Surrounded by the shimmering waters of the San Francisco Bay to its east and the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean to its west, San Francisco sits on a hilly peninsula. The city’s hills serve as handy markers between its shifting moods and characters. As a general rule, geographical elevation is synonymous with wealth – the higher up you are, the better the views (barring fog, of course) and the higher the rents.
Created by landfill and bulldozing, one of the flattest stretches of land and best places to visit in San Francisco is Downtown, at the top right-hand corner of the Peninsula. Capped at the Embarcadero waterfront by the towering Ferry Building – boat terminus turned gourmet market – Market Street is lined with the city’s tallest office buildings; it runs alongside the boxy high-rises of the Financial District, and past the shopping quarter of Union Square, also home to a number of boutique hotels.
Just north of Union Square is Chinatown, a tight cluster of apartments, restaurants, temples and stores built around historic Portsmouth Square. Nearby, the towering Transamerica Pyramid makes a useful landmark to orient yourself by, shadowing historic Jackson Square’s restored redbrick buildings.
Columbus Avenue separates Portsmouth from Jackson Square, heading northwest and forming the backbone of North Beach, the old Italian enclave once haunted by Beat writers and still popular among espresso drinkers.
To either side of Columbus stand peaks of three of San Francisco’s steep hills: Telegraph Hill to the east, the perch of the unmistakeable Coit Tower; Russian Hill to the west, reached by curvy Lombard Street; and Nob Hill – once the province of robber barons – to the southwest, topped by stately Grace Cathedral, along with some of the city’s poshest hotels.
Along the northern edge of the Peninsula, Fisherman’s Wharf is loathed by locals, yet draws hordes of visitors to its tacky waterfront piers. It’s also the departure point for ferries to the notorious former island prison of Alcatraz. Trails along the water’s edge lead west past the clutch of museums in Fort Mason and the ritzy Marina district, home of the Palace of Fine Arts and some of the city’s best shopping.
High above, on the hills just to the south, the ornate mansions and Victorians of Pacific Heights make for splendid views; from this perch you’ll also spot the Presidio, a vast expanse of green stretching west to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Back near Downtown, the gritty Tenderloin, a rundown section of cheap hotels and sleazy porn shops, will snap you back to reality. It rests uneasily next to the Civic Center, where the painstakingly restored City Hall is the imposing focus.
Cross Market Street and you’ll hit South of Market, once the city’s major industrial enclave and, in the Nineties, home to the offices of a myriad now-defunct internet start-ups. It has retained its cultural cachet with the development of the Yerba Buena Gardens and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The area’s waterfront, long-neglected South Beach, has been rezoned for housing and businesses, anchored by the Giants’ baseball park.
Inland, the Mission District was built around Mission Dolores, the oldest building in San Francisco. The neighbourhood’s diverse population, which includes a large Hispanic community, holds a concentration of lively cafés, restaurants and bars. Just west is the energetic Castro quarter, hub for San Francisco’s gay population.
North of the Castro, Haight-Ashbury was once San Francisco’s Victorian resort quarter before the hippies and flower children took over; today it’s a rag-tag collection of used-clothing stores and laid-back cafés. Nearby are a few areas of only marginal interest to visitors: tiny Japantown, the slightly tatty Western Addition and the Lower Haight, best known for its nightlife.
The western and southern sides of San Francisco are where many of the city’s locals live, in neighbourhoods like the Richmond, liberally sprinkled with some of the city’s best ethnic restaurants.
The Richmond is hugged by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to the north, along the coast of which you can pick up the four-mile Pacific Coast Trail. Expansive Golden Gate Park borders the south of the district and holds a number of fine museums and gardens. South of the park, the Sunset’s homogenous single-storey houses stretch on relentlessly; relief can be found on the western coast, home to the city’s best beaches.
Though San Francisco is undoubtedly the focus of the Bay Area, there are many places to visit in the surrounding parts, too. The East Bay is centred on the gritty, up-and-coming port city of Oakland and the University of California’s flagship campus in hipster Berkeley. To the south, the bayside of the Peninsula contains Palo Alto, dominated by prestigious Stanford University, while the coast offers some surprisingly unspoilt beaches on either side of delightful Half Moon Bay.
North of San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin County boasts the postcard-perfect towns of Sausalito and Tiburon, plus prime biking and hiking trails in the Marin Headlands. Further north is the lush beauty of California’s famed Wine Country, whose principal valleys, Napa and Sonoma, trace gentle crescents through the countless vineyards