In the late 1800s, California's first state engineer, William Hammond Hall, and his assistant, a Scotsman named John McLaren, transformed more than 1000 acres (405 hectares) of sand dunes into a wondrous haven in the midst of the city, christened Golden Gate Park after the eponymous strait nearby. Stretching over 50 blocks from Stanyan Street to the Pacific Ocean, the lush landscape is etched with numerous trails for walking, jogging, biking and horseback riding, alongside a golf course, bowling greens, a lake with paddle boats, soccer fields and a baseball diamond. From the Japanese Tea Garden and the Conservatory of Flowers to the California Academy of Sciences and the De Young Museum, San Francisco's Golden Gate Park encompasses a wealth of scenic beauty and cultural intrigue within is expansive embrace. There are also several playgrounds, a quaint carousel, an aquarium, a buffalo reserve and an outdoor bandshell where open-air concerts are hosted each summer.
A mere 1.25 miles (2.01 km) off the coast of San Francisco, Alcatraz Island boasts a fascinating history that extends far beyond its stint as a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963; it is also the site of the West Coast's oldest operating lighthouse, the remains of a historic military fortress, and a bird sanctuary. Although within sight of the city, Alcatraz is isolated from the outside world, surrounded by the frigid waters of the bay, the perilous currents making escape virtually impossible. This very fact made Alcatraz an apt choice for a prison meant to house some of the country's most notorious criminals, including the likes of Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud and Alvin Karpis. The year 1969 marked the beginning of another intriguing chapter in the history of Alcatraz when a group of Native American activists occupied the island for 19 months, signs of which are still visible to this day. Amid this turbulent narrative thrives a vibrant habitat for native flora and fauna, creating a miniature world of startling contrasts where the haunting remains of the prison stand amid a striking landscape of rock pools, rugged coasts and lush flora. The isle is now a tourist attraction, one of San Francisco's most popular, with self-guided and guided tours that delve into the past of the island as a whole and the prison in particular.
Located in Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences is one of the greenest buildings in the city and has a platinum certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). The museum features the newly renovated and expanded Steinhart Aquarium, complete with a hands-on tide pool and the well-known alligator swamp. Other exciting features are the Morrison Planetarium, the four-story rain-forest dome, and the Hall of African Mammals. In addition to these educational gems, the museum features other natural history exhibits as well as exhibits about global warming. The Academy Cafe offers international cuisine, while the elegant Moss Room restaurant is the only dining option available in the park past museum closing time.
Conventional wisdom holds that this iconic monument is shaped like a fire-hose nozzle. It is not, at least not by design. The tower is the gift of Lilly Hitchcock Coit, an eccentric heiress who managed to stand out in a city that teems with eccentricity. Lilly's particular passion was for the San Francisco Fire Department. The money she left in her will for the city's beautification was used to construct the Art Deco tower on Telegraph Hill in 1932. The view from here is one of the most impressive in San Francisco, offering unrestricted sights of the scenic Bay, the neighboring bridges, and the Marin Headlands. Inside, the first floor is ornamented with excellent murals, commissioned in 1933, that depict San Francisco's history. The tower's summit can be accessed by taking its elevator for a small fee.
The Oakland Zoo is home to more than 440 exotic and domestic birds, mammals, marsupials, and reptiles. Some of its attractions include a park with picnic facilities, an educational wildlife theater, a children's petting zoo, a carousel, a chair lift ride, and a miniature train. The zoo also offers group tours and a lecture series for adults in the spring.
University of California Botanical Garden is located within the campus of University of California Berkeley. Open to the public since 1890, this is no less than an outdoor living museum that boasts over 12,000 species of flora and fauna. The garden can be rented for private events, wedding receptions, twilight tours, summer walks and concerts.
The city hall building is the site of some of San Francisco's finest moments. In 1954 Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were married here. In the early 21st Century, over 100 same-sex couples were married by Mayor Gavin Newsom in the foyer. The Renaissance architecture rivals some of the country's most historical structures. Two Parisian architects designed and constructed the building from 1913-1915, and the dome is based on the one crowning St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Visitors can pick up brochures and take a self-guided tour between 8a-5p, Monday through Friday. A small store, open during normal business hours, sells traditional San Francisco souvenirs including T-shirts, posters and postcards.
The New Main Library was opened on 18th April 1996 after extensive renovation on the Main library building amounting to a staggering 109 million dollars. The New Main Library is fully equipped with 300 computer terminals, a room equipped with 1100 laptops and a special children's wing. The management has acted upon the feedback they have received from the general public and improved facilities like adding more computers for public access, meeting and study rooms for students and local groups, comfortable and roomy seating areas and also better wheelchair access. Take a peek at the sleek top floor terrace.
The City Guides are sponsored by the San Francisco Public Library. Over 25 tours focus on different aspects of San Francisco culture, including the city's history and architecture. Recent tours have included a walking tour of the Mission District's murals and an Art Deco tour of the Marina. All tours are free, though donations to benefit the library are requested. Departure locations and times vary. Call or write the main library branch for information.