San Francisco, California
San Francisco, California, is located on west coast of the United States in one of the world’s most attractive harbors. It is about 400 miles north of Los Angeles. Downtown San Francisco, where the cruise ship terminal is located, looks onto San Francisco Bay.
San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is about 30 minutes from the downtown core. For information about shuttle buses, call 1-800-786-7180.
As the cruise terminal is near the downtown area, hotels are plentiful. Among the closest are the Wharf Inn, the Sheraton Fisherman’s Wharf and San Remo Hotel, all of which are within minutes of the cruise port. But, just a few minutes further on by taxi, you’ll have access to every major hotel chain available including the Hyatt, Four Seasons, Fairmont Heritage Place, Ritz Carlton, Argent, Le Meridien and Marriott, just to name a few.
This is a city of parts, any one of which would be considered adequate to summarize a lesser place. But not in San Francisco – not this city that considers itself less a metropolis than a collection of small villages.
When you scratch the sophisticated veneer that covers the 740,000-strong population you find a city proud of its simplicity, its neighborhoods, its accessibility, and aggressive in its belief that here is one of the great international cities in America.
It’s the perfect city to visit because its imagined style is as important as its real one. You can be whomever or whatever you want to be here. No one really cares as long as you do it with style.
We all know the San Francisco stereotypes – the cable cars grinding their way up Powell Street, the picture-postcard setting of Fisherman’s Wharf, the majestic peaks of the Golden Gate Bridge peeking through the fog, the atmosphere of Chinatown, a forever springtime climate and the serpentine winding of Lombard Street.
Yet, like Paris, the stereotypes only accent the reality. And the only way you can find the truth about San Francisco is to walk it – one end of the city to the other, examining each of the parts, street by street, shop by unending shop, ethnic group by nationality.
It’s an easy saunter from Chinatown to Nob Hill and the walk symbolizes the variety of cultures that define the city. You pass from the comfort and cuisine of a long established immigrant identity and into the luxury of an international world of fast cars and silk suits.
In San Francisco every hill and almost every corner has a surprise behind it. Each street is the boundary line of a new experience, and every building has something in it not in any other part of town.
What’s fascinating about this city is that it won’t fit a mold. It revels in being old fashioned, yet it prides itself in its contemporary theaters and art. It loves avant garde design, yet it does everything to save old factories and mills and convert them to popular meeting places. The city wallows in its cosmopolitanism, yet encourages immigrants to retain their identities – unlike most other U.S. cities.
While there have been many changes over the years, the park is still a place to play, relax and grow culturally. The de Young museum is one of America’s great art museums, with regular exhibitions of art and artists from around the world. Nearby is one of the park’s ongoing icons, the Japanese Tea Garden. Begun by an Australian in 1894, this intricate complex of paths, ponds and a teahouse features native Japanese and Chinese plants. Also hidden throughout its five acres are exquisite sculptures and bridges.
At Fisherman’s Wharf you walk in and out of the shops and the stores knowing very well you’re in one of the biggest tourist centers on the continent. It doesn’t matter because the atmosphere is electric with an ongoing interchange between visitors and hawkers. In many ways, it’s the heart of a visitor’s impression of the city.
Just down the street from the center of Fisherman’s Wharf is Pier 39 – a collection of small stores and shops built on a dock. At Ghirardelli Square you’ll find a multi-level collection of 80 shops, galleries, outdoor cafes, restaurants and a theater overlooking the waterfront. You can spend hours here in the old 19th Century former chocolate and spice factory.
These are great and familiar places in the city and areas you must visit. But there are sections of San Francisco that are special, living examples of what makes the city so terrific. The wonderful individual architecture of Russian Hill, the Italian enclave of North Beach where you can get the best tasting omelets and sandwiches at Mama’s on Stockton Street.
There are two different Chinatowns – the one that most tourists enter through the gate on Grant Avenue off Bush Street downtown, and the indigenous one that exists in the shops and markets off the beaten path. It’s the largest Chinese community outside Asia – a city within a city offering a labyrinthine array of shops, restaurants, food markets, temples, museums, night spots, business establishments. Grant Avenue is a perpetual pageant, especially during the weeklong Chinese New Year festivities that fall between mid-January and late February, depending on the fullness of the moon.
Union Street used to be a quiet neighborhood. It’s now one of the chief shopping areas of San Francisco – several blocks transformed into a localized Chelsea. Brightly colored Victorian houses are filled with boutiques, bars, restaurants, and galleries. There isn’t an alleyway or a basement that hasn’t been converted into a place to buy or eat or sleep.
Near Fisherman’s Wharf, you can take the ferry to Tiburon and Sam’s Bar. Once there, you’ll walk through a downtrodden entryway, but through the back door you’ll find an exquisite dockside restaurant serving terrific food and offering the best views of the San Francisco skyline. It’s where locals, or those in the know, congregate to sip the great regional wines and to relax.
There are never ending choices in San Francisco, however, St. Mary’s Cathedral, atop Cathedral Hill, is one of the city’s contemporary architectural glories. Inside, stained glass windows — six feet wide — divide the ceiling and extend 139 feet down the four sides of the cathedral to form a multicolored cruciform. Suspended above the altar is a free-hanging cascade of 7,000 aluminum rods symbolic of prayer ascending. Like much in San Francisco, it’s a place where the spirit and the senses are mutually satisfied.
Things to do:
Make sure you reserve a few hours to explore Fisherman’s Wharf where you can breathe in the briny sea air and shop for some souvenirs. The Wharf is near where the cruise ships depart. Sea lions climb up on the wharfs to soak up the sun, and street performers put on shows to amuse the tourists.
After a crab lunch on the wharf, hop a ferry for the best attraction in San Francisco: Alcatraz. The history of The Rock as a harbour defense port in the 19th century alone makes this a “must-see” place to visit. Add in a little intrigue and you’ll be hooked. This is also the infamous federal prison that housed Al Capone and other equally notorious criminals. Nowadays Alcatraz is home to nesting sea birds — not jailbirds — and is surrounded by marine wildlife. Ferries to Alcatraz leave from Pier 43.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is one of the best modern art museums on the continent. The permanent collection includes paintings, sculpture, photography, architecture and design and media art (151 Third Street.)
If you have the time, take a tour of the wineries in either the Sonoma Valley or the Napa. And if you don’t have the energy or the time, check out any of the countless wine merchants that operate around the Union Square area for tastings and buying.
Of Special Interest:
The de Young Museum, one of the city’s must-visit destinations and a favorite of San Francisco residents and visitors since 1895, reopened on October 15, 2005, after a complete makeover and it’s now a state-of-the-art facility that integrates art, architecture and natural landscape. The art museum showcases its priceless collections of American art from the 17th through the 20th centuries, and art of the native Americas, Africa, and the Pacific.
– Ray Chatelin