Perched on the Pacific, San Francisco is a gold-rush town that’s now pulsating with tech start-ups, and dominated by the Golden Gate Bridge.
Get in closer, though, and the city becomes a series of villages, all with their own identity; from hippy Haight-Ashbury and the cool Mission District to the old money of Nob Hill, with house prices as steep as its hills.
Here’s how to see it all in 48 hours.
Perched on the Pacific, San Francisco is a gold-rush town that’s now pulsating with tech start-ups, and dominated by the Golden Gate Bridge, pictured
The Ferry Building Marketplace, was once San Francisco’s most famous landmark until the Bay and Golden Gate bridges were built. These days it plays an equally vital role as the city’s foodie hub, with stalls selling everything from candied walnuts to tofu burgers.
There are plenty of places to grab a coffee and a pastry – try Frog Hollow Farm for apricot and cherry-studded delights (ferrybuildingmarketplace.com). On Saturdays the city’s largest farmers’ market is held here.
Fully fortified, take a 20-minute stroll along Mission Street to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – seven light and airy floors awash with Matisses, Warhols and huge spider sculptures by Louise Bourgeois. If you’re going to visit one art gallery, make it this one (sfmoma.org).
Retro: One of the city’s F trams – restored street trolleys from the early 20th Century that head between Downtown and The Castro
San Francisco is a transport fan’s dream destination – there are cable cars, a subway system and low-emission buses, but if you want to go retro, jump on one of the F trams – restored street trolleys from the early 20th Century that head between Downtown and The Castro.
This was the birthplace of San Francisco’s gay movement and the sunniest place in an often foggy city.
Wooden Spoon (woodenspoonsf.com) on Market Street serves one of the best brunches in the city – expect to spend $10 (about £7.50) on eggs any way you like. A three-day Visitor Pass costs $29 (£22) for adults and includes trips on cable cars and vintage trams.
A view across Downtown San Francisco. The CityScape Lounge on the 46th floor of the Hilton Union Square has priceless views across the Downtown area
A 30-minute stroll away, the Mission is now cool and trendy, with a strong showing of street art. The walking tours from Wild SF (wildsftours.com) will help you see the best bits from $20 (£15) a head.
On nearby Valencia Street is Al’s Place. Endlessly creative, casual but very serious, it wears its Michelin star lightly and doesn’t want to price itself out of the neighbourhood. Mains will cost you about $18 (£13.50), with produce coming from its own farm. Don’t miss out on the brine fries with smoked apple sauce (alsplacesf.com).
Back in Downtown, Hilton Union Square is vast – there are 1,919 rooms – but this means that the rooms are large and there are often better deals than at smaller boutique properties, plus there’s a swimming pool and it’s in a central location. Above all, there’s the CityScape Lounge on the 46th floor, a cool, urban space that canny locals head to in droves. The cocktails cost from $17 (£13) but the views are priceless (cityscapesf.com).
Early morning is the best time to head to the brooding hulk of Alcatraz, pictured, America’s most infamous prison, on an island in San Francisco Bay
Coffee is taken very seriously in San Francisco. Sightglass is a coffee shop of pure San Francisco origin. At the airy 7th Avenue flagship, you’ll find tastings and affogatos (sightglasscoffee.com).
Early morning is the best time to head to the brooding hulk of Alcatraz, America’s most infamous prison, on an island in San Francisco Bay (the queues tend to build up after 11am).
The ferry ride to the island takes about 15 minutes, and once you’ve arrived, make sure you take advantage of one of the brilliant audio guides. The commentary brings to life what being an inmate there would have been like, with reminiscences from prisoners and guards (alcatrazcruises.com, including the ferry, $40, or £30).
Afterwards, celebrate your freedom by nipping into Boudin. This bakery still uses a sourdough starter brought to San Francisco in 1849 but the chain has now expanded, and there’s a nice branch at the otherwise touristy Pier 39 (boudinbakery.com).
Go for hearty soups that are served in a loaf of bread – prices are reasonable and the portions large.
Big hit: Oracle Park is the home of the San Francisco Giants. Prices start at $8 (£6) and if you head to the cheapest seats at the top
Compared to Premier League football, ticket prices for baseball games in the US are a bargain. At Oracle Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants, prices start at $8 (£6) and if you head to the cheapest seats at the top, there’s the bonus of views across the bay.
Going to a game is theatre – popcorn and lemonade sellers wander the aisles and a Wurlitzer plays between innings. Arrive with an appetite – Oracle Park is known for having the best food of any baseball stadium. You’ll even find Californian wine and craft beer. The venue is eminently family-friendly, easy to get to and a thoroughly immersive slice of true Americana (sfgiants.com).
If there isn’t a game, head to Presidio (presidio.gov), which was a US Army base until 1994, and built on an ancient Mexican settlement. Now there are wilderness trails, recreation grounds and museums, ranging from an Army prison to the Walt Disney Family Museum, full of family snaps and film memorabilia. On a warm day, though, you’ll want to head to one of the beaches here. Baker’s is the most famous, with views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
San Francisco’s Chinatown, which was established in 1850. In the early days, it mixed bars, temples, laundries, gambling dens and brothels. These days, it’s a bit gentler
Head to Chinatown, which was established in 1850. In the early days, it mixed bars, temples, laundries, gambling dens and brothels. These days, it’s a bit gentler but it’s still one of the most atmospheric parts of the city, full of locals proud of its history.
The dragon gate on Grant Avenue is the portal to its galleries and shops. R&G Lounge (rnglounge.com) on Kearny Street is one of its most famous restaurants, noted for its salt and pepper crab and baked black cod. Mains start at $20 (£15).
San Fran has recently become a tiki bar centre of excellence. The award-winning Smuggler’s Cove has all the faux-pirate decor you could ever want, but amid the Hawaiian-shirted staff and the kitsch accessories, you’ll also get some of America’s best rum cocktails (smugglerscovesf.com) – strong proof that San Francisco never takes itself too seriously.
Norwegian has flights to San Francisco from £169.90 one-way (norwegian.com/uk). Room-only stays at the Hilton Union Square start at £194 a night (www3.hilton.com).