Your Destination Guide to San Francisco

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Financial District

Financial District
Financial District

© Jill Clardy

Squeezed between Union Square and the Bay, San Francisco's Financial District isn't necessarily a very popular tourist destination, but if you look past the office buildings and the commercial facades, you will be surprised to discover an area with a raucous history, world-class food, and an impressive array of architecture. This often-overshadowed nook of the city routinely plays second fiddle to neighboring Chinatown and North Beach, but the Financial District is a beguiling destination with plenty to see, eat, and do.

Long before the skyscrapers and office buildings gave the Financial District its iconic look, the area was home to the first permanent camps that would later grow into San Francisco. The California Gold Rush was the major catalyst in this transformation, and almost overnight a small camp on the calm bay morphed into a wild international city. The great earthquake and fire of 1906 reduced a vast majority of the Financial District to smoldering ruins. On those ashes, the foundation of the current Financial District was built. Skyscrapers and office buildings popped up over the ensuing decades, and financial and banking institutions filled the buildings, hence the moniker, "The Financial District." Today, the Financial District has a bit of a personality crisis: it bustles with suits, cell phones, and bike messengers by day, but it is virtually free of people after 6pm and on the weekends. To counter this dichotomy, recent efforts have attempted to make the area more livable with the addition of shops, restaurants, and a much-needed overhaul of the waterfront.

A great way to see the Financial District and to learn about its bawdy past and striking architecture is to follow the Barbary Coast Trail. The trail runs in a giant loop throughout the northeastern part of the city: feel free to pick up the trail anywhere, but a good starting point is the intersection of Columbus and Broadway avenues in North Beach, just a few blocks north of the Financial District. Heading south, follow the easy-to-spot bronze markers in the sidewalk and San Fran's indecorous past illuminates as you pass historic houses of ill repute, opium dens, whiskey joints, and shanghaiing spots. Pristine examples of Gold Rush architecture are on display in Jackson Square, where these stout buildings managed to survive the 1906 earthquake. Farther south along on the trail, the quaint historic buildings give way to skyscrapers, the most celebrated of which is the pyramid-shaped Transamerica Building. In the heart of the Financial District, the myriad styles of architecture surround you and put on quite the show; Beaux-Arts buildings mingle with Modern ones while Classical churches mesh with Oriental-style pagodas. As you reach Market Street, an interesting stop is the Wells Fargo Museum. Sitting on the site of the very first Wells Fargo Bank, the museum traces the history from the bank's earnest beginnings to its emergence as a monetary power that shaped the West and with a stagecoach to boot.

Another great area of the Financial District is the Embarcadero, the city's waterfront promenade. Pier 7 has a nice boardwalk reaching out into the bay where you can see great views of Treasure Island, the Bay, and also glimpse fishermen hauling in a catch. If all the exploring has made you hungry, a stop in the Ferry Building is a must. Contrary to what the name suggests, you won't find too many ferries here, but you will find great restaurants, food stores, and shops that hold the mantra "local, seasonal, sustainable" close to heart. Popular and delicious stores in the Ferry Building are the Cow Girl Creamery for artisanal cheeses, Hog Island for fresh oysters and Far West Fungi for exotic mushrooms. On Saturdays, hoards flock to the Ferry Building for one of the city's finest farmers markets where fresh produce and local products are on full display.

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