A truly unique city, San Francisco is a great place to start or end any road trip. Distinctive neighborhoods invite exploration and the scenery from every hilltop—of which there are plenty—is well worth a few minutes to pause and take in. Museums, parks, landmarks and stellar restaurants are all within easy reach thanks to the city’s compact layout; learn about the region’s history, sample gourmet food from around the world, then check out the latest in modern art all in a handful of hours.

Fort Point is the perfect stop to get your bearings before exploring. This massive Civil War fort stands directly beneath the Golden Gate Bridgea prime photo opportunity—and you can explore the fort as you like while enjoying the panoramic view of the City by the Bay and the near-daily sight of dedicated surfers and windsurfers off shore. It’s a nice walk from there to the Golden Gate Bridge, or you can head west to Lands End or back into town on foot via a trail. Golden Gate Park is another excellent spot to feel out San Francisco’s unique vibe. Stretching inland from the west, this park includes acres and acres of gardens, a boating lake, and two landmark museums: the copper-clad art of the de Young Museum, and the grass-roofed California Academy of Sciences where you can explore a natural history museum, an aquarium, and a planetarium.

Any stop in San Francisco should include a visit to Alcatraz. Infamous still for its grim past and preserved as a historical park, The Rock operated as America’s most notorious prison from 1934 to 1963. A visit is informative and well-worth it the one-of-a-kind SF viewpoint. Ferries to Alcatraz leave throughout the day from Pier 41 at the east end of Fisherman’s Wharf.

For fans and sports lovers, in downtown’s South of Market district along the bay is the retromodern AT&T Park where the San Francisco Giants (877/4SF-4849, tickets around $25 and up) play.

Practicalities

A car really isn’t necessary at all in San Francisco. Distances are short, public transportation is extensive, and the grid street plan makes navigating exceptionally easy. San Francisco’s Municipal Railway (“Muni”; 415/673-6864) network of public transit buses, trams, and cable cars will reliably take you all over the city.

The tough decisions in San Francisco kick in when it’s time to eat; you might find yourself planning your next meal while you’re still eating. For breakfast, Sears Fine Foods (439 Powell St., 415/986-0700) on Union Square is a local institution, as is the upscale Fog City (1300 Battery St., 415/982-2000), which serves gourmet comfort food (and the world’s best French toast on weekends). The Swan Oyster Depot (1517 Polk St., 415/673-1101 or 415/673-2757, Mon.-Sat. till 5:30pm only), another culinary landmark a half block north of the California Street cable car, is a simple oyster bar serving the city’s freshest shellfish and coldest Anchor Steam beer. Sam’s Grill (374 Bush St., 415/421-0594), downtown, has incredible grilled meat and fish dishes, melt-in-your-mouth shoestring fries, and ancient-looking 1930s wooden booths that seem like set pieces from a Sam Spade mystery—a definite San Francisco touch.

Expect room rates to run fairly high—San Francisco is a worldwide destination, as a few hours in the city will attest—$250 a night (plus parking and taxes) is the average. The swanky Mandarin Oriental (222 Sansome St., 415/276-9888, $450 and up), which fills the top floors of a Financial District skyscraper and has 270-degree bay views (even from the bathtubs!) is the place to go for romance or the opportunity to just pamper yourself. Budget options are one of three HI hostels, $30 a night or $90 for a private room: one on the bay at Fort Mason (415/771-7277), another downtown (312 Mason St., 415/788-5604), and a third near Civic Center (685 Ellis St., 415/474-5721). Mid-range options are motels on the outskirts of downtown, like the nouveau retro Hotel del Sol (3100 Webster St., 415/921-5520, $149 and up) in the Marina District.

For a decent free street map with extensive listings of attractions, accommodations, and restaurants, check out the San Francisco Visitor Information Center (900 Market St., 415/391-2000).