San Francisco is a city that is all about topography. Indeed, it has been suggested that if you are tired of walking around this hilly city you can always just lean against it.

Wedged between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, this west coast city is often called the country’s most beautiful. Looking from Nob Hill across the historic district to Golden Gate Bridge puts San Francisco in fine perspective.

By US standards, San Francisco's population is quite small and gives the city a small town atmosphere that is more relaxed than others, most notably its sprawling southern neighbour, Los Angeles.

This alternative attitude has remained true since waves of immigrants poured in for the 1848 gold rush and Levi Strauss made a fortune selling tough jeans to rugged miners.

Even the disastrous earthquake of 1906 didn't dent the city's prestige, although it did ensure that most historic buildings date from the rebuilding after that catastrophe. Living on the fault line, the people of San Francisco are proud of their resilience. After the 1989 earthquake (a substantial 6.9 on the Richter scale) the cable cars were operating the next day and BART, the underground rail system, continued throughout.

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The iconic cable cars of the city centre are a blast from the past and a great way to get around

There may be an element of prescience in Maurice Baring's 1913 book Round the World In Any Number of Days in which he wrote, “San Francisco is essentially a night city, and next to Paris, I should say it was the gayest night city in the world… The microbe of gaiety… is in the air of the place.”

The passage reflects how much the meaning of the word “gay” has shifted in the course of a century. No matter, Baring's statement remains true today – the west coast's most stylish city is the centre of a lifestyle that’s an integral part of the city's character. There’s an atmosphere of general tolerance that prevails within the polyglot mix of Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, Russians and even some Australians that have washed up here over 150 years.

It was more than a century and a half ago that the Californian gold rush started and Australian newcomers were first given the name “diggers”. San Francisco still maintains a casual attitude that makes Australian visitors feel right at home.

San Francisco's “anything goes” attitude reached a peak in the 1960s when the junction of Haight and Ashbury streets became the epicentre for the dope smoking, rock and rolling, hippy youth movement that changed popular culture around the world.

Some symbols of the city remain constant: decades after Tony Bennett “left his heart in San Francisco” the glowing-red Golden Gate is still a soul-stirring symphony in steel. Movies and television programs make the city feel familiar, even for first-time visitors. The twists and turns of Lombard Street (“the crookedest street in the world”) and the tourist complex of Fisherman’s Wharf have appeared on our screens hundreds of times.

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Strolling down Lombard Street at sunset offers nothing short of a breathtaking view of the city

The museum on the island of Alcatraz (the word means “pelican” in archaic Spanish) is well worth visiting. It lies in the middle of the bay and the Federal Penitentiary here was considered largely inescapable right up until its closure in 1963. The tales of the prisoners who passed through here are well told and quite moving.

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Once a terrifyingly lonesome outcrop, the island of Alcatraz is now a fascinating tourist destination

San Francisco is a city that one can either set out to explore, taking in all the sights and attractions, or simply wander and absorb the atmosphere at random.

The offerings are wide ranging, too – from the shops of Union Square, the view from Nob Hill to Chinatown's restaurants. Then there's the touristy Fisherman's Wharf and the organic shops and stalls at the beautifully restored Ferry Building Marketplace. These are even better at weekends when there’s an expansive farmer’s market. Even if you’re not staying there, head across the road to take a look inside the Hyatt Regency on the Embarcadero for its towering atrium.

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While dubbed the French Quarter of San Francisco, cuisine from all across Europe is represented at Belden Lane

Moving from one area to another in downtown is very easy because three cable car lines crisscross the inner city. These rattling reminders of the past provide the whole city centre with the atmosphere of an amusement park. It’s even more dramatic now as they are an eclectic collection of cars from around the world. In stark contrast, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) utilises sleek air-conditioned trains to whisk you out to the airport or across the bay to the university city of Berkeley.

It's worth taking the three kilometre walk across Golden Gate Bridge for great views of the city, bay and the hills of Marin County. On the city side of the bridge, the Presidio has been developed as a cultural precinct that’s well worth exploring.

One of the best day drives in the world begins with the drive northwards over Golden Gate Bridge. Beyond Sausalito lies the beautiful community of Mill Valley which has long been the home of creative talent with money.

Turning left from 101 onto narrow, winding Highway One will take you to Point Reyes National Seashore where the San Andreas faultline surfaces. Here you can see fence lines twisted and shifted by earthquakes and ponder San Francisco's (and California's) precarious existence.

Have a little more time? If wine is your passion take a trip to the north of the bay and the vineyards of Sonoma County and Napa Valley, where California's best wines are produced.

Have you been to San Francisco? Share your experiences below.

Photography: (feature) © 2013 Scott Chernis; (in-text) © 2010 Scott Chernis / San Francisco Travel Association

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