Urban Geography: San Francisco

A little city with a big reputation, San Francisco's population stands at well under a million (between 700,000 and 800,000 people, making it only the fourth-largest city in California, behind Los Angeles, San Diego (just over a million people) and San Jose (just under a million)), and geographically, it's only a small square of land, roughly 5 miles on each side. So why is it one of the most famous cities in America? There are two reasons. First, like the City of Los Angeles, San Francisco has had extensive construction placed *around* it, so that although the city of San Francisco itself is fairly small, the greater San Francisco area is the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the United States. And secondly, San Francisco's got culture.

Known by many nicknames, including San Fran, Frisco, or simply S.F., this city is famous for several things, the most famous of all being the Golden Gate Bridge, an internationally-known landmark. But Frisco also has a second, less famous but more important bridge, the Bay Bridge, which spans San Francisco Bay and leads into Oakland. Besides the two bridges, S.F. is famous for its streetcars (unlike Los Angeles, where almost everyone drives their own car, San Francisco has a nationally famous public-transporation system, including BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system), uneven surface (San Francisco is truly one of the most hilly cities in America, and it's home to Lombard Street, officially logged in the Guinness Book of World Records as the twistiest street in the world), concentrated population of gay people (which some regard as a false stereotype, but others confirm as true), and for its unusually high concentration of landmarks. In stark contrast to Los Angeles, which is a huge city with remarkably little to see or do, San Francisco has more than its fair share of famous places and buildings, including the Transamerica Pyramid, Fisherman's Wharf, and the San Francisco Zoo (not to be confused with the San Diego Zoo, which is the *really* famous zoo). Despite a building height code which limits buildings to about 600 feet in height, Frisco's skyline is famous, although its incredibly poor choice of location (built very near a powerful fault line in the ground) means that those buildings may not always be there. But as the cities of California continue to wait for "The Big One", San Fran lives on as one of America's favourite cities.



The eponymous city of Alameda County is on the opposite side of the Bay from San Francisco, surrounded by Oakland and forming a small sub-community within it.


Made famous in the mid-1900s as "The craziest city in America", Berkeley was a haven for political upheaval at that time. Today, it stands as mostly a college town, thanks to the University Of California At Berkeley (UCB) being located there. It's just north of Oakland.


While most major cities in the United States have a Chinatown, San Francisco's Chinatown, located right in the middle of downtown, is home to one of the most famous Chinatowns in the country, probably because it's one of the largest. San Francisco has the largest population of Asians in the world, outside of Asia itself.


Part of Silicon Valley. Home to Apple Computer.

Fisherman's Wharf

Essentially a tourist spot, Frisco's famous Fisherman's Wharf is a place where you can buy an amazing variety of food from a seemingly endless array of vendors. The typical tourist-trap lineup of stores is the bulk of this small but important pier on the north edge of the city.


Part of Silicon Valley.


A medium-sized suburban city that sits on the east side of the Bay, next to Fremont, between Oakland and San Jose.


Part of Silicon Valley.

Nob Hill

San Francisco's counterpart to L.A.'s Beverly Hills, Nob Hill is the rich part of town; From the houses people live in, to the clothes they wear, to the lives they live, this is where Frisco's wealthy go to settle down, along with Pacific Heights, just west of Nob Hill.

North Beach

Formerly a haven for Italian-Americans, North Beach is starting to merge with Chinatown as more Asians move into the area. Situated in the middle of a triangle formed by Chinatown, Russian Hill and Telegraph Hill.


San Francisco's sister city, Oakland sits just across the Bay Bridge. Although it used to be mainly an industrial area, today Oakland is a more balanced residential area.

Pacific Heights

The companion to Nob Hill, Pacific Heights is another rich area with one of the best views of any location in the city.

Palo Alto

Part of Silicon Valley.

Russian Hill

A place with a small-town feel, Russian Hill got its name when gold-rush-era miners of the 1800s found Cyrillic-inscribed gravestones there. In truth, it is not a Russian neighbourhood.

San Jose

Situated on the southeast corner of San Francisco Bay, San Jose is just slightly larger than San Francisco in terms of population, and one rank higher on the list of most populous cities in California (San Jose is third, Frisco is fourth).

Santa Clara

Part of Silicon Valley. Home to Intel.

Silicon Valley

A lot of people talk about it, but surprisingly few people know where it actually is. Silicon Valley lies along the south side of San Francisco Bay, roughly from Palo Alto in the west, to San Jose in the east.


Short for South of Market, so named because this district is south of Market Street.

Telegraph Hill

A small district in the northeast corner of the city, Telegraph Hill is best known as the site of Coit Tower, which sits upon the top of the hill itself. The story behind Coit Tower is one of the more amusing tales for tourists in San Francisco; A rich woman named Lillie Hitchcock Coit was saved from a burning building as a child, an event which gave her a lifelong fascination with firefighters and firefighting. Later, she moved to San Francisco and fell so in love with the city that she wanted to leave something for it after she died; So she left the money to build Coit Tower, a classy-looking 200-foot tower which provides a stunning view when you look out from the top. The really funny part is that it's rumored Coit Tower is supposed to look like a fire hose nozzle, but the "official" word is that it's not meant to.

Principal Freeways And Roads

California State Highways

1: The little state highway that provides such an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean most of the way from Los Angeles to San Francisco is actually pretty boring within Frisco itself; It quickly goes from a freeway to an ordinary roadway in south San Francisco, following along 19th Avenue and Presidio Boulevard, before finally merging with US101 and forming the Golden Gate Bridge.

Interstate Freeways

I-80: It is this highway which comprises the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. It begins in central-eastern San Francisco, goes over the bridge, and continues northward to the California/Nevada state line near Verdi, Nevada.

I-280: The main freeway within the city of San Francisco itself, I-280 begins in central-eastern San Fran and heads southwest, out of the city and into Silicon Valley, where it suddenly changes into I-680 after the junction with US101.

I-580: A peripheral freeway which goes from US101 at San Rafael, just north of San Francisco, east through Berkeley and Oakland, ending at I-5, well east of the San Francisco Bay Area.

I-680: Picks up where I-280 leaves off at the US101 junction in San Jose and heads north, into Northern California.

I-880: Begins in Oakland, at the east end of the Bay Bridge; Continues south, passing through Hayward and Fremont, ending near San Jose.

US National Highways

US101: Once you get a bit south of San Francisco, US Highway 101 is the fastest and easiest way to get from Frisco to Los Angeles, or vice versa. Within the city of San Francisco itself, US101 is a freeway in the south, then tapers off, running along city streets (specifically Van Ness Street and Lombard Street) before turning back into a freeway-style road and forming the Golden Gate Bridge.

City Streets

Great Highway: A street that deserves a lot more attention than it gets, the Great Highway is to San Francisco what California State Highway 1 is to most of southern/central California: A road that hugs the Pacific Ocean most of the way. Cruising along the Great Highway, you'll have a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean right next to you. It runs along the west edge of most of the city. At its north end, it suddenly turns east and continues as Geary Boulevard all the way to downtown San Fran. To the south, it merges with California State Highway 35 and continues southbound.

Lombard Sreet: Officially logged in the Guinness Book Of World Records as "the most crooked street in the world", even though Lombard Street is actually a fairly straight east-west city street; The famous crooked section of it is only one block in Russian Hill between Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street.

Market Street: A major throughfare that runs along the southern edge of downtown San Francisco, and which is responsible for naming the SoMa (SOuth of MArket) district. Begins in the financial district and runs southwest from there, into south-central San Fran where it turns into Portola Drive.


Bay Bridge: The San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge (often abbreviated SFOBB by locals), appropriately enough, connects San Francisco to Oakland, passing over Yerba Buena Island on the way. With a length of 4.5 miles, it is a fantastically long bridge, and it is usually crowded with traffic (it carries 270,000 vehicles every day on average), although traffic is eased somewhat by its sheer capacity (the bridge is divided into two levels, the upper level having 5 lanes going west to San Francisco and the lower level having 5 lanes going east to Oakland). It is comprised of Interstate highway 80. There is a $2 toll for those taking this bridge west into San Francisco, but riding it out of San Fran into Oakland is free.

Golden Gate Bridge: San Francisco's most famous landmark is on the north side of the city, near the west end, connecting it with Marin County to the north. It is comprised of a brief merger of US Highway 101 and California State Highway 1. Although you can drive northward on the bridge for free, there is a $3 toll for those driving south on it into San Francisco.

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