It is the establishing shot for virtually every movie set in San Francisco. Babies have been born on it; lives have been lost on it. It has been on the cover of Rolling Stone. More than 110,000 vehicles cross it every day.
The iconic Golden Gate Bridge celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, with plans afoot for massive celebrations, many pegged to Memorial Day Weekend - the suspension bridge opened on May 27, 1937 - but others taking place all over the city throughout the year. San Francisco loves a party, and the West Coast gateway's birthday is a fitting excuse.
"The allure and magic is in layers and textures, just as the bridge is itself," bridge spokeswoman Mary Currie said. "It's been called the West Coast's Statue of Liberty."
The May 26-27 celebration, planned by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District and paid for by corporate sponsors, will span about four miles of bayfront, from Fort Point, right below the bridge, all the way down to Pier 39 (where the sea lions hang out) and will include a watercraft parade, dance performances, music, food, history exhibits, a vintage car display and other festivities.
Museums, arts organizations and others are putting together a series of public programs called 75 Tributes to the Bridge. Composer Rob Kapilow is working on a new symphony in the bridge's honor. He was out at the bridge last year to record welding and other sounds to incorporate. There will be art exhibits, performances of all kinds and screenings of films with those bridge establishing shots, along with lots and lots of parties.
In fact, about the only place you can be sure there won't be a party for the bridge this year is the bridge itself.
The city tried that when the bridge turned 50, inviting the public to walk across it to celebrate. The idea was to have northbound walkers on one side and southbound walkers on the other, flowing very neatly. People being people, that didn't happen, and 300,000 soon found themselves in a gigantic human knot, unable to move. Thousands of others couldn't even set foot on the bridge.
This year, for both safety and security, planners decided to steer the action away from the bridge, which will simply reign as a backdrop.
Right now, there's a lot of activity around the bridge. Its cafe was closed earlier this month, as was the round gift shop at the south entrance to the bridge. Sometime this spring - April is the aim - the cafe, which had been serving grab-and-go fare such as sandwiches, is scheduled to reopen with a new menu of sandwiches and salads featuring fresh local ingredients.
The roundhouse, when it reopens, will house history exhibits and be the starting point for tours. The tours, from 40 to 60 minutes in the daytime and possibly longer at night, will be a new thing for the transportation district, which up until now hasn't done much to promote bridge tourism. The tours will have live guides, according to conservancy spokesman David Shaw, but because it's so noisy in and around the bridge, tourists will have headsets for hearing the narration. The cost hasn't yet been determined.
You're there on a foggy day? The roundhouse will have a big screen projection of the bridge so that you can have a photo op even if it's not in front of the actual bridge.
Construction is also under way on a new welcome center that will serve as an interpretive center as well as a place to buy souvenirs such as jackets and little replicas of the bridge towers.
Walk across, bike across
Right now, though, all that's closed. What you can continue to do is walk or bike across the bridge, and that's something you very definitely should do. Try to pick a day when the winds aren't crazy and there's no sideways rain, because it's always fairly windy and cool up on the bridge. Dress warmly.
It's free to walk or bike across the bridge. (This might not always be the case. Adding a fee for pedestrians and cyclists is part of the transportation district's long-term plan, although Currie doesn't see it happening for four or five years. )
You can walk across the bridge during daylight hours. Cyclists can use it anytime. Walkers, stay to the right so that bicyclists and little work transports (which run on vegetable oil) can pass you on the left. There's always work going on at the bridge, by the way.
It's currently in the midst of an earthquake-proofing update (to withstand a quake of up to 8.3 magnitude, the strongest considered possible for that area), and it's constantly getting paint touch-ups. (The bridge is a color called International Orange. Other colors considered and rejected were gray, black and various striped options advocated by the military, which favored visibility over aesthetics.)
While you're on the bridge, you'll want to take time to photograph not only its graceful suspension cables, but also nearby Alcatraz and, on a rare clear day, the San Francisco skyline. Wildlife photographers, look for water birds as well as red-tailed hawks.
The bridge is 1.7 miles long, so it's a decent bout of exercise. While you're walking, consider these facts about the bridge: It took a little more than four years to build. Despite a safety net under the construction, 11 men died building the bridge. There are about 600,000 rivets in each tower. It has its own police, its own firetruck and its own electricians, as well as a machine shop for making bridge parts and working on repairs.
If you're in a car, you pay $6 to cross the bridge southbound - $5 if you have a toll tag. Northbound, you pay nothing. Starting late 2012 or, more likely, early 2013, the toll booths will go away, and San Francisco will mail toll bills to folks who don't have tags.
What this means for tourists renting cars to go to northern California is that rental car companies will charge you for using its toll tags. (In other cities, typical charges are $3 or so every day you have the car, whether you use a toll road or not, or a flat $10 to $15.)