San Francisco has long attracted seekers of fortune, spiritual peace, and personal freedom. Few places have held such continuous allure to so many for so long. The first inhabitants, the Ohlone and other Native Americans, found rich stores of natural resources here. Next came Spanish missionaries and explorers who named its harbor the Golden Gate. Between 1849 and 1851, more than 200,000 people from around the world migrated to San Francisco, many enduring great hardships to seek their fortunes in the Gold Rush. Despite their almost universal failure, many of these adventurers, like so many wanderers after them, made their homes here. From those early days to now, the city has been known for its free spirit and lack of convention. That explains its attraction to the beatniks, hippies, and members of the gay and lesbian community. The late Herb Caen, a beloved San Francisco Chronicle columnist, called the city Baghdad by the Bay in recognition of the city's permissive nature.
But it's always been more than that---there's a sense of optimism and possibility here. It's a city where people can not only reinvent themselves but in the process often bring dramatic change to the larger society. That sense of possibility is reflected in the fact that, for more than 40 years, San Francisco has been not only a center of political, social, and environmental activism but also for groundbreaking art, music, dance, and theater.
Perhaps its energy comes from the stunning natural beauty of the city and the surrounding Bay Area. Or, perhaps, it is because it has for so long been home to so many ethnic groups---Mexican, Chinese, Russian, Anglo, Italian, Japanese, African American, and on and on. Each has contributed to the region in a way that's simultaneously become a celebration of cultural diversity and a symbol of cultural collaboration.
San Francisco has long been a mecca for entrepreneurs. Unlike the railroad barons of the late 1800s, today's movers and shakers work in the high-tech and film industries. The city's economy is booming. With that has come a harsh increase in housing costs. Yet in the midst of the dot-com boom, residents are trying hard to protect the city's gemlike ethnic neighborhoods from gentrification and maintain their independent lifestyles. As a result of all this, there are few places where you can hear the languages, savor the food, and enjoy the music of so many different nationalities as you can in San Francisco.
A cultural center has emerged at and around the Yerba Buena complex on Mission Street between Third and Fourth streets. Within walking distance, you'll find six acres of gardens, the landmark San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where cutting-edge music is often performed. The center includes the glitzy Metreon shopping complex, complete with interactive playstations, an IMAX theater and dozens of restaurants, galleries, and art spaces. Nearby SOMA (for SOuth of MArket Street), a once-industrial area, now houses software-design and high-tech development firms alongside live/work flats for artists.
Despite the notoriously steep hills, one of the best ways to explore the city is on foot---parking is a headache in most neighborhoods. Some of the best areas for walking include the Civic Center with its stunning, refurbished City Hall; North Beach with its Italian restaurants and X-rated shows; the Mission District, where dozens of walls are covered with brightly painted murals; Chinatown with its Asian architecture, shops filled with herbs and exotic vegetables, and its panoply of restaurants; and the Castro, the center of gay life in San Francisco. For an unforgettable outdoor experience, you can't beat an afternoon in vast Golden Gate Park. Besides acres of gardens and hiking trails, you can also find children's playgrounds, museums, and a planetarium in this lovely island of green. San Francisco also has a well-deserved reputation as a food-lovers' town. Chefs have star status and business, politics, and social life often revolve around the latest hot restaurant. For tips and ratings, check out the "pink pages," the pull-out calendar and events section of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle. Locals say you can spend a year eating three meals a day at a different restaurant in San Francisco and still not try them all. In part that's because new restaurants are being created every day. What you will find is a formidable range of good restaurants in every range representing nearly every ethnic cuisine. And because so many San Franciscans are health-conscious, you can also find dozens of eateries specializing in vegetarian fare. It's no wonder that so many people, just like Tony Bennett, have left their hearts in this city by the bay.