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Published December 21, 2013, 05:31 PM

The hilly city: Visit San Francisco’s tourist meccas to get the best views of the Golden Gate City

SAN FRANCISCO - My vacation goal is always the same: Don’t look like a tourist.

By: Ryan Johnson, INFORUM

SAN FRANCISCO - My vacation goal is always the same: Don’t look like a tourist.

That meant during my past travels here, I largely avoided the sites that top lists of must-see places. But as I prepared to return in November, five years since I last was in this hilly city, I changed my strategy.

I figured many of the attractions I had disparaged as mere tourist traps years before did indeed warrant a visit – there’s a reason so many people go each year.

I left my snobbery behind at the airport, determined to take in a side of the city I had missed before, and I found five great things to check out that any visitor would thoroughly enjoy.

My list doesn’t include the Golden Gate Bridge because that’s a no-brainer – absolutely everyone who makes it to San Francisco should get to the famous span, preferably to walk across for a breathtaking view that won’t be as good from a car. I’ve made it a point to see the bridge every time I’m in town, and it never gets old.

After checking out the Golden Gate Bridge, here are five other places that every vacationer in the Golden Gate City should see.

CABLE CARS AND STREETCARS

Mass transit isn’t usually a top draw for tourists, but San Francisco isn’t a usual city.

More modern options are available, like the city’s fleet of clean, efficient buses or the subway and light rail systems that are an easy way of getting to the airport or suburbs.

But take a step back in time for a ride on San Francisco’s cable cars, with three of the original 23 lines established in the late 1800s still in use today.

A cable car line that starts downtown near Union Square is the perfect way to make it north to the bay. For a memorable experience, skip sitting on the wooden benches and instead stand on the side – but hold on tight because it can be a bumpy ride.

Or try one of the antique streetcars that still shuttle passengers along Market Street, a main thoroughfare here.

FISHERMAN’S WHARF

Wake up early and head to Fisherman’s Wharf, the bustling area surrounding Pier 39 that has become a shopping and dining hub. Fresh seafood is everywhere here, and several city tours and bay cruises start and stop at this well-known destination.

Fisherman’s Wharf can get crowded, especially on sunny days, so it’s worth arriving early if possible.

After filling up on delicious food and drinks, walk along the bay to see the local celebrities – a colony of playful, loud sea lions that claimed the floating docks here as their home after the 1989 earthquake.

COIT TOWER

The off-white Coit Tower rising up from Telegraph Hill may not look like much from a distance, its concrete exterior so drab that I assumed for years it was some kind of outdated communication tower.

Looks can be deceiving, and Coit Tower is indeed a beautiful art deco draw – especially on the inside.

Officially known as the Lillian Coit Memorial Tower, this 210-foot structure got its start when the wealthy and eccentric Lillie Hitchcock Coit died, leaving a third of her fortune to beautify this beautiful city. It was built in 1933 and has served as a landmark of San Francisco ever since.

Getting to Coit Tower might require a workout – ambitious visitors can choose to follow the steep paths that wind up Telegraph Hill, climbing 400 or so steps just to get to the base of the tower. A short bus ride from Fisherman’s Wharf also will reach the top of the hill, but with so many hidden gardens and great views of the bay along the way, it’s worth the effort to walk instead.

It’s free to get inside, and a series of fresco murals painted by 27 artists through the Public Works of Art Project that wrap around the interior walls of the tower’s base are still in great condition today.

But don’t hesitate to pay the $7 fee to ride the elevator to the top, granting visitors a bird’s-eye view of the entire city and the breathtaking bay.

San Francisco isn’t the only city to have an observational tower, but Coit Tower is the best I’ve seen.

LOMBARD STREET

While up in Coit Tower, I noticed something familiar in the distance – a picture-perfect steep section of Lombard Street that some claim is the crookedest road in the world.

One local told me it’s not true – there are more crooked streets even in San Francisco, he said – but it’s not much of an exaggeration, either.

Hoofing it back down the hundreds of steps that lead up Telegraph Hill brought me within a couple blocks of Lombard, though the crooked one-block stretch with a 27 percent downhill grade was still a long walk away.

I huffed and puffed my way up the hill – one of the steepest I’ve ever walked – and finally made it to the top, surrounded by tourists and a long line of cars waiting for their chance to maneuver through the eight hairpin turns.

TWIN PEAKS

Coit Tower became my favorite place to look over San Francisco – until I got to the top of Twin Peaks.

These two adjacent hills are the second-highest point in the city, and with an elevation of 920 feet, they offer the absolute best possible view of the city.

I made it up here during my last night in San Francisco, and while I’m sure it’s gorgeous in the daylight, seeing the rising and falling hillsides of houselights all the way to the shimmering bay was simply stunning.

As far as I could tell, there are no mass transit routes that lead to the large parking lot and lookout point on the north peak. Visitors will have to hail a cab or get on a tourist bus if they don’t have their own car to get to the top.

Even a skeptic will find it hard to not leave their heart in San Francisco after taking in this view.


Readers can reach Forum reporter

Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587

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