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Why go now?
In spring, San Francisco resembles an urban Garden of Eden: the southern magnolia, flowering cherry and a thousand others are in full flower. Winter rains are tailing off, and the summer fogs have not yet begun to roll in. Outdoor café tables are back in service – and Salsa Sundays have resumed for allcomers on the patio of the El Rio (1) music club and bar at 3158 Mission Street ( elriosf.com ) in the Mission District.
You can fly non-stop from Heathrow to San Francisco's shiny airport, 14 miles south of downtown, on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ), United (0845 844 4777; unitedairlines.co.uk ) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com ). "SFO" is linked to the city centre by Bart ("Bay Area Rapid Transit") trains. These leave every 15 minutes and take around half an hour to reach the four downtown stops: Civic Center (2), Powell Street (3), Montgomery Street (4) and Embarcadero (5). The one-way fare is $8.10 (£5.30). Alternatively you can follow the blue Supershuttle signs from the upper departure level and arrange a shared ride for $17 (£11) per person or a private shuttle ride for $75 (£49).
Get your bearings
To enjoy San Francisco's exuberant architecture, urban horticulture and sweeping bay views, correct orientation isn't an absolute necessity. Just set off on foot to explore neighbourhoods such as Nob Hill or Haight-Ashbury, with a tourist map picked up from the Visitor Information Center (6) at 900 Market Street (001 415 391 2000; onlyinsanfrancisco.com ; open 9am-5pm weekdays, 9am-3pm on Saturdays, and 9am-3pm on Sundays from 1 May).
When your calves start to ache from the steep hills, jump on a trolley bus or "streetcar" (tram) for a cash fare of $2 (£1.30); keep the transfer for subsequent journeys within the time period indicated, often a generous two to three hours. The city's public transport is excellent. A $20 (£13) Muni passport is valid for three days on all city transport including cable cars (001 415 701 2311; sfmta.com/cms/mfares/passports.htm ).
A good mid-price option is the Golden Gate B&B (7) at 775 Bush Street (001 800 835 1118; goldengatehotel.com ). It is well positioned for city transport between Mason and Powell, and with a cosy European feel; an en suite double room costs $165 (£107), $105 (£68) with shared bath; continental breakfast included. In the same price category in the Marina district is the ex-motel Hotel del Sol (8) at 3100 Webster Street (001 877 433 5765; jdvhotels.com/hotels/del_sol ). The double room price from $139 (£91) includes breakfast served beside the heated pool; you can eat your bagel or pastry in a hammock if you like. An unusual feature is the offer of a free tour with a local San Franciscan "greeter".
Take a hike
Escape west from tourist-clogged Fisherman's Wharf (9) to explore the Bay Trail, starting on the promontory enclosing the yacht club (10) in the Marina district. A short detour inland brings you to the film-set folly of the Palace of Fine Arts (11) (001 415 567 6642; palaceoffinearts.org ) best appreciated from across the duck pond. Returning to the path along Crissy Field's beach, past the sea lions, you come to the Warming Hut (12), a café cum book-and-gift shop. The trail climbs briefly and soon brings you to the Golden Gate Bridge. Walk half a mile out to the first tower (13) for views over the islands of Angel and Alcatraz, before returning to the toll plaza to catch MUNI bus 28 to historic Fort Mason (14).
Lunch on the run
The Tartine Bakery (15) at 600 Guerrero Street (001 415 487 2600; tartinebakery.com ) in the Mission looks like any other buzzy San Francisco corner café, but its hot-pressed panini are out of this world. Alternatively, order a taco platter at the counter of Taqueria el Balazo (16) on Haight Street (001 415 864 2140; elbalazo.net) for $10 (£6.60).
Take a view
With 43 hills rising within the city, you don't need tall buildings to get a stunning view. Roughly opposite Pier 23 (17) on the Embarcadero, turn inland to climb the wooden Filbert Steps which rise up the cliff face to the top of Telegraph Hill. Houses decked with luxuriant plumbago and bougainvillea rise on either side of the stairs. Take a small detour along bohemian Napier Lane and soon enough you reach the terrace under the minaret-like Coit Tower (18), from which you can see the Bay Bridge across to Oakland on one side, and the Golden Gate Bridge on the other. The tower is open daily 10am-6pm (admission $5/£3.30).
Polk Street marks the western boundary of the affluent residential districts of Nob Hill and Russian Hill. Between Washington Street and Filbert Street you can find a splendid sprinkling of owner-run stores such as Cat Seto (19) at 2406 (001 415 753 2909; catseto.com), with hand-made stationery, and the Russian Hill Bookstore at 2234 (001 415 929 0997; russianhillbookstore.com ), which has a wonderful selection of cards.
The Vesuvio Bar (20) at 255 Columbus Avenue (001 415 362 3370; vesuvio.com ) is famous by association with Jack Kerouac and the beat poets, but it is still a casual, comfortable place to drop by for a glass of ale or something stronger. For a more cutting-edge venue head to Alembic (21) at 1725 Haight Street (001 415 666 0822; alembicbar.com ) for a Queen of Diamonds cocktail – Campari with cranberry and cachaça.
Dining with the locals
The Mission District has lately been attracting hard-core foodies. One of the most appealing restaurants is Medjool (22) at 2522 Mission Street (001 415 550 9005; medjoolsf.com ) with an inventive selection of tapas-style dishes to share. For a more cosy venue, dine at Rose's Café (23) at 2298 Union Street (junction of Steiner) in Cow Hollow (001 415 775 2200; rosescafesf.com ). Broadly Italian in influence, the menu offers four or five well-chosen pasta dishes, foccacia and grills for around $15-$25 (£10-16).
Sunday morning: go to church
The inclusive ethos of the Glide Memorial Methodist church (24) on the corner of Ellis and Taylor Streets is pure San Francisco. Arrive well in advance of the 9am and 11am services to get a seat for its rousing gospel services. Not much more than a mile away, the line between musical entertainment and religion becomes completely blurred. Wait until noon, and the St John Coltrane African Orthodox Church (25) at 1286 Fillmore welcomes everyone to their spiritual-cum-jazz jam sessions that last until 3pm.
Out to brunch
To paraphrase a sign at Sydney's Manly, Ocean Beach is "six miles from San Francisco and a thousand miles from care". Before a beach stroll on the five-mile Pacific shoreline to watch kite-surfers and seabirds, head for Outerlands Café (26). Its unassuming exterior at 4001 Judah Street (001 415 661 6140; outerlandssf.com ; accessible by the N-Judah streetcar) hides an arty little restaurant, built by the owners from weathered wood. The menu choices are few but good such as the Dutch pancakes, sweet or savoury for $8 (£5) or "eggs in Jail" with sourdough toast baked on the premises. Sunday brunch is served 10am-2.30pm.
For an edgier venue seek out the retro neon sign outside the Balboa Café (27) at 3199 Fillmore St (001 415 921 3944; balboacafe.com ) famed for its burgers on baguettes.
A walk in the park
Golden Gate Park is not just majestically scenic, it is full of human and architectural interest. Teenage girls practise hula hoop dancing, retired men race model yachts on Spreckels Lake, children chase ducks and tourists make a beeline for the Japanese Tea Garden (28). Great swags of peeling bark hang from eucalypts next to conifers with their pert cones. Signposts are scarce so it is a good idea to carry a map of the three-mile long park to guide you to waterfalls, follies, meadows, statues and museums.
The western end near the ocean is wilder than the more crowded city side and this is where you will find the lovely brewpub, the Beach Chalet (29) (001 415 386 8439; beachchalet.com ), where the crashing surf of the Pacific can be seen through huge picture windows.
The architecture of the De Young Museum (30) in Golden Gate Park (001 415 750 3600; famsf.org/deyoung ) is more striking inside than out, though both are linked by a jagged faultline through the entrance court – a naturalistic installation by British artist Andy Goldsworthy as a perpetual reminder of the city's tectonic instability. The permanent collection includes good romantic landscapes of early California and an arresting room of trompe l'oeil still-life paintings It opens 9.30am-5.15pm daily except Monday; late opening Friday evenings; $10 (£6.60).
Icing on the cake
Discard your qualms about doing something as touristy and expensive as the Alcatraz tour because it really is worthwhile. The audio guide narrated by ex-guards and prisoners brings to life the history of this haunted place. Book ahead (001 451 981 7625; alcatrazcruises.com ) for one of the cruise ferries that leave from Pier 33 (31) every 30 minutes, priced $26 (£17).