San Francisco is one of those cities people think they know ― either from actual visits to Coit Tower or Ghirardelli Square, or from all those set-in-San Francisco movies that range from elegantly disturbing (Vertigo) to sunny and romantic (J. Lo's The Wedding Planner).
Still, familiar as it is, San Francisco can surprise you. In some important ways, notably a reborn waterfront, it's vastly improved from the city we knew. One thing hasn't changed: The best way to explore San Francisco is on foot.
So to start this trip, after fueling up with a pasta lunch in Italian-accented North Beach, my sister and I stroll along Columbus Avenue, popping into Molinari Delicatessen just to inhale the mingling scents of salami and garlic. Then we drive across town to hit the Golden Gate National Recreation Area's Coastal Trail leading out to Lands End with its drop-dead views, seemingly unchanged from our early memories.
The trail lands us at one of the city's loveliest museums, the Legion of Honor, where we gaze at masterworks by El Greco, Peter Paul Rubens, and Rembrandt. Out front, we watch a man photographing his kids beside Auguste Rodin's The Thinker ― all of them mimicking the statue's pose ― and remember our dad snapping us in the same pose long ago.
Fisherman's Wharf remains a spot more for tourists than for working fishermen, but we check into the new Argonaut Hotel and find it a happy marriage of luxury and history. The hotel is within the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park at Hyde Street Pier and occupies a refurbished 1900s warehouse, which it shares with the park's visitor center.
From here we head back along the waterfront to see the sun's last rays wash against the tower of the historic Ferry Building. Reopened after a complete restoration last year, it now houses a gourmet galleria that sells some of Northern California's best foods. We consider a milkshake and a burger at Taylor's Automatic Refresher, then opt for oysters and glasses of crisp Chardonnay at the Hog Island Oyster Company. We toast a city that still continues to surprise and delight.
SURPRISE SIDE TRIP
Crissy Field Warming Hut
Jog or bike San Francisco's Golden Gate Promenade to this hut at the trail's west end. The hot drinks and sandwiches are good; the bookstore is first-rate. 415/561-3040.