The population of this eclectic, elegant city by the bay, built on the grounds of a small Spanish mission, exploded practically overnight during the California Gold Rush of 1848, making it into the West Coast's biggest city After a major earthquake in 1906, a new and bigger San Francisco quickly rose from the rubble, hosting a successful world's fair (the Panama-Pacific Exposition) less than a decade later. Today, the city is a hub of shipping, manufacturing, transportation and technology, as well as a major banking and finance center and a magnet for tourists from around the world. From the stately Victorian-era mansions to the bustling Fisherman's Wharf to one of the country's oldest and most vibrant Chinatowns, San Francisco's rich history is visible around every corner.
More to Explore
The most populous state in the U.S., California joined the union in 1850.
The U.S. penitentiary on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay housed some of America's most dangerous criminals from 1934 to 1963.
A guide to some historic destinations across America
Golden Gate Bridge
Perhaps the most iconic bridge in the country--if not the world--the crimson Golden Gate stretches from San Francisco to beautiful Marin Country across the eponymous strait linking the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco Bay. The bridge's construction in the 1930s triumphed over great odds, due to the proximity to the mighty San Andreas Fault, as well as the rapid tides of the waters it spanned. Dedicated in 1937, the 4,200-foot Golden Gate Bridge was at the time the longest suspension bridge in the world; that length is suspended from two cables hung from towers 746 feet high. Today, energetic visitors can walk or bike across the historic bridge, starting from the Presidio, or take a ferry from Fisherman's Wharf to the Marin towns of Sausalito or Tiburon, taking in stunning views of the bridge from below.
Known as "The Rock," this 22-acre island in San Francisco Bay, 1.5 miles offshore, was the site of the first lighthouse on the West Coast in 1854. It later served as a military outpost and military prison, before famously serving as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Surrounded by cold, shark-infested waters, the island was considered ideal for detaining prisoners--of the supposed 14 escape attempts made over 29 years, none succeeded. Among its most infamous inmates were Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Robert Stroud (known as "The Birdman of Alcatraz" for his self-taught contributions to the study of ornithology). Today, many of the island's structures are deteriorating--others were destroyed in a fire in 1970--but The Rock is still a popular tourist attraction. Ferries leave from Fisherman's Wharf.
Palace of Fine Arts
In 1915, as World War I raged in Europe, San Francisco celebrated its emergence from the devastation of the great 1906 earthquake (as well as the completion of the Panama Canal) by hosting a highly successful world's fair, the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915. The Palace of Fine Arts, located near the waterfront in the Marina District, was built for this event. Designed by Bernard Maybeck, its Neoclassical form resembles a Grecian temple; the façade, originally made of plaster, was completely replaced after the efforts of philanthropist Walter S. Johnson and a group of interested citizens saved the building from demolition in the 1950s. Today, the building houses a theater as well as the Exploratorium, a science museum. The surrounding park features a lagoon where swans float serenely by, as well as benches perfect for picnicking.
Alamo Square Historic District
San Francisco boasts a collection of some 14,000 Victorian houses, most of which date from the late 19th century and are private residences. The Alamo Square Historic District in Hayes Valley, bordered by Divisadero Street on the west, Golden Gate Avenue on the north, Webster Street on the east and Fell Street on the south, is home to some of the city's most beautifully restored Victorians, known as the Painted Ladies. The best views of these colorful homes--standing in dramatic contrast to the Financial District skyscrapers behind them--can be seen from Alamo Square, located at Fulton and Steiner Streets, and have been frequently featured on postcards, posters and in TV and film shots.
After witnessing a rainy-day accident involving a horse-drawn carriage on one of San Francisco's hills, British-born Andrew Hallidie invented the cable car, introduced on Sacramento and Clay Streets in 1873. Cable cars were drawn along an underground cable that ran in a slot between two rails; the driver of each car used a vise-like mechanism to grip the cable, and the entire system was powered by steam. Ideal for operation on the steep streets of San Francisco, the cable-car system later spread to Seattle, Chicago and other cities. Though the cable cars ran more smoothly than even early electric streetcars, the drawback was that they could run only at constant speed, so that jamming of the cable would tie up cars along the entire line. Around 1900, electric cars were replacing cable-run systems and the Great Earthquake of 1906 damaged much of San Francisco's cable-car system, allowing the conversion to streetcars. However, a portion continued to run, and the system was rebuilt and restored in the early 1980s. Today, many tourists and a few locals continue to ride the cable cars, enjoying some of the best possible views of the city skyline and the Bay. A particularly scenic route is the packed Powell Street line, beginning at Powell and Market and proceeding up some of the city's steepest hills. For a less crowded ride, try the California line, which starts in the Financial District and travels down California through Chinatown and past scenic Huntington Park.
Nob Hill's reputation as one of San Francisco's most iconic neighborhoods dates back to the post-Gold Rush years, when railroad barons like Leland Stanford settled in an area of the city made newly accessible by the cable car system. Most of their great mansions are long gone, as the neighborhood was largely destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and the great fires that followed it. Luxury hotels and apartment buildings now stand in their places, but the area still has historic appeal, including such noteworthy landmarks as Grace Cathedral Episcopal Church, Huntington Park, the Cable Car Museum and the Fairmont Hotel (home to the famously retro Tonga Room, an homage to the Tiki bar heyday of the 1940s and '50s that some argue should be made a landmark in itself).
Off the Beaten Path
As the name implies, this structure (located on Gough Street near Union Street in the Noe Hill neighborhood) is an eight-sided house, designed and constructed in 1861 according to a mid-19th-century theory that living inside an octagon-shaped space would promote health and lead to a longer life. Out of five octagonal houses built in San Francisco, this is one of only two to survive (the other, on Green Street, remains a private residence); it is maintained by the National Society of Colonial Dames of America. It's worth a visit to view the house from the outside, but visitors can also check out a small museum (admission is free) including furniture, portraits, silver, pewter, looking glasses, ceramics and other artifacts from America's colonial past as well as the post-Revolutionary War years.
Dashiell Hammett's Apartment
Fans of classic hard-boiled detective novels or movies will appreciate the significance of this San Francisco address. Dashiell Hammett lived at 891 Post Street, in Apartment 401, from 1926 to 1929, while writing his most famous work, "The Maltese Falcon." Hammett also used the same apartment in the book, as the model for the residence of iconic detective Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 movie directed by John Huston). The building, marked with a plaque, has been dedicated as a "Literary Landmark" by the Friends of Libraries U.S.A. Hardcore Hammett fans can explore more of the author's (and Sam Spade's) San Francisco by taking a long-running walking tour that leaves from the steps of the public library's main branch, at 100 Larkin Street.
Famous/Infamous San Francisco Residents
William Randolph Hearst
In 1887, Hearst, the n'eer-do-well son of the gold-mine owner and U.S. senator from California George Hearst, took over The San Francisco Examiner, a struggling newspaper his father had bought for political reasons. After revamping the paper and turning a profit within two years, the young Hearst bought The New York Morning Journal and performed a similar feat, guiding the paper to unprecedented circulation rates on the strength of lurid headlines, jingoism and sensationalist coverage--all for a bargain price. The paper's success sparked the rabid circulation wars of the 1890s, which infamously led to widespread use of the term "yellow journalism." Hearst later served in the U.S. House of Representatives and ran unsuccessfully for both governor of New York and mayor of New York City. In the 1920s, he built a sprawling castle at San Simeon, on a 240,000-acre ranch in the California hills. At its peak, Hearst's media empire encompassed 28 major newspapers and 18 magazines. His fortunes declined after the Great Depression, and by 1940 Hearst had lost personal control over his communications empire. Like his Hollywood counterpart in Orson Welles' classic movie "Citizen Kane" (1941), Hearst lived the last years of his life virtually secluded at San Simeon.
Born in 1876 in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, London quit school at the age of 14 and made money sailing San Francisco Bay in his sloop, either stealing oysters or working for the government patrolling for fish poachers. He later sailed the Pacific and spent time as a hobo riding trains around the country, all before he was 19 years old. After a winter seeking gold in the Yukon, London decided to make his living as a writer, publishing stories in the Overland Monthly starting in 1899. With the success of works like "The Call of the Wild" (1903), "White Fang" (1906), "Martin Eden" (1909) and "The Sea Wolf" (1910), London won enduring literary fame in America and throughout the world. After adventures in Alaska, the South Pacific and elsewhere, he settled on a ranch in Glen Ellen, California, where he died in 1916.
Duncan, known as the mother of modern dance, scored her greatest professional triumphs in Europe and Russia, but her roots lay in San Francisco, where she was born in 1877. After her parents divorced, Duncan and her three siblings lived with their mother, a music teacher, in relative poverty in Oakland. All four children gained exposure to the arts, however, and Isadora and her sister Elizabeth gave dancing lessons in their home; they later started a dancing school. Duncan's early performances in the United States failed to attract much notice, and at the age of 21 she sailed for England, where she would launch her momentous career, as well as her tumultuous love life. In 1927, Duncan died an infamously tragic death in France, when her long scarf became entangled in the rear wheel of the car in which she was riding, and she was strangled.
Other Famous and Infamous Residents: Joe DiMaggio, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Lee, Harvey Milk, O.J. Simpson, Danielle Steel
San Francisco Fun Facts
The original name of San Francisco was Yerba Buena, or "good herb" in Spanish, for the wild mint that grew in abundance nearby. Taken over by the United States during the Mexican War, Yerba Buena was renamed San Francisco in 1847 and incorporated as a city three years later.
After gold was discovered in California in 1848, the population of San Francisco exploded, reaching some 25,000 by the end of 1849 (compared to around 500 in 1847). This rapid expansion sparked a chaotic, lawless period that ended when a Committee of Vigilance reestablished order in the late 1850s.
San Francisco has laid a claim to be the birthplace of the fortune cookie. Makoto Hagiwara, a Japanese immigrant who oversaw the Japanese Tea Garden built in Golden Gate Park in the 1890s, created cookies filled with thank-you notes and served them to the garden's visitors; he displayed his invention at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition.
Though tourists flock to Lombard Street, which has the reputation of being the city's curviest, it has competition for that title: some say Vermont Avenue, near 20th Street, is the "crookedest" street in San Francisco.
The federal prison on Alcatraz Island was shut down on March 21, 1963, at the order of then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
In January 1998, Fannie Mae Barnes became the first female grip operator of a cable car, after building the considerable upper body strength necessary to operate the car's grip and brakes.
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