It’s been almost a year since the stay-at-home orders began and the Bay Area has cabin fever. If you’ve run out of things to do, here are some ideas from my book Secret San Francisco: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure (Reedy Press, 2019). These outings will allow you to escape safely, and for most of these excursions, the only cost is a mask.
Stairways to Heaven
San Francisco is often called the most European city in America and like Europeans, we love to walk, especially those hidden, romantic, steep stairways that take us to places you can’t see in a car or a bus. There are over 600 staircases scattered throughout the city. Some are lined with mosaic tiles, made of sand and leading to landmarks. Climbing them is worth it for the fabled views. Here are a few storied ones:
Lincoln Park – In 2007, locals hired artist Aileen Baar to design the neighborhood’s broad steps. Her Beaux-Arts-inspired creation, with a floral motif, has been described as a colorful rug unrolling toward walkers. lincolnparksteps.org.
16th Avenue and Moraga – This mosaic tiled stairway with the theme “Flowing Sea to Stars” was a labor of love by neighbors. 16thavenuetiledsteps.com.
Lyon Street – With a Pacific Heights location, you expect a ritzy stairway, and it does not disappoint. Lined with manicured gardens, the steps overlook the bay, the gold dome atop the Palace of Fine Arts and the red brick and stone mansions along “Billionaires Row.” You’ll also pass by one of the Hearts in San Francisco created by local artists to raise money for San Francisco General Hospital. Begin your walk at either end: Lyon Street/Broadway at the top or Lyon Street/Green Street at the bottom.
Filbert Steps – Listening to a serenade by the green parrots of Telegraph Hill, walkers pass by cottages with blooming gardens and what appears to be a cruise ship. Jutting out over the bay, the curved, white five-story building looks ready to sail. Fashioned in the Streamline Moderne style that was popular at the time, the apartment building is nicknamed the “Ocean Liner.” Classic film buffs may recognize the building from the movie Dark Passage, where Humphrey Bogart’s character Vincent Parry climbed the steps to the apartment of Irene Jansen portrayed by Lauren Bacall. The current residents display a cutout of Bogie in the window. Keep walking to Coit Tower and peer in the windows to see frescos created in the Diego Rivera style. Begins at Filbert and Sansome streets or if you want to go downhill begin at Coit Tower.
In San Francisco, parks are just 10 minutes from every home. They have never been more popular than during this pandemic. Check out the new open spaces but don’t forgot the old favorites…they may have surprises for you.
The Crane Cove Park – The latest spot to observe the city’s world-famous views, this greenspace linking Mission Bay and Dogpatch was formerly an industrial shipbuilding site. The name comes from two historic cranes that workers called Nick and Nora, the characters from The Thin Man movies of the 1930s and ‘40s. Picnic on the sandy beach or join those paddle boarding, kayaking and bicycling. sfport.com/crane-cove-park.
Golden Gate Park – Larger than New York’s Central Park, this green gem, mostly closed to cars during the pandemic, has returned to its roots – a place for walkers and bicyclists to leisurely enjoy the scenery. Along the way, you’ll come across a field of bison and two gigantic Dutch windmills. “The San Francisco Giants,” as the Netherlands refers to them, were originally utilitarian.
Irrigation transformed Golden Gate Park from sand dunes to green grass, but it was exorbitantly expensive. Windmills powered by Pacific Ocean gusts seemed the perfect alternative; in 1903, the Netherland Queen Wilhelmina donated a Dutch windmill to the city that was joined by the Murphy windmill named after the banker who paid for it. goldengatepark.com/windmills.html.
Presidio – While museums have mostly been closed during COVID, that hasn’t stopped Bay Area residents from enjoying art. Outdoor installations are located all over San Francisco. Some of the most unusual are in the Presidio. Andy Goldsworthy transformed twigs, leaves and fallen trees into art that blends in with the environment. He connected eucalyptus logs to form “Wood Line,” a serpentine path in an empty space. Unlike most museums, he encourages people to not only touch his art but walk on it. Balancing on the branches from a high vantage point, you can see another of his sculptures, “Spire,” a triangle created from cypress trees cut down for reforesting.
Recently the Presidio announced a new trail, the Quartermaster, linking the forest to the Bay. Beginning at Chrissy Field, walkers can enjoy seven acres of tidal marshland previously inaccessible.
The Presidio also has attractions below ground. It’s common knowledge that those who have served in the military are buried in the Presidio’s cemeteries. But what about those who served the military? Fido and Fluffy are resting in peace nearby in the Pet Cemetery surrounded by a white picket fence, Monterey pines and million-dollar views of the Golden Gate Bridge. presidio.gov.
Lands End – Near the former Cliff House, a walking trail along the bluffs overlooking abandoned ships leads to a hidden labyrinth created by a car mechanic. Under cover of night, with only the stars to guide him, Eduardo Aguilera, inspired by the French Chartres Labyrinth, picked up rocks from Ocean beach, climbed up a steep dirt path, and quietly laid his stones in a pattern. He worked after sundown to avoid park rangers who didn’t support his dream. Today, park rangers gladly direct tourists to the labyrinth on the edge of land. parksconservancy.org/content/lands-end-labyrinth.
San Francisco Maritime Historical Park – Who ever heard of a park with schooners, a pier, a beach and an art deco bathhouse? San Francisco has such a park and it’s a great place to watch the polar bears – swimmers who brave the frigid waters sans wetsuits. Each year, they race from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park. nps.gov/safr/index.htm.
Discovering all these hidden places in plain sight will keep your child so busy, they may forget about screen time. You will never know until you try.