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San Francisco

It's no wonder Tony Bennett left his heart here. San Francisco is a compact city of world-class culture, historical landmarks, award-winning dining, outdoor adventures and nightlife -- all wrapped up in a sparkling bay flanked by the famous Golden Gate Bridge, visible from hilly streets' whizzing cable cars. 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 -- and the area known as Fisherman's Wharf, on the San Francisco Bay, was once the center of Northern California's commercial 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, and an old saloon established in 1861 still stands in the city's North Beach neighborhood with cracked barstools and a dusty wooden floor. (It is 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; up-and-coming Deco Ghetto; swank Pacific Heights; and fabulously gay Castro, home to many of the city's GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) businesses and households. But with rainbow flags lining nearly every street, the culture has spread citywide: San Francisco is actually the self-proclaimed gay and lesbian capital of the world.

The treats of San Francisco are worth indulging for several days: 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.

--written by Lauren Price

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