San Francisco claims many a heart, with good reason

The Cliff House, a great place to have a meal and view a sunset, can be seen in the background from the Lands End Trail.
The Cliff House, a great place to have a meal and view a sunset, can be seen in the background from the Lands End Trail. ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAN FRANCISCO — I'm a contrarian at heart. Often, when someone or something is the subject of constant glowing praise, I can't help myself but I begin to look for tiny flaws or chinks in the armor.

That goes for destinations as well. Sure, Chicago and New Orleans are fascinating cities, but have you ever spent a winter in the former and a summer in the latter? Rio de Janeiro might be the sexiest city on the planet, but it would be a lot sexier minus the soaring crime rate. True, New York has a lot going for it, and that includes incessant jackhammer drilling and cabbies whose hands appear to be permanently glued to their vehicles' horns. San Francisco is — wait, I've got nothing.

Nothing but gushing admiration for this most beautiful of American cities. Over the course of many visits, I've become hopelessly infatuated with the City by the Bay.

There's its stunning beauty: It's situated on steep hills between the bay and the Pacific Ocean. There are its icons, which, even if you have never been to San Francisco, are immediately recognizable: cable cars, vertical streets, Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge (this year, celebrating its 75th birthday).

For me, though, San Francisco's main appeal lies in its romance.

This is romance on a large scale: the romance of the Barbary Coast, the California Gold Rush, the golden age of ocean liners, the splendor of the Art Deco period and the fog-shrouded allure of a film noir classic. Tony Bennett had it right.

There are many places to leave your heart in San Francisco, beginning with its historic neighborhoods. Nob Hill might not have the number of elegant mansions it had when it was home to 19th-century Gold Rush and railroad tycoons, but it has enough to give you a good idea of what it was like in its heyday.

While you're on the hill, a cocktail at the legendary Top of the Mark in the Mark Hopkins Hotel is a must for those who wish to see the city's lights spread out below them. (If you want a quiet interlude with your view, go before the house band gets rocking. Otherwise, go later and enjoy the party.)

Chinatown, with its explosion of colors, is familiar to many as North America's oldest Chinese community, but just outside its Dragon Gate entrance, you might be surprised to find a little bit of Paris' Left Bank at the intimate Café de la Press, an excellent spot for a leisurely lunch.

If it's other ethnic influences you're seeking, San Francisco doesn't disappoint. Japantown, one of only three remaining in the nation, and Little Saigon evoke the city's strong connection to the Far East.

North Beach is known as "Little Italy," and you won't find anything remotely Russian on Russian Hill anymore, but you will find the world's crookedest street, Lombard, with its hairpin turns and dizzying descent.

Many head to palm-fringed Union Square for its shopping, restaurants and the Tony Award-winning American Conservatory Theater, but this area was once part of the notorious Barbary Coast, which thrived during the Gold Rush years.

Its colorful cast of characters had few saints and plenty of sinners: claim jumpers, con artists, gamblers, prostitutes, opium addicts and those practiced in the art of coercing unwary sailors for servitude in distant lands. A walking tour of the area tells their story.

Just off Union Square is an urban gem that is all too often bypassed by visitors unfamiliar with its significance. A peek into the window at Xanadu Gallery on Maiden Lane reveals an impressive collection of Asian art and an oddly familiar spiraling walkway leading to the second floor.

The familiarity soon becomes apparent: The building was completed in 1948 by Frank Lloyd Wright and was a prototype for New York's Guggenheim Museum.

While in the Union Square area, stop for lunch or dinner at John's Grill, famous as a setting in author Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. Slip into a booth in the clubby, oak-paneled dining room, and imagine Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade is being menaced by Sydney Greenstreet's Casper Guttman next to you.

San Francisco is full of treasures such as this, great and small. Head to the ultra-chic Sea Cliff neighborhood (the name says it all) to the Legion of Honor Museum. Resembling a European palace, it was built to honor those who died in World War I; today, it houses an art collection spanning 4,000 years.

At Ocean Beach, overlooking the Pacific, catch a sunset (particularly breathtaking this time of year because in summer it's often obscured by the fog), and have dinner at the famous Cliff House, on its promontory above the sea.

Watching the sky break apart into slices of pink, copper and burnt orange, and the Marin Headlands disappear into darkness, you might well think there's no lovelier location anywhere.