Often referred to as America’s most European city, regularly topping travel magazine favorite cities lists, and famed for its postcard-perfect vistas, San Francisco is indeed, as John Steinbeck described, “a golden handcuff with the key thrown away.” But it’s more than topography that makes the City by the Bay one of the top places for 16.5 million visitors to leave their hearts each year. Unlike most American cities that have evolved in a more measured fashion, San Francisco has been molded politically, socially, and physically by a variety of (literally) earthshaking events, which are outlined here. As you'll see, the city’s character is like no other.

San Francisco Today

While San Francisco’s international character began to take shape during the 1849 Gold Rush, over the past two decades, California’s fourth largest and most densely populated city (second in the nation, behind New York, with 826,000 residents), has weathered the wild ride of two more boom-or-bust economies. The first, in the late 1990s, was the famed “Dot-com boom,” which, when it went bust in the early 2000s, left the city’s residents, businesses and real estate market reeling from economic whiplash. Today, it’s on an upswing again. Only this time, there’s no end in sight to the growth and influx of new wealth. With the Bay Area as the epicenter of the now-established Internet industry and San Francisco the most compelling crash pad for young entrepreneurs and tech workers (who have access to big luxurious private busses that shuttle them to Silicon Valley), the face of the city is changing at wireless Internet speed. Teardown homes in nice neighborhoods are selling for upward of $2 million. Room rentals in shared homes regularly go for more than $1,200. Once-desolate industrial areas are now being developed into multi-use communities teeming with glistening new luxury condos, chic restaurants and trendy businesses.

Not surprisingly, there’s backlash. Reports show that middle-income residents are moving out at rates much faster than they are moving in. The Occupy SF movement, itself part of Occupy Wall Street, brought the city’s economic struggles front and center in the fall of 2011, as hundreds camped out and protested in San Francisco, Oakland, and throughout the Bay Area. (A legitimate question heard from the encampment in Justin Herman Plaza: Why can’t everyone who works in San Francisco afford housing in or near San Francisco?) And, of course, there are the typical big-city problems: Crime is up along with drug use, and despite efforts to curb the ubiquitous problem of homelessness and panhandling, it’s still a thorny—and very visible—issue.

Still, the spirit of San Francisco is still alive and well. Its convention halls are fully booked and, the Giants and 49ers are riding high, and since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down “Prop 8” in June 2013, Governor Jerry Brown has instructed all county clerks to issue same-sex marriage licenses. San Franciscans are lining up for hot, new restaurants and nightspots, packing theaters and film festivals, and crowding into Apple Stores to get their hands on the latest iPhone. Though it may never relive its heady days as the king of the West Coast and it’s hard to predict just how much the continued flood of privileged new residents will affect its tolerant, alternative soul, San Francisco continues to embrace diverse lifestyles and liberal thinking and will undoubtedly retain the title as everyone's favorite California city.

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