I once heard that San Francisco is one of the three most geographically blessed cities in the world -- and while I've never researched the truth of that statement (and am, you know, unsure how to verify a claim like that), I really do believe it wholeheartedly. For a small city, SF packs a helluva pretty punch: rolling hills dotted with cute and colorful houses, unexpected ocean views, and artsy alleyways all make the city a tour guide’s veritable wet dream. Hop in a car, plan your Muni route, and don’t forget your camera when visiting the city’s prettiest streets.
Lincoln Blvd heading south
OK, you can look north too. But if you're tired of the stunning Golden Gate Bridge views (which really should be impossible), take twisty Lincoln Blvd south along the Presidio’s edge for stunning views of the Pacific, Baker Beach, and China Beach. The road is often two lanes and wooded with coastal cypress; trail heads abound, as do paths to beach access. If you take Lincoln north toward the Golden Gate Bridge, the road also snakes through the quaint Presidio.
Folsom St -- particularly at 24th St
Although Folsom St might not seem like much when you’re cruising through on the 12 bus, this residential block is worth a closer look. Tall, full trees -- including some lovely weeping willows -- line the street, backed by lovely, wooden Victorian homes. The whole stretch of Folsom from 14th Street through the Mission and up to the base of Bernal Heights Park is great, too: featuring lots of murals, small family-owned businesses, up-and-coming restaurants, and the increasingly rare sight of long-time Mission residents.
Balmy Alley at 24th St
Among other things, the Mission is known for its gorgeous street art. Duck into any alley, and chances are you’ll find at least one mural... or at least some seriously impressive tags. Balmy Alley is home to a dozen or so colorful murals with political themes, many of which depict struggles in South and Central America. Some of my favorites are pieces on gentrification, wealth/greed, and the history of the neighborhood.
The Painted Ladies at Alamo Square
Steiner St between Fulton and Hayes
No list of pretty streets is complete without the city’s famous Painted Ladies -- the row of six Victorian homes on the eastern side of Alamo Square. You’ve seen ‘em in postcards, you’ve seen ‘em on Full House, so do yourself a favor and see them in real life -- the picturesque view of Downtown from the hilly park is not to be missed. The other stunning homes surrounding the park are well worth a stroll, too.
Here’s one for your out-of-town guests. Head west along Broadway from Divisadero toward the Presidio, gawk at the amazing homes on both sides, and stop at the dead end on Lyon St. The Lyon Street Steps, which run down to the Marina, offer some of the most spectacular views in the city, and are also a great workout (the word on the street is that there's almost 300 steps from top to bottom -- and no, we didn't count).
If nearby Lombard St is too touristy for you, head to Leavenworth St and Union St and look for a low-key entrance to Macondray Lane. The wooded pedestrian lane is just two blocks between Leavenworth St and Taylor St, with a set of steps down to Taylor St. In addition to cute cottages and gardens, there are great views from the north to Alcatraz and the Bay.
Napier Lane off the Filbert St steps
Telegraph Hill Historic District
Movie buffs might recognize the name from the 1950s noir film Dark Passage, starring Humphrey Bogart. After escaping San Quentin, Bogie climbs the Filbert St steps, wrapped in plastic surgery bandages, and is taunted by a group of men below. What the film doesn’t show you is the amazing maze of tiny pathways, art-deco apartments, gardens, and cabin-like homes on the hillside. It’s a hike, but head up the stairs and pause halfway to take a short walk down the wooden, planked sidewalk Napier Lane. Most of the homes are Victorians from the mid-1800s, and are tucked away behind gardens; you can also catch views from a good portion of the Bay from this hillside hideaway.
Twin Peaks Blvd
Although not the tallest point in the city, Twin Peaks is the geographic center of San Francisco, and is a must-visit for the views alone. Twin Peaks Blvd winds around the two 925ft hills for a ride that can be a bit scary at night, but is absolutely worth it for the Pacific, Golden Gate, Downtown and Bay views offered on this figure-eight bit of road.
John F Kennedy Dr
Golden Gate Park
Pick a stretch, any stretch, of this park traverse and argue that it’s the best -- you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doubts you. JFK Dr winds all the way through the park from the Haight-Ashbury past the Conservatory of Flowers, de Young Museum, and Stow Lake, before hitting Ocean Beach and the Great Highway. On more desolate roads, you can marvel at the fog slowly creeping through cypress and eucalyptus trees, or keep your eyes peeled for bison in the bison field. The road is closed to traffic on the weekends, making this an excellent place for a bike ride or stroll.
16th Ave, looking east
Inner Sunset/Golden Gate Heights
The 16th Ave Tiled Steps are tucked away off Moraga St, at the base of the gorgeous and steep Grand View Park. This colorful community project is made of 163 separate panels created by different artists and volunteers. Go, take photos, and hoof it up the steps to Grand View for a neat windswept city vista.
Grant Ave between California and Jackson
San Francisco is home to the biggest Chinatown in the country. Once a sore spot in San Francisco’s (racist, xenophobic) history, the area is now celebrated for its unique architecture, shops, restaurants, and bustling Asian community. Grant Ave is admittedly touristy, but gloriously so. Colorful, pagoda-style buildings (which aren’t anachronistically Chinese, but designed to attract tourists decades ago) and old neon signs line the street, which is overhung with Chinese lanterns year-round.
Glen Park/Diamond Heights
Just a few blocks from the Glen Park BART station, you'll find the heavily wooded canyonland of Glen Park. As you take O’Shaughnessy northwest around Glen Canyon Park (a lesser-known city park you should totally visit), you’ll feel like you’re somewhere up north, in the mountains, where trees overhang winding roads, and the city is far, far away.
Sargent St at Arch
The houses in this hilltop neighborhood don’t compare with those in Pac Heights’ Billionaires Row, but you could argue that the views are better. Looking east, you have unobstructed views of the Pacific Ocean, while the view south to Ingleside is hilly and dotted with charming, multi-colored houses.
Don’t get hit by Muni at the busy intersection of Castro St and Market St, where you can see Downtown, the base of Twin Peaks and the bustling Castro neighborhood, marked by an enormous rainbow flag. Go at night and enjoy the colorful buildings lit in neon that run up and over the base of the hill. The Castro Theatre marquee, built in the late 1930s, towers above the neighborhood, is particularly gorgeous, and is almost always lit.
From Pier 35 south to AT&T Park
OK, this one is a gimme, but you can’t deny the beauty of San Francisco’s bayside road. The Embarcadero has a something for everyone: the Ferry Building for shopping, the Hi Dive for beers, fancy restaurants for the moneyed, and the Exploratorium for the scientists. Take a stroll during the day and enjoy public art and people watching, or go out to Pier 14 at night to watch the Bay Bridge lights.
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