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Destination Guide

Part of San Franciscos abundant charm is in the variety of its neighborhoods. With only 49 square miles, San Francisco is really quite small, yet its hilly terrain and patchwork demographic profile give it more distinctly defined neighborhoods than a city five times its size. As a result, the sights, sounds and flavors of a community?and even its climate?can change within a single block.

Castro Street and Noe Valley
The center of gay San Francisco, and a landmark for gay culture everywhere. Bars, dance clubs, good restaurants, and one-of-a-kind shops abound in the commercial area around 18th and Castro. Theres arguably more street life in the Castro than anywhere else in the city, especially on weekends. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence sometimes make an appearance at special events (they're really men in nun drag), and take it from us'this is the place to be on Halloween. Trek up Castro to Liberty Street to see exceptional Victorian homes. Over the hill lies Noe Valley and its main shopping strip, 24th Street. Cute and relatively quiet, Noe Valley has enough great restaurants and gourmet food shops to make it sophisticated, but not so many chromed-up bars and Italian clothing boutiques to make it stuffy.

The greatest single concentration of Chinese people outside of Asia?a population of 80,000?live in the approximately 24 square blocks of Chinatown, making it the most densely populated area of San Francisco. You can't drive here?walk. You'll be richly rewarded by the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of this vibrant, and in many ways autonomous, community. Grant Avenue is the decorative showpiece of Chinatown. Look at the fanciful chinoiserie facades on the buildings and Stockton Street where most of its real business gets accomplished. Try dim sum for lunch and select your dinner while its still swimming!

Civic Center and Hayes Valley
This is the administrative and cultural center of San Francisco. Stately Beaux Arts buildings like the Opera House and the domed, renovated City Hall tolerate the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall and the Public Librarys graceful Main Branch, both architectural newcomers. Nearby Hayes Valley offers fine dining and apres-symphony toddies for concert-goers, as well as tastefully creative stores for clothing and gifts. Nocturnal wanderings in any direction except north (on Van Ness) are discouraged.

Cow Hollow: Union Street
The most gracious, imposing homes of Cow Hollow (so named for its original bovine residents) are nestled against the Presidio where Pacific Heights dives to the Marina. Spectacular views are the norm. Straight, single yuppies?either affluent or getting there fast?pack the Balboa Cafe, Sushi Chardonnay, and other bars and restaurants on Fillmore and Union Streets. Clothes hounds can easily fritter away a day (and thousands of dollars) in Union Streets oh-so-tasteful boutiques.

Downtown: Union Square
Union Square is the heart of San Franciscos bustling and stylish downtown shopping district, adding up to the greatest concentration of high-end retail west of New Yorks Fifth Avenue. Posh department stores such as Neiman Marcus ring the one-block square park. Hundreds of other exclusive stores and boutiques lie within a three-block radius of the square. If you've shopped till you've dropped, pick yourself up at an outdoor cafe in tiny Maiden Lane, and restore the soul at one of the many art galleries on Sutter and Geary Streets. This is also the home of San Franciscos modest Theater District.

Financial District and The Embarcadero
"The Wall Street of the West:" Bank of America, Charles Schwab, and the Transamerica Corporation (in its landmark, 48 floor Pyramid) are among the many banks and corporations headquartered here. Bursting with energy 9-to-5, quiet as a tomb after hours. The Embarcadero Center features dining, shopping, a fine art cinema, and a health club. Wide open Justin Herman Plaza is the starting point for the infamous Critical Mass bike ride and the site of New Years Eve bashes. The Embarcadero itself fronts the Bay for miles on either side of the imposing Ferry Building, modeled on the cathedral tower in Seville, Spain.

Fishermans Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and Aquatic Park
Once the thriving center of San Franciscos fishing industry. Many fishing boats still dock at the Wharf, but Fishermans Wharf today is more of an extended tourist trap. Pier 39 is fun thanks to the noisy, delightful colony of sea lions which annexed its boat marina. Aquatic Park features a beach, of sorts, and a long pier spiraling well out into the Bay. Old sea-dogs will enjoy adjacent Hyde Street Pier, where the tall ship Balclutha and other historic ships are docked, and the Maritime Museum. Ghirardelli Square, a chocolate-factory-turned-shopping-and-restaurant-complex, features some of the citys better dining and views. Nice for an evening stroll.

Golden Gate Park
With 1000 acres of gardens, meadows, lakes, golf, archery, and internationally recognized art and science museums, Golden Gate Park offers endless recreational possibilities for visitors and locals.

The M.H deYoung Memorial Museum, the remarkable Asian Art Museum, and the California Academy of Sciences are the main cultural attractions in the Park. Along with the San Francisco Zoo and the Japanese Tea Garden, they draw millions of visitors each year. At the western edge of the park, Ocean Beach, although unappealing for swimming, attracts hard-core surfers with its rough, frigid and unpredictable waves.

Lower Haight
Often called the Lower Haight, the area around Haight and Fillmore feels at once more bohemian and less unsavory than the Haight Ashbury to the west. Ethnic restaurants, unpretentious cafes, and independent bookstores are mushrooming in this neighborhood that as recent as teh early 1990s was dangerous. The youngish street life is lively on nights and weekends. The Haight Ashbury Street Fair is also popular.

Nob Hill & Russian Hill
On impossibly steep Nob Hill, Californias early industrialists built fabulous mansions that looked down upon the rest of San Francisco. While only the imposing Flood Mansion remains?now the Pacific Union Club'the areas five-star hotels bear the names of other Nob Hill denizens: The Mark Hopkins, the Stanford Court, and the Huntington. Facing Huntington Park is Grace Cathedral, a 3/4 replica of Paris' Notre Dame. Adjoining Nob Hill is Russian Hill, where San Franciscos old money has a great view of the Bay. The "Crookedest Street in the World" resides here and snakes down Russian Hill for the 1000 block of Lombard. The traffic is generally impossible?walk it!

North Beach and Telegraph Hill
The cafe conscience of San Francisco and light of its night life. Originally settled by Italians, North Beach became a magnet for Beat Generation writers and poets in the 1950s. City Lights Bookstore and the cafes and shops on upper Grant Avenue still exude Beatnik funkiness. A new wave of entrepreneurial Italians has brought a sense of Roman style to exciting new restaurants along Columbus Avenue. On Broadway, barkers still pull tourists and sailors into charmingly seedy strip joints. Clapboard sea captains' cottages and mossy flower gardens seem to dangle in space from the cliffs of Telegraph Hill. Coit Tower, at 210 feet, commands a stunning panorama from the hilltop. The boardwalk Filbert Steps leads from the Tower down through the Grace Marchand Gardens to Levis Plaza at the base of the Hill.

Fillmore Street and Japantown
Fillmore Street, Pacific Heights' commercial spur, features noteworthy restaurants, epicurean food, and antique shops, all attended by a lively trade from young professionals. Fillmore and Geary has become a popular nightlife destination, thanks to John Lee Hookers Boom Boom Room, the Fillmore Auditorium, and the AMC Kabuki 8 Theater multiplex, a favorite for film festivals. Be advised that the neighborhood gets a bit sketchy to the south and west of Geary and Fillmore. The Kabuki 8 Theater and neighboring Kabuki Hot Springs are part of the Japan Center, the commercial heart of Japantown. A sort of miniature Ginza, the Japan Center features a 100-foot pagoda, bonsai gardens, sushi bars and other businesses. Each spring it holds the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival.

Pacific Heights & Presidio Heights
Stately homes and high-rent apartment buildings line the ridge high above Cow Hollow in old-money Pacific Heights. Genteel, renovated Victorians ring the peaceful Alta Plaza Park. West of Pacific Heights lies Presidio Heights. Washington Street between Presidio and Arguello features some exceptionally palatial residences. Those fortunate enough to live here shop for antiques and dine in quiet refinement on a few understated blocks of nearby Sacramento Street. San Franciscos largest synagogue, Temple Emanu-el, is to be found on Arguello Street.

Potrero Hill
A cool neighborhood where light industry coexists with design and photography studios. The bohemian creatives live next door to low-income families. Quirky postmodern lofts are going up quietly in the shadow of huge, empty factories. The neighborhood has undergone a subtle renaissance, but has kept its industrial charm. Big changes will take place, however, once UCSFs Mission Bay development is completed at the Western edge of the Potrero.

From what was not long ago a decidely unglamorous stretch of light industry, warehouses, and a seedy undercurrent, an exciting new San Francisco has emerged in the area South of Market Street?SoMa. Conventioneering, art, and entertainment possibilities abound in the brand-new Moscone/YerbaBuena Center area. The dot.com businesses of nearby "Multimedia Gulch" spawn new twenty-something cyber-millionaires every week. Many of them can be seen at leisure at the South Park Cafe, Brainwash (a cafe/performance space/laundromat), or other fashion-forward restaurants and watering holes.

South Beach/China Basin
One of the citys most popular new residential areas for young professionals, South Beach arose from a virtual wasteland at the southern end of the Embarcadero and the western edge of SoMa. Apartment complexes and boat marinas squeeze together between the foot of the Bay Bridge and Pacific Bell Park, the San Francisco Giants' brand new waterfront baseball stadium. Warehouses and factories have either been converted into stylish lofts or are being razed in a swath of development extending down Third Street to the forthcoming Mission Bay development.

Haight-Ashbury and the Panhandle
This small, but densely concentrated cradle of the hippie movement, has tried to retain much of its flower-power, peace-and-love appeal. While real Summer-of-Love generation hippies may be hard to find, young people, dreadlocked, skinheaded, or skateboard-crazy have continued to come to the Haight to break boundaries. Aggressive panhandling is not uncommon here. The colorful bars and restaurants of upper Haight Street, however, are always packed with job-holding, going-places twenty-somethings. The annual Haight-Ashbury Street Fair is quite a scene. Architecture buffs will want to take a look at the regal Victorians on the Panhandle'the grassy, tree-lined strip extends east from Golden Gate Park along Fell and Oak Streets.

The Marina District
Fresh ocean air, pastel-colored, stucco duplexes, and college sweatshirts. Tanned, fit and energetic twenty-somethings run and rollerblade along the Marina Green, a vast expanse of grass fronting the Bay between two yacht harbors and a perfect spot for flying kites. Mountain bikers crowd cafes, restaurants, and brunch hangouts along busy Chestnut Street after Sunday morning rides to Mount Tamalpais. The graceful Palace of Fine Arts houses The Exploratorium, the one-of-a-kind, hands-on science museum?a must-see for
those with kids. At the southern end of the Marina Green is Fort Mason Center, a waterside arts and cultural center.

The Mission District
Long a nexus of Hispanic culture, more recently a mecca for edgy, Anglo Bohemians, and now home for increasing numbers of young professionals and their sport utility vehicles. Possibly the most hip, vibrant, sunny part of the city. Mexican and Central American businesses line teeming Mission Street. Visit popular La Taqueria, and be assured that the wait is worth it. Along the Valencia Corridor, one block to west, bars, cafes, and restaurants of every description lead to the buzzing 16th and Valencia hub. The neighborhood draws its name from nearby Mission Dolores, founded in 1776. The dolled-up, postcard-perfect Victorians on Dolores Street are worth a look?in the daytime?from adjacent Dolores Park.

The Presidio
Fourteen thousand acres of forests and beaches, seventy-five miles of bicycle-friendly roads, a golf course, and scenic grandeur without end make this the jewel of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Presidio was a military base from 1776 to 1994; antebellum Fort Point, under the Golden Gate Bridge, is a favorite for cannon enthusiasts, as well as for surfers, sailboarders, and Hitchcock aficionados (its the site of Kim Novaks attempted suicide in "Vertigo").

The Richmond District
Fog-bound and quiet residential streets stretch to the Cliff House and Sutro Baths at the ocean, with the occasional Irish pub along the way. Some of the citys best Chinese restaurants are to be found in "Little Chinatown" on Clement Street, and cyrillic lettering fills store windows around the imposing, gold-domed Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Cathedral on outer Geary Blvd. Exclusive Seacliff, home to Robin Williams and other celebrities, gives onto the Golden Gate next to Lincoln Park, site of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and a spectacular golf course.

The Sunset
A quiet and intensely foggy residential district. The principal attractions to the Outer Sunset are the San Francisco Zoo and the natural amphitheater at Stern Grove, where free concerts are held on summer Sundays. The Inner Sunset features a lively stretch of Irving Street, near Ninth Avenue. Students from nearby UCSF Medical School crowd ethnic restaurants of every stripe, from Ethiopian to Thai to one serving only raw vegetables.

Doug Gorney