The iconic Golden Gate Bridge turns 75 this weekend, making the perfect excuse|to visit this vibrant city, says John Lee
Why go now?
San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge is 75 years old in 2012, an occasion marked by events through the year. Tomorrow marks the day in 1937 when the iconic span linking the city with Marin County opened to the public (goldengatebridge75.org).
Fly non-stop from Heathrow on British Airways (tel: 0844 493 0787; ba.com), United (tel: 0845 607 6760; united.com) or Virgin (tel: 0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com).
San Francisco airport is 14 miles south of downtown. From the International Terminal, BART trains (bart.gov) take around 30 minutes — and an $8.10 (£5.40) fare — to reach central Powell Street station. Alternatively, a taxi to city centre hotels costs between $40 and $50 (£27 to £33).
Get your bearings
Unlike many sprawling, pedestrian-unfriendly US cities, much of compact San Francisco is accessible on foot. Although its handy grid street system makes navigating easy, don't underestimate the calf-popping steepness of its hills. You'll be grateful to hop in a taxi or clamber inside a rattling red cable car as energy-saving alternatives.
Palm-studded Union Square — a short walk from Powell Street BART station — is downtown's heart, with Nob Hill rising steeply to the north. On the other side of this slope is Fisherman's Wharf and the Embarcadero waterfront. West is Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, from where Golden Gate Bridge rises through the mist.
The vibrant Mission District starts a few blocks south-west of Union Square.
San Francisco's extensive public-transport system includes bus, streetcar (tram) and cable car services (sfmta.com). For unlimited rides on the entire network, a Muni Passport costs $14 (£9.30) for a day, or $21 (£14) for three.
For maps and Muni Passports, the San Francisco Visitor Information Centre is at the junction of Market and Powell Streets (tel: 001 415 391 2000; sanfrancisco.travel; open 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday; 9am to 3pm at weekends), just across from the entrance to Powell Street station. Ask about free City Guides walking tours|(sfcityguides.org).
Separate from the Muni system, BART trains zip to Berkeley, Oakland and beyond. Fares are distance-based and start at $1.75 (£1.20).
One of many century-old tower block sleepovers near Union Square is Larkspur Hotel at 524 Sutter Street (tel: 001 415 421 2865; larkspurhotels.com), which has compact rooms, free Wi-Fi and proximity to major shops. Doubles from $129 (£86), room only.
A couple of blocks from the attraction-packed waterfront, Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf at 555 North Point Street (tel: 001 415 563 1234; fishermanswharf.hyatt.com) flaunts contemporary rooms and an outdoor pool. Doubles start at $229 (£152), room only.
For old-school grandeur, stay in Nob Hill's Huntingdon Hotel at 1075 California Street (tel: 001 415 474 5400; huntingtonhotel.com). Many of the rooms are large enough to lose yourself in and include views of the city shimmering below. Deluxe doubles from $325 (£216), room only.
The department stores Macy's and Saks 5th Avenue flank Union Square — Macy's basement post office is handy for postcard stamps. A short walk away on Market Street is the Westfield San Francisco Centre with its chain boutiques and cool curving elevators (westfield.com/sanfrancisco). City Lights at 261 Columbus Avenue in nearby North Beach (tel: 001 415 362 8193; citylights.com) is the infamous beatnik-era bookstore that published Allen Ginsberg's Howl, and it's not far from here to the glass-roofed Ferry Building (tel: 001 415 983 8030; ferrybuildingmarketplace.com), an Embarcadero landmark colonised with gourmet food stands — plus a farmers' market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Lunch on the run
At Fisherman's Wharf, it's all about seafood chowder. Check out the steaming shacks on Taylor Street, but avoid the predatory seagulls with an undercover table at Boudin at 160 Jefferson Street (tel: 001 415 928 1849; boudinbakery.com). Classic clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl is $7.60 (£5).
Take a hike
Take a westward Fisherman's Wharf stroll. Don't waste time on the overpriced attractions of Pier 39 but check out the barking sea lions lolling on its left side. Continue west to Musée Mécanique on Pier 45 (tel: 001 415 346 2000; museemechanique.org; 10am-7pm or later), and drop a few quarters in its coin-operated dioramas.
Stroll on to the Maritime National Historical Park at Hyde Street Pier (tel: 001 415 447 5000; nps.gov/safr) where antique ships line the jetty — check for daily free tours or pay $5 (£3.30) to board vessels such as the 1886 Glasgow-built Balclutha.
Back on dry land, cut through the corner of Victoria Park and make for Ghirardelli Square. The former chocolate factory now houses shops, but the city's favourite confectioner (ghirardelli.com)
still has a store here. Collect your free sample at the door, then head back to the park's cable-car turnaround.
Take a ride
Climb on the next car (outside seat preferred) and trundle uphill. With a Muni Passport, you can hop on and off, so jump out en route at the fascinating Cable Car Museum (18) at 1201 Mason Street (tel: 001 415 474 1887; cablecarmuseum.org). Then rattle downhill to Union Square.
The Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar in the Fairmont San Francisco hotel at 950 Mason Street (tel: 001 415 772 5278; tongaroom.com) is a Polynesian-themed bar — complete with fake rainstorms — that hosts a $10 (£6.70) buffet from 5 to 7pm, Wednesday to Friday (plus one-drink minimum; pina colada $12/£8). Over the road, the InterContinental Mark Hopkins 19th-floor Top of the Mark at One Nob Hill (tel: 001 415 616 6940; intercontinentalmarkhopkins.com) is San Francisco's best spot for a sunset-hugging Cable Car Martini, $13 (£8.70).
Dining with the locals
Hit the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street for more substantial sustenance. Snag a waterfront perch — and some tasty shucked treats — at Hog Island Oyster Company (tel: 001 415 391 7117; hogislandoysters.com) where six fresh oysters are around $17 (£11.30).
Sunday morning: go to church
Overlooking Nob Hill's Huntingdon Park, soaring Grace Cathedral at 1100 California Street (tel: 001 415 749 6300; gracecathedral.org) is the third church on this site: the previous one was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.
Out for brunch
Walk two blocks east to Powell Street. Muni Passport in hand (to avoid the steep $6/£4 flat fare), hop on the cable car to end-of-the-line Powell Street. Walk two blocks over to Mission Street and pick up bus 14, through the lively Spanish Mission District. Join the locals for an authentic carne asada burrito ($8/£5.30) at La Taquería at 2889 Mission (tel: 001 415 285 7117) or huddle with the sophisticates in Foreign Cinema at 2534 Mission (tel: 001 415 648 7600; foreigncinema.com), where poached eggs on Persian chicken hit the spot ($14.50/£9.70).
The Mission District is crammed with great independent bookshops. Valencia Street highlights include Dog Eared Books at 900 Valencia (tel: 001 415 282 1901; dogearedbooks.com), with its tempting new and used tomes; and Borderlands Books at 866 Valencia (tel: 001 415 824 8203; borderlandsbooks.com) for great sci-fi, horror and fantasy.
Save time to check out the area's kaleidoscopic street art, especially beside the Community Thrift Store at 623 Valencia.
A walk in the park
Hop back on to bus 14, then transfer to the no 44 at Silver Street. This takes you into Golden Gate Park, a favourite hangout. Attractions include the de Young Museum (tel: 001 415 750 3600; deyoung.famsf.org; $10/£6.70) with its array of international fine arts and crafts; the California Academy of Sciences (tel: 001 415 379 8000; calacademy.org; $29.95/£20), a natural history museum with 40,000 animals in authentic habitats; and the Conservatory of Flowers (tel: 001 415 831 2090; conservatoryofflowers.org; $7/ £4.70), a botanical garden.
Icing on the cake
Bus 28 takes you to the grassy, waterfront Presidio area, where one of North America's most famous icons perches on the shoreline. Alight at the Golden Gate Bridge parking lot and you'll be a one-minute walk from the soaring span. Pedestrians have the east side to themselves and, although the entire gently swaying stretch is 1.7 miles, the best views are at midpoint, where you can enjoy breathtaking bay-and-city panoramas.