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San Francisco Travel Guide

  • Photo: Pius Lee / Shutterstock

The Marina and the Presidio

It's often said that the Marina's 1989 disaster was literally built on the legacy of the Great Quake. Local legend has it that rubble from the 1906 catastrophe was used to fill in the area—unstable landfill that then liquefied when the Loma Prieta temblor struck. That story has been disproved, but regardless of the origin

of Marina land, its shaky character stays the same. The district suffered the worst damage in the city from the 1989 quake, and many residents fled in search of more-solid ground. Others stayed put. "I realize that we're sitting on Jell-O," said one local. "[But] how many areas are as beautiful as the Marina? At some point, you just have to pick your poison..."

Well-funded postcollegiates and the nouveau riche quickly replaced those who left, changing the tenor of this formerly low-key neighborhood. The number of yuppie coffee emporiums skyrocketed, a bank became a Williams-Sonoma store, and the local grocer gave way to a Pottery Barn. On weekends a young, fairly homogeneous, well-to-do crowd floods the cafés and bars. (Some things don't change—even before the quake, the Marina Safeway was a famed pickup place for straight singles, hence the nickname "Dateway.") One unquestionable improvement has been the influx of contemporary cuisine into this former bastion of outdated Italian fare. South of Lombard Street is the Marina's affluent neighbor, Cow Hollow, whose main drag, Union Street, has some of the city's best boutique shopping and a good selection of restaurants and cafés. Joggers and kite-flyers head to the Marina Green, the strip of lawn between the yacht club and the mansions of Marina Boulevard.

Between old-money Pacific Heights and the well-heeled, postcollegiate Marina lies comfortably upscale Cow Hollow. The neighborhood's name harks back to the 19th-century dairy farms whose owners eked out a living here despite the fact that there was more sand than grass. A patch of grass remains a scarce commodity in this mostly residential area, but Cow Hollow does have one heck of a commercial strip, centered around Union Street. To get a feel for this accessible bastion of affluence, stroll down Union. Browse the cosmetics and jewelry stores, snazzy clothing boutiques, and shops selling home decor for every taste (if not budget), then rest your feet at one of the many good restaurants or sidewalk cafés.

One of city residents' favorite in-town getaways, the 1,400-plus-acre Presidio combines accessible nature-in-the-raw with a window onto the past. For more than 200 years and under the flags of three nations—Spain, Mexico, and the United States—the Presidio served as an army post, but in 1995 the U.S. Army officially handed over the keys to the National Park Service. The keys came without sufficient federal funding, though, and it seemed the Presidio would be sold piecemeal to developers.

An innovative plan combining public and private monies and overseen by the Presidio Trust, the federal agency created to run the park, was hatched to help the Presidio become self-sufficient, which it did in 2013. The trust has found paying tenants such as George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic, the Walt Disney Family Museum, and a few thousand lucky San Franciscans who live in restored army housing. Now this spectacular corner of the city—surrounded by sandy beaches and rocky shores, and with windswept hills of cypress dotted with historical buildings—is a thriving urban park. The Presidio has superb views and some of the best hiking and biking areas in San Francisco; even a drive through this lush area is a treat.

Yachts bob at their moorings, satisfied-looking folks jog along the Marina Green, and multimillion-dollar homes overlook the bay in the picturesque, if somewhat sterile, Marina neighborhood. Does it all seem a bit too perfect? Well, it got this way after the hard knock of Loma Prieta—the current pretty face was put on after hundreds of homes collapsed in the 1989 earthquake. Just west of this waterfront area is a more natural beauty: the Presidio. Once a military base, this beautiful, sprawling park is mostly green space, with hills, woods, and the marshlands of Crissy Field.

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