San Francisco Vacations
Fisherman's Wharf sea lions and Telegraph Hill parrots agree: this town is totally wild. Somewhere between urban farms and legendary surf beaches you'll find San Franciscans in their natural habitat, going crazy for California cuisine and Pride parades.
The treats of San Francisco are not just for locals. The basic pleasures of life - innovative food, sparkling nightlife and those glorious views - are here for everyone. Watch the white fog fill the Golden Gate as the sunset lights up the windows across the bay, and prepare to leave your heart here.
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What To Do
San Franciscans are an energetic lot, and there are plenty of opportunities to burn calories even within the city limits.
What To See
Alcatraz, Golden Gate vistas and left-behind hearts.
Let San Francisco's 43 hills and more than 80 arts venues stretch your legs and imagination, and take in some (literally) breathtaking views. Explore the mix of colourful neighbourhoods, bohemian history, mind-teasing art and restorative parks - by foot if you're particularly sprightly, by cable car if not.
Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park includes the following sights: MH de Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco Botanical Garden, Japanese Tea Garden, Conservatory of Flowers and Stow Lake.
Golden Gate Bridge
Imagine a squat concrete bridge striped black and caution yellow spanning the San Francisco Bay – that's what the US Navy initially had in mind. Luckily, engineer Joseph B Strauss and architects Gertrude and Irving Murrow insisted on a soaring art-deco design and International Orange paint of the 1937 Golden Gate Bridge. Cars pay a toll to cross from Marin to San Francisco; pedestrians and cyclists stroll the east sidewalk for free.
Alcatraz: for almost 150 years, the name has given the innocent chills and the guilty cold sweats. Over the years it’s been the nation’s first military prison, a forbidding maximum-security penitentiary and disputed territory between Native American activists and the FBI. ‘The Rock’ averaged only 264 inmates, but its roster read like an America’s Most Wanted list. A-list criminals doing time on Alcatraz included Chicago crime boss Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, dapper kidnapper George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, hot-headed Harlem mafioso and sometime poet ‘Bumpy’ Johnson, and Morton Sobell, the military contractor found guilty of Soviet espionage along with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Today, first-person accounts of daily life in the Alcatraz lockup are included on the award-winning audio tour provided by Alcatraz Cruises. But take your headphones off for just a moment, and notice the sound of carefree city life traveling across the water: this is the torment that made perilous escapes into rip tides worth the risk. Though Alcatraz was considered escape-proof, in 1962 the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris floated away on a makeshift raft and were never seen again. Security and upkeep proved prohibitively expensive, and finally the island prison was abandoned to the birds in 1963.
University of California, Berkeley
'Cal' is one of the country's top universities and home to 35,000 diverse, politically conscious students. The Visitor Services Center has info and leads free campus tours (reservations required). Cal's landmark is the 1914 Sather Tower (also called the Campanile), with elevator rides ($2) to the top. The Bancroft Library displays the small gold nugget that started the California gold rush in 1848.
Diego Rivera Gallery
Diego Rivera's 1931 The Making of a Fresco Showing a Building of a City is a trompe l'oeil fresco within a fresco, showing the artist himself as he pauses to admire his work, as well as the work in progress that is San Francisco. The fresco covers an entire wall in the Diego Rivera Gallery at the San Francisco Art Institute, on your left through the entryway courtyard. For a memorable San Francisco vista, head to the terrace cafe for espresso and panoramic bay views.
GLBT History Museum
America's first gay-history museum cobbles ephemera from the community – Harvey Milk's campaign literature, matchbooks from long-gone bathhouses, the dress Laura Linney wore as Mary Anne Singleton in the TV remake of Tales of the City – together with harder-hitting installations, such as audiovisual interviews with Gore Vidal and pages of the 1950s penal code banning homosexuality.
Shameless flirting is the natural reaction to putting on a Betsey Johnson number, cut for dangerous curves, nights out and high kicks. Since the '60s, the American designer to rockers and rebels has been adding trademark playful feminine touches to urban designs. Couches welcome the fashion-weary.
Under One Roof
All the fabulous gifts under this roof are donated by local designers and businesses, so AIDS service organizations get 100% of the proceeds from your etched San Francisco–skyline martini glasses and adorable Jonathan Adler vase. Those sweet sales clerks are volunteers, so show them love for raising $11 million to date.
Juvenile delinquents will find an entire section dedicated to their life stories here, where vintage pulp fiction, true crime and erotica titles induced John Waters to endorse this place on NPR. You might find a first edition Dashiell Hammet gumshoe caper, a wayward nun's tale filed under Catholic Guilt or Women's Medical Problems in the Bizarre Nonfiction section.
Here you'll find the tastiest soju cocktails in the city for with yummy fusion Korean bar food to top it off.
Bay Area Theater Sports explores all things improv, from audience-inspired themes to wacked-out musicals at completely improvised weekend shows.
The last old-school swank joint on Broadway has a big, heated sidewalk patio (ideal for smokers) opening into a white-tablecloth restaurant and bar with swoop-back booths, high cocktail tables, and a baby grand piano. Musical bookings run the gamut from classical guitar to R&B, with local chanteuses singing the Great American Songbook other nights. Shine your shoes.
Off the Beaten Path
Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Museum
San Francisco's already high freak factor gets dialed up to 11 with Ripley's bizarro artifacts and tales of vampires, mutants, and human sacrifices. The cable car made of a quarter of a million matchsticks adds a nice and highly flammable local touch to the Ripley's franchise.
If you like partying and dress-ups, San Francisco is just the ticket. Chinese New Year (late January/early February) is celebrated in Chinatown with colour and verve (and a 200ft dragon and assorted fireworks). In mid-April, Cherry Blossom Festival is marked in Japantown with taiko drums, tea ceremonies and other Japanese events. Also in April is San Francisco's International Film Festival, the oldest in the USA. On the third Sunday in May, some 65,000 joggers take part in the Bay to Breakers run, many of them in silly costume (and sometimes in nothing at all). Carnaval is celebrated with much shaking of tail feathers in the Mission District the last weekend in May.
June is Gay Pride Month - a day isn't enough to do SF proud. The month begins with the Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, and goes out in style the last weekend with the Dyke March and the frisky, fun, half-million-strong Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Parade.
September's offerings include free Opera in the Park, free Shakespeare performances and the Folsom Street Fair, the sexiest S&M street fair in the city. October hosts a literary festival and a jazz celebration. San Francisco really turns it on for Diá de los Muertos (Day of the Dead; 2 November), with costumed revellers taking to the streets.
Food and Drink
It could be the martinis, the low lighting or the Maltese Falcon statuette upstairs, but something about Dashiell Hammett's favorite bar lends itself to hard-boiled tales of lost love and true crimes, confessed while chewing toothpicks. That is, until the tourists filling the joint snap you back into the present.
Dottie’s True Blue Café
Consider yourself lucky if you stand in line less than an hour and get hit up for change only once - but fresh baked goods come to those who wait at Dottie's. Cinnamon pancakes, grilled cornbread, scrambles with whiskey fennel sausage and anything else off the griddle are tried and true blue.
Career carnivores won't realize there's no meat in the hearty black-bean chili with crème fraîche and pickled jalapeños, or that roasted eggplant panino (sandwich), packed with hearty flavor from ingredients mostly grown on a Zen farm in Marin. On sunny days, get yours to go so you can enjoy it on a wharfside bench, but if you're planning a sit-down weekend dinner or Sunday brunch you'll need reservations.
A block north of University Ave, Albatross is one of the most inviting and friendly pubs in the entire Bay Area. Some serious darts are played here, and poker games and Trivial Pursuit will be going on around many of the worn out tables.
Organic pub grub and samplers of homebrews keep the conversation flowing at communal tables, while grass-fed Prather Ranch burgers satisfy stoner appetites in the side booths – it's like the Summer of Love all over again, only with better food.
SF has refined fusion cuisine over 150 years, but no one rocks it quite like chef/owner Corey Lee (formerly of Napa's French Laundry), who remixes local, sustainable fine-dining staples and Pacific Rim flavors with a SoMa DJ's finesse. Velvety Sonoma foie gras with tangy, woodsy yuzu-sake glaze makes taste buds bust wild moves, while Dungeness crab and black truffle custard bring such outsize flavor to faux-shark's fin soup, you'll swear there's Jaws in there.
The seasonal small plates at always-busy Starbelly include standout salumi, market-fresh salads, scrumptious pâté, roasted mussels with housemade sausage and thin-crusted pizzas. The barnlike rooms get loud with revelers; sit on the heated patio for quieter conversation.