San Francisco Bay Area: Like No Place Else

Learn what makes the Bay Area unique.
By: Ellen Lee

San Francisco draws nearly 16 million tourists a year, collectively spending $7.37 billion. Get to know the features and landmarks that make the San Francisco Bay Area like no other city in the world.

  • Cable Cars. The cable car was first developed and tested on the streets of San Francisco in 1873. Now the city's cable cars are the last remaining in operation. For $5 each way, the cable car carries passengers up and down San Francisco's steep hills, with three routes traveling through its financial district, Chinatown, Union Square shopping corridor and Fisherman's Wharf.
  • Golden Gate Bridge. Featured on just about every San Francisco postcard, this picturesque landmark draws an estimated 9 million visitors a year. It costs $6 to cross the bridge by car, taking you from San Francisco to Marin County. Pedestrians and bicyclists can travel across the 1.7-mile span for free during the day.
  • Fisherman's Wharf. San Francisco's waterfront hot spot is lined with seafood stands, restaurants and shops. Sea lions also lounge on the docks of Pier 39 -- you can hear them barking before you see them. From here, you can catch several ferries, taking you to Alcatraz, Angel Island, Sausalito, Tiburon or just a cruise around the bay. The neighborhood is also home to the historic Ghirardelli Square, where you can indulge in the famous Ghirardelli chocolate. And at Pier 45, the Musee Mecanique offers a collection of antique arcade machines, including old-fashioned fortunetelling booths and "Laffing Sal."
  • Alcatraz. Alcatraz Island is most famous for housing the high-security, inescapable federal penitentiary. From 1934 to 1963, "The Rock" locked up some of the nation's most notorious criminals such as Al Capone. Since then, it's been immortalized in pop culture in films such as The Rock with Sean Connery and Birdman of Alcatraz with Burt Lancaster. Today, you can take a ferry to the island, go on an audio tour of the prison and step inside the cells. Each year, daring athletes also compete in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, which begins with a 1.5-mile swim to the shore.
  • Angel Island. Known as the "Ellis Island of the West," Angel Island served as a detaining and processing station for immigrants arriving from Asia between 1910 and 1940. The facility is now being turned into a museum and is set to open in February 2009. The island, a state park, is also a popular place for hiking, biking, picnicking and camping.
  • Lombard Street. For one block, Lombard Street zigzags downhill, giving it the reputation as the "crookedest street on earth." A parade of cars can often be seen slowly maneuvering down the slope, which is paved with red brick and bordered with flowers and hedges.
  • Coit Tower. Perched atop San Francisco's Telegraph Hill, the 75-year-old Coit Tower has become one of the most recognizable symbols of San Francisco and can be easily seen as you enter the city from the East Bay. An elevator takes you to the top for panoramic views of the city and Pacific Ocean.
  • Chinatown. San Francisco's Chinatown was established in the mid-1800s by Chinese laborers during the California Gold Rush. Anti-Chinese laws and the 1906 earthquake threatened to shut down the neighborhood, but it has since thrived and become both a home to the city's large Chinese-immigrant population and a popular tourist destination. Sample dim sum, sip tea and watch fortune cookies being made at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. The annual Lunar New Year Parade is one of the city's largest cultural festivities.
  • Golden Gate Park. Stretching more than 50 city blocks, Golden Gate Park is San Francisco's urban oasis. You can row a boat at Stow Lake, see a herd of bison at the Buffalo Paddock, enjoy a cup of tea at the Japanese Tea Garden and stop to smell the roses at the Conservatory of Flowers. The new de Young Museum, re-opened in 2005, displays American paintings, sculptures and African art. Next door, the California Academy of Sciences was rebuilt from the ground up in a massive $500-million project that debuted in September 2008. An example of sustainable architecture, the new museum is covered by a "Living Roof." It uses soil and 1.7 million plants as natural insulation and, by absorbing rainwater, will prevent 3.6 million gallons of runoff a year. On Sundays, the park closes its streets to cars, giving access only to pedestrians and bicyclists.
  • Palace of Fine Arts. One of the most romantic spots in San Francisco, the Palace of Fine Arts' Grecian rotunda is often used as a backdrop for wedding photographs. A lawn and a small lake, inhabited by swans, surround the dome, which was originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The Palace of Fine Arts also includes a theater and the Exploratorium, a museum dedicated to hands-on science and technology exhibits.
  • Napa and Sonoma Wine Countries. Napa Valley is home to more than 300 wineries, producing some of the finest Chardonnays, Merlots, Pinot Noirs, Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignons. One of the region's most famous vintners was the late Robert Mondavi, credited for drawing attention to Napa Valley's vineyards in the late 1960s. A popular getaway about an hour outside San Francisco, it also features luxurious spas, restaurants, hot air balloon rides and bed and breakfasts. Nearby Sonoma County offers some of the same attractions, including wine tours, day spas and fine dining, although on a smaller scale. 

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