San Francisco Feature

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Top Things to Do in San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco's signature International Orange entryway is the city's majestic background, and about 10 million people a year head to the bridge for an up-close look. Walking the 1.7 miles to Marin County—inches from roaring traffic, steel shaking beneath your feet, and a far-too-low railing between you and the water 200 feet below—is much more than a superlative photo op (though it's that, too).

Alcatraz

Considering how many movies have been set here, you might feel that you've already "been there, done that"—but you really shouldn't miss a trip to America's most infamous federal pen. Husky-throated onetime inmates and grizzled former guards bring the Rock to life on the wonderful audio tour; you'll hear yarns about desperate escape attempts and notorious crooks like Al Capone while you walk the cold cement cellblock. But it's not all doom and gloom: you'll enjoy stunning views of the city skyline on the ferry ride to and from the island.

Fisherman's Wharf

Once part of a thriving fishing industry, Fisherman's Wharf has deteriorated into a giant harpoon aimed straight at your wallet. Throngs from all over the world come to hear the sea lions bark; buy cheap T-shirts; and chow down on overpriced, mediocre food. It's all an utter mystery to locals, who don't come here. Ever. See the magnificent historic ships at the Hyde Street Pier, then take your money and run.

Golden Gate Park

It may be world famous, but first and foremost the park is the city's backyard. Come here any day of the week and you'll find a microcosm of San Francisco, from the Russian senior citizens feeding the pigeons at Stow Lake and the moms pushing strollers through the botanical gardens to school kids exploring the fabulous California Academy of Sciences and arts boosters checking out the latest at the de Young Museum. Be sure to visit the park's iconic treasures, including the serene Japanese Tea Garden and the beautiful Victorian Conservatory of Flowers. If you have the time to venture farther into this urban oasis, you'll discover less-accessible gems like the Beach Chalet and the wild western shores of Ocean Beach.

Cable Cars

You've already seen them (on the big screen, in magazines, and, admit it, on the Rice-a-Roni box). And considering a ticket costs $6 a pop, do you really need to ride a cable car? Yes, you do, at least once during your visit. Flag down a Powell–Hyde car along Powell Street, grab the pole, and clatter and jiggle up mansion-topped Nob Hill. Crest the hill, and hold on for the hair-raising descent to Fisherman's Wharf, with sun glittering off the bay and Alcatraz bobbing in the distance. Don't deny it—this would be a deal at twice the price.

Palace of Fine Arts

Perched on a swan-filled lagoon near the Marina's yacht harbor, this stirringly beautiful terra-cotta-color domed structure has an otherworldly quality about it. Built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition and newly restored, the palace is a San Francisco architect's version of a Roman ruin, and it's been eliciting gasps for almost a century. Try to see it from the water.

Coit Tower

Most people assume that this stubby white tower atop Telegraph Hill is supposed to look like a fire-hose nozzle. And considering that a fire truck–chasing, cross-dressing 19th-century socialite donated the funds to build it, maybe it is. The tower itself is of vague interest—it does house the history of San Francisco in murals—but the parking lot at its base and tiny park out back have fantastic views of the city and the bay. The tower sits at the top of Telegraph Hill's Filbert Steps, a steep stairway through glorious gardens with vistas of transcendent beauty, an only–in–San Francisco spot locals cherish.

Ferry Building

Foodies rejoice! The historic Ferry Building is stuffed to the brim with all things tasty, including cafés, restaurants, a farmers' market, and merchants peddling everything from wine and olive oil to oysters and mushrooms. The building backs up to the bay, so the views are great—but they're even better from the decks of the departing ferries.

California Academy of Sciences

One look at the building's monumental exterior—glass, glass, and more glass, all topped with 2½ acres of native plants on its undulating living roof—and you'll know this isn't just another science museum. Super-funky architecture and "green" everything (denim as insulation and rechargeable vehicle stations) enclose a full day's diversions. Visit Claude, the languid albino crocodile, a waddle of penguins, a four-story walk-through rain forest complete with free-flying butterflies, a planetarium, a good, old-fashioned natural-history hall, and more.

Wine Country

You don't need to be a connoisseur to enjoy a trip to Napa or Sonoma... or both (hey, you're on vacation). But there's more to a Wine Country visit than vineyard tours and tastings: landmark restaurants, breathtaking scenery, fantastic artwork, hot-air-balloon rides, and secluded boutique hotels. And when you're ready for a break, a great glass of wine is never that far out of reach.

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