Have you visited an iconic site only to feel disappointed it was just like the pictures you’d already seen? You could have saved the time and just scrolled through Google Images on your phone!
My first visit to the Grand Canyon was like that, and it wasn’t until years later when we hiked to the river that I truly realized its splendor.
That’s why, when we visited San Francisco last month, we did a little urban hiking to make sure our experience was more than just a view of the Golden Gate Bridge or the Painted Ladies we could get from the opening credits of Full House.
Why San Francisco?
However, winter provides a unique challenge since I don’t intentionally visit snow. We also didn’t want to make the trip too far or too complicated because there was already enough busyness with the holidays, so my husband and I limited our search to nonstop flights from Phoenix to places we’d never visited together.
San Francisco had been on our short list for years, fit our requirements perfectly, and did not disappoint.
Even though SF wasn’t our hometown, we tried to explore it like it was, so learning the city’s public transportation system was step one. Instead of hailing a taxi, we got ourselves some Clipper Cards (now also accepted on the cable car) to take the BART and bus to our hotel. The Google Maps app shows routes for walking, driving, and public transportation–it even tells you how many minutes you’ll wait for the next bus!
Step two was an urban hike on a beautiful day. Sometimes the cat-herding mega-tours are the best, safest, or only way to see an attraction (here’s looking at you, Alcatraz!), but whenever possible we aimed for independent adventures.
If we had chosen to take a tour bus instead of hiking Telegraph Hill on our own power, we wouldn’t have realized that half of Coit Tower’s amazing views are thanks to the hill rather than the tower itself. We also would have missed the signs warning of coyotes in the middle of the city. Who knew?
We marched up and down the Lombard St. zig-zags and pondered what it would be like learning to drive there. By the end of the first day, we had our fill of the hills and were fairly adept at navigating to avoid unnecessary elevation changes.
Our wandering led us to vibrant murals, a fortune cookie shop where you can write your own fortune, the free cable car museum where you see for yourself how the ingenious system works underground (and how to deal with stretchy cables), and possibly the city’s best toasted subs, all of which we would have likely missed on a crowded tour. Instead, we had these places all to ourselves!
Perhaps our favorite find was Musée Mécanique (free admission with pay to play), an arcade with vintage games and dioramas plus an air-hockey table that lets you play forever.
As a reward for our hike, we treated ourselves to a Ghirardelli sundae… we were too excited for a ‘before’ photo.
The next day we rode a bus to Golden Gate Park and strolled through the botanical gardens. If we had driven or had to hop right back on a tour bus, we would have missed a lovely stroll that revealed a herd of bison, giant windmills, an inspiring AIDS memorial grove, and the mouth-watering Cinderella Bakery. Every corner had another surprise even nicer than the last.
Urban Hiking Tips
You’ve heard it before– the three things that matter are location, location, and location. When choosing a hotel or Airbnb, opt for one that makes your highest priorities walkable. We stayed near Lombard & Van Ness, which provided easy access to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39’s sea lions, the Lombard St. zig-zags, the ferry to Alcatraz, and Chinatown. And (of course) Ghirardelli.
San Francisco is a mix of New York, Austin, and Reno: an eclectic blend of fancy and kitschy vibes. Locals generally avoid eye contact with strangers and you’ll never hear a hearty Midwestern greeting, but you’ll find people friendly and helpful when you initiate contact with a smile. This guidebook was fantastic, though sometimes advice from locals is priceless.
Sturdy walking shoes are also essential. Even when the sun is merrily shining, rain could be only a few minutes away. Opt for soles with traction, even if they’re not the most stylish. Selfies only show your torso anyway, and being fashionable isn’t worth trading your vacation for a trip to the emergency department.
What are your urban hiking hacks and favorite short trips? Let me know in the comments below!
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