While it's certainly true that San Francisco is a city best savored slowly and not slurped down in one big gulp, it's also true that no amount of time spent in the City by the Bay is wasted time. The following itineraries will help you make the most of your stay, whether you've got a day, a weekend or a week to spare.
Your plane has landed, you've collected your bags, and you've got only 24 hours to soak up the sights. Ditch the luggage and hop a BART train from the airport straight to downtown. Get off at Powell Street and you can check off your first authentic San Francisco treat from the to-do list: the world-famous cable cars. Powell Street station is the terminus for the Fisherman's Wharf lines, but don't ride the running boards just yet.
If shopping's your thing, you're now at retail Ground Zero. Directly behind you is the Westfield San Francisco Centre, a fashionista's fantasy with Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom, H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, Lucky Brand Jeans, Juicy Couture, and more than 170 other retail outlets. Two blocks up the street is Union Square, home to Big Name designer boutiques and department stores ranging from Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy's to Barney's, Neiman Marcus, Prada, and Marc Jacobs. Rest your feet and your credit cards at the historic plaza while you grab a panini and espresso and people-watch at the Emporio Rulli café.
On the West side of Union Square is the legendary Westin St. Francis Hotel, steeped in the cigar smoke and white gloves of the city's boom years. Built by the Charles Crocker family (of railroad fame) in 1904, it was the first hotel to be resurrected after the earthquake and fires of 1906. It's definitely worth a detour if not for a twirl around the grand lobby and a longing look at celeb chef Michael Mina's five-star restaurant, then for a ride to the top of the hotel in its outdoor glass elevators, where you can get a bird's-eye view of the downtown skyline (acrophobes need not apply).
From here, catch a cable car at any one of the stops along Powell Street and take it to the end of the line at Fisherman's Wharf. Fortify yourself with an original Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista Café before exploring the waterfront. The frothy blend of hot coffee, whiskey, sugar and whipped cream was not actually invented here, but it was the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Stanton Delaplane who brought the recipe back from Dublin in 1952, and a Buena Vista bartender who re-created it stateside for the first time. The legendary bar serves up some 2,000 Irish Coffees a day.
Afterward, go next door for some chocolate indulgence at Ghirardelli Square. The former chocolate factory is now a high-end shopping and dining center, but the Ghirardelli Chocolate Manufactory and Soda Fountain is still the spot to get your one-pound chocolate bars, your Emperor Norton (a hot fudge banana split) or your Alcatraz Rock (rocky-road ice cream in a shell of hard chocolate). Don't miss the mini-production center at the back of the room where melted milk chocolate sloshes around in big vats.