San Francisco is a city where you will never get bored. Golden Gate Park, for example, has attractions for everyone. Originally nothing more than an expanse of sand dune, the park is now over a thousand acres of grass, trees, shrubbery and athletic facilities. It even has its own bison, yacht lake, nine hole golf course and a few museums.
And whatever else you see in San Francisco, be sure to check out the Academy of Sciences, located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Originally founded in 1853 as the first science institution in the west, the Academy moved to the park after the 1906 earthquake damaged its original location downtown.
The building, which was designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect Renzo Piano, has the aim of showing how humans can live and work in environmentally-responsible ways.
And it does from the minute you walk in by having you enter into a large piazza and face an awesome interior four stories high.
Here you’ll find the Rainforests of the World exhibit with 40 types of birds on display, along with a variety of plants and trees. Note that the visitor gets a sense of both transparency and connectedness between the building and the outside park through the use of clear glass. You feel that you’re actually outside IN the park, rather than inside a confined building. All this gives the institution an open, airy feeling.
Enjoy the Amazonian Flooded Rain Forest and see the piranhas on display. You’ll be glad there’s a lot of tunnel between you and them!
On the lower floor there’s the Water Planet with over 100 tanks to view. There’s even an albino alligator on display. But don’t worry — he’s not too interested in the humans watching him, he’s much more interested in staying snug on his heated rock.
Beautiful in its setting is the Coral Reef with 212,000 gallons of water and over 2,000 fish. This is the world’s second biggest (and world’s deepest) coral reef exhibit after the one in Townsville, Australia.
Huge is the coral reef exhibit and huge too is Buccalo, a giant sea bass who’s been with the academy since 1980. Kids of all ages just love him.
Be sure to see the “Living Roof” with its native strawberries, stonecrop and California poppies. These plants will all reduce storm water runoff by up to 3.6 million gallons of water per year and will even attract the endangered bay checkerspot butterfly. The award-winning San Francisco Academy certainly deserves its title as Leader of Scientific Research On The Natural World. Don’t miss it!
Crowds are big, so go in the off-peak times for a chance to view everything. Hours are Mon to Sat 9.30 to 5pm and Sunday 11 to 5. Admission for adults is $24.95.
Across from the Academy is the de Young Museum, San Francisco’s oldest museum. It has actually been an integral part of the city’s cultural fabric since 1985. The collections include: American paintings; international contemporary art; decorative arts and crafts from the 17th-21st century; arts from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; and western and non-western textiles.
Another great museum is the Legion of Honor. Built to commemorate California’s soldiers who died in World War I, the Legion of Honor is a beautiful neoclassical building located in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Gold Gate Bridge and all of San Francisco, the Legion is noted for its breathtaking setting. Its collections include European decorative arts and painting, ancient art and one of the country’s largest and finest collections of works on paper that includes prints, drawings, photographs and books. Don’t miss these two excellent museums!
One of the best ways to get a feel for everything that is available in the city is to take a bus tour. The most popular is the Gray Line who give a narrated history of the city with plenty of stops for photographs. Some of the sights you’ll see include the Transamerica Pyramid, completed in 1972 amidst great controversy. These days the only debate seems to be whether the man in the top office has a pointed head or not!
The tour passes along Dolores Street and stops at Mission Dolores, the oldest structure in the city dating back to 1791. It was built by the first settlers who ensured it would be around a long time with its four feet thick wall. In 1987, the Pope visited San Francisco and celebrated mass at the Basilica, next to the mission. While you’re here, it’s worth spending time in the museum.
You’ll probably notice several small reservoirs throughout the city. These are to safeguard against running out of water in the event of another earthquake. In 1906 water was in short supply and dynamite had to be used to blow up buildings in order to create a firebreak and prevent the fire spreading.
Most visitors will want to see Fisherman’s Wharf with its dozens of seafood restaurants and colorful boats. But don’t miss the nearby Pier 39 which is a highly regarded attraction in its own right. The pier is the second most visited in California and the third most visited attraction in America. Many of the scores of boats that are docked here sit here all year round though they are actually only used in January and February when the herring are caught. One day’s catch alone can be worth up to $20,000 and so valuable is this that boat captains will pay for a year’s worth of rent just to use the berths for two months.
From Pier 39 you can take a worthwhile bay cruise (Blue and Gold Line offers several during the day, it’s also the only one that takes you under both of the bay’s famous bridges) with narrated history that lasts over an hour. The boat takes you past Fort Mason now no longer a military fort but used instead for public evening classes and home to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. You’ll see the USS Pampanito docked on the quay, a retired submarine which sank six enemy ships during World War II. And of course you’ll get a chance to see the infamous Golden Gate Bridge up close.
Golden Gate Bridge has been named the most recognizable and most beautiful American landmark (although it is not the best selling postcard–an award that goes to Lombard Street, “the most crooked street in the world”)
This is the bridge they said could not be built. Yet with a length of a mile and three quarters and a depth of 100 feet buried in bedrock, the bridge clearly proves the naysayers wrong. Its classic international orange paint is the best for protecting the bridge against the wind and elements. The name itself comes not from the color of the paint, but from the Golden Gate straits which separate the city of San Francisco from Marin County.
The wind in the bay has been known to cause the bridge to sway up to 21 feet at a time while other elements the bridge must contend with, include the famous San Francisco fog which descends on the city twice a day during the summer months. But the fog only adds an air of mystery to the bridge and the city that stands to attention behind it. And it was in fact because of this fog that early explorers originally missed the entrance to the bay.
Other sights you’ll see on the tour include Coit Tower, built as a monument to the San Francisco firemen from funds donated by Lillian Hitchcock Coit. The top of the monument is shaped like the nozzle of a fireman’s hose
Across the bay you can see Sausilito, once a whaling town with its colorful Mediterranean style houses. Angel Island is the largest and most beautiful island in the area, inhabited 3,000 years ago by Indians and in more recent times used by the military as a quarantine area–a sort of “Ellis Island of the West”. Further on you’ll see the Bay bridge which connects San Francisco to Oakland. This bridge contains more concrete than the entire Empire State Building.
And no trip to San Francisco would be complete without seeing the island of Alcatraz, so named after the pelicans that were originally discovered there (Portuguese for pelican = alcatraces). This is San Francisco’s top tourist attraction and deservedly so. Originally an army fortress, Alcatraz became a maximum security prison in 1934 housing such famous inmates as Al Capone, Robert Stroud—the birdman of Alcatraz and Machine Gun Kelly. It was also occupied by American Indians who took over the fort in the 1970s for 19 months to campaign for American Indian rights. Escape attempts were not unusual with the most unbelievable being four men who forged the commander’s signature authorizing their own release.
The most famous escape however was by two brothers and a third prisoner who used spoons to escape out the ventilator shafts. They used dummies in their beds (with real hair from the barber’s shop) and fashioned life-vests from makeshift materials. Their bodies were never found though it’s believed they perished in the treacherous undercurrents in the bay.
A video is available showing a 12 minute history of the island and a one hour self-guided audio tour is available (and highly recommended). Prisoners and guards alike describe life on “the rock”. All prisoners were offered food, shelter, clothing and medical care while everything else was a privilege which had to be earned. Those who caused trouble could find themselves in “the hole” the nickname for solitary confinement. One prisoner passed his time here throwing a button into the air, hunting for it in the darkness and once finding it, throwing it away again.
“D” block was the isolation block and although the cells were larger than elsewhere in the prison, they were cold and damp. Robert Stroud spent six years here before being moved to the hospital area for another 11 years. Here he was confined to his cell 24 hours a day.
Prisoners who held jobs would spend 18 hours in their cells while those without would spend 23 hours there (xcept those in solitary confinement where it was 24 hours). Visitors can wander into the dining room where the food was rated highly.
Once you see it, you’ll realize why San Francisco too is highly rated. Visitors end up developing a lasting crush on this city by the bay.