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What's the best way to see it all?
San Francisco is a great walking city, it's relatively compact, and the coolness keeps you refreshed -- but the hills can make your calves scream.
Solomon's rule: Walk if you can handle it, as much as you can, but don't be an idiot. A ride on a cable car costs $2; the streetcars, buses and Muni subway are a buck, and they're easy to figure out. The BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is another option for longer distances (fares vary).
Taxis aren't cheap, but distances are short -- so tourists staying near Union Square or Fisherman's Wharf can get to most tourist places for about $8 or less, no matter how many are in the cab.
Walk there, and ride back, works for me.
How about driving?
It's possible -- people do it -- but the hills can throw rookies, especially if you're driving something with a manual shift. Plus, hotels routinely charge $30 and more to garage the car. Parking is nuts (and has its tricks, especially on hills). Remember, you can walk to a lot of places. Public transportation is efficient, safe, even fun.
So: Do the math, visualize cruising around for 20 minutes hoping for a chance to park on a 45-degree incline, then forget the car (unless, of course, you want to rent one for an excursion).
Where's the best place to stay?
If you're adults, consider hotels with the words "near Union Square" in the description. You're going to wind up around there anyway. Shopping, galleries, theater, transportation, restaurants, all down one block or another.
With kids, you're better off around Fisherman's Wharf, which is kind of a constant festival and has more kid-friendly places to eat. If you're driving despite everything I told you a couple of paragraphs ago, the best concentration of decent, in-close motels is on Lombard Street (before it turns crooked), above the Marina District.
By consensus, the best hotel in town is the Mandarin Oriental (800-622-0404). If you need to ask how much it is, you can't afford it.
I chose the Hotel Rex (800-433-4434) "near Union Square," part of the Joie de Vivre group (www.jdvhospitality.com), and liked it a lot. Expect to pay around $200 a night, maybe a little more. Would have been very happy at the Galleria Park (same price range; 800-792-9639), member of the Kimpton empire (www.kimptongroup.com), on the duller side of Union Square but closer to Chinatown.
Unusual and fun: the Cape Cod B&B feel of the Washington Square Inn, in North Beach ($145-up; 800-388-0220); and the artsy Hotel Boheme (415-433-9111; $164-$184), also North Beach and not at all like a Cape Cod B&B.
In general, figure on spending $200 and up for a good hotel room in San Francisco, though a softening market (occupancy was down 11 percent in the first quarter; it's the economy) may induce some properties to drop rates a tad or offer such perks as free breakfasts and parking. Call the hotels directly.
OK, you didn't ask, but: doubles at the Mandarin Oriental start around $500. Check for weekend deals, even there. You're welcome.
Is North Beach a beach?
How about restaurants?
There are 3,300 of them. Good luck.
Oh, come on . . .
Look, pick up a decent guidebook (Zagat, Access, Frommer), check the San Francisco Chronicle's restaurant ratings (www.sfgate.com), ask someone at your hotel's front desk, check posted menus (most places post them) and trust your instincts.
Tried this trip, and especially liked: the revived Masa's (expensive and worth it), Tadich Grill (just OK, really, but the place feels like it's been around forever -- and has), John's Grill (Sam Spade ate chops there), Scoma's (in Sausalito, with a view; its S.F. cousin is fine, too), Lichee Garden (watch the hot stuff in the very good house-special lamb) and an old favorite, the North Beach Restaurant (where even irregulars are treated like regulars).
How about Chinatown joints?
The town's serious foodies slam most of them (Great Eastern, untried this time, is the apparent exception), but I've hit lots of them over the years and have never had a bad experience. Never. You're in one of America's great ethnic institutions. Take a peek, and if it feels clean and it's crowded with Chinese diners, dive in.
Speaking of fortune cookies . . .
They were invented in San Francisco. The inventor was Japanese.
What about city tours?
If you've never been here, take a bus tour -- there's no more efficient way to get an overview -- but check the weather before you book. Morning fog can leave you with pictures of, well, fog.
But unless you take a tour (or marry a local), you may never learn San Francisco's secrets.
Like . . . ?
The scar on an outer wall of the Westin St. Francis was the result of a bullet that almost got Gerald Ford in 1975.
Why haven't they fixed it?
They tried. The cure was worse than the disease.
I hear all the Giants' home games are sold out.
You hear wrong. That was last year, when Pacific Bell Park was brand new. This year, some are, most aren't. You can order tickets through the Giants' Web site (www.sfgiants.com) or by phone (800-225-2277). The more adventurous can risk the active freelance resale market (i.e., street scalpers). In any case, bleachers ($10) are a good deal; avoid $16 "View reserved" seats in sections 333-336 (left field upper deck) if you want to see the whole field (you lose a chunk of left and left-center).
Mostly. Don't miss the garlic fries. You can't miss the stand.
Speaking of nice parks . . .
Washington Square, in North Beach, especially right after dawn, when it's full of folks doing their daily tai-chi moves; and at lunchtime.
Golden Gate Park, anytime but especially on Sunday, when cars and buses are banned.
Know any good San Francisco movies?
Are you kidding?
Here are five: "Maltese Falcon," "Vertigo," "Flower Drum Song," "Dirty Harry," "Bullitt."
There are others, but these should do it. Especially, in terms of scenery, "Vertigo," but check out Dong Kingman's brilliant watercolors during the opening credits of "Flower Drum Song."
Funny, she doesn't look . . .
In "Flower Drum Song," the shy Chinese immigrant girl who sings the flower drum song is played by Miyoshi Umeki.
Who is Japanese.
Should I worry about earthquakes?
Nah. Though if you feel a little jiggle, which happens, it will be something to tell your friends.
But how about the 1989 quake that destroyed the city?
It didn't. Most of the serious damage was concentrated in the Marina District (near the Wharf), the Bay Bridge and on highway structures in San Francisco and Oakland.
Then it was just another case of media sensationalism?
No. The damage was major, people died, walls were cracked well away from the Marina District and much of the city was paralyzed for days.
How do you know?
I was here.
And you came back?
The city did.