The Fisherman's Wharf area has long functioned as a sort of touristic black hole, inexorably sucking us in, along with a thousands-strong stream of hopefuls. We hop off at the end of the cable car line and discover that yet another trinket shop has opened, like a barnacle scarring the hull of a once-proud ship.
But within walking distance is an attraction that can elevate your visit. Then, from Fisherman's Wharf, let the city's endearing cable cars deliver you to two neighborhoods where you can catch a glimpse of San Francisco's fabled past and evolving present.
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. The visitor center (in a 1908 brick cannery warehouse) is down Jefferson Street at Hyde Street Pier, where there is a fleet of historic ships from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The park also includes the Maritime Museum, Maritime Research Center, and Aquatic Park Historic District. Or stand outside Boudin Bakery's flagship location, close your eyes, and let the scent of steaming hot sourdough loaves help you imagine this lovely bayfront location as it was a century ago.
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park: Visitor Center at Jefferson and Hyde Streets; daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 415-447-5000 or nps.gov (search for "San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park).
Fisherman's Wharf: 100 Jefferson St.; visitfishermanswharf.com.
Pier 39: 2 Beach St.; pier39.com.
Nob Hill and Russian Hill. At Nob Hill, begin at the breathtaking Fairmont San Francisco hotel, restored after the 1906 fire by architect Julia Morgan, best known for her design of Hearst Castle. A short walk along California Street will take you to the Huntington hotel and its Big 4 Restaurant, where the green leather, dark wood, and brass hark back to the day when the city's wealth was concentrated in the hands of those big four railroad tycoons (including Leland Stanford).
Across the street, Grace Cathedral, the third-largest Episcopal Church in the country (after New York and Washington), with its stained glass and Ghiberti doors, replicas of those in the Florence Baptistery, will beckon.
"Men shod their horses with silver shoes," says Margot Heltne, a guide with Hobnob Tours. "It was a period of gaudy excess."
A few blocks down California Street and then a right on Polk Street is Russian Hill, a onetime working-class neighborhood that welcomed Mark Twain and Jack London. Named for the burial site of seven Russians during the Gold Rush, Russian Hill includes the much-visited and fantastically twisted Lombard Street, enviable city views, and an eminently walkable stretch of shops and restaurants along Polk Street.
There, the pace is slow and comfortable as you sip coffee or sample a Camembert from Minnesota or a Stilton from England at Cheese Plus. If your appetite for history hasn't been sated yet, the Russian Hill Bookstore has an expansive section of local books as well as games and stationery.