San Francisco — nicknamed The City by the Bay — knows how to keep visitors occupied. It’s famous for the Golden Gate Bridge, the 43 roller-coaster-like hills, tours of Alcatraz Island and a waterfront made for strolling. But when the legendary fog socks in the bay or the skies are drizzly, San Francisco still manages to shine indoors.
1. California Academy of Sciences
San Francisco’s urban green space, Golden Gate Park, is home to a sprawling museum that is the only place in the world with a planetarium, aquarium and natural history museum under one green roof.
Inside the multi-level Rainforests of the World exhibit, blue-and-yellow macaws eye visitors from the branches of giant mahogany and palm trees. A colourful kaleidoscope of butterflies flits from one tropical flower to the next. The towering rainforest display, filled with free-flying creatures, is also home to tanks of poison dart frogs, orb spiders and snakes. A small army of botanists and scientists work behind the scenes of what is the largest spherical living rainforest in the world.
Four-stories beneath the rainforest canopy is a giant, soupy Amazonian flooded forest. The water levels in enormous tanks gradually rise, tracing the seasonal floods that cause the waterline to swell as much as 18 metres in the rainy season. The best viewing spot is in the underwater tunnel, while South American fish like anacondas, electric eels and piranhas swim overhead. See calacademy.org.
2. Aquarium of the Bay
At the edge of Fisherman’s Wharf — the city’s most popular destination — sits Pier 39 and more than 20,000 marine animals at the Aquarium of the Bay. Sharks and rays circle around touch tanks. Long, crystal-clear tunnels take visitors into the middle of the aquatic action — turtles, rays, sharks and fish go about their daily business overhead.
Interpretive naturalists guide visitors through the distinctive ecosystem and diverse marine life of San Francisco Bay. The Behind the Scenes tour takes guests above the 2.6-million-litre exhibit tunnels and into the backstage laboratory. See aquariumofthebay.org.
3. San Francisco Cable Car Museum
The free Cable Car Museum provides an underground glimpse at how the world-famous cable cars make it up and down those incredible hills. Enormous spinning wheels and kilometres of thick steel wire cables run all of the city’s cable cars from the red brick barn and powerhouse at the intersection of Mason and Washington Streets.
San Francisco is the only place in the world with an operating cable car system. Before the cable cars were installed 135 years ago, horses were the main form of city transportation, struggling to make it up and down the steep inclines. The motorless cable cars are towed along tracks by gripping onto a continuously moving steel cable that travels in channels under the street, supported by hundreds of small pulleys. See cablecarmuseum.org.
Cruise the aisles of the Ferry Building for inexpensive snacks. With a loaf of bread and a wedge of cheese, you can grab a bench by the waterside and watch the ferries scooting across the bay.
The San Francisco CityPASS is an economical way to explore the city’s top attractions, including the California Academy of Sciences, Aquarium of the Bay and seven consecutive days of unlimited rides on the iconic cable cars.
The Hotel Griffon is walking distance to Fisherman’s Wharf. At the top of Nob Hill, historic The Fairmont San Francisco is right on the cable car lines.