It's no wonder Tony Bennett left his heart there. San Francisco is a compact city of world-class culture, historical landmarks, award-winning dining, outdoor adventures and nightlife -- all wrapped by a sparkling bay flanked by the famous Golden Gate Bridge, visible from historic cable cars that ply the hilly streets. Even the unpredictable fog adds to the beauty.
Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala discovered the inlet in 1775, but it wasn't until 1847 that San Francisco got its name -- just before gold was discovered in "them thar" Sierra Nevada hills to the east. In 1850, California became the 31st state in the union, and, by 1854, more than 500 saloons and 20 theaters graced the booming Gold Rush town. But, the real "gold" to be found was in its seas. The area known as Fisherman's Wharf, on the San Francisco Bay, is still the center of Northern California's commercial and sport fishing industry.
Indeed, the City by the Bay reflects its roots: a morning stroll down Fish Alley -- Jefferson between Hyde and Jones -- offers a chance to view fishermen at work. The Saloon (1232 Grant Avenue) established in 1861, still stands in the city's North Beach neighborhood with cracked barstools and a dusty wooden floor. (It's one of the three oldest taverns in San Francisco, which somehow survived demolition by man and earthquakes, including the major one in 1906 that resulted in fire and widespread destruction.)
But, above all, today's San Francisco is playfully sophisticated, with a mix of distinct contemporary neighborhoods like the tie-dye-wearing, peace-loving Haight; the super-trendy Mission; swank Pacific Heights; and fabulously gay Castro, home to many of the city's LGBT businesses and households.
If your voyage begins or ends in this colorful California port, consider a pre- or post-cruise stay. The treats of San Francisco command more than a few hours. These include mah-jongg parlors in Chinatown (with yummy samples from the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley), cable car rides over Nob Hill, the staircase down the very steep and crooked Lombard Street, the ferry ride to enchanting Sausalito across San Francisco Bay and, of course, an escape to Alcatraz.
Piers 27 and 35 are located at the Embarcadero. Most ships dock at Pier 27, the James R. Herman Cruise Terminal, opened in 2014, located along the Embarcadero, the city's bustling downtown waterfront on San Francisco Bay, but some, especially in-transit ships, dock at Pier 35, a few blocks away. Nearby are the restaurants and tourist attractions of Pier 39, the Ferry Building Marketplace food hall and Fisherman's Wharf.
Some of the city's major tourist attractions are located within steps of the port, including touristy Fisherman's Wharf. Hyde Street Pier, a historic ferry pier near Fisherman's Wharf, is part of the National Park Service's Maritime Museum. There, maritime buffs can board historic vessels, such as the 1886 square-rigger Balclutha and 1914 paddlewheel tugboat Eppleton Hall.
Nearby, Pier 39 is a bustling marketplace boasting more than 110 stores, 14 bay-view restaurants, street performers and live daily entertainment.
The Embarcadero is great for strolling, with kiosks explaining the city's history and quotes or snippets of poetry embedded in the sidewalk.
Summer is cold and foggy: Bring a jacket, sweater or warm scarf (ideally, all three). If you arrive in a T-shirt and shorts, you'll regret it.
Be prepared for rough seas when you sail out into the Pacific Ocean. Also, San Francisco is the hilliest city in the United States, and its steep streets are best traversed by bus or the famous cable cars, whose views can be enjoyed standing on one of the outside platforms, but travelers should hold on tight (and keep extremities tucked away from oncoming traffic).
By Car: All the major rental companies operate in the city and have desks at the airports. They include Avis, Alamo and Enterprise. Car rental rates vary with daily rates, starting from about $50. Be advised that parking is horrendous in the city, but if you're spending several days, you might want to rent a car to visit more far-flung sites, including Muir Woods and Wine Country. If you're lucky enough to find street parking, use the hand brake and curb your wheels when facing downward on a hill and away from the curb when uphill. You'll get a pricy ticket if you don't. All parking meters operate Sundays, and some along the Embarcadero operate later than the usual 6 p.m. cutoff.
By Ride-Hail App: Do what the locals do: Use Lyft or Uber in the city where both companies were born.
On Foot: There are many distinct neighborhoods (e.g., Fisherman's Wharf, Chinatown, Nob Hill, North Beach, Pacific Heights, Russian Hill, Union Square, SoMa (South of Market), the Haight, Castro, Mission, Marina, Richmond, Sunset and Tenderloin). From the cruise terminals, you're just a few blocks from Telegraph Hill and North Beach. Fisherman's Wharf and the Ferry Building Marketplace are both on the Embarcadero, but on different sides of the cruise terminal. The Golden Gate Bridge is tucked in the city's northwest corner. The city's main thoroughfare is Market Street, leading into the city from the Ferry Building. San Francisco is a perfect place for walking, and it's fun to wander the hilly streets and even over the Golden Gate. Fact is, you can walk from Union Square to Fisherman's Wharf, passing Chinatown and North Beach on the way, and it will take you about an hour. Walking is the best way to travel for those not in a rush, and it's the only way to really see the neighborhoods.
By Rail or Bus: The San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) runs the cable cars, buses and streetcars. One-way fare for a bus or streetcar is $2.75 ($1.35 if you're 65 or older); you'll need exact change to ride. Service typically begins around 5 or 6 a.m. and ends around midnight or 1 a.m., depending on the route (some routes do offer late-night "Owl" service). You might want to consider a Passport, which gives you unlimited rides on all services for one, three or seven days. You can purchase the pass at the SFMTA Customer Service Center (Van Ness at Market), information booths at SFO baggage claim, the Powell/Market cable car booth, the Sutter and Hyde streets booth, the Bay and Taylor streets booth and the Geary and Presidio avenues booth. BART is mainly used for reaching the outlying areas like Berkeley, Oakland and the airport. Machines inside the stations dispense tickets. The trains run every 15 minutes or so, Monday to Friday from 4 a.m. to midnight, Saturday from 6 a.m. to midnight and Sunday from 8 a.m. to midnight.
Pro tip: A $89 CityPASS ($69 for kids) gets visitors admission to several popular cultural and entertainment attractions without waiting on line: a Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Aquarium of the Bay and either Exploratorium or San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, plus three days of unlimited transportation on the buses, cable cars and street cars. You can purchase it at any of the included attractions or online.
Because San Francisco is part of the U.S., the currency is the U.S. dollar. International visitors will find it easy to access cash at numerous ATMs. Exchange bureaus -- so common in Europe -- are not in the U.S., but major banks also provide exchange services. Most banks are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Some are also open Saturday mornings.
English is the primary language spoken.
Dungeness crab, King (Chinook) salmon and Pacific herring are some of the leading local catches, particularly at Fisherman's Wharf, where most of the restaurants are aimed at the casual day-tripper or tourist. But, San Francisco also offers cuisines from all corners of the world - Chinese, Mexican, Thai, South Indian, Moroccan and Nepalese -- for both those watching their budgets and those looking to splurge.
The concept of "California Cuisine," letting fresh, local ingredients inspire the menu, originated in the Bay Area, and some of the city's best restaurants adhere to that philosophy. A trip to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market will show you where all that delicious inspiration comes from.
Head to the Ferry Building Marketplace, home to restaurants and food purveyors that give you a variety of the best the Bay Area has to offer. Try upscale Vietnamese at the Slanted Door, slurp oysters at Hog Island Oyster Company, sip wine at Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, sample cheese at Cowgirl Creamery, tuck into a taco at Mijita, enjoy tea service and light Chinese fare at Imperial Tea Court, grab a luscious burger at Gott's and graze chocolate shops, ice cream stands or bakery Miette for dessert. There's also a dazzling farmers market there Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. In general, shops are open weekdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. -- but many restaurants and some shops have longer hours.
Locals recommend Yank Sing (101 Spear Street), which gives you the opportunity to try Chinese dim sum (small plates of dumplings and other delicacies, wheeled around on carts) in a pleasant environment, not far from the bay. Don't miss the soup dumplings (little bundles of rich broth and minced pork), even if you have to ask for them. Explore the old post office that houses the restaurant to find displays of artifacts uncovered during the building's renovation, many from sailing ships abandoned during the Gold Rush. Feeling a bit adventurous? Head for the Mission District, a culinary hotbed. Stand in line for a taco at authentic La Taqueria (2889 Mission Street), or try the more upscale Tacolicious (741 Valencia Street). Taste New Korean food at trendy Namu Gaji (499 Dolores Street). Then, swing by Tartine Bakery (600 Guerrero Street), Bi-Rite Creamery (3692 18th Street), Dandelion Chocolates (740 Valencia Street) and Craftsman and Wolves (746 Valencia Street) for sweet treats. Or, for a really wild ending to your food adventure, check out some of the weirdest (but most awesome) ice cream flavors you'll ever taste at Humphry Slocombe (2790A Harrison Street).
For gourmet options, Boulevard (1 Mission Street), located in one of the downtown area's oldest buildings (a rare survivor of the 1906 quake), has been serving innovative California fare for years in a stunning environment. Be sure to book ahead, and ask for a table with a view of the Bay Bridge. Sister restaurants Epic Roasthouse (369 The Embarcadero) and Waterbar (399 The Embarcadero), satisfy carnivores and fresh-seafood fans, respectively. Both are located south of the terminal along the Embarcadero. Though pricy, they offer well-prepared fare, amazing views of the Bay Bridge and they're a good choice for happy hour, too.
If you're in town for dinner, Delfina (3621 18th Street) offers unfussy Italian (but not the red-checked tablecloth variety) in the trendy, edgy Mission District. You might even spot a celeb or two dining there. If on the menu, the Chianti-braised short ribs with polenta are divine. Want something lighter? Visit their pizzeria next door. Gary Danko (800 North Point Street) is consistently rated one of San Francisco's top restaurants, for spectacular California cuisine along with excellent service in a lovely setting. Chef Danko personally shops the farmers markets for the fresh ingredients that inspire him. Benu (22 Hawthorne Street), a Michelin 3-star restaurant, serves refined, innovative Asian-influenced California cuisine from chef-owner Corey Lee, who cooked for many years at the famed The French Laundry in Napa.
Sourdough bread and Ghirardelli chocolate make great, inexpensive gifts.