San Francisco doesn't need any extras to tempt most travellers.
Its rich Gold Rush history, steep terrain and exquisite architecture -- all huddled around a picture-perfect Pacific-coast bay -- is usually enough to draw most folks to the popular destination. Even those who have visited the place often find themselves planning their next trip there almost immediately.
There's just something magnetic about this city.
I got the San Francisco bug when I first walked its shoreline in 2011. That's when my father and I decided to retrace my great-great grandfather's steps who -- as a Swiss gold hunter in the 1850s -- sailed into the Bay of San Francisco to join the hundreds of thousands from around the world in the quest for the elusive yellow metal.
I returned to San Francisco with my wife Annette and two children Chantal, 14, and Jacob, 11, this year as part of a multi-destination tour of California. During our stay, I found a few more gems in the city, including the relatively new Walt Disney Family Museum -- an ode to one of America's greatest animators and live-action filmmakers.
The 3,716 sq.-metre museum is located in the Presidio of San Francisco, a former U.S. Army barrack renovated into a charming tourist campus.
This isn't your grandmother's style of museum, with artifacts displayed behind glass walls and a few black-and-white prints on the wall.
No, this is an electric, futuristic facility.
The Disney museum -- opened in 2009 -- is a modern, video-driven, interactive centre that tells the story not only of a great American artist but also of the history and politics of his time. It catalogues the career of Walt Disney, his work and his contribution to animation. And it provides visitors with a rich context of the times he lived in.
Who knew, for example, that communists infiltrated Disney's unionized workforce and nearly crippled the corporation with a prolonged work stoppage, only to see Walt himself testify before a congressional hearing on his views of the evils of communism.
It's pretty cool stuff.
The Tuscan castle and winery Castello di Amorosa is one of the many jewels of Calistoga in California's Napa Valley. CHANTAL BRODBECK/Special to QMI Agency
Mostly, though, Disney was a dreamer who put his ideas to film, print and to action movies with a magnitude few in his business could boast. And it's captured brilliantly in this museum with over 200 video screens, interactive touch-screen kiosks, artifacts, wonderful home movies of the Disney clan (did you Walt was a pretty good ice skater?) and some of Disney's earliest drawings as a struggling artist.
Another San Francisco hot spot for the kids is the new Exploratorium, which was expanded in early 2013 and relocated to Pier 39 along the Bay. If you have an eye for science and technology, you should put this delightful, kid-friendly facility on your must-visit list.
The Hornblower Dinner Cruise is a great way to see San Francisco from the bay as the sun goes down.
Naturally, no visit to San Francisco is complete without a tour of Alcatraz, the former penitentiary that housed some of America's most notorious criminals in the mid-1900s. We took the updated audio-tour, complete with stories from former inmates and guards. It's literally out of this world.
But if you miss it, you can always come back. That's the beauty of San Francisco. There's always something new to see.
CALISTOGA A WINE COUNTRY GEM
If you're in the San Francisco area and you like wine, vineyards, scenic mountains and castles, you may want to program your GPS to the Napa Valley where you'll discover stunningly beautiful towns like Calistoga.
We drove about 90 minutes north of San Francisco to the valley. Our first stop was the breathtaking Castello di Amorosa, a 13th-century Tuscan castle that is also a winery.
Obviously the castle wasn't built in 13th-century California. Fourth generation winemaker Dario Sattui -- after studying medieval castles throughout Europe -- began construction of the castle in 1993. It took 15 years to build and cost an estimated $30 to $40 million.
If you visit, you'll swear you are in a castle built in medieval times, equipped with a drawbridge, hand-squared stones, a completely believable great hall for royalty, hand-painted murals everywhere -- even a torture chamber in the basement.
It's that good.
And so is the wine we tasted there, which is produced from 12 hectares of vineyards surrounding the castle, located at 4045 North St. Helena Hwy.
Calistoga itself is a gem. We stayed at the Solage, a magnificent high-end accommodation with an outdoor pool surrounded by palm trees and scenic mountains.
Probably our favourite activity that day in town was renting bikes from the Calistoga Bikeshop for the afternoon and cycling around the residential area.
One of the things that struck us was that local homes have small vineyards in their backyards, presumably to make wine for their own consumption, instead of the usual carrot and tomato patches found in most home gardens.
Our only complaint about Calistoga and the Napa Valley is we didn't have enough time to see more of it.
NEED TO KNOW
The Westin St. Francis in downtown San Francisco is very comfortable and luxurious with great history dating back to early 1900s, while Solage Calistoga provides quaint, quiet, high-end Napa Valley hospitality. See westinstfrancis.com and solagecalistoga.com.