When engineers laid out the streets of San Francisco, they modeled the city after America’s board-flat urban centers. They may as well have tried to fit a siren into a schoolgirl’s uniform. The regular grid pattern found on maps leaves visitors unprepared for the precipitous inclines and stunning water views in this town built on 43 hills.

While earthquakes remake the land, social upheavals play a similar role in reminding that the only constant here is change.Geographically and culturally, San Francisco is anything but flat, and what level ground exists might at any moment give way. While earthquakes remake the land, social upheavals play a similar role in reminding that the only constant here is change. In the 1950s, the Beats challenged postwar conformity and left a legacy of incantatory poems and independent bookstores. The late 1960s saw a years-long Summer of Love, which shifted consciousness as surely as quakes shift tectonic plates. During the same period, the Black Panther party was founded across the bay in Oakland, and other ethnic and cultural groups were redefining their identities against mainstream America.

Gay and lesbian liberation movements sprung forth in the 1970s, as did a renewed push for women’s rights. More recently, a vibrant culture of technological innovation has emerged as groundbreaking companies and tech visionaries choose to make the Bay Area their home. And of course, there is the continually evolving restaurant scene, one of the country’s finest.

View of downtown San Francisco lit up in the evening from Twin Peaks.

View of downtown from San Francisco’s Twin Peaks. Photo © Nickolay Stanev/123rf.

Surrounded by water on three sides, San Francisco is a city of microclimates. Sweatered residents of the Richmond District may be huddled in cafés to escape the fog while friends in the Mission District sit on their stoops in shirtsleeves, soaking up the sun. Visitors may be surprised by thick fog in July and August, or by the warmest day of the year coming in early October.

Although San Francisco is one of the most visited cities in the United States, it often seems like a provincial village, or a series of villages that share a downtown and a roster of world-class icons. Drive over the Golden Gate or the Bay Bridge as the fog is lifting and your heart will catch at the ever-changing beauty of the scene. Stand at the base of the Transamerica Pyramid, hang off the side of a cable car, or just walk through the neighborhoods that make the city more than the sum of its parts. Despite the hills, San Francisco is a city that cries out to be explored on foot.

The fog rolls in and out; the city reels and rights itself through earthquakes and dotcom bubbles alike. For all its mutability and contrariness, San Francisco has staying power. In the realm of the imagination, it easily displaces bigger cities with more impressive credentials. Willfully young and a little raw, San Francisco nevertheless has a talent for living its moment fully—from Gold Rush to Flower Power to dotcom to whatever comes next. New arrivals, visitors and residents both, come to live the eternal present of the city that captivates even as it shifts underfoot.

First Inhabitants and Settlers

Waves of immigration have played their part in defining San Francisco. The area’s original inhabitants were the Ohlone people, who shared the peninsula with grizzly bears, herds of elk, and flocks of geese so dense they darkened the sky. The Ohlone got a reprieve when, in 1579, Sir Frances Drake sailed right past the opening to San Francisco Bay. Other explorers missed it, too; it wasn’t until almost two centuries later that the first Europeans sailed through the Golden Gate.

People looking down Sacramento Street at billowing clouds of smoke after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Looking Down Sacramento Street, San Francisco, April 18, 1906, a photograph taken by Arnold Genthe on the morning of April 18, 1906 in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The indigenous culture went into quick decline with the arrival of the Spanish, who founded the city in 1776, just as the United States declared independence from England. The first colonizing party built a presidio (fort) and founded the Mission Dolores (La Misión de San Francisco de Asís), then came a village called Yerba Buena, a name that stuck until the city became San Francisco in 1847. A year later gold was discovered, and soon more than 100,000 ’49ers (named for the year they arrived) flooded in to make their fortune. Chinese began arriving in large numbers during this time, too—that year San Francisco’s population shot from 500 to 25,000. The 20th century saw successive waves of newcomers, from beatniks and hippies to dotcommers and immigrants. More recently, immigrants from other Asian countries, the Philippines, Russia, and South and Central America have added to the city’s diversity.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon MapGuide San Francisco.