San Francisco Visitors Guide: A 90-Minute Walk on Russian Hill
Many visitors to Napa Valley combine their trip with a stay in San Francisco. To help you in planning your visit, we have included this San Francisco Visitors Guide. After several days of visiting San Francisco, Golden Haven Hot Spring will be your perfect base for exploring the Napa Valley Wine Country.
A hilltop warren of hidden parks and gardens and a precious trove of pre-earthquake, Italianate, and Spanish Mission Revival architecture are the rewards for this slow scramble along the steep stairways and leafy alleyways of Russian Hill. Intrepid explorers will encounter few cars and fewer people as they wander a magical aerie above the bay.
Bring along a map to locate carefully preserved buildings from the city’s lively and notorious past, and take time to enjoy the dazzling views, the birdsong and seasonal displays of flora. Often above the fog line, luxuriant hillside gardens are the pride of neighborhood. At the end of your walk, descend to a parade of European-style cafes and capricious boutiques at the foot of the hill.
Start at Jones and Vallejo Streets on the whimsical, Beaux-Arts balustrade, designed in 1915 by Willis Polk, one of the seminal architects of post-1906 earthquake reconstruction. Before ascending the stairway, notice the Spanish-tile-roofed, Mission Revival-style houses, with their fanciful balconies and arched windows, on either side; then, take the stairs and walk into the short alleyway of Russian Hill Place to see the backs of those homes and their gardens. #6 is a turn-of-the-century “Bay Area Tradition-style house.
A variety of homes and apartments built between 1888 and the 1940s line Vallejo Street. Turn right into short Florence Street and, at the end, look across the rooftops to Nob Hill. Once called Snob Hill, it is sprinkled with 19th-century mansions and grand hotels––for the towers of Grace Cathedral. At #40 Florence, one of the oldest houses on the hill, built in 1850, is hidden within additions from later decades. Peek through the fence to see a eight-foot-tall rabbit, and, on the garage roof, a contemporary, mobile sculpture. Note the treasury of Pueblo-Mission Revival style homes along this street.
The gems of Russian Hill are two Bay Area Tradition-style, steep-roofed, gabled houses at #1013-1019 Vallejo. Heralding a move away from the gingerbread-laden architecture of the Victorian era, Polk designed a home in 1892 for a wealthy client who hosted, among others, Robert Louis Stevenson and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Polk’s own house next door is a shingle-sided, six-story arrangement reminiscent of the English Arts and Crafts movement.
After the earthquake that destroyed much of the city, Polk was appointed supervising architect of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair which celebrated the building of the Panama Canal and the rebuilding of San Francisco. Below his house, he created the zigzagging, Beaux Arts-style Vallejo Street steps, known as “the ramps.” All along the rambling, three-part stairway are overflowing gardens––blue hydrangeas, pink azaleas, palms, magnolias and over-arching pines and cypress. Fortunately, there is a bench for tuckered hill-climbers.
A Park, a Woodsy Lane
At the bottom of the steps at Taylor and Vallejo, step across the street to take in the sun at tiny Ina Coolbrith Park. From here you can see islands in the bay, North Beach, the Bay Bridge and the lower Financial District. On the Fourth of July, join locals on the patch of grass to watch the fireworks.
Proceed north a block to woodsy Macondray Lane, accessed by a creaky wooden stairway winding through dense vegetation. Along the two-block, pedestrian-only pathway are shingled Edwardian cottages, ballast stones from sailing ships, and rustic country houses surrounded by flower gardens. The lane is the site of Barbary Lane in the “Tales of the City” television series. At #5-17, rococo plaster garlands drape over the doorways of a rare earthquake survivor.
Heading west on Green Street, the 1000 block between Jones and Leavenworth is sometimes called “the Paris Block,” in reference to the apartment house at #1050, reminiscent of those in Paris. A dozen buildings on the block are on the National Register of Historic Places, including the last firehouse built for horse-drawn vehicles, and, across the street, the flamboyant 1857 Freusier Octagon House, complete with mansard roof and cupola.
Shops and Eateries
Continue on Green to Hyde Street where cafes and shops cluster between Jackson and Union. Francophiles meet at the Hyde Street Bistro and at several French-influenced boutiques. Locals shop in the Brown Dirt Cowboy, a gardening and gourmet cooking outfitter and at Brownie's Hardware, a family-owned emporium for more than thirty years. Among several charming antiques shop, La Tulipe Noire is packed with French antiques and curiosities.
Tips for Walkers
Starting point: the stone stairway at Jones and Vallejo Streets.
Length: 3/4 mile
Getting there: take the Hyde-Powell cable car or the 45 MUNI line to Vallejo Street and walk east two blocks.
Stopping-off points: On Hyde Street, Frascati (p. 0) caters to neighborhood regulars with a pan-European menu of paella, cassoulet and coq au vin in an intimate setting. The young and the hip hang out on leather love seats in the window of Bacchus Wine & Sake Bar (p. 0).
Hyde Street Bistro: 1521 Hyde Street, (415) 292-4415.
Frascati 1901 Hyde Street, (415) 928-1406.
Bacchus Wine & Sake Bar 1954 Hyde Street, (415) 928-2633.
|The article on this page is adapted from guidebooks written by Karen Misuraca, the author of Our San Francisco, Fun With the Family in Northern California, and other travel books. Available for purchase on Amazon.|