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New York vs. San Francisco: Your Guide to America’s Signature Cities

Times Square

Forget the NY-L.A. rivalry, when it comes to tourism, it’s New York vs. San Francisco. But how does one decide? I’ll help you do just that:

In This New York/ San Francisco Article You Will Discover:

  • The Main Attractions in New York City and San Francisco
  • Which Attractions Stand Out Between The Two
  • When To Visit Each City
  • What To Expect While You’re There

There comes a time in every traveller’s life when he must decide between two signature metropoli: the hustle-bustle of the flagship of America, New York City, or the laid-back groove of NorCal’s hipster destination, San Francisco. Should this decision be weighing heavily on your mind, here’s an East Coast versus West Coast face-off to help you along.

Brooklyn Bridge vs. Golden Gate Bridge

New York City’s gothic-style Brooklyn Bridge was constructed in 1883 and spans a length of 1,834 metres — making it not only one of the oldest suspension bridges in America but, at the time of completion, the largest bridge of its kind in the world. The 82-metre-tall towers, once the tallest structures in the Western hemisphere, are a striking addition to NYC’s skyline. Just don’t try to buy it, should the offer come along.

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, on the other hand, is arguably the most famous bridge on the planet. Its instantly recognizable orange vermillion colour complements the skyline — especially as the sun sets into the Pacific or a towering bank of fog rolls in. At 2.7 km long, almost 30 metres wide and 230 metres tall at the towers, it is an impressive structure indeed. The Golden Gate offers a pleasant walk that finishes at the seaside villa of Sausalito.

The winner: Dramatic views of the Pacific to the West, and the Bay Area and Alcatraz to the East, legendary banks of fog and sheer size give San Francisco’s contender the edge here

Central Park vs. Golden Gate Park

Say the words “Central Park” and you’ll find few who won’t immediately conjure up an image of New York’s crown jewel. Encompassing about 3.4 square km, Central Park is a touch of nature in one of the world’s largest cities. In the summer, enjoy the New York Philharmonic’s open-air theatre or tour the 29 sculptures interspersed throughout the grassland. As for those rumours of eminent danger to solo park-goers, they are greatly exaggerated.

Golden Gate Park may not be as internationally known, but this massive 4.1- square-km green space is a sight to behold. Stop by the Conservancy of Flowers, fly fishing pond and Buffalo Paddock to see a herd of American bison. Perhaps the best feature, though, is the ease of finding solitude (especially on the peak of Strawberry Hill).

The winner: Bigger is better, especially when it comes to parks. Golden Gate lets you really get away from it all, just a few minutes from downtown.

Times Square vs. Union Square

No visit to NYC would be complete without a stroll through Times Square. Officially named in 1904, the square went through a period of being regarded as seedy and undesirable, but is now a family friendly, clean and safe hotspot. Visit ABC’s Times Square Studio, eat at Ruby Foos’ Chinese restaurant or simply revel at the neon signs — which rival Las Vegas in density and dazzle. Of course, the New Year’s Eve celebrations are an item of pop culture legend.

San Francisco’s Union Square, which dates back to the US Civil War, is the hub of the city’s shopping, theatre and hotel district. Enjoy upper class stores such as Chanel or Hugo Boss, or small one-off theatre productions at local showcases. San Fran’s classic cable cars run by on regular schedules, and the Square itself is the sight to many a protest or outdoor concert — should the mood (or cause) strike.

The winner: With its breathtakingly gaudy neon signage, Disney-worthy tourist attractions and near-mythical nightlife, Times Square delivers a technical knockout


Founded in 1929 by several wealthy patrons — including one Rockefeller — the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Midtown Manhattan started modestly with eight paintings and one drawing. Today, it houses more than 150,000 pieces of artwork, 22,000 films and four million film stills. Notables include Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali and various works from New York’s native son, Andy Warhol. It is open to the public from Wednesday to Monday, 365 days per year, excluding Christmas Day.

While originally located in the War Memorial Veterans Building, the uber-cool neighbourhood of SoMa (South of Market Street) is now home to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA). Founded in 1931, for 60 years it was the only museum in the Western US devoted to 20th century art- work. Expect to see works by Jackson Pollack, Marcel Duchamp and photography by Ansel Adams. In fact, its world-renowned photography exhibition is one of the main draws.

The winner: While the MoMA is larger and perhaps more famous, this takes nothing from the SFMoMA. Both are equally as important and impressive. They’re both winners.

Empire State Building vs. Transamerica Pyramid

Ah, New York’s Empire State Building. This 75-year-old building is the tallest in the city and was the first skyscraper in the world to best the 100-storey mark. It rises to a height of 448 metres, including the broadcast antenna, and boasts 73 elevators, 1,860 steps and 20.4 hectares of floor space — although it may be best known as the fictional location of King Kong’s last stand.

San Francisco’s 48-floor Transamerica Pyramid dominates the city’s skyline with its unique triangle motif. The subject of many photos, it was constructed in 1972 and was the tallest building in the West for two years following. Although it’s 260 metres in height, the top 60 metres is purely for show — it’s the spire.

The winner: Unfortunately, following the tragic September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City, the Transamerica Pyramid was closed to the public, making the Empire State Building the clear winner for the must-visit.

Statue of Liberty vs. Alcatraz

“Give me your tired, your poor/your huddle masses yearning to breathe free…” Few American icons are more famous than the Statue of Liberty. A gift from France in 1886 to commemorate the USA’s independence (it was commissioned on America’s centennial, 10 years earlier) the 46-metre copper statue was designed by French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi and Gustave Eiffel, who engineered the Eiffel Tower, designed the support structure. Located on the aptly named Liberty Island, 2.6 km offshore of Manhattan, it is open for tours every day except December 25.

One of the most haunting and mysterious attractions anywhere, Alcatraz Island is a place of lore. Originally opened as a military institution in 1850, Alcatraz was designated a federal penitentiary in 1933. It housed notorious criminals such as Al “Scarface” Capone, Robert “The Birdman” Stroud and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. However, the prison became subject of many controversies — ranging from prisoner abuse and sewage pollution to cost-effectiveness — and was shut down in 1963. Six years later, the Island was illegally occupied for 18 months by the political group “United Indians for all Tribes,” as part of a protest for First Nations rights. Today, it is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and offers daily tours (book ahead!).

The winner: Too close to call. One is the bastion of freedom; one represents the ultimate prison. One is inspiring; the other, chilling. We’ll call it a draw.

The Decision:

If there was a clear winner, it wouldn’t be such a hard choice in the first place, would it? No, these two vacation destinations are so ripe with their own charms, to choose one over the other would be akin to playing favourites with your children. Here’s a tip: New York is fabulous in the spring, San Francisco is marvelous in the fall. Now you’ve got time for both.



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About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

4 comments… add one
  • garmin Jun 1, 2013 Link

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on new york.

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