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Russian Hill & Fort Mason: Hike to Divine Views

Start
: Hyde and Union streets
 
Public Transportation: Bus no.45 or 41, or Powell-Hyde cable car

Finish: Fort Mason Center

Time: 1 1/2 to 2 hours

Best Times: Friday afternoons for Off the Grid, Sunday mornings for Farmers’ Market, or any time of day

Worst Times: Nighttime

Hills That Could Kill: While sometimes quite steep, this route is mostly downhill. Hyde Street has a slight incline, and you’ll have quite a hike if you decide to go down and back up Lombard Street.

If you haven’t already guessed, this tour is all about spectacular views. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and an extra layer—you’re likely to experience sun and milder temperatures on Russian Hill, followed by chilly wind at Fort Mason. One of the more posh neighborhoods in the city, this tree-lined stretch of Hyde Street is a charming thoroughfare with a cable car line and classic Victorian architecture. From there, the tour winds through lesser-known city parks and gardens to historic Fort Mason. Words can’t quite describe how stunning this walk is, but trust me, it’s all that and more. 

1. Swenson’s Ice Cream Shop

Earle Swenson opened this shop in 1948 after learning to make ice cream while serving in the U.S. Navy. He started with vanilla, his favorite flavor, and went on to develop more than 150 varieties, including Turkish Coffee, which is still available today. Over the years, the Swenson’s franchise grew worldwide, and you can now get a “Gold Rush” sundae in a dozen countries, including Saudi Arabia and Taiwan, but this quaint shop is the original and still a local favorite. Grab a cone for the road!

Continue north up Hyde Street to Lombard Street. (As you reach the intersection of Hyde and Greenwich streets, on clear days you’ll get a spectacular view of Alcatraz.)

2. Lombard Street

Built in 1922 to ease the effects of the steep 27% grade, this curvy one-way street lined with elegant homes is a true San Francisco icon. While you’ll see carloads of people queued up to slowly maneuver down the twists and turns at the recommended speed limit of 5mph, you’ll get a much better view (and many more photo ops) on foot. You may have heard this block of Lombard called “the crookedest street in the world,” but that isn’t exactly accurate—the less picturesque Vermont Street in the Potrero Hill neighborhood boasts an even curvier block. From the top of Lombard, you’ll get an excellent view of Coit Tower rising above Telegraph Hill.

If you’ve made the descent down the steepest part of Lombard Street, make the climb back up. Either way, from the top, head west on Lombard Street 1 block to Larkin Street, where you’ll find the:

3. Alice Marble & George Sterling Park

This small park at the corner of Lombard and Larkin streets is named for George Sterling, the unofficial poet laureate of San Francisco and an instrumental figure in establishing the city’s bohemian culture in the early 20th century. According to California historian Kevin Starr, Sterling’s friends referred to him as the “King of Bohemia,” and his lifestyle at the turn of the century put the free-loving antics of the 1960s to shame. At the entrance, a plaque commemorates one of the many poems he wrote about the “cool, grey city of love.” If you’re up for another climb, head up the park steps, where you’ll find benches and spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Just above are the Alice Marble Tennis and Basketball Courts, where locals play ball while trying not to get distracted by the incredible 360-degree views.

Head northeast on Larkin Street. At Francisco Street, keep walking straight down the hill where, halfway down, you’ll find a staircase. Take the stairs down to Bay Street. On the way down, notice Aquatic Park and Fisherman’s Wharf to your right and Ghirardelli Square straight in front. Turn left on Bay Street, crossing Van Ness Avenue, and continue on to the intersection of Bay and Franklin streets, where you’ll find the main entrance to:

4. Fort Mason

One of the oldest military posts in San Francisco and a National Historic Landmark since 1985, Fort Mason was first called Point San Jose by the U.S. Army when they established the area as a military reservation in 1851. With the population explosion and housing shortage created by the Gold Rush, local real-estate developers swooped in and built private homes once they noticed that the military wasn’t occupying the land. For roughly a decade, the area became known as “Black Point” and was home to a group of wealthy civilians, many of them committed members of the anti-slavery movement. When the Civil War began, the army finally evicted the residents, moved into their homes, and reestablished the area as Point San Jose. It wasn’t until 1882 that the post was dubbed Fort Mason, in honor of Colonel Richard Barnes Mason, the second military governor of California. If you want to learn more about the fort’s history, check out the many detailed signs and maps for more historical highlights, or join one of the tours offered by San Francisco City Guides. 

Walk straight into Fort Mason along Franklin Street. Just past the chapel, on your right you’ll see:

5. McDowell Hall

Built in 1877 for General Irvin McDowell, the building remained a general’s residence until 1906 when, having survived the earthquake fully intact, it became the army’s emergency relief headquarters literally overnight. Today the building is a favorite location for weddings, thanks to unobstructed views of the bay.

Continue north along Franklin Street. You’ll notice private residences with some of the best real estate in the country. Along the left, the building with the long porch is the site of Fort Mason’s first hospital. Continue straight onto the path to:

6. Black Point

This sweet spot is right on the edge of the bluff, jutting out over the bay. On a clear day, Alcatraz will seem close enough to touch. This is a great place to watch the sailboats while enjoying a picnic among fragrant bay trees. The lone cannon perched on the western side of the park was once one of many, strategically placed to protect against an attack from Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. The guns never saw any action.

Head back up the path to Franklin Street, where it hits Funston Road. Turn right onto Funston, then left on Pope Road. Follow Pope and on your left you’ll see the:

7. Community Garden

Step through the gates of this delightful and surprisingly large community garden and you’ll see why there’s an 8-year waiting list! Established in 1975, the garden was initially designed to include plots for students of nearby Galileo High School in addition to those set up for community members. Today there are 125 plots where members grow mostly organic vegetables, flowers, and herbs (pesticide use is forbidden).

Head over to the Great Meadow (with five palm trees in the middle) and down the path to the junction of Laguna Street and Marina Boulevard to arrive at: 

8. Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture

The waterfront section of this 13-acre former military outpost offers plenty to do and see. Depending on your energy level after your hike, you can peruse the stock at Readers Bookstore (open daily, 9:30am–5:30pm), shop for art supplies in every color imaginable at Flax Art & Design (open daily, 10am–6pm) or visit the SFMOMA Artists Gallery (open Monday–Friday, 10am–5pm) to see what local artists are creating these days. You can also rest your feet and grab a coffee or an excellent artisanal cocktail (read the cocktail menu, even if you don’t order one) at The Interval (open daily, 10am–midnight), try a vegetarian lunch at the excellent Greens restaurant, or see if you can snag a ticket to a weekend show at BATS Improv Theater. Depending on what time of year you visit, you may also stumble upon annual art and maker fairs, which require you to pay admission but are completely worth the expense. 

If you happen to be at Fort Mason on a Friday, stick around to graze on the city’s culinary greatness at:

9. Off the Grid

Off the Grid is the city’s roaming epicurean extravaganza, not to mention one heck of a good time. Every Friday, from 5 to 10pm (Mar–Oct), food trucks set up shop in the Fort Mason Center parking lot. The trucks converge to create a unique night market, featuring inventive cuisine, live music, and arts and crafts. If you’ve yet to catch up with the food-truck craze, this is the way to do it; some of the city’s best restaurants and most popular food movements (like Mexican-Indian fusion) started here. The same location sees a lively farmers’ market every Sunday (9:30am–1pm), where you can start your day the San Francisco way with fresh coffee, produce, and local goods from nearby farms.

From here you can continue along the shoreline to pass through the beautiful Marina Green and restored waterfront marshlands that lead to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, walk up to Chestnut Street for some shopping and dining, or head to your next adventure.
 

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.