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The U.S. Navy wanted it painted with black and yellow stripes so passing ships would see it. But since opening in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge has had no trouble being seen. The 1.7 mile suspension bridge, the world’s longest until 1964, connects San Francisco and Marin County at the fabled Golden Gate, where San Francisco Bay meets the Pacific Ocean. Views from this Art Deco beauty are breathtaking, whether you drive, walk or ride a bike. As for the iconic burnt orange hue, Depression-era architect Robert Morrow chose it because it complemented the surroundings and was visible in fog.
With restaurants, shops, street performers and a two-story, hand-painted carousel, Pier 39 is a bustling waterfront amusement complex near Fisherman’s Wharf. Water is the leitmotif. The pier houses Aquarium by the Bay, Forbes Island Restaurant (floating on a man-made island) and all flavors of boat rides: bay cruises, charter sailboats, speedboat rides, even a wine-tasting cruise. But it’s hard to beat the main attraction — scores of wild sea lions in residence since shortly after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Winter is prime viewing time for these 900 lb. water babies, who plop in and out of the water and bark to their hearts’s content.
It was once a vast expanse of sand dunes. But in the capable hands of park engineer William Hammond Hall and master gardener John McLaren, by 1886 more than 155,000 cypress, pine and eucalyptus trees had been planted, and Golden Gate Park was on its way to becoming the flourishing 1,017-acre urban retreat we know today. The sprawling park houses major league attractions including the de Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco Botanical Garden and Conservatory of Flowers. But the park also boasts playgrounds, picnic groves, gardens, hiking trails and quiet spots to kick back and commune with nature.
A pioneering participatory museum, Exploratorium presents 600 thought-provoking exhibits that invite you to look at the world in unexpected ways. Galleries focus on human behavior, tinkering, seeing and listening and living systems, with exhibits ranging from what gives meat its flavor to how to spot a bluffer at poker. The brainchild of Frank Oppenheimer, the celebrated Manhattan Project physicist, Exploratorium houses its brain teasers in a colossal (and clever) 2013 waterfront building that generates more solar-powered energy than it uses.
With mind-boggling numbers — nearly 40,000 live animals, over 25 million specimens — the California Academy of Sciences is the world’s only institution to house an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum and four-story rainforest under one roof. And since we’re talking superlatives, that undulating roof — a working science lab outfitted with weather stations, plant life and solar panels — crowns one of the most environmentally friendly museums on the planet, an airy Renzo Piano building opened in 2008 in Golden Gate Park.
Given that it’s housed in a 1924 replica of Paris’s iconic Palais de la Legion d’Honneur, deep San Francisco roots are an unexpected attribute of the Legion of Honor. After seeing the Paris Pavilion’s faithful rendering of the Palais in the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, sugar heiress Alma Spreckels decided to build a lasting copy as an art museum for her home town. Planted in rugged Land’s End, the Legion fills its imposing building with European paintings, ancient Greek and Egyptian art and photography.
Aptly named, Lands End is a wild, windswept district with rugged cliffs and crashing waves perched above the Pacific Ocean at the city’s edge. A fashionable retreat for 19th-century city dwellers, its glittery past is on view at the Cliff House restaurant (rebuilt in 1906 and still serving), Sutro Heights gardens and the ruins of Sutro Baths, a once-magnificent 19th-century public pool. But the timeless showpieces come courtesy of Mother Nature: hillsides of cyprus and wildflowers and the Coast Trail, a portion of the storied California Coastal Trail, a hiker’s haven.
Where might you expect to see a 13-foot model of Disneyland and numerous Academy Awards including a full-size Oscar and seven little ones? The Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio celebrates the life and times of the ground-breaking animator, moviemaker, theme park impresario, train enthusiast and Oscar recipient for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, among others. Created by daughter Diane Disney Miller, the museum reverberates with Disney’s genius, tracing his journey from Missouri to Magic Kingdom with interactive exhibits, film clips and the earliest known drawings of Mickey Mouse.
With an upside-down A as its logo, the Asian Art Museum invites you to ap-proach Asian art from a new perspective. The collection, encompassing 6,000 years of art from Turkey to India, Cambodia to the Philippines, runs deep, particularly in Chinese, Japanese and Korean art. Nearly half the objects were donated in the 1960s by Chicago industrialist Avery Brundage, including a gilded bronze Buddha image from 338 A.D., the oldest dated Buddha in the world.
If you’re wondering why AT&T Park, home to the San Francisco Giants, has been a home run since it opened in 2000, consider the amenities: a park for pre-game picnicking, a vegetable garden under the scoreboard, jaw-dropping bay views and McCovey Cove, an inlet where fans in boats wait for balls to fly over the right field wall. Having a World Series contender hasn’t hurt, either. Baseball fills the seats for at least six months, but football, soccer and concerts keep this energy-efficient, 40,000-plus-seat stadium buzzing year round. The fog rolls in, so bring a sweater, even in July.
The visual adventure begins the moment you see the de Young Museum, the city’s oldest art museum. Clad in perforated copper panels, the 2005 building is designed to blend with its woodsy Golden Gate Park surroundings, filtering light like a tree canopy. Known for its impressive collection of American art, contemporary art and art of the Americas, Pacific and Africa, the museum shows off these and top-flight changing exhibitions in window-lined galleries that pair up art with nature. To wrap up the adventure, climb to top of the observation tower where glorious views of the Marin headlands and Golden Gate await.
Twin Peaks, as Eureka Peak and Noe Peak are collectively known, is hard to miss. At 900 feet, the scrub-covered twosome stands tall in the center of San Francisco, offering breathtaking, clear-day views of the city, San Francisco Bay and Santa Clara Valley. You can drive to the top of Eureka or hike the 0.7 mile trail. Bonus: the endangered Mission Blue Butterfly calls this windy habitat home.
Stroll through Dragon’s Gate, a pagoda-roofed entry at Grant Avenue and Bush Street, and you’re in Chinatown. The largest Chinatown outside Asia, this bustling city within a city embraces 24 blocks, many along Grant Avenue, San Francisco’s oldest street. Wear your walking shoes and explore narrow streets lined with colorful shops, food markets, restaurants, temples and exotic architecture, like the pagoda-style Sing Chong Building, a survivor built shortly after the 1906 earthquake.
With a deck overlooking the roaring engines and enormous wheels that pull the cables, the Cable Car Museum takes you deep into the beating heart of San Francisco’s iconic transportation system. Opened in 1974, this working museum is housed in the historic Washington/Mason cable car barn. To sample the wonders of 19th-century transportation technology, check out the grips, track and brake mechanisms and the three snappy cable cars from the 1870s.
Got a quarter? That’s all it takes to slip into a pre-video game universe and indulge in antique arcade amusements like pinball, skeeball, foosball, fortune teller, air hockey and Laffin’ Sal at Musee Mécanique. Collected over a lifetime by museum founder Edward Zelinsky, more than 200 whiz-bang working entertainments fill a white-walled warehouse in Fisherman’s Wharf, so big museum owner Dan Zelinksy (Edward’s son) zips down the aisles on roller skates.
Dubbed “the Gibralter of the West Coast,” Fort Point National Historic Site is a military fort from 1861, built to protect San Francisco from Confederate warships during the Civil War. The attacks never came, but in 1926 the fort was deemed an outstanding example of military architecture (the Golden Gate Bridge was redesigned to preserve it). Today you can stroll through its brick archways, check out the cannons and admire the dazzling up-close views of San Francisco Bay.
Call it Ellis Island West. Some still remember Angel Island as the entry center for hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mostly from China, from 1910 to 1940. Today, San Francisco Bay’s largest natural island is Angel Island State Park, an open-air playground for hikers and bike riders, bird watchers (look for pelicans and hawks) and history buffs (the U.S. Immigration Station is now a museum). Trails lead up to the 781-foot summit. But even from a lower vantage point, the panoramic views of the San Francisco skyline, Marin headlands and Mount Tamalpais will thrill.
After 218 years as an army post, the Presidio in 1994 became a sprawling park at the city’s northern tip. Covering 2.95 square miles it encompasses two forts (Fort Point and Fort Winfield Scott), Crissy Field, a golf course, a bowling center, more than 700 commercial and historic buildings and acres of tree-covered grounds for bike riding, hiking, strolling and taking a break from urban life. History is everywhere, from the two modest wood cottages built for survivors of the 1906 earthquake to the smartly renovated Presidio Officer’s Club, a 1776 adobe manse that doubles as a museum of Presidio history. Bonus: the Golden Gate Bridge is a literal stone’s throw from parts of the campus.
Grace Cathedral sits high on Nob Hill, a magnificent repository of art and architecture. Like classic medieval cathedrals, the cathedral church for the Episcopal Diocese of California took decades to build (from 1924 to 1964). Look for mosaic murals by Jan Henryk De Rosen, a historic copy of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” doors, a Keith Haring altarpiece in the nondenominational AIDS chapel and two labyrinths, one outside and one inside.
Coit Tower stands proud on Telegraph Hill, a flute-like Art Deco observation tower with 360-degree views of San Francisco and the bay. Completed in 1933, it was financed by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy San Franciscan who left money to build something “adding beauty to the city I have always loved.” Some 30 artists from the Public Works of Art Project, a precursor to the WPA, painted the once controversial fresco murals inside the tower’s base, depicting life during the Depression.
Built in just 56 days in 1943 to carry wartime cargo and personnel, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien Liberty ship traveled to India, South American and Australia and was a rare survivor of the fleet that stormed Normandy on D-Day. Mothballed after the war, the ship survived its next mission — a trip to the scrap yards — and, under its own steam, pulled into San Francisco in 1979, where it was restored as a floating museum. Check out the decks, engines and stacked bunks. Or visit on a day when the ship takes to the water, and cruise the bay on a war relic.
A fragrant pocket of serenity in Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea Garden is the oldest public Japanese garden in the U.S., dating from the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. Redesigned in 1953, the 5-acre garden is a feast of paths, ponds, bridges and pagodas, surrounded by native plantings from Japan and China. A highlight is the teahouse, where kimono-clad servers dispense tea, cookies and savory crackers.
The largest, most expensive bridge of its day, the San Francisco Bay Bridge opened in 1936, six months before the Golden Gate Bridge, connecting San Francisco and the East Bay. Deep water on the San Francisco side and shallow mudflats near Oakland were the reasons for two styles of bridges — a double suspension bridge to the west, a cantilevered bridge to the east — connected by a tunnel through Yerba Buena Island. In 2013, an elegant new bridge lit by 48,000 LED lights replaced the old eastern link, a casualty of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The iconic western span, with its distinctive geometric towers, remains as serene as ever.
Nature in all her beauty and majesty awaits just 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Here Muir Woods, a dense forest of old-growth coastal redwood trees, stands tall, proud and protected (President Theodore Roosevelt declared it a national monument in 1908). Named for naturalist John Muir (1838-1914), Sierra Club founder and pioneering nature preservationist, the forest boasts redwoods towering as tall as 258 feet as well as bigleaf maples, California bay laurels and tanoak trees, 50 species of birds and Redwood Creek, a spawning ground for coho salmon. Laced with hiking trails (paved and unpaved), the woods gets crowded on weekends (the park draws 1 million visitors annually). Stop by on a weekday if possible. Plans are afoot to require reservations for cars, but no date has been set.
It’s unusual for shopping centers to be listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, but Ghirardelli Square is not a typical mall. This sweeping brick structure, anchored by an eye-catching clocktower, began life in 1893 as the Ghirardelli chocolate factory. When the confectioners moved across the Bay in 1964, the structure became the country’s first significant building reuse project, a Mad Men-era precursor to SoHo lofts, Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace and San Francisco’s own Ferry Building farmers market. Today Ghirardelli Square boasts boutiques, restaurants and its showpiece, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop, a sprawling ice cream parlor backdropped by the factory’s 19th-century gears that sells every imaginable iteration of Ghirardelli chocolate and offers lip smacking chocolate-infused desserts (prepare to stand in line at the main entrance; lines move faster at the Larkin Street door). Bonus: bay views from the upper floors are breathtaking, and the cable car turnaround is steps away.
As befits a city that prizes nature, beauty and originality, Wave Organ is an open-air acoustic sculpture whose sound is activated by waves. Located on a jetty constructed from stones harvested from a Gold Rush-era cemetery, the installation features 25 organ pipes and extends into San Francisco Bay, providing the requisite jaw-drop views. Its music is created by the impact of waves pounding against the pipes. Like listening to the world’s largest seashell is how one writer described it. The creation of artist Peter Richards and sculptor/stone mason George Gonzales, this experiential artwork from 1986 is overseen by the hands-on science museum Exploratorium and like the great outdoors is open 24/7, free of charge.
In a city that cultivates public art, Hidden Garden Steps is San Francisco’s latest community driven art display — a towering outdoor staircase whose steps are blanketed in colorful tiles that build a fanciful mural to the sky. Look closely at the mosaics on each step, and you see depictions of wildflowers, mushrooms and sprouting plants that are native to the neighborhood (small gardens border the stairs). As befits a local project, many of the tiles are dedicated to members of the community.
Call it San Francisco’s New Chinatown. Located in the Richmond District, this residential main street brims with Chinese restaurants and grocery stores. In addition to the mangoes, star fruit, roasted ducks and tropical durian you see in Chinatown, you can hunt down flowers, books and vintage records, mostly in the company of locals. While Chinatown was settled during the Gold Rush, Clement Street’s Chinese population arrived in the 1970s. New waves of Asians have followed and are reflected in the proliferation of restaurants offering Korean, Burmese, Vietnamese, Thai and Taiwanese cuisine. In other words, look for Bubble Tea along with dim sum.
One of only three remaining Japantowns in the United States, San Francisco’s "little Japan" stands where many of the city’s Japanese and Japanese Americans relocated after the 1906 earthquake. Forced into internment camps during World War II, Japanese Americans returned to the area after the war, building Japantown's centerpiece, the Japan Center mall, in the 1960s. This five-acre modern property resonates with Nihon-esque culture — all styles of Japanese restaurants and shops selling tea, incense, bonsai, housewares, clothing and books, including manga and anime. In addition to hotels with Japanese design inflections, the area boasts Buddhist churches and Zen temples and centers for ikebana, jiu jitsu and Japanese dance.
Though you don’t see many today, eight-sided houses had a moment between the 1840s and 1860s. With extra walls of windows and a space-maximizing floor plan, cupola-topped octagons were thought to be healthier and more economical than four-sided abodes. Among the 19th Century believers were William and Harriet McElroy, a prosperous miller and his wife who built this eight-sided wonder in 1861. Thanks to a time capsule in a metal box left by the McElroys, much is known about the family and the house’s history, making it one of the best documented house museums around. Saved from demolition in 1952, it offers visitors a fascinating look at a time when San Francisco grew prodigiously from a modest village into a flourishing Gold Rush metropolis. A highlight is the fancifully manicured garden.