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?