Climb up, stroll down or just enjoy the view from these beloved neighborhood steps.
By Darya Mead
Though historically known for its “seven hills,” San Francisco is actually ranked second to La Paz, Bolivia as the world’s hilliest cities. Some streets are so steep that more than 300 stairways exist throughout the city, providing access and shortcuts to areas difficult to reach otherwise.
Locals and tourists, alike, love to “stairwalk” in San Francisco, explore these hidden hillsides and take in the stunning views. Our family has been climbing the steps of our home city for years and during the Covid-19 public health crisis, we’ve been joined by many others who climb the city’s stairways for local exercise and urban adventure.
There are the famous routes to Coit Tower where one can catch a glimpse of the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, and the now famous 16th Avenue Tiled Steps of Golden Gate Heights in the Inner Sunset. Although not as crowded as say, Lombard (the crookedest street in the west with stairways to climb alongside the road), these top stairwalks can be bustling, and some have become favorite spots for Instagrammable photos and photo shoots.
Instead, grab Adah Bakalinsky’s stairwalk bible — a favorite since the ‘80s, and in its ninth edition — and explore some of the more quirky areas. The book offers up the popular routes, as well as many of the less-touristy tranquil spots, used only by locals and known only to a handful of people. Most walks take no more than an hour and string a number of staircases in a neighborhood together, with informative descriptions of the history, architecture and flora and fauna of the area.
Together, families can explore the nooks and crannies of this great city – especially when small kids are portable, either in backpacks or frontal carriers. My family often decides on a route and picks a restaurant or café in the area to make our ultimate destination. In the time of Covid, we pack a picnic and maybe a thermos of hot tea and head out either in or near San Francisco (read more about our hikes near SF here).
With each stairwalk we discover unique and unusual surprises, including hummingbirds, caterpillars, amanita muscaria mushrooms, blackberries, glorious flowers in bloom, secret cottages with magical gardens, never-before-seen views, maniacal exercisers and even a friendly kitty who followed us for blocks.
The staircases are definitely busier during the pandemic, but everyone respects the social distancing rules and it feels like a safe outdoor activity. Hoofing up so many steps with a mask on can take your breath away on, for sure, most walks include benches or vista spots where one can catch one’s breath.
Most of San Francisco’s stairwalks can be accessed by public transportation, though parking never seems to be a problem in these neighborhoods if you are willing to add a few blocks onto your walk. The stairs are also great activities for out of town guests and spry grandparents.
Favorite Stairways of San Francisco
Here is a list of neighborhoods with our family’s most favorite stairwalks in recent years.
The popular Filbert Street Stairs and Greenwich Street Steps leading up to Coit Tower. You’ll walk past gardens full of roses and irises and trees filled with the loud and colorful wild parrots and views of the Bay Bridge. At the top, visit Coit Tower!
Upper Market/Corona Heights
The Saturn and Vulcan stairways lead through the residential neighborhood above the Castro district. Along the way, spy quirky cottages where residents share a stairway with no street access and views of the city streets below. Look for a giant statue-less pedestal. Begin your walk at Levant Street near Lower Terrace.
Covered with eucalyptus forest, Mt. Davidson is the highest point in San Francisco at 927 feet and the site of the controversial mammoth Easter cross. In 1997, the cross was purchased for $26,000 by The Council of Armenian American Organizations of Northern California, which placed a bronze plaque at the base memorializing the victims of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Sadly, there are often beer bottles and trash around the place since certain locals take advantage of the isolated park. The upside? You’ll find incredible views of the entire city and a real sense of wilderness, with blackberry bushes and wildflowers. It can be muddy in the rainy season, so wear good hiking shoes. Begin your walk at the bus stop at the junction of Dalewood and Lansdale and head up the unsigned (but obvious) trail.
This hill is a real “butt kicker,” for sure. It’s quite steep in spots, but the payoff is supreme. Lately, we’ve found spots we’ve never been to, including Ina Coolbrith Park and a $3.9 million quadruplex for sale on the adorable Macondray Lane, inspiration for “Barbary Lane” in Armistead Maupin‘s Tales of the City.
The Lyon Street Steps connect Cow Hollow to the mansions of Pac Heights via 332 stairs with bay and Presidio views. Less elaborate but equally strenuous, the Baker Street Stairs lie just a block east.
Outer Richmond/Lincoln Park
Though “just” a staircase, the Lincoln Park Steps are Instagram candy for good reason. The tilework is top-notch, restored by a community organization over the last two decades. The staircase provides a gateway to the park’s attractions, including a pleasant playground just two blocks south, a public golf course, and the Legion of Honor Museum. The steps are also a perfect perch to meet up at the beginning or the end of a stroll from Eagle’s Point on the Land’s End Trail – yet another SF hike with non-stop, world-class vistas in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Darya Mead – February 2021
Growing up in NYC and attending the UN International School gave Darya a head start as a global citizen. But her extensive travel and media experience now takes a back seat to raising two boys in San Francisco. Darya loves the outdoors, cooking, teaching yoga and the fact that her boys have taught her to be a sports fan. Follow her travels on Triporati.
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
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