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San Francisco

San Francisco Travel Guide

flights to San Francisco

When the shadow of the grasshoppe
Falls across the trail of the field mouse
On green and slimey (sic) grass as a red sun rises
Above the western horizon silhouetting
A gaunt and tautly muscled Indian warrior
Perched with bow and arrow cocked and aimed
Straight at you it`s time for another martini

Wise words indeed, appropriately painted on the wall outside San Francisco’s most famous bar The Vesuvio, one time haunt of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the Beat writers. It’s not surprising the Beats made San Francisco their adoptive home. To this day the city has a laid back no fuss attitude that permeates all quarters. From the cool fifties and the hippy sixties to the prosperity of the late 20th Century it has remained America’s favourite City. It’s both visually spectacular and remarkably friendly. The weather is superb and everything of interest is within easy reach of each other, which is handy as traffic is a nightmare. A small city of only 49 square miles and a population of just under 800,000 it nevertheless attracts over 16mil tourists every year.

The City’s most famous landmark is, of course, Golden Gate Bridge, the stunning 1.7 mile structure, fondly remembered from the opening shot of dozens of movies and TV shows (most notably The Street Of San Francisco featuring a 28 year old Michael Douglas). Constructed between 1933 and 1937 it was, on completion, the longest and tallest suspension structure in the world. If you want to traverse it by foot or by bicycle you can do so free of charge. It’s well worth it on a clear day as the views of the Bay and Marin Headlands are nothing short of breathtaking.

By far the most popular tourist attraction is Fisherman's Wharf which stretches from the Maritime Museum at the west end to Pier 39 at the east end. A cool place to hang out there’s something to get everyone excited. Dozens of shops selling souvenirs, fresh produce and high quality goods, some of the best known restaurants in SF, fresh seafood markets, street performers and artisans, and last but by know means least its world famous sea lions. Its also handy for Ghirardelli Square, once home to its namesake chocolate and the Museum of the City of San Francisco which tells the story of the Bay Area with particular emphasis on the earthquakes of 1906 and 1989.

From Fisherman’s Wharf you can catch the ferry to another of SF’s most famous/notorious landmarks, Alcatraz Island, former high security penitentiary whose inmates include Al Capone and ‘Machine Gun Kelly’. Today it is part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area and is, along with the Bridge and Park, one of the City’s most popular attractions. Once there you can spend as long as you like. The self-guided audio tour of the prison is excellent. The island is also home to the largest gull colony on the west coast. Be warned there is nowhere to buy refreshments, but there is a picnic area by the dock so arrive prepared.

Golden Gate Park is considered to be one of the finest parks in the USA. It has so much to see and do you could spend virtually an entire visit to San Francisco there. 1017 acres of beautiful gardens, lakes, waterfalls, extensive sports facilities, children`s playgrounds, golf course, hiking, biking, boating, fishing, roller-skating, picnicking, horseback riding, the Strybing Arboretum, an outdoor bandstand, the California Academy of Sciences and Steinhart Aquarium, Japanese Tea Garden, the M.H. de Young Museum, and a stretch of California`s famous 49-mile drive. Or if you prefer to you can just kick back, relax and watch the world pass you by.

A visit to San Francisco just wouldn’t be complete without a Cable Car ride. These ingenious powerless carriages are pulled by underground cables at a constant 9.5 miles an hour and are halted by the grip man disengaging the car. As much an attraction as a legitimate means of transport, today genial operators turn a Cable Car journey into an exciting and unforgettable experience. A definite no-go area for Cable cars is Lombard Street, which is also known as the ‘crookedest street in the world’. Constructed in early 1920s the sharp curves were designed to make it easier for horses and their cargo to climb up the hill. It is also one of the most attractive streets in the City, flanked by beautifully landscaped flowerbeds, million-dollar homes, and unsurpassed views of the Bay.

"The centre of North Beach, which isn’t a beach, is Washington Square, which isn’t square, and which doesn`t contain a statue of Washington but of Ben Franklin" A famous quote from SF journalist, Herb Caen, the man who is alleged to have christened the ‘Beats’ (although Jack Kerouac also laid claim). The ‘Square’ is in fact a park where locals and tourists intermingle and relax. A haunt for artists, musicians, soft drug users and various youth cultures, it’s a great place for people watching and in many ways encapsulates the mood of San Francisco.

There hasn’t actually been a beach at North Beach since the 1850s when the bay was filled. Soon after it became the known as ‘Little Italy’ due to the large Italian community that made it their home. A hundred years on and the Italians had mostly moved away but the legacy of good restaurants and bars lived on helping, in no small way, to create the thriving jazz scene that so enthralled Kerouac et al. Today little of what made the fifties so exciting remains. Gone are most of the shady bars and strip clubs and North Beach is now a popular tourist haunt ideal for exploring on foot. The Vesuvio still opens its doors and it’s not unusual to see celebrities from the film and music worlds hanging out there. Across the Street is the famous City Lights Bookstore, which was opened by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti as a publishing house and outlet for the writings of his peers.

San Francisco is by no means an ordinary town. From its laid back easy going nightlife and fascinating old Chinese quarter to the bizarre Friday Night Skate when hundreds of folk turn out for a 12 mile loop of the city, it has maintained an individuality and charm despite natural devastation and social unrest. With constant redevelopment ranging from the renovation of some of the City’s more significant architecture to the new $2.4 billion air terminal it seems that the boom is far from letting up. Tony Bennett may well have left his heart there but Rudyard Kipling really got SF in a nutshell when he said ‘It`s a mad city, inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people’. But went on to observe its one drawback ‘tis hard to leave!’

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