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The Bay area is one of the most beautiful and one of the most exciting places on the planet. The valley is a micro universe, with all the best things on offer in the world found at very close distance of each other. The city of San Francisco is one of the all time favorite cities, with cooler than cool clubs and great food. Napa Valley which produces wines as good as those of France. There are good beaches in Santa Cruz and there is the mountain of St. Helena.

A lot of the charm of “San Francisco” also really means the “San Francisco Bay Area” which logistically and mind-set-wise extends as far south as Monterey/ Carmel and west-north to the “Wine Country.”

So, while SF is a microcosm of the SF Bay Area - if time does not permit you to venture much outside of SF – you will be missing out on quite a bit. BTW, for residents of the areas, SF is simply referred to as “the city.” Even though there are lots of other metropolitan areas (San Jose, Oakland) – SF by it being first gets the moniker ‘the city.’

San Francisco (and thus the SF Bay Area) is a place for romantics and those who enjoy solitude and genuflection. It is a “foodies” paradise. If you have the time, we have some of the world’s great food here. If you want world class shopping – you just won’t be able to stop. If you love nature and the outdoors, the weather is nearly perfect year - the ocean and mountains are everywhere you look. If you want to feel the pulse of diversity and tranquility, you don’t have far to go. If you want to feel the pulse of technology and entrepreneurship – we have that also. Most cities in the US try and sell you the idea that they have it all and frankly, most are stretching the truth after you spend 3-4 days there – with the SF Bay Area, after a month, you’ll see just how much you’re haven’t seen yet.  

San Francisco, The Famous Tourist Places:

On the surface: San Francisco is  all the cliché tourist icons that we know: The Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, Alcatraz and the Cable Cars.

Of course, it is the clichés that are world renowned but don’t let that diminish your reasons for wanting to visit them. If you’re just here for a few days, here for the first time and just want to get those checked off your list – nothing wrong with just visiting the ‘tourist’ spots. But of course, San Francisco is much more on many levels. And also keep in mind, San Francisco itself is fairly small geographically – not to mention that excluding the residential areas – the key spots to see and visit are really all within about a 50-block radius.

The Golden Gate Bridge is majestic in bright sunlight and when the afternoon fog rolls through, it is both spiritually and visually invigorating. It is one of the few bridges in the world (especially one with such a magnificent view) that allows you to walk and bicycle across.

Chinatown is not just a relic from days past but a bustling ethnic community of food markets, bakeries and stores. The tourist portion are the first 5-6 blocks of Grant Street under the famous arch – there’s plenty of tourist t-shirt and kitschy gewgaws but in the last few years, there has been some genuinely worthwhile shopping added. Past Washington Street and one block over on Stockton Street is where the ‘natives’ are. It’s a little bit of Hong Kong in the language you hear, the crowd on the streets and the street stalls.

Cable Cars are actual modes of transportation used by citizens. As open-air vehicles, you literally get an up-close look at SF but it’s a great way to traverse the hilliest streets of SF. They are not cheap for the distance you actually travel but a fun, fun way to get there (unless you have an hour to kill just walking one block - the inclines of some the hills will make you dizzy just looking at them!)

Alcatraz is an island a few miles outside of SF. There are ferries that bring you there. You can choose between a ferry that loops around the island or you can take the tour that drops you off onto the island.

Coit Tower – perhaps not as famous by name but you’ll recognize it when you see it - it’s a large cylindrical building resembling a fire hose tip built as a dedication to city firefighters. It sits high on a hill with a 360-degree of SF. There is a fee to go to the top where on a clear day, you can snap some great photos. When you are at Lombard Street (crookest street in the world), it runs directly to Coit Tower.

Presidio/Fort Point – The Presidio is still being renovated from its heyday as an Army base so as of now, there’s not that much going on. At the tip of the Presidio, there is Fort Point (accessible only when Homeland Security is at the lower tier levels). It stands directly underneath (and pre-dates) the Golden Gate Bridge. Again, whether it’s foggy or bright sunshine, you get two complete different points of view. There is no admission charge and parking is limited.

Further along is the Golden Gate Recreational Area and a view of the Golden Gate from the Pacific Ocean side. Again – spectacular. In the area is the Legion of Honor Museum and another great golf course, Lincoln Park. While not exactly for the typical tourist, you can also drive around the SeaCliff area – some of the most expensive homes in the SF.

Pac Bell Park (now SBC Park) is the home of the SF Giants. During the summertime, a great family-friendly place to catch a ballgame. Sit in the upper deck to see the Bay and the Oakland skyline – nothing like a typical ballpark. It is a gem all around. In fact, you can even just walk around the outside of the park and catch part of the game through portholes in the fence – FREE!

Pier 39/Fisherman’s Wharf – probably the only real obvious tourist area of SF. Most residents of the Bay Area do not go down there except to bring friends and relatives. There are restaurants and lots of shopping directed towards tourists. Of course, at Fisherman’s Wharf, you can get the famous crab. (Crab season is September/October to about April). You can eat crab all year round but they’re best in season. And while it’s not really a SF tradition (really an L.A. tradition), the only In ‘N Out Burger joint in SF is at the Fisherman’s Wharf area so if you haven’t had one – get it there! The Pier area (Pier 40 and further south at the Ferry Building) is where the ferries arrive from around the rest of the Bay Area. The mile between the Ferry Building and Pier 39 is an uncluttered waterfront view of underneath the Bay Bridge, Oakland, Berkeley and further east.

Japantown – a small area (about 3 blocks) of Japanese restaurants and shopping. While, it’s not quite as exotic as it once was – in terms of access to Japanese goods, it’s still a fun diversion and nearly all the restaurants are good to excellent.

The Mission – while Mission Street almost traverses the whole city, when people say the Mission, they mean the Mission District – the Latino/Hispanic historical area. While it is still a bustling area of shopping and restaurants, it is not necessarily geared towards tourists. The real highlight are the authentic restaurants – too many to name but if authentic Mexican food is what you crave; the Mission is the place to go.

SoMa – An umbrella term covering a whole South of Market Street area. The most obvious landmarks are the Moscone Convention Center and The SF Museum of Modern Art. This was the epicenter of the Internet boom and later bust so if that’s history to you, you can still see some remnants of that time. Within this area are SF (night) clubs.

Haight-Ashbury. Of course, famous from the 1967 Summer of Love, it has gone through several transformations – it is now mostly a hodge podge of shopping, restaurants and coffee shops. Again, you can see some remnants of the era and while they haven’t really changed the look of the street (most of the builds simply renovated), it still looks funky but don’t expect too much.

The Castro District – while famous the world over for welcoming people of all diversity and persuasion and while there’s plenty of people watching, shopping and restaurants, it’s scattered throughout the area. More of a real community and not exactly set up for you to take it all in a day.

Little Italy – essentially reduced down to about 2 blocks now. It’s adjacent to Chinatown and consists of mostly restaurants along Columbus. To be honest, the restaurants are all fine but nothing earth-shattering. At its most innovative – it’s Californian-Italian and at its middling, it’s spaghetti. If you’re hungry and there, no reason not to eat there but no real reason to make a special trip there to eat.

Golden Gate Park – while it’s nearly as famous as Central Park, frankly, it’s not that impressive. Central Park works because it’s an oasis in a fast-paced, crazed island of commerce and concrete (don’t get me wrong – that’s why I love NYC). SF, outside of the financial district is not that crazed and there are parks EVERYWHERE and next to the Golden Gate Park and almost connected are two huge parks and the Pacific Ocean (Golden Gate Recreational and the Presidio) so there’s no sense that you need a dose of nature. As a result, Golden Gate Park is pleasant but no compelling reason to visit it for out-of-towners. There is the flower Conservatory. The DeYoung Art Museum is in the process of being renovated.

Victorian houses – everywhere! The famous “sisters” (the 4-5 Victorians always photographed together overlooking SF) are across from Steiner Park.

San Francisco – Shopping:

As one of the richest areas in the country – SF does not lack for shopping. The main shopping area is Union Square. Flanked by Macy’s, Niketown, Saks, Neiman’s, Tiffany’s and 5-star hotels – this is where most tourists and residents “who lunch” start. In the blocks surrounding Union Square, you have all the European designers, Apple Computers, Virgin, et al. Nordstrom’s, the Sony Metreon and the giant Bloomingdale’s (being built) is a block south. For more eclectic shopping, you have the “Fillmore District,” and Hayes Street. Of course, you have shopping in the tourist areas and essentially in every little neighborhood. Of course, there are world-famous places such as CITY LIGHTS BOOKSTORE and others that are scattered throughout the city.

San Francisco – Eating:

It’s always difficult to say which city in the US is the gastronomy capitol but if SF (and the Bay Area) is not number #1, it is most likely #2. You cannot eat badly in this town. For now, let’s stick to SF itself. There are simply too many restaurants to list and they are always changing but whatever kind of food you want – you will get it here – authentic and great. As one of the birthplaces of Californian cuisine, it goes without saying you’ll find 5-star restaurants literally blocks from each other. You will find great Chinese food (but not really in Chinatown), Mexican and seafood. For proper Chinese food, you want to go to the new Chinatown on Clement Street (nowhere near the other Chinatown). As this place is so ethnically diverse, you will find every kind of food that is prepared as you like it – from simple to divine – from casual to thrilling. It’s not hyperbole for once – you cannot eat badly if you make just a little effort.

San Francisco – Lodging:

Just like the food. You have everything from chain lodges to 5-star internationally known hotels with suites starting the 4 figures (USD). From the chains to the boutiques, it’s ALL here.

Rest of SF Bay Area

As mentioned, SF is really just the tip of all that is fun and great in the area. The diversity of the area is not just in the food, the people and our attitudes but also in the physical geography.

Whether you love the big city, the suburbs, quaint villages, the woods or something rural – you literally just have to drive in any direction for 30 minutes and you can choose exactly what you want as a visit, as a short vacation or as an extended stay.

Across the Golden Gate North is the North Bay, starting with Marin County, wealthy and trend-setting. You can hop on a ferry at Pier 40 to visit the artisan cove - Sausalito - for the day (or, of course, drive across. Further north (by car) along the coast are Stinson Beach and Point Reyes – both beautiful and romantic whether you travel up Highway 1 or through the forest via St. Francis Drake Road off Highway 101. There are also other fun, romantic and charming towns in the South Marin area such as Tiburon, Mill Valley and San Anselmo. All of these are within 30-45 minutes of SF. Mt. Tamalpais State Park is another recreational area encompassing biking, hiking, water sports and so forth. You can continue along (another hour or so) to the quaint quasi-resort-rustic village of Mendocino – or choose from dozens of coastal rustic-fishing-resort communities such as Tomales Bay, Inverness, Bodega Bay and Olema along the way – each with its unique charms! You can even take a regional bus to various Marin County parks and overnight camping at Samuel Taylor State Park. Calistoga is famous for the spa treatments, mudbaths, massages and body wraps. To the East is the East Bay. UC Berkeley, one of the premier public education universities in the world, as well as Oakland, the home of the A’s (MLB) and Raiders (NFL).

Or from SF (the city) – going north and further east is the Wine Country. Again, you have everything from rustic villages to 5-star resorts, spas and country club vacationing – the choice is yours. You have restaurants from dives to internationally famous restaurants such as FRENCH LAUNDRY. For wine lovers, there are literally hundreds of wineries (some are only open by appointment) that you can visit. There are guided tours and even the “Wine Train,” both are essential if you intend to sample heavily along the way – or bring a designated driver! The phrase, “Wine Country” is just a nickname, and not an official designation. Some of the most notable cities with wineries, restaurants and resorts of Napa Valley include: Napa, Yountville, Calistoga, St. Helena. Note that while Sonoma Valley is part of the Wine Country, because they are a different county and extend all the way up the coast, for wine marketing purposes, they are considered separate from those in Napa Valley. To be technical, the wines in Sonoma Valley are similar in that the soil and weather is much like Napa valley’s but as you go further west and north, the climate and soil changes even though they are still part of Sonoma County (hence, the semi-confusion). There is also a nice outlet shopping center in Napa along with many antique stores.

From SF – going east, you cross the Oakland Bay Bridge into Oakland and Emeryville. AKA – The “East Bay.” There is shopping in Emeryville with Ikea and a new high-end mall.

Going slightly further east is Berkeley. Stroll the world-famous University of California campus, and visit the University Art Museum and the University Botanical Gardens. Dine in the world-class restaurants of "gourmet ghetto," a neighborhood north of the university. Also see the John Muir Historical Site in Martinez. Another mecca of fun and food. Berkeley has managed to preserve the look and feel of a town from many decades ago. There are few chain stores and most of the shopping is unique. There is also unique shopping on 4th street near the waterfront. Telegraph still features a street fair almost every weekend during the summer. If you go during school sessions, parking is very difficult and they are quick to ticket you. You also cannot eat poorly at Berkeley – from the great casual dives such as BLONDIE’S PIZZA or TOP DOG HOT DOGS to internationally famous CHEZ PANISSE – it’s all great depending on your wallet and your needs. You also can’t wrong with the numerous sushi restaurants. The Claremont resort is in Berkeley.

If you continue past Berkeley and through the Caldecott Tunnel, you enter Contra Costa County. A mostly expensive collection of bedroom suburbia cities – if you have friends in the area, it’s fun but as a residential area, it’s not exactly must-see. If shopping is your main reason, you will want to check out downtown Walnut Creek. While it offers many of the same stores as SF Union Square (Tiffany’s, Nordstrom’s, et al), parking is easier and you don’t have to walk as far – but of course, only if you have the time or inclination to drive there.

South from SF is the airport along Highway 101. Most of the “Peninsula” cities are quasi-suburban cities. About 30 miles south of SF is Menlo Park where Stanford University is. About another 35 miles puts in North San Jose. San Jose is much like a mini Los Angeles, sitting at the basin of a mountain range so you it gets a little smoggier but warmer than the rest of the Peninsula.

Silicon Valley” is also another nickname. It essentially starts at Stanford University (though there are some minor enclaves north of Stanford that are considered Silicon Valley such as Redwood Shores) and extends south to about Cupertino and east to Fremont. As an unofficial designation, there are no real borders and no real center to it. Thousands of high tech companies are scattered throughout the region – some you can spot on the freeways, others – you have to know where to look. San Jose is busy trying to build a downtown but frankly, there’s no reason to stay or be there unless you’re at a convention or doing business there. The San Jose Sharks arena is in downtown. Like the main LA basin, it is really just a sea of houses and office buildings. If you want Mexican and Asian food, there are dozens of outstanding clusters of them. There is a huge outlet mall in Milpitas called The Great Mall and a great cluster of high-end shopping in a mall called Valley Fair and across the street in a new pedestrian mall – Santana Row. For bargain hunters, there is a massive flea market on the weekends. The San Jose-Santa Clara area is also known as “The South Bay.”

But if you continue south from SF along highway 1, there is a whole ‘nother world that is not part of what we consider the South Bay. Confusing? Yes but if you’re there – you can plainly see it’s nothing like San Jose.  If you go south on highway 1, you encounter Pacifica, a fog-bound fishing coastal community. It is literally 10 minutes south of SF but another world altogether. As you continue along, you’ll encounter another artisan community – Moss Beach and then Half Moon Bay where there are romantic hideaway and resorts – the newest FOUR SEASONS resort is there. If you prefer fog and you want to snuggle by a roaring fire, Moss Beach – Half Moon Bay is just perfect for you. As you continue along Highway 1, you will then reach Santa Cruz. A thriving beach community that tries to best carry on the traditions of independent and diverse thinking. It too is like Berkeley (with a UC university – The UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs for those curious : -) full of students, indy-thinkers left over from the 60’s, hippies and rich people who love diversity – so you get it all – from cheap to expensive – it’s all there in Santa Cruz.

So, while they’re technically part of the Bay Area geographically, they don’t really consider themselves as part of the Bay Area.

Further south (by Highway 1) is Monterey and Carmel. Highway 1 is most likely the most beautiful highway in the US – it winds down the Pacific Coast literally built on the mountainside and rocks directly above the Pacific Ocean. Ironically, it’s better during the winter. During the summer, it’s usually fogged over and it’s a nerve-racking drive of twists and turns (1-lane), you get to see nothing but gray on gray. When it’s sunny, it’s beautiful in a fun car with a driver and passenger who are not easily rattled. You can reach Monterey/Carmel also by the main 101 Freeway and going west on Highway 152 and then getting back on Highway 1 – a much faster drive.

Monterey is another great unique town. While they have not been overly successful in resurrecting their Cannery Row, it is one of the most romantic places for a couple to spend a weekend getaway. If you’re bringing the kids, the aquarium is great and while there’s shopping along Cannery Row and in the other tourist areas, it’s not quite up to par – part of the problem is that Carmel-by-the-Sea is only 5 miles away. There are also some lovely and romantic hotels right on the waterfront. As noted, Pebble Beach and Carmel-by-the-Sea are about 5 minutes away. Many people have tried to manufacturer the quaint that is Carmel-by-the-Sea but they cannot. Part of it is the incredible view and the shoreline; part of it is the rich and eclectic crowd that it draws as residents and visitors. It is the closest thing to a Mediterranean village in the US and a must-visit. There are some excellent French restaurants in Carmel.

Continuing along Highway 1 south are some world-class resorts and much further south is San Simeon. Needless to say, if you’re a golfer, you’re in heaven. You pretty much have to stay at the Pebble Resort to get a tee time – other than the cost, that’s a small price to pay.

So, as you can see – just a little to do here in the SF Bay Area – and everything I’ve described is about no more than a 2-hour drive in any direction (not during commute hours, of course).

You can also hop on a bus and go to Yosemite or Lake Tahoe (gambling, water and winter sports) – both are about 3.5 hours away (separately).

ARRIVING

If you can fly into Oakland, it’s actually closer to downtown San Francisco than SFO and usually cheaper. Southwest and JetBlue serves Oakland airport. As with most US cities, keep in mind that commutes are very bad around here so plan ahead accordingly in regards to arrivals and departures.

Most of the airport hotels at SFO offer a shuttle to downtown SF.

GETTING AROUND

Depending on what time you have free, it’s actually quite difficult to get around SF with a car (especially downtown and in the tourist areas). Parking is expensive and so is gas (almost always above $2.10 a gallon for gas) if you can find a gas station. The downtown/east side of town has like 5 gas stations – good luck finding them. While taxis are not cheap, if you think most of the time, your rental car will be parked and your time is short – a taxi is not a bad way to go. Unlike New York, you can only really get a taxi at a hotel though.

If you look at a map of SF, you can see it’s essentially a grid with many east-west streets that run across half the city so it’s easy to figure out where you are. Plus, you can always look up at the main tall building landmarks, Coit Tower and the Transamerica Building.

However, there are lots of options of getting you to the tourist spots. You can walk around most of the areas once you get there – it’s the hills in between places that are the killers. There is extensive public transportation – the trains with tracks are reliable – cable cars, trolleys and Muni Metro. The Muni buses are not and are often packed to the gills – especially during commute hours.

We also have a very nice intra-city train system called BART. What’s particularly nice is that it now serves both airports (Oakland via a special 3-minute bus ride). So if you don’t have too much luggage, it’s the cheapest way into SF downtown. I believe it’s around $3 from SFO to downtown SF and maybe $4 from Oakland to downtown SF.

BART does not go to Marin/North Bay nor very far down the Peninsula. Down the Peninsula, you can take Cal-Train to Stanford and San Jose. BART does travel quite far into the East Bay.

However, if your stay in SF is longer and/or you want to explore outside of SF, you will definitely need a car. Outside of SF, gas is slightly cheaper but it’s the most expensive in the US outside of Hawaii – why? Because we’ll pay it. And outside of SF, parking is generally like any suburb – much easier (except Berkeley).

WEATHER

The SF Bay Area has some much weather they had to invent a new term: microclimate.

During the summer months, there is literally a 1-degree change about every mile you go from the west SF to deep into the East Bay. It’s hard to believe but if you go from west SF to east SF, there is going to be about a 15-degree change in warmth. During the summer months, the fog pretty much hangs right off the coast so most of the SF is pretty much fog-bound and around 55-60 degrees. In downtown and 95% of the tourist areas, it’s about 65-72 degrees except at 3 PM; the fog will start rolling in across the rest of SF. Some days, the fog is eerie and just a solid wall on one side – on the other side, it’s sunny with wispy clouds drifting over but you can see it rolling towards you. You can see it engulf the Golden Gate Bridge at 3 PM everyday – very cool. Downtown generally stays fog free but it can get cool very fast. It then works it way across the Bay – towards Berkeley & Oakland and is blocked by the Berkeley hills.  So, during the summer, it is not unusual that it will be gray and cold 60 degrees by the SF ocean, 72 & sunny SF downtown and 105 degrees in Walnut Creek. The Peninsula is generally on the coolish side and overcast until you get to Menlo Park – where it gets sunny because the mountain range is higher there. So, if you come during the summer, bring layers that you can strip off and add back on because it might be hot and then turn cold in the afternoon as quick as you can say, “Mark Twain said …”

During winter (December to early March), there’s not as much fog and strangely, SF itself is generally the warmest of all the cities around here – around 65 to 70 degrees high most of the time but only in the downtown areas. So, it’s very pleasant. It’s usually colder in the surrounding areas – especially in the valley areas such as Napa, Sonoma, and Contra Costa. San Jose overall is probably the warmest – probably highs of 75 during the winter. Half Moon Bay, Monterey and Carmel like SF get less fog and is very nice at 65-75 degrees.

It rains a little in November and then more in February. Usually we get most of our rainfall in a few couple big rainstorms. We have seen a lot of rain in 2004 though. We get maybe 2 days where we notice it’s humid. I know most of you find that hard to believe but there’s a reason the average house costs $440k in the Bay Area.

Point Reyes National Seashore is the a good spot in the Bay Area for whale watching.


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