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San Francisco full of contrasts, charm

| Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2004

San Francisco is an unlikely vacation spot, in my opinion. Not as warm as Los Angeles, it also lacks the cachet, fashionable coastlines and morbidly appealing plasticity of its downstate counterpart. San Francisco is the kind of major city, like Cleveland, that we know exists but never make a priority to visit.

However, upon arrival, San Francisco appears to be a practically ideal destination to those of us from near the East Coast. It seems like the weather is always a pleasant 72 degrees and the people are all affluent, tolerant and laid-back. A major, yet unpretentious, metropolis is only a few miles from exquisite beaches and quaint coastal towns.

The city and the surrounding Bay Area are also places of contrasts -- the weather can change from cold and cloudy to warm and sunny within a single city block, and the scenery is dazzling only if the fog doesn't get in the way. It's a city that seems completely flat until your cab driver suddenly turns and takes you up a 45-degree incline. (When seeing the hills, it's almost as if it's what Pittsburgh would look like if it didn't snow.)

You don't realize how much there is to do in the Bay Area until you arrive. To help narrow down the choices, here's a list of 10 must-sees, followed by a few places you should avoid.

What to see

1. Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz alone makes San Francisco worth the trip. Home to some of the most famous criminals in history, including Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert Stroud, known as "the Birdman of Alcatraz," the former penitentiary offers plenty of legend and history. Audio tours and Ranger tours are offered, and the boat ride and the island offer spectacular views of the Bay. Overall, Alcatraz is impossible to describe; you should experience it for yourself. (Hint: Watch the Nicholas Cage/Sean Connery masterpiece "The Rock" or the older "Escape from Alcatraz" before you go. The movies make it that much cooler.)

2. Sausalito

A quick drive from downtown, crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge, will take you into the heart of Sausalito, a slice of Southern Europe in Northern California. Filled with art boutiques, shops, restaurants and tiny homes that cost five times what they'd be worth elsewhere, Sausalito and surrounding Marin County will make you feel like you're in a different country -- which probably explains the heavily European population. Stunning views of the Bay complement an idyllic town. (I don't recommend going to Paggio, a recently opened Italian restaurant. It's a gourmet restaurant in that it has high prices and small servings, but that's about all it offers.)

3. Union Square

If you like to shop, make sure your hotel is near Union Square. Originally named for large pro-Union rallies that occurred during the Civil War, Union Square is now home to a two-city-block Macy's, one of the world's largest Nordstrom stores and a Virgin Megastore, along with hundreds of other stores and restaurants spanning from the normal Gaps and Abercrombies to an Apple Store and an fcuk.

4. Fisherman's Wharf

While definitely the most touristy area of the city, it's still worth seeing. Cruises of the Bay Area and ferries across the Bay and to Alcatraz Island leave from here. There are the requisite souvenir shops, but there are also sights such as Ghirardelli Square, former location of the chocolate company of the same name and home to boutiques, restaurants, and a few chocolate stores. (Hint: The chocolate store near the entrance also gives free samples, but they don't always remember to offer them. Stare down the person manning the sample booth -- on the right as you enter -- to make sure you get some.)

5. Highway 1

Highway 1 is known as the most beautiful highway in the country. Most of the highway borders the ocean, which fills the horizon. Close observers may be lucky enough to catch a whale sighting or two, and there are numerous small beaches along the drive. You can take Highway 1 on a day trip to the towns of Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel, or even all the way to Los Angeles. This is the California they show in the movies.

6. Japanese Tea Garden

If all the traveling has worn you out and you're looking for something relaxing, this is a perfect place to unwind. Located in Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea Garden has a serene beauty that is typical of botanic gardens, but takes it a step further with the Japanese twist. The Garden contains two Japanese pagodas and a large Buddhist statue, as well as rare Japanese plants and many beautiful lanterns. There is also an overpriced teahouse -- the only thing that has anything to do with tea. (The jasmine tea is good.) Conclusion: A good place to sit back for an hour or two, sip some tea and read a book.

7. Palo Alto

Palo Alto is home to Stanford University, one of the most picturesque college campuses in the country. But Palo Alto is much more than a simple college town. Dozens of good restaurants fill the city, and there are many beautiful homes. A Californian Shadyside. (Tip: Not to be confused with East Palo Alto, which is a different town altogether and not as good of a neighborhood.)

8. Santa Cruz

The closest true beach town to San Francisco, Santa Cruz features a vibrant downtown area with shops and restaurants, as well as a boardwalk and small amusement park (similar to Myrtle Beach). The water is warmer than in San Francisco, the beaches are sandier, and the overall atmosphere is more relaxed. The University of California has a sprawling campus here, which is worth a visit, if you can figure out where it is.

9. Wine Country

California's wine country, north of San Francisco, is a beauty to look at and experience -- if you're at least 21 years old and a wine connoisseur (or enjoy drinking). Bus tours of the Napa Valley are available, so you can drink all you want and not worry about driving back to your hotel. Most wineries offer wine tastings and samples to visitors.

10. Coit Tower/Twin Peaks

These two points are actually on opposite ends of downtown, but both are worth visiting for the breathtaking views. Coit Tower is one of the highest points in San Francisco and offers panoramic views of the Bay Area. Twin Peaks is interesting in that you can actually see mist descending on the city from an arm's length away.

What to skip

Now, five things to avoid while in San Francisco:

1. San Jose

One of the most boring downtowns you will ever see. There is absolutely nothing to do here. Don't go unless you have to.

2. Silicon Valley

Cubicle-ville. While the name "Silicon Valley" is known throughout the world, you have to remember that it really is just a bunch of corporate offices in a consolidated area. It may be worth visiting if you're into tech stocks and want to look at some of the companies you've invested in, but otherwise it's quite bland. (Hint: Many of the more important offices such as Oracle, Sun, etc. can be seen on a drive down Highway 101 on the way to somewhere else.)

3. Any beach within city limits

The water is freezing! San Francisco's weather is beautiful, but it lacks the strong sun that makes the beaches of Miami and Los Angeles so enjoyable. Add to this water that doesn't benefit from warm currents, unpleasantly rocky beaches and overcrowding, and you have a bad situation. On top of this, there are strong winds, overly large waves, the occasional riptide and a (relatively) high number of shark attacks. Go to Santa Cruz instead. It's not too far.

4. The Tenderloin

As mentioned before, San Francisco is a city of sharp contrasts. Located not a few blocks from the heart of downtown is one of the seediest areas of the city. There are many fine restaurants and hotels in the neighborhood, but it's best to avoid the area after dark.

5. Trolley

The trolley cars are San Francisco's Duquesne Incline. While they are, in a sense, the city's trademark, they're also fairly pointless and very touristy. But still, going to San Francisco and not riding the trolley is like going to Venice and not taking a gondola ride. (Recommendation: Take a trolley once, at night, from Union Square to the Wharf -- or vice-versa -- for the experience and the view.)

And a final tip: When telling your cab driver at the airport where you're from, make sure he doesn't accidentally take you to the distant suburb of Pittsburg. Very confusing, and potentially very expensive!

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