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The famous American writer Mark Twain once said that the coldest winter he’d ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. Yes, San Francisco has a big warm heart, but any tourist planning to spend time wondering along its hilly streets, better come prepared with a thick sweater and a wind cutter. Yes, San Francisco can be bitterly windy and cold, even in the middle of August (just ask Mark Twain!).
San Francisco is not only a city of distinct neighborhoods; Chinatown, North Beach (Italian), the Mission (Mexican/Latin American), Japan Town, etc. It’s also a city of districts microclimates. It can be bone chillingly cold along the waterfront at Fisherman’s Wharf, but just a short cable car ride later, you can be in the heart of the Mission District, enjoying the sun (and the spicy food). Someone once said that San Francisco was a blend of many cities.
It has echoes of Manhattan in its financial district of Hong Kong along the shops of Chinatown, Mexico City around the taquerias of the Mission, London and Dublin in the foggy, pub lined streets of the Richmond district, and when you add the nearby wineries of the Napa Valley, the giant trees of Muir Woods, the roaring pacific coastline, and the ski slopes surrounding Lake Tahoe, you will find enough variety to fill out a whole country, perhaps even a continent. Welcome to the San Francisco Bay Area, a land as beautiful as it is varied and multicultural.
To Rent or Not Rent a Car
With so much variety in the city of San Francisco and in the Bay Area, where should a tourist start? One consideration would be to rent a car. This is the USA after all and car rentals can be as low as $20 per day (plus deposit and insurance). So if you’re over 25 and have a credit card, it’s a great idea to rent a car. But renting a car is not absolutely necessary. San Francisco is actually one of the few cities in the USA with decent public transportation, and a car can actually be a hindrance inside the city itself (due to parking and traffic), so I recommend to use public transportation inside the city of San Francisco, and use your car rental to explore the surrounding areas, including the Napa Valley, Lake Tahoe (for skiing) etc. If you are unable to rent a car, don’t worry; tours of the Wine Country, Muir Woods and Reno/Lake Tahoe can be booked from one of the many tourist booth along Fisherman’s Wharf. You can also get a multiple day Muni pass valid on all city buses, and even on the iconic San Francisco cable cars. Are you ready to explore the ‘City by the Bay? Let’s go.
San Francisco’s Bay Area Top 10
1. Fisherman’s Wharf & Alcatraz
Fisherman’s Wharf is world famous (it has even appeared in a James Bond film). Tourists love it, locals avoid it, and it offers the first glimpse of what San Francisco is all about: Sourdough bread, fresh seafood restaurants, the ferry to Alcatraz and Pier 39 (with all its souvenir shops, restaurants and resident sea lions). You can wonder along the many souvenir shops before lunch at the Hard Rock café and the ferry ride to Alcatraz Island (once the most notorious prison in America). The views from Alcatraz and the ferry will include the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, the Marin County Headlands and the skyline of San Francisco.
There are longer and taller bridges in the world, but very few bridges are as beautiful as the Golden Gate Bridge. Spanning the entrance to San Francisco Bay, the bridge’s Art Deco design blends beautifully with the rust colored hills and the blues of the sky and ocean. A perfect spot for a photo op, you can walk the whole span to the outlook on the Marin side. Don’t miss a visit to Fort Point, located right at the base of the bridge’s south pillar, for a close up view of a Civil War era military fort and the lives of the soldiers that once served there.
A visit to San Francisco is not complete without a visit to Chinatown. Go for Dim Sum before you explore the shops, you will feel like you just landed in Hong Kong.
The heart of the Mission district is the Latin American heart of San Francisco. Visit the Mission Dolores, San Francisco’s original Spanish mission, have a spicy Mexican burrito and browse the trendy thrift stores for vintage clothing.
The Height, as it’s popularly known, is famous the world over for its colorful history during the “Summer of Love” and for practically inventing the Hippy movement. The hippies have grown older, but their children are still there, as well as many cool shops and restaurants. Visit Amoeba Music, one of the largest independent record stores for classic vinyl and live bands.
Union Square is where the boutiques are, so if you’re a big fan of Gucci, Prada, Tiffany’s, Sara, Levi’s, or Brook’s Brothers, this is the place for you. Union Square is also San Francisco’s premiere dinning and nightlife district, with several five star restaurants and European style nightclubs.
Located in the Marin Headlands, about ten miles north of San Francisco, and across the Golden Gate Bridge; Muir Woods was featured prominently in the classic Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo. This grove of ancient giant sequoia trees (some almost 1500 years old) will humble and amaze you with the power of nature.
Wine lovers will have a field day visiting California’s most famous wine region. But Napa has much more than wine. Visit the Sonoma Cheese factory for great local cheese, and learn about the history of California at Sonoma’s Mission. You can actually take a wine train, or hire a limousine for the day to visit all the main wineries, including Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon Estate, complete with memorabilia from his movies.
10. Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is the San Francisco Bay Area’s premier ski destination. The lake is shared between California and Nevada, with the Nevada side hosting all the Casinos and California boasting of Squaw Valley, home of the 1960 winter Olympics. To keep the peace, both California and Nevada share the Heavenly Ski resort, located right on the border. You can ski in Heavenly during the day and then head to one of the many world class Casinos located at the foot of the ski lifts for some nice après-ski. You can reach Lake Tahoe by car or book a day tour with coach transfer from San Francisco.