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San Francisco See And Do

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San Francisco , California

Surrounded by icy water and treacherous currents, Alcatraz was an ideal site for a high-security prison, and unsurprisingly, nearly all of those who tried to escape were caught, shot, or drowned. Enjoy a chilling tour of the jail, closed in 1963, and while strolling the exercise yard, imagine how the dazzling view of San Francisco must have tantalized inmates. The ferry departs several times daily from Pier 33. In peak season, book in advance by calling 415-981-7625, or go to

Angel Island
San Francisco , California

The largest island in the Bay, Angel Island was home to the Miwok Native Americans before being taken over by the Spanish, and it was later used as an immigration and quarantine station. The hiking is gorgeous, despite a 2008 wildfire that charred half the island. Come between February and April for the best wildflower displays. You can tour the immigration station year-round. Climb to the top of 800-foot Mount Livermore to enjoy a picnic while contemplating the spectacular view. The ferry to the island departs from the Ferry Building and Pier 41 (415-705-5555;—Updated by John Vlahides

Barbary Coast Trail
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 454 2355

When San Francisco was a bustling port, the colorful neighborhood of brothels, saloons, and lodging houses frequented by sailors was known as the Barbary Coast. The Barbary Coast Trail connects 20 historic sites, including the birthplace of the Gold Rush, the U.S. Mint Building, the oldest Asian temple in North America, and a Silver King mansion. Begin this 3.8-mile trail at Mission and Fifth streets and follow the path marked with bronze medallions set in the sidewalk. Maps and official trail guides can be purchased at visitor centers and local bookstores, and the San Francisco Historical Society sponsors various tours of the trail.

Bay to Breakers

Founded in 1912, Bay to Breakers once held the Guinness record for the world's largest footrace, with 110,000 participants. It's no longer the biggest, but these days, nearly 80,000 athletes from the Bay Area and around the globe still make the trek, on the third Sunday in May, from the Ferry Building to Ocean Beach. Such wide appeal might seem surprising considering the difficult 12K course, which runs over San Francisco's notoriously steep hills. But since 1940, when the event's first woman runner participated in drag, Bay to Breakers has been something akin to a circuit party, with competitors showing up in all manner of costumes—or without any clothing at all—often toting portable bars stocked with beers and mixed drinks. Live bands play along the course, while a big-name act (in the past, Bonnie Rait and Better Than Ezra) plays a gig at the finish line in Golden Gate Park.

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Cable Car Rides
San Francisco , California

Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964, the San Francisco cable cars are crowded but worth riding at least once for the gorgeous views and one-of-a-kind experience. Of the three routes, Powell-Hyde (over Nob and Russian Hills to Aquatic Park) and Powell-Mason (over Nob Hill to Fisherman's Wharf) are the most scenic, but they're also the most crowded, as they carry passengers to and from Fisherman's Wharf. If you can't stomach the long queues or want to find someplace off the tourists' radar, ride the California Street line (over Nob Hill toward Pacific Heights; closed for construction until mid-June 2011) from its terminus at Market Street to the end of the line at Van Ness Avenue; from there, walk to Lafayette Square, in Pacific Heights, for a hilltop picnic, followed by window shopping along swanky upper Fillmore Street. (Tip: For a great photo on the California cable car, shoot east downhill as you approach Stockton Street; the Bay Bridge tower is briefly framed just right between downtown skyscrapers.) For all lines, board at the beginning/end of each circuit or hail the car along the route from one of the stops marked with brown-and-white signs. Purchase tickets at turnarounds or from the conductor ($5; MUNI transfers not accepted). Service is frequent, with special schedules on weekends—check for details. —updated by John A. Vlahides

California Academy of Sciences
55 Music Concourse Drive
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 379 8000

Among the world's largest natural-history museums, the California Academy of Sciences is as renowned for its collection—over 26 million specimens gathered over the past 150 years—as it is for the building that houses them. Opened in late 2008, the Renzo Piano–designed museum earned a LEED Platinum certification for its eco-sensibility. Vast expanses of glass, crisscrossed by recycled-steel beams, allow the sun to shine inside the exhibits, which include a knockout four-story rain forest dome filled with towering tropical trees, colorful birds, and fluttering butterflies. The glass elevators that descend from the rain forest to the Steinhart Aquarium double as a viewing window into the enormous tank, its coral reefs teeming with candy-colored fish. Be sure to pick up tickets for the hourly shows at the state-of-the-art Morrison Planetarium, the world's largest all-digital planetarium; sit up high for the best perspective on the 75-foot-diameter dome. And don't miss the 2.5-acre roof, another green feature, planted with native grasses, trees, and flowers; the idea was to give the illusion that a slice of earth had been lifted up to install the museum beneath it. Even on a foggy day, when mist twirls in the treetops, the park views from atop the roof are stupendous. To avoid hordes of schoolchildren, consider coming on Thursday evenings, from 6 to 10 pm, when the museum hosts Nightlife, an over-21 event with cocktails and DJs in the atrium; the entire museum is open for viewing at this time. This event nearly always sells out, so make reservations.—John Vlahides

Open Mondays through Saturdays 9:30 am to 5 pm, Sundays 11 am to 5 pm.

The Castro

The Castro, America's favorite gayborhood, has few tourist sights, but is unmatched for people-watching. The area is crammed with out-and-proud bookstores, bars, and clubby restaurants—hit Lime at brunch for all you can drink mimosas. The glass-walled Twin Peaks Tavern is famous as one of the first gay bars that did not hide its identity. Catch a movie at the Castro Theatre, a historic landmark and one of the few 1920s movie palaces still in operation today.

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San Francisco , California

Chinatown is a prime tourist destination, but it's also a bustling residential neighborhood, where dim sum scents the air and grocery stores sell chicken feet and Chinese greens. You'll find stores that seem to sell everything, from slippers and cheongsams to gorgeous fish-shaped kites. Admire the ornate balconies of Waverly Place then climb up to the Tien Hau Temple (125 Waverly Pl.), lavishly decorated in gold and vermilion.

Chinese New Year Parade
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 391 9680

Invented in the 1860s by Chinese immigrants as a way to share their culture, this is the largest parade of its kind in the United States. Giant dragons and lions, local dignitaries, marching bands, and costumed dancers snake through downtown, and the newly crowned Miss Chinatown USA and her court wave coyly from their float. Dress warmly and find a spot to watch early along the route (the sidewalk gets more crowded as you approach Chinatown) or spring for a $30 bleacher seat. The event takes place between January 21 and February 21. Chinese New Year dates vary; check the Web site for schedule.

Cole Valley
San Francisco , California

A stroll in Cole Valley, to the south of the Upper Haight, is a pleasant way to escape that area's crowds. Admire the Victorians on Ashbury Street, or go up Shrader Street, passing the "Angel of Hope" in front of #1591, carved from a cypress trunk after the tree fell in a 1997 storm. Turn left on Belgrave Street to enjoy the glorious vista from Tank Hill.

Crissy Field
603 Mason Street
San Francisco , California

This broad, grassy meadow between the Palace of Fine Arts and Fort Point was formerly the site of a U.S. Army post but is now a public park with a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. You'll see many devotees of the Californian cult of fitness, from joggers and bikers to kite-surfers and Rollerbladers. Take a picnic so you can soak in the vista, stroll, and people-watch, or buy a cheap kite in Chinatown and meditate as it floats on the breeze.

Open daily 9 am to 5 pm.

De Young Museum
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 863 3330

Damaged by an earthquake in 1989, the de Young opened its strikingly angular new building—clad in a perforated copper skin—in Golden Gate Park in October 2005. Locals love it or hate it: Some say it looks like a dragon; others, like something aliens built in the night. The permanent collection comprises American, African, Oceanic, American Indian, New Guinea, Maori, and Filipino art and includes some notable works by Frida Kahlo. The below-ground galleries house temporary exhibitions of varying quality. When it's clear out, the spectacular view from the nine-story observation tower is a stunner. On Friday evenings, the museum stays open late for its "Friday Nights at the de Young" program, when you can sip cocktails as you take in anything from poetry to performance art.—Updated by John Vlahides

Open Tuesdays through Thursdays 9:30 am to 5:15 pm, Fridays 9:30 am to 8:45 pm, and Saturdays and Sundays 9:30 am to 5:15 pm.

3601 Lyon Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 397 5673

Unlike the exhibits at most museums, those at the Exploratorium are designed for tinkering with, climbing on, and crawling through, so as to teach you about science and perception through play. Adults as well as kids will enjoy blowing giant bubbles or entering a tiny room that scrambles one's sense of perspective. Don't miss the Tactile Dome, where during an intense 15-minute odyssey through pitch-blackness, you encounter hundreds of different shapes, temperatures, and textures; advance reservations for the Tactile Dome are essential.

Open Tuesdays through Sundays 10 am to 5 pm.

Fillmore Jazz Festival

Twenty years before Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead transformed the Haight into hippie haven, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie were claiming Fillmore Street as an international jazz capital. In a tip of the hat to San Francisco's rich musical tradition, the Fillmore Jazz Festival was founded in 1985. Ever since, nearly 90,000 fans fill the street during Fourth of July weekend, all ears for predominantly local talent including San Francisco favorites, the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra. The event brings artists from around the Bay Area to show their works, and it remains the biggest free jazz fest on the West Coast.

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Gay Pride
San Francisco , California

As befits this gay mecca, San Francisco has one of the largest Pride celebrations in the world, drawing nearly a million attendees on the last weekend of June. Celebrating the birth of the gay rights movement, the event is a giant fiesta where you can drink frozen margaritas all day long, boogie to thudding dance music, and admire the spectacularly costumed attendees, from eyelash-batting drag queens to stilt walkers in rainbow caftans, traveling west along Market Street from Beale Street to Eighth Street. Check the Web site for times and details.

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Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco , California

Opened in 1937, Golden Gate Bridge is named after the Golden Gate Strait, the entrance to the San Francisco Bay. Its color, "international orange," was selected to enhance its visibility to ships in the fog. Perhaps the world's most beautiful bridge, it is also its leading suicide location: More than 1,200 have jumped to date. Plastic-wrapped notes found in the jumpers' pockets include the lines "Survival of the fittest," "Adios—unfit," and "Absolutely no reason except I have a toothache." Instead of driving or cycling (or jumping), walk across the bridge to savor the majestic views—but be sure to dress appropriately. It can get chilly up there, and favorite hats have been known to sail away in the gusting wind.

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Golden Gate Park
San Francisco , California

This lovely park, created by Scotsman John McLaren toward the end of the 19th century, is so lush and blossom-filled that it's hard to believe it was built on barren dunes. Lounge on the grass among the gorgeous flowerbeds in front of the Conservatory of Flowers, the oldest existing conservatory in the Western Hemisphere. Take tea in the teahouse in the Japanese Garden, with its carp-filled ponds, dainty bridges, and bronze Buddha. And if you're feeling energetic, hike Strawberry Hill or an island in Stow Lake, or rent bikes (try Golden Gate Park Skate & Bike, 3038 Fulton St.; 415-668-1117) and head for Ocean Beach.

Hayes Valley

Home to stylish clothing boutiques, furniture stores, and art galleries, Hayes Valley is the perfect place for window-shopping. Nearly every business is homegrown and unique (residents campaigned to stop a Starbucks from moving in). Salivate over the handmade shoes at Paolo, or the 220-plus sakes at True Sake. Recharge at cult favorite Blue Bottle Coffee with a rich, organic Gibraltar (a shot of espresso with a short pour of steamed milk).

Legion of Honor
Lincoln Park
34th Avenue at Clement Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 863 3330

This magnificent Beaux Arts building commands dramatic views of Golden Gate Bridge. Inside, its collection of ancient and European art spans 4,000 years, including more than 70 Rodin sculptures representing every phase of his career. Don't miss The Thinker and the bust of the artist by his lover, Camille Claudel.

Open Tuesdays through Sundays 9:30 am to 5:15 pm.


It has been said that San Francisco, the birthplace of a generation of Beat authors, is a city in love with two things: books and booze. Once a year, local literati—Armistead Maupin, Dave Eggers, Amy Tan, Michelle Tea—and their fans celebrate this happy, drunken marriage with a festival of readings and panel discussions. Sound boring? In any other city, it might be. Litquake, however, draws literary-minded hipsters to dive bars, swank lounges, and even laundromats with honeyed words and drink tickets. The weeklong festival, which opens the first weekend in October, culminates in a Saturday night three-hour LitCrawl through various bars in the Mission, with more than 300 authors giving readings on topics ranging from food and pets to war and sex.

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Marin Headlands
Marin County , California

A 30-minute drive directly north of San Francisco, the rolling hills and dramatic cliffs of the Marin Headlands offer the perfect respite from city bustle. The wildflower-covered hillsides bear the occasional ruin of an Army gun emplacement, and the sea breeze may bring the bleat of foghorns, each with its own distinctive pattern. Lizards dart across the path, and you may be lucky enough to see a deer. Pack a picnic and sunscreen, drive to Rodeo Beach/Fort Cronkhite, then follow the trail up from the beach to explore the headlands.

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The Mission

Home to the city's Latino community and popular with artists and yuppies, too, the gritty Mission District has taquerías and thrift stores, hip bars and upscale design boutiques—don't miss Monument for glam midcentury furniture and accessories (573 Valencia St.; 415-861-9800). In the streets around Mission and 24th, you'll find colorful Latino murals, especially in Balmy Alley. Visit the lovely old Mission Dolores, which gave the area its name (3321 16th St.; 415-621-8203). Your tour would be incomplete without a burrito: Locals favor El Farolito for its knock-out carne asada (2779 Mission St.; 415-824-7877).—Updated by John Vlahides

Musée Mecanique
Pier 45
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 346 2000

Bring quarters (or dollars for the change machine) so that you can fully enjoy this bizarre collection of historic arcade games housed at this wacky museum on Fisherman's Wharf. At the entrance stands Laffing Sal, a gap-toothed six-foot mannequin whose raucous cackle will haunt you as you explore further. Perhaps you'll ask the Sex Appeal Meter to rate your attractiveness, or maybe you'll test your strength on the Arm Wrestle Machine. Kids will love the clockwork farm, where 50 cents activates a host of tiny moving people and animals.

Open Mondays through Fridays 10 am to 7 pm, Saturdays and Sundays 10 am to 8 pm.

Museum of Craft + Design
550 Sutter Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 773 0303

This museum, sandwiched between the boutique hotels, bars, and shops just off Union Square, is much cooler than it sounds. Enter through a magnificent wrought-iron gate to a charming courtyard garden. Inside the unpretentious museum—the size of a gracious one-bedroom apartment—unexpected traveling exhibitions speak to the art of handmade design. Past showings have included a collection of artworks composed of common tools, as well as a study of wine label art. Pick up unique gift items—a "bubble wrap" vase or homespun scarf—at the funky museum store.

Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 am to 5 pm, Sundays noon to 5 pm.

Nob Hill

First colonized by railroad magnates and silver barons, Nob Hill is now home to apartment buildings with wedding-cake facades and venerable hotels like the Fairmont. Observe the cable-car system's innards at the Cable Car Museum. Then visit the neo-Gothic pile of Grace Cathedral nearby, begun in 1927 and completed in 1964. Enjoy a walk on the terrazzo-stone replica of Chartres labyrinth in the church courtyard, designed to inspire spiritual meditation. For further relaxation, book an ultimate massage at award-winning Nob Hill Spa inside the Huntington Hotel.

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North Beach

Traditionally an Italian neighborhood, North Beach was also the hangout of Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. A necessary stop for any bibliophile is City Lights Bookstore, the bookseller and publishing house founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, which first printed Allen Ginsberg's Howl. After browsing, grab a cappuccino at Caffe Trieste, where opera singers enliven Saturday afternoons. Stroll through Washington Square Park, where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio posed for wedding pictures in front of the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul. After dark, there's no place like Tosca. Opened in 1919, this retro watering hole is a favorite stomping ground for local literary types and international celebs.

Pacific Heights
San Francisco , California

Erected in the late 19th century, the elaborate Victorians here are now inhabited by millionaires. Notable houses include the Spreckels Mansion (2080 Washington St.), owned by novelist Danielle Steel, and the Haas-Lilienthal House (2007 Franklin St.; 415-441-3004), a restored Queen Anne Victorian. Enjoy the views from Lafayette Park and the steps at Broadway and Lyon streets, then head over to the ritzy Upper Fillmore for some shopping.

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Palace of Fine Arts
3301 Lyon Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 567 6642

A mock-classical ruin erected for the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in 1915, the Palace of Fine Arts was originally fashioned from wood, plaster, and burlap and intended to be merely temporary. But when the exhibition finished, locals wisely decided the building was too lovely to destroy. Ravaged by the elements, it was eventually recast in concrete in the '60s. Watch for swans and turtles sunning themselves, as well as posing brides: The building is a popular backdrop for wedding pictures.

San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival

June is Pride month in San Francisco. Rainbows flags disco-dance in the breeze along Market Street and there's a certain glitter in the air. But, before you dust off the ol' leather pants and hop a float in the parade, take in some culture at the world's most prominent LGBT film festival. Hosted by Frameline since 1977, the annual exhibition draws up to 80,000 viewers and a bevy of celebs such as Alan Cumming and Jennifer Beals for a lineup of films that range from gritty documentary to quirky indie romance to all-out queer comedy. Past hits have included Itty Bitty Titty Committee and Alexis Arquette: She's My Brother.

SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)
151 Third Street
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 357 4000

This architecturally arresting black, gray, and white museum, designed by Mario Botta and built in 1995, has five floors of 20th-century art, including works by Matisse, Pollock, Georgia O'Keeffe, Diego Rivera, and Ansel Adams. Regular free gallery tours help you wrap your head around the vast collection. If you prefer to explore on your own, start with the third-floor photography gallery and work your way up to the rooftop sculpture garden; then descend via the stunning staircase to hit the remaining galleries. Check the Web site to learn about upcoming—and always excellent—temporary exhibits.—Updated by John Vlahides

Open Thursdays through Tuesdays 10 am to 5:45 pm.

Sutro Baths/Land's End
San Francisco , California

The Sutro Baths, once three acres of pools that could hold 25,000, closed in 1952 and are now nothing but crumbling walls and brackish ponds. These melancholy ruins, with the churning Pacific as backdrop, mark one end of the beautiful Coastal Trail around Land's End. Starting from the parking lot above the Baths (uphill from the Cliff House), the trail skirts the wooded promontory to offer stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge from the seaward side.

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Telegraph Hill/Coit Tower
San Francisco , California
Tel: 415 362 0808

Telegraph Hill, once the site of a semaphore that signaled the arrival of ships during the Gold Rush, is now home to Coit Tower, a stark 212-foot monument completed in 1933 with money donated by Lillie Hitchcock Coit. Admire the WPA murals decorating the first floor and take the elevator to the top for the view. If you don't fancy the climb up Telegraph Hill, take the #39 bus (every 20 minutes). Descend via pretty Greenwich Stairway, which runs through terraced private gardens; if you're lucky, you might spot some of the wild parrots that live here.

Twin Peaks
San Francisco , California

Repeatedly voted the city's best view by locals, Twin Peaks offers a stunning 360-degree panorama of the city, the bay, and the ocean. To get there by car, take Market Street out of town until it turns into Portola, then turn right on Twin Peaks Boulevard. Take a jacket, as it can get very windy at the top.

Upper Haight
San Francisco , California

Although Haight-Ashbury was once the epicenter of the Summer of Love, little now remains of hippie counterculture other than shops peddling tie-dyed T-shirts and psychedelic bongs. Skirt-and-sweater matrons may find it vulgar, but teenagers in their Jim Morrison phase dig it. Wander past 710 Ashbury Street, the Victorian where the Grateful Dead lived, and stroll in the Panhandle, where Jimi Hendrix gave a free concert. These days, free love has yielded to costly clothing and shoe boutiques, although the amazing Amoeba Music is still beyond groovy.

Information may have changed since the date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.