San Francisco is a city meant for walking. The locals walk constantly. They are not fazed by the hills and neither should you be.
- Telegraph Hill
- Lands End
- Pacific Heights mansions
- Golden Gate Park
Wonderful free guided walking tours are put on San Francisco City Guides. The tours are led by local volunteers who love the city and know the city. Some of the tours are packed (China Town in season) and others only have 5 or 6 people on them (Russian Hill Stairways during the rainy season). They really are free – although a donation bucket will be passed around. Be as generous as you feel comfortable so these wonderful tours can continue.
One final note: I intentionally am using less pictures than I normally do in the post. Part of a wonderful walk is for you to explore and see what you see for the first time. And more likely than not, you will see a few surprises with any of these walks.
Telegraph Hill sits between North Beach and the Embarcadero. In my opinion it is one of the more beautiful neighborhoods in San Francisco. You can’t miss Telegraph Hill because Coit Tower sits atop the hill.
Lillie Hitchcock Coit was one of many interesting characters in San Francisco history and she left a bunch of money for the beautification of San Francisco. She was a rich socialite who loved to go on fire runs, and most locals will tell you that Coit Tower is designed to look like a fire hose.
The views on this walk are equally as amazing as the architecture and gardens you will see. Many artists, writers, scientists, and rich people live on this hill. You will also see a couple of the original remaining red cross shelters from the 1906 earthquake.
The other “site” on this hill are a huge flock of parrots. I highly recommend seeing the movie The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. These annoyingly loud birds would flock over to Russian Hill and wake me up on weekends with their forever chirping. But then I saw the movie and gave them a lot more forgiveness.
- Start in Washington Square Park in North Beach. Maybe stop in and see the beautiful St Peter and Paul Church (ask any old priest there about Joe DiMaggio).
- Walk towards Telegraph Hill up Filbert Street on the north side of the square. I think the views here are far better than on Greenwich Street.
- When you get near the top, follow the trail to the tower. If it is a sunny, clear day pay the money and go to the top of the tower. The views alone are worth it. If it is a foggy day, maybe not so much unless you are really into seeing more fog.
- Go to the side of the tower opposite of Washington Square Park and look for a stairwell marked Filbert Street. You might think you are going into people’s private yards, but yes this is a public through way.
- Keep going down the steps and enjoy the view along the way. Cross Montgomery Street and find where the steps continue, going all the way down to Sansome Street.
- Turn left on Sansome and go a block down to Greenwich Street. Make a left on Greenwich and look for where the stairs resume.
- Climb back up to Coit Tower. Take your time and look around.
Difficulty (1 being easy and 5 being a catch your breath hike): 4 for steepness
Lands End is where the Pacific Coast begins to turn inwards opening to the San Francisco Bay. You will see a different perspective on the Golden Gate bridge. This area has a micro-climate similar to a temperate rain forest. Even if the rest of the city is warm, you probably need layers or a jacket here.
To get there, take the 1 California bus to the terminus by the Pacific Ocean (Geary and 48th).
Take a walk down to the old Sutro Baths and explore around. Make sure to go into the cave (don’r worry, you will see the cave).
Go back up the hill and follow any of the trails to the Coastal Trail/Lands End Trail. Enjoy the vistas, the salt air, the Redwoods and Eucalyptus. A good walk is about 3 miles round trip but you can easily make it shorter or longer.
Make sure you find Lands End Point and take the stairs to see the Labyrinth.
Continue down the path to Mile Rock Beach. It is beautiful.
Cautions for this walk:
- Do not swim in the ocean here as the currents are aggressive and unfriendly.
- Do not get too close to the edge and fall off a cliff. The ground occasionally gives way without warning. Falling off a cliff will probably ruin your vacation. Or worse.
- Get your face out of your phone. Any misstep can get real bad. And there is so much to see anyhow.
Difficulty: 3 for terrain, though if you are really into it you can continue all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge for a great one way walk.
Pacific Heights Mansions
If you want to see amazing architecture, glimpse at the lifestyle of the mega-rich from fairly close up, and see dazzling views, this walk is for you. Unlike other mansion walks, no one in San Francisco has much of any front yard, including the rich. So you will be very up close to the mansions of Pacific Heights.
To get there: Take the Muni 3 Jackson to Presidio or the Muni 1 California to Presidio. Either way, walk north on Presidio and Pacific Street.
Really if you just wonder around you will have a great time, but here is my recommended route.
- Start at Presidio and Pacific and walk east on Pacific.
- Make a left on Divisidero and then another left on Broadway.
- Walk on Broadway to Lyon Street. This is an amazing view of the bay.
- Make your way down the Lyon Street Stairs.
- You can make a right on Vallejo Street and go over a block to Broderick and then down, or keep going down the stairs on Lyon.
- Continue down to Union Street, make a right on Union and walk a few blocks to enjoy the cafes and boutiques of Union Street.
You can return on the Muni 45 Stockton back to Union Square or North Beach.
Difficulty: 1 since the walk is mostly downhill.
Off the beaten path: Daniel Steel’s mansion at Washington and Octavia.
Golden Gate Park
Start at around Haight Street and Stanyan Street. Meander west about 3 miles, staying in the park, until you get to the Pacific Ocean. For this starting point, you are probably better off taking an Uber over Muni.
Be on the lookout for:
- Conservatory of Flowers
- Stow Lake, Strawberry Hill, and the Chinese Pavilion
- Japanese Tea Garden
- San Francisco Botanical Garden
- A carousel
- Dutch Windmills
- Ocean Beach dunes
The park is also home to 2 major museums (DeYoung Fine Arts Museum and California Academy of the Sciences).
And of course people watching.
Difficulty: 2 mostly flat
The Castro was one of the first openly and historically gay neighborhoods in the United States. Although the San Francisco gay rights movement did not really start in the Castro (it started more in Polk Gulch), the Castro has become a neighborhood of pride and activism for LGBT rights. If you want to better understand the history of the Castro and LGBT movement in San Francisco, see the movie The Times of Harvey Milk (1984 documentary).
Take one of the streetcars to get to the Castro – it sets a fun tone. Start at Market, 17th, and Castro Street and walk downhill on Castro Street (do not cross back over Market).
Be sure to check out:
- The Castro Theater (see any show or movie there, and if you can get tickets to a sing-along movie trust me it will be over the top).
- Maybe make a left on 18th, then a right on Noe and walk to the top of the hill. The houses, street, and view are beautiful.
- Enjoy the shops and bars and of course the people watching.
- Stop by and talk to anyone with a table, ironing board, or clipboard by 18th and Castro if you want to learn the latest in progressive politics of the city.
My final advice is that, although I recommended five walks, be an explorer and create your own walk. Comments are welcome – let me know what walks you like in San Francisco.
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This San Francisco travel overview is broken into 10 parts:
San Francisco Part 3 – Best Walks in San Francisco
San Francisco Part 8 – Amazing Day Hikes Around San Francisco
San Francisco Part 10 – Further Afield from San Francisco (and Worth It)