Walking San Francisco  by Tom Downs

Walking San Francisco Guide Book

by Tom Downs (Wilderness Press)
Walking San Francisco  by Tom Downs
San Francisco—heart of the left coast and home to vertical streets, vibrant neighborhoods, fivestar dining, and a history that includes the Gold Rush, Summer of Love, and not-so-distant dotcom days. In Walking San Francisco, insider and raconteur Tom Downs is your guide on 33 walks from the Embarcadero to Lands End, Bernal Heights to Golden Gate Park. On each urban trek you’ll soak up history, gossip, and architectural trivia, plus tips on local cafes, bars, and nightlife spots. For the confirmed pub crawler, two walks explore the best bars in North Beach and the Mission District. Along with the detailed maps and accurate directions you’ll find essential advice on parking and transportation. Whether you’re looking for a 2-hour workout or a full day’s (or night’s) entertainment, grab this book, step outside … walk S.F.!

© 2011 Tom Downs/Wilderness Press. All Rights Reserved.

Trails from the "Walking San Francisco" Guide Book
Displaying trails 20 of 33.

Displaying trails 1 to 20 of 33.

Bernal Heights rises up from the southern edge of the Mission, where narrow streets dead-end long before they can reach this rocky, windswept hilltop. The broad views of the Mission, Potrero Hill, the bay, and the distant downtown skyline are fantastic—but that’s par for the course in San Francisco. What makes this walk especially alluring is the suddenness with which the sheltered, slightly funky Bernal Heights neighborhood turns into a rugged chunk of wilderness. The hill is home to many red-tailed hawks that glide silently about the slopes looking for anything small that moves. Wear good hiking shoes for this one. And if you have a dog handy, bring it along and free it from its leash—you’ll both fit right in.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 2
San Francisco has a Chinatown to rival any city’s Chinatown, and like many Chinatowns, San Francisco’s has an air of inauthenticity. Many of the buildings here reflect naive American notions of what Eastern architecture ought to look like, with shop fronts resembling pagodas painted in spectacular, often garish colors. Even the lamp posts, fire hydrants, and telephone booths have a kitschy, orientalist look to them. But comparisons to Disneyland don’t tell the entire story. In the wake of the ’06 quake, men of overwhelming influence, including former mayor James Phelan, wanted to move Chinatown to remote Hunters Point. Chinese businessmen preempted that campaign by rebuilding quickly with over-the-top, undeniably Chinese styles of architecture. Thanks to their efforts, Chinatown stayed put, and to this day it remains one of San Francisco’s most vibrant and exciting neighborhoods. Its sidewalks are packed shoulder-to-shoulder with locals every day of the year, and all manner of goods literally spill out of the shops. At night, the district’s commercial streets become a relatively subdued and atmospheric constellation of neon. This walk follows the main thoroughfares, Stockton St. and Grant Ave., with frequent detours through mysterious alleys smelling of cabbage and into clamorous dim sum parlors where you’d hardly know you were still in North America.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 1.75
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San Francisco’s Civic Center is one of the most elegant and cohesively planned complexes in the U.S. Huge monumental Beaux Arts structures went up after the 1906 quake, making the area impressive but cold on the surface. Some of the buildings house offices of government, while others are pillars of high culture and contribute much-needed warmth to the neighborhood. The opera, the symphony, the Main Library, and the Asian Art Museum are all clustered around City Hall, which itself is one of the country’s finest capitol buildings. The area is always busy, especially on weekdays when local, state, and federal government workers file in and out of the buildings along with museum goers and grade-school students bused in for field trips. On Wednesday and Sunday the farmers’ market, going strong since 1981, adds even more life and diversity to the area, making these days ideal for a trek through the neighborhood.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 1
Dolores St. is luxuriant without being snooty, grand but not opulent. For some 2 miles, the street’s palm-shaded medians follow a straight and gracefully undulating path along the eastern edge of the Mission District. A walk along it takes in Mission Dolores, the panoramic vistas from Dolores Park, and inviting tangents up and down some of San Francisco’s finest rows of 19thcentury houses. It skirts the fringes of the Castro and Noe Valley. Apart from the Mission itself, this tour is not hugely concerned with landmarks or history. It’s just one of the most beautiful walks in the city. We won’t faithfully walk every block of Dolores St., opting instead to venture into the roller-coaster blocks of the Liberty Hill District and the northern rim of Noe Valley.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 2.5
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Much of the history of early San Francisco centered on the waterfront around Yerba Buena Cove, which before it was filled in curved into what is now the Financial District, as far inland as Battery St. At high tide, early structures along Montgomery St. are said to have had water lapping at their steps. Most of the ground we’ll tread on this tour covers the bones of rotted ships, many of which were abandoned by seamen who made a dash for the diggings in the Sierra foothills. Some deserted ships became boarding houses, while others were converted into saloons. One even served as the city jail. Eventually, their wooden hulls formed the foundation for landfill, and the wharves where they tied on became the city streets we walk today.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 2.25
In recent years, no part of San Francisco has changed as much as the waterfront south of Market St. The development of luxury condominiums, high-rise office towers, and the Giants’ ballpark AT&T Park has brought new life to an area long ago abandoned by the shipping industry, which moved across the bay to Oakland in the late 1950s. Public art adds color and interest, as do restaurants and bars that get lively before and after baseball games, which is a good time to take this walk. (See the Sporting Green in the San Francisco Chronicle for a schedule.) Here and there are remnants of the Embarcadero’s long-gone stevedore days. On this tour we’ll take a close look at the ongoing development of this precious strip of real estate and hopefully catch a few innings of baseball free of charge.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 1.75
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This is where the big wheels turn in San Francisco. Looking much like a short section of Midtown Manhattan or the Loop in Chicago, the Financial District is a grid of canyons formed by the high-rise pillars of capitalism. Buildings bold, stately, and conservative tell the secret that lies at the core of San Francisco’s history and character, for while the cultural icons of the city are gold diggers, gays, and hippies, it was the staunch businesses of banking, stock brokering, real estate, and shipping that put the city on the map. Suitably, the Financial District resulted from a frantic scramble for well-positioned real estate. During the Gold Rush, each time valuable bayfront lots were sold, a little more bay was filled, creating new bayfront property. (It was tough luck for the guy with last year’s dockside office.)
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 1.75
Nothing against tourists from Ypsilanti, mind you. But Fisherman’s Wharf is the prototypical tourist trap, and for that reason most San Franciscans regard the neighborhood as a party that they haven’t been invited to, and that they wouldn’t want to attend anyway. But to go on deliberately avoiding this cash cow of a neighborhood is to lack curiosity.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 2.5
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San Francisco’s urban continuity is frequently broken by hills topped by outcrops of rock and mounds of soil yielding auburn grasses. In the case of Glen Canyon, the city gives way to a deep impression—a gash, really—where Islais Creek supports a rich riparian environment of arroyo willow, elderberry, blackberry, horsetail, monkeyflower, and eucalyptus. The canyon is filled with birdsong and the dull jackhammering of woodpeckers. Red-tailed hawks are likely to swoop overhead, a harmless snake may cross your path, and a coyote may blend into the scenery while sunning itself on the canyon’s grassy slopes. A rare example of native coastal scrub survives along the park’s western slope. Making liberal allowances for the nonnative plants and the hush of unseen traffic on O’Shaughnessy Blvd., a hiker in the rugged canyon might imagine San Francisco during the city’s somnolent Californio days.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 2
People who have never been to San Francisco or know very little about the city, at least know about the Golden Gate Bridge. The taut swag of its cables, recognizable in silhouette form, are an emblem of the city. Its color, International Orange, is associated specifically with the bridge. The bridge stands apart from the city—buffered by the parklands of the Presidio on the south end and the Marin Headlands on the north end—and its structure and natural setting complement one another. Very subtly, however, the bridge gets the upper hand over its environs. The bridge is obviously not as old as the hills that receive either of its ends, but the hills nevertheless appear to be there for the bridge. And the fog, which has always poured into San Francisco Bay through the Golden Gate strait, seems to serve the purpose of dramatically enhancing the bridge, concealing and unveiling its two towers and continually adjusting the natural light reflected on the bridge during the day. Ultimately, of course, the bridge serves us, making it possible for human traffic to travel to and from Marin County and beyond. Most thoughtfully, the bridge has a walkway on its eastern side so it is possible to cross the Golden Gate on foot to admire the views and ponder all that this bridge stands for. It was designed as a monument to progress, and if we are awed by the bridge, we must be awed by ourselves.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 4
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Golden Gate Park is a celebration of nature—only, there is really nothing natural about it. The 1,000-acre urban parkland, among the nation’s largest, is a series of groves, gardens, and lakes, all seeded, shaped, and constructed by human hands and machinery. When the city set aside the land, in 1870, it was a windswept expanse of sand and shrubs that few thought could be tamed for the leisurely enjoyment of the local citizenry. William Hammond Hall, the park’s surveyor and first superintendent, planted barley, and then lupine, both of which rooted and spread across the sands, holding it down and making it possible for further planting to take place. Within ten years, natural-looking woodlands had been established across the oncebarren land. The park also has historic buildings, museums, a boathouse, a bison paddock, and a classy brewpub. Plan on spending a few hours walking and exploring the terrain before enjoying a well-earned beer or meal.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 4.5
Along with the Gold Rush, earthquakes, and the Gay ’70s, the Summer of Love is one of those things for which San Francisco is commonly known to the outside world. The intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets is the city’s most famous crossroads thanks to some craziness that occurred around this nexus from the mid- to late 1960s. While many hippies were simply indulging in the neighborhood’s proliferation of drugs and sex, some idealistically saw the “Psychedelic Revolution” as hope for a better world. The neighborhood developed its own economy, spawned its own musical sound, and acquired a distinctive look, as its residents went for a shaggier, more colorful style than the rest of America. It must have been exciting, mind-blowing, and hilarious. If time travel were possible, Haight St. 1967 would be a tourist mecca. The street today does its best to live up to its reputation. Walking the neighborhood is a satisfying blend of historic sites, exquisite Victorian architecture, and bustling alternative commerce.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 2
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There is little disputing that San Francisco got off to a spectacular start. By all accounts, the city was thrown up with the purposeful chaos of a carnival pulling into town in the dark of night. For decades the atmosphere in many parts of town pulsed with a hell’s a-poppin’ spirit. The area between the main plaza and the wharves managed to distinguish itself as particularly rough, and became known as the Barbary Coast.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 0.75
Japantown is an odd and interesting neighborhood. Japanese immigrants began settling here after the ’06 quake and were unjustly moved from their homes and relocated in internment camps during World War II. The African Americans who moved in were drawn by jobs in wartime industries, but 1960s redevelopment of the area caused yet another exodus as a sizeable proportion of the neighborhood’s housing was demolished to make way for the widened Geary Blvd. Expressway and for hotels and retail structures. Although the Japanese had dispersed by that time, the redevelopment included construction of Japan Center, along with some senior housing catering to elderly Japanese. So what we have here is a modern commercial district with a strong Japanese flavor and only a very small remnant of the Japanese community. Similarly, Fillmore St. retains hints of the area’s African-American past. Amid the modern hotels and condominiums are some gorgeous Victorians that were spared the midcentury wrecking ball. The neighborhood is pleasant for walking, but the chief interest here is inside Japan Center itself. We’ll end up there.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 1.25
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San Francisco is oriented toward its bay, but to overlook the coastal trails that run along the cliffs at the city’s western edge is to miss out on some very striking natural scenery. Trails, some of them slim and rocky footpaths, crook down to secluded beaches and back up to landmark buildings such as the Cliff House and the Palace of the Legion of Honor. The area’s intriguing history manifests itself in captivating ways. The washed-out remnants of Sutro Baths are a modern ruin looking much like the leavings of a long-gone civilization. Be aware that nudity is tolerated on some of the beaches, so the natural scenery you encounter along the more secluded trails may include humans in their birthday suits. Take this walk on a cold day if you want to avoid such surprises.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 3
Market St. slices through San Francisco’s grid at a brash, oblique angle, cutting a prominent seam through the city’s central neighborhoods. It is a direct conduit into the city from San Francisco’s historic entrepot, the Ferry Building, leading all the way to Twin Peaks, where it heads skyward and disappears, having vaguely shown the way to the Pacific Ocean without actually leading there. It serves as the city’s parade ground, but Market doesn’t require a parade to be interesting. To walk this graceful corridor on a weekday morning is to be urged along by the living thrum of an American city. Muni buses, taxis, restored streetcars, autos, and bicycles generate a deep-throated hush as their wheels roll up and down Market’s lanes. The street’s swift-footed office workers swerve to avoid statues, fountains, and historical markers, as well as the casual sightseer who stops to inspect these monuments of the street’s stately past. Billions in U.S. dollars have been earned, lost, and swindled in the high-rise and flatiron structures along blocks that hem the Financial District, and billions more have been spent in the emporiums near Union Square. West of the Powell St. cable car turnaround, Market St. once thrived as San Francisco’s Broadway, with two or three grand theaters to a block. Some survive today, but this stretch of the city’s main thoroughfare, up to Van Ness, has seen much better days. The contrast from one end of this walk to the other is striking and, in some ways, baffling. All in all, a walk along Market St. makes a fine introduction to San Francisco. This walk is as straightforward as they come.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 2
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The Marina might be summed up as the new-money counterpart to old-money Pacific Heights. Both are upper-class enclaves, but while Pacific Heights rises above the city with a Victorian regalness, the Marina thrusts its chest out into the bay with a 20th-century brashness. Cow Hollow, being neither up the hill nor along the bay, more or less slides into the Marina, and the two neighborhoods feel like two parts of a whole. Single professionals have been drawn to the area since the yuppies of the 1980s claimed the neighborhood. You’ll encounter young urban professionals throughout the city, but those of the Marina and Cow Hollow still seem to be of their own special stripe. The districts are remarkably mainstream, at least by San Francisco standards. The city’s countercultural leanings are little felt here. On this walk, we’ll set out to appreciate the Marina’s location with a brisk hike along the bayfront, then loop back down the commercial Main Streets of both neighborhoods.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 3.5
As the sun goes down on the Mission District, the neighborhood’s vibrant murals fade into the shadows and irresistible artificial light splashes out onto sidewalks from the barrooms. This is one of the city’s very best nightlife zones. The entertainment options are varied and of high quality, with a healthy mix of dives, supper clubs, and live-music venues. This tour selects several scattered spots, and you’ll no doubt want to whittle it down a little further to avoid ending up in a gutter somewheres. A lot of ground is covered, and some of the streets are a bit dodgy at night. Use good sense while walking down dark blocks. You might also want to break a cardinal rule of walking tours and call on a taxi to bridge the gaps now and then.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 2.25
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The nabobs and their opulent mansions are long gone, but Nob Hill still has a prestigious air about it. In the 1870s, soon after the advent of cable cars simplified getting up the hill from downtown, the silver kings and railroad barons moved in. Three decades later, the 1906 quake turned their privileged perch into an ash heap. High-class hotels, a lovely park, and awe-inspiring Grace Cathedral now stand where San Francisco’s robber barons once lived. Add to the mix a handful of unexpected curiosities and you’ve got yourself a dandy little tour.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 0.75
North Beach no longer swarms with the goatee-and-beret crowd, and the Italian language is less commonly heard in the neighborhood than it once was. And yet the neighborhood continues to benefit from its heritage as an enclave of Beatniks and Italian immigrants. The chief links to the past are cafes and historic bars, which retain a somewhat earthy, European charm that no doubt appealed to the poets and painters of the Eisenhower years. Italian-American families still own most of the businesses, many of them after several generations. The offkilter, diagonal slice of Columbus Ave., the main drag, and the closeness of Russian and Telegraph Hills, which rise above North Beach, make this quarter feel more intimate and selfcontained than other parts of San Francisco. It’s somewhat touristy, especially on weekends. Drop in on a weekday afternoon, or in time for lunch, and you’ll get a more local sense of the area. Return at night and take the North Beach Barhopping Tour.
San Francisco, CA - Walking - Trail Length: 1
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