Lay of the Land
“Whenever I come here (…) San Francisco strikes me as being at once the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful and the most tantalizing of all the great cities of the world.”~Jan Morris
There may be no prettier American city than San Francisco. Situated at the northern end of the San Francisco Peninsula, it is surrounded on three sides by bodies of water: the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate strait and San Francisco Bay. It’s well known for its hills (42 in the urban area alone), which have been the setting for many Hollywood car chases. Because it’s near the San Andreas and Howard faults, the city experiences periodic earthquakes, yet its strict building controls make its structures among the safest anywhere.
San Francisco is also a city of neighborhoods, each distinct. Union Square is the city’s nucleus—home of the luxury hotels, upscale restaurants and high-end shops. North Beach, known as Little Italy, is full of cafés and other remnants of the beatnik era. Crammed with herb shops, temples and live-fish markets, Chinatown also contains one of the largest populations of Chinese outside Asia. Haight-Ashbury, ground zero of the 1960s hippie culture, remains bohemian even now, with head shops and psychedelic-colored Victorian homes.
The Castro, flying its massive rainbow flag, is the epicenter of San Francisco’s gay scene. The Marina, Pacific Heights and Presidio Heights are upscale residential neighborhoods with plenty of boutiques and cafés. Hayes Valley and the Mission are home to more alternative shops and great restaurants. Neighborhoods often overlap, and by just wandering around, you can sample many in a day.
When to Go
Though San Francisco has a temperate climate so enjoys mild temperatures year-round, there is a reason it’s also famous for its fog. When the chilly water of the Pacific meets the heat from inland California, fog ensues. Typically, the mist rolls in the early morning and burns off by noon to let the sun shine. Summer is peak tourist time but also the peak time for fog, hence the coolest season in the city. The city is most beautiful in September and October, when clear days are more plentiful and the views remind you of why you came.