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Explore San Francisco

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Whether you’re a first time or repeat visitor to San Francisco, you’ll be amazed at the amazing number and wide array of sites and attractions peppered throughout this city encompassing only about 49 square miles.

Although I personally often avoid some of the most heavily trafficked tourist attractions when I visit a destination, I am usually pleasantly surprised when I do to find a few gems that give me more than I bargained for.

Such was the case on this visit I ventured back to historic Fisherman’s Wharf. As the center of a fishing and ocean-oriented industry that dates back to the turn-of-the-century, it—despite the overwhelming number of tourists—has managed to maintain a great deal of those early influences.

To learn more about this history be sure to stop by the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park Visitor Center. Located in a historic brick cannery warehouse built in 1908, the Center—which is part of the National Park System—offers a wealth of unusual maritime artifacts and interpretative material, plus a unique “A Walk Along the Waterfront” walk-through timeline experience.

Other sites and attractions along the Wharf—which stretches from the Aquatic Park on the west side to about Pier 33 on the east side include the Hyde Street Pier, Aquarium of the Bay, San Francisco Maritime Museum, USS Pampanito submarine, Sea Lion Center, SS Jeremiah O’Brien Liberty Ship, and the Amusing America & Musee Mechanique collection, among others.

Several of these and other entities are located along Pier 39, featuring its world famous outstanding views of the city’s skyline, Angel Island State Park, both the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges and Alcatraz (more on that later), over 90 specialty shops, a wide array of restaurants, and other attractions, in addition to being the starting point for the Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruises and tours from the San Francisco Sightseeing Company and Adventure Cat Sailing Charters.

One very cool attraction of note here is the 7D Experience—reportedly the first and only 7D attraction in the US—which combines the exhilaration of a rollercoaster ride with an interactive, state-of-the-art laser blasting game suitable for the entire family.

A Different Side of “The Rock”

Everyone is familiar with the story of Alcatraz, the maximum security fortress operated from 1934 to 1963, referred to as “The Rock,” the one-time home of famous criminals such as Al Capone, and made famous for the historic escape of three prisoners as told in the 1979 movie Escape from Alcatraz.


But did you also know that Alcatraz was declared a military reservation by President Millard Fillmore in 1850? Or that it served as a Civil War fortress, was the birthplace of the American Indian Red Power movement in the 1960s and was the site of the first lighthouse on the West Coast? How about the fact that over 300 people—prison officials, guards, groundskeepers and others, and their wives and children—lived here year-round, the children taking the ferry to school each week in the city? These are just a few of the captivating stories behind arguably one of the world’s most famous and popular tourist attractions.

A trip here is much more than meets the eye, beginning with a short, scenic trip via Alcatraz Cruises which works in conjunction with the National Park Service. As part of your visit, be sure to embark upon The Cellhouse Audio Tour, a mesmerizing, award-winning 45 minute audio tour presentation that leads visitors almost by the hand through the cell blocks, dining halls, guard quarters, kitchen, historic gardens and other areas, and features the voices of actual prisoners, correctional officers and now grown children that provide interesting insights on what it was like to live and work here. 

The Best of the Best

There are so many fabulous world renowned sites, attractions and neighborhoods that one could call the “Best of the Best” in San Francisco, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Mission, Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, Yerba Buena Gardens, South of Market, Union Square, the Fillmore District and so on. And all of it is true. But there are a few that are often overlooked but well worth mentioning.

Among them is Coit Tower. Built in 1933 and situated at the top of Telegraph Hill, it is named for a wealthy socialite named Lillie Hitchcock Coit who left a sizeable bequest to be used to beautify the city. Inside visitors will find an elevator that takes them to an observation deck at the top of the 210-foot tower featuring 360-degree views of the city and bay, as well as a series of murals painted by 26 artists in 1934 that depict various scenes relative to the city’s history and culture. To get to the tour you can drive or take one of the city’s municipal buses, but I think the best way is to walk up the steep hills from North Beach down below, which offers an even more dramatic viewpoint of the surrounding neighborhoods, the bay and the north and east sides of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, respectively.

Written by Lysa Allman Baldwin

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