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What to See on Your San Francisco Vacation

Downtown
San Francisco 's densely populated downtown is squeezed into the hilly northeastern corner of the peninsula. The often dramatic cityscape came about because the streets were laid out as if their planners had never so much as glanced at the city's topography. They simply dropped a grid pattern onto the steeply undulating terrain, and the result is that streets often climb or drop at ridiculously steep gradients. It makes parking hazardous, breeds bicycle messengers of superhuman strength and provides a hairy setting for car chase scenes in movies.

Union Square is San Francisco 's downtown tourist center. It's a mishmash of glitzy shops and hotels, flower vendors and homeless people. Cable cars rumble down the west side of the square; try looking down Hyde St towards Aquatic Park, down Washington St to Chinatown and the Financial District, or down California St from Nob Hill. And if you're in Nob Hill, you've just got to ride the elevator to the Top of the Mark , the famous view bar at the top of the Mark Hopkins Hotel. SoMa ('South of Market St') is a combination of lofty office buildings spilling over from the Financial District , fancy condos along the Embarcadero, a touristy gallery and museum precinct around Yerba Buena Gardens and the late night entertainment scene along Folsom and 11th Sts.

San Francisco - Exploratorium

Exploratorium
3609 Lyon St., San Francisco CA; Tel. 415-561-0360
Learn something new during your San Francisco vacation! Founded in 1969 by noted physicist and educator Dr. Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium houses a playful array of over 650 hands-on science, art, and human perception exhibits. From salt volcanos and bubble bombs to fault lines and frogs, the line up tests imaginations young and old. Just the building itself, a palatial domed structure left from the San Francisco Pan Pacific Exhibition of 1916, is worth a visit.

Tactile Dome in the Exploratorium
Winner - Best Place to Take Out Of Towners
The Exploratorium, 3601 Lyon St. (at Bay), San Francisco CA; Tel. 415.561.0362
Dr. August Coppola (Francis' brother and Nicolas Cage's dad) designed this touchy-feely 1971 oddity -- a one-way maze inside a geodesic dome that you must feel your way through, in complete darkness. Coppola built the attraction so that one must climb, crawl, slide, and fall to get to the end, encountering surprising and delightful textures and objects along the way. The Tactile Dome is located inside the Exploratorium, and you must make reservations and pay a bit extra to get into it. It's fun for kids, and you can rent the entire thing out (think birthday parties!) if you have a minimum of 15 people (it costs $14 a head, which includes the price of entry into the museum). Rumor has it that with advance notification, you can even go through in your bathing suit, for maximum tactile stimulation -- corporate team-building anyone? The Tactile Dome, which takes about 10 minutes to traverse, was once a favorite something-to-do-on-acid experience of hippies, who took much longer. Lucky for them, if you get claustrophobic and start to freak out, the attendant will turn on the light and let you out.

San Francisco - Fisherman's Wharf

Fisherman's Wharf
The Embarcadero and Taylor St San Francisco CA; Tel. 415.474.8796
Popular with tourists and sea lions, Fisherman's Wharf is full of shops, silly museums and family fun. Still a working wharf, its vendors sell thousands of tons of fish and shellfish. Take an early morning walk down "Fish Alley" to see fisherman at work. Later, the Wharf is boardwalk-style family entertainment with decidedly tourist attractions such as Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum, the Red & White Fleet, a the Wax Museum. For maritime-lovers and WWII buffs, the San Francisco Maritime Musuem is at the foot of Polk St. and massive USS Pampanito is docked right at Pier 45.

North Beach
North Beach is sandwiched between Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf. It's a lively stretch of strip joints, bars, cafes and restaurants that started as the city's Italian quarter and gave birth to the Beats in the 1950s - City Lights Bookstore is here, at the corner of Columbus Ave and Jack Kerouac Alley. The neighborhood is hemmed in on the east by Telegraph Hill, which features tree-shaded stairways that ramble down the steep eastern face of the hill, and Coit Tower . One of the city's most famous landmarks, the tower is a prime spot to let loose your postcard-vista voyeurism. The 360° views from here are superb.

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