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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.
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.
This picturesque stretch of Lombard Street has eight tight turns on a single block. They twist at very acute angles, making for very slow going if you are in a car. Although, oddly enough, cars were the reason for designing the street this way back in 1922. The idea was that this design would make it easier for them to negotiate the steep 16% grade. The drive is usually bumper-to-bumper and in the summertime, there is almost always a line of cars waiting to take the drive down. That being said, going for a stroll along this landmark is a good option, especially when the hydrangeas along the sidewalk are in bloom.
Sutro Baths was built in the late 19th Century. It was a large swimming pool owned privately by Adolp Sutro, who was a former mayor of San Francisco. It had seven different pools, one having fresh water and the others having salt water, but varying in temperatures. Below the Cliff House, a small beach inlet was filled almost hiding the vast iron, glass and concrete structure. The bath had a high operating cost, due to which it eventually closed and a fire in 1966 almost destroyed it leaving behind the ruins. The ruins of the Sutro Baths are open to the visitors as well as the cave where you can catch a glimpse of bats.
This impressive structure crowning Nob Hill was built on the site of the Crocker Mansion after the 1906 earthquake and fire. One of the main attractions of the cathedral are the stained glass windows. These windows showcase over 1000 figures, with some of them dating back as far as the 1930s. The gilded bas-reliefs that adorn the doors of the main entrance are cast from Ghiberti's original molds for the Gates of Paradise that adorn the Baptistery in Florence. The cathedral also boasts two labyrinths. The outdoor one is made of Terrazzo stone and the indoor one from limestone.
The Ferry Building Marketplace is a must-see for San Francisco visitors. This multi-million dollar development has an abundance of activities for the entire family. The marvelous building was designed by renowned architect Arthur Page Brown in Beaux Arts Style. Similar to that of the iconic Giralda Bell Tower in Seville, the clock tower of this building is a popular landmark and can be seen from afar. Take a tour of the historic Ferry Building, browse through antique shops, enjoy a view by the bay and a bowl of chowder at Ferry Plaza Seafood or buy organic produce at the Farmer's Market. Enjoy the sights and sounds of what makes the Ferry Building one of the Bay's most popular destinations for entertainment, food, and fun.
Named one of the Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Golden Gate Bridge spans the eponymous strait that links the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean. Designed by Joseph Strauss, Irving Morrow, and Charles Ellis, the bridge opened in 1937 as the world's longest suspension bridge, its main span measuring at an impressive 4,200 feet (1,280 meters) in length. The bridge is not quite golden, but is instead a bright orange, its Art Deco towers looming through the dense fog that often mires the bay; a sight that has come to be emblematic of the city of San Francisco. The bridge ferries vehicular and pedestrian traffic between San Francisco and Marin City, the vista points on either side boasting awe-inspiring views of the Golden Gate, while the bridge itself promises unmatched views of the bay.
Fisherman's Wharf remains one of San Francisco's most popular tourist destinations. The Wharf consists of a long, waterfront row of seafood restaurants, street vendors, souvenir stores and beautiful ocean scenery. Fisherman's Wharf was originally a major fishing pier, and although San Francisco fishing industry is alive and well, it mainly appeals to the masses as a tourist sight. Some of the wharf's main attractions include Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square, Musee Mecanique and Madame Tussauds among many others. The wharf's shores are beautified by the presence of the majestic Balao-class submarine USS Pampanito. Parking is limited on the wharf itself so parking downtown would be highly recommended.
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 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-storey rainforest dome, and the Tusher African Hall. In addition to these educational gems, the museum features other natural history exhibits as well as exhibits about global warming. The Academy Café offers international cuisine, while the elegant Moss Room restaurant is the only dining option available in the park past museum closing time.
As much a trademark of the city's skyline as the Golden Gate Bridge, this 853-foot (260-meter) high masterpiece is the tallest office tower in the city of San Francisco and is home to some of San Francisco's leading corporate organizations. Designed by world-renowned architects William L. Pereira and Harry D. Son, viewing the tower under the bright San Francisco skies is truly a breathtaking experience. Even though the elevator that ascends to the building's uppermost heights is no longer open to the public, there are a series of four high-definition video cameras installed on its primary spire that allow visitors to virtually experience how it feels to be at the top of the tower. The camera installations are collectively known as the Transamerica Virtual Observation Deck.
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.
Don't leave San Francisco without a stroll through this legendary square near Fisherman's Wharf, which is named after San Francisco's original chocolate-maker. There is a bakery and several restaurants and, of course, there's the Ghirardelli Ice Cream Shop where you can savor the deliciousness of the old-fashioned Ghirardelli sundae or buy some sweet goodies to bring back. Take some time and visit the art galleries, gift and specialty stores, and shoe and clothing shops.