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walking stories  | north americasan francisco | san francisco highlights
Highlights walking around San Francisco, California, USA

THE STORY

The lie of the land

Around the city centre

North from the city centre

West to the Presidio

Across Pacific Heights to the Pacific

Golden Gate Park, back to Nob Hill

Conclusion

 

Here are a few highlights from walking – and running – around the streets of San Francisco.  This is not so much a single walk, as a collection of personal recollections and highlights from 3 visits to the city over the past 8 years.  It’s a place that’s full of colour, varied architecture, dramatic views and locations familiar from the cinema – the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, the Financial District, and the cable cars climbing up steep city streets, are all iconic images of one of the great cities of the USA.  For those who enjoy hiking round cities, San Francisco must be one of the best - it even has steep hills to get the muscles working and heart pumping.

There are loads of guidebooks to the city - I found the Dorling Kindersley guide particularly handy with lots of good background details wrapped around informative illustrations.

 

The lie of the land

San Francisco is on a peninsula jutting north between the Pacific on the west, and the Bay to the East, finishing at the Golden Gate Bridge. This links it to the Marin Headlands with open country and a series of coastal settlements along the north-west shore of the Bay Area stretching towards the wine country of Napa Valley.  San Francisco international airport lies south, beyond San Bruno Mountain State Park, with areas of the bay being reclaimed to create new high value real estate!  Another long bridge crosses the Bay joining San Francisco and the city of Oakland, on the west shore, with Berkeley adjoining it to the north with its famous university.  At the southern end of the Bay are San Jose and the Silicon Valley, making this one of the world’s main locations for development of new communications technologies.  

 

The San Andreas fault cuts through the peninsula, making it one of the world’s primary earthquake zones. The city had to be largely rebuilt after the great earthquake and fire of 1906, but it still has a wide mix of architectural styles.

 

Away to the south, the coast of California stretches down by Carmel and the Big Sur towards Los Angeles 6 hours’ drive away. Inland, 4 hours' drive away are Lake Tahoe and the Yellowstone National Park  - perhaps the best known of the USA’s national parks.  I haven’t made it to these yet, but maybe next time!

 

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Around the City Centre

 

I remember looking around from Nob Hill – the high ground (338ft / 103m) roughly in the middle of the central area of the city, just over a mile from the Bay coastline to the north and east.  It’s a bit further to the west (Pacific) coast, maybe 4 miles.  There are some fancy hotels here – the Fairmont, with it’s magnificent restored lobby; and the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental towering up to its Top of the Mark penthouse bar with panoramic views across the city.  This was where the railway barons who completed the first transcontinental railroad built their mansions. On the other side of the square stands the grey stone façade of Grace Cathedral, modelled on Notre Dame in Paris .  If you come here early in the morning, some of the local Chinese community will be out in Huntington Park, performing Tai Chi. 

 

The streets run downhill to the east, into the Financial District, with its gleaming skyscrapers, notably the spear-shaped Transamerica Pyramid. It's 853 ft (256m) high, so it towers above everything else in the city.  To the south, you descend quickly towards Union Square which will be Retail Heaven for many visitors to the city.  On a sunny day you can sit out in the centre of the square, with palm trees above, watching the shoppers go in and out of Macy’s or Niketown.  You can call in to the city Visitor Information Center next to Powell Street Station, and if you have a heavy load of shopping, the Powell Street cable car will take you back up to Nob Hill, and down the other side towards Fisherman’s Wharf. 

Before the 1906 earthquake there were hundreds of cable cars in operation, but they were almost wiped out by the motor car, with only the present three lines being saved as part of the city's distinctive heritage.  There's still enormous demand (particularly from tourists), with long queues often forming at the termini.

 

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North from the city centre

The centre of the city has sleek, gleaming skyscrapers around the Financial District, with older blocks of hotels, offices and apartments extending up to Nob Hill. The fascinating shopping and residential streets of Chinatown adjoin these to the north, and then more residential streets extend towards the Fisherman’s Wharf area. On the way there stands Coit Memorial Tower, a white stone column on top of wooded Telegraph Hill, with views out across the Bay NW to the Golden Gate Bridge, North to Alcatraz island and SE to the Bay Bridge.  The hill is 284 ft high, and the tower another 210 ft, built in 1933.  I ran there before breakfast a couple of times, but was never there when the tower was open to visitors, so only saw the view from the surrounding plaza.   Lombard Street runs west from here, and becomes the city’s “crookedest street” where it bends its way up to Hyde Street.  This is known as Russian Hill, and there are many fine houses to notice.  

 

San Francisco has a grid street pattern, like most American cities, with streets such as Lombard Street running 3 or 4 miles across and others running almost as far from north to south.  These street lines make no concessions to the hilly landscape, and that's why there are so many steep slopes to climb!

Another cable car runs down Hyde Street towards the shore, at the west end of Fisherman’s Wharf.  The piers along here are famous for tourist shops and museums, and ferries sail from here across the Bay, around Alcatraz and across to Sausalito and Tiburon.  You can pick up all types of souvenir to remind you of San Francisco and the island of Alcatraz which served as a notorious prison from 1907 to 1963. 

 

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West to the Presidio

West of here, along the shoreline, is Ghirardelli’s (a famous chocolatier, now a collection of retail outlets), set at the top of a grassy slope.  Walking past the Aquatic Park, you reach Fort Mason, used as a military embarcation point during the 2nd World War, some of which is now made over to social enterprises each with a distinctive hanging sign outside – I walked down there one rainy afternoon and spent some time browsing in a bookshop. 

 

Because of the strategic location of San Francisco and the Golden Gate, facing the Pacific, there are a number of one-time military sites – apart from Fort Mason, there’s the Presidio at the southern end of the bridge, and fortifications at the northern end.

 

These days it’s become the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, with plenty of people out running or on skates on the parkland along the shore, and miles of trails through the extensive wooded grounds of the Presidio.  This was the first area to be settled by the Spanish, in 1776, before the development of the city itself, and it was a military base for many years.  

 

Just on the north-east corner of the Presidio, close to the Bay, is the Palace of Fine Arts, the impressive mock-ruins of a Greek temple, and the only surviving relic of the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915, held to mark the city's recovery from the earthquake.  Alongside it stands the Exploratorium, a science centre with many interactive displays.  I was lucky enough to attend an evening reception in the Exploratorium, after a walk along the breezy shoreline from a conference venue in the Presidio.  I was hearing from a fellow participant about the dangers of the global climate changing even more suddenly than many expect (I'm writing this after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in September 2005).  Another participant explained the perception that many in the US have of San Francisco, as some kind of alien liberal oupost where anything goes.  Maybe that what makes it such an enjoyable place to visit.

 

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Across Pacific Heights to the Pacific

I didn’t explore the Presidio grounds, but did run past the southern side of it one morning on my way from Nob Hill to the Pacific coast at Sea Cliff.  To get there, I had run through streets over high ground, through the small Lafayette Park and the raised up Alta Plaza in the Pacific Heights, with many fine houses and great views over the city.  If I'd been more suitably dressed, I could have visited the Haas-Lilienthal House on Franklin Street, which was a rich merchant's house built in 1886, now open to the public on two days each week.

 

At Sea Cliff, a narrow road runs steeply down to the shore – called China Beach – and I stood on the large rocks to look out across the Pacific and north to the Golden Gate Bridge. There was another couple here enjoying the view, and two other figures out in the water. It would have been good to swim in the Pacific, but I limited myself to dipping a toe in the water. 

 

Another large area of parkland – Lincoln Park – extends round the shoulder of the coast, and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area runs through this and away down to the south, between the city and the ocean, finally ending at Lake Merced.  It would make a good day’s hike - about 9 miles from the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

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Golden Gate Park, back to Nob Hill

 

However, I had to get back to Nob Hill, and wanted to run through part of the Golden Gate Park that was made famous during the Flower Power era in the late 1960s. It’s a big rectangular chunk of greenery with various recreation facilities, extending about four miles east from the coast but barely half a mile from north to south. It was about a mile and a half south from China Beach to the northern edge of the park, along nondescript city streets, and then I found a way into the park. 

 

The route through the trees was interrupted by Crossover Drive and the Park Presidio Bypass Drive cutting across the middle of the park, but I got across them and enjoyed the more peaceful wooded area around a lake on the other side, heading east.  There was a sign for the Japanese Tea Garden, which sounded worth exploring as I was due to go out to Japan a few weeks’ later. It included enchanting pagodas and the high arch of the Moon Bridge.  From there I emerged into the Haight Ashbury district, again bringing back memories of hippy culture.  The Buena Vista Park just to the south would have been worth a visit, but I was tired out by then.  I worked my way across to another small park in Alamo Square, then through the grid of streets north and east to get back to Nob Hill.

 

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Conclusion

This maybe gives a flavour of what the city is like, north of Market Street, the main communications route cutting diagonally across the city from north-east to south-west – no doubt there is much more to be seen not only in this area but also further south.  There are many more museums, parks, shopping and entertainment venues which I haven't visited. 

I spent one evening visiting Castro district, during a Mardi Gras parade when the streets were absolutely packed with revellers and visitors, but I don't remember much else about it. I was also introduced to my first taste of a Margherita cocktail by colleagues in a bar beside one of the city's steeply-sloping streets.  We had earlier found our way to a famous bookshop, the name of which I had forgotten, but a quick search of Google came up with the answer - City Lights, at 261 Columbus Avenue, on the edge of Chinatown. It was frequented by underground writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and still holds true to its heritage.  It became such a feature of the city's cultural life that it was named City Landmark #228 in 2001.  

If you can add your own stories of walks around San Francisco, let us know!

Contributed by: Andrew Llanwarne

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Opulent renovated lobby of the Fairmont Hotel

Opulent renovated lobby of the Fairmont Hotel

 

Coit Memorial Tower

Coit Memorial Tower

 

Early morning Tai Chi at Coit Tower, with the Bay Bridge behind

Early morning Tai Chi at Coit Tower, with the Bay Bridge behind

 

Transamerica Pyramid and Financial District from Pacific Heights

Transamerica Pyramid and Financial District from Pacific Heights

 

The city extending west from Pacific Heights

The city extending west from Pacific Heights

 

Looking towards Alcatraz from the beach at Marine Drive

Looking towards Alcatraz from the beach at Marine Drive

 

Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands

And the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands in the other direction

 

Palace of Fine Arts

Palace of Fine Arts

 

Part of the Presidio

Part of the Presidio