San Francisco is surprisingly nature-filled for a city, and thanks to the year-round mild weather, residents are all about soaking up the great outdoors. So don some layers, grab your water bottle and sunscreen, and head outside.
Beaches Most days it’s too chilly to hang out at the beach, but when the fog evaporates and the wind dies down, locals love to hit the sands. On any truly hot day, thousands flock to the beach to worship the sun, build sand castles, and throw a ball around. Without a wet suit, swimming is a fiercely cold endeavor and is not recommended. In any case, dip at your own risk—there are no lifeguards on duty and San Francisco’s waters are cold and have strong undertows. Baker Beach is ideal for picnicking, sunning (be aware that the northern end of the beach is clothing-free), walking, or fishing against the backdrop of the Golden Gate (most fisherman do catch-and-release here, due to pollution in the Bay). Ocean Beach, at the end of Golden Gate Park, on the westernmost side of the city, is San Francisco’s largest beach—4 miles long, to be exact. Just offshore, at the northern end of the beach, in front of the Cliff House, are the jagged Seal Rocks, inhabited by various shorebirds and a large colony of barking sea lions (bring binoculars for a close-up view). Ocean Beach is ideal for strolling or sunning, but please don’t swim here—tides are tricky, and each year bathers drown in the rough surf.
Biking The San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department maintains two city-designated bike routes. One winds 7.5 miles through Golden Gate Park to Lake Merced; the other traverses the city, starting in the south, and continues over the Golden Gate Bridge. These routes, however, are not restricted to bicyclists, so you must exercise caution to avoid crashing into pedestrians. A bike map is available from the San Francisco Visitor Information Center, at Powell and Mason streets, for $4, and from bicycle shops all around town. Another scenic option is the Golden Gate Promenade, which runs for 3.5 miles along the city’s northern coast. Ocean Beach also has a public walk- and bike-way that stretches along 5 waterfront blocks of the Great Highway between Noriega and Santiago streets. It’s an easy ride from Cliff House or Golden Gate Park.
Convenient to Golden Gate Park, Avenue Cyclery, 756 Stanyan St. at Waller St., in the Haight (avenuecyclery.com; tel. 415/387-3155), rents bikes for $8 per hour or $30 per day. It’s open daily 10am to 6pm. For cruising Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge, check out one of the cycleries listed earlier. Hint: Reservations are usually not necessary, but most places offer discounts of up to 20% if you reserve online.
Boating At the Stow Lake Boathouse (stowlakeboathouse.com; tel. 415/386-2531) on Stow Lake, Golden Gate Park’s largest body of water, you can rent a boat by the hour and steer over to Strawberry Hill, a large, round island in the middle of the lake. There’s usually a line on weekends. The boathouse is open daily 10am to 6pm, weather permitting. Rowboats ($22/hour), pedal boats ($28/hour), and electric boats ($38/hour) are available.
City Stair Climbing Many health clubs have stair-climbing machines and step classes, but in San Francisco, you need only go outside. Several city stairways will give you not only a good workout, but seriously stunning neighborhood, city, and bay views. Check sisterbetty.org/stairways for a list of stairways—with photos—all over the city.
Golf San Francisco has a few beautiful golf courses. One of the most lavish is the Presidio Golf Course, 300 Finley Rd. at the Arguello Gate (presidiogolf.com; tel. 415/561-4661). Greens fees for non-residents range from $49 (5pm start, no cart) to $145 (weekend morning with a cart). There are also two decent municipal courses in town. Skirting the shores of Lake Merced, the 18-hole Harding Park, 99 Harding Rd. (at Skyline Blvd.; tpc.com/tpc-harding-park-golf; tel. 415/664-4690), charges greens fees of $127 and up for non-residents. Opened in 1925, and part of the PGA Tour’s Tournament Players Club Network, it was completely overhauled in 2002 and has been getting rave reviews ever since. The course is a 6,743-yard par 72. You can also play the easier Fleming 9 Course at the same location. San Francisco’s prettiest municipal course, the 18-hole Lincoln Park Golf Course, 300 34th Ave. (at Clement St.; lincolnparkgolfcourse.com; tel. 415/221-9911) is the oldest course in the city and one of the oldest in the West. The par-68 5,181-yard layout offers terrific views and fairways lined with Monterey cypress and pine trees, and the 17th hole has a glistening ocean view. It charges greens fees of $41 per person Monday through Friday before noon, $45 per person after noon and on weekends and holidays; it opens daily at 7am.
Parks In addition to Golden Gate Park and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco boasts more than 2,000 acres of parkland, most of which is perfect for picnicking or throwing around a Frisbee, as long as you don’t mind a bit of fog and wind.
Smaller city parks include Buena Vista Park (Haight St. btw. Baker and Central sts.), which affords fine views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the area around it and is also a favored lounging ground for gay trysts; Corona Heights Park (Roosevelt and Museum ways), which offers 360-degree views of the city and sunny hiking trails; and Sigmund Stern Grove (19th Ave. and Sloat Blvd.) in the Sunset District, which has a nice playground and is the site of a famous free summer music and arts festival (sterngrove.org). One of my personal favorites is Lincoln Park, a 270-acre green space on the northwestern side of the city at Clement Street and 34th Avenue. The Legion of Honor is here, as is a scenic 18-hole municipal golf course (see “Golf,” p. ###). But the best things about this park are the 200-foot cliffs that overlook the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay. To get to the park, take bus no. 38 from Union Square to 33rd and Geary streets, and then walk a few blocks.
Running When the annual Bay to Breakers Race ★ (baytobreakers.com; tel. 415/231-3130), a 7 1/2-mile run from downtown to Ocean Beach, is held every third Sunday in May, about 40,000 people register to race—and more than 150,000 watch them go. Why so many looky-loos? Every year, many participants come up with zany costumes, making the race part sporting event, part parade. The more serious San Francisco Marathon takes place annually at the end of July or first weekend in August. For more information, visit thesfmarathon.com or call tel. 888/958-6668. Great jogging paths include the entire expanse of Golden Gate Park, the shoreline along the Marina, and the Embarcadero.
Tennis The San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department maintains 132 courts throughout the city. Almost all are available free, on a first-come, first-served basis. For an interactive map with addresses, directions, parking, and restroom info, check out sfrecpark.org/recprogram/tennis-program. An additional 21 courts in Golden Gate Park cost $6 for 90 minutes, and require reservations on weekends. Check the park’s website for details on rules for reserving courts (golden-gate-park.com/tennis.html).
Walking & Hiking The Golden Gate National Recreation Area offers plenty of opportunities for getting your walk on. One incredible trek is along the Golden Gate Promenade, from Aquatic Park to the Golden Gate Bridge, a 3.5-mile paved trail along the northern edge of the Presidio out to Fort Point, passing the marina, Crissy Field’s restored wetlands, a small beach, and plenty of athletic locals. You can also hike the Coastal Trail all the way from the Fort Point area to the Cliff House. To pick up a map of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, stop by the park service headquarters at Fort Mason; enter on Franklin Street (tel. 415/561-4700). A number of PDF maps are available at nps.gov/goga/planyourvisit/maps.htm.
Farther south along Route 280, Sweeney Ridge affords sweeping views of the coastline from the many trails that crisscross its 1,000 acres. From here, the expedition led by Don Gaspar de Portolá first saw San Francisco Bay in 1769. It’s in Pacifica; take Sneath Lane off Route 35 (Skyline Blvd.) in San Bruno.
Although most people drive to this spectacular vantage point, a more rejuvenating way to experience Twin Peaks is to walk up from the back roads of the U.C. Medical Center (off Parnassus Ave.) or from either of the two roads that lead to the top (off Woodside or Clarendon aves.). The best time to trek is early morning, when the air is crisp and sightseers haven’t crowded the parking lot. Keep an eye out for cars, however, because there’s no real hiking trail. Walk beyond the lot up to the highest vantage point to really make the best of the view.
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