Explore secret gardens, enjoy a manicure with your cocktail, and then experience life behind bars

Why go now?

Why go now?

Out of season, San Francisco is a delight: in summer, fog rolls in from across the Pacific while spring can be a period of clear sunny days. This year sees the re-opening of the De Young Museum ( www.thinker.org) and its extensive collection of American art. From 15 October, the doors will open on a stylish new building in Golden Gate Park - for now, all the action is in the newly restored Ferry Building.

Get your bearings

The international airport is 14 miles from downtown San Francisco, a half-hour ride on Bart (the Bay Area Rapid Transit) to Powell Street station, near Union Square; tickets cost $4.95 (£2.75). Taxis take 20 minutes, traffic permitting, and cost around $35 (£19.50).

The city is a patchwork of small neighbourhoods and is easy to explore on foot, but the integrated Muni network, which covers buses, cable cars and streetcars, is useful for those steep hills. A three-day unlimited travel pass costs $15 (£8.50) from the Visitor Information Centre at 900 Market Street. For further details contact the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau (001 415 391 2000; www.sfvisitor.org).

Check in

Still the hottest hotel in town is Ian Schrager's Clift at 495 Geary Street in the Tenderloin (001 415 775 4700; www.clifthotel.com). Double rooms from $175 (£97) excluding breakfast.

The Palomar, at 12 Fourth Street (001 415 348 1111; www.hotelpalomar.com), is calm but stylish, in an excellent downtown location with a popular bar and restaurant. Double rooms start at $170 (£95) without breakfast.

Among the newest of San Francisco's hotels is the Argonaut, at Fisherman's Wharf, 495 Jefferson at Hyde (00 800 546 78660; www.argonauthotel.com), a former warehouse turned stylish boutique; double rooms here start at $181 (£100) without breakfast.

Not far away in North Beach is one of the best budget options in the city, the San Remo at 2237 Mason Street (001 415 776 8688; www.sanremohotel.com) which offers spotless rooms with antique wicker furniture in a former dock workers' boarding house. Doubles from $57 (£32) without breakfast.

Take a view

In this city of hills, panoramic vistas are hard to avoid. For a postcard-perfect view, head up Telegraph Hill by way of the Filbert Street steps to Coit Tower (001 415 362 0808; www.coittower.org), perched majestically at the top. The tower is open 10am-5pm daily, admission $3 (£1.70).

Take a hike

Take a stroll around SoMa (South of Market Street) starting in Yerba Buena Gardens, a pleasant urban oasis surrounded by a complex of modern buildings; these include an arts centre which holds regular performances and community-based events. On one side of the gardens is the Metreon ( www.metreon.com), an entertainment centre containing shops, cinemas and interactive play areas.

Across on Third Street is SFMoMA (001 415 357 4000; www.sfmoma.org), the city's modern art museum. It is open Friday-Tuesday from 11am-6pm, and Thursday until 9pm; entrance costs $10 (£5.50).

St Patrick's church (001 415 421 3730; www.stpatricksf.org), on Mission Street, holds concerts most Wednesday lunchtimes.

Lunch on the run

A popular weekend pursuit for San Franciscans is a trip to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market ( www.ferryplazafarmersmarket.com), held every Saturday from 8am-2pm (also Tuesday 10am-2pm all year, Thursday and Sunday 10am-2pm in summer). Head into the MarketBar (001 415 434 1100) for salad, charcuterie, or something more substantial - all inspired by the produce in the market.

Elsewhere, join the queue at the Swan Oyster Depot, a former fish market at 1517 Polk Street (001 415 673 1101), for a delicious selection of oysters, classic clam chowder and smoked-salmon salads.

Window shopping

For the best of the city's quirky second-hand bargains, head to the heart of Haight-Ashbury, where Bohemian jewellery and vintage dresses sell for less than $20 (£11) at the Buffalo Exchange at 1555 Haight Street (001 415 431 7733). Take a stroll through the boutiques of Hayes Valley and visit True Sake, 560 Hayes Street (001 415 355 9555), a store dedicated to the "drink of the gods" with more than 90 brands. Check out the department stores in the newly revamped Union Square and then, for a slice of designer heaven, wander down nearby Maiden Lane, home of Marc Jacobs at number 125 (001 415 921 9575).

Saturday afternoon: go to church

Mission Dolores church, with its white adobe walls and redwood beams, is the oldest building in San Francisco. Services are still held every Saturday at 5pm. The church, at 3321 16th Street (001 415 621 8203), is open daily to non-worshipping visitors from 9am-4pm; entrance costs $3 (£1.65).

An aperitif

Combine your pleasures and get a free manicure with your $10 (£5.50) cocktail at the playfully kitsch Beauty Bar (001 415 285 0323) at 2299 Mission Street. Or indulge yourself - and enjoy the view - at the Top of the Mark, on the top floor of the Mark Hopkins hotel at 1 Nob Hill (001 415 616 6916). Live music often accompanies the cocktails.

Dining with the locals

Michael Mina, at 335 Powell Street (001 415 397 9222) in the St Francis Hotel, is now the hottest spot in town. The (pricey) menu consists of innovative American cuisine.

Also new on the San Francisco restaurant scene is La Suite at 100 Brannan Street, on the corner of Embarcadero (001 415 593 5900; www.lasuitesf.com), a buzzy but very French establishment whose traditional recipes have a West Coast twist.

Nearby, the Slanted Door at 1 Ferry Plaza (001 415 861 8032; www.slanteddoor.com), serves Californian-Vietnamese cuisine; expect to wait for a table. Or check out the Basque dishes at Piperade, at 1015 Battery Street (001 415 391 2555).

Take a ride

Despite the queues, a ride on one of the city's 19th-century cable cars is a must. Hop on the Powell-Hyde line at the Powell Street turnaround and alight at the top of Lombard Street.

Out to brunch

For an authentic brunch experience, try Citizen Cake at 399 Grove Street (00 415 861 2228; www.citizencake.com), which has a mix of eggs, granola and pancakes as well as salads and other light alternatives. Brunch is served at weekends from 10am-3pm.

A walk in the park

Explore the secret gardens, winding paths and peaceful lakes that make up the 1,000-plus acres of Golden Gate Park. Here you can hire in-line skates for around $5 (£2.75) an hour from Golden Gate Park Skate & Bike at 3030 Fulton Street (001 415 668 1117), between Sixth and Seventh Streets. Before you leave, stop for a cup of jasmine tea at the Japanese Tea Gardens, and explore the recently reopened Conservatory of Flowers.

Cultural afternoon

The Asian Art Museum at 200 Larkin Street (001 415 581 3500; www.asianart.org) has one of the most extensive collections of Asian art in the world. The museum opens Tuesday-Sunday from 10am-5pm, and until 9pm on Thursday; entrance costs $10 (£5.50).

Icing on the cake

The island of Alcatraz is San Francisco's most popular attraction. Much of the prison is now in ruins, but the cell block that once housed Al Capone is open to visitors. The Blue and Gold boats depart frequently from pier 41 (001 415 705 5555; www.blueandgoldfleet.com) 9.15am-2.30pm (9.30am-2.15pm at weekends), and trips cost $11.50 (£6.50).