San Francisco’s landmarks include Golden Gate Bridge, 75 years old in 2012, the clanging cable cars of the world’s last manually-operated cable car system, the shops, restaurants and attractions of Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf and former federal prison Alcatraz, set on an island.

Alcatraz © Peter EllegardSeveral companies offer cruises to Alcatraz. For an unrivalled perspective of the city, take a 20-minute aerial Vista Tour with San Francisco Helicopters for $160 – on my trip, the pilot even flew us under Golden Gate Bridge!

And be the centre of attention on a city tour in open-sided vintage buses with Mr Toad’s Tours. San Francisco has America’s largest and oldest Chinatown, established when the 1849 Gold Rush brought many Chinese immigrants. Other areas with a rich ethnic past are Russian Hill, down which the “world’s crookedest street” – Lombard Street – descends, and North Beach (Italian). Haight-Ashbury was the birthplace of hippy culture and flower power.

Cultural institutions include the California Academy of Sciences, with an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum and a four-story rainforest all under one roof.

Beyond San Francisco, cross Golden Gate Bridge to carry on up the coast, stopping off at arty Sausalito and the giant redwoods of Muir Woods. Or head inland to visit the wineries of Napa Valley or state capital Sacramento. After the discovery of gold in the nearby Sierra Nevada foothills in 1848, it was a key supply centre for the Gold Rush, becoming the capital in 1854. The Capitol Building is one of two dozen museums in the city.