The cable cars, the chocolate, the state–of–the–art this–and–that, the park with the buffalo. But mostly San Francisco is about the hills. The city sits improbably on them, a lofty, cosmopolitan peninsula amid some of the world's most spectacular scenery. It's a small place on the map. But even the shortest trip is an adventure on inclines like ski slopes, with views to take your breath away. A walk becomes a hike, a drive becomes an amusement park ride, and the possibility of a thrilling surprise lies over every rise.
THE SHORTLIST (a.k.a. the classics)
Golden Gate Bridge What can be said about the bridge that Tony Bennett hasn't already implied?You're sure to drive across, but for the true bridge experience, walk or bike.
Cable Cars Yes, every tourist in town is standing in line with you to board a cable car, but how often do you get to ride a National Historic Landmark?They lurch, glide, jerk, clang––and carry you up and down the hills far more joyously than you could carry yourself. Stand on the sides, heels dangling, hanging on for dear life while the conductor calls out street names and regales you with jokes as old as the cars themselves. ("Lombard Street, second crookedest street in world! The crookedest?Wall Street.") Take the Powell–Mason Line or the Powell–Hyde Line down to Fisherman's Wharf. Or disembark at the Cable Car Museum (1201 Mason St.; 415/474–1887; www.cablecarmuseum.org). On the streets where the cars run, listen for the distinctive whine of the cable in the slotted track; it's pure San Francisco.
Chinatown From its massive, gaudy entry gate on the intersection of Bush and Grant to its tiny alleyways and hidden mah–jongg parlors, this is it: the ultimate Chinatown. Here you'll find an awesome array of cheap jade jewelry, dried cuttlefish snacks, and Digimon paraphernalia. The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (56 Ross Alley; 415/781–3956) has been in business since 1962. Its equipment looks much older, as do the workers. Accept the free sample from the cooling rack; it will be the best fortune cookie you've ever had. (Fortune cookies are said to have been invented in San Francisco in 1914––by a Japanese gardener.)
Coit Tower Built in 1933 by Lillie Hitchcock Coit as a tribute to the San Francisco Fire Department, Coit Tower (1 Telegraph Hill Blvd.; 415/362–0808; www.coittower.org) crowns Telegraph Hill. The little parking lot in front is usually crammed, so take the No. 39 Coit bus or, better yet, approach it by foot, up the gently rustic Filbert Street steps (on Filbert between Montgomery and Sansome Streets). There are 360–degree views from the tower top, and splendid pre–WPA–era murals at the bottom. Look for the one showing a San Francisco Chronicle with the headline artists finish frescoes coit tower murals.
The Steepest Streets Cars line up to drive down Lombard Street between Hyde and Leavenworth. This one–block stretch is a ribbon of hairpin curves edged with gardens and the occasional teenager "buttboarding"––slaloming the sidewalks seated on their skateboards––for tips. Two blocks south of Lombard is Filbert Street, where the corresponding one–block stretch has no curves, no gardens, and a lot fewer cars. This is reputedly the steepest street in America, and looking down from the top, you will know it.
Alcatraz Book your tickets for the Alcatraz island boat and audio tour a week or two before you visit (800/426–8687 or 415/705–5555; boats depart hourly from Pier 41; www.nps.gov/alcatraz). And go early––by noon the island is mobbed. The prison tour is one of the very best of its kind. Sound effects, voices of former convicts and guards, and the bleak compound itself add up to a haunting experience. Bring lunch; there are picnic tables close to the dock.
Fisherman's Wharf This may be a shameless tourist trap (with exorbitant parking prices), but it's fun and incredibly pretty. Expect silver–painted street performers, tinseled T–shirts, and cheesy snow globes. Duck into Ripley's Believe It or Not! (175 Jefferson St.; 415/771–6188) to see a portrait of van Gogh made of toast, and video footage of Laurello, the man with the revolving head. Or get serious and tour the cramped confines of the USS Pampanito, a World War II submarine(Pier 45; 415/775–1943; www.maritime.org/pamphome.htm). At Aquarium of the Bay (Pier 39; 415/623–5300), a moving walkway glides quietly through an underwater Plexiglas tunnel surrounded by fish.
SCIENCE CENTERS, MUSEUMS, AND RELATED BIG DEALS
The cavernous Exploratorium (3601 Lyon St., inside the Palace of Fine Arts; 415/397–5673), the sole surviving building from the Pacific–Panama Exposition of 1915, is devoted to science in all its wonder and diversity. The main attraction here is the Tactile Dome (book at least a week in advance), an unassuming geodesic structure in which kids navigate a series of environments and obstacles in total darkness, figuring out their path by touch. It's cramped for adults, so let the kids go it alone. The 500–odd other exhibits invite involvement––kids shoot hoops while wearing distorting glasses, press their faces into a huge pin–screen, and listen as an echo tube makes a clap sound like a gunshot. There's a separate play area for kids under four. And for hearty souls, cow's–eye dissections take place hourly.
Metreon (101 Fourth St.; 415/369–6000 or 800/638–7366; www.metreon.com) is a Sony–produced multimedia center full of sound, fury, and Sony products for sale. Don't miss the virtual bowling alley: your cyberball rolls through a simulated landscape (San Francisco, Rome, or, for the literal–minded, a bowling alley) while you guide it past assorted hazards. Under–sevens will want to play whack–a–goblin and pull the levers that open giant flowers in the exhibit based on Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. It's an easy, unthreatening environment that would be even nicer if you didn't have to enter through the gift shop.
For a real bowling alley, visit the Rooftop at Yerba Buena Gardens (750 Folsom St.; 415/777–3727), located on the roof of the subterranean Moscone Convention Center. There's also an NHL–sized ice rink here; a playground; the gorgeous 1906 Looff Carousel, in a glass pavilion; and Zeum (221 Fourth St. @ Howard St.; 415/777–2800; www.zeum.com), an art and technology center for 8– to 18–year–olds, where you can produce your own animated short or multimedia video.
Cross a footbridge from the Rooftop to get to the Esplanade, where you won't want to missthe Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, with its waterfall and stirring words etched on glass. Ready for more?The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 Third St.; 415/357–4000; www.sfmoma.org)––Picasso! Matisse! O'Keeffe!––is across the street.
Clustered around a fountain courtyard in the middle of Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences [This property has moved and can now be found at 875 Howard St.; 415/321–8000; www.calacademy.org] is home to an aquarium, a planetarium, and a natural history museum. At the latter, the 10–minute film Earthquake has a special effect that is truly special: honest–to–goodness quaking. It's creepy, but not so creepy as the soft shuddering of the overhead lights when the show ends. Around the corner, within the complex, is a hilarious exhibit of drawings by favorite son Gary Larson, of Far Side fame. Nearby, the maze of paths through the Japanese Tea Garden (Golden Gate Park, next to the Asian Art Museum; 415/752–4277) is at its most spectacular in April, when the cherry blossoms bloom.
CALLS OF NATURE
At Golden Gate Park, you can also rent bikes and pedal west for four miles before you hit the ocean. Stop to play Pooh–sticks by the little falls on the island in the middle of Stow Lake, and watch turtles bask on the shore. Farther along, there's a buffalo paddock, playing fields, stables, the Wilhelmina Tulip Garden (with its own windmill), and, finally, the Pacific. On warm days, no one will be able to resist a little splashing around, so bring dry duds for the ride back. There are plenty of bike–rental shops across from the park on Stanyan Street, including Cyco SF (640 Stanyan St.; 415/668–8016), which accepts reservations.
Muir Woods National Monument (Muir Woods Rd., Mill Valley; 415/388–2595; www.nps.gov/muwo) is over the Golden Gate and a quick 12 miles or so north, the drive a tonic after days of hectic sightseeing. The road winds up Mount Tamalpais and down into the quietude of the redwood forest. Your first sight of the magnificent, ancient trees is mind–boggling. Everybody gets the vibe: it's the overwhelming feeling of age and permanence that cling to these trees. Babies reach out to touch the furrowed bark, and older kids try to
figure out why the scene looks familiar, even if they've never visited before (the speeder–bike sequence in Return of the Jedi was superimposed onto footage shot here). The paths are well marked for walks averaging 30, 60, or 90 minutes. Warning: This is a very popular spot. Arrive no later than 9:30 (the park opens at eight) to maximize your spiritual communing time.
On your way back, turn off Highway 101 at the second Sausalito exit, to the Marin Headlands (hours are limited–call 415/331–1540 for information). A well–preserved Nike missile–launching base serves as a museum, and there are spectacular views of the city's coastline from the Point Bonita Lighthouse, reached via a steep path and a narrow, swaying footbridge. A plaque near the path, open only Saturday through Monday, deems the journey hazardous, so it's only for older, adventurous kids. Farther on, the picturesquely rotting 19th–century hulk of Battery Mendell is an observation area scattered with World War I– and II–era gun turrets.
For more rusticity, take the 20–minute ferry ride from Pier 41 or 431/2to Angel Island State Park (415/435–1915; for ferry info, 415/773–1188), in the bay. Hike, bike, kayak (rent from Sea Trek in Sausalito, 415/332–4465), picnic, look for hummingbirds and raccoons, and poke around the long–abandoned immigration barracks and Civil War–era military installations. Campsites are available (800/444–7275).
WHERE TO STAY
WHERE TO STAY
Hip Yet Homey Bedecked in Margaritaville pastels, the Hotel del Sol (3100 Webster St.; 877/433–5765 or 415/921–5520, fax 415/931–4137; family of four from $189) is a renovated fifties motor lodge. Its57 rooms include a suite called Groovy Geeks; there's also a sauna and, best of all, a heated outdoor pool that's a godsend after a hard day's horizon–broadening. For families, the nearby dining options are ideal: there's Mel's Drive–In and IHOP on Lombard Street, and Doidge's Café (see Food and Drink) on Union Street, the Cow Hollow district's trendy shopping strip.