The most attractive of American cities and regularly voted the best city in the USA, San Francisco is adored because of its colourful history, dramatic setting and its laissez-faire atmosphere, a quality missing from the more synthetic Los Angeles. It is a regular trendsetter in everything alternative, from flower-power to 'free love' and gay liberation; it prides itself on being individualistic, down-to-earth and cultured.
Streets rollercoaster up and down the hills, and when not swathed in the city's trademark fog, there are superb vistas of San Francisco Bay, spanned by one of the world's most famous sights, the Golden Gate Bridge. Surrounded by hills and urban development, traversed by bridges, dotted with sails and 14 small islands, including the notorious Alcatraz, the bay is the largest inlet on the Californian Coast. Fisherman's Wharf at the edge of the bay is a popular place to eat, stroll and shop, with its resident seals a favourite photographic subject.
Within the surprisingly compact city are distinct neighbourhoods that reflect the cultural background of diverse communities that were attracted to San Francisco by the discovery of gold in 1848, and the promise of a new life for those desperate to escape their harsh circumstances. Most of San Francisco's residents were born outside the city and this mix of cultures is reflected in the dragon-studded temples of colourful Chinatown and Japantown, the characteristic bohemian flavour of the Italian pasta restaurants and cafes in North Beach, the old Spanish-speaking Mission District that blends with the nightlife of SoMa, the modern Financial District, the gay centre of Castro and The Haight, characterised by the memory of the hippie movement of the 1960s.
The rust-coloured towers, graceful suspension and supportive cables of the Golden Gate Bridge make this famous symbol of San Francisco the most photographed bridge in the world, and visible from almost any high point in the city, although it is often shrouded in rolling fog. Spanning the two-mile (3km) mouth of the bay, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time of its completion in 1937 and was built to withstand winds of more than 100 mph (161km per hour). During high winds it can sway up to 27 feet (8m) in each direction. One of the great engineering accomplishments of the 20th century, the bridge claims to have used enough wire in its construction to stretch around the earth several times. Walking across the bridge, under the towers that loom 65 storeys above the water, is one of the best ways to experience the immensity of the structure and affords beautiful views of the San Francisco skyline, the bay and its islands.
Out in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island, or 'The Rock', is one of Golden Gate National Recreation Area's most popular destinations. The notorious escape-proof island with its dreaded maximum-security prison once held the likes of Al 'Scarface' Capone, George 'Machine Gun' Kelly and the 'Birdman of Alcatraz', Robert Stroud. With sheer cliffs surrounded by the icy waters of San Francisco Bay, known for its treacherous tides and currents, it was regarded as the perfect place to detain the country's most-wanted and dangerous criminals who were isolated in dark solitary confinement cells.
Visitors can explore the prison as well as learn about its history: from its discovery as a pelican nesting ground, its location as a military outpost, and the years between 1933 and 1963 as an off-limit federal penitentiary. It was also inhabited by Native Americans before being declared a Recreational Area and protected bird sanctuary. Thousands of tourists flock here each year and take the excellent self-guided audio tours that contain commentary from former guards and prisoners about life on the island and the notorious escape attempts. There is also a slide show and a tour of the island's ecology and bird life led by a park ranger. The view from the island looking across to San Francisco is fantastic as well.
Some people love the bustle of Fisherman's Wharf, while others make a conscious effort to steer well clear of it. For better or worse it is massively popular, attracting more visitors than any other city sight, with Pier 39 the commercial tourist epicentre. The Wharf was once a fishing port with dozens of boats anchored here. Pier 45 is still used by fishermen in the early morning hours, and fish and seafood can be bought from the Fish Alley Market.
There are shops galore, fast food stands and overpriced bay-view restaurants as well as bars, markets, street performers, and an endless variety of activities for the whole family. It is also the gateway for several top attractions: trips to Alcatraz and other bay cruises leave from here; numerous museums include the Historic Ships Pier; and the USS Pampanito submarine that can be boarded from Pier 45. The entertaining colony of sea lions that reside on the floating docks at Pier 39 are one of the best attractions on the quay. The quirky Musée Mécanique is located nearby Pier 45, and houses the world's largest collection of vintage coin-operated mechanical wonders.
Between Russian and Telegraph Hills, North Beach is San Francisco's 'Little Italy', that has long been the central hub for anyone with alternative inclinations. During the 1950s the pleasure-seeking, non-conformist lifestyle of the Beat Generation and their rebellious literature contributed to the neighbourhood's unconventional character and tourists poured into the district for 'Beatnik Tours'. Two of the Beat-era landmarks are the Vesuvio bar, and the first paperback bookstore in the US and hangout of Beat-era writers, the City Lights Bookstore. The steep stairways on Telegraph Hill lead to one of the city's most distinctive landmarks, Coit Tower, a monument to the volunteer fire fighters of the city providing superb 360-degree views of the city and San Francisco Bay. Inside the round, stone-tower murals of the Great Depression depict different aspects of life in California during the 1930s.
The 'Crookedest Street in the World' winds down the steep eastern side of Russian Hill, the angle so steep that Lombard Street has to zigzag down with eight sharp turns to make any descent possible. The affluent residents inside their mansions with well-tended flowerbeds that flank the street bemoan the frequent traffic jams as thousands of visitors queue at the top and wait their turn to drive slowly down the tight curves, gathering at the bottom for photographic opportunities.
Of the many open green spaces in San Francisco, Golden Gate Park is the biggest and the loveliest stretching from The Haight to the Pacific Ocean, featuring gardens, lakes, numerous sporting facilities and museums. On Sundays the main drive is closed to traffic and becomes the playground for joggers, cyclists, roller-bladers and strollers. The California Academy of Sciences includes the Natural History Museum, aquarium and planetarium. The serenity of the Japanese Tea Garden with its bridges, bonsai and fortune cookies is a favourite with tour groups. Opportunities for games and activities abound, with lawn bowling, disc golf, soccer, football, baseball and tennis all catered for. Although filled with people, the park never seems crowded and there is always a secluded space somewhere on the lawns or in the gardens. For a lively atmosphere, the Beach Chalet Brewery and Restaurant is a popular restaurant in Golden Gate Park. For a spookier site, try and seek out the reputed resident spirit, the Stow Lake Ghost.
One of San Francisco's most endearing attractions is its network of 130-year-old cable cars, the only mobile National Historic Landmark in the country, and the world's only surviving system of cable cars. Many cities adopted the system, but all have since been replaced by more practical means of transport. The perpetuation of these clanking museum pieces was due to determination by the city's residents and today they remain at the heart of the city's character. It is an experience to ride up and down the steep gradients of the hills, hanging on while the brass bell clangs, the conductor jingles his coins and the familiar clanking of the cables pulls the car at a constant 9.5 miles (15km) per hour.
Many people have difficulty believing that these six-tonne cars can work without engines and the San Francisco Cable Car Museum affords visitors a closer look at the cable-winding machinery, and the 'home base' where cars are reeled in and out on 11 miles (17km) of steel cable. The museum also houses some interesting sights, including the first cable car (1873) and scale models of different types of cable cars that were once in use in the city. The idea of the cable car system was conceived by engineer Andrew Hallidie. After watching the uphill struggle of laden horse-drawn carts, he was determined to find a kinder and more efficient means of transportation, which he produced four years later.
Located at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito is a half hour ferry ride from Fisherman's Wharf. The panoramic view of San Francisco Bay is spectacular, and Sausalito's sunny, inviting outdoor cafés and small shops overlooking the city are simply charming. One of the chief attractions in Sausolito is the docks where wealthy San Francisco residents dock their yachts. Tourists can hire bikes from Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf and ride to Sausalito across the Golden Gate Bridge, have lunch and return on the ferry.
Named San Francisco's best museum, the Exploratorium is a fun, quirky museum of science, art and human perception that features some 650 'please touch' exhibits. Located inside the Palace of Fine Arts, many of its exhibits are created by visual and performing artists as well as scientists and educators. Exhibits such as the off-site Wave Organ, a unique sonic exhibit that is located on a nearby piece of land jutting out in the San Francisco Bay, can be found nowhere else in the world. It is one of San Francisco's most popular museums, drawing over 500,000 people each year, with attractions such as its three-dimensional pitch-black Tactile Dome inspiring many visitors to approach challenges in a very different way. The Exploratorium frequently has fun, interactive Thursday night events for adults.
The Aquarium of the Bay features 300 feet (91m) of crystal clear acrylic tunnels through which over 20,000 aquatic animals can be viewed. The aquarium offers visitors the opportunity to come face-to-face with the Bay's largest predator, the seven-gill shark, as well as touch leopard sharks, skates, rays and sea stars. The Aquarium hosts nearly 600,000 visitors every year and provides free classes and tours to the Bay Area school children annually, making it a wonderful San Francisco attraction for families.
Anyone who has ever seen an episode of the 90s sitcom 'Full House' will know what Alamo Square looks like. It is a residential neighbourhood and park in San Francisco, frequented by tourists, neighbours and dog-owners. The park features a playground as well as a tennis court. A row of Victorian houses overlooks the park, known as the 'painted ladies' and this view is often shown in the foreground of panoramic pictures of the city. On a clear day, the Transamerica Pyramid building and the tops of the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge can be seen from the park's centre. Alamo Square is a great place to get out of the car and have a picnic after a bit of sightseeing in San Francisco.
A dragon-draped archway at the intersection of Bush and Grant streets marks the entrance to Chinatown in San Francisco, the oldest Chinatown in the United States and the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. Chinatown draws more tourists than the Golden Gate Bridge with its streets teeming with fish and vegetable stalls, herbal shops, temples and eateries. There are some fantastic Chinese and dim sum restaurants such as Hunan Home's and R&G; while the shopping is nearly unlimited as lucky cats wave from every doorway. Museums include the Chinese Historical Society of America and Chinese Culture Center, making Chinatown an absolute must-see.
Known as the 'Crookedest Street in the world', Lombard Street features eight sharp hairpin turns. The road was designed in 1922 in order to reduce the 72 degree slope of the hill and make it more usable for cars as well as pedestrians. The speed limit is a mere 5mph (8km/h) on the crooked section, which is about a quarter of a mile (400m) long. The crooked section of the street is reserved for one-way traffic travelling downhill and is paved with red bricks. Tourists are known to literally queue to drive down this famous road, making it a definite must-see when visiting San Francisco.
Visitors at the Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Museum can be mystified and thrilled at the rare, the bizarre and the totally unexplained in the many interactive and state-of-the-art exhibitions throughout the museum. The Marvelous Mirror Maze and the Impossible Laser Race are also worth the time. This is a must for families travelling with kids in San Francisco.
Boasting a menagerie of over 300 wonderful animals, the Oakland Zoo is a must for animal lovers and children. Highlights include a children's park, picnic area, wildlife theatre, carousel and a miniature railway. The children's zoo allows kids the opportunity to get close to the animals and even pet them. There's also a small rides area, and a cafe and souvenir shop.
The Randall Museum, also known as the Science and Nature Museum, provides plenty of enjoyable and exciting learning opportunities and experiences for children of all ages. The museum also features animals, such as birds, mice and snakes and children can even get to handle these critters as part of the educational experience. Workshops and programmes are also available to children and adults.
This ten-acre entertainment park on the shores of Lake Merritt features carousel rides, puppet shows, friendly animals and displays of story-book sets from well-loved characters like Johnny Appleseed, Peter Rabbit and Alice in Wonderland. Children of all ages will love a trip to Children's Fairyland where they can let their imaginations run wild.
Just as you'll find gold at the end of the rainbow, there is surely chocolate at the end of the cable car line in San Francisco. Ghirardelli Square, located on Fisherman's Wharf, is occupied by shops, restaurants, art galleries, and of course the famous Ghirardelli Chocolate Company.
This 210 foot tall (64m) tower in North Beach is the best vantage point in San Francisco, and a great way for new arrivals to get their bearings. The art deco tower is the centrepiece of Pioneer Park, and was a bequest of Lillie Hitchcock Coit with the intention of adding beauty to the city she has always loved. Visitors should come early as the 360 degree views and wonderful photo opportunities make this a must-visit site and it gets crowded during peak times. The hill is accessed via Lombard Street, itself a very popular attraction.
Legend has it that the 1960s hippy movement and resulting American counter-culture kicked off in the Haight Ashbury area. That was more than 50 years ago, but the bohemian atmosphere of this area prevails, with plenty of shops selling vintage clothing, hemp based accessories, vinyl records and tie-dye shirts, alongside imaginative boutique shops. There are lots of bars and live music venues, particularly along famous Fillmore Street, and charming boutique hotels. The area is famous also for its 'painted lady' Victorian houses. The Haight, as it's commonly known, borders Golden Gate Park and is a great starting point from which to explore this natural treasure.
This central plaza is the modern face of San Francisco, surrounded by Macy's, Saks, Bloomingdale's, and the Levis flagship store, plus iconic hotels and quaint historical buildings. Along the west side, up the steep incline of Powell street, the famous cable cars run down to Fisherman's Wharf, while on the other side, Grant avenue leads directly into the heart of Chinatown. The Square is a natural meeting place and a popular departure point for walking and bus tours. You can also find the discount ticket booth here, and enjoy the café pavilion with outdoor seating. Note the gorgeous statue of Victory atop the central plinth. Each holiday season a giant Christmas tree is erected in Union Square, giving the area a festive atmosphere.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is one of the country's premier modern art centres, featuring important works of Diego Rivera, Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Henry Matisse, Paul Klee, Jeff Koons and iconic photography from Ansel Adams. With the recent donation of the 1,100-piece Fisher Collection, SFMOMA now ranks alongside the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London as essential pilgrimage sites for lovers of 20th century art. The museum café and art shop are destinations in their own right, while the SFMOMA's iconic building, constructed in 1995, is a work of art in itself. Grab a free audio tour headset on the way in - the excellent commentary will greatly enhance your appreciation of the works.
The SFMOMA building has opened a new entrance and expanded as of May 2016, so visitors can now enter on Third Street or the new entrance on Howard Street.
San Francisco has close ties with Asia, a legacy reflected in its sizeable Chinese and Japanese communities. The Asian Art Museum collection was funded and developed to honour this heritage. Housed in the magnificent former San Francisco city library building, this is the largest museum in the western world dedicated to Asian art, with over 17,000 Asian art treasures drawn from 6,000 years of history. The museum is well known for its exceptional special exhibitions, with visiting collections representing art from all over Asia.
Located in Vallejo, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is an animal theme park that offers wildlife experiences with a range of creatures. Visitors can feed dolphins, sea lions, seals or giraffes, or watch trained dolphins and elephants perform in shows. The park's animals include tigers, killer whales, camels, alligators, otters, flamingos, penguins, snapping turtles, sharks and more.
Six Flags Discovery Kingdom also has dozens of rides ranging from the thrilling Medusa rollercoaster to the kid-friendly Seaport Carousel. Kids will enjoy meeting their favourite Looney Toons characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, while thrill-seeking teenagers will enjoy the more intense rides.
Redwood National and State Park is home to the world-famous redwood trees that tower up to 379 feet (115m) in the air. Home to 45 percent of the remaining old-growth redwood forests in the world, the park is the best place to see the magnificent trees. Aside from the redwoods, the park has nearly 40 miles (64km) of wild coastline, as well as prairies and oak woodlands. The park has over 200 miles (322km) of hiking trails, and offers outdoor activities like horseback riding, kayaking, camping, mountain biking and bird watching.
California is a great place for families and children, and San Francisco is one its most child-friendly cities. Not only is there great weather, but there's also a plethora of fantastic attractions and activities to keep the little ones busy.
When the sun is out, visit world-renowned landmark Golden Gate Bridge and enjoy the sights, or even take an electric bike tour over the bridge. Not your typical theme park, the Gilroy Gardens are great for a picnic or a stroll and there is a great deal of space for kids to run around and let off some steam. There are also breathtaking views from the Panoramic Wheel and there are even a few rides for the younger ones to enjoy. Fisherman's Wharf is also a great day out and be sure to head to Pier 39 where there is plenty for kids to see and do.
When the weather is bad head out to some of the exciting museums such as the Exploratorium, the Children's Creativity Museum or the Bay Area Discovery Museum.
The weather in San Francisco is cool to mild throughout the year, with foggy summers and wet winters. The climate is influenced by the cold currents of the Pacific Ocean surrounding the city, which in conflict with the Californian mainland's summer heat, creates foggy conditions that blanket the city during summer and early autumn. This ensures summers (June to August) in San Francisco are cooler than inland California and average high temperatures reach 77°F (25°C). Winters (December to February) are mild during the day, with temperatures seldom dropping below 60°F (16°C) lows, but nights are cold and rain is common. Rain in summer is rare.
No doubt about it, San Francisco is a fabulous food city. In fact, those in the know rate this as the restaurant capital of the country. There are over 3,000 eateries to sample, some of them home to the best chefs and finest ingredients in the land. With an emphasis on artisan culinary delights, impressive famers' markets, creative fine-dining and speciality food stores, San Francisco is a thrill for foodies.
Local dishes are typically ingredient driven, incorporating farm fresh produce and the best of regional wineries, dairies and organic produce suppliers. No one cuisine dominates, there is rather a wonderful variety to experience. Asian fusion food is well represented, with a strong emphasis on fresh local seafood. For Italian dishes head over to North Beach; for Chinese and other Asian dishes, make a beeline for Chinatown. The Mission district is home to a huge variety of Mexican and Latino restaurants.
San Francisco is a health-conscious city, and vegetarians and vegans will find more options than they had ever dreamed possible. The city is notorious for clamping down on unhealthy kids' meals as well, so parents will be happy with the healthy choices presented. In January annually, you can enjoy 'Restaurant Week', where you can enjoy a fixed-price two-course or three-course meal at over 100 top restaurants for either $15 or $25 per person (lunch) and $40 or $65 per person for dinner.
Tips of 15 to 20 percent are expected for good service. Make reservations well in advance as impromptu fine-dining isn't really an option.
Award-winning, top Californian chef Gary Danko has built up a culinary name for himself by combining classical French cuisine with Mediterranean and Californian cooking, incorporating major culinary traditions from around the world into his work. His fine dining restaurant is a very special experience, and not only for the exquisite food; the service is impeccable and the atmosphere quietly elegant with no hint of stuffiness. Perhaps the best way to experience Danko's ingenuity is by way of a fixed-price seasonal tasting menu, which might include glazed oysters, seared filet of beef with potato gnocchi and roasted pears with ginger and nutmeg ice-cream. Reservations essential. Dinner nightly. Elegant dress attire requested.
Winner of several national and local awards, One Market features upscale American fare specialising in fresh meat and fish dishes. There are remarkable views of the waterfront and historic Market Street that can be enjoyed while dining on ahi tuna steak or the daily roast. For a unique dining experience, the restaurant also features a special 'Chef's Table' located inside the kitchen from where the group is guided through the exquisite tasting menu served by the chef himself. There is live jazz every evening. Closed Sundays. Dinner Monday to Saturday and lunch on weekdays only. Reservations essential.
Located in the Art Nouveau Audiffred Building near the waterfront, the mosaic floor, central open kitchen and striking decor perfectly complement the artistic dishes created by culinary star Nancy Oakes. One of the city's best restaurants, Boulevard is always packed and is ideal for a special occasion. Specialities include wood-roasted dishes like the rack of lamb, pork loin, or a variety of seafood. Reservations essential. Dinner daily; lunch on weekdays only.
Chef Charles Phan prepares real Vietnamese home cooking at The Slanted Door and his food is so flavourful and incredibly fresh that even the likes of Mick Jagger and Bill Clinton have sought it out. The establishment attempts to recreate the richness of Vietnamese street food with Western style service. The menu includes fresh spring rolls, green papaya salad, chicken claypot and grilled scallops, as well as delicious desserts such as vanilla bean crème brûlée and a collection of Oriental teas. Its location overlooks San Francisco Bay and also has a to-go section for quickly prepared takeaway meals. Lunch and dinner daily.
Dining at this much-loved rustic restaurant is a quintessential San Francisco experience. The eclectic Italian-Mediterranean fare includes the legendary brick-oven roasted chicken with a Tuscan-style bread salad, hamburger on grilled rosemary focaccia bread, and the classic Caesar salad. The bustling copper-topped bar serves drinks as well as the very freshest selection of oysters. It is a great place for a pre- or post-Opera House drink and is always crammed with an eclectic crowd. Reservations recommended. Closed Monday.
With high ceilings and enormous windows overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay, Greens boasts one of the most dramatic dining spaces in the city and offers outstanding, creative meatless dishes that have earned it a place as one of the top vegetarian restaurants in the country. Owned by the Zen Buddhist Center, dishes use the finest organic ingredients and the delicious meals attract non-vegetarians as well as vegetarians. Open for lunch and dinner daily. There is a special fixed-price dinner on Saturdays. Brunch on Sundays.
Critically-acclaimed chef Craig Stoll's Delfina is defined by its ultra-fresh seasonal Italian cuisine, reasonable prices and a warm atmosphere. One of the most popular restaurants in San Francisco today, Delfina is continuously abuzz with happy diners. Dishes on the daily-changing menu are kept simple but extraordinary and might include thick Tuscan soup, butternut panna cotta or roasted chicken. The handmade pastas, braised meats and fish dishes are all full of flavour. Reservations essential. Dinner daily.
Hollywood Café is simply the best restaurant in San Francisco to get a classic all-American breakfast: Denver Omelette, Eggs Benedict with Dungeness Crab, French Toast with Fried Bananas and Blueberries, and the list goes on. Lunch is just as good with a range of excellent sandwiches, including a particularly enormous BLT. The portions are large, and come accompanied by freshly-squeezed orange juice or excellent coffee.
An iconic San Francisco restaurant filled with history, etablished in 1908 John's Grill is famous for its classic ambiance of wood panelled walls and dimly lit interior. Meat and fish are the specialities here, preferably grilled. The clam chowder is wonderful too, but the real stars of the show are the lamb chops and the steak, served with gratis vegetables, bread and sparkling water. This restaurant was featured in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, a much loved crime classic. The fact is celebrated everywhere from the etching on the glassware to the falcon statues for sale in the souvenir cabinet. Located just off Union Square.
As the world's most gay-friendly city, San Francisco celebrates gay and lesbian pride with a festive procession and numerous music stages. The parade features hundreds of themed marchers and floats, after which thousands of people from every walk of life gather at the Civic Center to carry on the party in front of one of the many music stages. The area is lined with stalls selling everything from food and drink to crafts and souvenirs.
Every Memorial Day weekend, the Mission District hosts San Francisco's version of the Mardi Gras celebrations with music and dancing, food and craft stalls, contests, street performers, and a parade with lavish floats, marching bands and colourful costumes. The Grand Parade is an exotic celebration of different traditions and cultures from around the world, with floats and dancers depicting vibrant multi-cultural themes, from samba and Chinese Lion dancers, to African drummers, and accompanied by the hip-swinging music of Latin America, Brazil, and the Caribbean.
The New Year Parade is the highlight and focus of the two-week Chinese New Year celebrations that includes the Miss Chinatown USA Pageant, the Community Street Fair and the New Year Flower Market. A San Francisco tradition since the 1849 Gold Rush, the Parade is the biggest celebration of its kind outside Asia and is listed as one of the top 10 parades in the world. Hundreds of spectators gather to watch as colourful floats, elaborate costumes, firecrackers, stilt walkers, lion dancers and marching bands go by, and wait in expectation for the world-famous annual Golden Dragon, which is 160 feet (49m) long and takes more than 100 men to carry it through the streets.
One of the city's most famous neighbourhoods, Haight Ashbury was the centre of the hippie movement in the 1960s, and the summer Haight Street Fair is a vibrant and colourful celebration of its cultural heritage and creative roots. Two stages provide a variety of musical presentations and entertainment, and the streets are filled with food and drink vendors, art and craft stalls and street performers.
Every year 'Little Italy' celebrates San Francisco's oldest street festival with arts and crafts, a pizza toss competition, local delicacies, Italian street chalk art, cooking demonstrations and cheese carving. The weekend kicks off with the Animal Blessing at the national Shrine of St Francis, and entertainment includes live jazz, rock, blues, salsa and swing music in a salutation to the Italian and Beat Generation history of the neighbourhood.
The biggest beer festival in the city is an annual event that features hundreds of beers from around the world, including Thailand, Japan, England and Germany, as well as local brews. Live bands and a wide selection of food from local restaurants add to the atmosphere, with visitors allowed to taste as much as they like.
The Monterey Jazz Festival is one of the oldest and most famous annual jazz festivals in the world. Throughout the decades, some of the greatest names in jazz have played including Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, McCoy Tyner and Oscar Peterson. The main focus of the festival is jazz education with several workshops held over the weekend.
San Francisco nightlife is diverse and enticing. Each neighbourhood's bars, clubs and lounges have a unique atmosphere, and there are multiple cafés and performing arts venues to enjoy. As San Francisco after dark is known for its novelty and constant innovation, be sure to check online for special events, once-off performances and pop-up dining that may coincide with your travel dates.
For electronic music clubs, hip hop and art lounges try the SoMa area, while the Mission and Marina districts are good for bars. Gay-friendly bars and clubs are prevalent in the Castro area, and North Beach boasts neon strip joints and bars. The San Francisco Opera stages a free performance of Opera in the Park, followed by occasional free performances throughout the city. Ballet and modern dance can be seen at the Cowell Theater and Marina Boulevard. The Civic Center/Hayes Valley area is known for brilliant live performance venues and is the go-to spot for ballet, opera and jazz.
If there is one live performance to see in San Francisco it has to be Beach Blanket Babylon, the longest running musical revue in history. It's a unique show that has achieved cult status with its witty spoofs of popular culture and show-stopping tunes. Beach Blanket Babylon was founded by the late Steve Silver and has become a San Francisco institution, popular with locals and delighted visitors alike. The venue is at Club Fugazi in North Beach.
There is plenty to do after hours in San Francisco and visitors are bound to have a tough time choosing from the utter abundance of weird and wonderful, original and entertaining night time activities.
Shopping in San Francisco is a delightful experience with varied shopping centres, charming districts and wonderful malls to keep you interested.
Some of the city's best shopping is at its museums. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art store has an incredible selection of art books, posters, DVDs and other beautiful curios, while the Exploratorium offers an irresistible range of interactive toys, robots, experiment kits and other science themed media and curios. The Asian Art Museum has the city's best collection of books, fabrics, statues, bowls and jewellery in theme with its expansive exhibits on Asian art through the centuries.
For an authentic experience of Japanese culture with all the weird and wonderful shops that go along with it, visit Japan Center on Geary Street. This center, which meanders through several buildings on a second-storey skyway, contains dozens of stores selling everything from manga to traditional medicine. Coupled with the excellent sushi restaurants it's like being transplanted into Tokyo for the afternoon.
Union Square is home to top labels and boutiques. Haight and Ashbury Streets may have shed much of their hippy heritage with the area's steady gentrification but have still retained an eclectic selection of stores that make this area one of the most interesting to shop in. In a similar vein, Hayes Valley is also a good bet for galleries, boutiques and studios. Don't miss Chinatown for an incredible collection of Asian products, while Alemany Market and San Jose flea market - on the edge of town - offer a hugely varied range of goods.
The best of the many shopping malls are probably Westfield San Francisco Centre and Ghirardelli Square, Westfield having an emphasis on value stores and well-known brands, while Ghirardelli offers speciality stores and award-winning restaurants. Top purchases while in the city include music records and cds, books, giant fortune cookies and wine from the Napa Valley. Tax can be refunded if goods are shipped outside California; keep your receipts and enquire when departing at the airport.
The public transport system in San Francisco is known as MUNI and operates buses, electric trolley buses and the famous cable cars, as well as metro streetcars (underground trains that become street cars when they emerge above ground). MUNI offers access to all parts of the city; exact change is required, and the same fare applies to all services except the cable cars, which are more expensive. Note that the cable cars are very popular and crowded. They can be tough to get onto, and slow in getting to your destination. MUNI trains and buses run 24-hours a day, with a more limited service after midnight; buses late at night are not always safe to use.
The other transport system, known as BART, is a fast and economical subway/rail network that connects the city to the East Bay as well as the airport. Taxis are also available in the city but can be hard to find, especially during peak hours. Ride-share taxi services, like Uber, are also available. During the day the best option is often to walk, as many of the locals do. However, be prepared to climb a few hills.
San Francisco sightseeing is a hugely rewarding experience and, if you enjoy walking between the sights, a physically demanding one, too. Few cities have hills as steep as this, but mercifully the cable cars are a practical and fun way to travel up and down the rises.
There are a number of world class sights: take a stroll around Golden Gate Park, while enjoying glimpses of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge; then catch a cable car up the steep hills to Chinatown, and the stunning Aquarium, before taking a long lunch at Fisherman's Wharf, one of the city's most popular attraction.
Perhaps the best of sightseeing in San Francisco is simply being in the city and experiencing its welcoming atmosphere while enjoying the charming architecture and splendid natural scenery. If you're planning a very full day of sightseeing, consider the Go San Francisco card which provides a range of discounts and preferential access to attractions. Prices start from $20 per day.
The Napa and Sonoma Valleys are at the heart of the Californian wine country, producing wines that are praised by connoisseurs worldwide, from a perfect climate of sunny days and cool nights. The area is a forerunner in the latest grape-growing techniques and wine making, and many individual growers, instead of selling their grapes to the larger wineries, are producing their own excellent boutique wines. The Napa Valley is the more commercial of the two, with more wineries, spas and tourist traffic, and a better selection of restaurants and hotels.
The valley also caters for classic wine country activities such as hot air ballooning or biking through the vineyards; the world-renowned wineries also offer informative tours, which provide the ultimate wine-country experience. Sonoma Valley is less pretentious and more beautiful in a rustic way, with smaller family-run cellars and fewer visitors. Although the Napa Valley is the USA's best-known wine region, Sonoma boasts more awards than their snobbish neighbour, producing intensely complex reds. The Napa Valley is a relatively compact region with more than 200 wineries offering tours and tasting. Most of the large wineries with their orderly rows of vineyards are situated along the main thoroughfare that stretches from San Francisco Bay to Calistoga in the north. But there is more to the valley than wine tasting.
The small resort town of Calistoga is famous for its mineral springs and mud baths, as well as the Old Faithful Geyser that shoots boiling water and steam 60 feet (18m) into the air every 40 minutes. Nearby is a Petrified Forest with redwoods, seashells and marine life that were turned to stone after volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount St Helena covered the area.
One of the country's premier national parks, Yosemite receives millions of visitors each year with more than four million people visiting the Yosemite Valley alone. It is home to the biggest piece of exposed granite in the world, some of the highest waterfalls, and giant redwoods that are among the tallest and oldest trees on earth. The Yosemite Valley was formed by glacial action that carved away the softer rock creating the almost-vertical 3,000ft (914m) granite cliffs that line the seven-mile (11km) long valley floor.
The towering cliffs are streaked with waterfalls and the valley floor is covered in meadows, rivers and forests that are the habitat of black bears, deer and coyotes. It is one of the world's most dramatic geological sights with granite monoliths like the 3,600ft (1,097m) piece known as El Capitan, and the sheerest cliff in North America, the Half Dome. Climbers on the granite faces are almost invisible to the naked eye and at night pinpricks of light halfway up indicate where they have tied themselves in for the night, ready for the next day's climbing.
The most spectacular views of the valley are from Glacier Point, the top of a sheer cliff perched high above the valley, with magnificent vistas of Half Dome and the mountains of the High Sierra in the distance. There are numerous trails in the valley and many lead to several of the incredible waterfalls that are at their most dramatic after the spring snowmelt, including the 2,425ft (739m) Yosemite Falls and the Vernal Falls that drenches hikers in rainbow-coloured spray. A loop trail takes walkers to the hundreds of towering redwoods in Mariposa Grove, one over 2,700 years old.
Although the park is big enough to absorb the crowds, 95 percent of the tourist activity is concentrated within the valley, and outdoor enthusiasts need only walk a little further along the trails to find all the solitude and wilderness they desire. Above the valley are the large open fields of Tuolumne Meadows that offer fantastic scenery, uncrowded camping and a haven for hikers with hundreds of miles of trails. Yosemite Village is the largest developed region in the Yosemite Valley and holds the main visitor's centre, restaurants and shops as well as nearby hotel accommodation.
The closest remaining stand of Redwoods to San Francisco, Muir Woods National Monument is a great half-day excursion from the city to pay homage to these soaring giants of the forest. It's incredible to think that each tree grew from a seed no larger than that of a tomato's. Redwoods can grow to over 380 feet (115m), although Muir Woods' tallest tree is 258 feet (79m). The park itself is a haven for wildlife and there are numerous longer hikes departing from the shorter ring path that most visitors amble around.
One of the most bizarre attractions in northern California, the Winchester Mystery House was the residence of Sarah Winchester, widow of the inventor of the famous rifle. The house was continuously under construction for nearly 40 years, and it is popularly believed to be haunted by the spirits of people killed by Winchester rifles, who drove her to keep adding and remodeling the mansion.
Whether or not it is haunted, the house is a strange and rambling collection of roughly 160 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, two ballrooms, 47 fireplaces and several secret passageways. Seemingly innocent doors and stairways lead nowhere, and there are superstitious touches including a preoccupation with the number 13, and recurring spiderweb motifs.
Tours of the Winchester Mystery House take roughly 1 hour and are offered daily. Special flashlight tours are offered every Halloween and on Friday the 13th. Children are not allowed on 'Behind the Scenes' and Grand Tours for safety reasons.