With well-known neighborhood names like Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Telegraph Hill and Pacific Heights, perhaps it’s surprising that hilly San Francisco scores high as America’s second most walkable city. Besides majestic bridges, rolling fog, sparkling bay water and rocky Pacific coastline, 50-odd hills represent one of the city’s most distinguishing features.
49 square miles of magic
Locals know that the most direct route is often the most ridiculously steep one, so detours are advisable. Even some of the city’s electric-powered buses must follow a zig zag route. Overloaded big rigs attempting pre-Super Bowl 50 beer deliveries created a succession of stuck trucks, as out-of-town drivers got beat by California Street hills.
In the 19th century, horses couldn’t manage the slippery slopes either, so if the cable car hadn’t been invented in 1873, much of today’s San Francisco would have remained inaccessible until the automobile was widely introduced following the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906.
The forces responsible for 20th century earthquakes along the San Andreas Fault once shaped the hills, the valleys and the bay itself, as well as surrounding mountains, hills and valleys. In the city, which measures only 7-by-7 square miles, hills range in elevation from 100 to 927 feet.
Free and worth the climb
The bonus, of course, are magnificent fresh air views that are absolutely free. Find your way up Twin Peaks near the Castro District, to the top of Dolores Park in the Mission District, up the tiled steps at Grand View Park at 16th Street in the Inner Sunset, atop Sutro Heights Park near Ocean Beach, by elevator up to the Hamon Observation Tower at the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park, onto the grassy front lawn at the Legion of Honor, up 300-plus steps at Lyon Street in Pacific Heights or up the Filbert Street Steps to Coit Tower, admiring the Victorian Painted Ladies at Alamo Square, or to the overlook facing Alcatraz Island at Inspiration Point inside the Presidio.
View without a hill
If you prefer your view without any climb at all, check out the Golden Gate Bridge from the sands of Baker Beach, bay views from a bench at the back of the Ferry Building, or stroll along the Embarcadero and San Francisco National Maritime Historical Park at Fisherman’s Wharf.
San Francisco’s 10 steepest streets
With sensational views from plenty of places, all but the heartiest pedestrians may want to steer clear of the steepest blocks. The National Elevation Dataset data overlaid with an Open Street Maps grid produces “The Real List of the Steepest Streets in San Francisco,” according to 7×7.com, a daily newsletter.
1. Bradford above Tompkins (41% grade)
2. Romolo between Vallejo and Fresno (37.5% grade)
3. Prentiss between Chapman and Powhattan (37% grade)
4. Nevada above Chapman (35% grade)
5. Baden above Mangels (34% grade)
6. Ripley between Peralta and Alabama (31.5% grade)
7. 24th between De Haro and Rhode Island (31.5% grade)
8. Filbert between Hyde and Leavenworth (31.5% grade)
9. 22nd between Vicksburg and Church (31.5% grade)
10. Broadway above Taylor (31% grade)
Track down the crookedest street
Of course, you can always ride the Powell-Hyde cable car line to get a panoramic view and a snapshot of Russian Hill’s famous brick hydrangea-lined “crookedest street in the world” on Lombard Street between Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street. Its eight switchbacks were created in the 1920s to make the 27% grade navigable by car. Some visitors are surprised to learn that an even more crooked street is found in Potrero Hill on Vermont Street, between 20th and 22nd streets.