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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 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.
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. This 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 call 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.
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.
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 startling 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.
Wild sea lions have flocked to Pier 39 since the 1989 earthquake and the population has grown ever since. Every winter the number increases to almost 900, thanks to the availability of space and ample food. Although some of the sea lions choose to migrate seasonally, usually some still keep Pier 39 as their regular haunt. You can bring your kids over for free educational talks by the Marine Mammal Center, held on weekends year-round provided the weather is good. See these wild adorable creatures up close and personal at this family friendly spot.
Located in Golden Gate Park, this garden is a marvel of landscape architect's art. This traditional Japanese garden covers five acres (2.02 hectares). Several paths take you by an authentic pagoda, a monumental Buddha, and a miniature waterfall over an acutely arched bridge that no kid can resist. Overlooking the gardens, a koi-filled pond rests beside a Japanese-style tea house, which in spring is covered with a cascade of wisteria. The gift shop sells souvenirs with a Japanese flair.
Dolores Park is one of the main hot spots in San Francisco and is the major meet-up place for many citizens. Though it is not very large, it attracts crowds of people and the beautiful views make it worth the visit. Recreational resources include a few tennis courts, basketball courts, two soccer fields and a children's playground, but most of all Dolores Park is often used as a venue for special events such as movies in the park. Its surrounding area is known for some of San Francisco's major culinary attractions: Delfina, Pizzeria Delfina and the Tartine Bakery. It is also a great place to chill with some ice cream from the Bi-Rite Creamery. Saturday hang-outs in the park are often events themselves and it's always packed on weekends. Given its location, it's almost always sunny; the famous fog knows better than to ruin the oasis that is Dolores Park. Whether you choose to sit in Dog Beach, Hipster Beach, Speedo Ridge or partake in actual activity at the playground or tennis courts you are sure to have an unforgettable time.
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.
San Francisco Japantown Center is a major attraction that reflects Japanese regalia and arts and crafts through a number of showrooms, galleries and bookstores. Its almost like a mini-Japan in the heart of San Francisco. Also known as Nihonmachi, the area serves as a rich treasure of Japanese culture and tradition in the form of clothes, literature and the like, perennially stacked in the several stores tucked inside the center. Japantown also has movie theaters and hotels.
Don't leave San Francisco without a stroll through this legendary square nearby 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.