SAN FRANCISCO proper occupies just 48 hilly square miles at the tip of a slender peninsula along the Northern California coast. Potentially the most liberal major city in the US, and arguably one of the most beautiful places to visit, it remains true to itself: an individualistic place whose residents pride themselves on being the cultured counterparts to their cousins in LA. It’s a surprisingly compact and approachable city, where downtown streets rise on impossible gradients to reveal stunning views of the city, the bay and beyond, and where fog rolls in on a moment’s notice to envelop the city in mist. This is not the California of monotonous blue skies and slothful warmth – the temperature rarely exceeds 80°F and usually hovers in the 60s between May and August, until summer weather finally arrives in autumn’s early weeks.
Potentially the most liberal major city in the US, and arguably one of the most beautiful places to visit, it remains true to itself:Read More
It was the invention of the cable car that put the high in San Francisco’s high society, as it made life on the hills both possible and practical. Since 1873, these little trolleys have been an integral part of life in the city, supposedly thanks to Scotland-born Andrew Hallidie’s concern for horses. Having watched a team struggle and fall, breaking their legs on a steep San Franciscan street, Hallidie designed a pulley system around the thick wire rope his father had patented for use in the California mines (the Gold Rush was slowing, so the Hallidies needed a new market for their product). Despite locals’ initial doubts, a transportation revolution followed. At their peak, just before the 1906 earthquake, hundreds of cable cars travelled 110 miles of track throughout the city; over the years, usage dwindled and, in 1964, nostalgic citizens voted to preserve the last seventeen miles (now just ten) as a moving historic landmark.
The cars fasten onto a moving two-inch cable which runs beneath the streets, gripping on the ascent then releasing at the top and gliding down the other side. You can see the huge motors that still power these cables at the fun Cable Car Museum and Powerhouse, 1201 Mason St at Washington (daily: April–Sept 10am–6pm; Oct–March 10am–5pm; free; t 415/474-1887, w www.cablecarmuseum.org).
Before the rocky islet of Alcatraz became America’s most dreaded high-security prison in 1934, it had already served as a fortress and military jail. Surrounded by the bone-chilling water of San Francisco Bay, it made an ideal place to hold the nation’s most wanted criminals – men such as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. The conditions were inhumane: inmates were kept in solitary confinement, in cells no larger than nine by five feet, most without light. They were not allowed to eat together, read newspapers, play cards, or even talk; relatives could visit for only two hours each month. Escape really was impossible: nine men managed to get off “The Rock”, but none gained his freedom, and the only two to reach the mainland (using a jacket stuffed with inflated surgical rings as a raft) were soon apprehended.
Due to its massive running costs, the prison finally closed in 1963. The island remained abandoned until 1969, when a group of Native Americans staged an occupation as part of a peaceful attempt to claim the island for their people, citing treaties that designated all federal land not in use as automatically reverting to their ownership. Using all the bureaucratic trickery it could muster, the US government finally ousted them two years later, claiming the operative lighthouse qualified it as active.
At least 750,000 tourists each year take the excellent hour-long, self-guided audio tour of the abandoned prison, which includes sharp anecdotal commentary as well as re-enactments of prison life featuring improvised voices of the likes of Capone and Kelly. Note that the island’s name is a corruption of the Spanish word for pelicans (alcatraces), although the only reason the current islet is known as Alcatraz is thanks to a muddle-headed English mapmaker and captain who confused the names of several outcrops in the bay in 1826 – what we know as Yerba Buena Island was in fact the original Alcatraz.
Ferries to Alcatraz leave from Pier 33 (frequent departures from 9am–3.55pm, last ferry returns at 6.15pm; night tour departs at 5.55pm and 6.45pm; day tour $26, night tour $33; t 415/981-7625, w www.alcatrazcruises.com); allow at least three hours for a visit, including cruise time. Advance reservations are essential – in peak season, it’s nearly impossible to snag a ticket for a same-day visit.
Sports in San Francisco and the Bay Area
Sports in San Francisco and the Bay Area
San Francisco’s dedication to its professional sports teams can verge on the obsessive. Advance tickets for all Bay Area sports events are available through Ticketmaster (t 415/421-8497, w www.ticketmaster.com) or direct from the teams, although you can get often get one on the day, at least for baseball.
The Oakland A’s play at the usually sunny Coliseum (t 510/638-4900, w www.oaklandathletics.com), which has a BART stop in front. The San Francisco Giants play at AT&T Park, where home runs sometimes land in the bay (t 415/972-2000, w www.sfgiants.com).
The San Francisco 49ers, five-time Super Bowl champions, bash heads at 3Com Park (t 415/656-4900, w www.sf49ers.com), where you may have to pay around $100 per seat, while the Oakland Raiders share the Coliseum (t 510/864-5000, w www.raiders.com) with the A’s.
The gradually resurgent Golden State Warriors play at the Oracle Arena (t 510/986-2200, w www.nba.com/warriors).
The always competitive San Jose Sharks (t 408/287-7070, w sharks.nhl.com) play at the HP Pavilion in San Jose.
The San Jose Earthquakes (t 408/985-4625, w www.sjearthquakes.com), MLS champs in 2001, draw large crowds at collegiate Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara.
San Francisco’s super burrito
San Francisco’s super burrito
Philadelphia has its cheesesteaks, New York its pastrami sandwiches and Texas its barbecue. In San Francisco, the super burrito is not only the premier bargain food, but truly a local phenomenon. The city is home to well over 150 taquerias – informal Mexican restaurants specializing in tacos, quesadillas, tortas and, of course, burritos – and locals are often heard debating their favourites effusively. San Francisco’s take on the burrito differs from its Southern California cousin not only in its comparatively gargantuan size, but also in its ingredient list. Whereas a San Diego-style burrito can be an austere meal of meat, cheese and salsa scattered about a standard-size tortilla, the San Francisco version stuffs a jumbo tortilla with any number of grilled or barbecued meats, Spanish rice, beans (choices include whole pinto, black, or refried), melted cheese, pico de gallo (a splashy mix of diced tomato, onion, jalapeño and cilantro), guacamole or slices of avocado, a splatter of salsa and even sour cream.
And with its emphasis on vegetables, grains and legumes, the burrito also easily lends itself to vegetarian and vegan variants. Most San Francisco taquerias wrap their goods in aluminum foil for easy handling, as the majority of locals eat burritos by hand. Expect to pay $5–8 for a super burrito and to not have much of an appetite for hours afterward. Forego the utensils, order a Mexican beer or non-alcoholic agua fresca (fruit drink) with your foiled meal, and you’ll fit right in.