Catch a ferry behind Pier 33 on The Embarcadero and sail out to a rocky island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. This was the home of the nation's first military prison which became a federal penitentiary and for more than 30 years, oversaw the incarceration of 1500 men, including Chicago crime boss Al Capone and psychopath Robert "The Birdman" Stroud. To "do The Rock" sign up for the audio tour where narrators, who include former real-life corrections officers and prisoners ("We were like cockroaches in a matchbox"), provide a hauntingly compelling account of what it was like to live and work there. Fabulous.
2 CABLE CARS
San Francisco's clanging cable cars, unchanged since their introduction in 1873, are an adventure unto themselves. Despite this being the 21st century, they still can't travel backwards, and muscled grip-men are required to manually operate the brakes that keep them from careering headlong down the city's treacherously steep hills. Head to the intersection of Powell and Market to watch, at five-minute intervals, the manual turning of an antique car on a revolving wooden platform so it can travel back up the street that it has just come down. Just $5 a ticket.
3 MUIR WOODS AND SAUSALITO
Twenty-seven kilometres north-west of the city is a natural domain so special that, in January 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared Muir Woods America's 10th national monument. It's made up of 226 hectares of redwood forest, with Cathedral and Bohemian groves home to specimens that are up to 77 metres tall and 4.2 metres across. Some of them - incredibly - are about 1000 years old. Mind-blowing.
4 GOLDEN GATE PARK
Offering about 412 hectares of activities that can be enjoyed indoors or out, Golden Gate Park, which stretches for 4.8 kilometres on the western edge of the city, is one of the biggest urban parks in the world. There are bicycle trails, equestrian trails, baseball and softball diamonds - even flycasting pools - but the recently built California Academy of Science must top the bill. It includes an aquarium that is home to the deepest display of living corals, the world's largest digital planetarium, natural history museum and scientific research facilities under one living roof that's been cultivated with more than 1.7 million native plants.
5 SPOT OF TEA
The Palace hotel's Garden Court, an unforgettable monument to Victorian grandeur, is the place to come for a spot of afternoon tea or to partake of a chocolate-dipped strawberry or two over Sunday brunch. Originally the carriage entrance for the hotel when it was first built in 1873, it was lovingly rebuilt in the wake of the Great Earthquake of 1906. The Austrian crystal chandeliers that illuminate proceedings are the same ones that have, for over a century, shone down on the pates of everyone from Mark Twain to Bill Clinton.
6 START YOUR ENGINE
Visitors with children can squeeze the most fun out of the city's 77-year-old signature icon, the Golden Gate bridge, by crossing its 3.2-kilometre, art deco span aboard a shiny-red, 1955 Mack Fire Truck. It only seats 14, so it's nice and cosy, and it can feel chilly on a foggy day, but soon you'll start to wonder if there is any other way to pass beneath the distinctive, orange-vermillion arches of the most photographed bridge in the world. The 75-minute tour takes in Fisherman's Wharf, the Presidio and Crissy Field before reaching Sausalito, famous for its scenic waterfront on the other side.
7 BOOKSTORE BEACON
Biblioheads will happily while away hours inside this independent North Beach bookshop, the narrow corridors of which are bulging with literature. Opened in 1953 by poet and translator Lawrence Ferlinghetti, it was the nation's first paperback-only shop and became the launch-pad for City Lights Publishers, which brought the work of the Beat poets - Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara and Jack Kerouac - to attention.
8 WINE COUNTRY
The 27-kilometre-long Sonoma Valley is an hour's drive from San Francisco and yet, somehow, its 40-odd wineries get far less attention than those in the better-known Napa Valley. Lots of them are just as good. Zinfandel and syrah are the specialities here, but it is a region of enormous variety because of its incredibly diverse topography. The scenery is spectacular and the pace unhurried: locals call the place "Slow-noma". Check out the deliciously jammy Zinfandel at quality, small-lot winemaker Dutcher Crossing (see dutchercrossingwinery.com), while for sheer romance, the stunning gardens of Ferrari-Carano (see ferrari-carano.com) take some beating (don't forget to stroke the boar's nose for luck).
9 SNOOPY FANS
Charles M. Schulz gave us some of the most memorable lines of the 20th century - "Just remember, when you're over the hill, you start to pick up speed" - but, as the creator of the Peanuts comic strip, he was also the world's best-loved cartoonist. While in Sonoma, visit the Charles M Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, where he was a long-term resident until his death in 2000. See the studio where Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Woodstock (not to mention, Linus, Lucy and Peppermint Patty) were conceived.
10 TOWERING VIEWS
Standing on the top of the city's Telegraph View like a landlocked lighthouse, Coit Tower salutes breathtaking 360 views of the city that take in all the landmarks you want it to: the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, Alcatraz and the Embarcadero. It was built in 1933 using money bequeathed to the city by the hard-drinking, cigar-smoking, trouser-wearing socialite Lillie Hitchcock Coit who, from the age of 15 when she first helped firefighters extinguish a fire on Telegraph Hill, was considered an honorary firefighter, often travelling with the men on calls. This tower, built four years after her death, is her tribute to her heroes.
11 HANG WITH SEA LIONS
Sea lions began hauling themselves up onto K-Dock of Pier 39 at the northernmost end of The Embarcadero in January 1990 three months after the Loma Prieta earthquake. After much umming and ahhing at the Marine Mammal Centre, experts judged that the pinnipeds could stay and now these 390-kilogram, two-metre behemoths are a much-loved fixture. The herd's number has varied over the years, but reached a record high of 1701 in 2009.
12 MOVING MOMA
In June last year, this august institution - famous for being one of the first museums to recognise photography as an art form - closed its doors for2½ years while it undergoes dramatic expansion. The good news is many of its important collections can be enjoyed in other spaces across the San Francisco Bay area. Don't miss out on the exhibition Matisse from SFMOMA, now housed in the Legion of Honour until September, featuring 23 works by the French painter.
13 GO FLY A KITE
One: head to the Chinatown Kite Shop where you'll find the best selection of hand-painted kites, newly arrived from China, for $25 to $30. Two: head to the city's northernmost point at Crissy Field where brisk sea breezes play over its 40 or so hectares of meadows and marshes. Three: launch kite and have the most fun you've had in years. Then partake of something fortifying at the Crissy Field Centre or the Warming Hut at Fort Point. (This is also where you can experience the same, stunning, bottom-up view of Golden Gate Bridge that Alfred Hitchcock made famous in his 1958 masterpiece, Vertigo.)
14 CHEAP LAUGHS
Head to the Dark Room at 8pm on a Wednesday to experience stand-up in the hands of the most seasoned and unique comics in town. Often described as the best alternative comedy show in the business, The Business at the Dark Room showcases the funniest talent from Comedy Central. Tickets $5.
The Business at the Dark Room, 2263 Mission Street.
15 PARTY INVITATION
Every Sunday night for the past 15 years or so, resident DJ Sep Ghadishah has transformed Mission den Elbo Room into a party that starts at 5pm, goes on into the wee hours and features guest spots given over to some of the best-known names in Jamaican music. The style of the party, called Dub Mission, is "dub, dubstep, roots and dancehall", but frequent Elbo Room any other night of the week and you're just as likely to hear jazz, funk, soul, Afro-Cuban, hip-hop or rock. This joint's also home to San Francisco's longest happy hour - 5pm to 9pm.
16 YOGA WITH A TWIST
Friday night on 16th Street is neither the time nor the place you'd expect to see folk practising their downward dogs, yet this is what more and more locals are doing - for 90 minutes at a time - at the Laughing Lotus Centre at Dolores. Lights are dimmed, candles are lit and "flow" is achieved to the beat of live music supplied by the Bay Area's grooviest musos. Swap numbers over the free tea and cookies at the end.
17 EAT AND WALK IT OFF
Sign up for a walking tour of a colourful neighbourhood led by one of the city's most knowledgeable epicureans. GraceAnn Walden, a food columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle for 16 years, is your irrepressible host for the five or six hours it takes to properly "sample" your neighbourhood of choice (options include Italian North Beach, Chinatown, Latino Mission and ritzy Nob Hill). Her North Beach Tour, for example, will have you dropping in for nibbles at a focaccia bakery, a chocolatier and an Italian butcher before culminating in a delicious repast at an Italian eatery.
18 SHOPPING CENTRAL
Union Square, with its proliferation of big-name store fronts - Macy's, Paul Smith, Levi's SF and Banana Republic - is generally recognised as the shopaholic's mecca, but outlets that rocket straight to the top of our quirky and only-in-San-Fran scoreboard include: SFMOMA Museum Store (see museumstore.sfmoma.org) for its 560 square metres of eclectic, something-for-everyone, swag; La Rosa Vintage (1711 Haight Street) for its vintage clothes, jewellery and shoes that entices the likes of Dita Von Teese; and the Ferry Building Marketplace (see ferrybuildingmarketplace.com) for its thrice-weekly farmer's market.
19 SEE THE GIANTS
The AT&T Park has been the home of the San Francisco Giants, a Major League Baseball team, since 2000. Famed for the prime waterfront position that allows 43,000 spectators views of the longest-established professional baseball team at play and the bay, it's the perfect venue for a series of behind-the-scenes tours that take in sights normally reserved for players and staff.
20 THE EMBARCADERO
The Embarcadero is the four-kilometre stretch of waterfront on the north-eastern side of the city that starts at the Ferry Building and goes to Fisherman's Wharf beyond Pier 39. It's a favourite haunt of joggers, dog-walkers, roller-skaters and kids learning to ride without stabilisers. Before you go, make a booking at Spanish tapas restaurant Coqueta on Pier 5.
The writer travelled as a guest of My USA. See myusa.com.au