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USA & Canada: San Francisco | Majestic Trees, Cable Cars & Ocean Vistas

San Francisco wins the hearts of travelers for many reasons. Hills rise and drop everywhere you look. Huge parks share space with skyscrapers and incredibly ornate, bay-windowed Victorian homes. Cable cars rattle over the streets. The Golden Gate Bridge appears around every corner -- as does the ocean, surrounding the city on three sides. San Fran is urban without being overwhelming, combining big-time sophistication with the laid-back, dressed-down attitude of the rest of the West Coast. The air is clean, the food is great, and it's always spring.

In a Word: Romantic

San Francisco is the ultimate urban honeymoon -- romantic in a windswept-hair, fog-rolling-over-the-mountains, panoramic-view-of-the-ocean-every-ten-feet kind of way. As the breeze blows your sweater off your shoulder and the foam from your to-go cappuccino glistens on your lip, you can't help feeling like the couple on the cover of a steamy romance novel -- perhaps one written by Danielle Steel, the city's most famous romantic resident.

good to know

  • San Francisco is about 70 degrees year-round, so dress in layers -- when the sun sets, you'll need that sweater tied around your shoulders.
  • The city has so many hotels, so know what type of place you want. Contact the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau for a complete lodging guide.
  • Both San Francisco and Oakland airports serve the city.
  • About 80 percent of visitors get by without renting a car, though you may want one to tour surrounding areas. Contact the Visitors Bureau at (415) 391-2000 or (888) STAYNSF.

What to Do

  • Walking: The hills, the wind, the air -- you have to experience it on foot. Starting at Union Square (shopping central), head south of Market Street to see the Contemporary Arts Museum and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Or go north toward Chinatown, North Beach, and the city's most elegant neighborhoods -- Nob Hill, Pacific Heights, and Russian Hill. At night, stroll Chestnut Street in the Marina or Union Street in Pacific Heights to take in the restaurants, cafes, and stores. Or take the MUNI streetcar to Noe Valley's 24th Street, a hip area full of coffee shops, boutiques, and cafes. If you'd rather run, head to Golden Gate Park, 1,000 acres with an arboretum, botanical garden, and Japanese Tea Garden. Or check out the marina area, one of the city's few flat expanses.
  • Chinatown: All along Grant Street, the main thoroughfare of hilly Chinatown, you'll see pagoda-topped lampposts and buildings, signs in Chinese, and shops selling sandalwood soap, handmade cotton sheets, jewelry, luggage, and ridiculous souvenirs you'll feel absolutely compelled to buy. Head off the main road onto one of the tiny side streets for lunch at a small restaurant with a '50s-style sign out front.
  • North Beach: Continue on to San Fran's version of Little Italy, North Beach. Here you'll find City Lights bookstore, of Beat Poet fame; a handful of sex shops offering less literary readings (and adult-style toys); and vintage clothing and furniture stores. Make sure to stop for coffee at Steps of Rome, North Beach's best cafe. With its sliding glass doors open to the street, the sun falling across your heavy wooden table, and the waiters behind the counter shouting to each other in Italian, you feel like you're summering in Italy.
  • Doin' the Haight: Haight Ashbury -- the center of the flower-power, free-love, drug-crazed '60s -- feels like a flashback to an earlier era. Stop in the vintage clothing stores to deck yourselves in appropriate duds. Then drop in at 710 Ashbury Street, former home of the Grateful Dead, and 112 Lyon Street, Janis Joplin's old pad. Stock up on old books and records at the smoke-filled shops, then hang out with the locals at a coffee shop, making sure to keep your sunglasses on inside to achieve the right too-stoned-to-suffer-the-light-of-day effect.

Best Place to Kiss

Watching the sun set from Coit Tower.

Don't Miss

Some of San Fran's traditional tourist attractions are too good to miss. Things you must do include:

  • Going down the crookedest street in the world, a.k.a. Lombard Street, a rapid-fire series of switchbacks careening down Russian Hill.
  • Riding a cable car.
  • Visiting Alcatraz, the prison on its own island in the bay.
  • Eating seafood at Fisherman's wharf (make sure to head off the beaten path to Pier 39 to see the sea lions sunning on the dock).
  • Wandering through Berkeley, across the Bay Bridge
  • Taking the ferry (or Golden Gate Bridge) to swanky Sausalito.

Photo: Courtesy of Amy Schwarz and Charlie Langella

-- Wendy Paris

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