San Francisco in 5...

A longtime favorite of vacationers from around the world, San Francisco has several iconic attractions trapped under a tacky glaze. The key to relishing these kitschy spots is to tackle them with a sense of humor, some insider’s know-how, and a bit of patience. Scratch through the surface of these famously touristy spots and you’ll discover some genuinely fun experiences waiting to get out. By Jennifer Paull

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    5... Hook Up to Cable

    We’ve all seen images of San Francisco’s cable cars, struggling uphill while crammed with neck-craning tourists. Understandably, the prospect of a slow-moving car filled with sharp elbows and flashing cameras may not thrill you. You might also raise an eyebrow at the $5 one-way fare. It’s possible, though, to hop on a much quieter car - and you simply can’t argue with the beauty of the views along the way.   The Powell-Hyde line is the most central and scenic, thus the busiest. For a less-crowded ride, try the California line, which starts at the foot of Market Street and takes you up to Nob Hill. While it’s not quite as scenic as the city’s other two lines, you’ll cut across Grant Avenue, Chinatown’s main drag. To avoid sardine-like conditions or a long wait at the terminus, ride in the early morning or evening. When you hear the cheerfully clanging bell and see the glinting bay from the crest of a hill, you’ll be glad you came aboard.   Still need convincing? Stop by the cable-car barn’s free Cable Car Museum (1201 Mason St., 415-474-1887), where you can watch the massive cable wheels screech and turn.
    Nina Rubin
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    4... Have it Made in Chinatown

    Chinatown’s core presents itself in a stylized, tourist-centric way, but behind those pagoda rooflines lies a serious purpose. After San Francisco’s disastrous 1906 earthquake and fire, city leaders hoped to expel Chinese immigrants from this downtown area. One Chinese businessman thought fast and suggested that instead, the neighborhood be rebuilt for sightseers. Exotic restaurants, shops, and joss houses, decked out with lanterns and gilded facades, became irresistible to early visitors. The gimmick helped save the community.   Once you go through the stone Chinatown Gate and head up Grant Avenue, you’ll see plenty of these flourishes. Souvenir shops and markets spill onto the sidewalks, hawking everything from DVDs to dried squid. Look past the schlock, though, and you’ll see how traditions are kept alive. Stop by the family-run Chinatown Kite House (717 Grant Ave., 415-989-5182) to size up dragon kites. Find a perfect tea blend at Red Blossom Tea (831 Grant Ave., 415-395-0868), then line up for plump steamed pork buns or mooncake at Eastern Bakery (720 Grant Ave., 415-433-7973), the neighborhood’s oldest bakery. Count your blessings at Kong Chow Temple (855 Stockton St., no phone), then gaze over Chinatown from its fourth-floor balcony.
    Nina Rubin
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    3... Enter Solitary Confinement

    It’s infamous, it’s formidable, and it launched a gazillion lame T-shirts. The name “Alcatraz” conjures up two images: hardened criminals and hordes of day-trippers. Even if you’re not sure who would be more off-putting, get in line for the ferry. Spending some time on “The Rock” will surely change your perspective.   Finesse your trip by buying your ferry tickets (415-981-7625, $26--$33) at least a few days in advance, since same-day tickets often sell out early. The short boat ride itself is a pleasure, with city views and a bay breeze. Once you reach the island, grim history asserts itself. From 1934 to 1963, this was the country’s toughest prison, notorious for its strict rules, isolation, and high-profile criminals. To intensify the experience, sign up for the evening tour.   The echoing halls and bleak cells are certainly evocative, but the audio tour brings things to chilling life. Former prisoners explain daily routines, escape attempts, and the anguish of being tantalizingly close to the city. In an unexpectedly poignant moment, they also describe how hard life after Alcatraz could be… for those who made it out alive.
    Jennifer Paull
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    2... Go, in a GoCar?

    They may look like bumper cars gone rogue, but GoCars (800-914-6227, branches near Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square) now buzz throughout the city. Locals heave mocking sighs but if you haven’t brought another car to town, these taxicab-yellow two-seaters are terrifically convenient.   Despite the cars’ racing stripes, think "Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride" rather than "Bullitt". The open-topped vehicles have just three wheels and are powered by a 49cc engine, on par with a moped. Since you’ll also be low to the ground, wearing a helmet, and going less than 30 miles per hour, you’ll be far from inconspicuous in traffic. After getting a safety briefing and a map, you can drive on virtually any city street - freedom with a fun-park feeling.   Each car has a GPS guiding system and an automated “storytelling” function. You can choose one of three audio tours or draw up your own route. Eager to brave super-twisty Lombard Street or skim through Golden Gate Park? GoCar right ahead. The Presidio park, with its views of the bay and Golden Gate Bridge, is an especially good place to tootle around.
    Jennifer Paull
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    1... Relax With a Hurricane

    Genteel, historic Nob Hill may seem an unlikely place to find something deeply, deliciously corny. Yet in one of the neighborhood’s most elegant landmarks you’ll find one of the country’s splashiest tiki bars. The Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar (950 Mason St., 415-772-5278) beckons from the basement of the Fairmont San Francisco hotel.   The bar has its tiki bona fides; it helped ignite American tiki style in the 1960s with its South Seas décor, moody lighting, and fruity tropical cocktails. Happily, the time-warp Tonga is still a vision of lava rock, bamboo furniture, and plastic leis. Most impressively, there’s a large lagoon with regular “rainstorms” (rumbling thunder sounds and a short shower around the edge of the pool). Yes, you can have your mai tai served in a faux coconut, topped with a paper umbrella and you can even raise a potent Zombie or Tonga Itch to the newly appreciated glories of kitsch. Just don’t drive your GoCar home.   Click here for more from Foxnews.com Travel
    Jennifer Paull
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