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San Francisco - USA

The city proper occupies just 48 hilly square miles at the tip of a slender peninsula, almost perfectly centred along the California coast. Arguably the most beautiful, certainly the most liberal city in the US, it remains true to itself: a funky, individualistic, surprisingly small city whose people pride themselves on being the cultured counterparts to their cousins in LA – the last bastion of civilization on the lunatic fringe of America. It's a compact and approachable place, where downtown streets rise on impossible gradients to reveal stunning views of the city, the bay and beyond, and blanket fogs roll in unexpectedly to envelop the city in mist. This is not the California of monotonous blue skies and slothful warmth – the temperatures rarely exceed the seventies, and even during summer can drop much lower.

In 1906 however, a massive earthquake, followed by three days of fire, wiped out most of the town. Rebuilding began immediately, resulting in a city more magnificent than before. Many of the city's landmarks, including Coit Tower and both the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, were built in the 1920s and 1930s. San Francisco achieved a new cultural eminence with the emergence of the Beats in the Fifties and the hippies in the Sixties, when the fusion of music, protest, rebellion and, of course, drugs that characterized 1967's "Summer of Love" took over the Haight-Ashbury district.

Due to its easy-going atmosphere and small-town cosiness it was only natural that San Francisco became the gay capital of America with a quarter of its population being gay and lesbian. Castro was the gay area in the seventies and is the centre now with Market Street and Castro Street the main thoroughfares, festooned with rainbow flags, and with clubs, bars, restaurants and shops in all the interconnecting streets.

There’s plenty to see and most of it at one go from the top of the Coit Tower. The world famous Golden Gate and Bay Bridges can be seen from the land or even better take a boat trip under them and catch a chilling glimpse of the shell of the notorious Alcatraz Prison on the way. The pyramidal TransAmerica building dominates the skyline and there is a world class opera house and concert hall, all connected by those little cable cars going halfway to the stars. Take the Powell-Hyde line ($2 one way) across town getting the best views and end up at the the slightly tack Fisherman’s Wharf. Tony Bennett’s heart is worth a look if you can find it. There are plenty of small parks but the biggest is the huge Golden Gate Park with its own herd of Buffalo. Finally, due to its geographical surroundings summers aren’t too hot so take a sweater for the evening.

Further Information: A great guide book is “Out About San Francisco “ published by Thomas Cook Publishing at a very reasonable 7.99 . Packed with up to date info, maps and colour photographs this is an ideal book as it is light and convenient. www.outabout.com

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