Arguably one of the greatest cities in the USA
, and certainly in California, this Pacific-coast marvel is also home to one of America's premier dark-tourism attractions: Alcatraz
. In addition there's the earthquake-prone natural history as well as the historic civil rights struggle especially of the LGBT
community, which also has had its dark elements.
Otherwise, San Francisco is one of the most popular cities in the States in terms of general (mainstream) tourism. Yet even one of its best-known landmarks, the Golden Gate Bridge
, has its very dark sides too …
More background info:
San Francisco was founded by the Spanish
in 1776 as a mission named after Francis of Assisi, became part of Mexico
in 1821 and then the USA
Shortly after the great Californian Gold Rush started which led to a massive boom in the city's population. San Francisco became the largest conurbation in California.
disaster struck and put San Francisco in the media worldwide: a massive earthquake
– and the subsequent fires that started from ruptured gas pipes that ignited – destroyed ca. 80% of the city, including almost the entire downtown area. Up to a quarter of a million people were made homeless, and an estimated 3000 died in the disaster, making it the worst natural disaster in modern US
The area is generally prone to earthquakes, due to the nearby San Andreas Fault
that extends roughly parallel to the Pacific
coast through much of California. This precarious geography made itself known again in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake
(with its epicentre near Santa Cruz) that caused major destruction also in San Francisco. A section of the San-Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge as well as parts of elevated highways on land collapsed. Some of the latter subsequently had to be demolished altogether (which in turn, looking on the bright side, opened up the Embarcadero area for redevelopment).
The city has seen a lot of shake-ups not only in that natural sense, but also culturally, especially counter-culturally. In the 1960s and 70s, San Francisco became one of the centres of the hippie movement, concentrated in particular in the Haight-Ashbury district, culminating in the 1967 “summer of love”.
Also from the 1970s, the gay rights movement
(now LGBT movement) emerged from its centre in the Castro District
. San Francisco became known as the “gay capital of the world
”. With about 15% of the overall population, this particular minority does indeed have a higher representation in San Francisco than in any other American city.
From the 1980s onwards homelessness became a massive problem. Still today, there are parts of the city where this is a shockingly visible side of San Francisco's character. Drugs also form part of the cocktail of problems in this respect. The vestiges of the “free spirit” attitudes of the hippie era may have contributed to large numbers of homeless people as well, in a way that obviously hadn't been anticipated in the golden days of the movement.
With the advent of the so-called dot-com boom in the late 1990s and its subsequent incarnations in the 2000s, the city's economy blossomed again, but it also brought with it a high degree of gentrification
, as affluent Silicon Valley employees moved into now fashionable former working-class districts, which only increased the pressure on the housing issues in San Francisco. Living costs overall are amongst the highest of any city in the USA
What there is to see: The main reason for a dark tourist to come to San Francisco is one of most high-profile dark attractions in the world: Alcatraz. But there is more – including some interesting coverage of the gay rights movement, and its at times tragic backlashes, in the Castro District, and the dark side of the famous Golden Gate Bridge, which also has a legacy as one of the world's top suicide hotspots. These three sites are therefore given their own separate chapters here:
Given what a hugely tragic and defining event the 1906 earthquake was in the history of San Francisco, it is perhaps surprising to find that this is hardly commodified at all. There is no dedicated museum about it, nor even a special section in any other museum, at least not in the city itself.
But I've heard of a place called The Bay Model, part of a US Army Corps of Engineers Museum over in Sausalito in Marin County, north of San Francisco itself. This is said to have something about the quake, but I did not have time to check it out when I was in the are in 2015.
Nor did I have a chance to head further north still, namely to Point Reyes National Seashore, where you can go on a so-called “Earthquake Trail”. It's a fairly short, easy loop that starts at Bear Valley Visitor Center and takes you to near the epicentre of the earthquake on the San Andreas Fault Line. You can see a fence ripped apart, bearing witness to the forces of nature here, and interpretive signs provide further information about the geology of the area.
The only indication of some tourist commodification
of the earthquake story that I encountered within the city limits of San Francisco were some items such as historic photos for sale in a souvenir shop at Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf (see below
). Otherwise there are allegedly a few scars and burn marks still visible on the few houses that survived the earthquake and the fires, such as the Fairmont Hotel, but I haven't seen these myself.
In the absence of any real museum, the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco at least provides a substantial section about the 1906 earthquake with plenty of photos and documents from the time (sfmuseum.org).
For those interested in WWII
history, there two more attractions worth mentioning, both at the waterfront at Pier 45, at the western end of Fisherman's Wharf.
One is the 1943 submarine USS Pampanito
, which saw action in the Pacific
war, including (according to Wikipedia) the accidental sinking of a ship with 900 British POW
s, of whom she was at least able to rescue about 75. (Open daily from 9 a.m., 15 USD.)
The other, and much larger, vessel is the SS Jeremiah O'Brien
, one of the last remaining Liberty ships. This class of cargo ship was mass-produced during WWII for transatlantic supply convoys. This particular ship is also a rare survivor of the fleet that supported the D-Day landings in Normandy
. The ship also played a supporting role in the blockbuster movie “Titanic
”, namely in the engine room scenes. (Open daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day; admission 20 USD, concession 10 USD.)
in the northern half of California, USA
, on the Pacific coast, some 350 miles (565 km) north of Los Angeles
, on a peninsula west of the Bay and south of the Golden Gate
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: fairly easy to get to; not cheap.
San Francisco is well connected by air, with its own international airport and another one just across the Bay at Oakland (with somewhat cheaper domestic connections), giving access to practically everywhere else in the USA
Locally, the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) network provides rail connections to the entire Bay area as well as to San Francisco airport.
Getting around within the central parts of San Francisco is doable on foot – although some may find the many steep gradients up and down the city's many hills too strenuous.
The fabled cable cars are more a tourist attraction than a practical means of transport, but as long as you don't mind long waits to get on (and I really mean looooong! factor in at least an hour or two on a busy day!) and the steep fare price, they can provide a useful north-south link between Fisherman's Wharf and Market Street.
Along Market Street and now also the Embarcadero all the way to Fisherman's Wharf, historic tram lines on the F line provide a useful alternative with a bit of a historical touch.
For purely practical transport, especially longer distances within the city, “Muni” (short for San Francisco Municipal Railway) runs a network of metro lines as well as buses.
Accommodation in San Francisco can be quite pricey. There is little at the budget end, and what there is often comes with compromises (such as shared facilities). But there are also some decent enough mid-range choices. Many hotels are clustered around the Union Square area.
As for food & drink
, San Francisco, like many large cosmopolitan cities in the USA
, offers a vast range of cuisines from many corners of the world. Chinese and Japanese feature prominently, for historic reasons, but I also had excellent meals at an organic, vegan (!) Mexican place called “Gracias Madre” as well as outstanding seafood at an authentic Peruvian restaurant in the Pacific Heights District.
San Francisco is the birth place of the craft beer boom in California (and now virtually the whole US
– and various other parts of the world), sparked by the success of the Anchor brewery in the Potrero Hill district from the late 1980s onwards. From the mid-1990s the trend grew and has since exploded to the degree that the range of brews available in the Bay area is beyond grasp. San Francisco is as much a heaven for a quality beer as San Diego or Seattle
Given the proximity of California's viticultural homelands, wine is of course also easily available in all price categories. However, that proximity does not translate into a more affordable price level than elsewhere.
Generally, it has to be said, eating out and drinking in San Francisco is anything but cheap. Bills can really pile up quickly here.
of San Francisco and the Bay is markedly different to the rest of California, even to other coastal areas such as L.A.
or San Diego. It hardly ever gets as stifling hot here. Thanks to the cold waters of the Pacific
and the peculiar local climate, with regular fogs, the city is sometimes said to have “its own natural air conditioning”. While this makes the height of summer more tolerable, this also means that you need to be prepared for quite cold spells and dress accordingly (layers!), especially if you're going out into the Bay by boat (e.g. to Alcatraz
Time required: the city is worth at least a few days, though you could easily spend upwards of a week here without running out of things to do. For just the dark sights picked out here, two days may just about suffice.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under USA
The closest sites of dark-tourist interest are in Southern California, in Los Angeles
, or up the Pacific coast in Seattle
, and especially Mount St Helens
Combinations with non-dark destinations: San Francisco is one of the most popular destinations for mainstream city tourism, and one of its key industries with something like 18 million visitors annually. There are more famous sights than can be listed here, so I'll pick out only a few.
Amongst the best-known attractions is one that is actually not stationary but mobile: the famous cable cars. One of the world's oldest public transport systems still in use in its original form, the manually operated little carriages have an unmistakable “period charm” and are an icon of the city. They are these days mostly used by tourists – and form part of the distinctive “San Francisco experience”.
Unfortunately, this also means that fares are very high, so high that the mere transport aspect can hardly justify the price level. Yet, throngs of tourists queue up every day to get on the cable cars at the end of the lines. Crowd management is tough, and at intermediate stops your chances of getting aboard are often slim.
(Note: the old cable cars are not to be confused with the fleet of historic F-line streetcars that ply the routes down Market Street and the Embarcadero. These colourfully painted trams have been gathered from a number of cities elsewhere in the USA, and even abroad, and are marked as such by city of origin. However, these are not cable cars but trams powered by overhead electricity cables.)
The most characteristic and widespread architectural trait of the city are the many Victorian-era wooden houses that line the sides of many a street, especially in the Western Addition and Pacific Heights districts, but also elsewhere. Owing to their often colourful facades they became known as “Painted Ladies”.
One of the world's most recognizable landmarks of modern architecture is the Transamerica Pyramid
, still the tallest in the city, and due to its unique shape one of the most iconic structures in the USA
. It is in the heart of the Financial District, which also features many older, more traditional Chicago
One of the most unusual tourist sights is the one-way stretch of Lombard Street that descends Russian Hill in eight sharp switchbacks. As allegedly “the world's crookedest street” it attracts not only hordes of pedestrians who come to see and photograph it from the sidewalks at the top and bottom, but also tourists in (rental) vehicles eager to drive it. There is another street vying for the title of “most crookedest”, namely Vermont Street on Potrero Hill. In terms of 'sinuosity' (look it up!) the latter is indeed “more crooked”, but it has only seven switchbacks … I'll leave it to you to decide which is more important.
The principal area of the most noticeable touristification in San Francisco is the waterfront part known as Fisherman's Wharf
. Not only do the various ferries and pleasure boats depart from here (including to Alcatraz
), there is also a veritable funfair atmosphere in parts of the area, especially at Pier 39 with its carousel, souvenir shops, restaurants and other entertainment.
Just to the west of the tip of Pier 39 a colony of sea lions has taken up residence on wooden landing stages that were originally intended for small yachts and motor boats (the sea lions first arrived in 1989, shortly before the Loma Prieta earthquake). The population fluctuates, but when they are there in sufficient numbers, it is quite a spectacle to behold!
Away from the waterfront, San Francisco is characterized by many steep hills (hence those crooked streets!), which makes walking a bit strenuous at times, but also makes for good views every so often. One of the flatter districts of note is the Mission District
, named after the famous former Mission Dolores, once famous for being one of the epicentres of the American punk movement (including the legendary Dead Kennedys) and also for immigrants from Central America and Mexico
. In more recent years, however, there's been increasing gentrification that changed the character of the district (an issue in many other once “alternative” parts of San Francisco too).
Ethnically defined districts in the city include yet another Chinatown, but also a noticeable Japanese influence especially in the aptly dubbed “Japantown”!
Decidedly European influences can be seen in the architecture of e.g. the neo-Gothic Grace Cathedral
and the City Hall
, which looks pretty much like many state capitols with its huge central dome (taller than that of the US Capitol in Washington D.C.
A complete folly, but one of the most noticeable structures near the waterfront is Coit Tower
, a functionless phallic monument from the outside, except for an observation deck near the top, but inside it features a number of murals, some of which have an almost socialist-realist
A total contrast is the entirely functionalist Sutro Tower, a three-pronged metal TV and radio antenna mast painted in red and white and visible from almost all over the city (and I'm sure quite a few people wish that it wasn't – a beauty it is not).
Speaking of visibility – the city is famous for the fog
that comes rolling in from the cold Pacific
waters, though often the mist is held back at the entrance to the bay. When the fog does get through it can completely shroud the Golden Gate Bridge
and even parts of the city. This weather phenomenon, too, is amongst the characteristics the city is famous for. And it can indeed be spectacular to behold.
Further afield the numerous attractions of California beckon, with the only coastal old-growth redwood forest of Muir Woods north of the Golden Gate, and the fabled coastal strip Big Sur to the south, amongst the most easily accessible.
See also under USA
- SF 06 - often the Golden Gate Bridge is shrouded in fog
- SF 07 - the Bay with Alcatraz
- SF 08 - Angel Island seen from Alcatraz
- SF 09 - big and fast boats and the Bay Bridge
- SF 10 - skyline
- SF 11 - down by Fisherman's Wharf
- SF 12 - Coit Tower
- SF 13 - sea lions in the harbour
- SF 14 - navy legacy
- SF 15 - the Great Earthquake gets a rare mention
- SF 16 - downtown
- SF 17 - vintage streetcar
- SF 18 - the classic old cable cars
- SF 19 - riding the steep streets of San Francisco
- SF 20 - steep street downhill
- SF 21 - it is a hilly place
- SF 22 - Lombard Street at its crookedest
- SF 23 - Mission District
- SF 24 - Mission Dolores
- SF 25 - The Women Building
- SF 26 - classic downtown skyscraper
- SF 27 - Transamerica Pyramid
- SF 28 - gilded fire escape
- SF 29 - Japanese influence
- SF 30 - Grace Cathedral
- SF 31 - city hall
- SF 32 - mint
- SF 33 - old glories
- SF 34 - Sutro Tower