Now it gets about 1.8 million visitors a year, about a quarter of them foreigners, who pay admission of $26 to $33 per adult.
4. Treasure Island
But let's go back to the view from Coit Tower. Look east toward the Bay Bridge, then look down to its footings on tiny Yerba Buena Island. Then check out the strange, flat, 400-acre patch of land attached to it by a causeway.
That's Treasure Island, created from scratch to house the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939-40. This was San Francisco's effort to wow the world with its new bridges and artistic wonders. (More later on that.) Unfortunately, the 1939 World's Fair in New York gave it stiff competition.
After the expo, the island was supposed to become an airport -- but then came Pearl Harbor, and suddenly it was a naval station. For more than 4 million sailors in the Pacific theater, Treasure Island was either the beginning of the war, the end, or both.
Since then, the island has lapsed into an afterlife as a lonely enclave of affordable apartments and toxic cleanup sites. Let's just give it a glance and move along to the star of this tour -- that other bridge.
5. Golden Gate Bridge
For years, I'd been wanting to bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, or at least bike to it. Now I finally have. You just rent a bike on Columbus Avenue from Bike and Roll or Blazing Saddles ($7 an hour and up at either spot), make your way a few blocks to Fisherman's Wharf, then follow the shoreline bike and footpath to the south.
It's only about 3 miles to the bridge. You pass Fort Mason, the Marina District and the grassy expanse of Crissy Field. If you like, you can stop at the Warming Hut, a rehabbed old building that now houses a smart little cafe and bookshop run by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. I'd never noticed it before, but from just outside you get a marvelous perspective on the bridge and no tourist mob.
As for the bridge itself, construction began in 1933 under chief engineer Joseph B. Strauss. Architect Irving F. Morrow is the one who came up with the color. (Apparently, the U.S. Navy favored a black bridge with yellow stripes.) It was completed April 19, 1937.
There's plenty of room for bikes, toll-free, around the clock, on its eastern sidewalk. (At certain times, you can ride on the western side too.)
6. Top of the Mark
Now it's time for a drink. Ditch the bike, put on something presentable, find your way to the top of Nob Hill and step into the posh InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco. For a little reminder of our own recession, check the rates: For a high-end property with a four-diamond rating, they have lately been as low as $144 a night.
The Mark Hopkins opened in 1926, a combination of French château and Spanish Renaissance. Then in 1939, the owner, George D. Smith, converted the 19th floor penthouse into a cash-generating cocktail lounge with a wraparound view and called it the Top of the Mark.
During the war years, it became a favorite spot for last drinks before sailors shipped out. Waiters like to point out the Weepers' Corner, where wives and sweethearts huddled to watch their men's ships sail away.
There are fewer tears now (there was a conventioneers' cocktail party taking up half the room when I arrived), but the views are still striking, especially at dusk. If you show up just after 5 p.m., you can take in the view for the $7 cost of a beer (although they'd rather sell you one of their many, many $13 martinis).
7. War Memorial Opera House and Veterans Building
Just a few miles away, in the gritty Civic Center neighborhood (avoid, avoid, avoid this stretch of Market Street), the War Memorial Opera House and Veterans Building (which make up the Performing Arts Center) have stood since 1932. The buildings, twins from the outside, with a courtyard between them, were built to honor World War I veterans.
Because the San Francisco Ballet was performing the night of my visit, I got a chance to see the 3,200-seat venue with dancers bounding beneath the heavy gold curtain, well-heeled San Franciscans filling the seats. It was an elegant night, compromised only by my choice of lodgings: The Hotel Metropolis, at the scruffy end of Mason Street near Market, is fine on the inside, even a bit chic, and cost me a mere $60 for the night. But now that I've seen the street-corner crowd that gathers outside after dark, I can't recommend it to families or solo travelers.