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San Francisco: A Visitor's Survival Guide

As a born-and-raised San Francisco native, Liz has long had a fascination with the history of San Francisco and the greater Bay Area.

San Francisco's Famous Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge from just above Fort Point

Golden Gate Bridge from just above Fort Point

The City By The Bay

San Francisco, California goes by many names. Locals in the greater Bay Area may simply refer to it as The City, as in, "I have to go into The City for that errand." Often, folks just use the initials, "SF."

You can call it Baghdad by the Bay, or The City of Seven Hills, The City That Knows How--but whatever you do, never, ever call it "Frisco." You'd be inviting getting yourself decked by many natives for that egregious faux pas.

Below is a list of the famous "Seven Hills" of San Francisco. Originally, the "City of Seven Hills" referred to Rome, Italy. However, there are many cities around the world that claim to be built on the same number of hills.

Visitors may be confounded by the way the streets of San Francisco seem to climb straight up the sides of these hills, making for some risky driving conditions. The reason for this is strange, indeed, and is something I did not know until my California History class in college.

Most of us know that California was at first a part of Mexico, and then was taken over by the Spanish Conquistadors (a very simplified explanation of a complex history). At any rate, when the Spanish were in control, apparently, the streets of San Francisco were originally laid out on a grid by planners back in Spain, who had never been to the "New World," and were unfamiliar with the topography. The agents who were here were tasked with following those orders, and that is why our "...little cable cars climb halfway to the stars..."

The Seven Hills

Actually, there are some forty-four hills in town; but only seven of them are "famous" in one way or another.

  1. Telegraph Hill (location of famous Coit Tower)
  2. Nob Hill (location of historic mansions and upscale hotels)
  3. Russian Hill (more residential, with many high-rise apartments)
  4. Rincon Hill (more of a combination residential and mixed-use area with public buildings, restaurants, and so forth)
  5. Mount Sutro (now a park, remains of Sutro estate across highway from the Cliff House)
  6. Twin Peaks
  7. Mount Davidson (subject of a furious controversy in the late 1990s over the giant concrete cross atop the hill)

These are the main hills of note in The City. There are many other high points of land, with various names, but these are the well-known ones. At 927 feet in elevation, Mount Davidson is the highest point in the city.

(Unfortunately, there was not a good photo available of Nob Hill; being mainly streets on the way up, but nothing taken from any distance.)


Telegraph Hill

Coit Tower from the Embarcadero, circa 1953; compare with similar color view, below, from a closer position

Coit Tower from the Embarcadero, circa 1953; compare with similar color view, below, from a closer position

Geographical Location

San Francisco sits at the tip of a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water. To the west is the great Pacific Ocean; to the east is the San Francisco Bay, and to the north is the strait of the Golden Gate, the location of the most famous and most photographed bridge in the world.

Since San Francisco sits much farther north than the Hawaiian Islands, the climate is nothing at all similar, despite being surrounded by water. Hawaii is much nearer to the equator, and thus is warmer all year.

Sitting at the coordinates of, 37° 46' 30" N / 122° 25' 5" W, our "fair city" is ideally situated for those who do not like heat.

The Pacific Ocean flowing by the western boundary is more heavily influenced by the Alaskan currents than by the more southerly or westerly flows. This cold water traveling south along the coast is responsible for our famous (or infamous) fog.

How To Dress

I remember once when I was a child; we were out at Fisherman's Wharf, showing a visiting relative around town. We were dressed appropriately, as was our guest, since we had advised her what clothing to bring.

At one point, we noticed a group of folks, obviously tourists out on their own, dressed in shorts and tank tops, and shivering in the chilly breeze and incoming fog.

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My father could not resist quipping, "I know, I'll bet you thought San Francisco was in 'sunny' California!" While the styles in the second photo below are dated, the point made is not.

More typical of summers in San Francisco is this 'disappearing bridge' scene

More typical of summers in San Francisco is this 'disappearing bridge' scene

Wear or Bring a Coat!

The coats are appropriate (even if the styles are dated) for SF summers.  Taken in Golden Gate Park, in the Japanese Tea Garden.  circa 1957.

The coats are appropriate (even if the styles are dated) for SF summers. Taken in Golden Gate Park, in the Japanese Tea Garden. circa 1957.

Learn to Say, "Micro-Climate"

Yes, it is in California, but San Francisco and its immediately surrounding cities (the "bedroom" communities) of Daly City, Brisbane, South San Francisco, Pacifica and San Bruno are a unique micro-climate, among many others within the Golden State.

Summers in San Francisco are typically very chilly, damp and breezy. What would be suitable clothing for late fall/early winter in other parts of the country is exactly what you need to wear in San Francisco summers. The key word is: layers! Never go out and about in San Francisco without bringing or wearing a coat or jacket. You will need it at some point. And unless you're particularly hot-blooded, you don't ever need shorts--certainly not in the summer.

This kind of weather is rare, and usually during the "Indian Summer" time of year from September through October

This kind of weather is rare, and usually during the "Indian Summer" time of year from September through October

There can be pleasant shirt-sleeve weather days, and there are very occasional "heat waves," during which the daytime temperatures can soar as "high" as 75° or 80° Fahrenheit. This happens perhaps 2 or 3 times a year, tops.

It will be what the natives call hot for "just about exactly" 2.5 days, and on the afternoon of the third day, the fog comes rolling back in, returning the City to its normal 65° range. The photo of the jogger above was most likely taken during September or October.

Ironically, these heat waves tend to occur late in the year, around September and early October. It used to severely annoy me as a child that the nice, summery weather came after school was back in session.

"The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco!"

— Mark Twain

Footwear

Wear comfortable, already broken-in walking shoes! Mincing about in high h