Prior to European settlement in the area, the peninsula that now contains San Francisco was home to the Yelamu tribe, who were part of the larger Ohlone language group which stretched south from the Bay Area to the Big Sur of California. Due to San Francisco's characteristic foggy weather, the earliest European explorers completely bypassed the Golden Gate and the San Francisco Bay.
The first European settlement in the area was founded by the Spanish in 1776 as a mission community surrounding the Mission San Francisco de Asís, in what is today called the Mission Dolores in the Mission District. In addition to the mission, a military fort was built near the Golden Gate: El Presidio.
Upon gaining independence from Spain in 1821, the area became part of Mexico. Under Mexican rule, the mission system gradually came to an end and private ownership of land became a possibility. In 1835, an Englishman named William Richardson founded the town of Yerba Buena, the first significant settlement on the peninsula outside of the Mission Dolores area. As the new settlement gradually grew, Yerba Buena developed a street plan and became attractive to settlers.
In 1846, the United States claimed California, and in July of that year, the U.S. Navy arrived to raise the American flag above Yerba Buena. Over the next couple of years, California officially became part of the United States following the Mexican-American War, and the name of the town was changed from Yerba Buena to San Francisco.
In 1848 the California Gold Rush started in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Waves of fortune-seeking immigrants arrived by boat in San Francisco, increasing the City's population from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands. People who made their fortunes then settled in San Francisco, which at the time was the largest, most exciting city in northern California. Like other large cities, eventually San Francisco developed into districts by nationality or social status: the Italians in North Beach, the Chinese in Chinatown, and the wealthy mining, railroad titans on Nob Hill. During the gold rush years many major businesses were created and flourished in San Francisco (Wells Fargo Bank, Levis, Bank of America), and famous (and infamous) personalities settled in the city. Of course, with all this success came problems: the rapid growth of the city outstripped any efforts at city planning, meaning proper sanitation and infrastructure were largely undeveloped, which led to a cholera outbreak in 1855. Violence and corruption were evident, and anti-immigrant violence resulted in many race riots.
In the 1890s, there was a large campaign to modernize and beautify the city, the success of which led some officials to proudly call San Francisco the "Paris of the West." But in 1906, a devastating earthquake shook the city and a resulting fire leveled much of the city (in fact, almost 90% of the total damage was from the fire, and not the quake itself). Nevertheless, officials at the time immediately set out on a plan to rebuild the city, with new parks, boulevards, the current civic center complex, and landmarks such as the Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill. In 1915, San Francisco hosted the Panama-Pacific Exposition (where the Palace of Fine Arts complex is currently located) to showcase the completely rebuilt city.
In the wake of the Great Depression of the 1930s, San Francisco remained largely unscathed. In fact, it was during this time that the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge were conceived and built. It was also during this time that the federal government established a prison on Alcatraz Island, which would hold some of the most notorious criminals of the era.
After World War II, San Francisco continued to grow in population. Aggressive urban planning projects led to a changing skyline, with the city adding more highrises to its financial district. In the 1950s, new freeways rimmed the city's waterfront, but they were deemed ugly and an eyesore to an otherwise beautiful waterfront; after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake the Embarcadero Freeway was torn down and not replaced.
Besides being a beautiful city to visit, from the 1950s forward San Francisco became known as the city of the cool, quirky, unusual, and counterculture. There were the Beatniks of the fifties and sixties, and the hippies in the sixties and seventies. "Only in San Francisco" became part of the lexicon to describe San Francisco's counterculture and rebel population, a reputation that still exists today. The film industry also made San Francisco world-famous and instantly recognizable; the city provides a superb backdrop for a movie, regardless of genre or topic.
Since 2000, San Francisco has experienced a development boom. Even with the burst of the dot-com bubble, the economy has remained robust and the city government pushed for redevelopment of its blighted industrial section known as "South of Market". Today, the SoMa area is crowded with new condominium and office buildings, new tourist attractions, and dot-com industries. The city's efforts have shielded it somewhat from the recent recession and subsequent real estate crash, and today the financial sector is second only to tourism as San Francisco's largest industry, with the city consistently remaining at the top five of the world's most popular tourist destinations.
San Francisco has a mild climate, with cool, wet winters and dry summers. In most months, you can expect the high temperature to be in the upper 50s, 60s or low 70s degrees Fahrenheit (between 15 and 25 degrees Celsius). However, these mild temperature readings belie a unique climate not shared by other major cities in the state or country.
Summer days usually start out under fog, slowly burning off towards the ocean into a sunny albeit windy afternoon. Measureable precipitation during the summer months is rare, although light drizzle is possible. Humidity is very constant, but rarely uncomfortable. At late afternoon, when the fog and wind returns people generally find themselves needing a jacket (and this is summer!). There are some days when the fog lingers all day.
In the winter, the rainy season is in full swing. That being said, the chances for a calm, windless, sunny day are actually higher in the winter than in the summer! However, the overall temperatures are going to be lower in the winter.
Spring and fall are not so much seasons in themselves in San Francisco, but rather they are quick transitional periods with some days resembling summer and others the winter. Fall in particular is a good time to visit because the summer wind & fog has mostly gone, but the rainy season has not yet started. The late summer month of September, as summer transitions into fall, is the warmest and driest month of the entire year for San Francisco. Heat waves can occasionally occur around this time of year.
Within these general rules, San Francisco also has a series of microclimates created by the city's topography and maritime setting. Large hills in the city's center block much of the fog, wind, and precipitation that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean. Because of this, there can be significant weather differences in different parts of the city and the surrounding Bay Area at the same time. Generally, the more windward areas along the coast (e.g., the Outer Sunset) are cooler and foggier, while the more leeward areas in the east are warmer and drier (e.g., the Mission). Temperature differences of 10-15 degrees or so are common on days where the fog persists on the western side of the city. These differences continue as you move east, out of the city, into the East bay, and into the outer East Bay (on the other side of the hills from Berkeley and Oakland), where it can be much hotter and drier. Local meteorologists routinely have three forecasts: one for the coast, one for the bay, and one for the inland areas. In short, if you don't like the weather, perhaps travel a few miles east or west to your desired climate.
San Francisco literature finds its roots in the city's long and often tumultuous history, its diversity, and its attraction to eclectic characters; the city was a major center for the Beat poetry movement and seems to also hold an uncanny attraction for science fiction writers. Among the most famous works set in San Francisco:
San Francisco has been the backdrop for many films, due in part to the Bay Area's vibrant filmmaking community and the city's proximity to Hollywood. The production companies of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, along with the animation company Pixar are just a few of the big players who call the San Francisco area home. Among the better films set in San Francisco:
San Francisco is known for its Victorian architecture, particularly in the central and northern neighborhoods (e.g., Haight-Ashbury, Alamo Square, Noe Valley, Castro, Nob Hill, and Pacific Heights). The city has one of the most restrictive building and planning codes in the world, which helps preserve the historical architecture in certain areas and create a severe shortage of housing stock, which drives up the price of housing. The exorbitant price of housing, both buying and renting, is a favorite topic of San Francisco locals. It helps to explain why there are so few families in San Francisco (another favorite topic).
In recent years, San Francisco has undergone high-rise construction boom centered in SoMa, just south of what was historically the center of downtown. This was one of the few areas of the city left for development (i.e. without entrenched anti-development policies). Unlike other major cities like New York and Chicago, San Francisco is not known for having buildings built by star architects. This may be due to the difficulty of getting projects approved in the city.
San Francisco prides itself on its openness to diversity in race, gender, sexual orientation and personal style. This trait is widely considered to be one of the defining features of the city, and it draws both visitors and transplants alike.
English is the dominant language spoken in San Francisco. San Francisco is home to the second largest Chinese community in the United States after New York City, and Cantonese is commonly spoken in the various Chinese-dominated neighborhoods, with an increasing Mandarin-speaking minority. Like much of California, there is also a large Latin American population, so Spanish is also commonly spoken in San Francisco, especially in the Mission District.
Tobacco smokers beware: as in the rest of California, smoking is illegal in bars, restaurants, and other public places. Additionally, the City of San Francisco has a local ordinance that require smokers to go all the way to the curb (or if there is no curb, at least 25 feet from any building - not simply the entrances). As of January 2013 enforcement is inconsistent and the odds you'll be hassled for standing and smoking outside a restaurant or bar are low. Bay Area people can be particularly vocal about personal habits, so take care and be mindful and respectful of others when smoking, even in places where it is allowed.
On the other hand, smoking marijuana is remarkably well-tolerated. If you are visiting from elsewhere in the U.S., you may be very surprised to find that marijuana is not considered to be a problem by San Franciscans, and even by the city's police. While still illegal under federal law, a law was passed in 2006 officially making marijuana the lowest priority for the SFPD. This does not mean that you should smoke marijuana just anywhere, but the rules of etiquette are difficult to navigate. You will find people smoking marijuana at large concerts, but not small concerts. You will find people smoking marijuana on a street corner in the middle of the day in some neighborhoods (e.g., Haight-Ashbury) but frowned upon in others (e.g., the Financial District).
Public nudity has been celebrated among some residents in recent decades. More recently, however, there has been some controversy surrounding public nudity in San Francisco. There is now a law banning some public nudity, with nudists actively opposing the law.
It's worth mentioning that natives tend to dislike many of the nicknames given to their city. Instead of saying "San Fran," "Frisco," or "SFO," most refer to San Francisco by its full name or just "The City."
The Bay Area has of one the most vibrant high-tech startup scenes in the world. While the venture capital firms are largely in the South Bay, many of the small startups and tech workers are in San Francisco.
San Francisco's visitor information centers offer maps, brochures and other information for tourists.
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