The amazing thing about the West Coast is that it is still mostly wild, open, and astoundingly beautiful country, where you can drive for miles and miles and have the scenery all to yourself.
San Francisco is easily the most enjoyable city in the United States. Its undulating topography turns every other corner into a scenic vista, while its many distinctive neighborhoods are perfect for aimless wandering. Museums document everything from Gold Rush history to cutting edge modern art, while stellar restaurants offer the chance to sample gourmet food from around the world–all in an easily manageable, densely compact small city.
If there’s one place in the city you should stop to get your bearings, it’s Fort Point, a massive, photogenic Civil War fort standing along the bay, directly beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. You can wander at will through the honeycomb of corridors, staircases, and gun ports, watch the fearless surfers and windsurfers offshore, and take in a panoramic view of the City by the Bay. From here you can walk up to and across the Golden Gate Bridge, or head west to Lands End or back into town via a popular bayfront walking and cycling trail. Another great place to get a feel for San Francisco is Golden Gate Park, which stretches inland from the western edge of the city, including more than 1,000 acres of gardens, a boating lake, and two landmark museums, featuring the copper-clad art of the de Young Museum, and the natural history, aquarium, and planetarium of the grass-roofed California Academy of Sciences.
If there’s one other place that ought to be on your S.F. itinerary, it’s Alcatraz. Aptly known as The Rock, this was America’s most notorious prison from 1934 until 1963. Now preserved as a historical park, the island is worth a visit as much for the views of San Francisco as for its grim past. To reach Alcatraz, take one of the ferries that leave throughout the day from Pier 41 at the east end of Fisherman’s Wharf.
The San Francisco Giants (877/4SF-4849, tickets around $25 and up) play at retromodern AT&T Park, along the bay in downtown’s South of Market district.
San Francisco is one of the few cities on the West Coast where you really don’t need a car, since distances are short and public transportation is quite extensive; the grid street plan makes it easy to find your way around. San Francisco’s Municipal Railway (“Muni”; 415/673-6864) network of public transit buses, trams, and cable cars will take you all over the city.
The only problem for visitors in San Francisco is deciding where to eat–there are so many great places that choosing among them can be a painful process. For breakfast, Sears Fine Foods (439 Powell St., 415/986-0700) on Union Square is a local institution, as is the upscale Fog City (1300 Battery St., 415/982-2000), which serves gourmet comfort food (and the world’s best French toast on weekends). Two more S.F. culinary landmarks are the Swan Oyster Depot (1517 Polk St., 415/673-1101 or 415/673-2757, Mon.-Sat. till 5:30pm only), a half block north of the California Street cable car, a simple oyster bar serving the city’s freshest shellfish and coldest Anchor Steam beer; and Sam’s Grill (374 Bush St., 415/421-0594), downtown, with incredible grilled meat and fish dishes, melt-in-your-mouth shoestring fries, and ancient-looking 1930s wooden booths that seem like set pieces from a Sam Spade mystery.
Given San Francisco’s worldwide popularity, it’s no surprise that room rates run pretty high–expect to pay $250 a night or more (plus parking and taxes). If you’re here for a honeymoon or other romantic reason, the nicest place in town is the swanky Mandarin Oriental (222 Sansome St., 415/276-9888, $450 and up), which fills the top floors of a Financial District skyscraper and has 270-degree bay views (even from the bathtubs!). The best budget options are three HI hostels, one on the bay at Fort Mason (415/771-7277), another downtown (312 Mason St., 415/788-5604), and a third near Civic Center (685 Ellis St., 415/474-5721). Each one costs about $30 a night $90 for a private room. In between there are some nice motels on the outskirts of downtown, like the nouveau retro Hotel del Sol (3100 Webster St., 415/921-5520, $149 and up), in the Marina District.
The San Francisco Visitor Information Center (900 Market St., 415/391-2000) publishes a good free street map and offers extensive listings of attractions, accommodations, and restaurants.