San Francisco is one city I will never tire of visiting. It’s a city built on steep hills navigated by iconic clanging cable cars. The wharf offers a variety of seafood and goodies to tempt your appetite. A world landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge, stands guard across the inlet. And world class museums and parks ensure you will never be bored. San Francisco is a day’s drive from my home, so I have been there many times. I plan to go back this December, when the twinkling lights and holiday decorations add to the magic. Here are my San Francisco favorites. Some are obvious choices and some may surprise you!
The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge alone merits a visit to San Francisco. It opened in May, 1937 after taking 4 years to build. The roadway deck is held up by metal cables suspended from curving main cables draped over the two red metal pillars that give the bridge its recognizable outline.
You can drive across the bridge, of course, but what’s really fun is to walk or ride a bike across. It’s the second largest suspension bridge in the United States, but it’s less than 3 miles, so you can bike across and either turn around and come back or continue on to the town of Sausilito. Lanes on each side protect walkers and bikers from the traffic.
When you drive quickly across, you may miss how massive this bridge is. The ladders and catwalks give a perspective of the size of these girders. It’s mind boggling to know that the bridge can sway as much as 28 feet to adapt to wind and weather. The Golden Gate Bridge is a marvel.
Coit Tower sits atop Telegraph Hill in San Francisco and can be seen from vantage points all over the city. It’s named for patron Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who left funds when she died in 1929 “for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city I have always loved.” The slender tower resulted, and it still stands, rising more than 200 feet from its base.
Inside Coit Tower, an elevator whisks you to the top for more panoramic sights. But first, enjoy the frescoes that decorate the entire circular ground floor. For years I passed these by, but on our last visit, we happened onto a tour about the art. The murals on the walls have a fascinating history. A year after Coit Tower was completed, in 1934, a group of artists was funded by the Public Works of Art Project, a forerunner of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Each of the scenes depicts life in California during the Depression. The artists painted an assigned subject in an assigned area. Scenes show different aspects of industry and commerce. The artists worked at the same time, side by side, day after day, until the murals were finished a few months later. The colorful results are historic and worth admiring.
One reason I love visiting Coit Tower is that we discovered a “secret” stairway leading from the wharf area up to Telegraph Hill. The Filbert stairs wind through the backyards of residents, and the people keep gardens and benches for the enjoyment of all who wander here. It’s quite a climb, but so much fun.
The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is among the largest natural history museums in the U.S. With an aquarium, a rainforest, a swamp, and a planetarium, all under one roof, it’s a great place to spend a day. If you have kids or grandkids who take an interest in science, this is where you’ll want to head.
The Academy of Science is laid out in sections. The aquarium circles the bottom level. You wind up a spiral ramp into the rainforest. The swamp exhibit that features an albino crocodile named Claude. Yes, he is really alive.
The Cable Cars
What would a visit to San Francisco be without a ride on the noisy, careening cable cars? These are officially a “moving” National Historic Landmark. The cars first clanged their bells on the steep streets of this city in 1873. Andrew Hallidie began to build the cable car lines after he saw an accident that injured and killed horses that had been drawing carts on the rain-slicked hills. Hallidie thought up a better way for public transport. His idea proved to be a great one, as the cars are still running nearly 150 years later.
Today the city offers three lines of cable cars. You can ride the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines from the Union Square area down to Fisherman’s Wharf. The third line, California, runs the other direction (east-west) across the Powell lines. It also ends up at the wharf. Cable cars share the streets with autos, which can get interesting.
You can buy a ticket once you board ($7 a ride) or buy a pass for the number of days you’ll be visiting. I love to hop on and off these cars, so a pass made that easy. You’ll find me standing on the running board hanging onto a pole, but you can sit inside if you prefer.
The Cable Car Museum
That leads us to another favorite place of mine, and I think many visitors miss this one. Not only is this a museum, but you can see the huge cables that are running under the streets. If you ride the cars, you’ll see how they operate. The cable running under the street never stops. It goes constantly at nine miles an hour. The gripman uses the pincher contraption to hook onto the cable and go. Once the pinchers are disengaged, the car slows. Brakes help bring the cars to a stop.
Once you get the idea of how the cars run, you’ll be astounded as you watch the cables. The screech is deafening but worth it. There is an inspector to make sure cables run as they should — a job I would not want to do.
Yes, this is a touristy area of San Francisco, but there are a couple of reasons you’ll want to go anyway. Here you can look out over the bay and marina. Time your visit for sunset and it’s especially lovely.
You can observe the chocolate-making process from start to finish.