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Let's go to San Francisco, let's go, let's discover it...
This is what the pop group The Flowerpop Men sang in 1967, at the height of the hippie wave that swarmed over the city. The hippies have gone, but San Francisco is still hip. The city is known for being exceptionally tolerant, is a cultural melting pot, and is beautifully situated on a peninsula between the Pacific and the San Francisco Bay. Let's discover it!
The city's icon is the Golden Gate Bridge, which spans the narrow connection between the ocean and the bay. Every year, millions of tourists walk across the footpath of the 2.7-kilometer-long suspension bridge to enjoy the magnificent views over the city and the bay. Make sure to bundle up though, as it can be very windy and quite chilly on the bridge.
When looking east from the bridge, you will see Alcatraz Island, with its notorious prison. In 1962, three prisoners are said to have escaped from Alcatraz on a raft made out of raincoats. They were never heard from again, so it remains unclear whether they drowned or truly escaped. The story was turned into the movie Escape from Alcatraz. Trips to the prison island are extremely popular, so make sure to buy your tickets well in advance.
In the Golden Gate Park, which runs all the way to the Pacific, there is a remarkable building that is entirely covered with perforated copper sheets. This causes constant changes in color, depending on the position of the sun. The building houses the De Young Memorial Museum, which has a fascinating collection of North and South American art, as well as a section dedicated to African art. The spiraled tower's top floor is an observation platform.
Another San Francisco icon: The Cable Car. A ride in this cable car is an absolute must! If you want to see how these streetcars are pulled up the city's steep hills, you need to go to the Cable Car Museum in Russian Hill. The museum displays the entire system of huge engines and gigantic pulleys that is used to move the underground cables. They also have some historical streetcars on display.
Fisherman's Warf is a neighborhood full of bars, cafés and restaurants. Pier 39 is no longer used as a pier, but you can eat and drink something here while watching hundreds of seals that lie here and on nearby docks. That is, if they don't disappear again, like in December 2009. To the relief of the owners, the roaring animals returned after a few months. Right in front of Pier 39 lies the Aquarium of the Bay. Here you can see the marine life of the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific. It includes large water basins that contain for example about fifty sharks!
Further southeast, near the Bay Bridge, lies the beautifully restored Ferry Building, with its clock tower. This building is more than just a departure point for ferries, it is a food paradise! Chocolate, cheese, tea, spices and of course seafood are on display. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, the assortment is further expanded when the Farmer's Market is held.
San Francisco combines old, Victorian architecture with ultramodern buildings. The Victorian houses are sometimes called Painted Ladies, after the bright colors in which they are painted. You can find them in various locations, but one of the best-known rows of houses is the one in Steiner Street, near Alamo Square.
From the Ferry Building you walk via Market Street to the center of (luxury) shops in San Francisco, Union Square. Across the square lies the huge shopping mall Westfield San Francisco Center. Even if you don't feel like strolling along the more than 170 shops and department stores in this complex, you should still step inside to see the beautiful glass dome. San Francisco houses one of the world's largest Chinatowns. This is the best place to pick up some bargains!
The Californian wine industry emerged north of San Francisco, in Sonoma Valley. Between the Mayacamas and Sonoma mountain ranges, lie dozens of vineyards. You can sample the wines that are produced here for example at Arrowood, Cline Cellars, Moon Mountain Vineyard, Kunde Estate and Ravenswood. These days, the area east of Sonoma, Napa Valley, has become more popular as a wine region. Various itineraries have been mapped out along reputable wineries, like the Silverado Wine Trail and – riding an old steam train – the Napa Valley Wine Train.
Yellowstone Park is not the only place that has an Old Faithful geyser. Napa Valley, near Calistoga, also has a geyser that spurts thousands of liters of hot water in the air, at regular intervals. It is less spectacular than the one in Yellowstone, and is therefore also sometimes called Little Old Faithful.
South of San Francisco lies the seaside resort of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Here, you can of course relax on the beach, but for decades Carmel has been a city of writers, poets, painters, actors and other types of artists. You will therefore find many galleries with work from local artists. The city is also known for being a place with peculiar laws. It is for example prohibited to walk around in high heels. This is to prevent insurance claims by ladies who get their high heels caught on something. The ban is not enforced, but you can get a formal exemption at the city council. How about that as an original souvenir?
San Francisco attracts many tourists, but also business travelers and congress attendees. This implies a great demand for hotel rooms and so you should book well in advance. You will find many hotels around Union Square, with the luxury hotels being concentrated around Nob Hill, just north of the square. You can also find fun, albeit fairly expensive hotels near Fisherman's Wharf.
Finding parking space in San Francisco is not easy and, in addition, the rates are high. Relatively cheap parking garages include Sutter-Stockton, Ellis-O'Farrell and Mission. San Francisco has extremely stringent parking rules. In some streets parking is prohibited during rush hour, in others you can only park for a limited amount of time. Pay attention to the position of your wheels when parking on a hill! Downhill: Wheels towards the curb; uphill: Wheels towards the road.
San Francisco Airport is located twenty kilometers south of the city center. San Francisco Airport by rental car via Highway 101 South.
Alternatively you can go to Oakland International Airport, across the San Francisco Bay, which can be reached via Highway 880.