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San Francisco - North America's Golden Gateway

Home to over 7 million Americans in and around the Bay Area of California, San Francisco is the most populous of the cities here and is the financial, cultural and transportation centre of the region.

The Spanish established a fort at the Golden Gate in 1777 and the California Gold Rush of 1848 set the city up for rapid growth to the largest in the West Coast at that time.

After the devastating 1906 earthquake and resulting fire San Francisco was rebuilt and continued to grow to the huge metropolis it is today.

With a booming tourist industry centered around the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, victorian architecture, landmarks and cable car rides up and down the steep city streets, San Francisco is a magical city to visit at any time of the year.

www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com/

Top 10 things to do in San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge that spans the Golden Gate; the North American strait connecting San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean.

Before the bridge was built, the only practical short route between San Francisco and what is now Marin County was by boat across a section of San Francisco Bay.

Completed in 1937, the bridge was the longest of it's type if the world.  The famous vibrant orange colour was originally used as a sealant for the bridge but locals managed to persuade the bridge engineers to keep the colour and it has remained so ever since.

The colour is officially called International Orange and was chosen to blend in well with the natural mountainous surroundings and to provide clear visibility of the bridge in fog.

www.goldengatebridge.org/

Fisherman's Wharf

This is the northern waterfront area of San Francisco and is best known for being the location of Pier 39, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, the Cannery Shopping Center, Ghirardelli Square, a Ripley's Believe it or Not museum, the Musée Mécanique, the Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf and Forbes Island.

There are numerous great restaurants in the area with spectacular fresh seafood specialities.

Nearby Pier 45, there is a chapel in memory of the "Lost Fishermen" of San Francisco and Northern California which holds a yearly service for the lost fishermen.

One of the city's most popular figures is a harmless but controversial resident of Fisherman's Wharf called the World Famous Bushman, a local street performer who sits behind some branches and startles people who walk by.

www.fishermanswharf.org/

Alcatraz

Situated 2.4km offshore from San Fransisco in the Bay, Alcatraz Island, also known as The Rock, is of course home to the infamous and now abandoned Alcatraz Prison.

Originally the small island was host to a lighthouse, then later on was fortified for military use. Due to its isolation from the mainland and surrounded by the strong cold and hazardous currents or the waters of San Francisco Bay, the prison was used to house Civil War prisoners as early as 1861 thus beginning it's use by the military.

In 1934 the island became a federal prison and was used to house the nations most notorious criminals such as  Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, James "Whitey" Bulger, and Alvin Karpis.

During it's 29 years of operation as a federal penitentiary it was claimed that no prisoner had ever successfully escaped, although there were certainly many attempts.

Closed in 1963 due to operating costs, the island is now a National Park Sanctuary for wildlife and of course a huge tourist attraction and museum with daily visits from the Bay.

www.nps.gov/alcatraz/

Cable Cars (Trams)

The cable car (tram) system in San Francisco is the world's last permanently operational manually-operated cable car system. Try saying that in a hurry!

The cable cars are an icon of San Francisco and form an integral part of the transport network. They are used to a certain extent by locals to travel up and down the steep streets around the Bay area, however, due to their small service area and premium single fare rides, they largely remain a tourist attraction.

The cars operate on two routes from downtown near Union Square to Fisherman's Wharf with a third route along California Street.

www.sfcablecar.com/

Golden Gate Park

The 4.12km² centrally located park is 20% larger than Central Park in New York and boasts 13 million annual visitors making it the third most visited park in the USA.

The many different areas of the park give it a almost unique experience on every visit. Some of the gardens main attractions include Kezar Stadium which hosts major track and field competitions, Conservatory of Flowers, AIDS Memorial Grove, The Music Concourse Area, De Young Museum, the Japanese Tea Garden and many many more.

Being so large, you shouldn't have any problem in finding a spot in the park for some relaxation and quiet contemplation.

www.golden-gate-park.com/

Chinatown

Boasting to be the largest Chinatown outside Asia and the oldest in North America, San Francisco's Chinatown is anything but laid back and draws more annual tourists than the Golden Gate Bridge.

There is a sense of urgency around every street corner as locals and tourists alike make their way around the the many small shops and stalls that make a full-out assault on your auditory and visual senses in a good way.

Established in the 1840s, this center of Chinese culture and activity offers many venues for the arts, film, music, photography and literature. There are gift and herbal shops, Chinese theatres, joss houses(temples), pagoda roofs, dragon parades, and well over 300 restaurants in the densely packed area.

A major focal point in Chinatown is Portsmouth Square. Due to its being one of the few open spaces in the small area, Portsmouth Square bustles with activity such as Tai Chi and old men playing Chinese chess.

www.sanfranciscochinatown.com/

Exploratorium

This museum is filled with hundreds of hands-on exhibits that mix science and art. Most of the exhibits are made on-site by resident artists.

Founded in 1969 by noted physicist Dr Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium gives visitors the chance to explore and understand the world around us in a variety of ways including hosted events, web casts and demonstrations.

Unlike most of the museums you will visit in your lifetime, this is one where nobody will whack you on the back of the hand while growling "Don't touch that again, boy!". Poking and prodding is actively encouraged.

Exhibits do change regularly so it's well worth having a look around the website to see what's on before you visit.

www.exploratorium.edu/

De Young Museum

Found within San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the De Young Memorial Museum contains fine arts collections including courtyard sculptures, American decorative pieces, textiles, and paintings from the Rockefeller Collection of American Art.

The de Young Museum was the last of seven U.S. museums to host The Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit in the late 1970s and is host to the current Tut exhibition until March 2010.

The building itself is a work of art, completed in 2005 after the original was severely damaged in 1989 by an earthquake. To help withstand future earthquakes the building can move up to 91cm due to a unique system of ball-bearing sliding plates and viscous fluid dampers that absorb kinetic energy and convert it to heat.

The outside of the building is clad with copper that will eventually oxidise, turning green and blending in with the surrounding parkland.

www.famsf.org/deyoung/

Botanical Garden

Formally called Strybing Arboretum, San Francisco Botanical Garden is located within Golden Gate Park and is home to over 7,500 varieties of plants from around the world.

The gardens are organised into several specialised collections; Mediterranean, Mid-temparate climate, Montrane tropic and Speciality collections.

As a part of Golden Gate Park, it is officially managed by the city of San Francisco, but the SF Botanical Garden Society plays an important role in providing educational programs, managing volunteers, and curatorial staff. Upcoming events can be viewed on the society's website.

Using green building practices, a new Center for Sustainable Gardening is planned to replace the existing nursery.

www.sfbotanicalgarden.org/

California Academy Science

Remodeled in 2008 and located in the Golden Gate Park, this natural history museum is one of the ten largest in the world.

From the Academy's beginning in 1853, the original building suffered extensive earthquake damage in 1989. The new building, costing $500 million, is at the forefront of environmentally-friendly design, in keeping with the Academy's focus on ecological concerns and environmental sustainability.

The building itself has a modern green roof which is covered with native plants, recycles rainwater for irrigation and generates electrical power through the use of 60,000 photovoltaic cells.

The exhibits includes a large aquarium, a four-storey some that emulates a rainforest, a planetarium as well as many others located throughout the buildings many halls.

www.calacademy.org/

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