HOT SPOT: San Francisco, with its trams, hilly locale, Alcatraz (in the background) and Victorian houses, is one of the most-visited cities in the world.
HOT SPOT: San Francisco, with its trams, hilly locale, Alcatraz (in the background) and Victorian houses, is one of the most-visited cities in the world. pius99

San Fran so satisfying

WINTER in America may be cold, but autumn in Northern California, San Francisco and the Monterey Bay in particular, is also surprisingly cool.

Footpaths hide under a heavy dusting of soft, amber leaves and away from the city streets there can be a hint of pine in the air. A complete change in temperature and weather can occur just moving from one side of the city to the other; these district micro climates can catch you by surprise and explain why everyone who knows you are going to San Francisco says "dress in layers".

Being able to layer up or down is vital.

San Fran, as the locals call it, is foggy, hilly and eclectic - 39 per cent of its residents were born overseas. There are more than 50 steep rolling hills within the compact city limits, and ascending some of them feels not unlike a roller-coaster ride, gifting you with regular, spectacular vistas of roadways that drop away and taper off into a stunning blue Bay. No photo could ever do them justice.

Grab a nine-day San Francisco CityPASS and you will have all you need to go exploring.

A two-and-a-half-hour Big Bus Hop-on Hop-off Tour costs $50 and take you to most parts, including the Mission, the Tenderloin, Nob Hill and the Haight-Ashbury District (think Janis Joplin and the Summer of Love in the 1960s), but be sure to take heavy duty layers on this one.

Nobody warns you about the icy fog that can roll in at any time, and if you are sitting alone on the open top deck of a Big Bus when you enter that fog on the Golden Gate Bridge, you will gasp in cold shock as I did.

San Fran is one of the 100 most-visited cities in the world and it's easy to see why.

Down by the by water, and looking out at Alcatraz on its lonely, sparse rock in San Francisco Bay, is Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39, an exciting hurly burly of music, entertainment, restaurants, ferries, shops and international tourists.

In the heart of all this, on Jefferson Street, is the Argonaut, an iconic, nautically inspired hotel built in an old warehouse as part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. With a cosy fireplace and abundant, enveloping chairs in the foyer, the Argonaut puts you slap bang in the middle of all the waterfront action.

Breakfast in the equally nautical Blue Mermaid Restaurant next door and you can have your pick of an extensive menu brimming with Barbary Coast heritage and Gold Rush nostalgia.

The avocado toast on sourdough with over-easy eggs is close to perfection, though getting a good latte in San Fran is not easy. You soon get used to the Californians' preferred caffeine though - the filtered variety which is poured generously everywhere you dine.

After some gift shopping for the loved ones back home on Jefferson St, lunch at the Fog Harbour Fish House on Pier 39 might just have you falling in love, as I did, with its award winning clam chowder in a house-baked sourdough bowl. Hot, thick, creamy and delicious. The restaurant is the first on Fisherman's Wharf to serve a 100 per cent sustainable seafood menu approved by Aquarium of the Bay (at Monterey) and meets the standards of Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program.

Five minutes walk away, the ferry for Alcatraz leaves every 20-30 minutes. Once home to some of America's most notorious criminals, the federal penitentiary that operated in the Bay from 1934 to 1963 housed infamous inmates such as Al "Scarface" Capone and the "Birdman" Robert Stroud.

It may be one of the world's most legendary prisons, but it is also a cold, bleak and creepy.

The writer flew Air New Zealand and was a guest of Visit California.

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