The last time NECA’s convention and trade show was held in San Francisco was 16 years ago, and those who haven’t visited since will notice many changes. Yet in many ways, the city by the bay remains the same. Cable cars, elegant Victorian homes, Chinatown, Coit Tower, North Beach, the Golden Gate Bridge and other landmarks seem unchanged, waiting to be enjoyed again. And the food! Whether your taste is for fine French and Italian cuisine, Asian specialties, other ethnic fare or simple American dishes, San Francisco is renowned for excellent dining.

It is easy to see and do a lot in a short period of time in San Francisco—hotels, restaurants and attractions are concentrated in a 47-square-mile area, making the city very walkable. And if the hills are too much or the distance is too far, most destinations are only a short cab ride away.

Covering everything there is to see and do in San Francisco in a short magazine article is impossible. Good guidebooks are available in bookstores, but before purchasing one, be sure it is a recent edition so information will be current. An easy, quick reference is the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau Web site, www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com.

Neighborhoods

San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods. Some of the city’s most interesting and accessible neighborhoods are near the convention center and NECA hotels, perfect for visitors with busy convention schedules.

South of Market (SoMa): The underground Moscone Center, location of the 2007 NECA convention and trade show, is located in SoMa, which has changed significantly since the NECA show’s last appearance in San Francisco. SoMa encompasses about two square miles of fine restaurants and nightclubs, art galleries, theaters and a variety of shops. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., is a $44-million entertainment and art complex. The center is surrounded by the beautifully landscaped Yerba Buena Gardens. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art at Third and Howard streets houses more than 15,000 works of art, including paintings and sculptures, photography, architecture and design, and media arts. The California Historical Society’s new downtown museum at 678 Mission St. showcases the rich legacy of the Golden State. AT&T Park at Third and King streets, perhaps the country’s most scenic Major League Baseball venue, is home to the San Francisco Giants. There are tours daily. Call 415.972.2212.

Adjacent to SoMa, off Market below Golden Gate Avenue, the Civic Center is a concentration of government buildings, performance halls, museums and galleries, and restaurants. It includes Beaux Arts jewels City Hall and the War Memorial Opera House in the War Memorial Performing Arts Center, which also contains the Herbst Theatre, Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall and Veterans Building. Nearby are the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., containing 15,000 items spanning 6,000 years of Asian history, and the San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin St., with more than 1 million books and 400 electronic workstations.

Also south of Market Street, the Mission District is the heart of the city’s Hispanic neighborhood. Located along 24th Street is the district’s colorful collection of restaurants, taquerias, Mexican bakeries, fresh produce markets and specialty shops. Mission Dolores, 16th and Dolores streets, is the oldest structure in San Francisco. The mission contains the city’s largest concentration of murals, which are painted on buildings, fences and garage walls throughout the neighborhood.

Bounded by Geary, Powell, Post and Stockton streets, Union Square is the landmark park in the heart of the city. It was reopened five years ago, following 18 months of renovations that added four grand entrance corner plazas bordered by the park’s signature palms. The naval monument topped by the Goddess of Victory statue was constructed in 1903. Streets around the square have hotels (the St. Francis is one), major retailers and specialty boutiques, galleries and fine restaurants.

Chinatown is a short walk from Union Square, with the main entrance at the Dragon’s Gate at Grant Avenue and Bush Street. This bustling city within a city is crowded with exotic shops, upscale restaurants and inexpensive eating spots, food markets, and temples, all best explored on foot. Chinatown’s busiest street is Grant, also the city’s oldest street. Portsmouth Square at Clay and Kearny streets is a hub of activity. The Chinese Culture Center, 750 Kearny St., rotates exhibits of Chinese arts and crafts.

The former Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Exchange at 743 Washington was the first Chinese-style building constructed in San Francisco.

Centered along Columbus Avenue, North Beach comprises less than a square mile and reflects a rich Italian heritage. Bakeries and delicatessens serve up traditional Italian delicacies. The neighborhood is packed with cabarets, jazz clubs, shops and galleries, family-style restaurants, and gelato parlors. A focal point of activity is Washington Square, bordered by Union, Filbert, Powell and Stockton streets, with the landmark Saints Peter and Paul Church, just off the square on Filbert Street. On the top of nearby Telegraph Hill is Coit Tower, offering magnificent views of the surrounding city and San Francisco Bay.

The low-lying stretch of Union Street west of Van Ness Avenue was the first neighborhood in San Francisco to convert gingerbread Victorian houses into trendy boutiques, art galleries and restaurants. A stroll along this pleasant street’s sidewalks is a delightful way to spend an afternoon or evening. The Octagon House, Gough Street at Union, an eight-sided structure built in 1861, now is the site of a shop offering antiques and artifacts dating from the American Revolution. The Vedanta Temple, 2963 Webster St., is one of the city’s most unusual buildings, combining Colonial, Queen Anne, Moorish and Hindu architectural influences.

There are magnificent views of the bay and Golden Gate Bridge in Pacific Heights, San Francisco’s most prestigious neighborhood, where the elegant mansions are simply breathtaking. Perhaps the most impressive concentration is on Broadway’s high ground between Webster and Lyon streets. Of historical and architectural interest are the Spreckels Mansion, 2080 Washington St.; the Whittier Mansion, 2090 Jackson St.; and the Bourn Mansion, 2550 Webster St.

Haight-Ashbury rests just below Golden Gate Park’s narrow panhandle, extending east from the park. The street sign at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets remains a popular photo location. The area that once was home to the ’60s counterculture is much more genteel today. Vintage clothing stores and record and book shops keep that era alive, and it’s easy to imagine members of the Grateful Dead at their old home at 710 Ashbury or to picture Janis Joplin coming out of the house at 112 Lyon Street.

Other attractions

Fisherman’s Wharf at Taylor Street and the Embarcadero is one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions. That said, the area long ago lost its original charm as a place to glimpse life on the waterfront and has become a shopping venue catering to tourists that includes Pier 39, a long, narrow shopping mall extending into the bay. Never been there? Take a look, but there are too many other interesting things more worthy of visitors with limited free time. Just to the west is Ghirardelli Square, a national historic landmark also turned into a shopping center.

The Embarcadero follows the bay’s waterfront from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street. Recent renovations have transformed the landmark Ferry Building into a vibrant public space, housing high-end retailers, a food hall, restaurants and a farmers’ market. The Ferry Building also is the terminal for ferries to Marin County, Vallejo, Oakland and Alameda. Ships from all corners of the world can be found at the deep-water piers along the Embarcadero, with most passenger ships docking at Pier 35 near Fisherman’s Wharf. Open to the public, Pier 7, at the foot of Broadway just north of the Ferry Building, is the longest pier in the city and offers excellent views of the downtown skyline. Promenades extend along the Embarcadero from the Ferry Building, past the base of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to the South Beach area near King Street.

Due west of the Civic Center, Golden Gate Park covers more than 1,000 acres (it is larger than New York’s Central Park) and is a perfect spot to get away from the city’s bustle and enjoy hundreds of gardens, wooded walking trails and lakes. There is a Japanese Tea Garden, Conservancy of Flowers and Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. Currently closed for renovations is the California Academy of Sciences, including an aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum. Park headquarters is at Stanyan and Fell streets, 415.831.2700.

San Francisco’s cable cars not only are an efficient means of transportation but are a destination in their own right, being designated as national landmarks. The first cable car went into service in 1873, and by the 1890s, eight companies operated 600 cars on 21 routes. They remained a primary mode of public travel until the 1906 earthquake destroyed the system. Today’s cable cars run on three routes that reach many of the city’s attractions (the Powell-Hyde route is the most scenic). San Francisco’s cable cars are the only vehicles of their kind still operating. To learn more, visit the Cable Car Museum on Mason Street at Washington.

Two of the world’s great bridges are in San Francisco. The Golden Gate Bridge crosses the mouth of San Francisco Bay—the Golden Gate—to connect the northern tip of the city to Marin County. Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, the bridge is 1.7 miles long, and its twin towers are 746 feet high. A significant engineering achievement designated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the Wonders of the World, it is regarded by many as the most beautiful bridge in the world, and it is the most recognized icon for the city. The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is a year older and much longer and is constructed of double-decked suspension, truss and cantilever bridge structures, and it includes a tunnel. Its full length is 8.4 miles. Major spans from each shore connect to Yerba Buena Island in mid-bay with the tunnel through the island’s rocky central hill. The 10 lanes of traffic—five taking traffic west on the upper level, five eastbound on the lower level—carry an average of more than 280,000 vehicles per day. The Bay Bridge is a vital link in the Bay Area’s traffic system, but it never achieved the mystique of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Of course, one of the favorite San Francisco tours is to Alcatraz—best known as a maximum-security prison from 1934 until 1963—which housed many dangerous and notorious prisoners, including Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. Tours recently were expanded and include visits to cramped cells where prisoners lived, the mess hall, library and the “holes” where problem prisoners could be placed. Just one-and-a-half miles off Fisherman’s Wharf, the island now is a part of the Golden Gate Recreational Area. For tour information and reservations, call the Blue & Gold Fleet, 415.705.5555.

There are many side trips available to San Francisco visitors: Oakland and Berkeley just across the Bay Bridge, the Muir Woods and rugged coastline north, the wine country farther north. But one of the best also is one of the closest. Spend a few delightful hours and relax in Sausalito. Get there by ferry, or drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. The ferry landing puts passengers in the heart of this quaint, laid-back town of 8,000. The main street, Bridgeway, runs along the waterfront and is lined with specialty shops, jewelry stores, art galleries and restaurants, with more of the same on less-crowded Caledonia Street, one block inland. Stroll down Bridgeway and enjoy the San Francisco skyline across the sparkling waters of the bay. To get there by water, take the Golden Gate Ferry Service from the Ferry Building, 415.923.2000, or the Blue & Gold Fleet, which departs from Fisherman’s Wharf.    EC

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or up-front@cox.net.