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Frommer's EasyGuide to San Francisco

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A brilliant wit once said that, "to most Americans, even though they have never been there, San Francisco is their favorite town". The existence of that belief is the strongest proof of the glorious vacation experience that awaits the visitor to that "city by the Bay", that "Paris of the West", a "diverse, beautiful and cosmopolitan city" that excites millions of visitors each year. It is truly "the favorite town" of America, and no agrees more than our author. Here is her thoroughly revised 256-page tribute to a massively popular destination.

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1 The Best of San Francisco

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The Best of San Francisco

San Francisco’s reputation as a rollicking city where almost anything goes dates back to the boom-or-bust days of the California gold rush. It’s always been this way: This city is so beautiful, so exciting and diverse, and so cosmopolitan that you can always find something new to see and do no matter if it’s your 1st or 50th visit. Oh, and bring a warm jacket: Bob Hope once remarked that San Francisco is the city of four seasons—every day.

The best Only-in-San Francisco Experiences

 A Powell–Hyde Cable Car Ride: Skip the less-scenic California line and take the Powell–Hyde cable car down to Fisherman’s Wharf—the ride is worth the wait. When you reach the top of Nob Hill, grab the rail with one hand and hold your camera with the other, because you’re about to see a view of the bay that could make you weep. See p. 98.

 An Adventure at Alcatraz: Even if you loathe tourist attractions, you’ll dig Alcatraz. Just looking at the Rock from across the bay is enough to give you the heebie-jeebies—and the park rangers have put together an excellent audio tour with narration by former inmates and guards. Heck, even the boat ride across the bay is worth the price. See p. 102.

 

2 The Best of San Francisco

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San Francisco Suggested Itineraries

San Francisco may be only 7 miles squared, but it’s got enough dramatically diverse environments and attractions to make forging any “best of” itinerary challenging. Along with information about the city’s vibrant neighborhoods—almost all of which are worthy of exploration—I’ve outlined a good deal of the classic must-sees below. But should you stray, you can rest assured that you’re bound to have an experience that’s uniquely San Francisco.

Best of San Francisco in 1 Day

If you’ve got only 1 day to explore the city and haven’t been here before, follow this whirlwind jaunt of the classic highlights. It starts with a scenic cable car ride, includes a tour of Alcatraz Island (Get tickets in advance—it regularly sells out!), and meanders through two of the city’s most colorful neighborhoods—Chinatown and North Beach—for lunch, shopping, browsing, cocktails, dinner, cappuccino, and a show. Get an early start and wear comfy walking shoes because you’re about to embark on a long, wonderful day in the City by the Bay. Start: F-Line Streetcar to Union Square.

 

3 SanFrancisco in Context

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San Francisco in Context

Often referred to as America’s most European city, regularly topping travel magazine favorite cities lists, and famed for its postcard-perfect vistas, San Francisco is indeed, as John Steinbeck described, “a golden handcuff with the key thrown away.” But it’s more than topography that makes the City by the Bay one of the top places for 16.5 million visitors to leave their hearts each year. The colorful Molded and refined politically, socially, and physically and refined by a variety of natural and manmade events outlined here, the city’s character is like no other.

San Francisco Today

While San Francisco’s international character began to take shape during the 1849 Gold Rush (discussed below), over the past two decades, California’s fourth largest and most densely populated city (second in the nation, behind New York, with 826,000 residents), has weathered the wild ride of two more boom-or-bust economies. The first, in the late 1990s, was the famed “Dot-com boom,” which, when it went bust in the early 2000s, left the city’s residents, businesses and real estate market reeling from economic whiplash. Today, it’s on an upswing again. Only this time, there’s no end in sight to the growth and influx of new wealth. With the Bay Area as the epicenter of the now-established Internet industry and San Francisco the most compelling crash pad for young entrepreneurs and tech workers (who have access to big luxurious private busses that shuttle them to Silicon Valley), the face of the city is changing at wireless Internet speed. Teardown homes in nice neighborhoods are selling for upward of $2 million. Room rentals in shared homes regularly go for more than $1,200. Once-desolate industrial areas are now being developed into multi-use communities teeming with glistening new luxury condos, chic restaurants and trendy businesses.

 

4 Where to Stay

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Where to Stay

From luxury resorts to funky motor inns to charming B&Bs, San Francisco is more than accommodating to its 15.7 million annual guests. Most of the city’s 200-plus hotels cluster near Union Square, but smaller, independent gems are scattered around town. Stay in the heart of the tourist action for easy access to shopping and museums or shack up in the city’s quieter residential neighborhoods for a more authentic, local experience. Whatever you do, the city’s small enough that you’ll have easy access to everything you want to do and see.

Practical Matters: The Hotel Scene

Getting the Best Deal

The listings in this chapter give you an idea of the kind of deals that may be available at particular hotels. All rates showcase the low and high end of each hotel’s price structure. Since there is no way of knowing what the offers will be when you’re booking, consider these general tips if you want to get the best prices:

Choose your season carefully. Room rates can vary dramatically— by hundreds of dollars in some cases—depending on what time of year you visit. Winter, from November through March, is best for bargains, excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years, of course—though the days between Christmas and New Years can offer amazing deals, and these just happen to be some of the best shopping days all year in Union Square. Occupancy rates hover around 90 percent from June through October; rates adjust upwards accordingly. Bizarrely enough, when the city fills up, lesser quality hotels will often charge prices that are equal to or even higher than what the luxury hotels are asking. So it’s important to never assess the quality of a hotel by the price it’s asking. Instead, read the reviews carefully and compare the prices you’re being quoted to make sure you’re not getting taken.

 

5 Where to Eat 73

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Where to Eat

During the Gold Rush, immigrant miners hungry for a taste of home created a demand—and the supply—for small kitchens serving classic dishes from all over the globe. And just like that San Francisco’s restaurant culture was born. Add year-round access to an unparalleled bounty of local organic produce, seafood, free-range meats, and wine, as well as a creative culinary scene, restaurant-obsessed residents, and a still-vibrant and diverse chef community and you’ve got one of the world’s top foodie destinations.

With more than 3,500 restaurants within its seven square miles, San Francisco has more dining establishments per capita than any other U.S. city—and a heck of a lot of competition. While this guide barely scratches the surface of the culinary delights the city has to offer, we’ve included can’t-miss favorites across a wide range of cuisines, price ranges, and neighborhoods. Some are brand new, yet already earning coveted foodie awards; others have been around forever for a reason. Some are white-tablecloth establishments that present their culinary masterpieces with warm formality, while others are so casual they practically toss you your food, a paper plate, and a napkin from out of the side of a truck. Regardless, it’s impossible to get in and out of San Francisco without having some kind of gastronomic epiphany, or at least a few dining experiences that leave you wondering if you, in fact, left your stomach, as well as your heart, in San Francisco.

 

6 Exploring San Francisco 98

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Exploring San Francisco

San Francisco boasts panoramic vistas, distinct neighborhoods, outdoor activities to delight the most adventurous, and museums to engage the most curious. It’s European charm meets cutting-edge technology meets laid-back California living. In other words, San Francisco offers something for everyone, whether your idea of exploring means history tours and museums or self-guided wandering. Spend time in world-famous tourist destinations or discover the city’s lesser-known gems—either way you’re bound to discover why millions of visitors leave their hearts in San Francisco.

A (Nearly) Citywide Attraction

Cable Cars   Although they may not be San Francisco’s most practical means of transportation, cable cars are certainly the most beloved and are a must-have experience. Designated official moving historic landmarks by the National Park Service in 1964, they clank up and down the city’s steep hills like mobile museum pieces, tirelessly hauling thousands of tourists each day to Fisherman’s Wharf and elsewhere at the brisk pace of 9 miles per hour.

 

7 City Strolls 140

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City Strolls

Despite its notorious hills, San Francisco has a reputation for being a walking city. Perhaps it’s because around every corner, there’s a panoramic view that rewards those who tackle the steep slopes. Plus, as a city that boasts the most restaurants per capita in the country, we need all the walking we can get to work off the ongoing gastro indulgences. Regardless, the best way to soak up the distinct personalities of each neighborhood is to hoof it—you’ll get a better sense of the geography and topography and an intimate understanding of why San Francisco regularly tops “Best City” lists. The following introductory city strolls boast the best views and most interesting streets. While they won’t divulge all of the town’s beloved nooks and crannies, they’ll certainly inspire you to seek more of them out.

Walking Tour 1: Chinatown: History, Culture, Dim Sum & Then Some

This tiny section of San Francisco, bounded loosely by Broadway and by Stockton, Kearny, and Bush streets, is said to harbor one of the largest Chinese populations outside Asia. Daily proof is the crowds of Chinese residents who flock to the herbal stores, vegetable markets, restaurants, and businesses. Chinatown, specifically Portsmouth Square, also marks the original spot of the city center. On this walk, you’ll learn why Chinatown remains intriguing to all who wind through its narrow, crowded streets, and how its origins are responsible for the city as we know it.

 

8 Shopping 162

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Shopping

San Francisco is a little like a consignment shop itself—if you look in the corners and do a little digging, you’re bound to find treasures. As diverse as the clientele itself, shopping options represent every style, era, fetish, and financial status here—not in sprawling shopping malls, but scattered throughout the city in the unique neighborhood boutiques. Whether it’s a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes, a Chanel knockoff, or Chinese herbal medicine you’re looking for, San Francisco’s got it. Just pick a shopping neighborhood, wear some sensible shoes, and you’re sure to end up with at least a few take-home treasures.

The Shopping Scene

Major Shopping Areas

San Francisco has many shopping areas, but here’s where you’ll find most of the action.

Union Square & Environs  San Francisco’s most congested and popular shopping mecca is centered on Union Square and bordered by Bush, Taylor, Market, and Montgomery streets. Most of the big department stores and many high-end specialty shops are here, including Bloomingdales (at 4th and Market sts.), Brooks Brothers (Post St. at Grant Ave.), Macy’s (at Stockton and O’Farrell), Neiman Marcus (at Stockton and Geary), and Nordstrom (Market at 5th sts.). Be sure to venture to Grant Avenue, Post and Sutter streets, and Maiden Lane. This area is a hub for public transportation; all Market Street and several other buses run here, as do the Powell–Hyde and Powell–Mason cable car lines. You can also take the Muni streetcar to the Powell Street station.

 

9 Nightlife 175

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Nightlife

San Francisco’s nightlife is as varied and colorful as the clientele, and each neighborhood offers a different vibe, which means there’s something for everyone, but there isn’t one place that offers a quintessential experience. Whether you linger downtown or head to the various corners of the city, there’s always something going on. The best part? Unlike Los Angeles or New York, you won’t pay outrageous cover charges to be a part of the scene. For up-to-the-minute nightlife information, turn to the “San Francisco Weekly” (www.sfweekly.com) and the “San Francisco Bay Guardian” (www.sfbg.com), both of which run comprehensive listings. They are available for free at bars and restaurants and from street-corner boxes all around the city. “Where” (www.wheresf.com), a free tourist-oriented monthly, also lists programs and performance times; it’s available in most of the city’s finer hotels. The Sunday edition of the “San Francisco Chronicle” features a “Datebook” section, printed on pink paper, with information on and listings of the week’s events. If you have Internet access, it’s a good idea to check out www.citysearch.com, www.sfstation.com, or www.7x7.com for the latest in bars, clubs, and events. And if you want to secure seats at a hot-ticket event, either buy well in advance or contact the concierge of your hotel and see if they can swing something for you.

 

10 Day Trips from San Francisco 190

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Day Trips from San Francisco

One of the best things about the City by the Bay is its proximity to breathtaking natural beauty and vibrant, diverse, neighboring communities. In less than 30 minutes from San Francisco, you can feel on the edge of the world at the cliffs of the Marin Headlands, look up the trunk of a 600-year-old Redwood, or explore the scenic waterfronts of Sausalito and Tiburon. And to the east, Oakland and Berkeley are destinations in their own right for their fantastic restaurants burgeoning art scenes. Plus, if the fog’s got you shivering, any of these locations are worth the trip just to warm up! Whether you use public transportation, rent a car for the day, or take a guided tour, here are some great ways to spend a day out of the city.

Berkeley

10 miles NE of San Francisco

While Berkeley has lost some of the counter-culture cache that made it famous in the 1960s, it’s still fun to visit the iconic University of California at Berkeley and its surrounding town. Despite the media portrayal, the university is more academic than psychedelic with 22 Nobel Prize winners over the years (8 are active staff). Today, there’s still some hippie idealism in the air, but gone are the days of free love and violent protests. The Summer of Love is present only in tie-dye and paraphernalia shops and like elsewhere in the Bay Area gentrification is reshaping Berkeley’s vibe. As San Francisco’s rent and property prices soar out of the reasonable range, young people, artists, and everyone with less than a small fortune are seeking shelter elsewhere, and Berkeley is one of the top picks—although Oakland is gaining popularity—a lively city teeming with all types of people, a beautiful college campus, vast parks, great shopping, and some incredibly deliciously affordable restaurants.

 

11 Wine Country 204

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Wine Country

The rolling green hills and pocket ponds of this region are so beautiful they could be considered draw enough, but of course, the main reason one comes here is unparalleled access to enjoy world-class food and drink surrounded by pastoral splendor. There’s no doubt the Wine Country is all about the Good Life—so much so that you may find yourself developing a desire to drop everything and move here to stomp grapes. Use this chapter as a quick primer for a weekend or day trip into a world that you are sure to fall in love with.

A Quick Lay of the Land

Picture the whole area as a long, uppercase U in which the two top tongs are pinched together around a light mountain range. On the “left,” or western, tong of the U is vast and widespread Sonoma County, where the principal north-south road is U.S. 101, which goes straight to the Golden Gate; while in Napa County, the eastern half, it’s the more congested 128. In Napa County, the main road is 29, which, especially around rush hour, can be slow going.

 

12 Planning Your Trip to San Francisco 226

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Planning Your Trip to San Francisco

As with any trip, a little preparation is essential before you start your journey. This chapter provides a variety of planning tools, including information on how to get there, how to get around within the city once there, and when to visit. And then, in a mainly alphabetical listing, we deal with the dozens of miscellaneous resources and organizations that you can turn to for even more trip-planning assistance.

Getting There

By Plane

The northern Bay Area has two major airports: San Francisco International and Oakland International.

San Francisco International Airport  Almost four dozen major scheduled carriers serve San Francisco International Airport (SFO; www.flysfo.com), 14 miles directly south of downtown on U.S. 101. Drive time to downtown during rush hour is about 40 minutes; at other times, it’s about 20 to 25 minutes. You can also ride BART from the airport to downtown and the East Bay.

Oakland International Airport  About 5 miles south of downtown Oakland, at the Hegenberger Road exit of Calif. 17 (U.S. 880; if coming from south, take 98th Ave.), Oakland International Airport (OAK; www.oaklandairport.com) primarily serves passengers with East Bay destinations. Some San Franciscans prefer this less-crowded, more accessible airport, although it takes about a half-hour to get there from downtown San Francisco (traffic permitting). The airport is also accessible by BART via a shuttle bus.

 

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