Arguably the most beautiful city in the US, San Francisco rises from one of the world’s great natural harbours where mountains bow down to the Pacific Ocean. It has provided the scenic backdrop for countless movies and TV shows, so when you arrive at Pier 35 (or 27 for larger ships) you’ll feel instantly at home. With so many different things to see and do, it’s hard to know where to begin. If you’re sailing in pre or post-cruise, here’s three different ways to spend one day in the California city.

First Time

8:30am
You could spend a perfectly enjoyable day just exploring the Embarcadero, San Francisco’s waterfront promenade. Its centrepiece is the Ferry Building (ferrybuildingmarketplace.com), a grand edifice that served as the city’s gateway until the Golden Gate and Bay bridges were opened in the 1930s. Reinvented as a market hall – markets are held on Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday – it’s a great place for a bite to eat.

10am
Alcatraz Island is just a 15-minute ferry ride from Embarcadero’s Wharf 33. With an excellent audio guide, ranger talks and historic gardens to explore, you should allow at least two-and-a-half hours for your visit (you’ll also need to book in advance and arrive at least 30 minutes before your ferry departure).

Alcatraz Island, just a 15-minute ferry ride
Alcatraz Island, just a 15-minute ferry ride from San Francisco

1pm
Fisherman’s Wharf remains one of the city’s top attractions. It’s very commercialised these days, but the resident sea lions are worth seeing and you’ll want to try the clam chowder, served in a hollowed-out loaf. Alternatively, you’re only a few blocks away from the culinary delights of San Francisco’s Chinatown – the largest anywhere outside Asia.

3pm
San Francisco is famous for its cable cars, and Fisherman’s Wharf (visitfishermanswharf.com) is on two of the network’s three routes. For the past 150 years, these heritage-listed vehicles have hauled their passengers up and down the city’s inclines and the experience is exhilarating, but bumpy. For transport buffs, there is a free cable car museum on Mason Street. Lombard Street has featured in many movies because of its famous hairpins, and the Powell-Hyde Cable Car, from Fisherman’s Wharf, stops at the top, giving you a great photo of the parade of cars below.

Cable cars, San Francisco
After 150 years, the city’s cable cars still pull the crowds

5pm
Time to head for Pier 39 (pier39.com), one of San Francisco’s main shopping, entertainment sectors and some of the city’s best restaurants. Here you can enjoy a happy-hour cocktail or one of California’s world-class wines while admiring views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the harbour.

Been there? Go here!

9am
Just across the Golden Gate Strait lies Sausalito (oursausalito.com), a pretty bayside town with a colourful history that includes gold-rush millionaires, bootleggers, fishermen, shipbuilders and brothels. Today, it is on the edge of the Napa wine region and makes a perfect day out from the big city. Most people arrive by boat, but if you’re feeling active, hire a bike and ride over the Golden Gate Bridge, taking in the spectacular views. Sausalito itself is a place just to saunter and soak up the atmosphere (keep an eye out for its colourful communities of houseboats).

The Painted Ladies of Alamo Square
The Painted Ladies of Alamo Square

12pm
It was in the city’s bohemian Haight-Ashbury district that the Summer of Love began, with local residents Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead providing the soundtrack. In Haight-Ashbury today, you’ll find plenty of characters still living the hippie dream, together with murals of Hendrix, vintage books and albums, and plenty of shops selling psychedelia. Book a tour that includes the brightly-coloured Victorian homes known as the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square.

3pm
Donald and Doris Fisher accumulated a three-billion-dollar fortune from their clothing businesses, Gap and Banana Republic. They used it to indulge their passion for 20th century modern art, building one of the world’s great collections of works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Alexander Calder and Cy Twombly. You can see it all at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (sfmoma.org). If you visit only one modern art museum in your lifetime, make it SFMOMA.

In Haight Street today, the spirit of ’67 lives on
In Haight Street today, the spirit of ’67 lives on

FAMILY FUN

10am
The Exploratorium (exploratorium.edu) moved to its present location on Piers 15 and 17 of the Embarcadero in 2013. But don’t tell the kids it’s a museum, just let them have fun. With more than 650 hands-on exhibits, they can stroll inside a tornado, amble across a bridge of fog and prove Galileo was right by dropping a feather.

1pm
Founded in 2012 by local woman Alexandra Kenin – then a young Google executive – Urban Hikers SF (urbanhikersf.com) can take you off the tourist track to reveal some of the city’s more surprising sights. This may be a crowded metropolis, but on a three-hour walk, you might find yourself wandering through a eucalyptus forest or discovering a hillside dam built after the catastrophic fire of 1906. If you have older children (10+) with a sense of adventure, they’ll love it.

3pm
You’re right – Walt Disney had no real ties with San Francisco at all. But the Walt Disney Family Museum (waltdisney.org/visit) opened in the Presidio district in 2009 as a non-profit foundation dedicated to explaining the life of the world famous animator. Don’t expect adventure rides, because this is nothing like the commercial parks in LA and Florida. Gallery 8 is dedicated to “Walt and the Natural World” – a reminder that Disney invested in wildlife documentaries long before Sir David Attenborough joined the BBC.