San Francisco: Recreation


San Francisco contains so many interesting attractions in such a small area that visitors find something unique on almost any street. Most points of interest are within walking distance or a short ride away. The ride itself can be an attraction when taken on one of the city's famous cable cars, the nation's only moving historical landmarks, now restored and servicing a 10-mile route in the heart of the city.

Historic and scenic beauty is evident all over the city. The original mission and the Presidio, both built in 1776 out of simple adobe brick, can still be toured. Jackson Square, the former Barbary Coast, and Portsmouth Square, the original center of the early town, are both in renovated areas that highlight different periods of the city's history. Many of the residential sections that surround the downtown district were spared destruction in the earthquake and fire of 1906, and they offer examples of Victorian architecture. Displayed in hillside vistas, the colorful houses give the city a Mediterranean look. The downtown area also contains a number of striking modern structures like the pyramidal Transamerica Building, and the impressive Civic Center complex, including the domed City Hall.

Perhaps the most unique features of San Francisco are its clusters of distinct ethnic neighborhoods. The most famous is Chinatown, the largest Chinese district outside of Asia, a 24-block area of authentic bazaars, temples, restaurants, and distinctive Oriental architecture. Recent additions to the area include a two-level gateway to the district, ornately carved by Taiwanese craftsmen, and the Chinese Cultural Center. Next to Chinatown is the North Beach area, once home to the "beatnik" culture. Filled with Italian influences—cafes, gelato parlors, delicatessens, cappuccino houses, and restaurants—the area also contains a number of jazz clubs, art galleries, and theaters. The Mission District, a business and residential area of colorful Victorian buildings, is home to a predominantly Spanish-speaking population and the original Levi Strauss clothing factory, still in operation. A five-tiered pagoda welcomes visitors to Nihonmachi, a section of sushi bars, theaters, shops, restaurants, and hotels that reflect the Japanese culture.

Golden Gate Park, just west of the downtown area, is more than 1,000 acres of landscaped greenery that was once a barren area of windswept sand dunes. The park was created in 1846 and houses flowered meadows, an arboretum and botanical garden containing more than 6,000 plant species, and a 5-acre Japanese tea garden. Also located in the park are the Conservatory of Flowers, a children's playground with an antique carousel, and a small herd of bison, a tradition since 1890.

The city's waterfront offers a variety of entertainments. Several islands in the bay provide scenic picnic areas. Alcatraz Island, home of "The Rock," the former escape-proof federal prison, is now open for tours; advance reservations are suggested. Ocean Beach, on the Pacific side of the peninsula, provides a view of Seal Rocks, a small island occupied by a colony of sea lions. At the northern end of Ocean Beach is the San Francisco Zoo, one of the top ten in the nation. More than 1,000 animals inhabit the exhibits, including snow leopards, a rare white tiger, and a colony of koala bears. The zoo also features the computer-designed Primate Discovery Center, Gorilla World, the world's largest natural gorilla habitat, and a children's zoo.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area, one of the largest urban parks in the world and host to more than 16 million

The Golden Gate Bridge.
The Golden Gate Bridge.
visitors each year, is located on both sides of the Golden Gate, the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Its 75,398 acres contain stunning cliff-top views of the bay and the ocean, a network of hiking trails, valleys, and beaches, and the Fort Point National Historic Site, a brick fort built in 1861. The Golden Gate Bridge, with its pedestrian walkway, connects the two sides of the park.

Arts and Culture

San Francisco enjoys a cultural scene as varied as its population. Theater, music, and dance can be found in a multitude of outlets. The heart of the city's cultural life is located in the area around the Civic Center Plaza, where the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center blends in with the neighboring civic buildings. The Center includes the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, home of the San Francisco Symphony, a world-class orchestra that is one of the oldest in the United States. The newly renovated War Memorial Opera House is home to the internationally acclaimed San Francisco Opera and the equally renowned San Francisco Ballet.

Visitors and residents enjoy Broadway shows, improvisational comedy, musical revues, and dramatic theater throughout the city. Situated on San Francisco's Union Square is TIX Bay Area, a half-price ticket booth that has day-of tickets to performances at many of the large and smaller houses. Within walking distance are American Conservatory Theater, Cable Car Theater, Curran Theater, Mason Street Theater, and Theater on the Square.

Museums in San Francisco are varied and plentiful. Located on the waterfront is the National Maritime Museum, a collection of ship models, relics, photographs, and paintings, as well as several restored vessels docked at the adjacent pier. The American Carousel Museum features a collection of hand-carved antique carousel figures. Other area museums include the San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society, the Museum of the California Historical Society, and the Wells Fargo History Museum.

The California Academy of Sciences, formerly in Golden Gate Park, is now in a new location downtown and consists of an aquarium, a planetarium, and a natural history museum. The Steinhart Aquarium houses more than 14,000 aquatic specimens including penguins, dolphins, seals, crocodiles, and rare Australian lungfish. The Morrison Planetarium will reopen with modern features in a brand new facility. The Natural History Museum houses many exhibits of natural science including the Earth and Space Hall with its simulated earthquake and the Gem and Mineral Hall.

The park also contains two art museums. The M. H. de Young Museum houses a diverse collection, including galleries tracing the history of art, as well as displays of American art, pre-Columbian gold work, and works by masters such as El Greco and Rembrandt. In October 2005, the museum will reopen in its brand new home, a state-of-the-art, 293,000 square foot facility. The nearby Asian Art Museum houses the Avery Brundage Collection, which contains more than 500 examples of Chinese art in addition to art of the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia.

At the heart of San Francisco's Yerba Buena Gardens, situated south of Market Street near the Financial District, is a bustling center for arts and culture that includes the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which is the first museum on the West Coast devoted solely to twentieth-century art. The Jewish Museum and Mexican Museum are two of the many organizations in the process of building their new facilities nearby. Other area art museums include the San Francisco Crafts and Folk Art Museum, the Chinese Culture Center Museum, the Galeria de la Raza, the Mexican Museum of San Francisco, the Ansel Adams Center for Photography, Cartoon Art Museum, and the Museo Italo Americano.

Festivals and Holidays

San Francisco is known for its celebratory spirit, which is reflected in the calendar of festivals and special events. One of the biggest celebrations occurs in February with the week-long Chinese New Year festival, an exotic blend of parades, outdoor festivals, and other cultural programs in America's largest Chinese community. March brings the seven-day St. Patrick's Day Celebration. The attention shifts to the Japanese district for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in April, consisting of cultural programs, exhibitions, and a parade of dancers and costumed performers.

For almost a century, thousands of runners have flocked to San Francisco in May for the annual Bay to Breakers, which is part fundraiser for a variety of charities and part celebration of the city's diversity. June brings the two-day San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Parade, the world's largest gay pride event. The San Francisco Waterfront Festival is an Independence Day party that unfailingly delivers brilliant fireworks over the Bay. Also in July is the North Beach Jazz Festival, which underscores the rich history of the San Francisco jazz scene. This 5-day celebration of the Soul of San Francisco begins on Wednesday when more than 40 bars and clubs along Grant Street host local and national jazz talent. In September, people can sample the sinful fruits of chocolatiers at the Ghirardelli Square Chocolate Festival. The Holiday Festival of Lights in December takes place at Fisherman's Wharf and launches the Bay Area holiday season in style.

Sports for the Spectator

The Bay Area is home to two Major League Baseball franchises, the American League Oakland A's and the National League San Francisco Giants, as well as to the National Basketball Association's Golden State Warriors, the National Hockey League's San Jose Sharks, and the pro-soccer league's San Jose Clash. The National Football Leagues' San Francisco 49ers was the first professional sports franchise on the West Coast, and have made several trips to the Super Bowl. During the past 16 seasons, San Francisco's football team has won more than 70 percent of its games and posted an NFL record of 13 straight seasons with 10 or more victories. Thoroughbred racing can be enjoyed at Golden Gate Fields or Bay Meadows, two of America's premier horse racing facilities. The Laguna Seca Raceway and the Infineon Raceway provide a variety of motor sports nearby. The city annually sponsors one of the largest marathons in the country, the San Francisco Marathon, as well as several other running events throughout the year. Area colleges and universities also field teams in most sports and maintain extensive spectator facilities.

Sports for the Participant

San Francisco offers a wide array of choices for those who are sports minded. Aquatic sports are especially popular because of the city's proximity to water. Yachting, boating, swimming, water skiing, boardsailing, surfing, fishing, and hang gliding from cliffs are among the favorite activities. The 75,398-acre Golden Gate Recreation Area is filled with hiking and bicycling trails, campgrounds, and wildlife preserves. The San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department administers and maintains more than 200 parks, playgrounds, and open spaces throughout the city, including two outside the city limits: Sharp Park in Pacifica and Camp Mather in the High Sierras. The system also includes 15 large, full-complex recreation centers; 9 swimming pools; 5 golf courses; and hundreds of tennis courts, ball diamonds, athletic fields, and basketball courts. The department is also responsible for the Marina Yacht Harbor, Candlestick Park, the San Francisco Zoo, and the Lake Merced Complex, which is operated for recreational purposes under the San Francisco Water Department.

Shopping and Dining

San Francisco offers some of the best shopping in the world, so it is no wonder that tourists and serious shopaholics alike want to spend some time and money in San Francisco's varied shopping centers, districts and malls. Union Square, Hayes Valley, upper Fillmore, the Mission, Sacramento Street, Chinatown and downtown's San Francisco Shopping Center offer a unique style with one-of-a-kind shops; each mall and neighborhood offers a distinctive feel suited to any shopper's mood. Other major shopping districts include Ghirardelli Square, which is a group of stores built around the Ghirardelli chocolate factory, and the Cannery, a lavishly remodeled former produce processing plant. Other popular shopping destinations are the Anchorage at Fisher-man's Wharf, and downtown's Embarcadero Center. In addition, each ethnic neighborhood supports its own distinctive section of shops, open-air markets, and restaurants. San Francisco is famous for its vast and varied assortment of bookstores.

San Francisco has been called "the weight watcher's Waterloo" because of its tempting restaurants, many holding international reputations. Nearly 4,000 restaurants in the city are geographically concentrated at the rate of about 95 per square mile. Dining styles and venues include supper clubs, American grills, California-Asian hybrids, haute vegetarian, modest bistros, and fine-dining destinations.

Seafood fresh off the boat can be obtained at restaurants along Fisherman's Wharf; farmland, vineyards, and cattle ranches in the surrounding area provide an abundance of other fresh ingredients. Sourdough bread is a San Francisco specialty. Many international restaurants, serving dishes from around the world and prepared with exact authenticity, are scattered throughout the city's numerous ethnic neighborhoods.

Visitor Information: San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, Convention Plaza, 201 Third Street, Suite 900, San Francisco, CA 94103; telephone (415)391-2000; fax (415)362-7323.