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Even if San Francisco’s streets aren’t paved with gold, they are splashed with rainbow-coloured murals and the skies over North Beach are ruled by trash-talking parrots. Whimsical Victorian rooflines zigzag up and down the city’s 43 hills, while year-round parades are all the excuse you need to throw on a boa.

See

Film buffs say Hitchcock was right: seen from below at Fort Point, the 1,280-metre Golden Gate Bridge induces vertigo. Also, try the north-end lookout at Marin’s Vista Point and watch gusts of fog billow through bridge cables like dry ice (goldengatebridge.org; southbound car toll £4).

Until 1963, the island of Alcatraz was a maximum-security prison, holding famous crime bosses such as Al Capone. Ferries leave from Pier 33. The fare includes entrance to the park (day only) and an audio tour of the prison cells. Book ahead (alcatrazcruises. com; day/night £16/£20).

December to May is peak season for whale-watching. The Oceanic Society leads whale-watching expeditions from Yacht Harbor. Trips depart from Fort Mason and last about six hours (oceanicsociety.org; Fort Mason Quarters 35; 9am-5pm Mon-Fri; tours from £55).

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has arguably the world’s leading photography collection, with works by Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange (00 1 415 357 4000; sfmoma.org; 151 3rd Street; 11am-5.45pm Mon, Tue and Fri-Sun, 11am-8.45pm Thurs; £11).

Everything that San Franciscans hold dear can be found at Golden Gate Park: free thinkers, free music, redwoods, Frisbees and fine art. Park information is available at McLaren Lodge (00 1 415 831 2700; golden-gate-park. com; Stanyan St; Mon-Fri; free).

Eat and drink

Francis Ford Coppola drafted The Godfather at Caffe Trieste and local Poet Laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti still drops in. Sonnets decorate the bathroom walls, opera plays on the jukebox and there are accordion sessions on Sundays (00 1 415 392 6739; caffetrieste.com; 601 Vallejo St; lunch and dinner; coffee £2).

Mexican La Taquería serves fantastic burritos: perfectly grilled meats, flavourful beans and classic salsa inside a flour tortilla, with optional homemade spicy pickled vegetables and crème fraîche (00 1 415 285 7117; 2889 Mission St; lunch and dinner; burritos from £2.50).

At Hog Island Oyster Bar local Tomales Bay oysters are served with superb condiments and a glass of bubbly. Oysters cost 65p on Monday and Thursday happy hours, from 5pm to 7pm (00 1 415 391 7117; hogisland oysters.com; 1 Ferry Bldg; lunch and dinner Mon-Fri, lunch Sat and Sun; oyster samplers from £10).

Dine on scallops, organic melon and Tsar Nicoulai caviar at Jardinière 9 , where Chef Traci Des Jardins is a multiple winner of the James Beard Foundation Award. All ingredients are local, sustainable and seasonal (00 1 415 861 5555; jardiniere.com; 300 Grove St; dinner; mains from £12).

Don't expect to be given a menu at reservation-only Jai Yun. Instead, indulge in 12- to 16-course Shanghai-style feasts in the mirrored interior (00 1 415 981 7438; menuscan.com/jaiyun; 680 Clay St; lunch and dinner Fri-Wed; multicourse banquets from £28).

Sleep

The Dakota Hotel is a 42-room hostel-cum-hotel in a 1920s property. Rooms are basic but good value, with a retro 1970s character, satin quilts and pastel-coloured paint schemes, and they also have clawfoot baths. Alas, the lift is temperamental (00 1 415 9317475; 606 Post St at Taylor St; from £38).

A budget hotel for art fans, Hotel Des Arts has rooms painted with jaw-dropping murals by underground street artists. It’s like sleeping inside a painting. Standard rooms are less exciting (and some are without bathrooms), but great value with smart design touches (00 1 415 956 3232; sfhoteldesarts.com; 447 Bush St; from £90).

Parker Guest House is the Castro district's most stately gay- and straight-friendly digs occupying two Edwardian mansions. Details are elegant, but never precious. Rooms are stylishly furnished with supercomfortable beds. The garden is ideal for a lovers’ tryst (00 1 415 621 3222; parkerguesthouse.com; 520 Church St; from £100).

Like a love letter to the jazz era, Hotel Bohème has inverted Chinese umbrellas hanging from the ceiling and photos from the Beat years on the walls. Rooms are smallish but the hotel is in the middle of North Beach’s vibrant street scene (00 1 415 433 9111; hotelboheme.com; 444 Columbus Ave; from £110).

The Fairmont is one of the city's legendary hotels. The lobby is decked out with crystal chandeliers, marble floors and towering yellow-marble columns. Rooms sport luxurious, Regencystyle furniture and a royal blue-and-gold colour scheme (00 1 415 772 5000; fairmont.com; 950 Mason St; from £160).

Getting around

American Airlines, British Airways and United serve San Francisco from London Heathrow (£640) and Manchester, via New York (£650; aa.com). From the airport, the BART train shuttle runs to the city centre (£10; bart.gov). A taxi costs £20.

Getting there

It's easy to get around the city on MUNI buses, trams and BART trains (single fare £1; bart.gov). Taxis are plentiful and can be flagged down or pre-booked. Try the fuel-efficient Green Cab (from £2; sfgreencab.com).

The article ‘Mini guide to San Francisco, USA’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.

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