls of Manchurian oak, plaster ceiling created to mimic wood, and doors hand-carved by French and Italian craftsmen make this one of the most opulent rooms in the city. Laws dictate that it must be open to the public unless in a special session, so pop in for a gander.
Also check out the Light Court off the main rotunda on the ground floor, where you’ll find the head of a statue of the Goddess of Progress; she was atop the prior City Hall, in fuller figure, but this is all that survives. The light bulb sockets in her hair were later additions. One-hour tours (Mon–Fri at 10am, noon, and 2pm) are free. Reservations are not needed for groups of fewer than eight people.
1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place (Polk St. btw. McAllister and Grove sts.). sfgov.org/cityhall. tel. 415/554-6139. City Hall open to public daily Mon–Fri 8am–8pm, closed major holidays. Parking: metered or CityPark lot. BART: Civic Center.
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.
Lombard Street - Known (erroneously) as the “crookedest street in the world,” this whimsically winding block of Lombard Street between Hyde and Leavenworth streets draws thousands of visitors each year (much to the chagrin of neighborhood residents, most of whom would prefer to block off the street to tourists). The angle of the street is so steep that the road has to snake back and forth to make descent possible. The brick-paved street zigzags around the residences’ bright flower gardens, which explode with color during warmer months. This short stretch of Lombard Street is one-way, downhill, and fun to drive. Take the curves slowly, in low gear, and expect a wait during the weekend and in summer. Save your snapshots for the bottom where, if you’re lucky, you can find a parking space and take a few quintessential pics. You can also take staircases (without curves) up or down on either side of the street. In truth, most locals don’t understand what the fuss is all about. But it is a classic photo op. Fun fact: Vermont Street, between 20th and 22nd streets in Potrero Hill, is even more crooked, but not nearly as picturesque.
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 that 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.
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.
Japan Center - Locals head here for its numerous authentic restaurants, teahouses, shops, and the crazy-expensive Sundance Kabuki multiplex movie theater. 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. There are also tons of food options here, from quick snack shacks to sit-down meals. Check out Kinokuniya (tel. 415/567-7625; open daily 10:30am–8pm), the enormously popular and extensive bookstore that offers a wide selection of manga, graphic novels, cookbooks, and much more, in both Japanese and English.
Bounded by Post, Geary, Laguna, and Fillmore sts. sfjapantown.org. tel. 415/922-7765). Open daily 10am–midnight (most shops close earlier). Bus: 2, 3, 22, or 38.
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.
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 (see below) 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.
The GLBT History Museum - North America’s first full-fledged gay history museum, set in a former storefront in the Castro, is tiny but formidable, and ultimately quite moving. Recent exhibits have included quirky recaps of 25 years of queer history, with profiles of the first lesbians to marry legally in California (including the pantsuits they wore); a section on the importance of gay bars for the community (illustrated by a marvelously decorative collection of matchbooks); an exhibit on the gay-rights movement (with Harvey Milk’s sunglasses and the kitchen table at which he politicked); and displays about gays in the military, hate crimes, AIDS, and gays of color, among other topics. The museum is not appropriate for children—[“]We want to show how the erotic pleasure can become political power,” co-curator Amy Sueyoshi divulges—but should intrigue anyone with an interest in contemporary history.
4127 18th St. (btw. Castro and Collingwood streets.). glbthistory.org. tel. 415/621-1107. Adults $5, California students with ID $3, free 1st Wed of month. Mon–Sat 11am–6pm, Sun noon–5pm. Bus: 24, 33 and 35. Streetcar: F.
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.