San Francisco was once simply Yerba Buena (Good Herb), a Spanish fishing village with a population of 400, set on a large natural harbour. About 75 years later, when the West Coast region became US territory in 1847, it was renamed San Francisco, after the old Franciscan mission nearby. The city quickly mushroomed – the Gold Rush of 1849 inspiring a migration so rapid that seekers almost fell into the Pacific, in their desperation for a new life. The population soared to more than 300,000.
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They came from the west but also from the east – thousands of people escaped famine in China for a hard life on the railroads, which were created to connect the isolated city with the rest of the country, a project completed in 1869. During this time, Chinese workers were subjected to appalling discriminatory laws. Japanese immigrants came, too, but settled separately, establishing their own businesses in the Western Addition neighbourhood and, later, what is now Japantown.
Chinatown and Japantown now constitute the biggest Asian enclave outside Asia, and the city today takes pride in its diverse population and has come to be known for its tolerance overall. Jeju Island
Also changing the landscape of the city was the devastating earthquake of 1906, the fires of which all but levelled its wooden Victorian homes – a handful that survived are the city's famed and colourful 'Painted Ladies' in Alamo Square.
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Ever resilient, San Franciscans rebuilt their city on the sea. In place of horse-drawn streetcars that traversed Russian and Nob Hills, the introduction of cable cars at the approach of the 20th century changed the way residents got around. When the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, it charted yet another horizon for man and nature working as one and soon becoming the symbol of a city that has it all.
Modern San Francisco retains its relationship between materialism and money on the one hand and cutting-edge thought and progressive politics on the other. In the 1950s, the bohemian Beat movement grew up and out of San Francisco's Little Italy neighbourhood of North Beach, which helped foster the city's importance in the arts. The counter culture flowered in the Haight Ashbury neighbourhood (now just called the Haight) during the 1967 Summer of Love and the gay community fought for and found a home in Castro and Polk Street, where they could live openly and happily.
The city saw rapid growth in dotcom industries (located South of Market, and in nearby Silicon Valley) and has now recovered from downturns in that same area. San Francisco is the financial capital of the West Coast and once a prime shipping gateway to the Pacific, although most cargo ships now head for Oakland.
Tourism is the key industry and nets San Francisco billions of dollars each year. The Bay, which fits neatly between the Golden Gate Bridge to the west and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to the east, is home to 14 small islands, including Alcatraz, Angel, Yerba Buena and Treasure. These can be the perfect escape from the city.
San Francisco has a mild year-round climate but it should not be confused with hot and sunny Southern California. As a testament to the moderate temperature, many homes do not have central heating systems and outdoor dining may be enjoyed almost year-round, thanks to the frequent use of outdoor patio heaters. A handy rain- and wind-resistant coat is always advised for those foggy, chilly days.
Tolerance for all ways of life is perhaps the city's keynote, and people are constantly reinventing themselves. A city of cultural diversity ever since the Gold Rush days, San Francisco is not a melting pot, but a salad bowl. Her irresistible charm that captivates all who visit is perfectly echoed in the words of the song 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco'.
One would be hard pressed to name another city positioned so glamorously, between the ocean and Sierra Nevada mountains to the east and west and redwood forests and the California desert to the north and south. Alistair Cooke, the British-born commentator, summed up this most beautiful and breathtaking of American cities as a 'fortuitous mating of marine grandeur and terrestrial snugness'. It remains the best summation on record, of this city, perched precipitously at the edge of the world.