World Facts Index > United States > San Francisco
Part of San Francisco's abundant charm is in the variety of its neighborhoods. With only 49 square miles, San Francisco is really quite small, yet its hilly terrain and patchwork demographic profile give it more distinctly defined neighborhoods than a city five times its size. As a result, the sights, sounds and flavors of a community,
and even its climate, can change within a single block.
Castro Street and Noe Valley
The center of gay San Francisco, and a landmark for gay culture everywhere. Bars, dance clubs, good restaurants, and one-of-a-kind shops abound in the commercial area around 18th and Castro. There's arguably more street life in the Castro than anywhere else in the city, especially on weekends. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence sometimes
make an appearance at special events (they're really men in nun drag), and take it from us'this is the place to be on Halloween. Trek up Castro to Liberty Street to see exceptional Victorian homes. Over the hill lies Noe Valley and its main shopping strip, 24th Street. Cute and relatively quiet, Noe Valley has enough great restaurants and
gourmet food shops to make it sophisticated, but not so many chromed-up bars and Italian clothing boutiques to make it stuffy.
The greatest single concentration of Chinese people outside of Asia, a population of 80,000, live in the approximately 24 square blocks of Chinatown, making it the most densely populated area of San Francisco. You can't drive here - walk. You'll be richly rewarded by the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of this vibrant, and in many ways
autonomous, community. Grant Avenue is the decorative showpiece of Chinatown. Look at the fanciful chinoiserie facades on the buildings and Stockton Street where most of its real business gets accomplished. Try dim sum for lunch and select your dinner while it's still swimming!
Civic Center and Hayes Valley
This is the administrative and cultural center of San Francisco. Stately Beaux Arts buildings like the Opera House and the domed, renovated City Hall tolerate the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall and the Public Library's graceful Main Branch, both architectural newcomers. Nearby Hayes Valley offers fine dining and apres-symphony toddies for
concert-goers, as well as tastefully creative stores for clothing and gifts. Nocturnal wanderings in any direction except north (on Van Ness) are discouraged.
Cow Hollow: Union Street
The most gracious, imposing homes of Cow Hollow (so named for its original bovine residents) are nestled against the Presidio where Pacific Heights dives to the Marina. Spectacular views are the norm. Straight, single yuppies - either affluent or getting there fast - pack the Balboa Cafe, Sushi Chardonnay, and other bars and restaurants
on Fillmore and Union Streets. Clothes hounds can easily fritter away a day (and thousands of dollars) in Union Street's oh-so-tasteful boutiques.
Downtown: Union Square
Union Square is the heart of San Francisco's bustling and stylish downtown shopping district, adding up to the greatest concentration of high-end retail west of New York's Fifth Avenue. Posh department stores such as Neiman Marcus ring the one-block square park. Hundreds of other exclusive stores and boutiques lie within a three-block
radius of the square. If you've shopped till you've dropped, pick yourself up at an outdoor cafe in tiny Maiden Lane, and restore the soul at one of the many art galleries on Sutter and Geary Streets. This is also the home of San Francisco's modest Theater District.
Financial District and The Embarcadero
"The Wall Street of the West:" Bank of America, Charles Schwab, and the Transamerica Corporation (in its landmark, 48 floor Pyramid) are among the many banks and corporations headquartered here. Bursting with energy 9-to-5, quiet as a tomb after hours. The Embarcadero Center features dining, shopping, a fine art cinema, and a
health club. Wide open Justin Herman Plaza is the starting point for the infamous Critical Mass bike ride and the site of New Years Eve bashes. The Embarcadero itself fronts the Bay for miles on either side of the imposing Ferry Building, modeled on the cathedral tower in Seville, Spain.
Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and Aquatic Park
Once the thriving center of San Francisco's fishing industry. Many fishing boats still dock at the Wharf, but Fisherman's Wharf today is more of an extended tourist trap. Pier 39 is fun thanks to the noisy, delightful colony of sea lions which annexed its boat marina. Aquatic Park features a beach, of sorts, and a long pier spiraling well
out into the Bay. Old sea-dogs will enjoy adjacent Hyde Street Pier, where the tall ship Balclutha and other historic ships are docked, and the Maritime Museum. Ghirardelli Square, a chocolate-factory-turned-shopping-and-restaurant-complex, features some of the city's better dining and views. Nice for an evening stroll.
Golden Gate Park
With 1000 acres of gardens, meadows, lakes, golf, archery, and internationally recognized art and science museums, Golden Gate Park offers endless recreational possibilities for visitors and locals.
The M.H deYoung Memorial Museum, the remarkable Asian Art Museum, and the California Academy of Sciences are the main cultural attractions in the Park. Along with the San Francisco Zoo and the Japanese Tea Garden, they draw millions of visitors each year. At the western edge of the park, Ocean Beach, although unappealing for swimming,
attracts hard-core surfers with its rough, frigid and unpredictable waves.
Often called the Lower Haight, the area around Haight and Fillmore feels at once more bohemian and less unsavory than the Haight Ashbury to the west. Ethnic restaurants, unpretentious cafes, and independent bookstores are mushrooming in this neighborhood that as recent as teh early 1990s was dangerous. The youngish street life is lively
on nights and weekends. The Haight Ashbury Street Fair is also popular.
Nob Hill & Russian Hill
On impossibly steep Nob Hill, California's early industrialists built fabulous mansions that looked down upon the rest of San Francisco. While only the imposing Flood Mansion remains - now the Pacific Union Club - the area's five-star hotels bear the names of other Nob Hill denizens: The Mark Hopkins, the Stanford Court, and the
Huntington. Facing Huntington Park is Grace Cathedral, a 3/4 replica of Paris' Notre Dame. Adjoining Nob Hill is Russian Hill, where San Francisco's old money has a great view of the Bay. The "Crookedest Street in the World" resides here and snakes down Russian Hill for the 1000 block of Lombard. The traffic is generally
impossible - walk it!
North Beach and Telegraph Hill
The cafe conscience of San Francisco and light of its night life. Originally settled by Italians, North Beach became a magnet for Beat Generation writers and poets in the 1950s. City Lights Bookstore and the cafes and shops on upper Grant Avenue still exude Beatnik funkiness. A new wave of entrepreneurial Italians has brought a sense of
Roman style to exciting new restaurants along Columbus Avenue. On Broadway, barkers still pull tourists and sailors into charmingly seedy strip joints. Clapboard sea captains' cottages and mossy flower gardens seem to dangle in space from the cliffs of Telegraph Hill. Coit Tower, at 210 feet, commands a stunning panorama from the hilltop.
The boardwalk Filbert Steps leads from the Tower down through the Grace Marchand Gardens to Levi's Plaza at the base of the Hill.
Fillmore Street and Japantown
Fillmore Street, Pacific Heights' commercial spur, features noteworthy restaurants, epicurean food, and antique shops, all attended by a lively trade from young professionals. Fillmore and Geary has become a popular nightlife destination, thanks to John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom Room, the Fillmore Auditorium, and the AMC Kabuki 8 Theater
multiplex, a favorite for film festivals. Be advised that the neighborhood gets a bit sketchy to the south and west of Geary and Fillmore. The Kabuki 8 Theater and neighboring Kabuki Hot Springs are part of the Japan Center, the commercial heart of Japantown. A sort of miniature Ginza, the Japan Center features a 100-foot pagoda, bonsai
gardens, sushi bars and other businesses. Each spring it holds the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival.
Pacific Heights & Presidio Heights
Stately homes and high-rent apartment buildings line the ridge high above Cow Hollow in old-money Pacific Heights. Genteel, renovated Victorians ring the peaceful Alta Plaza Park. West of Pacific Heights lies Presidio Heights. Washington Street between Presidio and Arguello features some exceptionally palatial residences. Those fortunate
enough to live here shop for antiques and dine in quiet refinement on a few understated blocks of nearby Sacramento Street. San Francisco's largest synagogue, Temple Emanu-el, is to be found on Arguello Street.
A cool neighborhood where light industry coexists with design and photography studios. The bohemian creatives live next door to low-income families. Quirky postmodern lofts are going up quietly in the shadow of huge, empty factories. The neighborhood has undergone a subtle renaissance, but has kept its industrial charm. Big changes will
take place, however, once UCSF's Mission Bay development is completed at the Western edge of the Potrero.
From what was not long ago a decidely unglamorous stretch of light industry, warehouses, and a seedy undercurrent, an exciting new San Francisco has emerged in the area South of Market Street, SoMa. Conventioneering, art, and entertainment possibilities abound in the brand-new Moscone/YerbaBuena Center area. The dot.com businesses of
nearby "Multimedia Gulch" spawn new twenty-something cyber-millionaires every week. Many of them can be seen at leisure at the South Park Cafe, Brainwash (a cafe/performance space/laundromat), or other fashion-forward restaurants and watering holes.
South Beach/China Basin
One of the city's most popular new residential areas for young professionals, South Beach arose from a virtual wasteland at the southern end of the Embarcadero and the western edge of SoMa. Apartment complexes and boat marinas squeeze together between the foot of the Bay Bridge and Pacific Bell Park, the San Francisco Giants' brand new
waterfront baseball stadium. Warehouses and factories have either been converted into stylish lofts or are being razed in a swath of development extending down Third Street to the forthcoming Mission Bay development.
Haight-Ashbury and the Panhandle
This small, but densely concentrated cradle of the hippie movement, has tried to retain much of its flower-power, peace-and-love appeal. While real Summer-of-Love generation hippies may be hard to find, young people, dreadlocked, skinheaded, or skateboard-crazy have continued to come to the Haight to break boundaries. Aggressive
panhandling is not uncommon here. The colorful bars and restaurants of upper Haight Street, however, are always packed with job-holding, going-places twenty-somethings. The annual Haight-Ashbury Street Fair is quite a scene. Architecture buffs will want to take a look at the regal Victorians on the Panhandle - the grassy, tree-lined strip
extends east from Golden Gate Park along Fell and Oak Streets.
The Marina District
Fresh ocean air, pastel-colored, stucco duplexes, and college sweatshirts. Tanned, fit and energetic twenty-somethings run and rollerblade along the Marina Green, a vast expanse of grass fronting the Bay between two yacht harbors and a perfect spot for flying kites. Mountain bikers crowd cafes, restaurants, and brunch hangouts along busy
Chestnut Street after Sunday morning rides to Mount Tamalpais. The graceful Palace of Fine Arts houses The Exploratorium, the one-of-a-kind, hands-on science museum - a must-see for those with kids. At the southern end of the Marina Green is Fort Mason Center, a waterside arts and cultural center.
The Mission District
Long a nexus of Hispanic culture, more recently a mecca for edgy, Anglo Bohemians, and now home for increasing numbers of young professionals and their sport utility vehicles. Possibly the most hip, vibrant, sunny part of the city. Mexican and Central American businesses line teeming Mission Street. Visit popular La Taqueria, and be
assured that the wait is worth it. Along the Valencia Corridor, one block to west, bars, cafes, and restaurants of every description lead to the buzzing 16th and Valencia hub. The neighborhood draws its name from nearby Mission Dolores, founded in 1776. The dolled-up, postcard-perfect Victorians on Dolores Street are worth a look (in the
daytime) from adjacent Dolores Park.
Fourteen thousand acres of forests and beaches, seventy-five miles of bicycle-friendly roads, a golf course, and scenic grandeur without end make this the jewel of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Presidio was a military base from 1776 to 1994; antebellum Fort Point, under the Golden Gate Bridge, is a favorite for cannon
enthusiasts, as well as for surfers, sailboarders, and Hitchcock aficionados (it's the site of Kim Novak's attempted suicide in "Vertigo").
The Richmond District
Fog-bound and quiet residential streets stretch to the Cliff House and Sutro Baths at the ocean, with the occasional Irish pub along the way. Some of the city's best Chinese restaurants are to be found in "Little Chinatown" on Clement Street, and cyrillic lettering fills store windows around the imposing, gold-domed Holy Virgin
Russian Orthodox Cathedral on outer Geary Blvd. Exclusive Seacliff, home to Robin Williams and other celebrities, gives onto the Golden Gate next to Lincoln Park, site of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and a spectacular golf course.
A quiet and intensely foggy residential district. The principal attractions to the Outer Sunset are the San Francisco Zoo and the natural amphitheater at Stern Grove, where free concerts are held on summer Sundays. The Inner Sunset features a lively stretch of Irving Street, near Ninth Avenue. Students from nearby UCSF Medical School
crowd ethnic restaurants of every stripe, from Ethiopian to Thai to one serving only raw vegetables.
History of San Francisco
The Finding and Founding of San Francisco
San Francisco's 223-year history of European settlement is predated by untold millennia of Native American habitation - and 230 years of bumbling European explorers unable to find the Bay.
Miwok Indians to the north and the Ohlones to the south lived a peaceful existence before the coming of Europeans, subsisting on the natural bounty of the Bay Area's edible plants and fish and deer stocks. They were skilled weavers, as their baskets and boats attest. (The Kule Loklo Miwok village, re-created near the Bear Valley
Visitors Center at Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, provides an insight into the rhythms of their daily life.)
The arrival of the white man was delayed by two centuries as Cabrillo, Drake(who beached at Point Reyes in 1579), Cermeño and Vizcaíno passed right by the Golden Gate without seeing San Francisco Bay. It wasn't until an overland expedition by Don Gaspar de Portolá that Europeans first laid eyes on the Bay in 1770. In March, 1776,
Captain Juan Bautista de Anza founded the Presidio and Mission of as-yet unnamed San Francisco.
The Spanish presence at the Mission San Francisco de Asis (now Mission Dolores, completed in 1791, it's by far the oldest building in the city) and at the Presidio, three miles away, did not amount to much over the succeeding years. The Mexican revolution of 1821 led to the Secularization Act of 1833, ending the Mission period. Mission
Dolores fell into disrepair, and the Mexican presence in the Presidio dwindled to almost nothing. Conversion and disease had done much to destroy the culture of the Miwoks and Ohlones; by the early 19th Century, native tribes in the Bay Area had effectively ceased to exist.
In 1792, British explorer George Vancouver, visiting San Francisco Bay, discovered a protected anchorage east of the Presidio, called Yerba Buena by the Spanish after the sweet smelling grasses growing around the base of what is now Telegraph Hill. Vancouver pitched, and left, a tent there'the nucleus of what became Yerba Buena, a
small but viable English-speaking community outside Spanish and Mexican authority. In 1846, with the Mexican-American war, the Presidio and Yerba Buena came under American control.
The Gold Rush
In 1847, Yerba Buena, with a population of about 1000, changed its name to San Francisco. The next January, gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, which event created but a minor stir. It was left to newspaper publisher and merchant Sam Brannan, trying to drum up trade for his Sacramento Street hardware store, to really trigger the Gold
Rush. He brandished a bottle of gold pellets in Portsmouth Square and shouted: "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" Within a year or two, Brannan was a millionaire.
One hundred thousand "forty-niners" came to San Francisco from all over the world within the next year, prospectors, almost every one of them men. Frenchmen, Chileans, Basques, and Italians brought their cuisine into the many restaurants favored by itinerant miners; San Francisco remains a great restaurant town to this day.
The first prospectors at the diggings made good money, but even better money was made by merchants and suppliers in San Francisco. Prices were incredibly inflated, even by today's standards, with eggs going for $1.00 each and apples for $1.50. Tales circulated of miners trading gold dust for equal amounts of whiskey.
Brannan's announcement practically emptied San Francisco of its citizenry in 1848, and most forty-niners stayed only long enough to get picks and shovels before they were off to the hills. Scores of sailing vessels arrived in San Francisco every week - crews, officers, and captains rushing after their passengers to the diggings. In
search of scarce building materials to house a mushrooming population, San Franciscans began to scrap the abandoned ships which, tied up hull to hull, literally jammed the Bay. Cobblestones in early San Francisco were originally the ballast from these ships'stones that lie under the pavement of much of downtown San Francisco today. A few
abandoned vessels were simply buried in one piece to create landfill for what is now the Financial District.
Life in San Francisco was precarious during the 1850s. Murders were frequent, and the combination or wooden or cloth buildings, whale oil lamps, and rowdy gangs of miners, often drunk, was a volatile one. Again and again, downtown San Francisco burned almost to the ground.
The ripple effect Gold Rush was enjoyed by the entire northern and central California economy. California's agriculture and timber industries, which feed and house much of the rest of the country, were created in response to the miners and a burgeoning San Francisco. By the early 1850s, San Francisco's banks had become the most
powerful in the West, as they are today.
Boom Years and the Barbary Coast
By 1854, the richest places in the gold fields had been exhausted. San Francisco sank into an economic depression from which it would not emerge until the early 1860s with the discovery of the Comstock silver lode in western Nevada. From 1863 to 1877, the Comstock produced more than $300 million, almost all of it ending up not in Nevada
but San Francisco, the mercantile and banking center of the region. It was this boom, richer and longer-lived than the California Gold Rush, which began to make a real city out of San Francisco, and millionaires out of some of its citizens. Comstock "bonanza kings" like James Flood, whose home is now the elegant Pacific Union
Club, built mansions on Nob Hill. Fabric merchant Levi Strauss created a clothing empire by sewing pants for miners out of his leftover tent canvas.
No one could touch the "Big Four," however. Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington, and Leland Stanford, Sacramento merchants who provided the seed capital for the Central Pacific Railroad, eventually came to control northern and central California's long-distance railroad, and with it, much of the region's
economy. They even owned the ferries with plied San Francisco Bay and San Francisco's streetcars and cable cars. Though their palatial Nob Hill mansions have not survived to the present day, their names live on in the first rank of San Francisco's hotels, shopping, and, of course, education.
The wild and wooly Barbary Coast roared through the ups and downs of San Francisco. The city gained a justly deserved reputation for vice of every sort. Brothels, gambling halls, and Chinese opium dens were everywhere on the city's eastern waterfront, and unwitting patrons were frequently "shanghaied" into service as sailors.
The remnants of the Barbary Coast's scandalous "dance" revues can be seen in the slowly declining strip joints along Broadway in North Beach.
The Chinese, who came to California first to work the gold fields and later to help build the railroad, accounted for 20% of San Francisco's working population in 1875. The Chinese faced discrimination and oppressive laws, and, in the late 1870s and 1880s, mob assaults like William T. Coleman's "Pickhandle Brigade."
Anti-Chinese demagogue Denis Kearney wielded great power during this period. The 1882 federal Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943.
The Earthquake and Fire of 1906
Early in the morning of April 18, 1906, an earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 8.1 on the Richter scale ripped through San Francisco, destroying hundreds of buildings. As gas mains ruptured, a fire spread through the city, causing far greater damage than the quake itself. Only 500 or so were killed, but an estimated 100,000, left
homeless, either fled in ferries and watched their city burn from the Oakland hills, or joined a tent city of 20,000 in what is now Golden Gate Park.
The city quickly rebuilt itself after the earthquake and fire, like the phoenix that rises from the ashes on the San Francisco flag. Celebrating civic triumph over adversity, San Francisco hosted the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915, a glittering architectural fantasy built on 635 acres of what is now the Marina
District. A great success, the Exposition's steel-reinforced plaster buildings were bulldozed shortly after it closed, leaving only the domed pavilion of the Palace of Fine Arts (site of the Exploratorium). The grand, domed City Hall(which recently underwent an extensive and lavish renovation) was dedicated in Civic Center in 1915.
Throughout the 1920s, plans were put forward for bridges to connect San Francisco with the East Bay and Marin. Finally in the early 1930s, work began on the Bay Bridge, which opened in 1936, and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937.
The Roaring Twenties were an exciting time in San Francisco, as one might imagine; Prohibition didn't do much to dampen the spirits of a city founded on the Barbary Coast. Writers like Dashiell Hammett, William Saroyan and John dos Passos were part of a thriving literary and artistic culture in San Francisco during this period.
Beats and Hippies
After World War II, returning American soldiers, many of whom had passed through San Francisco on their way to or from the Pacific, settled here, prompting the Government to oversee construction of a vast new residential area, the Sunset District, on what had been miles and miles of sand dunes. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder,
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other young writers and thinkers of what was to be known as the Beat Generation established themselves in the cafes and bars of North Beach, continuing the city's literary, bohemian tradition, albeit with a dreamy, druggy, jazz-inflected twist. Rising North Beach rents forced beatniks (a term coined by San
Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen) out to the Victorians of Haight Ashbury, where their boundary-breaking prose had already inspired a new movement of long-haired young cultural mavericks.
Derisively dubbed "hippies" by the beats, who saw them as junior beat wanna-bes, the hippies took their cultural and psychic explorations to different extremes, aided by LSD, a recently synthesized hallucinogen. Bands like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane came up with the soundtrack to "tune in, turn on, and
drop out," and the 1967 Summer of Love drew over 100,000 young seekers to the Haight.
Flower Power began to manifest itself more and more stridently as political unrest, with demonstrations and even riots becoming a feature of life at San Francisco State University and, even more so, at the University of California, Berkeley. "Peace and love" began to turn into a bad trip. At a 1968 Rolling Stones concert at
Altamont Pass, east of Berkeley, Hells Angels motorcycle gang members, serving as security guards, killed a fan in a violent mêlée in front of film cameras.
The Modern Era
San Francisco's gay community began to assert itself with greater confidence and urgency in the 1970s, electing Supervisor Harvey Milk as the nation's only openly homosexual politician. Milk was killed in 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone, by former Supervisor Dan White. White's subsequent conviction on a mere manslaughter charge
prompted riots and the burning of police cars by angry gays and their supporters in front of City Hall on "White Night."
During the 1980s, the gay community reeled under the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic. Though incidences of the disease have leveled off and more effective drugs prolong the life of those afflicted with it, the Castro has drawn even more tightly together to promote awareness of the disease and to support those whose lives have been
affected by it.
In 1989, just as the Bay Area was sitting down to watch the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics play each other in the third game of the World Series, it was rocked by the 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake. The legacy of the quake can be seen in sometimes nightmarish San Francisco traffic, caused by irreparable damage to important
sections of freeway.
Today, the stylish, imperious mayor, Willie Brown, presides over a city of extremes. The magic of a thriving downtown business sector, explosive new dot.com businesses South of Market, and a real estate boom in the city's southern corridor does not seem to be enough to dispel concern over an ever-rising homeless population and
intractable problems with the city's public transportation system, MUNI.
Public confidence in San Francisco's economy is greater than ever, however, and for the 725,000 residents and the millions of visitors who love it, it would be hard to dim the luster of the abundant charms of the City by the Bay.
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