San Francisco Area Activities
"The Rock" is the number one tourist destination for visitors to San Francisco, and that is not hard to believe. It rises out in the Bay just 3 miles off the shore of Fisherman's Wharf, and can be seen from vantage points all over the City, especially from all San Francisco's famous hills. Originally a fort built by the US military in 1859, it became a military prison in 1907, and then a maximum-security Federal Penitentiary between 1934 and 1963, housing some of America's most hardened criminals, averaging as many as 264 in its prime. Just inside the entrance to the Bay this side of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz (Spanish for Pelican) is exposed to the harsh elements of the Pacific Ocean, with extremely swift and deadly currents surrounding it.
Now a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, it is accessible only by ferry from Pier 33 and you can reserve a time for your visit by calling 415-705-5555 or on line at www.nps.gov/goga. Due to its popularity and access only by ferry, the number of guests per day is limited so you are well advised to book in advance. No visit to San Francisco is complete without a tour of this famous prison.
The Golden Gate Bridge
This American icon, is an engineering marvel and a beauty to behold. After 75 years, one is still amazed by its grandeur and grace. Once the longest and tallest suspension structure, after all these years it is still the world's third-largest single-span bridge, with six traffic lanes and a free pedestrian walkway. Although it is often shrouded in fog (locals refer to it as a 'marine layer'), when the sky is clear the views are spectacular and breathtaking. Probably one of the world's most photographed man-made structures, it complements its surroundings totally, situated over a narrow strait, connecting the City of San Francisco with Marin County to the north, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Bay of San Francisco on the other. This land and water formation was called 'the Golden Gate' in 1844 by John Fremont (the same man who later purchased Alcatraz in 1848) and soon it became the national treasure we now know as the Golden Gate Bridge
Visitors can now take tours that share the story behind the construction of the bridge, with new added 'after hours' access. Tours run spring through fall, starting from the beautifully renovated Round House at the Bridge Plaza on the South side. Ticket information at www.goldengatebridgetour.com or 877-349-7625. Or download the free, fantastic GoGGBridge app, developed by Antenna Audio, with maps, fun facts, photos, games and more. Available for iPhones and coming soon on Android devices.
Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39
For more than one hundred and fifty years as a thriving fishing wharf on the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf is celebrated for its abundance of Italian seafood restaurants, outdoor crab stands (serving San Francisco's famous Dungeness crab November through June), shops, museums, and a multitude of tourist attractions. Most noted of the many piers, Pier 39 was fashioned to draw the crowds to its many food stands, shops, restaurants and novelty boutiques, and with live entertainment, aquariums, theaters it amuses thousands of visitors a day. But its largest attraction by far is the unplanned arrival of the many sea lions that call the adjacent floating piers home. The best viewing of the seals is on the end of Pier 39, a large complex of tourist shops, specialty stores, restaurants and eateries on two levels, resembling a quaint wooden fishing village. There are numerous entertainment high lights throughout the pier for all family members, daily and seasonal. Fisherman's Wharf is also home for the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, the Wax Museum, Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum, The Cannery, Ghirardelli Square, and numerous tour companies, bicycle rentals.
Often compared to Ellis Island in the East, this island was used to quarantine new arrivals to the United States from most of Asia, South America and Canada. Today, the National Park Service is restoring many of the hospitals and barracks that were home for immigrants, often for months at a time. This heavily wooded island was a military base and housed the missiles that protected the heavily populated Bay Area during the Cold War. Ferries from San Francisco and Tiburon bring visitors to a dock at Ayala Cove were you can wander the island, take tours with small trams or bicycle the winding roads that surround the island. Information for Angel Island State Park at 415-435-1915. Blue and Gold ferries at www.blueandgoldfleet.com.
The Ferry Building
Completed in 1903, this historic building survived the devastating earthquake of 1906 to become in the early 1930's one of the most heavily used transportation buildings in the nation with over 50 million passengers a year passing through its halls. Renovated and restored in 2003 it now houses many gourmet and gift shops, selling a huge variety of specialty foods and fresh produce, as well as wine and oyster bars and outstanding restaurants. Every Tuesday and Saturday it hosts an outdoor Farmer's Market famous for its high end selection of local produce and farm products. And it is still home to several ferries that take you Vallejo (www.baylinkferry.com), Larkspur, Sausalito (www.goldengate.com), and Alameda (www.blueandgoldfleet.com).
San Francisco Zoo
Located on the Pacific Coast, next to the Ocean, this famous Zoo has created a wild life preserve that includes over 1,000 species of birds and animals, plus a wide assortment of plants to complement their environment. Of particular note is the innovative Primate Discovery Center were there are 15 different species of primates, including monkeys, langurs and macaques. Also the Koala Crossing which is designed like an Australian outback station, and Otter River which features cascading waterfalls and a live fish feeder for North American river otters. Visit the Lion House every day at 2 pm (except Mondays) when the big cats are fed, including the endangered snow leopards, a Bengal tiger and a jaguar. More information at www.sfzoo.com
Cable Cars, the Cable Car Barn and Museum
No trip to San Francisco is complete without a ride on the Cable Cars. Once an integral part of the municipal transportation for the City, the numerous cable car lines (eight at one time with over 600 cars) started disappearing in the forties with the proliferation of the automobile and buses. Preserving three of the lines along Powell-Mason, Powell-Hyde and California streets, the cable car system has remained essentially unchanged since its invention in 1873 by an engineer Andrew Hallidie who was inspired by watching a horrible accident when a horse-drawn tram slipped down a steep hill dragging the horses with it. These moving Historic Monuments are stored in the Cable Car Barn at night where they are meticulously maintained. The Cable Car barn also houses the powerhouse for the entire cable system that moves the authentically-replicated cars along the 17 miles (25 km) of track at a steady speed of 9.5 mph (15.5 km/h). The Cable Car Barn and Museum is open to the public where one can see the powerhouse in operation and see on display the original cable car that was used in August of 1873.