If there’s one thing that there’s an abundance of in San Francisco, it’s hills. And usually, when folks are getting around the city by foot or by bike they do their best to avoid the thigh-busting streets and lanes. But on the Hills of San Francisco walking tour, which starts from HI San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf, the objective is quite the opposite – it’s to tackle some of the most notorious inclines and steps of the City by the Bay during a three-and-a-half-hour adventure peppered with landmarks and history lessons.
It was a typical grey and groggy January morning in San Francisco when I met the volunteer leader of the tour, Henry, and the troupe of travelers who were as keen as I was to challenge their legs while learning about one of the world’s favorite cities. A long-time resident of San Francisco, Henry has been running the expedition for almost a decade and imparts his Wikipedic knowledge of stories from the past, iconic must-sees and dos and little-known secrets during the walk. Before we left HI SF Fisherman’s Wharf he made sure everyone was wearing sturdy shoes and had enough water for the road ahead. He himself was armed with his essential gear, including a binder full of images, newspaper clippings and fliers of everything from what San Francisco used to look like before it was developed, to stories of successful and failed attempts to swim from Alcatraz, to the legend of Emperor Norton.
The first mini-mount to conquer was in Russian Hill, which, Henry explained, didn’t get its name because there are a lot of Russian people living in the neighborhood (there aren’t), but because a Russian cemetery was discovered here during the Gold Rush Era. There was admittedly a fair amount of huffing and puffing, but as with every hill we took on that day, the reward was always a magical, almost unreal view of kaleidoscopic San Francisco mystically shrouded in wisps of fine mist. We watched the Powell-Hyde cable car amble up the hill and then crossed the road to the top of the famously zig-zaggy Lombard Street as Henry dropped some knowledge of the city’s public gardens and streets hidden in between private homes. One of the charms of this walking tour is that you go down paths and alleys that would probably take years as a resident to find, so thanks to Henry, you get to discover things like the little green haven – complete with water fountain and cross-legged Buddha statue – tucked between busy streets and the miniature Empire State Building perched on top of a high rise.
The next round of climbing involved the stairs to Telegraph Hill’s Coit Tower, the cylindrical, allegedly fire-hose shaped beacon we had just been looking at from our perch on the last hill. Henry told us about the hidden messages in the murals within the tower’s walls that were commissioned as part of a plan to employ artists after the Great Depression. Afterwards, he gave us a handy sheet with notes of things he had mentioned on the tour so far, things to do and see, and things not to do, like calling San Francisco “Frisco” and mentioning anything about Rice-a-Roni. From the heights of Coit Tower we descended down the lush garden-lined Filbert Steps and debated the merits of living in the charming secluded cottages since you’d have so much climbing to do just to bring up your groceries.
After a quick stop at the Levi Strauss Museum, it was on to North Beach for a bit of carbo-loading with a slice of pizza in the traditionally Italian neighborhood and a little more history outside the oldest bar in San Francisco, The Saloon. We then walked through the sights, smells and sounds of the ever-lively Chinatown with a stop to a fortune cookie factory and headed up towards what could be considered the heart of the city, the Cable Car Museum. Not only does the building house an exhibition of the history of San Francisco’s cable cars, but it’s also the headquarters for the famous trolleys, and you get to see the giant cables that pull the cars along the streets whirring noisily around giant winding wheels.
By now the sun had freed itself from behind the clouds and it shone brightly as we took on the final big climb of the day in Nob Hill, and it was quite a finale. We emerged at the top feeling like Rocky and once again drank in the panoramic sight, this time colored by an impossibly blue sky. The last stop was to Grace Cathedral, and as we stood at the top of the steps we reached the reluctant realization that this was the end and we were going our separate ways. We had bonded over our mutual breathlessness going up the hills and our appreciation for Henry, who was so obviously passionate about his volunteer work even though he had done this tour countless times. And mostly, we had bonded while falling even more in love with the crazy, challenging, beautiful hilly streets of San Francisco.
HI USA tip: The tour leaves every Wednesday at 9:00 a.m. from HI Fisherman’s Wharf provided it’s not raining. The tour is open to guests staying at all three HI USA hostels in San Francisco, just ask at the front desk for more information!