San Francisco, a city and port synonymous with San Francisco County in northern California, U.S., is perched on a peninsula wedged between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. It serves as a vibrant cultural and financial hub for the western United States and is renowned for its cosmopolitan atmosphere.
Covering an area of 46 square miles (120 square km), it had a population of 805,235 in 2010. The broader San Francisco–San Mateo–Redwood City Metro Division boasted 1,776,095 residents, while the extended San Francisco–Oakland–Fremont Metro Area had a population of 4,335,391. Fast forward to 2020, and San Francisco’s population had grown to 873,965, with the San Francisco–San Mateo–Redwood City Metro Division home to 1,638,407 and the San Francisco–Oakland–Berkeley Metro Area counting 4,749,008 residents.
Table of Contents
1. Character of the City
San Francisco occupies a special place in the American imagination, often seen as a sophisticated, picturesque seaport. Its hilly streets offer breathtaking views of San Francisco Bay, making it a city where residents relish the finer things in life—music, art, and gourmet cuisine. Yet, this romanticized vision has evolved over time. The city has grappled with urban challenges, including congestion, pollution, and social issues since World War II. The population makeup has shifted, becoming more diverse. San Francisco embodies a paradox—an ever-evolving blend of dreams and realities. Despite its issues, many San Franciscans, like poet George Sterling, continue to cherish it as “the cool grey city of love,” making it one of America’s most distinctive and attractive places to call home.
2. Landscape of San Francisco
San Francisco, a city characterized by its distinctive hills, occupies the northern tip of a peninsula. To the south, one finds the suburban areas of San Mateo County, while the bay lies to the east and northeast, and the vast Pacific Ocean stretches to the west and northwest. The city’s most renowned hills include Twin Peaks, Mount Davidson, Mount Sutro, Nob Hill, and Telegraph Hill. The city’s unique layout, with downtown streets climbing steep slopes, gives both locals and visitors memorable views of the bay.
San Francisco Bay, once a submerged river valley, has seen significant changes over time due to land reclamation efforts. Although the bay’s area has reduced since the 19th century, it still plays a crucial role in the city’s geography and identity. Within the city’s boundaries, you’ll find natural islands like Alcatraz and Yerba Buena, as well as man-made Treasure Island, known for its rich history.
San Francisco experiences distinct seasons. Winters are mild and rainy, while spring brings temperate, sunny days. Summers are known for their characteristic fog and cool temperatures, and autumn brings sunny and warm days. On average, the city sees a minimum temperature of 51°F (11°C) and a maximum of 63°F (17°C). Most of the rainfall occurs between November and April, totaling about 21 inches (533 mm) annually. What sets San Francisco’s climate apart is its iconic summer fog, created when warm, moist ocean air meets the cold waters along the coast.
The city’s layout includes the central business district, financial district, North Beach, and Chinatown. These areas were originally part of the gold rush city and expanded along the waterfront. Over time, the city’s landscape has evolved, with the Presidio and Golden Gate Park serving as notable landmarks. San Francisco is predominantly residential, with neighborhoods ranging from Pacific Heights, home to old, affluent families, to Hunters Point, a predominantly African American community.
The city’s skyline also transformed significantly after the late 1960s, with the rise of modern skyscrapers in the financial district. The threat of earthquakes is an ever-present concern in San Francisco’s history, with the 1906 earthquake being the most devastating. The city has witnessed several earthquakes, and modern construction methods aim to provide greater earthquake resistance.
3. People of San Francisco
San Francisco’s demographics have been influenced by unique immigration patterns. The city experienced waves of newcomers during the 19th century, including European immigrants who had not previously settled on the Eastern Seaboard. The city remains one of the most Mediterranean in the United States, with Italians being the dominant European minority, followed by Germans, Irish, and British.
Jewish immigrants played a significant role in shaping the city’s culture, establishing libraries, symphonies, and theaters. African American population growth was spurred by World War II, with a substantial influx of workers to the Bay Area’s shipyards, leading to a thriving community in San Francisco. The Fillmore Street neighborhood, once occupied by Japanese residents before their internment during World War II, became a hub for African Americans. Over time, gentrification and rising property costs displaced many African Americans from their historic neighborhoods. The city also boasts a prominent LGBTQ+ community, particularly in the Castro district, which has become famous as one of the world’s leading LGBTQ+ neighborhoods.
The San Francisco Bay Area has a rich economic history, with its roots in the gold rush of 1848–49, which established San Francisco as a significant city. It continues to serve as a vital port and a center for finance and administration on the West Coast. The technology industry is a significant contributor to the local economy, with San Francisco playing host to several tech companies and startups. The financial sector is also robust, with a strong presence of banks and financial services firms. The city’s economy extends to business services, retail trade, tourism, professional services, and manufacturing. Notably, San Francisco is home to Levi Strauss & Co., known for its iconic blue jeans.
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Shipping has always been a central component of San Francisco’s economy. From its early days as a port of call for the hide-and-tallow trade to the home port of the Pacific whale fishery, the city has been acutely aware of the importance of shipping. The Port of San Francisco, along with other ports around the bay, is one of the busiest international ports in the United States.
Industry and Tourism
Manufacturing plays a crucial role in the San Francisco Bay Area’s economy, with the city itself hosting industries in apparel, food processing, and shipbuilding. The aerospace and electronics sectors are strong on the peninsula.
Tourism is another significant source of income, with iconic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the city’s vibrant neighborhoods attracting visitors from around the world. The waterfront offers diverse attractions, from whale-watching to tours of Alcatraz Island. Popular destinations like Ghirardelli Square, Pier 39, and the Ferry Building provide unique experiences.
San Francisco’s status as a financial center dates back to the early days of the gold rush when the city saw a flurry of financial transactions. Today, it houses the Pacific Stock Exchange and serves as the headquarters for numerous banks and financial services companies, including Wells Fargo. While there are no independent native banks headquartered in the city, San Francisco maintains a prominent role in the nation’s investment banking landscape.
San Francisco faces challenges related to smog and freeway traffic, driven mainly by the automobile-centric transportation in the area. The city is connected to the East Bay cities by two major bridges—the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, serving as crucial transportation arteries.
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Public transportation includes the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, which offers rapid transit connections to various communities in the region. The iconic cable cars remain an essential part of the city’s transportation network. Additionally, San Francisco International Airport, located south of the city, serves as a gateway for air travel to and from the region.
5. Administration and social conditions
Distinguishing itself from other California cities, San Francisco, incorporated in 1850, maintains a unique consolidated city-county government structure. Operating under the 1932 freeholders’ charter, the city-county empowers its mayor with strong executive authority while delegating significant responsibilities to a chief administrative officer, appointed by the mayor, and a controller. Legislative powers are vested in an elected board of supervisors. Two other key appointed officials include the superintendent of schools and the manager of utilities.
San Francisco’s primary water source has been the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir since 1934, situated 167 miles (269 km) away in the Sierra Nevada. Additional water sources include the Calaveras and San Antonio reservoirs in Alameda and Santa Clara counties, as well as reservoirs in San Mateo County to the south. The Hetch Hetchy project entailed damming a picturesque valley in Yosemite National Park and constructing lengthy tunnels, one spanning 25 miles (40 km) through the Coast Range.
In 1902, the city completed the first high-voltage line for hydroelectric power transmission, covering 180 miles (290 km) between a powerhouse on the Mokelumne River and San Francisco. Since then, the Bay Area has established a network of hydroelectric plants on its inland rivers, in addition to a steam-powered plant on Monterey Bay.
The Bay Area is a prominent center of higher education. Although not strictly San Francisco institutions, the region boasts two prestigious universities: the University of California in Berkeley, across the bay (established in 1873), and Stanford University in Palo Alto (founded in 1891).
Within the city limits of San Francisco, institutions like the University of San Francisco, initially a Jesuit academy founded in 1855, and San Francisco State University, which began as a normal school in 1899, evolved into a four-year college in 1935 and achieved university status in 1972. Other notable institutions include Golden Gate University (established in 1853), the City College of San Francisco (a two-year public college since 1935), and the San Francisco Art Institute (founded in 1871).
6. Cultural Life
San Francisco’s enduring charm lies in its long-established reputation as a cultural epicenter. By 1880, the city boasted one of the country’s largest opera houses, a grand hotel, public parks, magnificent churches and synagogues, and a skyline adorned with the mansions of millionaires. The city thrived with drama and music, featuring luminaries such as Sarah Bernhardt, Edwin Booth, Luisa Tetrazzini, James O’Neill, Lillie Langtry, and Lotta Crabtree. The city’s true artistic allure, however, has been its role as a magnet for writers. Mark Twain, one of the first, arrived during the silver boom following the gold rush. Other notable authors included Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Bret Harte, Frank Norris, Gertrude Atherton, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
In the mid-1950s, San Francisco gained fame as a hub of the Beat movement, with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore becoming a renowned gathering place. Contemporary Bay Area authors include Amy Tan, Herbert Gold, Anne Lamott, Ethan Canin, Danielle Steele, and Dave Eggers.
San Francisco houses two major musical institutions. The San Francisco Symphony performs at the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall and holds pop concerts in the summer. The San Francisco Opera schedules an early season to accommodate its leading singers’ commitments at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. The city’s professional theater scene is limited, primarily occupied by touring casts of successful Broadway shows, with the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) being a notable exception. While San Francisco’s artistic community may not match the prominence of its literary establishment, it has produced notable figures such as Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn.
Several cultural institutions emerged following the 1906 earthquake. These include the Civic Center, adorned with Renaissance revival-style buildings such as City Hall, the public library, and the civic auditorium. The de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, now part of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, stands as a testament to the contributions of M.H. de Young.
The California Palace of the Legion of Honor, which overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge, was sponsored by Adolph and Alma de Bretteville Spreckels. The monumental Palace of Fine Arts, a reminder of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, houses the Exploratorium and is located in the Marina District. The city is also home to the Walt Disney Family Museum, celebrating the life and work of animation pioneer Walt Disney.
Integral to San Francisco’s culture is its vibrant culinary scene, bars, and hotels. This cultural tapestry extends into the diverse ethnic enclaves of Chinatown, North Beach’s Italian community, Japantown, the Russian colony along Clement Street, and the Hispanic Mission District.
The city has a rich sports history, with teams like the 49ers and Giants leaving their mark. In the late 1960s, Haight-Ashbury District became a symbol of the counterculture movement with the “flower children” and “hippies.” While gentrification has transformed this district in recent years, San Francisco continues to hold a special place in the nation’s cultural memory.
Exploration and Early Settlement
The early exploration of San Francisco is a remarkable tale, as this city’s stunning natural harbor, San Francisco Bay, initially went unnoticed by famous captains and explorers. Legends like Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo (1542–43), Sir Francis Drake (1579), and Sebastián Vizcaíno (1602) sailed past its entrance. However, in 1769, a scouting party from Gaspar de Portolá’s Spanish expedition peered down from a hilltop and became the first Europeans to witness San Francisco Bay. The historic moment when the San Carlos, the first Spanish ship, navigated the bay’s entrance occurred on August 5, 1775, led by Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala. While there is some speculation that Sir Francis Drake might have entered the bay, most evidence suggests otherwise.
Settlers from Monterey, guided by Lieutenant José Joaquin Moraga and the Reverend Francisco Palóu, took root at the tip of the San Francisco peninsula the following year. The military post, serving as the Presidio of San Francisco until 1994, was established in September 1776, and in October, the Mission San Francisco de Asis, affectionately known as the Mission Dolores, was founded. It wasn’t until almost half a century later that a village emerged on the shores of Yerba Buena Cove, situated 2 miles (3 km) east of the mission.
Captain William Anthony Richardson, an Englishman, erected San Francisco’s first dwelling in 1835, a tent fashioned from four pieces of redwood and a ship’s foresail. Around the same time, the United States attempted to purchase San Francisco Bay from the Mexican government, having heard reports from whalers and captains involved in the hide-and-tallow trade about the bay’s immense commercial potential. The city’s potential was well noted by Richard Henry Dana, whose ship sailed into the bay in 1835. In his account, “Two Years Before the Mast” (1840), he wrote, “If California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the center of its prosperity.”
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San Francisco had to wait only 11 more years. In 1846, as hostilities began along the Rio Grande, Captain John B. Montgomery sailed the sloop of war Portsmouth into the bay on June 3, 1846. He anchored in Yerba Buena Cove, and later, with a group of sailors and marines, hoisted the U.S. flag in the plaza on July 9, 1846. On January 30, 1847, Yerba Buena was officially renamed San Francisco, a more auspicious name.
In 1844, the permanent European population of Yerba Buena numbered less than 50. Just two years later, right before the discovery of gold on the American River, the town had swelled to around 200 shacks and adobes, housing roughly 800 settlers (see more: Most Famous Houses in San Francisco).
The Growth of the Metropolis
The City of the ’49ers
The discovery of gold had a seismic impact on San Francisco’s trajectory. The initial exodus of the population to the Mother Lode left the village nearly deserted, but it quickly transformed into one of the most extraordinary cities ever to be built. Over 40,000 gold seekers arrived by sea, another 30,000 crossed the Great Basin, and an additional 9,000 moved north from Mexico. By 1851, the cove was anchored by more than 800 ships abandoned by their crews.
The gold seekers prospered, while other sectors experienced booming prices. The city was characterized by rapid wealth accumulation, bankruptcies, scams, and violence, resulting in numerous murders. In the 1850s, two vigilance committees sought to address the lawlessness, hanging eight individuals as a deterrent. The discovery of silver in the Nevada Territory in 1859 added a new dimension to San Francisco’s fortunes, attracting bankers, speculators, and lawyers who enjoyed the city’s fine dining establishments and luxurious hotels. By 1870, San Francisco was home to nearly 150,000 residents.
The City Comes of Age
The 1860s and ’70s marked the emergence of the modern San Francisco. The city claimed to be the Athens, Paris, and New York City of the West, but it retained its wild and untamed origins. Rudyard Kipling once described it as “a mad city, inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people.”
The 20th Century
Expansion During the World Wars
While the world prepared for World War I, San Francisco celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal with a successful World’s Fair, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The Great Depression saw a labor struggle between 4,000 longshoremen competing for 1,300 jobs, leading to “Bloody Thursday” in 1934. The citywide general strike that followed was the largest and most successful in U.S. history.
During World War II, San Francisco played a pivotal role as a major Pacific theatre disembarkation point. The war brought economic prosperity, the development of shipyards, and an influx of half a million people into the area’s war-related industries, many of whom remained after the war. In 1945, the United Nations was founded in the city as a result of the San Francisco Conference held from April to June that year.
From Peace to Protest
The 1950s brought a remarkable transformation to San Francisco, known not only for its pivotal role in the Beat movement but also for being the springboard for numerous performers who would later achieve fame. Legendary figures like Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, Woody Allen, Phyllis Diller, Barbra Streisand, and Mort Sahl all found their first taste of success in the vibrant North Beach venues. The subsequent decade of the 1960s was marked by a wave of counterculture movements, with the emergence of the hippie culture, drug experimentation, and vigorous protests against the Vietnam War.
As the saying goes, “If you can remember the ’60s in San Francisco, you weren’t there.” During this period, San Francisco ascended as a focal point for psychedelic rock music, gaining national acclaim through local groups such as the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, along with individual performers like Janis Joplin. Simultaneously, the city transformed into a hub for environmentalists and advocates of civil rights, taking bold steps such as busing students for racial integration. Organizations like the Save the Bay Association and San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission were formed in the mid-1960s. In 1969, a group of Native Americans claimed the right to unused government land by occupying Alcatraz Island, maintaining their presence until 1971.
The Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries
In the 1980s, San Francisco witnessed a remarkable period of growth. The city’s population soared past the 700,000 mark, a surge partly attributed to a significant influx of immigrants from South Asia. However, this progress came at a price, as the cost of living skyrocketed, solidifying San Francisco’s reputation as one of the most expensive cities in the United States. During this time, the number of automobiles on its streets doubled, and the iconic yet deteriorating cable cars underwent extensive multimillion-dollar restoration efforts. Tourism emerged as the most profitable industry, while the homeless population, mirroring a nationwide trend, experienced a sharp increase.
Undoubtedly, the most momentous event, both locally and potentially on a national scale, was the devastating earthquake of 1989. It was an event that left an enduring mark on the city’s history.
A significant milestone was achieved in 1995 when San Francisco elected its first African American mayor, Willie L. Brown, Jr. In 1997, San Franciscans came together in a candlelight vigil to honor the passing of Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Herb Caen. Herb Caen had been an integral part of the city’s identity, lovingly referred to as the “cool grey city of love” for over six decades. With his passing, San Francisco bid farewell to one of its most cherished figures.
Given its strong ties to Silicon Valley, it was no surprise that San Francisco’s economy faced challenges in the wake of the bursting of the dot-com bubble in the early 2000s. During the tenures of Mayors Gavin Newsom (2004–11) and Ed Lee (2011–17), the city made a remarkable recovery, particularly during the second technology boom of the 2010s.
This resurgence led to an influx of residents into the already densely populated city, fueling a construction boom and a widespread increase in property values. However, it also intensified the long-standing homelessness problem in San Francisco and prompted debates on gentrification, particularly in historically minority-occupied neighborhoods like the Mission District and Chinatown, which experienced an influx of higher-income white residents.