San Francisco: Follow the America's Cup along the Bay

San Francisco hosts the exclusive yacht race this week. Chris Coplans explores the backdrop

They couldn't have chosen a more ironic, and yet fitting, setting for the America's Cup yacht races, which begin on Tuesday. In the sparkling waters of the San Francisco Bay, one of the most exclusive and lavish events of the sporting calendar will take place off the city's stubbornly bohemian shoreline. The races can be watched from several vantage points along the water's edge, while the city's hills that rise imperiously from the bay make for a splendid natural amphitheatre.

Despite the steroid-infused alpha inclines, the streets of San Francisco are made for walking. Set off from the water's edge at Marina Green, where the AC Village is located and will offer free access to spectators, up into the hills to the Golden Gate Bridge, which has just celebrated its 75th anniversary.

From Marina Green, you can walk east along the shoreline, with great views of Alcatraz, the bay and the bridge. Turn right on to Hyde Street and walk five blocks to Lombard Street, dubbed "the world's crookedest street" with its eight switchbacks. Now's the time to hop on one of San Francisco's cable cars, which stop at the intersection of Lombard and Hyde, for the final push over Russian Hill.

Turn right on to Washington Street; loiter at each junction and enjoy the cascading views down to the bay. From here, follow the contours of the hills five blocks to dazzling Pacific Heights, a dreamy Alice-in-Wonderland neighbourhood whose kaleidoscope of architectural styles was miraculously spared from the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire.

At the corner of Gough Street, sitting pretty on Pacific Heights's northern ridge, is panoramic Lafayette Park. Catwalk-slender, colour-co-ordinated young men sashay round the park with polished pooches. Seasoned ladies who lunch, dressed in beiges and pastels, glide past with everything from pugs to Afghans. Gaze up to see novelist Danielle Steel's grandiose 55-room limestone mansion at 2080.

Continue along Washington until Fillmore Street, which is packed with boho cafés and bars patronised by hippies with Porsches, and boutiques run by ethereal, pre- Raphaelite designers. If you're peckish turn left and try the Elite Café at 2049 Fillmore at California Street (001 415 673 5483; ), which specialises in Cajun cuisine. Otherwise turn right on Fillmore and follow it several blocks to Broadway. This is one of the highest points in Pacific Heights with majestic views down to Marina Green and the bay. Marvel at the voluptuous Victorian mansions that gracefully defy wealthy American vulgarity. A block south turn left on to Vallejo; at 2930 is the mansion where Sharon Stone's character lived in Basic Instinct.

Continue to the end of Vallejo and follow the steep descent down to the Bay via Lyon Street where the towering redwoods of the Presidio – a former military base, now public park – frame gothic mansions. Continue past the fake Greco-Roman ruin, Palace of Fine Arts Theatre (001 415 567 6642; palace offinearts.org) and the adjoining mind-altering Exploratorium (001 415 561 0360; exploratorium.edu) a museum of science, art and human perception, to the bay shoreline.

Cross the road to bucolic Crissy Field, which has some of the best shoreline views of the Golden Gate Bridge and is another good viewpoint for the America's Cup racing. Forge your way though this former airfield, now a park defined by heather-covered sand dunes, via the Golden Gate Promenade, stopping at the Warming Hut (001 415 561 3040) in the shadow of the bridge, for a (fair-trade) coffee and a counterculture organic cheese sandwich.

From here, don't take the road up the hill, but the signed path to Golden Gate Bridge. The walk up a paved path takes about 10 minutes and is quite easy, with some great vantage points. At the top is a new state-of-the-art Visitor Center (001 415 561 3000; goldengate75.org). Finally, you can see what all the fuss is about. There before you, stretches the graceful "International Orange" masterpiece, with its massive steel pylons and girders and delicate art deco flourishes.

Be warned, though: the bridge has weather and the fog can close in without warning. As Mark Twain once quipped: "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco" – so layer up and carry a waterproof.

The bridge's shared bike and footpath gives you stupendous views of the Bay area. The bridge will also give you a bird's eye view of the America's Cup races, although the contenders will be a fair distance away. On a sunny afternoon, there's no sight more glorious, with the boats bobbing on the water, the windsurfers catching a gust, Alcatraz sitting there forlorn but defiant and the luminous 'Frisco skyline bathed in Californian gold.

Paul Kantner, guitarist with San Francisco's mind-blowing 1960s band Jefferson Airplane, summed up his beloved city perfectly as "Forty-nine square miles surrounded by reality". Yeah man, I can dig that.

Fresh cuts

The 3,500 sq ft Bridge Pavilion has been opened to coincide with this year's 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, together with the revitalisation of the Bridge Plaza, improvements to the Coastal and Bay Trails, two new overlooks, and guided Bridge tours, including evening tours when the bridge is closed to pedestrians (goldengatebridge75.org).

Cavallo Point Hotel (001 415 339 4700; cavallopoint.com) is offering special sailing packages during the America's Cup, costing from US$832 (£555) per double room, including a boat trip with lunch to watch the races. The hotel, located on a former army base right below the bridge, on the Marin County side of the bay, has spectacular views of bridge, bay and skyline, the acclaimed Murray Circle restaurant and the sublime Healing Arts Spa. The hotel runs shuttle buses to the Sausalito Ferry Terminal for the journey back to Fisherman's Wharf.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Chris Coplans travelled with Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859; virginholidays.co.uk), which offers four nights' room-only accommodation at the Clift Hotel from £999, or £1,099 at Cavallo Point, including return flights on Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow. You can also fly to San Francisco from Heathrow on British Airways and United.

Go guided

San Francisco Architectural Heritage offers two-hour guided walking tours of Pacific Heights (001 415 441 3000; sfheritage.org) for US$8 (£5) per person

More information

The America's Cup World Series; 21-26 August and 4-7 October, 2012. Louis Vuitton Cup: 4 July-21 July, 2013. The America's Cup Finals: 7-22 Sept, 2013 (americascup.com).

To see more photos of Chris Coplans' walk, go to coplans.co.uk

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