San Francisco is a bustling cosmopolitan city in California, the centerpiece of the Bay Area, well-known for its large gay and Chinese communities, hilly and picturesque terrain, and history of earthquakes.
It is located on the tip of a peninsula by San Francisco Bay and the Pacific coast and has a population of around 750,000. It is 7 miles by 7 miles in size. The best times to visit are September and October because they are mostly fog free.
The Amtrak Coast Starlight train runs up and down the west coast from Seattle to Los Angeles, departing Union Station in LA at 10.15am. The train does not go into San Francisco itself - there are stations at Oakland (train arrives 9.30pm) and Emeryville (train arrives 10pm). From Emeryville, there is a connecting bus service provided by Amtrak to San Francisco which takes approximately 30 minutes.
There are three airports in the San Francisco Bay Area: San Francisco (SFO, located about 10 miles south of the city), Oakland (OAK, in the East Bay), and San Jose (SJO, in the Silicon Valley, about 1 hour south of San Francisco). Both Oakland and San Jose are served by discount airlines such as Southwest. All three airports may be reached by inexpensive public transit; San Francisco and Oakland are connected to downtown SF by the BART rapid-transit train; the San Jose airport is linked by BART and CalTrain, connecting at Millbrae, with a free shuttle bus between the Santa Clara CalTrain stop and the San Jose airport. Rental cars and discount remote parking at SFO are reached by AirTrain, a free elevated people mover which also provides inter-terminal transfers. San Jose airport is currently undergoing major construction that can sometimes cause significant road traffic delays.
The two main arteries that connect San Francisco with Portland and other cities in the Pacific Northwest, and with Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California to the south, are US 101 and US Interstate 5. 101 meanders through the coastal hills of Central and Northern California, while 5 is a bullet-straight line up the San Joaquin Valley. Of the two, 5 is the faster route from almost any destination, while 101 is more scenic and enjoyable. Unfortunately, I-5 doesn't come into the Bay Area. Take CA-152 to 101 if coming from the south. Take I-80 from the North or East and come across the beautiful San Francisco Bay Bridge.
San Francisco's Municipal Railway (Muni) runs an extensive network of light rail trains, buses, historic trams, and cable cars. Many of them are electric and powered by a spider web of overhead wires. The Cable Cars running from Powell Street and Market to Fisherman's Wharf are a fun ride, if a bit impractical for everyday use. $1.25 buys two hours of travel on the Muni system; be sure to get a transfer ticket when you pay for your first ride. Cable Cars are $3.00 per one-way, single-vehicle ride, no transfers issued or accepted. $9.00 buys an all day pass good on all Muni vehicles, including Cable Cars; the day pass not including Cable Cars is $6.
Having a car can make it easy to get to parts of the city poorly served by Muni or other public transportation, as well as other parts of the Bay Area. However, perpetually-clogged traffic and a confusing system of one-way streets can make driving in downtown extremely frustrating. In addition, a significant percent of the city's revenue is made through parking tickets; parking laws are convoluted, enforcement is arbitrary, and devilishly stacked against the driver. Most of the city's internal freeways were damaged by the 1989 earthquake and consequently torn down, so driving in San Francisco is a surface-street affair.
Bicycles can be convenient in San Francisco, if you have strong legs. San Francisco is fairly small -- about 7 miles square -- and it's fairly quick to get from one end to the other. But much of the terrain is hilly and hard to pedal up. Downtown, SoMa, and the Sunset and Richmond districts are relatively flat. There are a number of bike paths and bike routes on city streets; the San Francisco Bike Coalition keeps a lot of information about them.
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), which covers most of the Bay Area, has eight stations in San Francisco, making it a nice way to get between well-trafficked parts of the city -- especially downtown and the Mission. Bicycles are allowed on BART during non-commute hours; but don't bring a dog along, as BARTing dogs don't bike. BART can also get you to Berkeley and Oakland in the East Bay. Price varies depending on how far you go; check the map at your departure station and buy a ticket for the correct amount.
CalTrain (CalTrain). The CalTrain system is run by Amtrak and uses traditional 2-story diesel trains. A Muni pass will allow you ride the CalTrain in the city between the 4 stops, 4th & King, 22nd St., Paul Ave., and Tunnel Ave. The main hub is located at 4th and King in SoMa (near SBC Park) at the end of the Muni N line. The CalTrain is great for getting to the Peninsula or South Bay. Starting in June 2004, CalTrain will offer a "Baby Bullet" service that will cruise down to San Jose in 57 minutes.
Both CalTrain and BART have free programs with schedule information that can be run on a Palm OS device. They are available from their respective websites as a free download.
Taxis in San Francisco are, for a large city, surprisingly inefficient and expensive. Except for taxi stations at or near downtown business hotels, or cruising just a few major arteries, taxis can be hard to find and hail -- and calling for a cab can mean a 30-45 minute wait, if the cab shows up at all.
Walking can be an enticing option to get from one neighborhood to another, so long as you are aware of where you are and keep your street smarts -- Sf is a town of friendly neighborhoods but it is also "big city" - be aware of your surroundings. Streets which often go straight up and down hills may make driving difficult, but make for breathtaking views (as well as good exercise) for the pedestrian. There are many stairway walks scattered throughout the city, at blocks that are too steep for a roadway. You can find maps that include hiking trails, bikeways, and the grade pitch of all streets marked in varying colors by how steep each segment is, that can help you orient to city walks suitable to your ability and temperament.
Highlight walks might include:
Cross streets: As San Francisco streets are numbered (100 per block) from the beginning of the street, It is best when asking directions to ask for a cross street or neighborhood name. For instance, if you are at the intersection of Haight Street and Clayton Street, and you ask the driver of the 33 Stanyan bus "Does this bus go to Market Street?" it will get you a yes, but the bus won't get you downtown, it will get you south from that intersection to Market and 18th in the Castro district.
Numbered streets and avenues: San Francisco has both numbered streets, in the Mission, the Castro, Noe Valley, and SoMa, and numbered avenues in the Sunset and the Richmond. Mixing numbered streets and avenues when asking directions may leave you miles from your destination. This can be confusing, as San Franciscans will not say "Street" or "Avenue" unless it is required to avoid ambiguity. Thus, "I live on Fifth Avenue" but "I live near Fifth and Geary." Street signs generally don't have "Street" or "Avenue" either; they just say "GEARY" or "MASONIC".
Golden Gate Bridge
Highway 101 N (from Park-Presidio or Lombard Street entrance), +1 415-921-5858 (firstname.lastname@example.org). Open 24 hours, occasionally closed Sunday morning for events. $5 (toll driving south into San Francisco; free on foot or bike) http://www.goldengatebridge.org/
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most famous bridges in the United States, and has been called one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The bridge spans the Golden Gate, a strait between San Francisco and Marin County to the north, and is one of the major road routes into and out of the city.
Vehicular traffic in both directions share a single deck; orange pylons are used to allot lanes to one direction or the other depending on traffic conditions. Observation areas and parking lots are provided on both the north and south sides of the bridge; the best way to enjoy the bridge is to park and walk across, not least because you don't have to pay a toll. Note that winds are high and it can be cold and foggy; dress appropriately. Bikes can also be difficult to navigate in the high winds and narrow pathway.
The masterwork of architect Joseph B. Strauss, whose statue graces the southern observation deck, the bridge took seven years to build, and was completed on May 27, 1937. Not actually golden in color -- a common misconception -- the bridge is painted a deep red-orange. Erroneous legend has it that the bridge is continuously painted, with crews starting at one end and, on getting to the other end, turning around and starting over again. In fact, the bridge is only painted once every few years, with some touchup done continuously.
San Francisco is a sensual, epicurean city with a vast array of restaurants. If money is no object, you can have an unparalleled dining experience at Masa or Boulevard. But less budget-busting restaurants exist for every type of cuisine. Sushi is a local obsession, and though you can find a sushi bar on almost every street corner, the Richmond district has more than its fair share of excellent sushi chefs. San Francisco also has the largest Chinatown in North America, with many exceptional restaurants serving dim sum and other Chinese delicacies; this localized Chinese cuisine has its feet in Hong Kong and America, and is different from what many visitors are accustomed to. Fisherman's Wharf serves fresh seafood, especially clam chowder and crabs cooked to order. North Beach is the place to go for Italian food, and the Mission for Mexican restaurants (and South American cuisine of all sorts).
Smokers beware: as in the rest of California, smoking is illegal in bars, restaurants, and other public places. Bay Area people can be particularly vocal about your personal habits. Be aware of nonsmoking areas, and try to be courteous about smoking in other places. They will probably not bother you about standing and smoking outside a restaurant or bar. However, smoking is not dead in San Francisco —there are a small number of bars that choose to defy the law, and cater to the short-of-breath. The Zeitgeist (a motorcycle-themed dive bar) on Valencia in the Mission District is one of the better known.
For laid-back, involved-with-your-fellow-travelers kind of travel (cooking is shared, the sleeper busload camps ensemble), check out the Green Tortoise. GT runs buses up to Seattle and down to Baja California; to Black Rock City, Yosemite National Park, a National Parks loop including the Tetons, Yellowstone and more, and a coast-to-coast run to New York.