Our fifth-ranked city steps up with one of the world's most unforgettable settings along with great cuisine and an energetic spirit.
Credit: Douglas Merriam

The regulars peacefully sun themselves on Pier 39 after a swim in the San Francisco Bay and a scrumptious lunch of fresh seafood-until one sunbather shoves another right off the docks.

Except for the occasional dunking, local sea lions enjoy life just as humans do in San Francisco-reveling in its pleasant climate, waterfront panoramas, and tasty local treats. Ask residents what they love about the city by the bay, and many will tell you it's that "daydream" is an active verb here. Unbelievable views encompass an eclectic urban skyline, ocean, and mountains; flowers bloom year-round in 229 public parks; and artists touch up the more than 70 vibrant murals that decorate Mission District streets.

San Francisco earned the 5th spot on our top 20 list of Cooking Light cities because it ranked highly in the following categories: the highest number of James Beard nominees for best restaurant and best chef, number of farmers' markets, percentage of residents who consume five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, and its walkability.

Best picnic potential: August signals summer in San Francisco, when the warm sun finally pierces the fog that keeps the city cool in June and July. The Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market (415-291-3276, www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com) overflows with picnic-worthy picks on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Locally grown must-samples include fresh butter from Andante Dairy, which also supplies the famous French Laundry in nearby Yountville; ollalieberries (oversized blackberries); Acme's sourdough bread, which has improved on San Francisco's original 150-year-old recipe with a golden crust that stays crisp; and organic tomatoes raised with minimal water and maximum sun for a burst of earthy flavor.

Best local cuisine: Husband-wife team Phil and Cameron West adapt the menu at Range (415-282-8283, www.rangesf.com) daily to reflect what's in season in California. On a typical day, Rainbow chard is slipped under coffee-rubbed pork shoulder to absorb its juices; savory bread pudding becomes a main dish when studded with local radish sprouts and hints of Gruyère; and wild nettle is tucked into an airy gratin that sidekicks for the bavette flank or skirt steak.

Best gourmet on the go: Reservations are hard to come by at James Beard award nominee Charles Phan's acclaimed modern-Vietnamese Slanted Door (415-861-8032, www.slanteddoor.com). If you can't snag one, head to Phan's take-out window, Out of the Door, in the main hall of the Ferry Building for portable versions of his signature dishes, such as steamed rice-flour buns stuffed with lean spiced chicken, or a Vietnamese-inspired sweet-and-sour salad of grapefruit, candied pecans, purple cabbage, and jicama. If you can't find the chef to give him your compliments, give them to one of his cousins: 22 of the staff are Phan family members.

Best stairs to master: No stair machine in any gym can compare to the Filbert Street Steps in the Italian North Beach neighborhood, which reward with glimpses of pocket gardens, rock sculptures, and 19th-century cottages clinging to the rocky cliff. Don't be surprised if the surrounding Monterey cypress trees speak to you-they're full of wild parrots, as featured in the award-winning documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. At the top, savor popsicle-shaped Coit Tower (415-362-0808), built with funds donated by local socialite Lillie Hitchcock Coit specifically to beautify the city she loved. The tower offers sweeping views of the bay.

Best stroll through history: China-town Alleyway Tours (415-984-1478, www.chinatownalleywaytours.org) are led by high school students raised among the neighborhood's 41 historic alleyways, from Waverly Place's pagoda-topped temples with altars charred by San Francisco's 1906 fire, to the basement mah-jongg parlors of Spof-ford Alley, where local revolutionaries plotted the overthrow of China's last dynasty in 1911.

Best spot to ace inspiration: George Sterling Park in the city's Russian Hill neighborhood is named for a Bohemian poet known for his odes to San Francisco. Catch your breath after surveying the hilltop views overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Then try your hand at tennis on public courts named after San Francisco's Alice Marble, the 1930s U.S. tennis champ who recovered from pleurisy and a misdiagnosed tuberculosis to win Wimbledon and serve as an American secret agent among the Nazis during World War II.

Best seaside experience: Just across the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin County features towering redwoods, crashing surf, and an artists' colony in a former military base. The Tennessee Valley Trail (415-561-4700, www.nps.gov/goga)-named after the S.S. Tennessee, which collided in 1853 with the shore where the trail now begins-winds across rolling hills toward a secluded beach awash with green and black basalt pebbles.

Best outdoor art gallery: In the 1930s, the Works Project Administration arts program and visiting Mexican painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo inspired San Francisco artists to put blank wall space to better use-a tradition that's continued to this day. Precita Eyes (415-285-2287, www.precitaeyes.org) offers terrific walking and biking tours of alfresco art in the Mission District led by local muralists. On one of the guided walks, you might pass as many as 70 murals in six blocks.

Best breath of fresh air: Golden Gate Park (415-831-2700, parks.sfgov.org) is carpeted with exotic flowers 365 days a year, but at 3,000 acres, it's easy to lose your bearings. Start at the M.H. de Young Museum (415-863-3330, www.deyoungmuseum.org), a copper-clad building gradually oxidizing to match the park's green color scheme. The museum features arts and crafts from Africa to contemporary California. Visit on Sundays, when the park is closed to traffic and you can easily stroll past jazz trios, waterfalls, and grazing bison (the first domesticated herd in America).


Best B&B: The stately Inn 1890 (from $89; 415-386-0486, www.inn1890.com) is a well-priced Victorian guesthouse in the heart of the historic Haight district (better known as the home of the 1967 Summer of Love). The Victorian floral decor will inspire you to visit the Conservatory of Flowers (415-666-7001, www.conservatoryofflowers.org), the splendid turn-of-the-century hothouse around the corner in Golden Gate Park.

Best hotel for royal treatment: The Palace Hotel (from $529; 415-512-1111, www.sfpalace.com) has been a high-end haven since Queen Victoria's day, with polished period details and Maxfield Parrish murals to prove its pedigree.

Best room with a view: At the glass-walled Hotel Vitale (from $279; 415-278-3700, www.hotelvitale.com), you'll wake to waterfront vistas and Ferry Building gourmet treats across the street. Schedule time in the hotel's spa for a uniquely urban experience; terrace hot tubs are surrounded by skyscrapers yet cleverly tucked away with plantings of bamboo for privacy.