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Introduction top

Hi, I’m Rudy Maxa. The Pacific Rim glitters with exotic destinations and ports of call. But if you’re searching for one special place to leave your heart, that place might just be here—high on a hill, in the city by the bay. This time we’re in San Francisco on Smart Travels.

Golden port peering through the fog...beacon for adventurers...a fusion of cultures flaunting a checkered past. San Francisco’s variety, energy and off-beat sights are enough to make your head spin. But if these famous hills bring on a wave of vertigo—don’t worry. There’s always a fresh breeze coming in from the bay to bring you to your senses.

San Francisco’s diversity is dizzying. Foreign visitors often observe that it has the most European feel of any major American city. But Asian, Hispanic and a slew of other influences work to make this one of the world's most colorful and appealing destinations.


The Go San Francisco Card is the only all-inclusive ticket to San Francisco's top attractions. For one price, you get unlimited sightseeing with FREE general admission to over 45 attractions.

A network of cities and towns cluster together to form the San Francisco Bay Area. But locals are quick to tell you that only San Francisco proper is referred to as "The City". This trip, we'll begin with some great urban sights, and then head north to the Sonoma and Napa wine country.


Fisherman's Wharf top

San Francisco’s famous Fisherman’s Wharf is layered in history. Early on, the easily navigated harbor attracted Native Americans and European settlers. Then, the gold rush of 1849 transformed this area from a sleepy village of a few hundred people to a boisterous boomtown.


Boudin Bakery top

Sourdough bread is a tasty tradition leftover from those days. Although the tangy bread has actually been made in one place or another for at least 5000 years, it holds a special place in this city’s history.

Back in 1849, when gold was discovered in them thar’ hills, the great rush was on. Those miners worked up some fierce appetites with all that panning, but they often had to go for long periods of time without access to fresh food. So they took a prized possession with them to the fields: a sourdough starter.


For eyewitness accounts of the California gold rush, go to the Library of Congress Search Page and type “gold rush” into the Search Descriptive Information box. Click SEARCH.

In the days before commercial yeast, miners could bake leavened bread in camp using a starter—a mix of flour, water, and helpful bacteria that could be kept indefinitely. Meanwhile, in a tiny French bakery in the city, Isidore Boudin began forming sourdough into the shape of traditional French loaves. Incredibly, the bakery’s bread is still made with a portion of the original "Mother Dough" that dates back to the very first loaf.


Check out the Boudin Bakery on-line at www.boudinbakery.com.


Cable Cars top

San Francisco has something to satisfy just about every tourist taste. There are a thousand acres of nature and art in Golden Gate Park. And a world-class opera house and symphony hall.

We’re hopping aboard the only National Historic Landmark that you can ride—a famous San Francisco cable car—to check out one of the city’s must-see neighborhoods.


For more information on cable cars, including a Rider's Guide, go to www.sfcablecar.com.

Don’t want to ride a cable car, but you’re interested in them anyway? Then the Cable Car Museum is just the place for you.


China Town top

From exotic red and gold lanterns to the pungent aromas of food stalls, Chinatown is a sensory explosion. Many US cities have Chinatowns, but San Francisco’s is the oldest, largest, and most visually striking. Beginning in the mid 1800’s, immigrants from China came through this port city in search of gold, railroad work, or other opportunities. This neighborhood grew into a home away-from-home for the transplanted Chinese, who could find familiar food, newspapers and welcoming faces here. After the devastating 1906 earthquake, some city planners tried to move the Chinese to a new location, but local leaders saved the community from being uprooted.


To see how some of San Francisco’s current buildings made it through the earthquake, check out www.inetours.com.


Asian Art Museum top

With a long tradition of Asian immigration, it’s not surprising San Francisco recently opened one of the largest museums in the western world devoted to Asian Art. This building, which dates to 1917, was once the city’s main library. It was redesigned by the same architect who conceived the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. As the museum’s curators suggest, the concept of "Asia" is really an invented label given to a diverse group of cultural regions. The curators struggled with how to organize such a complicated series of collections. One way was to use Buddhism as a loose organizing principle. It’s one of the few cultural elements present almost everywhere in Asia. You’ll see the sleek relaxed images of India’s Buddha, the gilded metalwork of Burmese artists, and the more serious, remote Buddhas of Confucian China.

Asian artwork often focuses on nature, religion and ritual. It gives us insight into belief systems developed centuries ago, as well as the continuity of those traditions today.

With that in mind, the Asian Art Museum offers hands-on activities and live demonstrations. We were lucky enough to visit when Tibetan monks were creating a sacred sand mandala. This mystic diagram symbolizes the cosmos and is used in Buddhist ritual. The mandala is a temporary creation, and after meditating on it, the monks will pour the sands into a nearby river or stream, so that the spirits of the ocean will carry its healing energies to the world.


More about this museum at www.asianart.org.


Ferry Building Marketplace top

To me, San Francisco is a city of celebration….reveling in diversity, in art and, I’m happy to say, in food. Here on the docks, where ferry boats come and go, the bay area’s agricultural bounty and culinary traditions all come together one roof.

In the Ferry Building Marketplace, you’ll find popular restaurants, such as the “Slanted Door”, which specializes in Vietnamese cuisine. The building’s market stalls serve up fresh produce from small regional farmers and ranchers, much of which is certified organic. Other tempting offerings include specialty cheeses and olive oil. Considering the area’s abundance of fresh produce, it’s not surprising that vegetarians thrive here.


Greens Restaurant top

The Fort Mason Center, a few miles up the waterfront, features one of the city’s beloved institutions: Greens Restaurant. This decades-old vegetarian eatery is right at home in a city that rejoices in alternative lifestyles.

Helping to pioneer vegetarian cuisine in the US, Green’s was Founded by the San Francisco Zen Center.


Interested in a little vegetarian cooking yourself? Greens has some cook books available on-line.


Amoeba Music top

Okay, I want you to mellow out now…and relax your mind back to 1967….it’s the “Summer of Love”. The peace movement has come into full swing. It’s a time of war protests, flower children, drugs and free love. Man, those were the days!

Young people, attracted by the Haight neighborhood’s cheap rents and camaraderie, made this the place to be. The Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin found musical inspiration here, and the corner of Haight and Ashbury became a symbol of the flower child generation. Though the idealism of the 60’s has weathered a bit with age, the neighborhood remains a hub of political activism.

All you audiophiles out there won’t want to miss Amoeba Music on the neighborhood's western edge. The largest independent music seller in the country, Rolling Stone magazine once called Amoeba "the best record store in the world". It’s housed in a former bowling alley and there’s something here to satisfy every taste, from cutting edge to hopelessly dated. Holding firm to its activist roots, the store donates part of its profits to preserve rain forests.


If you'd like to read the original article about Amoeba Music, you can purchase it from Rolling Stone Magazine for $2.50 on-line.


Walking Tour top

Travel writers are unanimous: we all agree that the best way to see San Francisco is on foot. And to make walking this eclectic city even more fun, we’ve hooked up with a tour group called, appropriately enough, "Foot!".

Proud of their liberal ways, San Franciscans have always marched to the beat of their own drummers, and this tour is no exception.


For a list of tours Foot! offers, check out www.foottours.com/.


Cafe Trieste, North Beach top

I’m ready for a little coffee break and I’ve found just the spot. One of San Francisco’s sensory pleasures is the smell of roasted coffee beans wafting through the North Beach neighborhood.

The area was settled by Italian immigrants more than a hundred and thirty years ago, and is still largely Italiano. And, even after so many generations, young and old still come together here to share a meal or cup of espresso.

The cozy Café Trieste was founded by immigrant Gianni Giotta in 1956. On Saturdays, customers are entertained by the owner’s family sing-alongs. Back in the 50’s, this was a hang-out for the Bohemian crowd, and Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were regular visitors. The Beat Generation found cafes a pleasant escape from their often cramped and chilly apartments. Later, a young Francis Coppola would write part of the screenplay for The Godfather here.


Need some ideas for wandering this neighborhood? www.sfgate.com/traveler should do the trick.


The Four Seasons Hotel top

San Francisco’s range of accommodations is as diverse as the city itself. If you’re looking for sheer indulgence, its luxury hotels rank among the world’s finest. The Four Seasons, a favorite with celebrities, has a great location right on Market Street The elegant rooms and first class amenities are a special treat. While hotels are plentiful here, to get your first choice it’s always smart to make reservations, especially during summer months.


Alcatraz top

San Francisco’s most popular day trip has to be the boat ride to Alcatraz, a fifteen-minute jaunt across the bay.

"The Rock", as it’s known, holds the dubious honor of being the most famous of all US penitentiaries. The island was once a US military post and prison. Then in the 1930s, the government began looking for somewhere to house the civilian population’s worst offenders.

Alcatraz seemed like an obvious choice. It was close to land, but isolated by tides, currents and frigid bay water. For 34 years it served as a maximum-security penitentiary—the end of the line for hardened criminals who couldn’t be handled anywhere else. Alcatraz was impossible to escape from….or so everyone thought.

Everyone was wrong, because in 1962 three men wriggled out through air vents, fled the island on a handmade raft and were never heard from again. Did they survive? Well, we may never know. But the incident was made famous by the movie “Escape from Alcatraz” starring Clint Eastwood.


The FBI conducted an exhaustive investigation of the escape. If you have a broadband connection and Adobe Acrobat Reader, you can peruse the files at your leisure.

The lonely cells and cold metal bars paint an eerie picture of daily life in this dark fortress.

While the prison’s more infamous residents included the likes of Al Capone and "Machine Gun" Kelly, it’s the "Birdman of Alcatraz"—that we’ve all heard so much about. His given name was Robert Stroud, and although he did raise canaries while incarcerated at Leavenworth prison in Kansas, he actually wasn’t allowed to keep birds during his time at Alcatraz.


Alcatraz tours fill up quickly. It’s best to make advance reservations.


Angel Island top

Ok, so everybody knows about Alcatraz. But many visitors to the Bay Area overlook the Angel Island right next door. Some find this big island even more interesting than its famous cousin. And with an "Island-hop Ticket", you can visit both in one day.

The 740-acre park is a kind of microcosm of US military history, beginning with its days as an Indian hunting ground right on through its use as a missile base during the Cold War.


There are more and faster ways to get around Angel Island than by foot. For some great alternatives, check out www.angelisland.com.

On the east side of the island, Fort McDowell was a hub of activity during the Spanish-American War and during both World Wars when thousands of men passed through here on their way to the Pacific.

This Immigration Station earned Angel Island its nickname: "Ellis Island of the West".

Hundreds of thousands of Asian immigrants were processed here between 1910 and 1940. The detainees were often held for months and sometimes even years before being allowed to enter the US or being turned away.


If you’d like to see some photographs from the island while it was in use, visit www.angelisland.org.


Golden Gate Bridge top

"At last the mighty task is done; Resplendent in the western sun", so begins a poem by Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer of the Golden Gate bridge.

The suspension bridge connecting San Francisco with Marin County is an icon the world around. The great span took more than four years to build and cost 35 million depression-era dollars.

Pundits of the day asserted that no one could bridge the perilous waterway known as the "Golden Gate". Nevertheless, the long, lovely bridge opened to vehicles on May 28, 1937 and has faithfully served San Franciscans ever since.


Find out what it looks like from the very top of the bridge at www.goldengatebridge.org.

To see the photos taken during construction of the bridge, go to www.sfmuseum.org.


Sonoma & Napa Valleys top

The bridge takes us out of the city as we head north to the Sonoma and Napa valleys, and the town of Calistoga.

The scenery unfolds into miles of farmland and picturesque vineyards.

A Hungarian count launched the whole wine-making business back in 1857. "California," he said, "Can produce as noble and generous a wine as any in Europe…" He carried back thousands of vine cuttings from his European travels and started an entire industry.

But even those who aren’t into wine will fall in love with the beauty and serenity of this landscape.


An unforgettable way to enjoy the view is by taking a hot air balloon ride.


Cornerstone Gardens top

At Cornerstone Gardens in Sonoma, an ever-changing series of walk-through gardens introduces visitors to innovative designs from some of the world’s finest landscape architects. Modeled after the International Garden Festival at Chaumon-sur-Loire in France, the project celebrates the connection between art, architecture and nature.


Cornerstone Gardens are open April through November.


Clos Pegase Winerytop

Now, about that wine tasting...One of my favorite wineries is Clos Pegase, near the town of Calistoga. The free-spirited vintner draws inspiration for his winemaking from ancient myth and fine art.


Dr. Wilkinson's Spa top

It was California’s wine country that spawned America’s passion for spa treatments. Volcanic soil and mineral springs provide ample opportunity for therapeutic soaks and mud baths.

Dr. Wilkinson’s is the oldest spa in Calistoga, and though not as trendy as some of the competition, it has a dedicated following of return visitors.

Just what the doctor ordered....


Even More Links... top

From the cultural collage of San Francisco’s neighborhoods…to the dizzying summits of city hills…to the mellow vines of the wine country...the Bay Area is sure to turn your head, and win your heart.

Here’s to San Francisco and the Bay Area….celebrating art, diversity and life. Yes, I've been trying to figure out just exactly where it was I left my heart. For now, at least, I found it right here. I’m Rudy Maxa, see you next time!


Feel like you don’t know near enough about San Francisco yet? Then check out...

iNeTours.com virtual tour of San Francisco (navigate your way through the virtual tours in the blue bar on the right of the page under the heading “Neighborhoods”)

The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco (includes lots of information on the Gold Rush, Great Fire & Earthquake, and Golden Gate Bridge)

San Francisco History Index


Interested in planning your vacation to this city by the bay?
Start your trip at
Expedia.com/San Francisco.



Check out the Boudin Bakery on-line at www.boudinbakery.com.

For more information on cable cars, including a Rider's Guide, go to www.sfcablecar.com.

For a list of tours Foot! offers, check out www.foottours.com/.

To see how some of San Francisco’s current buildings made it through the earthquake, check out www.inetours.com.

Find out what it looks like from the very top of the bridge at www.goldengatebridge.org.