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San Francisco: The City

San Francisco Neighborhoods

Golden Gate - sunIn the early morning the fog often rolls in, covering the bay with a blanket of magic foam, obscuring all but the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. It casts a pellucid light over "The City." By mid-day the sun burns through, Coit Tower poking through the retreating fog, the hills turning into glistening white reflections in what is the finest city in North America, if not the world. You have to see this city from afar, from a ferry across the Bay, or an outpost like Sausalito, to appreciate the incredible matching of geography and fortunate development fueled by fires and earthquakes, causing the city to recreateself several times.

The city is modern with an old-fashioned ambience; sophisticated and tacky at the same time; staid (as in Nob Hill) and outrageous (as in Haight-Ashbury or the artists' studios of SoMa). It's at once a national cultural treasure and an evolving social experiment. It's a town to eat in, whether it's a seafood cocktail in a paper cup at Fisherman's Wharf, charcoal-broiled sand dabs at the Tadich Grill, smoked tea duck at Mandarin or spit-roasted meats and fine bread at Il Fornaio. Much of this diversity is reflected in the city's neighborhoods, and discovering them is the best way to begin a visit to the "City by the Bay."


Union Square
This is the heart and soul of the city -- grand hotels, not-so-grand and cheaper hotels, department stores, trendy boutiques, pawn shops with barred doors and windows, and bars -- clustered around the green space. There is a parking garage under the square and it is about the best place from which to launch a walking tour of the city. If you're staying in a large hotel, you'll be close to Union Square. The city's famed tolerance is currently challenged by the growing number of panhandlers in this area where homelessness has become endemic. The park is planted with palms, boxwood and flowers, with benches set around the memorial to Admiral Dewey's Manila Bay victory of 1898. The square is often the scene of art shows, musical presentations and lots of other events.

South of Market Street, in what has been a blighted downtown area, is the newest chic development -- of galleries, nightclubs, studios, museums and restaurants.

Financial District
Between Union Square and the bay is the work-day center of the city and the site of some of the city's outstanding architecture. To the east of the Transamerica Pyramid is the Embarcadero Center, a huge complex of shops, offices, apartments and restaurants.

The largest Chinese community outside China has its commercial center just north of Union Square. You'll find 24 blocks of restaurants, produce markets, shops, temples and small hotels. It's a splendid area for walking and sampling exotic wares.

North Beach
Separated from Chinatown by Columbus Avenue, Union Square borders the Italian section of town and the city's bohemian headquarters, filled with espresso bars, fine restaurants, galleries and theaters. To the east is Telegraph Hill, with Coit Tower providing one of the best viewing points in San Francisco.

Cow Hollow

With Lombard Street as it's main artery, this unusually flat part of town lies between the Presidio (the area's newest national park) and Russian Hill. It's where you'll find funky cafes, some of the city's most economical motor hotels and wonderful old Victorian houses on Union Street, which have been converted into shops. The Marina District is close-at-hand.

Home to the hippy movement of the 1960s and still the base of the city's counterculture, The Haight as it is called has lots of color with boutiques of an alternative nature, some fine bookstores and casual cafes, some of them sitting on sidewalks along upper Haight Street next to the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park.

The Castro
The center of San Francisco's gay community, Castro Street (at 17th Street and the end of Market Street) has shops, restaurants, bars and clubs and the renowned movie theater.

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