San Francisco – City by the Bay – Part I

4. Please tell us about one of the most significant attractions in San Francisco – the Golden Gate Bridge. What about its history and how can I experience it?


San Francisco’s most famous landmark had its 50th anniversary on May, 24, 1987.

The construction of a bridge that would cross the Golden Gate, the unbridgeable mile-wide cleft in the Northern California Mountains, had been the ”impossible dream” of Joseph B. Strauss, a Chicago based engineering titan who is credited with masterminding the bridge. Without Strauss’s vision, ingenuity and dynamism, however, it is agreed that the bridge could not have been built in the form or in the time it was.


After battling business and political opposition for 13 years, construction began on January 5, 1933. It took two decades and 200 million words to convince the people that the bridge was feasible; then only four years and $35 million to put the concrete and steel together.

Sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge


Actually the construction was an awesome struggle against the elements. Eleven bridgemen died in the effort. Nineteen plunged into the safety net strung the length of the span and were spared. Many of these daredevils worked for less than $1 an hour.


The Golden Gate Bridge became the world’s longest and tallest suspension structure at that time. Its 746-foot (65-story) towers were the highest west of the Empire State Building. Its two great cables contain enough steel wire (80,000 miles) to encircle the equator three times. The 1.7-mile-long bridge is suspended over water 318 feet deep and allows a minimum ship clearance of 220 feet. It accommodates six car lanes.


Every year more than 40 million vehicles pass over this panoramic strand. The five-decade total is well over a billion. Drivers pay a toll southbound. The pedestrian walkway is free. Cyclists can travel on the west side as well.

The Marin Headlands, viewed during my bike ride over the Golden Gate


The Gate and its graceful garland have been described as “a miracle of nature illuminated by a flash of genius.” The most romantic approach is by sea. Almost as breathtaking is the view from the north. Motorists emerging from Waldo Tunnel on Highway 101 behold a red lyre in the sky. In the background a diaphanous city dances above a sparkling sea.


5. Another world-famous site in San Francisco is Alcatraz Island. Please give us some background about this fascinating place and how I can best explore it.


The island was given its name by Spanish explorers who came to the San Francisco Bay in 1775. Alcatraz means “Island of the Pelicans”. In 1847 the U.S. Army took notice of the rock and its strategic position. They built the first lighthouse at the West Coast on Alcatraz and erected a fortress that would be a landmark of the U.S. military power. Because of its natural isolation and the freezing waters surrounding the island, it was soon considered an ideal location for a prison. Alcatraz became well known for its stringent rules and harsh treatment of the inmates.

Lighthouse on Alcatraz Islands


In the course of decades the atmosphere became more relaxed and spectacles such as the “Alcatraz Fights” drew more and more visitors to the island. In 1934 the military prison was closed. But soon it was reopened again to serve as detention facility for public enemies. One of its most famous inmates was undoubtedly Al Capone. The prison was finally closed in 1963 and was claimed Indian property by a group of Native Americans who settled there in 1969. They hoped to establish a Native American Cultural Center on the island. Due to different problems such as drugs and alcohol abuse the community soon fell apart. The last residents of Alcatraz were removed in 1972 and the island was turned into a recreation area as part of the National Park Service Unit.

Ruined buildings on Alcatraz Island


In 1973 it was opened to the public and since then has drawn more than 1 million visitors each year. Today the island is considered an ecological reservation. There are no formal guided tours of Alcatraz, but National Park staff offer many free programs on topics such as escapes, military history, American Indian occupation, and natural history. Ferries return to San Francisco every 30 minutes. Alcatraz tours sell out quickly, so it is advisable to make bookings about three weeks in advance.


If you prefer a guided program, you should take the evening tour which provides visitors with a guided tour from the dock to the cellhouse level and gives them the opportunity to participate in a number of other special tours, activities, and cell door demonstration. Alcatraz Cruises offers several tour options. Find further information on

View of Alcatraz Island on a gorgeous day


6. No trip to San Francisco would be complete without a ride on the famous cable cars. Please tell us about these moving landmarks.


These one of a kind vehicles celebrated their 100th birthday with a 10-day jubilee in August of 1973, but it seemed that after being in service for over a century, the beloved cable car system had deteriorated beyond repair. To rebuild it would cost $60 million and take at least 20 months.

In an operation similar to open heart surgery, four-and-a-half miles and 69 blocks of city streets were torn up section by section to make way for new cables, tracks, turntables and utility lines. The cable car barn at Washington and Mason Streets was almost entirely rebuilt. Meanwhile, the cable cars were getting a makeover of their own.

One of the famous San Francisco cable cars

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