San Francisco, California - Overview

San Francisco is on the coast of California about 400 miles north of Los Angeles. It is situated along the shore of a large bay sheltered behind the California Coastal Mountains. The city is renown for its steep streets with panoramic views of beautiful San Francisco Bay and the surrounding mountains. It has a very moderate climate with warm summers and chilly winters but without extremes. Constant breezes off of the Pacific Ocean keep the summers from becoming too hot and also prevent freezing winter weather. Take a sweater, as the evening breezes can be quite brisk all year round!

San Francisco was built by forty niners with gold fever

Oakland and Berkeley, California lie just across the bay from San Francisco and are easily accessible via the Bay Bridge. The more famous Golden Gate Bridge spans the narrow inlet that extends from the Pacific Ocean into the bay. The Golden Gate Bridge connects San Francisco with a mountainous peninsula called the Marin headlands that is primarily known for beautiful scenery and expensive homes with spectacular views. Sausalito, a small village on the bay shore of the Marin headlands is famous as a local artist's community. Alcatraz Island with its abandoned prison is situated in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The city of San Jose lies about 30 miles south of San Francisco at the southern tip of this extensive bay. The area near San Jose and Santa Clara is known as Silicon Valley, home of the largest concentration of electronics and computer firms in the USA.

San Francisco was founded in 1776 when father Junipero Serra constructed the mission San Dolores to Christianize the local native Indian population. At the same time, Spanish troops constructed a Presidio, or fort, to protect this colony for the Queen of Spain. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the village of Yerba Buena, consisting of whalers, traders, adventurers and pirates, occupied the present site of San Francisco. In 1848, gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains about 100 miles to the east. By 1849, San Francisco was inundated with forty-niners as the gold seekers were commonly called, and the population of the city exploded. Ever since, it has remained the center of commerce, entertainment, culture and tourism for Northern California.

Cable cars on steep streets overlook a turquoise San Francisco Bay

San Francisco is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the USA. Steep streets lined with Victorian era houses, a great turquoise bay surrounded by low mountains, and antique cable cars that still shuttle passengers up and down the city slopes all make San Francisco one of the most picturesque cities in the US.

The city has developed a unique character from its mixture of diverse cultures including Native American Indians, Spanish colonials, gold seeking adventurers and numerous European, African and Asian immigrants. This is reflected in the great San Francisco cuisine found in the many fabulous restaurants of the city.

Among the many attractions of San Francisco are the ethnic neighborhoods like Chinatown and Japantown with their traditional shops and restaurants. Each of these communities houses a large population of Asian immigrants and has a unique oriental character. North Beach is renown as an Italian neighborhood, the Mission District as a Hispanic community and Castro Street for its gay and lesbian population.

Excursion boats from Fisherman's Wharf visit Alcatraz

The Embarcadero, a broad avenue along the bayfront, is now lined with shops, restaurants and tourist attractions including several piers that have been converted to specialty shopping malls. Most famous is the historic Fisherman's Wharf which still hosts a fleet of working fishing vessels as well as fish markets, seafood restaurants and gift shops. Excursion boats and ferries depart from piers near Fisherman's Wharf. They are a great way to see the sights around the bay. The Alcatraz tour takes you to The Rock and allows you to visit its abandoned prison. This trip usually fills up, so it is best to make your reservations at least one day ahead. You can also take a ferry to visit the USS Hornet Aircraft Carrier Museum in Oakland, or you can ride a ferry to Sausalito and Tiburon for some sightseeing and shopping.

A cable car line terminates a few blocks from Fisherman's Wharf, and many tourists congregate there to watch the motormen manually rotate the cars. This is a good place to photograph the cable cars but not a good place to board one as the wait can be long. It is easier to take a bus or taxi to the downtown area where you can quickly board a passing cable car. Golden Gate Park and Seal Rocks, along the Pacific side of the city are worth visiting.

Wine Country, Big Sur and Yosemite are not far away

Other California tourist attractions are located near San Francisco. Across the Golden Gate Bridge, the first pullout on the right provides a nice view of the city from across the bay. If you follow the small road under the highway and climb the mountain behind the bridge, you will be rewarded to some spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay area. From the top of the mountain the road continues high above the Pacific Ocean with pullouts at many scenic vistas and hiking trails. This road eventually leads to Stinson Beach, a popular Pacific Ocean swimming and surfing area, and to Muir Woods, an impressive reserve of Giant California Redwood trees.

Beautiful Monterey Bay is an hour-and-half drive south along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway and Big Sur extends about 100 miles further. Napa and Sonoma valleys, in the heart of California Wine Country, are just an hour drive north of San Francisco. The Sierra Nevada Mountains and exquisite Yosemite National Park are within a half-day drive to the east.

San Francisco Shopping Tips

The downtown area of San Francisco is the center of business, commerce and shopping. There are a wide variety of large department stores and smaller shops near Union Square and a big shopping mall on Market Street. The Embarcadero especially in the Fisherman's Wharf area offers many small shops, specialty stores and tourist attractions. Chinatown and Japantown have many small shops specializing in oriental artifacts and Asian foods. Sausalito and Tiburon across the bay have many boutiques, art galleries and specialty shops. For serious shoppers, the immense Great Mall of the Bay Area in Milpitas, near San Jose is a wonderland of factory outlet stores. There are also a few outlet malls in Sonoma Valley near wine country and several in the Monterey Bay area.