More Than A Photo: Urban Hiking In San Francisco

Urban Hiking

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?

I know, I know, a few weeks ago I wrote about being a hometown tourist, and while we are enjoying exploring AZ more, we also want to take advantage of our Southwest companion pass and free flights.

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.

Urban Hiking

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!

Urban HikingPerhaps 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

Urban HikingYou’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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Comments 16

    1. Post

      You’re right–Nashville is another great place to explore with eclectic shops, lots of green space, and a walkable downtown. Did you check out the Pancake Pantry? Mmm. Sweet potato pancakes with cinnamon cream!

  1. My “hack” is to carry a backpack with water and snacks (not so much a hack as it is just common sense). Otherwise you can end up spending a bunch of money.

    Seattle (where I’m from) is GREAT for urban hiking. It’s an smaller city with eclectic neighborhoods. And when you’ve had enough of the city you’re also right on top of the forest for some actual hiking.

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      Oh yes, a backpack is essential! My strategy is to carry a small purse so it can’t hold all of these things, and then my husband will carry a backpack. If I’m lucky, I can sometimes even sneak my purse into his pack too 😉

      Seattle sounds fantastic. We’ve been through it between national parks, but haven’t yet given it the attention it deserves. Thanks for the suggestion.

  2. I think in your next life you should be a travel agent! This morning I read your Grand Canyon blog and this one. You sure do know how to get the best from every trip. I am so glad that you have someone that is able to keep up with you.

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  3. I love this! We are looking to do trips just like this – and we haven’t been to San Francisco, Seattle or Nashville. We love to walk and see the sights as much as possible. I like Ty’s point about backpacks and snacks/water too. We’re all about comfort – not out to impress anyone. Thanks for the virtual tour!

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      Ooh- I lived in Nashville for three years so let me know and I’ll give you the low down before you go. They have an absolutely amazing 4th of July display if you can arrange to be there for it.
      Happy travels!

  4. I admit, we haven’t done a whole lot of urban hiking, but we did enjoy Santa Barbara on foot and also by surrey (which was entertaining in and of itself). There’s lots to explore along the pier and great views from up in the hills. We even visited the Chumash Painted Cave – a really great historic find.

    Your trip to SF sounds great! I love that you took the “hometown tourist” approach to your trip. But I really wish I could have seen the sundae before you ate it!

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  5. A few years back we did some in Charleston South Carolina. Gorgeous city. I second the call to bring your own water and snacks, unless part of your hike is to a specific eating location.

    1. Post

      So many good suggestions! We’ll have places to go for years and years!
      Snacks and drinks are essential. Even if you plan to eat out, they can help tide you over and keep hanger away.

  6. You were smart to plan your stay within walking distance of so many great attractions. One thing I always have with me on any walks or hikes is sunscreen since I burn very quickly. We did a lot of walking on our retirement kickoff road trip, especially when we were in Chattanooga. There was free bus service from a visitor center where we parked down to the river but it was more fun to walk.

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      Location is so important! I’m glad you enjoyed your walk around Chattanooga. With all of you talking about TN, it’s making me nostalgic, but for fall instead of winter 🙂
      Are you going to make your road trips an annual event?

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