The best way to see San Francisco is on foot. It’s how you’ll fully appreciate the city’s nuances and quirks, all part of its endless appeal. These five walks take you into the historic heart of the city and explore some of its most diverse neighborhoods.
You’ll venture deep into natural areas and enjoy the fabulous views that are part of the city’s lore. You’ll even get up close and personal with some of the city’s top icons. Whether you have two hours or most of a day, one of these walks will suit. Along the way, you’ll discover opportunities for good food and drink, as well shops like none you’ll find elsewhere.
Take a stroll through Chinatown and North Beach
Best walk for pure San Francisco
1.5 miles one-way, 3 hours, moderate
Start in Chinatown at Portsmouth Square, the neighborhood’s unofficial living room. It’s named after John B Montgomery’s sloop, which staked the US claim on San Francisco in 1846. Today the square is graced by the Goddess of Democracy, a bronze replica of the statue that Tiananmen Sq protesters made in 1989.
Stop into the Chinese Historical Society of America, which shows what it was like to be Chinese in America during the gold rush, transcontinental railroad construction and the decades that followed, all while contending with virulent racism.
Meander north on the busy, shop-lined streets, watching for the 41 historic alleyways packed into Chinatown’s 22 blocks. Don’t miss Waverly Place and its historic clinker-brick buildings and flag-festooned temple balconies.
Cut over to Columbus Ave and the heart of San Francisco’s Beat culture at Jack Kerouac Alley. Note the words of Chinese poet Li Po embedded in the alley: "In the company of friends, there is never enough wine." Kerouac, Arthur Miller, and other Beat icons drank in the 1950s at neighboring bar Vesuvio. Nearby is the legendary City Lights Books, one of America’s best bookshops.
Head up Columbus through the heart of North Beach, which still has discernable Italian roots. At lushly planted Washington Square, you’ll spot parrots in the treetops and octogenarians in tai chi tiger stances on the lawn.
Head up steep and residential Greenwich St to Coit Tower for the city’s best views. The exclamation point on San Francisco’s skyline, the stark white deco building is surrounded by a park where you’ll be thrilled by vistas from the Golden Gate to the Bay Bridge and beyond. Take time to duck into the lobby where murals depict city life during the Depression: people lining up at soup kitchens, organizing dockworkers’ unions, partying despite Prohibition, and more. The depictions have riled up conservatives ever since.
Now head east and down the Filbert Street Steps. The steep climb leads past hidden cottages along Napier Lane, more sweeping views and more colorful wild-parrot flocks. Continue across The Embarcadero to the waterfront at Pier 23, where you turn left for Fisherman’s Wharf or right for the Ferry Building.
Free your spirit on a walk through the Haight and Golden Gate Park
Best walk for hippie culture and a fun-filled park
4.5 miles one-way, 4 hours or more, easy
Start in Buena Vista Park, with panoramic city views. Head west up Haight St into the neighborhood that defined the Summer of Love in 1967. Hippie flashbacks are a given in the here, where the fog is fragrant downwind of Haight St’s legal marijuana dispensaries.
Turn right onto Waller St and left uphill past 432 Delmar St, site of the Sid Vicious overdose that broke up the Sex Pistols in 1978. A block over, pay your respects to Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Pigpen at the Grateful Dead House. Down the block, 635 Ashbury St is one of many known SF addresses for Janis Joplin, who had a hard time hanging onto leases in the 1960s.
At the corner of Haight and Ashbury, the clock overhead always reads 4:20, better known in "Hashbury" as International Bong-Hit Time. Follow your bliss to the drum circle at Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park, where free spirits have gathered since the ’60s to flail to the beat.
Golden Gate Park sprawls across 1017 wonderful acres with a variety of sites that will have something for every interest. Heading west towards the ocean, you could see carnivorous plants gobbling insects at the Conservatory of Flowers, or spot blue butterflies in the rainforest dome at the California Academy of Sciences. Perhaps you'll choose to get lost in the art exhibits of the de Young Museum, or maybe you’ll allot a couple of hours to sipping green tea in the Japanese Tea Garden. Note that cars were banned from John F Kennedy Dr in 2021, which adds greatly to your walking pleasure.
Continuing west, there’s the walk to the summit at Strawberry Hill and the namesake large, furry critters grazing at the Buffalo Paddock. When you hear the surf, you’re close to the Pacific and magnificent four-mile-long Ocean Beach.
Marvel at murals as you mosey through the Mission
Best walk for savoring San Francisco’s contradictions
2.75 miles one-way, 3 hours, easy
The Mission is a crossroads of contradictions and at its heart is Mission St, SF’s faded "miracle mile" now occupied by dollar stores and rollicking street life, surrounded by colorful murals and buzzy restaurants. West of Mission St, Valencia St has quirky boutiques and seven-figure condos. Calle 24 (24th St) is SF’s designated Latino Cultural District. Walking in the Mission puts you in the heart of all the contradictions that are San Francisco today.
Begin at the city’s first building and neighborhood namesake: adobe Mission Dolores, built by some 5000 conscripted Ohlone and Miwok laborers. You can glimpse the Miwok memorial hut through the mission fence on Chula Lane. Hitchcock fans still come to the garden here to smell the flowers in a prime location from the 1958 movie Vertigo.
Climb to the upper southwestern corner of Dolores Park for panoramic views. Then walk down 19th St past Daniel Doherty’s impressionist-inspired 2009 mural A Sunday Afternoon at Dolores Park, showing Dolores Park’s regular cast of characters, including frolicking pugs and handlebar-mustachioed men in matching swim shorts.
On Valencia St, pause to pay your respects to bygone celebrities at Dog Eared Books – the front window features hand-drawn obituary cartoons of luminaries. Window-shop down Valencia and hang a left onto Calle 24. Pass community centers, churches, bodegas, panaderias (bakeries), and taquerias all swathed in murals. Stop at 24th & York Mini Park, where Aztec serpent-god Quetzalcoatl rears his mighty mosaic head.
Double back along 24th St, cross over and swing down to Balmy Alley, where you may recognize beatified activist Archbishop Romero and surrealist painter Frida Kahlo among the colorful characters illuminating garage doors. For food, join the line at La Taqueria for one of SF’s best burritos. Get yours "dorado style," so they’ll crisp the outside.
Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito
Best walk for dramatic views and nature
5 miles one-way, 4–6 hours, moderate
One of San Francisco’s best walks takes you right out of the city, but what a walk it is given you’ll cross the Golden Gate Bridge on foot and then curve around the bay to the delightful town of Sausalito where you’ll catch a ferry back to SF. (Confirm the ferry schedule before you set out.) All along this walk you’ll enjoy sweeping views of the city and a surprising amount of natural beauty.
The city’s most spectacular icon towers 80 stories above the roiling waters of the Golden Gate, the narrow entrance to San Francisco Bay. Begin your walk at the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center at the south end, where you’ll learn how the huge undertaking was completed in 1937, a mere four years after construction began.
Pedestrians take the eastern sidewalk. Dress warmly! It’s 1.7 miles across the walkway and you’ll want to take your time for the views, both horizontal and vertical. If you’re lucky you’ll get to look right down the funnel of a passing ship.
At the north end, follow the curving walkway and road all the way down to Fort Baker and Horseshoe Bay. This former military post with one of the world’s best views was a defensive position for much of the 20th century.
Continue on East Road along the tree-lined coast north into Sausalito, where you can stroll the cute little center and enjoy some of the region's best seafood in a waterfront cafe like Fish. On a Golden Gate Ferry for the 30-minute ride to the Ferry Building in SF, you’ll go right past Alcatraz.
Amble through Presidio and Crissy Field for amazing Golden Gate views
Best walk for ocean and bay views
3.5 miles one-way, 4 hours or more, easy
Explore the Presidio, the vast splotch of green on the map between Baker Beach and Crissy Field and you’ll find parade grounds, historic buildings by the dozen, beautiful natural areas, and some fascinating art projects. What started as a Spanish fort built by Ohlone conscripts in 1776 is now a treasure hunt of surprises. It was decommissioned as a military base in 1994 and turned over to the National Park Service (NPS), which has been transforming it into one of the nation’s best urban parks. Download the NPS Presidio app for details on trails and sights.
At mile-long Baker Beach take in the spectacular views of the Golden Gate. Crowds descend on weekends, especially on fog-free days, so arrive early. For nude sunbathing, head to the northern end. Mind the currents and the c-c-cold water.
Hike up along the Batteries to Bluffs Trail, which follows the coast and offers spectacular views from bluffs where huge guns once defended San Francisco. Head inland to Fort Winfield Scott, with its flat parade ground and vintage buildings. Curve east on paths along Lincoln Blvd and enjoy the bay and bridge views.
At the manicured Main Parade Lawn, you’ll find cafes and museums. The Presidio Officer’s Club is the site’s oldest building. Its gorgeous Spanish-Moorish adobe architecture dates to the 1700s. The free Heritage Gallery shows the history of the Presidio, from Native American days to the present, along with temporary exhibitions.
Cross over the new grasslands covering Hwy 101 and head down to Crissy Field, a military airstrip turned waterfront nature preserve with knockout Golden Gate views. Bird-watchers, walkers, windsurfers, kitesurfers, and cyclists flock here. Rent a bike and join the fun or sit on the beach and watch for gray whales who sometimes venture into the bay.
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