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If you only have only one evening (or even just conference breaks or an hour or two between meetings), you can still enjoy the most romantic city on the U.S. west coast.

"It's all about the food here," I was told when I first arrived to live in San Francisco, because the food scene is dynamic, creative, and diverse – and even the best restaurants aren't pretentious.

Most locals eat at Boulevard or Zuni when they're celebrating. Although a little expensive, these restaurants deliver impeccable food. If you're short on time, try the oysters and the best margaritas in the city at Zuni, a pretty window-lined restaurant looking out onto Market St.

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Located downtown, Boulevard's focus is inward. In one of the few buildings that survived the 1906 earthquake, the cozy Beaux Art interior hosts a long bar where you can watch the kitchen (a great deal if you're solo or can't get a table), prepare the elegant comfort food that comes out of the kitchen under the watchful eye of Nancy Oakes. She's won the James Beard award for The Best Chef in California, a state where the competition is fierce.

The best place to eat dinner and look at the Golden Gate Bridge is the restaurant Greens. Tucked away near Fort Mason, it's confusing to find, so take a cab. Lots of windows, the tables are well-spaced so the room is quiet and gentle and it serves vegetarian food you rarely find: tasty, fresh and interesting. They grow their own produce and have a great cookbook.

In the early 20th century, they say only Charing Cross in London and Grand Central in New York were busier than the Ferry Building on Embarcadero with its elegant Beaux Art clock tower. Before it was restored, the San Francisco waterfront was where the police in the movie Bullitt stashed a witness because no one would look there. Now it houses great food places and market stalls.

For instance, The Ferry Building is home to Boccalone, San Francisco's first homegrown (since 1917) Italian salumeria (Italian for cured meat) where you can buy a paper cone of crunchy, salted, tasty meat.

Past Boccalone is the Cowgirl Creamery, perfect for buying artisan cheese from around the world to take home, or you can get a killer grilled cheese sandwich. You're not seriously eating in California if you're not drinking wine, so a local zinfandel from the SF Wine Merchant down the hall makes it a meal.

Even if it's raining – which it often is – nothing lifts the heart like Cupid's Span, the sculpture by Claes Oldenberg and Coosje van Bruggen on the Embarcadero. Cupid's Span is a massive bow and arrow where the arrow was shot into the ground rather than the air. The red bow and the red tail feather of the arrow merrily pop out of the earth.

Cupid's Span is very near AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. With a statue of Willie Mays out front and palm trees swaying, it feels more like a concert hall than a ballpark. Because more than 80 per cent of the people who arrive here don't bring a car, it's not surrounded by parking lots. Most seats are good, even just to watch the sailboats in the Bay. And where else can you eat sushi and drink chardonnay while you watch a ballgame?

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Beautiful views of the Bay, especially if you need some exercise, are free in North Beach. Walk north on Montgomery to Vallejo and you'll find a number of (very steep) staircases, but perhaps the most beautiful are the Vallejo Street Stairways. There are three stairways so if you want the gentlest, stick to the middle one. The neighbours carefully maintain the stairs and surrounding gardens.

It is said that you can't find a bad yoga class or cup of coffee in San Francisco. Blue Bottle Coffee is simply the best coffee I've ever had. Ever. Their downtown location is at Mint Plaza near the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

On Thursdays the downtown SF MOMA is open late (to 8:45 p.m.) so sit outside at the (just opened) Rooftop Coffee Bar. It specializes in art-related food. California painter Wayne Thiebaud painted many charmingly sweet paintings of cakes, hence the WT cake is a butter cake with lemon curd and raspberry butter cream. And they serve Blue Bottle coffee. Good museum, too; not too big.

The short cab ride up Nob Hill surrounds you with hotels, all of which have a bar with a view, but most days you'll be looking at fog. Much more fun is to visit the cheery and ridiculous Tonga Room in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel. It's a tiki bar with Polynesian sculptures; more importantly, it has thunder and lightning. The last few years the Tonga has threatened to close, so catch it while you can.

Grace Cathedral (Anglican) anchors Nob Hill and if you like yoga, you must try the Wednesday evening class at 6 p.m., which is free and held in the cathedral. Sometimes musicians play, sometimes the choir or organist is practising. It's always magical. (Bring a mat or towel.)

Many tourists come to SF for the gay scene and it's everywhere so straights are welcome, but its home is the Castro neighbourhood. If you want a big, loud, fun gay men's bar with cheap cocktails, try Badlands. It's the best of many such places nearby. For women or men wanting the coffee-drinking, book-reading scene, try Café Flore. Outdoor seating, nice desserts and a very relaxed feel.

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If that's not your scene, try the late show at Yoshi's, an elegant club famous among good jazz musicians, that rarely disappoints (Branford Marsalis played there last month).

Happily, San Francisco is a small city that you can easily navigate in a cab; so don't limit yourself to neighbourhoods near your hotel – few people do.

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