The best way to see a city is by foot. That’s why I decided to walk San Francisco.
Actually, when I first arrived, I decided to run San Francisco. (I had just spent all day in the car from Tahoe and needed to burn off the 1,200 calorie lunch I had ingested at the In N’ Out.)
My route took me up palm-lined Dolores Street, which, after the Facebook IPO, has been transformed into millionaire row. Dolores was exhausting since, immediately after stepping from my friend’s apartment at 27th and Dolores, I was running up a pair of massive hills.
However, the hills offered incredible views of the city’s downtown, financial district, Mission, and bay. And it presented close-ups of eccentrically painted Victorian homes. The hills and homes on Dolores were the archetype of San Francisco’s architectural and geographic fame. The houses, which conjure up images of the grunge of the Grateful Dead and the fun of Full House, are painted in various shades of blue or mixes of green or amalgamations of yellow. Some home owners had the gall to fuse mustard yellows with mossy greens with faded royal purples. But it’s that bizarre juxtaposition of the rainbow that gives San Francisco its charm.
As I ran to Market Street, I passed numerous missions and stumbled upon Dolores Park, where each section caters to the neighborhood it points to–the hipsters of the Mission, the families of the Noe Valley, the gays of the Castro. I turned left on Market Street and ran through the Castro. Rainbow flags hung from the storefronts and designer shops stood next to endless cafes, which neighbored lasciviously named nail salons, like Hand Job, and a laundromat called Sit ‘N Spin.
I took a left on Castro Street, which led toward another enormous hill that climbed for four or five blocks. Yet again the view at the top of the Twin Peaks and oddly painted homes were another epitome of the city.
Walk San Francisco in the Rain
The next day, it was pouring, so I walked around indoors. I used my San Francisco CityPASS and visited the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum, both of which are across from each other in Golden Gate Park. The science museum mostly catered to children with their miniature aquarium, simulated earthquake room, and planetarium. Even still, they had an awesome collection of bizarre creatures from Madagascar–like a snake that resembled a twig with a leaf-like nose and praying mantises that looked exactly like desiccated leaves–housed in the biodome and a pit that contained an albino alligator. If it weren’t for my free pass, I would not recommend the museum to adults, though I would highly suggest it to parents with kids.
The rain was still coming down, so I walked across to the de Young Museum, which was more age-appropriate for me. The tower inside the museum offered even better views than the hills of the Noe Valley. It’s one of the best vantage points in San Francisco. Then I wandered the exhibits. Most powerful was the one that featured photographs of Iraq from 2003 to 2005 during the critical years of the US invasion. Death and agony were pervasive in each photograph, but so were wonderful oddities, like a wall with a crude painting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of his super mercenaries.
The best single displays of art were two sculptures. One was a collection of debris, such as computer parts and bits of paper, which had been gathered from the streets of New York after the 9/11 attack and pasted onto a canvas. Adjacent to the remnants of 9/11 were scorched pieces of wood from the fire bombing of the Black Baptist Church. The charred wood hung from different lengths of string so that it appeared as if the exploding building was frozen in mid-air or captured during a miraculous reconstruction.
Finally, the rain had let up, and I walked about seven miles from one end of the city to the other. First, I strolled down hippy Haight Street with its head shops and eclectic record stores and anarchist book dealers. I made sure to stop off at the famous, purple Grateful Dead house on Ashbury, four houses up from the revered intersection of Haight and Ashbury. Then I strolled past Buena Vista Park, a haven to shroomers and curious members of society.
I took a few turns off of Haight and into a few streets of housing projects until I came upon posh Hayes Street, which turned into the Renaissance-like square that housed City Hall. Then, somehow, I stumbled into the crack den (not hyperbole) of the Tenderloin. I only realized my misstep when one crackhead threw his yellow blanket on the ground and chased an imaginary demon down the street. In every direction crackheads were conducting seances and stumbling into one another and walking into traffic and talking to walls. I retreated and found my way to the trolley car on Powell Street. (Not that I couldn’t walk the hills of downtown, but my City PASS provided me with free rides on all the trams, so why not take the most historic?) I rode to Columbus and walked the avenue to the iconic City Lights Bookstore where I browsed for an hour before heading back to Dolores.
The next day, I walked along the Embarcadero, which offered incredible views of the San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge. My City PASS also allowed me to take an hour long boat cruise through the bay. We went beneath the Golden Gate Bridge (which is hard to walk under) and around Alcatraz (which I toured on my last trip and is a must for all visitors to San Francisco).
Note: CityPASS provided me with a complimentary passport book, which I highly recommend if you love museums–which also gives access to the MOMA, among others–and if you plan on using the trams frequently, which you can do and still take my advice about walking. Since the city is so spread out, it pays to take the tram from your hotel and then walk San Francisco from your point of disembarkation.
How would you walk San Francisco?