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San Francisco

victorian ladies san francisco architecture california You can't visit here and not spend time at Fisherman's Wharf; check out all the crab stands near Jefferson Street. Look out across the Bay and you'll see Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge -- look down and you might see a few sea lions trying to get a tan. Younger kids will love the hand-painted, two-tiered Venetian carousel topped in almost 2,000 twinkling lights at Pier 39. Nearby is the Aquarium of the Bay, where the highlight is a brand-new habitat for river otters.

Ghirardelli Square started out as a factory in 1864, making Civil War uniforms -- but it's famous for being the chocolate and spice factory from the 1890's until the mid-1960's. Look for the original 1860 cast-iron chocolate grinder from France on the lower level and make sure you stop at the old-fashioned soda fountain down there too. These days, the factory is in another part of town and this place, though on the National Historic Register, is a multi-level mall filled to the brim with shops and restaurants.

Heralded as one of the world's most beautiful bridges, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge attracts more than 10 million visitors each year. There's a toll to drive across the span of the bridge (southbound only). Pedestrians (including wheelchair users) and bicyclists may access the sidewalks during daylight hours. Or view it from afar on a ferry ride across the bay to...

Alcatraz (a.k.a. the Rock), run by the National Park Service, is where some of the most notorious felons were sent from 1934 until 1963; alums include Al Capone, "Machine Gun" Kelly and of course, Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz." The ferry departs from Pier 33 every half hour or so, starting around 9 a.m. There are some evening (read: spookier) tours, but check the schedule before you head out. Notes: There is a bit of an elevated walk from the ferry to the cell house, so wear comfortable shoes. If you think it might be a difficult trek for you, consider taking S.E.A.T. -- an electric shuttle that runs regularly between the dock and the cell house. Bring a heavy sweater or a windbreaker because it gets chilly out there.

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All at once trendy, nostalgic, funky and touristy: That's the legendary intersection of Haight-Ashbury. Made famous by the psychedelic 60's, it's a bit more gentrified these days with swank shops and hip restaurants. You'll still spot a few aging hippies here and there along Haight Street -- and a lot of strangely colored hair atop club kids' heads. If you want to see where the Grateful Dead lived in the mid-60's, head for 710 Ashbury Street. (Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin once lived in the area as well.)

Where prices are subject to discussion, Chinatown is beyond the great big red and green gate on Grant Avenue. Inside you'll find a 24-block maze of restaurants and shops, an ornate temple, and cheap dim sum joints galore.

Photo ops abound not far from North Beach at Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill. Built as a memorial to the city's volunteer firemen, it was finished in 1933. The Diego Rivera-inspired murals at its base are wonderful to see -- all done by 25 artists under the WPA during the New Deal. For panoramic views of the city and the bay, take the elevator to the top of the tower.

Visit the California Message Board

The Exploratorium, now in a new location at Pier 15, has a wealth of fascinating exhibits for kids and adults alike -- including the Tactile Dome, where kids must navigate a series of environments and obstacles in total darkness, figuring out the course by touch. You can also look into a giant mirror that turns the world upside down, explore a monochromatic room or listen to the sounds of a 27-foot-high harp that sings in the wind.

It may not be Manhattan's Central Park, but Golden Gate Park sure comes close -- at 1,017 acres, it is one of the largest inner-city parks on the planet. Here you can rent bikes (try Golden Gate Park Bike & Skate on Fulton St.), go horseback riding or simply gaze out on the Pacific. A must-see site in the park is the Japanese Tea Garden, a beautiful collection of waterfalls, bonsai trees and Japanese-style architecture.

san francisco cable car powell street Union Square is considered the center of the city; many hotels, department stores, restaurants and tony boutiques frame the small park (mostly along Post, Stockton, Geary, Powell and Sutter Streets). The Theater District is just three blocks away. There are also a handful of decent art galleries in the area -- in particular, the Xanadu Gallery on Maiden Lane that is inside a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Around the perimeter of the park, you'll find the sidewalks dotted with colorful flower stalls and jewelry vendors.

For people-watchers, the best coffeehouses are found in the Italian enclave of North Beach (where baseball great Joe DiMaggio grew up). Don't look for a beach -- there isn't one -- but there's plenty of history in this part of town. Grant Avenue is the city's oldest street, and legend has it that as fires swept through the city after the 1906 earthquake, locals cracked open barrels upon barrels of red wine and soaked blankets that were then draped over their houses. The Italian restaurants (with the obligatory red and white checked tablecloths) are matchless, and there's plenty of nightlife along Columbus and Grant Avenues.

For a view beyond all views, head to the top of Market Street to Twin Peaks. If you want to reach it without too much of a hike, find the Pemberton Stairs near Clayton Street. It won't get you all the way to the top, but the views are still awesome.

A visit to the GLBT Historical Society on Mission Street is an opportunity to visit world-class exhibits related to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender history and culture.

Home to a new LEED-certified visitor center, Land's End is a great spot to watch the sun set over the Pacific or to take a walk along the coast. You can also check out the ruins of the Sutro Baths, once an extensive complex for swimming and dining in the 19th century. These days you can still do lunch or dinner with a view at the Cliff House.

An excellent culture stop is the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. Inside you'll find one of the best collections of American art with more than 1,000 works from colonial times through the 21st century.

The massive new California Academy of Sciences is your one-stop shop for scientific exploration, housing a planetarium, aquarium, rain forest habitat, walk-through planet Earth and much more, all within an environmentally sustainable building. (The walls are insulated with recycled blue jeans!) It's located in Golden Gate Park near the de Young Museum.

Contemporary art lovers should spend time at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. You can't imagine the breadth of works here from artists such as Jackson Pollock, Paul Klee and Henri Matisse. And because the museum places tremendous focus on photography, you will have the opportunity to see work from Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Alfred Stieglitz. Editor's Note: The museum is closed for renovations until 2016, but its collections and exhibitions can be seen in various temporary locations around the Bay Area. See sfmoma.org for details.

Jay Gifford, a Victorian aficionado, offers a two-hour Victorian walking tour around the hills of Pacific Heights, pointing out architecture inside and outside some 200 restored Victorian homes while imparting some fairly good local gossip. For Hollywood fans, this tour gives you a chance to see the house used in "Mrs. Doubtfire" as well as the one featured on "Party of Five." For info, visit VictorianHomeWalk.com.

Located in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge is Fort Point, which was completed in 1861 to protect the city in case of an attack by sea. In addition to some fascinating military history, the fort also provides excellent photo ops of the city's most famous bridge.

Head out about 12 miles beyond the Golden Gate for a walk in Muir Woods (it may seem familiar since scenes from "Return of the Jedi" were filmed here). The ancient redwoods are jaw-droppingly gorgeous as you walk along trails marked for 30-, 60- and 90-minute hikes.

Take a 30-minute ferry ride (available year-round) to Sausalito, a seaside village on the bay. Visit the art galleries, shops and restaurants, or take a stroll through a park guarded by large concrete elephants -- erected for the 1915 San Francisco Panama Pacific International Exposition.

Even if you don't rent a car, California's wine country is accessible. Take an eight-hour luxury bus tour with the Blue & Gold Fleet through Sonoma and Napa that allows for wine-tasting stops, tours and time for lunch. Buses depart daily at 9:15 a.m. from Pier 41, Fisherman's Wharf.
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