The Mission’s Galer&#237a de la Raza.

My friend Carol, a landscape architect and ceramist, joins me in trolling the busy neighborhood as the shops near closing time. She introduces me to the gruesome wonders of Paxton Gate, an eclectic boutique where exotic plants and preserved bits of flora and fauna—from decomposed leaf skeletons to a taxidermied giraffe—occupy gleaming vitrines and tabletops, where they are arranged in artful jumbles. I ponder a pair of handmade Indian scissors and a lush fox tail (as in, the tail of a fox, for $23), then settle on a tequila-flavored lollipop, complete with worm, as a gift for my boyfriend.

Carol and I grab a beer at a neighborhood dive, then return to the Tenderloin to dine with her husband, John, at Canteen. In 2005, chef Dennis Leary, formerly of Rubicon, transformed this erstwhile diner into an intimate, low-key purveyor of wholesome haute cuisine. From the brioche rolls and unexpectedly delicate fried smelt fish appetizer to the flaky apple tart, Leary’s fresh takes on familiar foods are, for the most part, exquisite and—fortunately—served just a few blocks from where I’m staying, at the recently opened Orchard Garden Hotel near Union Square.

In the morning I walk to the South of Market (SoMa) district, bypassing the shopper’s paradise of luxury chain boutiques and department stores that constitute the Union Square district. SoMa, which the city began redeveloping in the ’80s, is a teeming agora of museums and cultural venues. The central Yerba Buena Gardens, a tropically landscaped plaza, ensconces the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, a voluminous exhibit space for contemporary art with an adjacent 700-seat proscenium theater. Nearby loom the new Museum of the African Diaspora, the Museum of Craft & Folk Art, the Cartoon Art Museum and SF Camerawork, a nonprofit photography gallery and education center. Soon San Francisco’s Mexican Museum will relocate here, as will the Contemporary Jewish Museum (as of spring 2008), to be housed in a retrofitted power substation designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, the master planner for the new World Trade Center in New York City.

The mother ship of this international flotilla is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the third-oldest modern-art-collecting institution in the country, founded in 1935. The Mario Botta-designed building, where SFMOMA has resided since 1995, is easy to spot at Third & Mission, its cylindrical atrium of zebra-striped stone pushing up through the roof like a steamer’s funnel. Through an aggressive acquisition policy and curatorial push that began in the ’70s, SFMOMA has become a major international player, and the day I visit, two blockbuster shows—a retrospective of Brice Marden’s minimalist and abstract paintings and drawings, and a survey called Picasso and American Art —are being installed in its main galleries. Still, I spend a couple hours exploring the permanent collection—an impressive array of American and European works from Impressionism to the present.

49 Geary is a gallery hive of the city’s blue-chip art dealers.

A few blocks northwest of SoMa, in the Union Square district, a parade of orange banners projects from the historic façade of the gallery hive known as 49 Geary, heralding the names of numerous blue-chip dealers. Entering through a marble foyer, I take the elevator to the fifth floor and work my way down, pausing at one of the reception desks to pick up the San Francisco Bay Area Gallery Guide , a bimonthly pamphlet containing maps and information on dozens of current exhibitions throughout the Bay Area. At Fraenkel Gallery on the fourth floor, I drink in a deceptively simple show of large-scale prints by master Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. Images of white walls, shot in color, they glow with an eerie, supernatural light. Fraenkel represents some of the world’s best photographers, including Oregon’s own Robert Adams, whose quietly searing images of landscapes in distress earned him a MacArthur “genius” fellowship and will be featured in a must-see show here April 5-May 26.

Tonight I’ll hit the ballet, and tomorrow the Asian Art Museum, with its stupendous collection spanning cultures from Persia to Korea over a period of 6,000 years, but I confess I’m reaching cultural overload. Before I leave 49 Geary, I step into Steven Wolf Fine Arts, where an artist named Mark Lee Morris has arranged a yoga mat, exercise gear and a video monitor. The tape features Morris, attired in headband and running shorts, playing a supine workout instructor. “Now extend your leg. And—inhale, inhale; exhale, exhale.” The gallery owner averts his gaze, leaving me to breathe in peace, art now acting as mindful yogic guide. It’s just the second wind I need.