Destination guide: San Francisco, United States
San Francisco is in the state of California, on the Pacific coast of the western United States. Its main attractions are the Golden Gate Bridge, the trams that go up and down the city’s hills, Chinatown, Silicon Valley, Alcatraz and the Sierra Nevada mountains.
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San Francisco- Things to do
Alcatraz: for almost 150 years, the name has given the innocent chills and the guilty cold sweats. Over the years it’s been the nation’s first military prison, a forbidding maximum-security penitentiary and disputed territory between Native American activists and the FBI.
No wonder that first step you take off the ferry and onto ‘the Rock’ seems to cue ominous music: dunh-dunh-dunnnnh! It all started innocently enough back in 1775, when Spanish lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed the San Carlos past the 12-acre island he called Isla de Alcatraces (Isle of the Pelicans). In 1859 a new post on Alcatraz became the first US West Coast fort, and soon proved handy as a holding pen for Civil War deserters, insubordinates and those who had been court-martialed. Among the prisoners were Native American scouts and ‘unfriendlies, ’ including 19 Hopis who refused to send their children to government boarding schools where speaking Hopi and practicing their religion were punishable by beatings. By 1902 the four cell blocks of wooden cages were rotting, unsanitary and otherwise ill-equipped for the influx of US soldiers convicted of war crimes in the Philippines. The army began building a new concrete military prison in 1909, but upkeep was expensive and the US soon had other things to worry about: WWI, financial ruin and flappers. When the 18th Amendment to the Constitution declared selling liquor a crime in 1922, rebellious Jazz Agers weren’t prepared to give up their tipple – and gangsters kept the booze coming. Authorities were determined to make a public example of criminal ringleaders, and in 1934 the Federal Bureau of Prisons took over Alcatraz as a prominent showcase for its crime-fighting efforts.
‘The Rock’ averaged only 264 inmates, but its roster read like an America’s Most Wanted list. A-list criminals doing time on Alcatraz included Chicago crime boss Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, dapper kidnapper George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, hot-headed Harlem mafioso and sometime poet ‘Bumpy’ Johnson, and Morton Sobell, the military contractor found guilty of Soviet espionage along with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Today, first-person accounts of daily life in the Alcatraz lockup are included on the award-winning audio tour provided by Alcatraz Cruises. But take your headphones off for just a moment, and notice the sound of carefree city life traveling across the water: this is the torment that made perilous escapes into rip tides worth the risk. Though Alcatraz was considered escape-proof, in 1962 the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris floated away on a makeshift raft and were never seen again. Security and upkeep proved prohibitively expensive, and finally the island prison was abandoned to the birds in 1963. Native Americans claimed sovereignty over the island in the ’60s, noting that Alcatraz had long been used by the Ohlone as a spiritual retreat, yet federal authorities refused their proposal to turn Alcatraz into a Native American study center. Then on the eve of Thanksgiving, 1969, 79 Native American activists broke a Coast Guard blockade to enforce their claim. Over the next 19 months, some 5600 Native Americans would visit the occupied island. Public support eventually pressured President Richard Nixon to restore Native territory and strengthen self-rule for Native nations in 1970. Each Thanksgiving Day since 1975, an ‘Un-Thanksgiving’ ceremony has been held at dawn on Alcatraz, with Native leaders and supporters showing their determination to reverse the course of colonial history.
After the government regained control of the island, it became a national park, and by 1973 had already become a major draw. Today the cell blocks, ‘This Is Indian Land’ water-tower graffiti and rare wildlife are all part of the attraction. Tickets should be booked two weeks or more in advance – especially for the popular night tour – so plan your escape now.
California Academy of Sciences
Finally the California Academy of Sciences has a museum suited to its fascinating collection of 38,000 natural wonders and the occasional freak of nature. Under the wildflower-covered ‘living roof’ of Renzo Piano’s LEED-certified green building, butterflies flutter through a four-storey glass rainforest dome, a rare white alligator stalks a swamp, and Pierre the Penguin paddles his massive new tank in the African Hall. In the basement aquarium, kids duck inside a glass bubble to enter an eel forest, find Nemos in the tropical-fish tanks and squeal to pet starfish in an aquatic petting zoo. The views here are sublime: you can glimpse into infinity in the Planetarium or ride the elevator to the roof for panoramas over Golden Gate Park. Displays throughout the main floor explain conservation issues affecting California’s ecosystem, and you can actually eat those words – the cafeteria sells treats made with local, organically grown ingredients. For an even wilder scene, check the schedule for Thursday evenings when the academy is open late and cocktails are served.
Other towns have their gourmet ghettos, but San Francisco puts its love of food front and center at the Ferry Building. The once-grand port was overshadowed by a 1950s freeway overpass until 1989, when the freeway turned out to be less than earthquake-proof. The overpass was torn down, and the Ferry Building emerged as the symbol of San Francisco’s pride and joy – not the ferries, but the food.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) was destined from the start in 1935 to be an eclectic, unconventional museum. But when it moved into architect Mario Botta’s light-filled brick box in 1995, it became clear just how far this museum was prepared to push the art world.
The new museum showed its backside to New York and leaned full-tilt towards the western horizon, taking risks on then-unknowns like Matthew Barney and his poetic videos involving industrial quantities of Vaseline, and Olafur Eliasson’s outer-space installations that distort all sense of reality. Finally SFMOMA had room to launch international traveling shows by squeegee-wielding German painter Gerhardt Richter and great postwar Japanese photographers such as Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama. The 1995 reopening coincided with the tech boom, and new media art took off in the SFMOMA galleries at roughly the same time as new technologies in nearby South Park. Collectors took notice of this new direction, and donations and promised gifts have begun transforming SFMOMA’s holdings to a multistory collection with room for emerging niches: video art, conceptual architecture, wall-drawing installations and relational art. But one constant is SFMOMA’s standout photography collection, which got the jump-start on other museums with works by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange and William Klein, and has continued acquiring compelling contemporary works to keep the collection fresh.
There are regular, free gallery tours, but exploring on your own gives you the thrill of discovery, which is what this museum is about. The 3rd-floor photography galleries are the place to begin, then up through the 4th- and 5th-floor major-contemporary exhibits, catching your breath outdoors at the 5th-floor rooftop sculpture garden. From here, work your way down through the galleries via the dramatic stairwell to espresso and strawberry-rhubarb crisp at the ground-floor cafe. Tack on additional time for the excellent SFMOMA shop.
If you can’t swing the admission price, wander into the main atrium for free and see the vibrant comic-book historical murals of Monticello, by Kerry James Marshall, for a quick hit of the MoMa’s curatorial vision.
Sea Lions at Pier 39
Beach bums took over San Francisco’s most coveted waterfront real estate in 1990 and have been making a public display of themselves ever since, canoodling, belching, scratching their naked backsides and gleefully shoving one another off the docks. Naturally these unkempt squatters became San Francisco’s favorite mascots, and since California law requires boats to make way for marine mammals, yacht owners have to relinquish valuable slips to accommodate as many as 1300 sea lions who ‘haul out’ onto the docks between January and July, and whenever else they feel like sunbathing.
Iron Chef champ Traci Des Jardins has a way with organic vegetables, free-range meats and sustainable seafood that's slightly naughty, topping succulent octopus with crispy pork belly, and drizzling Sonoma lavender honey over squash blossoms bursting with molten sheep's cheese. Don't miss Mondays, when $45 scores three decadent courses with wine pairings.
No debatable tofu, saffron rice, spinach tortilla or mango salsa here: just classic tomatillo or mesquite salsa, marinated, grilled meats and flavorful beans inside a flour tortilla - optional housemade spicy pickles and sour cream are highly recommended.
Rescue dinner dates and the oceans with sensational, sustainable sushi: silky arctic char drizzled with yuzu-citrus and capers replaces at-risk wild salmon, and the Golden State Roll is a local hero with spicy dive-caught scallop, Pacific tuna, organic apple slivers and edible gold.
Our favorite SoMa bar feels vaguely Nordic, with white wood, antler chandeliers and fantastic art, including a murder of crows painted on the ceiling. Top-shelf ingredients, but no drink is over-intellectualized. Best Sunday to Thursday, or before midnight on weekends. Killer jukebox.
S F’s coolest weekly dance party is a Wednesday-evening techno happy hour, with a progressive theme, inside a huge window-lined art gallery. It’s been going strong for over a decade, and never fails to attract the cool cats.
Yoshi's 10pm shows nightly) San Francisco's definitive jazz club draws the world's top talent, and adjoins a pretty-good sushi restaurant.
Is Park Life a design store, an art gallery or an indie publisher? All of the above, with limited-edition scores that include flashlight-shaped candles, Styrofoam coffee cups recast in sustainable ceramic, and Park Life’s own publications on graffiti artist Andrew Schoultz. The back gallery shows rising art stars such as Alexis McKenzie, whose surreal collages show animals spelling out the words ‘Never Be Sad.’
Under One Roof
All the fabulous gift ideas under this roof are donated by local designers and businesses, so AIDS service organizations get 100% of the proceeds from your indispensable elephant tape dispenser, etched San Francisco skyline martini glasses and adorable Jonathan Adler vase. Those sweet sales clerks are volunteers, so show them some love for raising – get this – $11 million to date.
Velvet da Vinci
You can actually see the ideas behind these handcrafted gems: Lynn Christiansen puts her food obsessions into a purse that looks like whipped cream, and Enric Majoral’s Mediterranean meditations yield rings that appear to be made of sand. Shows here reveal brilliance behind the baubles; during the Ethical Metalsmiths’ ‘Radical Jewelry Makeover, ’ the public was invited to bring broken trinkets to be recycled into new jewelry, with sales supporting a campaign for responsible sourcing practices.
Professional paraders, raging exhibitionists and homecoming queens of all kinds won’t want to miss the glut of annual street fairs that kicks off with Pride month (known elsewhere as June) and ends with the gleeful partying skeletons of Día de los Muertos in November. However, if you must come in the rainier, chillier months from December through to March, don’t despair, because there’s still plenty to celebrate, both indoors and out: dance-along Nutcracker Suites, tiny-tot kung-fu classes marching in adorably inept formation in the Lunar New Year parades, throngs rocking Astroturf jackets at public art gallery openings, and the improbable incessant blooming of Golden Gate Park.
Best Festivals & Events
Dine About Town
The beginning of the new year also happens to be the height of the tourist season in these parts. Expect fair weather, crowds of visitors, higher prices than usual and a slew of special events. New Year’s Eve brings fireworks and festivals to South Beach and Downtown’s bay front.
Independent Film Festival
Cinephiles binge on over 100 indie films, documentaries, animated films and short films over two weeks in early February. [tel] 415-820-3907.
Winter blues be gone: discover your new favorite indie band and catch rockumentary premieres, crafty concert gear and rockin’ gallery openings at get-to-know-you venues; third week of February.
Lunar NEW YEAR PARADE
Chase through town the 200ft dragon, lion dancers, toddler kung-fu classes and frozen-smile runners-up for the Miss Chinatown title, as lucky red envelopes and fireworks fall from the sky like a February drizzle. [tel] 415-986-1370.
St Patrick’s Day Parade
Since 1851, the luck and libations of the Irish have been liberally enjoyed in SF in mid-March. Renegade paraders ditch the official route and leap on booze trolleys with revelers whose entire vocabulary seems suddenly reduced to ‘Erin Go Bragh!’ and ‘Woo-hoo. [tel] 415-661-2700.
Anarchist Book Fair
Rise up and read freely at Golden Gate Park’s County Fair Building on the third weekend in March. Meet radical comic book artists, swap DIY tips for organic farming and web design, and find inspiration for your own manifesto.
Asian American Film Festival
Two-hundred filmmakers debut features and documentaries at Sundance Kabuki Cinema during the third week in March. [tel] 415-863-0814.
Perpetual Indulgence in the Park
Easter Sunday is all indulgence, all day in Mission Dolores Park: there’s an Easter-egg hunt in the morning for the kiddies, followed by a bitchin’ Bonnet Contest and the Hunky Jesus Contest, for those who prefer their messiahs with some muscle tone. [tel] 415-820-9697.
Cherry Blossom Festival
Japantown blooms and booms with taiko drums, homegrown hip-hop, shrines and sunshine in mid-April. Foodies are drawn here from a 10-block radius by April breezes carrying the scent of food-stall yakitori, tempura, and gyoza (dumplings). [tel] 415-563-2313.
SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
The nation’s oldest film festival is still looking stellar after more than 50 years, with two weeks of star-studded premieres from the end of April to early May. Get tickets early and pace yourself: the longest-running film fest in the country is a marathon event, with 325 films (from countries as disparate as Denmark and Iran), 200 directors, and sundry actors and cinephile crowds subsisting almost entirely on popcorn at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema HQ. [tel] 415-561-5000.
Cinco de Mayo
On the first weekend of May, Mexican independence and Chicano pride come to Civic Center and Mission Dolores Park, complete with fantastic Aztec feather headdresses, gleaming lowriders, revolutionary speeches, chipotle chili beer and much more . ¡Que viva! [tel] 415-256-3005.
KFOG radio station gets the jump on July 4, with fireworks choreographed to the Ramones, kids’ activities and headliners like Los Lonely Boys supported by Scottish singer-songwriter sensation KT Tunstall. Take public transit to avoid traffic before and after the fireworks, which attract crowds up to 350,000 on the second Saturday of May. Tickets cost $20. Pier 30/32.
Bay to Breakers
Many run costumed, others naked, some scared from Embarcadero to Ocean Beach on the third Sunday in May. Around 65,000 people run the race – though a few runners dressed as salmon run upstream from the finish line to the beginning. Race registration costs $44 to $48. [tel] 415-359-2800.
Brazilian, or just faking it with a wax and a tan? Get head-dressed to impress and shake your tail feathers in the Mission on the last weekend of May, and brave the inevitable fog – you might be surprised where it’s possible to get goose bumps. [tel] 415-826-1401.
North Beach Street Fair
Swing dancing, pizza-tossing and sidewalk drawings worthy of Leonardo have taken over the streets of North Beach mid-June for 50 years and counting. Get your pets blessed by a priest and sample juicy Italian sausages hot off the grill – che bella. [tel] 415-989-6426.
Haight ashbury Street Fair
Free music on two stages, macramé and tie-dye galore, and plenty of dubious brownies surreptitiously for sale: all that’s missing is the free love. Takes place every mid-June since 1978, when Harvey Milk helped make the first Haight fair happen. [tel] 415-661-8025.
Gay & Lesbian Film Festival
Here, queer and ready for a premiere for three decades, yet it doesn’t look a day over 29. This is the oldest GLBT film fest anywhere and, as regular crowds of 60,000 will tell you, consistently the best. Over two weeks in the second half of June, more than 225 films launch new talents from more than 25 countries, drawing celebs like Rosie O’Donnell and John Waters, and raucous crowds that talk back to the screen. [tel] 415-703-8650.
Pink Saturday & Dyke March
Around 50,000 LBGT women parade from Dolores to Castro Sts, kicking off SF’s largest all-ages street party on the last Saturday of June. Party admission is free to all, though donations are collected by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to defray Port-a-Potty and cleanup costs.
www.sfpride.org / www.dykemarch.org
Come out wherever you are: SF goes wild for GLBT pride on the last Sunday of June, with half a million people, seven stages, tons of glitter and ounces of bikinis. The crowd roars for newlyweds, PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), men and women in uniform, and, let’s be honest, pretty much anyone tossing beads or candy their way – so get out there and join the parade. [tel] 415-864-0831.
July 4 explodes with fireworks even in summer fog, celebrating San Francisco’s dedication to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness no matter the climate – economic, political or meteorological.
Mission Creek Music & Arts Festival
The city finally breaks a summer sweat in mid-July thanks to 150-plus Bay Area bands as well as art shows and dance premieres at several ideal venues, including Café du Nord/Swedish American Hall, Rickshaw Stop and Adobe Books & Backroom Gallery, plus free shows in McLaren Park.
Until AIDS takes a hike, you can: this 10km fundraiser benefits 43 AIDS organizations and happens on the third Sunday in July. When San Francisco was hit by the AIDS epidemic more than 20 years ago, the city wiped away its tears and took to the streets, raising $65 million to date to fight the pandemic and support those living with HIV. Hundreds of thousands of walkers are treated to free ice cream, live music and applause from passersby along the route.
San Francisco Jewish Film Festival
The world’s premier Jewish film festival will leave you kvelling (welling up with pride) at the end of July/early August at the Castro Theatre and other venues around the bay. Expect the unexpected from this festival, from Muslim-Jewish love stories from Kazakhstan to documentaries directed by Natalie Portman. [tel] 415-621-0556
More outrageous theatrical antics in SF than usual hit the stage in late September, at discount prices. Book ahead, or chance it at the Exit Theater’s box office.
Arab Film Fest
The Roxie Cinema shows Middle Eastern films in the second week of September, including 75 features and shorts. For over a decade, this showcase has explored a world of ideas, from feminism to fishing, in ground-breaking new cinema from Lebanon to Morocco. [tel] 415-564-1100.
Opera in the Park
Opera divas sing their hearts out gratis at Sharon Meadow in Golden Gate Park on the first Sunday of the opera season (the second Sunday in September), just as they did in SF after the 1906 earthquake to lift the city’s spirits – and more than a century later, a heartfelt aria still begins fall with a grace note.
Folsom Street Fair
Work those leather chaps and enjoy public spankings for local charities on the last weekend of September. To answer the obvious question in advance: yes, people do actually get pierced and tattooed down there, but it’s probably best not to stare unless you’re prepared to strip down and compare. [tel] 415-777-3247.
SF Shakespeare Festival
The play’s the thing in the Presidio, outdoors and free of charge on sunny September weekends. Kids’ summer workshops are also held for junior Juliets and budding Bards, culminating in performances throughout the Bay Area. [tel] 415-422-2221
Castro Street Fair
Drag royalty rules the stage, punk rockers fill the mosh pit and rainbow flags fly above the fray on the first weekend of October. [tel] 415-841-1824.
Stranger-than-fiction literary events take place in the second week of October, with bestselling and cult-hit authors spilling true stories at lunch readings and trade secrets over drinks at the legendary Lit Crawl.[tel] 415-750-1497.
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival
The west goes wild for free bluegrass and rock with a twang in Golden Gate Park, with three days and three stages of bluegrass legends on the first weekend of October. Recent headliners include Emmylou Harris, Billy Bragg, Nick Lowe and the legendary Earl Scruggs.
SF Jazz Festival
Horns and minds are blown from late September to late November in SF as jazz greats share the bill with newcomers, from Brazilian bossa chanteuse Gal Costa and jazz-tap impresario Savion Glover to jazz ukelele upstart Jake Shimabukuro and powerhouse drummer Cindy Blackman. [tel] 415-788-7353.
The first weekend of September, all you need is love – that, and over 100 DJs Downtown. Join the parade of art cars and surreal floats, or join the psychedelic dance party at Civic Center that makes Burning Man look like a dress rehearsal.
Alternative Press Expo
Meet the demented masterminds behind your favorite cult-hit comics, and score original Chris Ware sketches and Lark Pien books prepublication, as well as precious signed, limited-edition handmade comic books by the Bay Area’s next Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine or R Crumb.
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
November 2. Zombie brides, Aztec dancers in full feather regalia and dancing skeletons party like there’s no tomorrow, leading the parade of happy mourners down 24th St and paying their respects to community altars to the dead along the way. [tel] 415-821-1155.
Cross-dress and transgress with the best on the first weekend in November, with a film festival and all-star performances; tickets cost $8.
The lights may be low-watt fluorescents, but the bright ideas are positively blinding in mid-November at this landmark three-day showcase for the latest in green cuisine, technology and sustainable thinking. Events include workshops and talks with 150 eco-luminaries, such as Alice Waters, performances by the likes of Chuck D, eco-fashion shows, organic beer and wine tastings, and 400 leading green businesses. Tickets cost $15 per day or $25 for all three days; proceeds support SF food banks and pioneering fair-trade nonprofit Global Exchange.
Un-make colonial history at the Alcatraz sunrise ceremony with Native leaders and supporters, held on the third Thursday of November every year since 1975. The celebration commemorates the 19-month Native occupation of Alcatraz, and pays homage to indigenous traditions around the bay and beyond.
Celebration of Craftswomen
Get crafty with unique handmade gifts in support of a worthy cause at this Women’s Building fundraiser, held on the last weekend of November/first weekend of December. [tel] 415-431-1180.
Dance Along Nutcracker
Do you tutu? Dance to the Nutcracker Suite, performed with booty-shaking verve by the Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on the first weekend of December. [tel] 415-255-1355.
Kung Pao Kosher Comedy
A cherished SF holiday tradition: Jewish comedy on Christmas at a Chinese restaurant. Tickets cost $42 with cocktails and egg rolls, or $62 with dinner, featuring kosher walnut prawns and Kung Pao chicken.
- Rent wheels at Avenue Cyclery ([tel] 415-387-3155; www.avenuecyclery.com; 756 Stanyan St; [childfriendly]) at Golden Gate Park, or Blazing Saddles ([tel] 415-202-8888; www.blazingsaddles.com; 2715 Hyde St; per hr/day $7/28; [childfriendly]), at Fisherman's Wharf.
- Cross the Golden Gate Bridge, and take the Sausalito ferry back to SF. On Sundays, Golden Gate Park's JFK Drive closes to vehicular traffic.
- For a cool view of SF, paddle the bay with City Kayak ([tel] 415-357-1010; www.citykayak.com; Pier 38, cnr Embarcadero & Townsend Sts; per hr $15-25), or take a 1½-hour catamaran cruise with Adventure Cat ([tel] 415-777-1630; www.adventurecat.com; Pier 39; adult from $30).
- Surfers head to Ocean Beach, where wintertime swells rise 12ft or higher. Aqua Surf Shop ( [tel] 415-242-9283; http://aquasurfshop.com; 2830 Sloat Blvd; [hrs] 10am-5:30pm Sun-Tue, 10am-7pm Wed-Sat) rents boards and wetsuits. Check the surf report ( [tel] 415-273-1618).
- For stellar whale-watching trips, contact Oceanic Society Expeditions ([tel] 800-326-7491; www.oceanic-society.org; Fort Mason, bldg E; adult $100).
- Kabuki Hot Springs ([tel] 415-922-6000; www.kabukisprings.com; 1750 Geary Blvd; admission $22-25; [hrs] 10am-9:45pm) is the place for soaking in Japanese baths; men and women use the baths on alternate days; bathing suits are required on coed Tuesdays.