Top 10 highlights of San Francisco

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Spontaneity is the only law obeyed without question in San Francisco. No one can commit to a date next week, but everyone suddenly shows up when there’s a war that needs protesting or someone’s handing out free cupcakes at same-sex weddings in City Hall. San Francisco’s stratospheric booms and breakneck busts aren’t for the weak of heart, but as anyone who’s clung onto the side of a cable car will tell you, this town gives one hell of a ride. Here are the top ten highlights of San Francisco.

Golden Gate Park

You may have heard that San Francisco has a wild streak a mile wide, but it also happens to be 4.5 miles long. Golden Gate Park lets San Franciscans do what comes naturally: roller-discoing, drum-circling, petting starfish, sniffing orchids and racing bison toward the Pacific. It’s hard to believe these 1017 acres of lush terrain were once just scrubby sand dunes, and that San Franciscans have successfully preserved this stretch of green since 1866, ousting casinos and a theme-park igloo village. Today, everything San Francisco really needs is here: inspiration, nature and beer.

Alcatraz

From its 19th century founding to hold Civil War deserters and Native American dissidents to its closure by Bobby Kennedy in 1963, Alcatraz was America’s most notorious prison. No prisoner is known to have escaped alive – but after spending even a minute in D-Block solitary, listening to the sounds of city life across the Bay, the 1.25-mile swim through riptides may seem worth a shot. For maximum chill factor, book the popular night tour to check out the gloomy jailhouse. On the return ferry to San Francisco, freedom never felt so good.

Related article: First time San Francisco: discover the best of the City by the Bay

SFMOMA & SoMa Art Scene

Vaseline and video were only the beginning for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), where Matthew Barney debuted and where new media art has been collected since before anyone knew what to call it. Now the museum is doubling in size, with a $480 million expansion – and if that sounds audacious, wait until you see the rest of the neighborhood. The Cartoon Art Museum showcases political cartoons too hot to print, the Contemporary Jewish Museum allows 600 artists to take liberties with Mein Kampf, and Electric Works shows North Korean propaganda posters. Gallery openings are SF’s best parties, with freak fashion and free hooch.

Golden Gate Bridge

Other suspension bridges impress with engineering, but none can touch Golden Gate Bridge for showmanship. On sunny days it transfixes crowds with a radiant glow – a feat pulled off by 25 daredevil painters who maintain the bridge’s luminous complexion by applying 1000 gallons of International Orange paint every week. When afternoon fog rolls in, the bridge puts on a magic show that’s positively riveting: now you see it, now you don’t and, abracadabra, it’s sawn in half. Tune in tomorrow for its dramatic unveiling, just in time for the morning commute.

Ferry Building Saturdays

The Ferry Building is San Francisco’s monument to food stands tall and proud on Saturdays, when star chefs troll farmers market stalls for rare heirloom varietals and foodie babies blissfully teethe on organic peaches. Local farmers and food trucks have dedicated followings any rock star would envy, so anticipate waits for organic Dirty Girl tomatoes and Namu’s sustainable Korean steak tacos. Bide your time exchanging recipe tips, then haul your picnic to Pier 2. With feet dangling over the sparkling Bay and culinary bounty in hand, lunch and life exceed expectations.

Hilltop Vistas

Gravity seems unkind as you scale SF’s steepest hills, with calf muscles and cable car wheels groaning – but all grumbling ends once you hit the summit. With wind-sculpted trees, Victorian turrets and the world at your feet atop Corona Heights, Buena Vista Park or 41 of SF’s other peaks, one word comes to mind: Wheeeeee! Hilltop parks like Sterling Park and Ina Coolbrith Park are San Francisco’s crowning glories. Wild parrots may mock your progress up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower but, really, they can’t expect to keep scenery like this to themselves.

Barbary Coast Nights

Friendly bartenders were once highly suspect in San Francisco. Circa 1849, a night that began with smiles and a 10-cent whiskey could end two days later, waking from a drugged sleep on a vessel bound for Patagonia. Now that Shanghai Kelly is no longer a danger to drinkers, San Franciscans can relax over historically correct cocktails at North Beach’s revived Barbary Coast saloons. Today’s scene would look familiar to long-gone sailors, with well-scuffed wooden floors, absinthe spoons and lighting dim enough to put a bordello madam at ease – plus reassuring barkeep backsass.

Cable Cars

White-knuckle grips that cling to worn wooden benches give away San Francisco novices. Lurching uphill, you may exhale when the bell finally signals the summit. But don’t look now: what goes up all 338ft of San Francisco’s Nob Hill must come down. Maybe now is not the best time to mention that the brakes are still hand-operated, or that the Victorian steampunk invention of these cable cars have hardly changed since 1873. Once you reach the terminus, you’re ready to take the next giddy ride standing, with nothing between you and eternity but a creaky hand-strap.

Marine Life at Fisherman’s Wharf

Sea lions, sharks and jellyfish lurk along Fisherman’s Wharf. Sea lions have lived the California dream since 1989, when they brought harems to Pier 39 yacht docks for sunning and canoodling. After disappearing in 2009, their return in 2010 was greeted with cheers and a brass band. Sharks circle nearby at Aquarium of the Bay, where the only barrier between visitors and Bay waters is a glass tube. A less ominous underwater world can be glimpsed at the newly restored Aquatic Park Bathhouse, where jellyfish flutter across 1930s mosaics created by celebrated African-American artist Sargent Johnson.

Neighborhood Boutiques

Terrariums, desert-island message bottles, necklaces made of shattered windshields: shopping looks strangely like installation art in San Francisco’s indie boutiques. Although SF has spawned mega-retailers – Levi Strauss, Pottery Barn and The Gap are all headquartered downtown – zoning restrictions strictly limit chain retailers in SF’s neighborhoods. Where other cities might plunk another Walmart, here you’ll find Victorian storefronts selling Icelandic gamelan music and organic-cotton Mayan minidresses. Local designers win pride of place on shelves, and killer sale racks put mall mark-ups to shame.

Updated 8 August 2012