by Louis Bignami

Today it’s difficult to realize that all of San Francisco east of Montgomery Street rests on rocks and dirt from the hills that now cover the fleet of abandoned ships that carried the 49ers west, for California looks ahead, not back, and hose new to the state often seem dreadfully ignorant of its history. No place is this more true than San Francisco.

One route to a better appreciation of Bagdad by the Bay is William Camp’s classic San Francisco Port of Gold. Another route to understanding runs through the California Historical Society. Even the exceptional San Francisco Library offers keys to unlock the past and the realization that the comfortable stayed home. Those anxious to improve their lot came to the city by the Golden Gate.

Certainly, San Francisco has warts. Traffic downtown moves the same speed as it did when horses drew freight wagons -- they double parked in those days too -- and flatlanders find the hills challenging. . It’s expensive. It’s crowded. Some neighborhoods aren’t safe after dark. But it’s also exciting, incredibly scenic, ethnic and totally endearing. It’s no accident that it ranks at the top of America’s favorite cities.

If you’re a first time visitor, take a Gray Line or other half-day tour, or drive the 49 Mile Drive. A quick look at Golden Gate Park, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Chinatown, North Beach, the Haight-Ashbury and Fisherman’s Wharf lets you see what’s where. Mark your map for later return on foot. Then invest a day east of Van Ness -- you may need two if you walk slowly!

Start with Union Square and try Gumps for oriental gear, Nieman-Marcus for excess, Dunhill’s for men’s do-dads, Saks or Magnins for women’s gear and enough other fine shops to eat up an entire day for the shopping impaired.

However to understand and enjoy San Francisco best "think ethnic" and get out of downtown, for it’s not a melting pot; it’s more of a stew. Grant Street centers Chinatown even though the laterals and parallels that have fewer tourist shops offer better prices. Stop or dim sum, the "point and taste" meals where you pay by the plate -- on side streets like Alder place where you’ll find the Chinese Historical Society of America and upstairs restaurants to where Chinese eat. Then continue West.

Cross Broadway and, with the obligatory look at Big Al’s and memories of Carol Doda’s silicon splendors you find yourself in North Beach’s Little Italy. Bocce, wonderful cafes where you can read the Sunday paper while the waiter’s sing arias, and a host of affordable family restaurants make the walker’s day. If it’s Sunday it’s time to relax. Try an expresso from a time before they were stolen by Starbucks, or line up outside a Washington Square bakery to buy baguettes or "dark bake" bread to go with your cold cuts from Molanari’s deli on Columbus.

If you’re frisky pick up the makings of a fine picnic at one of twenty Italian delis and head up the hill to Coit Tower that one wag suggests "contains all the lousy spaghetti sauce in town that’s piped downhill to cheap restaurants. History buffs will want to check on Mrs. Coit who fought fires and smoked cigars. The murals and the elevator ride are recommended. The view’s fine and free!

Intellectuals might want to brouse City Lights Bookstore in North Beach that’s spanned intellectual era from the Beat Generation through the Hippies to today, or down an expresso in the Trieste Cafe. Feet tired? Times up? Head west and catch the cable car.

Otherwise keep walking. Follow the cable car tracks or the Muni Bus line down to Fisherman’s Wharf, the Cannery, Cost Plus, Pier 39 and more chances to shop until you drop. Don’t worry about what’s where, wander and explore. Eat on the fly. A Crab Louie’s traditional, and best in the winter months; ablaone’s a must at least one time -- don’t ask the price -- and seafood’s the choice. If you get there early, try Scoma's just off the wharf.

To work off all that sour dough bread and butter, walk out on Muni Pier to take a look at Alcatraz -- a nice spot to visit if you have more time -- otherwise check the Hyde Street Pier’s historic vessels that run from lumber schooners to side wheel ferry boats, or chug down the waterfront to Pier 39 and its two-story merry-go-round.

Tired yet? If it’s still light catch the last boat tour on the Red & White or Blue & Gold fleet for a quick run on the bay as the sun sets behind the Golden Gate.

After a day like this you may want to sit out the evening even though San Francisco’s opera, ballet, theatre, jazz, flamenco or rock clubs and much, much more beckon. A bus back up Van Ness takes you to the delights of City Hall, the Opera House and our favorite boutique hotel just off Van Ness, the Inn at the Opera where Pavaroti stays. However, you may want to leave this area for another day and substitute few hours at a street front table at a cafe on Broadway or Vallejo or Columbus Avenue offer world-class people watching too.