From the days of the Gold Rush, San Francisco has been a freewheeling city. Artists, musicians and writers often sang its praises, and it's easy to see why: this is one gorgeous little city by the bay. Windy, steep hills provide picturesque panoramic views of Victorian houses, immense bridges, skyscrapers, and distinct neighborhoods, not to mention the rugged coastline and dense, unspoiled woods just outside city limits. San Francisco is the place that gave birth to the United Nations and is forever associated with the Beat literary, hippie culture and gay rights movements.
It has been said that in San Francisco, "people are never more abroad than when they are home." While San Francisco has earned a long collection of heartfelt compliments, the diversity of San Francisco is what truly attracts people. If you really want to know what this quote is about, explore one of San Francisco's many neighborhoods. There's Chinatown, with hole-in-the-wall dim sum restaurants, open balconies, and narrow alleys. The Mission District, a predominately Latino neighborhood, is famous for its burritos and dive bars. North Beach retains its Italian heritage with dozens of delicatessens, bakeries and the famous City Lights Bookstore founded by beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The Castro, the epicenter of the city's sizable and influential gay community, has an air of upper-middle class urbanity colored by outrageous sensibilities and is one of the City's best neighborhoods for people-watching or indulging in a long leisurely lunch.
While San Francisco has existed for just over two centuries, the city has managed to pack a lot of action into its short history. Mission Dolores, the sixth mission founded by Father Junipero Serra, is the city's oldest enclave, and the Presidio, which occupies the northwest corner of the peninsula, was originally established in 1776 by the Spanish as the site of their first fort. You can trace San Francisco's history as a hotbed of murder and mayhem through a trip to Alcatraz, home of the most notorious prison in the USA. Drive, bike or walk across the city's iconic landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge. Or, let the hundreds of colorful murals do the talking, depicting everything from San Francisco's labor history to Central American independence struggles, the women's movement and local street life. For more modern history, stroll City Hall, home to the city's many historical moments, most famously the riots of the late 1970s after City Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated.
The city also boasts a number of world-class art museums catering to all sorts of artistic, cultural and science interests such Museum of Modern Art with its world renowned photography collection and unique architectural design. For those more interested in lighter art, the Cartoon Art Museum exhibits cartoon art from around the world. The California Academy of Sciences is an aquarium, planetarium, rain forest, and natural history museum teeming with thousands of animals and hundreds of innovative exhibits, while the Contemporary Jewish Museum features exhibits exploring Jewish identity, culture, art and history.
While the state of California is known for its bikini weather, the city's famous fog keeps the weather at a perpetual 60 degrees, requiring residents and visitors alike to dress in layers, even in July -- but San Franciscans take consolation in mild winters, when the play between land and sea creates less extreme fog and more reliable weather patterns. The city's topography creates several microclimates, so don't despair: if it's foggy and drizzly at Ocean Beach, it may be sunny and warm in the Mission.
While San Francisco is one of the more compact cities in the United Sates, it does not lack in green space. The famous Presidio houses Crissy Field, a recently restored tidal marsh that features beautiful hiking and biking trails and a grassy former airstrip where unleashed dogs romp most days. Lincoln Park has superb views of the bay, and of course, the crowning jewel, Golden Gate Park, stretching almost halfway across the peninsula, hosts gardens, lakes, trails and sporting facilities, not to mention museums and other indoor attractions. This means that San Franciscans are an active group that packs the bike paths and hiking trails most weekends. In addition, there are plenty of outdoor options within an hour's drive of the city. Marin County, north of San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge, offers some of Northern California's superior coastal hiking and biking excursions.
San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area is a veritable who's-who of the technology world, with companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Yahoo!, E-Bay, and Netflix which all add to the Bay Area's mystique. Additionally, the city is home to several world-class public and private universities such as UC, San Francisco, CAL or the ivy-league of the west, Stanford. These universities, along with its cutting-edge companies, afford the city a young, hip and educated vibe, complete with a multitude of bars, clubs, and cafes. In any part of town you'll have your choice of slick, seedy or somewhere in between.
On the food front, the city prides itself on its multitude of restaurants featuring food from every corner of the world – from Southeast Asia to southern Italy, Afghan cuisine, Vegetarian and Fusion as well – from hole-in-the-wall to seriously upscale. Chinatown rivals Hong Kong in the popularity and quality of its dim sum restaurants -- follow your nose and wander through many of the alleyway haunts for heaping bowls of fried noodles, dumplings, or sizzling prawns. The Ferry Building Marketplace along the Embarcadero has a bustling farmer's market offering fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, meats, and eggs from small regional farmers and ranchers, many of whom are certified organic. San Francisco's Little Italy or North Beach as it's commonly known has check-clothed restaurants to fit any budget, strong espresso, and no-frills bakeries on every corner.
The diversity of San Francisco extends farther than its geographical borders, with a style that is far-ranging and diverse – anything goes, from sharp tailored suits to vintage dresses to drag extravagance. A stroll through Union Square is where you will find the city's biggest stores, such as Tiffany's and Neiman-Marcus, while Hayes Valley has more boutiques featuring local designers. The Mission District continues to be the hot spot for vintage shops, secondhand furniture, and Mexican folk art. Haight Street houses the best collection of vinyl records, and for those looking for the perfect kitschy keepsake head directly toward Fisherman's Warf, on Pier 39, absolutely saturated with souvenir shops.
With all that San Francisco offers, become a part of it, and take a little home with you - but try not to leave your heart in San Francisco.