The downtown area is small but highly variegated, including some of the city’s oldest and newest landmarks, as well as some of its most exotic and eccentric neighborhoods. Colorful Chinatown, exuberant North Beach, posh Nob and Russian Hills, run-down Polk Street, the bustling Financial District, the graceful Ferry Building, and the noble architecture and cultural venues of the Civic Center – all these and more are packed into San Francisco’s heart. This is where you can ride the legendary cable cars on their most scenic routes, and don’t forget to climb up Telegraph Hill, where Coit Tower stands as one of the city’s most loved landmarks, competing successfully with the Transamerica Pyramid not far away.

The Making of a City

The Bay lay undiscovered by Europeans until 1769, and for years was little more than a Spanish mission village called Yerba Buena, becoming Mexican in 1821. The first great boost came when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. Hundreds of thousands from all over the world came to try their luck in the Gold Rush. At the same time, the US took possession of the West Coast. The Transcontinental Railway helped to firmly establish the area’s financial base.

  1. Chinatown

    Since its beginnings in the 1850s, this densely populated neighborhood has held its own powerful cultural identity despite every threat and cajolery. To walk along its cluttered, clattering streets and alleys is to be transported to another continent and into another way of life – a “city” within the city .

  2. Grace Cathedral

    Inspired by French Gothic architecture yet constructed of reinforced concrete, these contradictory qualities have given rise to one of the city’s best-loved landmarks .

  3. North Beach

    This lively neighborhood is the city’s original “Little Italy” and is still noted for its great Italian restaurants and cafés, mostly lined up along and near Columbus Avenue. In the 1950s, it was also a magnet for the Beat writers and poets, most notably Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who brought to the area a Bohemian style which it still sports today. This is a great place for nightlife, from the tawdry bawdiness of Broadway strip joints to the simple pleasures of listening to a mezzo-soprano while you sip your cappuccino (see North Beach Views).

    Benjamin Franklin statue, North Beach
  4. Nob Hill

    With the advent of the cable car, San Francisco’s highest hill was quickly peopled with the elaborate mansions of local magnates – in particular, the “Big Four” who built the Transcontinental railway  – and the name has become synonymous with wealth and power. The 1906 earthquake, however, left only one “palace” standing, now the Pacific Union Club, which still proudly dominates the center of the summit. Today, instead of private manses, Nob Hill is home to the city’s fanciest hotels and apartment buildings, as well as Grace Cathedral.

    Nob Hill
  5. Russian Hill

    Another of San Francisco’s precipitous heights, one side of which is so steep you’ll find no street at all, only steps. The most famous feature of this hill is the charming Lombard Street switchback – “The World’s Crookedest Street,” – which attests to the hill’s notoriously unmanageable inclines . As with Nob Hill, with the cable car’s advent, Russian Hill was claimed by the wealthy, and it maintains a lofty position in San Francisco society to this day. It supposedly took its name from the burial place of Russian fur traders, who were among the first Europeans to ply their trade at this port in the early 1800s.

  6. Jackson Square

    Renovated in the 1950s, this neighborhood right next to the Transamerica Pyramid contains some of San Francisco’s oldest buildings. In the 19th century the area was notorious for its squalor, and was nicknamed the “Barbary Coast,” but brothels and drinking establishments have given way today to upscale offices and the city’s most lavish antiques shops. The blocks around Jackson Street and Hotaling Place feature many original brick, cast-iron, and granite façades.

    Jackson Square
  7. Civic Center

    The city’s administrative center is an excellent example of grand Beaux Arts taste and illustrates San Franciscans’ pride in their city. It is perhaps the most ambitious and elaborate city center complex in the US and it continues to undergo enhancements. Besides the imposing City Hall, with its vast rotunda, gold-leaf detailing, and formal gardens, the area also includes the War Memorial Opera House, the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, the Herbst Theater, the State Building, the New Main Library, and the monumental Old Main Library, re-inaugurated in its new incarnation as the Asian Art Museum.

    City Hall, Civic Center
  8. Union Square

    After 18 months of construction, this important square, which gets its name from the pro-Union rallies held here in the early 1860s, has a $25-million new look that includes performance spaces, grassy terraces, and improved parking. It is now the center for high-end shopping. Located with the edges of the Financial District on one side and the Theater District on the other, it is at its most picturesque along Powell Street, where the cable cars pass right in front of the historic St Francis Hotel. The column in the center commemorates Admiral Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War of 1898.

  9. Financial District

    Montgomery Street, now the heart of the Financial District, was once lined with small shops where miners came to weigh their gold dust. It marks roughly the old shoreline of shallow Yerba Buena Cove, which was filled in during the Gold Rush to create more land. Today it is lined with early 20th-century banking “temples” and modern fabrications of glass and steel. At the end of Market Street stands the newly renovated Ferry Building, which once handled 100,000 commuters a day before the city’s bridges were constructed, and is now a bustling meeting spot with cafés and artisan food shops. Its tower is inspired by the Moorish belfry of Seville Cathedral in Spain.

    Bank of California, Financial District

    First Interstate Center, Financial District
  10. Polk Street

    Historically, the southern part of this street, known as “Polk Gulch,” was the city’s first openly gay district, before the rise of the Castro in the 1970s. Since then it has grown shabbier, but it still attracts younger gays to its clubs, bars, and shops. However, this stretch is best avoided after dark. At the other end, down from Russian Hill, Polk Street is one of the city’s shopping and dining lures, with many fine choices to tempt a discerning clientele.

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