More things to see in San Francisco

Everybody knows about Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, but here are a few other things you should see in a visit to the city by the bay.

City Hall, San Francisco

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by dkm1981 on December 20, 2011

City Hall is in the Civic Centre area of San Francisco and just to look at the building is worth the journey because it is quite an imposing building that makes for a good photograph.

The Civic Centre is to the South West of the Tenderloin and North of Market Street. It’s very easy to get to wherever in the city you are staying. You can walk within about fifteen minutes from Union Square by going through the Tenderloin District. From Fisherman’s Wharf you can get a bus which costs less than two dollars and there are stops all the way through the area.

Like I said, the building is very grand and imposing – so much so that it takes up two entire city blocks. The building was originally built in the early 1800s although the building that stands there now is an early 1900s replacement after the original was completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake in the city. The dome is the fifth largest in the world (only 14 inches taller than the United States Capitol) and is modelled on the dome of Les Invalides in Paris.

The grounds around the building are very well planned and presented and add to the grandeur of the place – long sweeping lawns that are perfectly manicured. This is exactly what I expected to see in front of a building that the home of the legislative and executive branches of both the San Francisco government and the county government.

It is a great building to take a picture of and you can do so from any of the intersections around it although you have to consider that the area is a busy tram way and so there will be tramlines in all your pictures. You can go round to the front of the building although it is hard to get far enough away to get the whole building in.

It is possible to go into the building and it is free to do so. If you are interested in a behind the scenes look at the place, you can get a guided tour at 10am, noon and 2pm, Mondays to Fridays. The tour is also free, which is good.

The streets that lead up to the City Hall building are also worth a perusal because there are lots of nice bookshops and coffee houses where you can sit and relax whilst watching the world go by. There are also a series of car showrooms showcasing some of the best cars in the world – my favourite being the Lambourghini showroom which has my dream car on display!
San Francisco City Hall
1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place
San Francisco, California, 94102
(415) 554-4000

Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by dkm1981 on December 20, 2011

At three miles long and almost half a mile wide, the Golden Gate Park is one of the largest man made parks in the world and it is a lovely place to while away a sunny afternoon.

There are lots of things to see here, not least the amazing gardens which include the Japanese Tea garden (where the fortune cookie is said to be invented), a rose garden and a rhododendron dell which are all very pretty. If you want to be more active, you can join the thousands of cyclists and skaters who always fill the parks pathways. The Japanese Tea Gardens are particularly fun to walk around because there are lots of cute little crooked paths and stone bridges to explore. You really do feel like you are at one with nature and it’s a bit like being in a childhood story wandering around.

For those who enjoy flora, there is also the Conservatory of Flowers which costs around $5 to get in and is actually apparently the oldest glass and wood Victorian greenhouse in the western hemisphere – an obscure title to hold, but an fairly impressive building none the less. There are over 2000 types of plant and flower in the conservatory, but the biggest crowd pleaser has got to be the butterfly area in which there are so many butterflies flying freely around the zone.

The park is also home to the massive California Academy of Sciences complex which is home to a living rainforest containing, amongst other things, a 210,000 gallon aquarium, an alligator swamp and 38,000 animals from around the globe. The design of the building itself is something else; the roof is a 197,000 square foot area of ‘living greenery’ that is designed to look like rolling hills and it is made up of over a million and a half plants. It serves a purpose as well (as you would expect from a science based building) in that it absorbs 2 million litres of water a year and keeps the building tend degrees cooler than a normal roof and so saves untold amounts of energy. Fascinating stuff indeed.

A few points to consider when planning your visit:

-Most of the things to see are in the Eastern side of the park
-On Sundays, the JFK Drive is closed to traffic in certain parts
-You can get free guided tours of some parts of the park – just ask!
-It’s not recommended that you visit the park at night

So, needless to say there is a lot of fun to be had at the Golden Gate Park and you will surely enjoy a visit there especially on a nice San Francisco afternoon.
Golden Gate Park
501 Stanyan Street
San Francisco, California, 94118
(415) 831-2700

Chinatown and Nob Hill

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by dkm1981 on December 17, 2011

Another area of San Francisco that you should visit is Nob Hill and the nearby Chinatown. They sit at the top of the hill overlooking Union Square and the Tenderloin district and they are both great places to walking around and soak up the atmosphere. They both also have a couple of points of interest that may appeal to some.

Nob Hill is so named after the wealthy nabobs who built their huge mansions on the steep streets of the area. You can still see signs of the area’s heyday and the buildings are wonderful to look at. There is also an area at the base of the hills on the western side known as Polk Gulch which was once a gay mecca. Although it went through a rough period in the 1970s and gained a fairly unsavoury reputation, it is now a very peasant area with a relaxed atmosphere.

One of the main attractions in this area is the cable car museum. As the city is famous for the cable car you should take a ride on one. The routes generally run from Fisherman’s Wharf to Union Square and they provide a great way to climb the steep streets without much (or any) effort. If you are interested in learning more about them, the museum is located on Mason Street and is free to enter. You can learn about the mechanisms of the cars as well as the emergency procedures for stopping them.

In stark contrast to Nob Hill, Chinatown is a bustling area with lots of atmosphere. It is very busy and is a great place to go and watch the world go by or to grab a fairly cheap bite to eat.

The area came to fruition after the gold rush of the mid 1800s brought thousands of Cantonese to California. It originally gained itself a rather seedy reputation for vice and gambling but these days it is a much more wholesome place where tourists and locals can be found wandering the streets searching for a souvenir or a bargain.

The area runs along Grant Avenue and you absolutely can’t miss it as the streets are packed with shop and signs in Chinese writing hang everywhere. Many of the shops spill their wares out onto the pavement and the proprietors stand on the streets trying to entice people inside. It can be a bit much if you are just wanting a gentle stroll, but the people are very friendly and they do take no for an answer . . . eventually!

The main point of interest around here is the Chinatown Gate, which is located on Grant Avenue and Bush Street. It is a typically ornate affair that stands as a grand entryway into the streets of Chinatown. It was a gift from Taiwan and has a quote from Confucius on the top of it.

So if you are in the city, you should definitely have a wander around these areas to soak up the atmosphere and see what they have to offer.
Grant Avenue
San Francisco, California

Union Square - Shopper's Heaven!

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by dkm1981 on December 17, 2011

Downtown is the main hub of the city and as a result is one of the busiest parts of it. Getting there is easy enough – you can take a bus or if you are feeling energetic it is possible to walk there from almost any other area of the city in around 30 minutes – but just remember how steep the roads are in San Francisco! The most way to get there, if you are coming from Fisherman’s Wharf, is by the world famous cable car. You can board it down on Hyde and the ticket costs five dollars. There is a turnaround point right in the middle of union square where you can catch it back to the Wharf, although this stop is very popular and there is almost always a line that stretches a fair way up the street.

The main part of Downtown is Union Square, which is a shopper’s paradise. All of the big hitters are here, including many of the famous New York department stores, such as Macy’s, Bloomingdales and Saks Fifth Avenue. We loved wandering around the big department stores and it would be a particularly good way of spending the day if the weather isn’t so good. We went at the end of October and the shops were extremely busy so I can only imagine how hectic it gets nearer to Christmas and during the sales – I can only imagine that you’d have to really love shopping and grabbing a bargain to enjoy it! There are a lot of chain stores around here to including a huge Abercrombie and Fitch and lots of electrical goods stores where international visitors can grab a bargain.

The square has been designed so that it is a central point for people to meet and as a result it is a fairly open space with plenty of benches and places to sit and watch the world go by. It is a great place to do this as well because it is one of the busiest areas of San Francisco and there is a lot to watch. There are a lot of cafes and shops in the area as well where you can grab lunch to go so you can sit on one of the benches and enjoy the experience.

There are a lot of hotels in this area as well and many of them are much cheaper than the equivalent down in Fisherman’s Wharf. It would make a good enough place to stay if you are on a budget because it is easy to get anywhere in the city from here.

The only tourist spot here per se is the San Francisco Museum of Crafts and design, which as you would imagine is quite a niche museum. It shows how contemporary art and design can been seen in every day life. There is no admission fee, just a suggested donation of three dollars, so not an expensive way of whiling away a morning or afternoon if that is you thing.

Just away from Union Square is the Tenderloin District which has a reputation of being a gritty neighbourhood and is one of the only areas of San Francisco that we didn’t particularly enjoy – it is here that you see the somewhat rougher side of the city. It is here however where all the local theatres are and there are a number of good bars to frequent. It is also, at the far end, home to city hall, which is worth a visit to look at the grand building.

Overall I would say that Union Square is a great place to visit if you want to shop although that is pretty much all there is there.
Union Square Plaza
Bordered by Geary, Powell, Post and Stockton Streets
San Francisco, California

Pier 39

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by dkm1981 on November 13, 2011

Pier 39 is one of the most popular tourist spots in the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco. Many a guidebook looks down its nose at the area in general because it is quite brash and in your face, but I really enjoyed the lively atmosphere of the pier and the holiday feel that it gives you when you are there. There is plenty to do here and, unusually, not all of it costs an arm and a leg. The pier is a fun place to spend a couple of hours in the sun and most importantly it offers fabulous views of the surrounding bay.

The pier is free to enter and most of its shops and attractions are open from 10am until 9pm during the week and from 10am until 10pm at the weekends. At the entrance is the aquarium, which draws in thousands of visitors each year. You can buy discounted tickets for the aquarium at the kiosks near the pier entrance. Beyond the aquarium is the pier itself. Old fashioned in style, the design is obviously meant to make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time to a fairground type experience. The pier is wooden and pleasing on the eye. We enjoyed walking up and down, popping in the occasionally souvenir shop and grabbing a bag of pick and mix sweets (note to self, avoid the salt water taffy in future, sweets just shouldn’t have salt in them). To complete the holiday atmosphere there is a carousel in the middle and a stage where you can often catch buskers performing shows that are suitable for all the family and a lot of fun to watch.

The best thing about the pier though in my opinion is the group of sea lions that have set up camp on the docks at the side. It’s not completely clear why the sea lions moved to the docks here almost thirty years ago, but they have since made it their home and the numbers have steadily increased over the years. There is a viewing area on the bottom level of the pier where you can watch the sea lions and learn a bit about them from the interesting displays along the side. This area gets very busy though throughout the day and we much preferred to get a quieter, bird’s eye view from the upper level. In all honesty, the sea lions don’t do that much, but they are very noisy and fascinating to watch none the less, especially when one rolls over in his sleep, fall off the dock and scares the others in the process, which is what happed one day when we were there!

The other great thing about Pier 39 is that you can get some fabulous views of Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge if you walk right down to the end. The pier is pretty much the nearest point to the old prison without being on a ferry and it makes for particularly eerie viewing when the famous mist is hanging over it. There are benches down here too so you can spend a happy afternoon people watching and enjoying the sun.

If you are looking for something to eat, you’ll find it in abundance on Pier 39. There are various options depending on whether you want a light snack to walk and eat, or a full meal. There’s a nice chilled out restaurant / bar called Wipeout near the entrance of the pier that does huge portions for a reasonable price or you can try Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Shack at the other end for a Forrest Gump themed meal complete with great views over the bay.

Pier 39 is far from being a San Francisco cultural highlight, in fact it is in stark contrast to the rest of the famously hip city, but you can have fun by the bucket load here and you really should pay a visit.

Pier 39 is far from being a San Francisco cultural highlight, in fact it is in stark contrast to the rest of the famously hip city, but you can have fun by the bucket load here and you really should pay a visit.
Pier 39
Beach Street & The Embarcadero
San Francisco, California, 94133
(415) 981 7437

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