There’s more to San Francisco than its beautiful bridges. Follow this guide to discover the city’s lesser known delights.

The city of steep hills, bay views, bridges and fog is one of the world’s most beautiful. The birthplace of Levi’s and (apparently) the martini, it was the ground zero of the 1960s hippie revolution and a hotbed of dot-com boom in the late 1990s. The noughties saw Silicon Valley (south of the city) become the centre of some of the world’s most successful start-ups — from Twitter to Craigslist — drawing bright young things from all over the globe to its shores. Naturally, cool cafes and designer bars followed, making it one of the most exciting places on the West Coast.

This year from July, San Francisco will be hosting the finals of the 34th America’s Cup. As hundreds of colourful yachts dot its bay, a renewed energy will be in the city’s restaurants, cafes and shopping districts. Whether you choose to explore its urban hubs on its cable cars — the world’s last manually operated system — or decide to lose yourself in the serene Golden Gate Park, there’s something for everyone.

Must-dos

Nothing will acquaint you better with the city, renowned for its quaint Victorian townhouses, than a helicopter ride. Buckle up in a San Francisco Helicopters’s aircraft, which departs from the private terminal of the city’s airport. The chopper travels over the CBD, flies under the city’s most famous bridges — The Golden Gate and Bay — and ends up in Sausalito, a bay-side settlement of multimillion-dollar houses tumbling down a hill.

A walk along its waterfront Bridgeway — with cafes, restaurants and trinket shops — is a great way to spend half a day. To fully appreciate San Francisco’s natural beauty, however, you must explore it by sea and road, too. Hornblower has daily dinner cruises, which leave from Pier 3 and are the best way to catch the city at sunset.

But if you want to do what the locals do, then simply jump on two wheels. Despite killer hills, San Franciscans love to cycle. Bike and Roll offers guided tours across the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond.

Once you’ve worked up an appetite, make your way to Fisherman’s Wharf. While downright touristy, it’s a great place to enjoy one of the city’s most famous dishes: clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl. What’s more, here you can also spot the city’s most unusual celebrities: sea lions, which can be seen year-round at Pier 39, lazily sunbathing in full view of hundreds of tourists with cameras at the ready.

Love Bites

From perfectly brewed lattes to seafood feasts, San Francisco has it covered.

Seafood Soiree

Stepping inside the 105-year-old John’s Grill is like going back in time. The walls are lined with images of the restaurant’s famous patrons — from Alfred Hitchcock to Johnny Depp. But the real feast is Petrale Almandine, a local fish dish with sliced almonds and sweet butter sauce that has been a favourite for more than 100 years.

Terminal Bliss

Technically, the Ferry Building is a transit hub, but it’s also a foodie’s haven with almost 50 gourmet-food shops, restaurants and cafes. Visit the terminal on Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday for the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which comes alive with stalls selling the region’s best produce.

Caffeine Fix

Who says Americans can’t do good coffee? Here’s spilling the beans on San Fran’s best-kept secret. Housed in a converted warehouse, Sightglass puts US baristas on the international map.

Main Event

Handcrafted cocktails rule the roost at Burritt Room, while in the adjoining Burritt Tavern dramatic decor takes centre stage — think dark wood interiors and high-walled curtained booths. The truffle-roasted chicken breast is divine, too. 

Bedding Down

The city is home to a range of hotels, from luxe to budget options.

Past Perfect

For a serious dose of history in San Francisco’s exclusive Nob Hill enclave, you can’t go past The Fairmont, with its heavily ornamented 1907 Beaux-Arts façade. The hotel’s Laurel Court Restaurant & Bar is renowned for its Honey Saison Beer, which uses honey taken from its rooftop hive.

Cutting-edge

With its contemporary design, central location and state-of-the-art features, Mandarin Oriental occupies the top 11 floors of the city’s third-tallest building. That means one thing: sweeping views from every room. Inside, the sprawling marble bathroom is a sight to behold, too.

Luxe Factor

If creature comforts are on your mind, check into the Club Level of The Ritz-Carlton. Bright spacious rooms, 1000-thread-count sheets and elegant ensuites with Bulgari amenities offer an opulent experience. All-day access to hors d’oeuvres and beverages in the lounge continue the extravagant theme, but venture downstairs to Parallel 37 restaurant if you want a taste of contemporary American fare without over-manipulated ingredients.

Budget

Only a stone’s throw from Union Square — San Francisco’s retail mecca — The Mystic Hotel is your best bet if you want to keep lodging cost down and number of trips back to the hotel with bags of shopping up. Neutral-coloured rooms, with highlights of red, are basic but comfortable and bright.

Neighbourhood Watch

San Fran is home to some interesting suburbs. Start off at the world-renowned Castro. It’s the largest gay and lesbian neighbourhood in the US and, predictably, a hub of stylish bars and shops. Best time to visit is just before sunset, so you can browse the shops before they close and enjoy the scene once the bars fill up with partying people after dark.

No trip to San Francisco is complete without a visit to Haight-Ashbury.The epicentre of the Summer of Love — the 1967 hippie revolution that saw as many as 100,000 people congregate and initiate cultural and political change — this suburb is still alive with eclectic energy, and a serious dose of graffiti. From tattoo parlours and body-piercing studios to stores selling retro bags, it’s here that you’ll find all the reminders of the flower children.

Silicon Valley is not exactly a neighbourhood of San Francisco, but it’s only a 45-minute drive south of the city. Drive along its streets that are home to dot-com giants, such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo; visit the Computer History Museum; or relax on the lawns of Stanford University. 

Day Trips

No trip to the American West Coast is complete without spending a couple of days in the World Heritage-listed Yosemite National Park, a three- to four-hour drive east from San Francisco. But if you’re short on time, opt for Extranomical Tours’s day-long bus trip, which offers a snapshot of the dramatic landscape — think granite cliffs, clear streams and giant sequoia groves.

If wining and dining is more your thing, then you’re in the right city. Two of the US’s most famous wine regions, Napa Valley and Sonoma County are only about an hour’s drive from the city.

For a truly special experience, hop aboard the Wine Train on the Ambassador Winery Tour in the historic town of Napa. The train winds its way through the vineyards on a track built in 1864 as you enjoy a lunch created using regional, seasonal produce. Each course can be matched with the best drops from Napa, so all you have to do is sit back and relax.

Don’t Leave Without…

A trip to the Coit Tower (on Telegraph Hill), both for the stunning murals inside and panoramic views of the city from the top. Lovers of history should journey to Alcatraz Island. Once a notorious prison, it’s now a National Historic Landmark. It’s also one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, so book ahead.

Culture vultures should not miss Beach Blanket Babylon— America’s longest-running musical revue at Club Fugazi.And if you want to soak up the America’s Cup action, hop aboard AC Sailing SF’s  USA 76. The yacht was used by the Oracle racing team in the 2003 America’s Cup held in Auckland. But now you can sail in it across the city’s bay, with this year’s contenders practising around you. 

Q&A with a Local

At only 18, Sahil Lavingia — a university dropout — helped found Pinterest. Then, a year later, he developed Gumroad (having raised $7 million for his start-up); a site that aims to make selling anything — from lyrics to graphic designs — on the web possible. He’s been living in San Francisco for more than a year now.

Describe San Francisco in one word.

Busy.

Where do you go when you want to escape its frenetic pace?

Dolores Park. It’s full of interesting people, and has stunning views of the city and lots of sun.

What is your favourite bar?

It would have to be Bloodhound. It’s a great bar and very close to where I live.

Where do you like to eat?

Keiko à Nob Hill is my favourite restaurant in the city. I also like Chez Maman.

Is there a neighbourhood in San Francisco you particularly like?

I love the Mission. It’s always bustling.