San Francisco, CA
Fisherman's WharfAll San Franciscans love to hate Fisherman's Wharf. Content never to visit the area, they complain of the tacky shops selling cheap souvenirs, the "novelty" museums whose novelty has long worn off and busloads of tourists blocking the view to Alcatraz.
But secretly, everyone likes it a little, and having guests from out of town is the perfect excuse for otherwise cynical old-timers to "force" themselves to go. And it is possible to have a cheap, good time. Just avoid the wax museums and the "I'm With Stupid" T-shirt stands, and what's left are some of the best views in the city, fresh Dungeness crab and the ever-amusing sea lions.
Last year, almost 12 million people made their way to the Wharf. In international surveys, it ranks as the No. 1 destination for SF-bound visitors, right ahead of Chinatown and the Golden Gate Bridge. Oddly, this favorite spot, as they see it today, is only 30 years old. Most of the major attractions -- the Cannery, Ghirardelli Square, Pier 39 -- were built in the late 1960s.
Of course, there is one attraction -- drawing more than 1 million visitors per year -- that remains an authentic experience. Alcatraz, has been the home away from home for some infamous characters (Al Capone and Robert "the Birdman" Stroud among them), also has been a lot of things since its inception in 1853, including a U.S. Army fort, a military prison and a high-security penitentiary.
The tour (call ahead for tickets, as it often sells out) focuses on the cell blocks, which were designed to be inescapable -- and they were. Of the 14 inmates who attempted to escape, none were successful. Those caught trying were punished with endless hours in solitary confinement. Today, it's the visitors waiting to get in who spend endless hours on the Rock.