USA & Canada | Inspiration

15 San Francisco facts you probably never knew

Recently updated on August 13th, 2023 at 02:29 pm

From a culture filled with tech startups, a diverse food scene and funky neighbourhoods to big-ticket must-sees including the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and hilly rides on cable cars, there’s so much that makes San Francisco a fun travel destination.

Known for being at the epicentre of the hippie movement in the late 1960s, San Francisco prides itself on being an open-minded city with a bohemian soul. 

With a varied history that dates back to 1835, when the first European settlers arrived into the city, there’s a lot of things you need to know about San Francisco. Below, we’ve compiled a list of some of our favourite San Francisco facts that might just surprise you.

1. Golden Gate Park is Bigger than Central Park

A San Francisco fun fact that might surprise you, is the fact that the famous Central Park in New York City is smaller than San Francisco’s glorious Golden Gate Park by 20%! Central Park in New York covers 778 acres, while Golden Gate Park is 1017 acres.


2. The Famous San Francisco Fog Has a Name

There are two things that San Francisco is notorious for; steep rolling hills and fog…. Which the locals refer to as Karl. The origins of the name are uncertain; some people believe the fog was named after the giant Karl from the film Big Fish in 2003, however, others have said that the fog has been called Karl for decades. Nonetheless, the city’s most famous resident does have a name, and an Instagram account with over 250K followers!


In the late 1890’s Makoto Hagiwara, a Japanese immigrant of San Francisco invented the modern-day fortune cookie, which he served at the Golden Gate Park’s Tea Garden. 

For a unique experience, one of our favourite San Francisco travel tips is to head to the Ross Alley fortune cookie factory in Chinatown. Here, you can watch fortune cookies being made by the dozens and buy them fresh to enjoy yourself!


4. The Famous Pier 39 Sea Lions Aren’t Long-term Residents of the City

The famous sea lions that sunbath off of Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf haven’t always been there. A cause that no one’s been able to explain, the sea lion’s only arrived after the earthquake in 1989. Originally, business owners on the wharf didn’t like the sea lions being there as they were too loud, but now they are a major tourist attraction.

Pier 39 seals san francisco

5. The Golden Gate Bridge Was Meant to be Black and Gold

Similar to most bridges of the early 20th century, the famous Golden Gate Bridge was originally meant to be black and gold. The bright colour came to be as a result of Irving Morrow, the bridge’s consulting architect, noticing the striking reddish-tinged primer coat that was painted on some of the steel.

It took a lot of convincing to get the striking colour approved, but Morrow advocated that the bold, red-orange tone would complement the gray fog, golden and green hills and blue water and sky; he wasn’t wrong!


6. San Francisco is Home to the Oldest Chinatown in North America

There’s many reasons why visiting Chinatown is on the top of many ‘what to do in San Francisco’ lists. Established in 1848, the city’s Chinatown is the oldest in North America. Not only that, measuring one mile in length and half a mile wide, it is also the second largest Chinatown outside of Asia.


7. San Francisco is Built on More than 50 Hills

It’s not unknown that San Francisco is a hilly city. However, it might surprise you to learn that the city is built on more than 50 hills! While many believe that the city is only made up of 7 or 9 hills, there are actually more than 50 named hills. Some of the most well-known are Russian Hill, Nob Hill, Telegraph Hill and Twin Peaks. While other, lesser known hills include Golden Mine Hill, Excelsior Heights and Tank Hill.


8. San Francisco is Not a Large City

A San Francisco fact that might come as a surprise; despite having a population of more than 7 million people, the city is actually quite small. Measuring only seven miles in both length and width, San Francisco is definitely not large! However, its small size does make visiting the city easy, as it’s not difficult to see a lot in one day.

9. Alcatraz Wasn’t Always a Prison

Alcatraz (which means ‘pelican’ in Spanish) hasn’t always been a prison. In fact, prior to becoming a prison in 1934, Alcatraz was used as a military fort.

Some of the former prisoners include George Kelly, Robert Stroud and Al Capone, who arrived at Alcatraz by train. The warden at the time was so worried about security that they loaded the train car onto a barge instead of unloading the prisoners from the train and moving them onto a boat.


10. San Francisco is Home to the Largest Japantown in the United States

Once upon a time, the state of California alone was home to 43 different Japantowns. However, after World War II, most Japantowns were lost, leaving just three in the country in total. The largest and oldest Japantown in the US can be found in San Francisco. The other two Japantowns are located in San Jose and Los Angeles.

San Francisco travel tip: If you’re in San Francisco during the spring, be sure to head to Japantown for a sushi lunch amongst the blooming cherry blossoms.


11. Burials Are Outlawed in San Francisco

In 1902, the city’s board of supervisors voted to stop all burials within the San Francisco city limits, due to space issues. In order to make more room, then-current graves were transported to Colma, 15 minutes south of the city. Due to this restriction, there are only two remaining cemeteries in the city; one is behind the Mission San Francisco de Asis, and the other is the National Cemetery in Presidio.

12. But, There is a Pet Cemetery!

Located under the 101 overpass in the Presido is the Presido Pet Cemetery, which was founded in the 1950’s. The small cemetery is the final resting place for more than 400 pets that belonged to military families. Within the cemetery, there’s a small sign that reads ‘The love these animals gave will never be forgotten’.

13. The City Hasn’t Always Been Named ‘San Francisco’

Founded in 1776, the city of San Francisco wasn’t named so until 1846. Prior to the renaming, the city was known as ‘Yerba Buena’, which means ‘good herb’ in Spanish. The city got its original name from the wild mint that grew around the areas where the first European settlers pitched their tents.


14. San Francisco is Home to the Country’s Only Rolling National Historic Landmark

The famous San Francisco cable cars are the United State’s only rolling National Historic Landmark. Every year, millions of people hop onboard a cable car to enjoy the nine-mile-per-hour ride.

15. San Francisco – the Historic City

If you consider yourself a bit of a history buff and are wondering what there is for you to do in San Francisco, you’ll be pleased to know that you won’t encounter any shortages of experiences and sights. The city is home to more than 200 historic landmark buildings, 11 historical districts and 14,000 Victorian homes. 

For some memorable views, be sure to head to Alamo Square (don’t forget your camera!), where you can witness the contrasting modern city skyline against the Victorian ‘postcard row’.


Did any of these San Francisco facts surprise you? Let us know in the comments! Or, if these facts have sparked some ideas for some San Francisco travel tips for you to cross off your bucket list in the future, head to our website where we can tell you all there is to know about exploring San Francisco with Trafalgar.

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