GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE
Jim Wilson  /  Redux Pictures file
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
By Travel writer
Special to msnbc.com
updated 9/6/2006 7:09:08 PM ET 2006-09-06T23:09:08

A stroll along the Embarcadero and a drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. A city tour via clanking cable car or a bobbing boat ride on San Francisco Bay. Fresh seafood at Fisherman’s Wharf, dim sum in Chinatown, or a bit of Italy in North Beach. Is there anything better than a summer day in San Francisco?

Well, actually, yes -- a fall day in San Francisco. Now that the flocks of summer visitors have flown home, the streets are less crowded, restaurants are hungry for customers, and you can even get a seat on one of the city’s iconic cable cars. Factor in falling gas prices and autumn airfare sales, and fall is the perfect time for a quick trip to The City by the Bay.

Then again, maybe it’s just me or the fact that my trips to San Francisco typically alternate between midsummer vacations en famille and autumn escapes sans child. Both have their charms, of course, but each inspires its own itinerary and approach to travel. After all, sometimes three’s company -- and sometimes it’s a crowd.

So consider the following a completely subjective, anything-but-exhaustive, seasonally adjusted look at San Francisco from both sides of the Labor Day divide:

On the waterfront

With its carousel, aquarium, and games arcade, Pier 39 (www.pier39.com) attracts hordes of tourists during the summer months. Add in the hundreds of sea lions on the adjacent docks, and the place is part zoo, part amusement park, and perfect for family travelers.

But for a less circus-like experience, head instead to the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park (www.nps.gov/safr), just west of Fisherman’s Wharf. Well-suited for fall’s slower pace, the park offers a scenic beach, tours of historic ships, and a glimpse of the waterfront’s pre-tourist past.

It all comes together, along with live music, theatrical performances, and living history demonstrations, during the park’s free Festival of the Sea on September 9. If you miss that, check out one of the fall concerts onboard the 1886 square rigger Balclutha, scheduled for October 21, November 18, and December 8.

Around the bay

No visit to San Francisco is complete without a cruise around the bay. In summer, visitors line up to board double-decker tour boats, sleek catamarans, and those wacky, wheeled landing crafts better known as Ducks.

Been there, done that? If so, consider leaving the crowds below and taking a flightseeing tour by seaplane, helicopter, or even an open-cockpit biplane. Most folks go for a combination bay/city tour, but other options, including coast trips, sunset tours, and champagne flights are also available.

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Better yet, come autumn, San Francisco’s legendary summer fog is usually long gone, making for some of the best visibility of the year. Sure, flightseeing trips are more expensive than bay cruises, but they’re more exciting and, champagne or not, a lot more intimate when there’s just two of you.

Out and about

During one day on our last family visit to San Francisco, we spent the morning at the zoo (www.sfzoo.org), the afternoon at the Exploratorium science museum (www.exploratorium.edu), and the evening trying to find a kid-friendly restaurant in the Marina District. I enjoyed it all -- especially the bottle of wine my wife and I toasted the end of the day with.

Fast forward to last fall and a quick trip for two. Instead of animal encounters and interactive exhibits, we opted for outdoor activities and art museums. A hike around Mt. Tamalpais (www.mttam.net) and beach walks by Golden Gate Park. Leisurely tours among the artifacts at the Asian Art Museum (www.asianart.org) and the avant-garde works at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (www.sfmoma.org). We toasted those days, too -- although without nearly the same sense of urgency.

This fall, the options for art lovers are even more varied. At the de Young Museum (www.famsf.org), you can wander from Chicano, a kaleidoscopic collection of Mexican-American art, to The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, which showcases four generations of quiltmakers from a small town in southern Alabama. (The former closes October 22; the latter, December 31.) For a more classical perspective, stop by the de Young’s sister museum, the Legion of Honor, which is featuring the masterly landscapes of Claude Monet (through September 17) and Claude Lorrain (October 14–January 14).

Of course, when all is said and done, you can enjoy most of the above in any season, but there’s just something special about San Francisco in the fall. Between the smaller crowds and sunnier weather, it’s easy to wander at will, making up your itinerary as you go along. If you have kids, though, just remember to pick up some souvenirs before you head home.

I recommend something that says, My parents went to San Francisco and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.

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