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.
The 300 Stairways of San Francisco
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 San Francisco, providing shortcuts between streets at different levels, or lead to otherwise inaccessible peaks. Most of them are strictly functional, but some are pleasant walks in themselves, or have their own individual features. I have previously written about the steps to the top of Telegraph Hill, but on my recent trip to San Francisco I managed to explore more of the stairways.
16th Avenue Tiled Steps and Hidden Garden 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.
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 these 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.
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.