Discovering Northern California
San Francisco California

Your Essential Guide to San Francisco California

San Francisco California may be known to many by its nickname, City by the Bay, but locals mostly just call San Francisco, The City, as in, "We're going to The City for dinner tonight."

And it's always capitalized just like that, even in our thoughts.

San Francisco SkylineSan Francisco Skyline

The usage is so common in fact, that if you were to say to friends: "We're going to The City to catch dinner and a play this weekend," it would never occur to them that you were headed to San Jose or Berkeley or even Sacramento.

This is your San Francisco Travel Guide! It's where you'll discover The City's most popular tourist attractions and our Insider Secrets.

Discover the hot spots and the hidden gems; the history and the neighborhoods, where to shop and what to see and do in The City by the Bay.

Discovering the Dual Personalities of
San Francisco California

San Francisco California is a bit schizophrenic. It can't quite decide whether to be the cultured and sophisticated big city, or the colloquial and homey small town.

The City half of San Francisco is very cosmopolitan and worldly, offering up the good life for those who can afford it...

Elegant homes on Nob Hill, five-star hotels and dining opportunities, a world-famous symphony, plays and musicals, ballet performances, museums, and mega-shopping.

But it's also one of the smallest Big Cities in the world, making it accessible and user-friendly. The whole City is contained in only 49 compact square miles. By comparison, New York City is 322 square miles and Los Angeles is 469. You can quite literally walk from one end of San Francisco to the other - say from Market Street near the Financial District to Jefferson Street at Fisherman's Wharf!

Yet there are more than 800,000 people living in The City. That's over 16,000 people per square mile!

The homey, small-town half of San Francisco, on the other hand, rises like a Phoenix from the not-quite-buried-ashes of its disreputable and colorful past. A past that includes:

  • The California Gold Rush and Emperor Norton
  • Fires and earthquakes
  • Chinese immigration and the subsequent anti-Chinese laws
  • Committees of Vigilance
  • The Barbary Coast
  • Kearnyism and the Sand-lotters
  • The 1906 Earthquake and subsequent Fires
  • Municipal corruption and the Graft Prosecutions
  • Angel Island (the Ellis Island of the West)
  • Anti-Japanese sentiment and the evacuation of Japanese from San Francisco
  • The Maritime Strike and Bloody Thursday
  • The Bohemianism of the Beat Generation
  • The Hippies with their Summer of Love, Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, and Psychedelic music
  • The American Indian occupation of Alcatraz

The City's past adds seasoning to its present by fostering a sense of funky fun and disdain for authority that is so much a part of the San Francisco that we Californians know and love.

Upon Being a Tourist in San Francisco

Coit Tower; CC TobiasCoit Tower; Tobias

You're probably familiar with San Francisco's famous tourist attractions, whether you've been to The City or not: the Golden Gate Bridge, SF's cable cars, Chinatown, Alcatraz Island, Ghirardelli Square, Coit Tower, the Cliff House...

But here are some things you might not know about The City:

  • San Francisco California (which was originally called Yerba Buena) was just a small fishing village until James Marshall discovered gold in 1848
  • There are 43 hills in the City of San Francisco - it's built within the California Coastal Range
  • Contrary to popular opinion and local advertising, Lombard Street is not "The Crookedest Street in the World" - or even in San Francisco
  • The City and County of San Francisco California are one and the same, making it a sort of City-State
  • San Francisco can be very expensive, but there are also many things you can do that are free!
  • San Francisco Bay was originally larger (and the land available for building on was smaller). During the California Gold Rush, over 600 ships and their cargoes were abandoned in the bay as their owners, crew, and passengers rushed off to the goldfields. Many of those ships became landfill - increasing the size of the new city, and becoming the foundation of San Francisco's Financial District

As for visiting San Francisco, it's always a good time to come if you remember that San Francisco can often be pretty chilly, especially in Summer - remember what Mark Twain said about the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco - bring layers, just in case.

And while it's always a good time to visit, sometimes are better than others - such as during San Francisco events and festivals like the San Francisco Waterfront Festival and the North Beach Jazz Festival in July; San Francisco Crab Season and the Chinese New Year Parade in February; Fleet Week in October. You'll love the special atmosphere and air of excitement that infuses everyone - there's that homey small-town once again!

For a Special San Francisco Treat,
Discover The City's Neighborhoods

But for me, it's the neighborhoods that make San Francisco an unequaled experience - that homey small-town half of The City - and it's by exploring the neighborhoods that you'll get to know the real San Francisco.

Each neighborhood has its own unique character which is constantly evolving - and collectively they have created this amazing City that is unlike any other!

Picture yourself:

  • Taking an early morning stroll through Chinatown, and watching the Mom and Pop groceries receive the day's fresh produce
  • Greeting an old Italian couple who are sipping coffee at a sidewalk table outside a North Beach coffee house - the one they've frequented for 50 years
  • Window shopping along trendy Union Street in The Marina District before heading out through the neighborhood to end up at the Yacht Club harbor
  • Watching fishing boats unload tons of fresh Dungeness crab along Fisherman's Wharf
Irish Coffees at the Buena Vista by Suzi RosenbergIrish Coffees at the Buena Vista by Suzi Rosenberg
  • Stopping in at the Buena Vista for an Irish Coffee - after all, they were the first to introduce it to America!
  • Searching for the Wild Parrots around Telegraph Hill as you meander down the Filbert Steps and through the gardens below Coit Tower
  • Accidentally stumbling on a street that's been closed to traffic and is sporting artisan crafts booths for a neighborhood street faire

San Francisco's Neighborhoods, its walkability, its excellent public transport, its cafes and squares and parks, its support of art and culture - these are the things that give The City its unique character, which is part American frontier and part European flair.

Getting the most out of San Francisco California - Here's where you'll find the best that The City has to offer:

  • San Francisco Attractions
    These are the well-known tourist attractions that everyone comes to San Francisco to see. You shouldn't miss them either!

  • San Francisco Neighborhoods
    We don't usually think of neighborhoods when we're looking into life in the big city, but San Francisco has real, old-fashioned neighborhoods!

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And thanks for coming!