Experience Original San Francisco Charm
San Francisco may have become the start-up city, but it also has a rich history and the most beautifully preserved gems celebrating its golden past, from hidden Prohibition cocktail bars to Marilyn Monroe's secret lover's escape route.
Perhaps it's Silicon Valley, farm-to-table food or single-origin coffee made by bearded baristas that spring to mind when you think of modern-day San Francisco. This 21st-century digital hub is usually associated with its knack for trend-setting, but its fantastically well-preserved past is just as much fun to explore. San Francisco is a city that made its fortune during the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century - when precious metals worth billions were extracted from the nearby hills, and mansions and theatres were built. Many have been beautifully restored and still channel the elegance of a bygone era, making it an exciting city to time-travel in.
Here are the most beautiful, classic and quintessential places to stay, eat and drink, and visit in San Francisco.
THE PALACE HOTEL
Best hotel for old-world romance
The Palace has the sense of opulence you'd expect from a place built in 1875, when it was the largest luxury hotel in the world. The original embossed door handles, ornate cornices and grand-proportioned rooms indicate that it has been a case of restoration over the years, rather than renovation. Apart from a glass-ceiling pool installed in the 1980s, little has changed since it was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake - the original 1909 Maxfield Parrish mural remains in The Pied Piper Bar, and is now valued at $5 million. The 72,000-piece glass ceiling and the dramatic arrangements of cherry blossom and towering orchids in the Garden Court make a stunning setting for breakfast, a feeling enhanced by the expansive buffet, silver crockery and even a samovar dispensing warm maple syrup to drizzle over fluffy pancakes.
Address: The Palace Hotel, 2 New Montgomery Street, Financial District, San Francisco, USA Telephone: +1 415 512 1111 Website: sfpalace.com
BOURBON & BRANCH
Hidden drinking dens for Prohibition cocktails
The only difficulty with Bourbon & Branch is getting in - which shows a certain authenticity, as the Prohibition-era cocktail bar dates back to 1923, when it was JJ Russell's Cigar Shop. The bullet holes that pock the walls, and an escape route through the ladies' loos - spitting out visitors one block away - suggests it sold more than just cigars. It's still a maze of hidden drinking dens. The only bar that accepts walk-ins here is The Library, a moodily lit room with an embossed-tin ceiling and Prohibition-era cocktails such as Gimlets and Old Fashioneds. Those in-the-know reserve a banquette in the Main Bar next door (password-only), or manage to infiltrate Bourbon & Branch's more elusive bars: Wilson & Wilson, The Russell Room or The Ipswitch.
Address: Bourbon & Branch, 501 Jones Street, Nob Hill, San Francisco Telephone: +1 415 346 1735 Website: bourbonandbranch.com
Best place to dig for treasure
Gump's is San Francisco's answer to Liberty's of London, and has traded patterned silks, ceramics and exotic jewels for generations. Its first well-heeled clients came with the Gold Rush but with Silicon Valley behind the latest wave of wealth, this classic department store remains as popular as ever. The company was founded in 1861, and lost all its treasures (including an original Renoir) in the fires that swept through the city after the 1906 earthquake. The manager at the time (Alfred Livingston Gump) boarded a ship and travelled westwards to refill the shop with treasures from Japan and China. The store is still famed for its exotica: a gilded, Qing Dynasty Buddha displayed on the ground floor is the crowning jewel of its collection, and the only item in the shop not for sale.
Address: Gump's, 135 Post Street, Financial District, San Francisco Telephone: +1 415 982 1616 Website: gumps.com
Most thrilling way to get around
Rattling up and down the San Franciscan hills at 10 miles per hour with the wind in your hair, it's easy to see why the city's cable cars remain so popular. They are just as practical as they are exciting, which is why the seven million people who ride them each year consist of locals and tourists alike. The polished brass fixtures and varnished oak frames transport passengers back to the 1870s, when work first started on the network. Their design has hardly changed, although the 23 original lines have depleted to just three - they still cross-cross the city, though, making it a system worth getting your head round, particularly when you consider the climbs and descents a trip might save you.
For more information, visit gocalifornia.com
FAIRMONT SAN FRANCISCO
Most famous suite in town
The Penthouse Suite at the Fairmont San Francisco has hosted everyone from JFK to The Rolling Stones - and at 6,000sq ft, the apartment could have fitted most of their entourage too. No expense has been spared, from the floor-to-ceiling tile mosaic in the billiard room to the secret passageway in the two-storey rotunda library (it's said that Marilyn Monroe used it to sneak out when she heard Jackie approaching). If you can't stump up the $18,000 rate, it's worth asking for a tour; you might be lucky. Otherwise, there's plenty of high-society grandeur elsewhere in the hotel. Start with the Versailles-inspired Vanderbilt Room, and finish in the Cirque Room - the first bar to open in San Francisco following Prohibition - which still features the original golden Art Deco murals by the Bruton Sisters.
Address: Fairmont San Francisco, 950 Mason Street, Nob Hill, San Francisco Telephone: +1 415 772 5000 Website: fairmont.com
THE BIG 4
Best spot for Belle Epoque eating and drinking
With its stern oil portraiture, wood-paneled walls, green leather and open fireplace, The Big 4 will transport diners back to the city's early-20th-century golden age. Its traditional dishes (think deviled eggs and baked Fanny Bay oyster) and classic brunches (eggs Benedict and Blood Orange Mimosa) have lured the likes of Cary Grant and Luciano Pavarotti through its doors, and continue to attract those seeking old-fashioned elegance. The restaurant honors the 'Big Four' railroad barons w ho built mansions on San Francisco's Nob Hill, and is attached to the Scarlet Huntington Hotel(named after magnate Henry Huntington). It's still an exclusive part of town. While the restaurant is dressed with starched linen, there's a real buzz at the bar end, where the sound of tinkling piano mixes with laughter and the clinking of crystal glass.
Address: The Big 4, The Scarlet Huntington Hotel, 1075 California Street, Nob Hill, San Francisco Telephone: +1 415 771 1140 Website: big4restaurant.com
WAR MEMORIAL OPERA HOUSE
Best for people-watching
The city's opera house attracts the great and the good of the city, but even if you left your glad rags at home it's worth getting a last-minute ticket for the balcony. This is a young building by European standards, yet with its uniformed bell hops in the wood-panelled lifts, gold-coffered ceiling in the lobby, floor mosaics and Art Deco chandeliers, it feels frozen in time. The opera house was built as a memorial to honour those who fought in World War I. It opened in 1932 with a performance of Puccini's Tosca, and has since attracted top musicians from every corner of the world; legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti once said of San Francisco, 'This is my second hometown. Musically, it is my first.'
Address: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, Civic Center, San Francisco Telephone: +1 415 621 6600 Website: sfopera.com
CONSERVATORY OF FLOWERS
Best place for a floral escape
Set in the north-east corner of Golden Gate Park, this is a lovely sanctuary to head to when the city gets too much. It has been named San Francisco's Best First Date destination, but swooning couples aside this is a calm and beautiful place to relax - amidst the cloud-forest orchids and thick lily pads in a delightfully hot, fragrant fog. The glass-and-wood structure is the oldest of its kind in North America, dating back to the 1870s, when botany was the height of fashion. The 2,000-specimen collection has been built up over decades, and stars a towering philodendron under the main dome that is more than 100 years old. Keen horticulturalists should also visit the nearby Japanese Tea Garden and the Botanical Gardens.
Address: Conservatory of Flowers, 100 John F Kennedy Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco Telephone: +1 415 831 2090 Website: conservatoryofflowers.org
HEINOLD'S FIRST AND LAST CHANCE SALOON
Best bar for a sundowner
It wouldn't be unreasonable to worry that such a historic bar, fashioned from an old whaling ship in 1883, might err towards being a touch gimmicky - but as the sun sets and locals gather on the waterfront for a pint outside Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon, such fears are put to rest. Head here during good weather, because the bar itself is tiny. Defined by a sloping mahogany counter and single loo, this is still a dive at heart - built originally as the first or last chance for a big night before or after a long time at sea. Though technically not in San Francisco, it sneaks onto this list through proximity and sheer unmissability.
Address: Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon, Jack London Square, 48 Webster Street, Oakland Telephone: +1 510 839 6761
THE PAINTED LADIES
Best architecture for Instagram
This strip of multi-coloured Queen Anne houses has become so iconic it's earned the nickname Postcard Row. It's in a residential part of town outside the centre - so most tourists do indeed just settle for a postcard - but it's definitely worth the trip to admire the heritage houses that now change hands for millions of dollars. The ornate roof gables, stained glass and bay windows make it a must for anyone interested in design, but those without an architectural eye will still appreciate their beauty. The Painted Ladies were actually a chalky white when first built; it wasn't until the 1960s that the Colorist Movement led by artist Butch Kardum transformed them into the works of art they are now. Tip: for a slice of the Alamo lifestyle, book a room in Chateau Tivoli, a guesthouse dating back to 1892, just down the road from The Painted Ladies.
Address: The Painted Ladies, Steiner Street, Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco
Best place for looking dapper
This Union Square boutique is all crested black and gold, with handsome window displays - but it's the stock that whisks customers to another era. From fedoras to flat caps, bowlers to boaters, not to mention the collection of hat pins, feathers and pocket handkerchiefs, it's a sartorialist's dream. The company dates back to 1895 when Cassel Goorin first began touting his handmade hats from a horse and cart on the streets of Pittsburgh. Now the business is in its fourth generation and still going strong. Since daily hat-wearing fell out of fashion, Goorin Bros was forced to diversify into sportswear, but it remains best known for its vintage aesthetic, attracting the attention of flañeurs worldwide.
Address: Goorin Bros, 11 Geary Street, Union Square, San Francisco Telephone: +1 415 362 0036 Website: goorin.com
The best throwback bar
San Franciscans who know their cocktails head to Comstock Saloon for the signature Pisco Punch or a classic Sazerac. It's easy to see the appeal. The gentle click of the wicker-paddle ceiling fans can just be heard above the tinkling melodies from the upright piano. The elaborate mahogany, copper-topped counter forms the centrepiece of the saloon, and punters can pull up a seat alongside the bar to order small plates. When the bar was founded in 1907 it borrowed its name from Henry Comstock, an American miner described as an 'illiterate prospector' and a 'quick-thinking loudmouth' - a seemingly odd choice now, as the neighbourhood bar is the height of refined, cocktail-sipping civility.
Address: Comstock Saloon, 155 Columbus Avenue, Financial District, San Francisco Telephone: +1 415 617 0071 Website: comstocksaloon.com
The preppiest place for a burger
Tables are dressed with pressed linen and burgers come with a recommended wine pairing (2012 Adaptation Petite Sirah, for example), but Balboa Cafe is not a case of style over substance. The house burger is widely regarded as one of the best in town, and the patty, served in a baguette slice with skinny chips and homemade pickles, doesn't disappoint. The restaurant attracts a preppy, polo-playing crowd who relish the Tommy Hilfiger, all-American vibe. Balboa is guilty of fibbing about its age (it was established in 1913, but the founders were superstitious of the number, so put '1914' above the door), but over the Margarita-fuelled happy-hour clamour, it's the sort of place where a year or two between friends hardly matters.
Address: Balboa Cafe, 3199 Fillmore Street, Marina District, San Francisco Telephone: +1 415 921 3944 Website: balboacafe.com
Best view from old San Francisco
Raised outlines are all that's left of the Sutro Baths now, but this is an evocative place for a coastal walk, and a beautiful spot to sit and look out across the Pacific. The waves that crash against rocks on the shoreline only exaggerate the stillness of the water in what remains of the seven different pools. When they were built in 1896, the Sutro Baths were the world's largest indoor swimming complex - accommodating 10,000 people, and harnessed powerful Pacific tides to fill the pools with 1.7 million gallons of water in just one hour. The baths were destroyed by a fire in the 1960s and were never rebuilt, but it's a serene and calming place to visit which captures the sense of a bygone era.
Address: Sutro Baths, Point Lobos Avenue, Lands End, San Francisco, USA
Best for an ice-cream sundae
Ghirardelli Square does ice-cream sundaes in surroundings styled on a European brasserie: think Grease meets The Wolseley. Visits have a sense of occasion thanks to decadent dishes such as the Ocean Beach Sundae: layers of vanilla ice cream, chocolate fudge and sea-salted caramel, consumed amidst marble-topped wooden counters and checkerboard floor tiles. The company dates back to the Gold Rush when Italian immigrant Domenico Ghirardelli arrived in California and founded the chocolate company. He famously exerted control over the whole process, from bean to bar (the original machinery used is on display at the Ghirardelli Square shop). Though he never struck gold literally, Ghirardelli certainly did figuratively, by establishing what would become one of the USA's longest-running chocolate companies.
Address: Ghirardelli Square, 900 North Point Street, Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco Telephone: +1 415 474 3938 Website: ghirardelli.com