Amid the fog that often shrouds San Francisco, you'll find sharp dichotomies and quirky contradictions. The city attracts bohemian artists and writers, as well as money-minded technology entrepreneurs. In neighbourhoods that host the most lavish restaurants, panhandlers ask for spare change.
Businessmen in ties skateboard down Market Street, and the city's impressive natural beauty belies its tendency toward destructive earthquakes.
Cultures blend easily in San Francisco. My daily commute downtown is often shared with tourists when I ride the F-line (one-way ticket $1.50), which features a fleet of refurbished streetcars from all over the world. During the summer, these cars are packed with people on their way down the Embarcadero, invariably toward Pier 39, where numerous restaurants serve delicious clam chowder, and a multitude of shops sell trinkets and jackets (in the summer, the temperature is surprisingly brisk).
A short walk leads to Fisherman's Wharf, the heart of San Francisco's tourist district. Here you can shop, eat, dodge other sightseers and book bus tours of the city (about $45) and boat rides around the bay (about $25).
The best places to stay in San Francisco can be found near Union Square, within walking distance of Chinatown, shopping and cable car rides up and down the hills of Powell Street. These hotels can be pricey, however, and many rooms average more than $200 a night.
But while San Francisco may be a tourist's dream, it also hosts a number of more understated attractions that appeal to history, literature and art lovers, naturalists and foodies. At the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, you can tour Fort Point, which protected the bay from Confederate attack during the Civil War and was later used as a backdrop for a scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.
Along Columbus Street, you will find City Lights Bookstore, where beat poets Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac read their work, and the Vesuvio Cafe, another beat haunt, offering 'bohemian coffee', an espresso drink with brandy, amaretto and a twist of lemon.
The art culture in San Francisco is vibrant. On Geary Street, more than 20 galleries show artists' work, as do many others, scattered throughout the city. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art ($12.50) is a popular attraction that features pieces ranging from furniture to multimedia installations. The De Young Museum ($10) is located in Golden Gate Park and displays American art from the 17th century to the 20th. Lest you think it is a typical urban park, you'll find a herd of grazing bison, a tradition since the 1890s.
To see the city's natural beauty from above, hike up to Twin Peaks (a mere 920 feet above sea level). From the vantage point, you can witness fog creeping in off the Pacific and get a sense of the city's topology: undulating hills that force sidewalks into stairs.
In the evenings, San Francisco offers myriad entertaining options. A night out on the town could consist of sitting in a posh lounge in Nob Hill, such as Top of the Mark, or meeting friendly folk in a neighbourhood bar in the Mission District, whose residents are a mixture of Hispanics and hipsters. San Francisco's restaurants offer their own distinctive style. Enjoy stunning views of the California coastline at the Cliff House, or visit the Fifth Floor at the luxurious Hotel Palomar.
But to experience San Francisco's comfortable blend of cultures, eat in the Mission District. On Valencia Street, you can get a tasty burrito at any one of the scores of family-owned taquerias. And at Emmy's Spaghetti Shack, a popular Italian restaurant, you can wait for your table at the adjoining bar, where the locals drink cervezas and play pool. Kate Greene is IT editor at MIT's Technology Review magazine and technologyreview.com.