My boyfriend and I like to take visiting friends and family on a robust hike through some of San Francisco’s most famous neighborhoods. We teasingly call the experience The Forced March, and it is for our more fit friends. Join us, if you “fit” that description and are ready to explore San Francisco on foot.
Start at the Ferry Building at Market and the Embarcadero. On Saturday and Sunday this is the site of the biggest and best farmers’ market in the Bay Area, where sustainably-grown and artisan food is nearly a religion. On other days the shops within the Ferry Building are worth a stop. Pick up coffee and a pastry to fortify yourself for the hike ahead.
From the Ferry Building continue your San Francisco on foot exploration along the Embarcadero, past working piers, shops and restaurants to Fisherman’s Wharf. Notice the vintage streetcars clanging by on tracks in the center of the street. They’ve been salvaged from all over the world and many declare their city of origin on their colorful sides – Milan (orange), Melbourne (green and cream), Blackpool (cream and green with the open top) and San Francisco (gray and red). Watch out for runners, roller-skaters and skate-boarders as they throng the wide sidewalk.
Head past Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf – we’ll save those tourist delights for another day – and continue until you reach Hyde Street. Turn left and a block up you’ll see the Cable Car turnaround and The Buena Vista across the street from it.
The Buena Vista, fondly known as the BV, is the U.S. birthplace of Irish Coffee (black coffee, Jamison’s Irish Whiskey, sugar and a topping of special whipped cream), and it has been a local hangout since it opened in 1916. If you are thirsty after the long walk (1.9 miles or 3km from the Ferry Building), this is a great place to stop. Don’t stay too long though, because the fearsome Hyde Street hill stands before you.
Go straight up Hyde Street, and I do mean straight up its 20.67% steep grade. When you finally reach the top at Lombard Street turn around and catch the view while you catch your breath.
From here you’ll see the Golden Gate Bridge gleaming orange in the sunlight over sparkling blue water, Alcatraz Island rising out of the Bay with its rocks and empty white prison, and wooded Angel Island behind it. The white-washed buildings of Bay-side Aquatic Park and the Maritime Museum stand in sharp relief beside the worn wood planks and pilings of Fisherman’s Wharf. Listen closely and you may hear the bark of the sea lions basking in the warm sun in the background. It’s a postcard moment-one of many to come.
Now, turn left and zigzag down the crookedest street in the world, past red brick homes and flower boxes overflowing with red geraniums and purple bougainvillea to Columbus Avenue. Cars inch along the steep curvy street beside you. This time walking is a lot easier than driving!
At Columbus, turn right. You’ve only trekked 0.7 mile (1.1 km) from the BV, but it seems longer, thanks to the hill. Now the scene changes, from the crab and fish-scented shops and restaurants of Fisherman’s Wharf to the aroma of garlic and good olive oil.
This is North Beach, the traditional center of San Francisco’s Italian community. There is no longer a beach here, although there was in the 1850’s when the neighborhood was a sunny stretch of shore along a finger of the Bay that extended inland. Today Saints Peter and Paul Church ahead and on your left, twin spires soaring 191 feet into the blue sky, is a landmark in the area.
For lunch, choose one of the many wonderful Italian restaurants along Columbus and around Washington Square. I like Rose Pistola for the food, the Washington Square Bar and Grill for the bar and Molinari, the ultimate San Francisco deli, for panini (Italian grilled sandwiches). You can’t go wrong with a dish of pasta and a glass of wine, or with a panini and San Pellegrino. Mangia!
Afterward, wander down Columbus toward Grant Street. You’ll know you’re going the right direction if you’re walking toward the large triangular building (the Transamerica Pyramid) at the end of Columbus. A half-block past Grant on Columbus stop at City Lights Bookstore, co-founded and still co-owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of America’s most beloved poets and a central figure in San Francisco’s Beat generation of the 1950’s. It’s a fine independent bookstore and a wonderful place to browse and people-watch.
Now walk back a half block to Grant Street, turn left and enter a different world: Chinatown. It may seem hard to believe you’re still in San Francisco, as Chinese is the predominant language spoken here. Ginger and sesame are in the air, barbequed meat hangs in shops, and stalls of fresh fruits and vegetable line the streets. Shopkeepers call out to friends, children play on the sidewalk, cars weave and honk along the busy street. Peek into the shops, enjoy the hustle and bustle. This is a great place to shop for souvenirs and embroidered linens, but don’t buy too much to carry because you have one more hill to climb.
When you reach California Street, you’ve walked 1 mile (1.7 km) from lunch in North Beach. Turn right at California and walk up the hill to the top. You are now on Nob Hill, home of the rich and famous in old San Francisco. Today some of the City’s most storied and luxurious hotels are located here. You’ll pass the Ritz Carlton on the way up, and The Mark Hopkins and The Fairmont San Francisco at the top.
Most of the mansions that used to crown Nob Hill were lost in the 1906 earthquake and fire, but one remains – the Flood mansion, just past The Fairmont on your right. James Cair Flood was a sugar magnate and his former home now houses the Pacific-Union Club, a private social organization.
A block further on California, The Huntington Hotel stands on your left. The Big 4 Restaurant inside The Huntington is named for the great railroad barons whose mansions once adorned this hill – Leland Stanford, C.P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker, a.k.a. the Big Four – and its bar is an intimate clubby place to have a cocktail. Another good choice would be the Top of the Mark, in the Mark Hopkins Hotel, for cocktails and spectacular views of San Francisco.
When you’re ready, it’s time to head downhill. This is the easy part. Just retrace your steps on California Street to Powell and catch one of San Francisco’s famous Cable Cars down Powell to the center of the City at Union Square and Market. Or catch the California St. Cable Car anywhere on California back to the Ferry Building to return to your starting point. The cable car is $5 per person (their website says $3, but don’t believe it) and be ready with exact change.
You’ve gotten plenty of exercise, you’ve had good food and drink, you’ve been to Italy and China, and you’ve walked through a bit of history. You’ve climbed “halfway to the stars” and ridden a “little Cable Car” down. Perhaps you’ve even left a bit of your heart in San Francisco.
What & Where
Ferry Building & Farmer’s Market(1 Ferry Building, the Embarcadero at Market 415-693-0996)
Buena Vista Cafe (2765 Hyde St, 415-474-5044)
Rose Pistola (532 Columbus Ave, 415-399-0499)
Washington Square Bar & Grill (1707 Powell St, 415-433-1188)
Molinari Delicatessen (373 Columbus Ave, 415-421-2337)
City Lights Bookstore (261 Columbus Ave, 415-362-8193)
Ritz Carlton San Francisco (600 Stockton St. at California St., 415-296-7465)
Intercontinental Mark Hopkins/Top of the Mark (1 Nob Hill, 415-392-3434)
Fairmont Hotel San Francisco (950 Mason Street, 415-772-5000)
Hotel Huntington/ Big 4 Restaurant (1075 California St, 415-474-5400)
WHEN TO VISIT SAN FRANCISCO
The best time to visit San Francisco is from September to November. Fall offers some of the city’s warmest temperatures year-round, not to mention fewer crowds than summer. Spring is another good time to visit thanks to its mild temperatures and lack of rain (compared to other parts of California).
If you enjoyed this article about the San Francisco on Foot you’ll also love Eat, Walk, Repeat: A Perfect Day in San Francisco.
Traveling To San Francisco Soon? Here are a few tips:
How to get there: You can choose among three major airports for your San Francisco trip and although obvious, San Francisco may not always be the optimum choice. Discover the San Francisco Airport Alternatives to find out which is best for you.
Most major airlines fly into San Francisco. You can use Tripadvisor to check fares and compare prices, but don’t stop there. Did you know that Southwest Airlines and Jet Blue don’t participate in any of the fare-comparison sites?
Always check their prices separately by going directly to their website.
Where to stay: There are many places to stay in San Francisco. There is a wide range of hotels, from budget to luxury. For a luxury hotel that won’t break the bank, I recommend the The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco which is currently the #1 hotel on Tripadvisor. For a mid-level hotel, I suggest the Fairmont San Francisco Finally, for a budget hotel, try the 325 Sutter Hotel. You can also check HotelsCombined for the best San Francisco Hotel Rates.
What to pack: The temperatures each season vary, but even in winter, it can be warm and you should always prepare for rain. You will want a waterproof outer layer, rain jacket, and travel umbrella. You’ll also want a good pair of walking shoes (I love Keen). If you are visiting in Winter, you’ll want to pack layers including a light sweater or scarf.
San Francisco Trip Essentials
6 Indispensable Items to Pack for a San Francisco Vacation
- Get the Fodor’s San Francisco: with the Best of Napa & Sonoma (Full-color Travel Guide)
- Bring a good quality mirrorless camera for getting those beautiful San Francisco Places. I use the Sony Alpha a6000 .
- Summers are windy in San Francisco, so make sure to bring Neutrogena Sunscreen, Broad Spectrum Spf 45
- A great cross body travel bag. Cross body bags prevent theft and are much easier to access.
- Don’t forget sunglasses for the beautiful sunny days. A.J. Morgan Unisex Sunglasses are a great choice and very affordable!
- Water shoes are a great item to pack for any beach vacation. They take up little room when packing and great if you end up at a beach that is rocky or with very hot sand.
- San Francisco tends to be windy, so maybe a scarf or shawl would be a good choice if it’s too chilly.
Read More About San Francisco
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.