San Francisco: A Crossroads of Culture

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Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from Marin Highlands
The iconic Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from the Marin Highlands, across the mouth of the bay from San Francisco (Photos by Jeff Orenstein)

San Francisco’s storied place in American song and culture is well deserved.

This gem of a city overlooking picturesque San Francisco Bay is built on seven hills. It is a must-visit place for smart travelers for its beauty alone. Add in a really great restaurant scene, a fascinating mix of cultures and neighborhoods, museums, unique architecture and proximity to too many regional attractions to visit in a single trip and you have a real gem of a place to visit.

Famous for its cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz, the marketplace at the Ferry Terminal, Coit Tower, Financial District, “painted lady” Victorian houses and many other scenes often portrayed in movies and TV, this bustling city is a crossroads of culture and a busy center of maritime commerce.

While San Francisco is on the pricey side if you choose to limit yourself to world-famous hotels and eateries and shop only at Union Square boutiques, the city also boasts a staggering array of excellent lodging, entertainment, shopping and restaurants that are reasonably affordable.

Buying a San Francisco Municipal Public Transportation Passport gives you affordable and convenient access to cable cars, buses, streetcars and the Metro. Similarly, a San Francisco City Pass (citypass.com) gives you transportation access plus museums and a bay cruise.

Located on picturesque San Francisco Bay, this eclectic city is also a great place to base yourself for day trips to explore the many attractions that surround this city by the bay. They range from distinguished centers of leaning like the University of California-Berkeley and Stanford University to the high-tech palaces of Silicon Valley, the majestic redwoods at Muir Woods and, of course, the nearby California wine country.

Victorian houses
The city is filled with attractive — and pricey — Victorian houses often referred to as painted ladies.

Getting There:

San Francisco is a West Coast crossroads that can be easily reached by highway, air, cruise ship or train.

  • By air, the nearest airport is San Francisco International (SFO) 15 miles away. Oakland International (OAK) is 20 miles away from the Financial District.
  • By train, Amtrak has a station in Oakland at Jack London Square. It is connected by Amtrak bus and other public transportation. From Oakland, there is frequent service to the entire West Coast and beyond.
  • By car, San Francisco is on interstates 280 and 580 and California 101.
  • Cruise ships sail from San Francisco’s cruise terminal, 1.5 miles distant.

Must-sees for a Short Stay:

  • Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 (touristy but a must-see for first-timers). Check out the sea lions.
  • A hop-on-hop-off bus tour of the city (bring a sweater)
  • A sightseeing boat trip around the bay, weather permitting
  • Exploring Chinatown, preferably on foot
  • Visiting Lombard Street, preferably via the Powell-Hyde Cable Car line that starts at Fisherman’s Wharf

If You Have Several Days:

  • Walk, shop and eat in some of the city’s more interesting neighborhoods, including Castro, Haight-Ashbury and Chinatown.
  • A day-trip to vibrant and trendy Oakland. Be sure to catch Jack London Square and Lake Merritt.
  • A drive through Golden Gate Park
  • Amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge from Land’s End
  • An excursion north, over the Golden Gate Bridge. Stop in Sausalito, then continue on to the Muir Woods (towering redwoods) and then into wine country in Napa and/or Sonoma counties. A full agenda will be best served by at least an overnight stay in wine country.

Ginny O’s Tips for Dressing the Simply Smart Travel Way for San Francisco:

The entire Bay Area is trendy and style-conscious. Resort casual dress is fine for most things in San Francisco, except for the most upscale restaurants and arts events.

This Destination at a Glance:

Over 50 Advantage: A worldly city with great shopping, restaurants and excellent cultural and sports attractions

Mobility Level: Moderate because of the steep hills

Simply Smart Travel Tip: Don’t drive in the city if you can avoid it. Parking is scarce and expensive. The public transit system is good. BART goes throughout the region and the ferries across the bay provide great views.

When to Go: Summers are cool and often foggy. Fall is usually good and spring is a close second.

Where to Stay: The entire Bay Area is filled with abundant hotel choices at all ends of the price scale.

Special Travel Interests: Gorgeous views, eclectic culture, iconic buildings

The Ferry Building and Marketplace
The Ferry Building and Marketplace is a San Francisco landmark as well as a busy water commuter terminal. The Oakland Bay Bridge can be seen in the background.

Jewish San Francisco

The San Francisco and surrounding Bay Area Jewish community is extensive, eclectic and lively. While only 17% of Bay Area Jews live in San Francisco proper, there are flourishing Jewish communities in nearby Oakland and throughout the region, with an unusually large spectrum of Jewish congregations, culture and institutions.

Jews settled in the region in the 19th century, and many were drawn there to take advantage of the commercial opportunities of the California Gold Rush era. The Jewish community dates to the Day of Atonement 1849, when two services were conducted, one by Poles and Englishmen who founded Congregation Sherith Israel in 1850, and the other by Germans who founded Congregation Emanu-El, also in 1850.

Because the city’s economic, political and cultural infrastructure was just developing in the time right after the gold rush, the American and European Jews who flocked there seized the opportunity to become a significant part of the city’s economic and political life and “power structure.” Among the famous Jewish pioneers in the Bay Area are clothier Levi Strauss and 19th century San Francisco Mayor Adolph Sutro. Today, Jews occupy many high political and cultural positions in the area’s civic and cultural life.

The region, home to the fourth-largest Jewish community in North America, boasts literally scores of Jewish congregations and organizations. Houses of worship representing virtually every stripe of Judaism can be found within the Bay Area.

Kosher food, Jewish education and Jewish cultural institutions are readily available. J. The Jewish News of Northern California publishes an extensive Jewish Resource Guide that will orient Jewish visitors to what’s available in the area. It is online at jweekly.com/ jewishresourceguide.

 

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