One of many unique sights in San Francisco is the long flights of steps stretching up the hillsides. Some are purely functional, but others are works of art in themselves. I set out to discover – and climb – the stairways of San Francisco for myself.
The 300 Stairways Of San Francisco
San Francisco is built on 49 hills – not just ordinary slopes, but tall steep inclines. Yet the city’s early planners and developers chose to lay out the roads in a grid pattern, paying no heed to contours. This resulted in some very steep streets, causing problems for the people who lived and worked there. Some of the hills were so steep that access was impossible in the early days, even with horse-drawn carriages. San Francisco’s famous cable cars were one response to the issue. Another solution was the building of pedestrian stairways.
There are reputedly 300 stairways in the city, providing shortcuts between streets at different levels, or leading to otherwise inaccessible peaks. Most of them are uninspiring, but some are pleasant walks in themselves, or have their own individual features. For the tourist, many of them have the added benefit of leading to spectacular views.
16th Avenue Tiled Steps
Unusually, there is a slight deviation from the grid pattern as the streets swirl around the appropriately named Grandview Park, in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset. There are a few different stairways here, but the ones I wanted to see were the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, which run from 16th Avenue/Moraga Street towards 15th Avenue (this is part way up the hill: there is more climbing to do if you want the view from the top).
From above the Tiled Steps look like an unremarkable concrete staircase, but approach from the bottom, or look back as you walk down, and you will see an astonishing mosaic. The 163 steps form a vibrant, multi-coloured tapestry of sky, earth and sea, incorporating sun, moon and stars, animals and plants. In among the grand design is a wealth of tiny detail, with some unexpected elements, like a cupcake or a slice of cheese.
Hidden Garden Steps
Further along 16th Avenue are the Hidden Garden Steps, between Kirkham Street and Lawton Street. These are less well known than the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, and I would have missed them altogether if it hadn’t been for the friendly advice from a man on the bus. Like the Tiled Steps the Hidden Garden Steps have a mosaic pattern, this time with a theme of gardens and nature. When you walk up either stairway, pay attention to the planted areas beside the steps, carefully tended with native Californian plants chosen to attract birds and butterflies (I spotted a humming bird on the way up).
Filbert Steps, Telegraph Hill
Telegraph Hill is not the tallest of San Francisco’s hills but it is high enough to provide a leg workout and to give some wonderful views at the top. Going up the Filbert Steps I counted as I climbed: 297 wooden steps followed by 172 concrete ones. But it was an enjoyable walk, lined with small wooden cottages. A cat basked in a garden and lemons were growing on a tree in one of the verdant front gardens. It was a world away from the city streets with their noisy traffic and rattling cable cars.
Telegraph Hill is famous for its flock of parrots, apparently descended from captive birds that had escaped. I looked out for them, but unfortunately they were nowhere to be seen. The final steps were inscribed with the names of people who had donated towards the restoration of the Coit Tower, the tall white structure at the top of the hill.
I walked towards the tower on a peaceful woodland path, pausing to admire the distant view of the Golden Gate Bridge. (The Coit Tower was closed for restoration when I was there, but is supposed to be worth visiting for the famous murals and the panoramic views from the top.)
I walked down from Telegraph Hill by the Greenwich Steps, where the magnolias were in full bloom. Again the steps pass small cottages with well kept gardens. But there was an unusual feature to these gardens: many of them contained sculptures by local artists.
Lombard Street Steps
Between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets, Lombard Street runs at an alarming 27° angle. There are pedestrian stairways on either side of the road, but what is interesting here is not the steps, but the street itself. The slope is too steep for vehicles, so the road weaves from side to side, with eight hairpin bends in just over 100m. This allows cars to descend the hill safely, and it has led to Lombard Street being known as “the crookedest street in the world”.
Bordered by immaculately kept houses and gardens, Lombard Street has featured in films (perfect for car chases) and is popular for weddings. But until I got there I hadn’t realised how much of a tourist attraction it was. Apart from the people walking up and down the stairways, there was a queue of cars and taxis at the top, waiting to ferry their camera-toting passengers down the hill. I even spotted a woman driving with steering wheel in one hand and camera in the other (not recommended!).
I could see why so many people visit Lombard Street – the view from the top is fabulous, stretching right down to San Francisco Bay. Of course, the hilltop views are one of the reasons for exploring the many stairways of San Francisco. I look forward to discovering more of them in the future.
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