Wealth and style mark the areas of Union Square and Nob Hill near the center of San Francisco. Known for their lavish shopping areas, cable cars, and mansions, these neighborhoods draw both local and visiting crowds all year long. Sadly, the stunning 19th-century mansions built by the robber barons on Nob Hill are almost all gone—shaken then burned in the 1906 earthquake and fire. But the area still exudes a certain elegance, and restaurants are particularly good on Nob Hill.
If you shop in only one part of San Francisco, make it Union Square. Even if you don’t like chain stores, you can just climb up to the top of the Square itself, grab a bench, and enjoy the views and the live entertainment on the small informal stage.
Perhaps the most recognizable symbol of San Francisco is the cable car, originally conceived by Andrew Smith Hallidie as a safe mode for traveling the steep, often slick hills of San Francisco. Cable cars ran as regular mass transit from 1873 into the 1940s, when buses and electric streetcars began to dominate the landscape. Dedicated citizens, especially “Cable Car Lady” Friedel Klussmann, saved the cable car system from extinction, and the cable cars have become a rolling national landmark.
Today, you can ride the cable cars from one tourist destination to another throughout the City for $6 per ride. A full day “passport” ticket (which also grants access to streetcars and buses) costs $15 and is totally worth it if you want to run around the City all day. Cable car routes can take you up Nob Hill, through Union Square, down Powell Street, out to Fisherman’s Wharf, and through Chinatown. Take a seat, or grab one of the exterior poles and hang on! Just be aware that cable cars have open-air seating only, making the ride chilly on foggy days.
Because everybody loves the cable cars, they get stuffed to capacity with tourists on weekends and with local commuters at rush hours. Expect to wait an hour or more for a ride from any of the turnaround points on a weekend or holiday. But a ride on a cable car from Union Square down to the Wharf is more than worth the wait. The views from the hills down to the Bay inspire wonder even in local residents. A ride through Chinatown feels long on bustle but in fact reveals the lifestyle in a place that is unique.
For aficionados, a ride on the cars can take you to The Barn (1201 Mason St., 415/474-1887, Apr.-Sept. daily 10am-6pm, Oct.-Mar. daily 10am-5pm, free), a museum depicting the life and times of the San Francisco cable cars.
Local icon Grace Cathedral (1100 California St., 415/749-6300, Mon.-Wed. 8am-6pm, Thur. 7am-6pm, Fri.-Sat. 8am-6pm, Sun. 8am-7pm) is many things to many people. The French Gothic-style edifice, completed in 1964, attracts architecture and Beaux-Arts lovers by the thousands with its facade, stained glass, and furnishings. It has been photographed by Ansel Adams and was the site of a 1965 speech by Dr. Martin Luther King. The labyrinths—replicas of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth in France—appeal to meditative walkers seeking spiritual solace. Concerts featuring world music, sacred music, and modern classical ensembles draw audiences from around the Bay and farther afield.
But most of all, Grace Cathedral opens its doors to the community as a vibrant, active Episcopal church. The doctrine of exploration and tolerance matches well with the San Francisco community, of which the church remains an important part.
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Coastal California .