San Francisco: the 'heart' of California

by Cary Ordway

A few years ago, if you asked anyone what came to mind when they thought about San Francisco, it might have been the Tony Bennett song "I left my heart in San Francisco" along with cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge and Rice-a-roni. Today, such current topics as gay rights and the Silicon Valley may top the list.

Whatever your thoughts are, San Francisco retains a special place in the heart of most Californians Alcatraz islandbecause it so much epitomizes the state – its spectacular beauty, its breathtaking coastal and bay views, and its historic architecture. To be sure, it’s an expensive place to live – perhaps the costliest place to live in California – but an incredibly diverse and entertaining place to visit.

The city's hotels are among the best in the world and each seems to have its own charm and window into San Francisco history. Some are located by the waterfront, while others are perched on one of the many hills that have made this city famous.

Whether you’re a California resident, or visiting from out of state, this city should rank high on your list of California destinations. While it’s a good 400 miles north of the Los Angeles basin – in other parts of the country you would travel through three or four states to drive that far – it’s so much a part of the California experience that it cannot be overlooked.

Before you visit, though, there are a few things you should know. According to Laurie Armstrong, vice president of public relations for the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, Important Tidbit Number One is: You don’t need a car. The city is congested enough with all those people on that little peninsula but the good news is that public transportation is easy, fast and cheap. You can find a Bart (mass transit) station at the airport, or across the East Bay and let these modern trains whisk you into the downtown area. From there, you can walk, take a streetcar or take a short taxi ride to any part of the city you want to visit. If you do take your car, be sure to budget for parking spaces that cost more than some cheap motel rooms.

To save even more money, Ms. Armstrong suggests buying a CityPass, which will give you seven days of riding all of the city's Municipal Railway vehicles: cable cars, streetcars and buses. The pass, which is priced at $43 for an adult, also includes admissions to some of the city’s best museums.

Another important thing to remember when visiting San Francisco is that the weather is quite a lot cooler than Los Angeles or the Central part of the state.

"We can always tell who the visitors are," said Ms. Armstrong, "because they’re the ones wearing shorts. You have to remember if it’s sunny and hot in Golden Gate bridgethe Central Valley, it’s foggy and cold here. Some cities sell tee-shirts – we sell sweatshirts."

A few of the highlights that you’ll not want to miss are Fisherman’s Wharf with its bustling waterfront, museums and many restaurants. A trip to Alcatraz is a must – you’ll see first-hand what it was like in maximum security prison that housed the likes of "Machine Gun" Kelly and Al Capone. Pier 39 is the second most visited attraction in California and is just east of Fisherman’s Wharf. The Aquarium of the Bay is located here as well as various rides and attractions.

The Golden Gate Bridge obviously must be part of your visit and you’ll want to visit the Marin County side to see spectacular views across the bay to San Francisco. With about 1,000 acres, the Golden Gate Park is an attraction unto itself with trails, grassy meadows, lakes and gardens.

There are 14,000 great examples of Victorian architecture in the area just west of Van Ness Avenue in the Cow Hollow, Pacific Heights and Alamo Square districts. Coit Tower is atop Telegraph Hill and you’ll find a history museum inside. Chinatown is a colorful part of the city, rich in ethnic culture and well worth a visit. And don’t forget to stop by Lombard Street, "the crookedest street in the world."

According to the folks at the San Francisco CVB, here are some other interesting stops to make while in San Francisco:

Boudin Sourdough and Bakery Tour — Just opened in Spring 2005, the two-story Boudin flagship building is where visitors can observe 5,000 square feet of bakery action. Located in Fisherman’s Wharf, you can take a history tour showing the legend of San Francisco sourdough and enjoy some fresh-from the oven samples while you’re at it.

The deYoung Museum — This well-known attraction has been around more than 100 years and, on October 15, will re-open in a state-of-the-art facility that integrates art, architecture and natural landscape. The facility will showcase the museum’s priceless collection of art from the 17th through the 20th centuries.

Metreon in Yerba Buena — Metreon is the first-of-its-kind entertainment center located at Fourth and Mission streets in the heart of downtown. This 350,000 square-foot complex features an eclectic mix of the Bay Area's best restaurants, shopping venues, theatres, and entertainment destinations, including the West Coast's largest IMAX theatre.

Presidio — Formerly a military post, the Presidio is a national park and recreational paradise featuring spectacular vistas, meandering trails, and historic and architectural treasures. Go for a hike, a walking tour, a picnic, to view an exhibit or take a stroll back in time. Entrance to the park and most programs are free. The park is open daily, year-round.

Winchester Mystery House, San Jose — A bizarre, four-story mansion containing 160 rooms. Mrs. Sarah Winchester kept carpenters and craftsmen busy 24 hours a day for 38 years building this Victorian structure, but its strange construction and purpose remain a mystery. Hours Daily from 9 am daily; closed Christmas Day. homes in San FranciscoAdmission $19.95; $17.95 seniors 65 and over; $13.95 ages 6-12; under age 5 free.

Aircraft Carrier USS Hornet Museum — America's most famous aircraft carrier is a National historic landmark. Families experience naval history and space exploration firsthand with authentic aircraft on display, Apollo exhibit, and flight simulator available. Hours 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., admissions close 4 p.m. Limited access Tuesday. Admission $12 adults; $10 military, students and seniors; $5 children ages 5-18, free under 5.

The Exploratorium — Experience exciting and interactive exhibits that make learning fun, regardless of your age or familiarity with science. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.year-round. Closed Mondays except holidays. Admission $13 adults; $10 students, seniors, disabled and youth (13-17);$8 children (4-12) and under age 4 free.

Finally, your trip to San Francisco would not be complete without visiting many of the locations in the general vicinity. Napa Valley and Sonoma are just a short drive north and east out of the city. Just across the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll find Sausalito with its many trendy shops and drop-dead views of San Francisco. Travel south from the city and you come to the beach city of Santa Cruz, a popular travel destination for both Californians and out-of-staters. Farther south is the historic Monterey Peninsula with its many reminders of John Steinbeck and its world-class golfing at Pebble Beach. Just south of Monterey is the storybook village of Carmel, loaded with fascinating shops, great boutique hotels and excellent restaurants.


Where: San Francisco is located about 400 miles north of the Los Angeles basin, and is the perfect headquarters for your Northern California vacation.

What: The city boasts some of the finest hotels, restaurants and historic attractions in the state of California and is culturally one of the finest cities in America. Oh, did we mention the gorgeous bay views from almost any given place in the city?

When: Any time of year. The climate is closer to Seattle than Los Angeles, so dress warm. San Francisco cityscapeSan Francisco vacations are not like visiting the tropics.

Why: This is just a must-see part of California and will give you many sightseeing options while you visit.

How: San Francisco hotels can be expensive so be sure to look for travel deals or vacation packages to help lower the cost. Those planning San Francisco vacations will find more information at For details on the CityPass, go to For a list of area lodgings, please click here.

Other Destinations: If you're planning a Northern California vacation, please check out other California Weekend articles on Sausalito, Santa Cruz, Napa Valley and Monterey.

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