Fascinating Facts About San Francisco

Columbus Ave & Downtown San Francisco aerial

Stickney Design / Getty Images 

The town that became San Francisco huddled on the edge of Yerba Buena Cove. It got its name from the wild mint (good herb) growing nearby The first European resident pitched his tent there in 1835.

The first mayor changed the town's name to San Francisco in 1848. Its 469 residents including Ohlone Indians, Americans, Spanish Californians, Hawaiians, Europeans, South Americans, and New Zealanders.

After James Marshall found gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848, the world poured into San Francisco. By 1852, the city swelled to almost 25,000 inhabitants. The California gold rush transformed a fishing village into the internationally-famous city of San Francisco almost overnight. Today, San Francisco's 49 square miles are home to more than 800,000 people. And there's your first fact: San Francisco is probably smaller than you think. In fact, it's smaller than not only Los Angeles, but also San Diego and San Jose, both of which have more than a million inhabitants.

For more than 150 years, San Francisco has been a magnet for fortune-seekers, immigrants, artists, and poets. Guarded by the famous bridge spanning the Golden Gate, the city by the bay is known for its diverse citizenry, Victorian architecture, iconic San Francisco cable cars and scenic views.

And for its fog. San Francisco's summer fog rushes in on ocean breezes as the city's cool air moves toward warmer places inland. San Franciscans make friends with the fog, and when the Coast Guard removed the bay's last foghorn, cries of protest soon brought it back.

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Chinese Fortune Cookies Were Invented by a Japanese Person

USA, California, San Francisco, Chinatown, fortune cookie factory
Walter Bibikow / Getty Images

The country's first Chinese immigrants came to San Francisco in 1848. In an act typical of San Francisco's cultural crazy quilt, the Japanese Hagiwara family invented "Chinese" fortune cookies at Golden Gate Park's Tea Garden.

At Chinatown's Ross Alley fortune cookie factory, you can buy them fresh - and watch a Rube Goldberg-like contraption turn them out by the dozens.

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Steepest, Crookedest Are Not What You Think

Lombard Street, San Francisco

TripSavvy / Melissa Zink 

A city built on 43 hills will surely have steep, curving streets. Vermont Avenue between 22nd and 23rd is the most crooked, and Filbert between Hyde and Leavenworth is steepest at 31.5 degrees.

But neither fact discourages tourists from flocking to Lombard Street's seductive curves.

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Nobody's Buried Here

Cemetery at Mission Dolores
Ed Bierman/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

San Francisco outlawed burials in 1901, and the Presidio and Mission have the city's only remaining cemeteries. The cemeteries are in the neighboring town of Colma, the world's only incorporated city where the dead outnumber the living. Permanent residents of its 16 cemeteries include Wyatt Earp and Joe DiMaggio.

The cemetery at Mission Dolores no longer accepts new burials, but its stones include the city's first Alcalde (Chief Administrator), appointed while the area was under Mexican rule.

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Ellis Island of the West

Immigration Station at Angel Island
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Some people call Angel Island the Ellis Island of the West. It's the place where more than 175,000 Chinese immigrants and Japanese "picture brides" once waited to enter the country. Poems of hope they carved into the walls are still visible at Immigration Station.

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A Rolling National Historic Landmark

Cable Car in Russian Hill, San Francisco

TripSavvy / Melissa Zink

San Francisco cable cars are the country's only rolling National Historic Landmark, and millions of people take a nine-mile-per-hour ride on them each year. At the Cable Car Barn Museum, you can watch enormous 500-horsepower electric motors turn the endless cable loops that keep them moving.

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Historic Buildings - Historic Districts

Victorian house in San Francisco
Jean-Pierre Lescourret / Getty Images

San Francisco has more than 200 historic landmark buildings, 11 historical districts, and 14,000 Victorian homes. From Alamo Square, the city skyline is a modern contrast to the Victorian "postcard row."

Find out more about Victorian architecture and take a photo tour of them, including some fun locations you'll recognize from television and films like Mrs. Doubtfire, Party of Five and Full House.

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Paris in America

The Thinker at the Legion of Honor
Mike D/Flickr/Alcatraz Island

Lands End views give The Thinker plenty to contemplate from his seat outside the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

The museum building is a replica of Paris' Palais de la Legion d'Honneur. And the most beautiful of the city's museums holds one of the world's most significant collections of sculptures by Auguste Rodin.

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The Golden Gate Isn't a Bridge

Aerial view of Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, USA
Cultura RM Exclusive/Chris Sattlberger / Getty Images

John C. Fremont named the San Francisco Bay's entrance "Chrysopylae" (Golden Gate) because it resembled Istanbul's Golden Horn.

The Golden Gate Bridge, with 23 miles of ladders and 300,000 rivets in each tower, was the world's longest span when it opened in 1937. Seventeen ironworkers and 38 painters constantly fight rust and renew the international orange paint on its 1.7-mile span.

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Alcatraz Didn't Start Out as a Prison

Alcatraz Island
Luiz Felipe Castro / Getty Images

Alcatraz means pelican in Spanish. The rocky pelican's island in San Francisco Bay was a military fort before it became a prison.

Today's resident deer mice, banana slugs, and California slender salamanders aren't nearly as famous as former prisoners Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert "Birdman" Stroud. If you're dying to learn more, check out more facts about Alcatraz online.

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Maiden Lane's Surprising Past

Maiden Lane at Night
Thomas Hawk/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Union Square is among the top shopping areas in the nation. Boutiques, spas, galleries and San Francisco's only Frank Lloyd Wright building line nearby Maiden Lane, but it wasn't always so respectable.

Once home to the lowest houses of prostitution, the former Morton Street was so depraved that even police officers hesitated to enter.

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Some Things Survived the 1906 Earthquake

Buildings in Jackson Square
Brendan Riley/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

In 1850, gold seekers abandoned more than 600 vessels in the San Francisco Bay. Some of them became landfill, now lying beneath the Jackson Square Historic District.

It's also the place to find the city's few surviving nineteenth-century commercial buildings, including Ghirardelli's first chocolate factory.

A.P. Hotaling & Co.'s Jackson Street whiskey warehouse was also among those surviving the 1906 earthquake and fire, confounding local clergymen who proclaimed the natural disaster a divine retribution for the city's sins. In response, poet and wit Charles Kellogg Field wrote:

If, as they say, God spanked the town
For being over frisky,
Why did He burn the churches down
And save Hotaling's whiskey?
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Oldest Building: 1791

Mission Dolores
Phil Whitehouse/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Mission Dolores (whose official name is Mission San Francisco de Asis) is the oldest building in San Francisco, built in 1791.

Two major earthquakes couldn't topple it, but tiny powderpost beetles almost did in 2000, chewing their way to international fame before they were stopped.

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City Hall's Most Famous People

San Francisco City Hall

TripSavvy / Melissa Zink 

U.S. President Warren G. Harding once lay in state in San Francisco City Hall, but he isn't the most notable person associated with the Beaux Arts-style building whose dome is taller than the United States Capitol Building.

In 1954, baseball star Joe Di Maggio married movie star Marilyn Monroe at City Hall. They said their vows in the chambers of Judge Perry, a family friend who - in all the excitement - committed an unfortunate oversight, forgetting to kiss the bride.

And in 1978, former city supervisor Dan White assassinated Mayor Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk in an act that launched the famous "Twinkie defense."

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All the Boring Facts

United States, California, San Francisco, Alamo Square, Victorian houses known as the Painted Ladies, the San Francisco Financial District skyline in the background
DUCEPT Pascal / hemis.fr / Getty Images
  • San Francisco Population: 884,363 in 20171
  • Size: 46.69 square miles1
  • City Flower: Dahlia2
  • San Francisco was incorporated as a City on April 15th, 18503

Common Questions About San Francisco Answered

What caused the 1906 San Francisco earthquake? The San Andreas Fault ruptured along 296 miles of its length. 

How big was the 1906 San Francisco earthquake? People didn't measure earthquakes with numbers in 1906, but here's a comparison: In the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, 25 miles of it ruptured. Scientists say the 1906 quake was 16 times stronger than 1989. No matter how you measure it, that's big.4

What time is it in San Francisco? San Francisco is in the Pacific time zone. A quick online search - or your smartphone's time app - will help you find out what time it is right now.

What county is San Francisco in? This one is easy. San Francisco is both a city and a county. Same borders, same government.

What does San Francisco mean? The city's name was taken from the Spanish mission, named for Saint San Francisco de Asis - or Saint Francis of Assisi in English.

1U.S. Census Bureau
3City of San Francisco website
4U.S. Geological Survey

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