A city like San Francisco has so many things to see, do, experience and love that really, it’s impossible to pick the best. With mountains on one side, water on the other, rolling hills, piers, marinas, museums, and countless culinary delights, you could spend a lifetime there getting to know every inch of the city and its surroundings. I became enamored with the Bay City just a few weeks ago on a vacation with my husband, when we decided that we’d hop a plane with no agenda, ask the locals where to go, and try to keep it “outdoorsy.” We love to hike, bike, boat, sightsee, and learn – so, obviously, this was a good city to try it all. While there are many, many equally-desirable places in addition to what are listed here, I’ll share five of our favorite outdoor things to do in San Francisco.
Golden Gate Bridge
Obviously, you knew The Bridge was going to be in here somewhere. But, while thousands of motorists cross this bridge every day, pedestrians get the best view. We opted to rent bikes, start down by Fisherman’s Wharf, follow a trail along the Presidio, up the hill and over the bridge into the bohemian seaside town of Sausalito, then ferry back over to ‘Frisco. In doing so, we got our exercise while getting a breathless (literally – it’s quite a climb!) view of the bridge, bay, Alcatraz and Angel Island, and the gorgeous city skyline.
If you’re afraid of heights, the Golden Gate Bridge can be a bit nerve-wracking. It sits up to 270.9 feet above the water at its highest point (now you know why we chose to bike, rather than walk: it’s faster!). However, we forgot about that as we got caught up in the absolute stunning splendor of the structure itself and the abundance of natural beauty around us.
gardens of Alcatraz
The Rock is known as the maximum security federal prison location that housed brutal criminals from 1934 until it closed in 1963. But, did you know that the tiny island also is home to beautiful gardens? It wasn’t always so. Before the latter half of the nineteenth century, the island was relatively barren, with only sporadic native grasses and shrubs. Through its inhabited history – first by military, then by a prison, then Native Americans, and more recently by the National Park System – Alcatraz was planted with drought-tolerant, easy-to-maintain vegetation to beautify an otherwise grim place. Guards, resident employees’ families, and even well-behaved inmates took part in cultivating and maintaining these beautiful additions.
Today, visitors can walk among the gardens that benefited from an extensive restoration project in 2003, marveling at the plants that survived the island’s abandoned years after the prison closed, and admiring the newly-introduced plants. The juxtaposition of ruins and stark cell blocks with pristine gardens and wildlife is a site worth exploring.
Hiking Muir Woods
There are certain places on Earth that make you feel small. Standing at the edge of land overlooking a vast ocean, lying in a field looking up at countless stars, and walking in the shadows of the world’s giant mountains are some of these places. I visited a spot near San Francisco that made me feel even smaller than my five-foot-two-inch frame usually feels. I hiked among the redwoods.
Just outside of the metropolis, a short drive away, towers Muir Woods. It’s easy to go off on one of the trails here and find yourself centuries behind the tourist-riddled areas surrounding the protected forest. If your legs and lungs are up for it, do one of the long hike routes up around the main trail to avoid crowds; however, if your mobility is limited, you have smaller children, or you have only a short amount of time, the main boardwalk still offers a fantastic experience. Don’t miss your chance to get up-close and personal with the tallest living things in the world, many of which are thousands of years old.
I would put “walking to Lombard Street and viewing from the bottom,” but first, that’s too long of a title, and second, we tried to walk to it, but those notoriously steep San Francisco hills got the better of us after our bike ride and hike. Just how steep? Lombard Street’s grade is 27 percent as a straight decent, but the curves have lessened the burden for cars to a (barely) manageable 14.3 percent grade. So instead, we walked halfway to Lombard Street, then went back to our hotel, got our car, and did the touristy drive down the “Crookedest Road in the World.” And it was very cool.
So, aside from the eight hair-pin turns down the impossibly steep, one-block stretch between Hyde and Leavenworth, what’s so cool about it? The Victorian mansions lining either side are definitely worth looking at, but the view from the top of the hill down to the bay is pretty spectacular. As a passenger in the car (you can’t walk down the curving street because of safety issues, but you can take steps straight down the sides), I was able to fully appreciate the lovely gardens as they slowly crept by – my husband, on the other hand, white-knuckled the steering wheel and tried to keep his eyes on the road. Glancing back up the street from the bottom is a postcard-perfect photo op.
Eating at Pier 39
If you don’t like crowds, steer clear of this tourist magnet during peak travel season. But if you can stand a little shoulder-rubbing with fellow holidaymakers, head over to Pier 39’s double-decker boardwalk for some family fun and panoramic views. Reminiscent of a mini-amusement park, Pier 39 offers shops of all kinds, restaurants (from white-tablecloth to corndog stands), bars, street performers, an aquarium, gardens, wildlife, and even a merry-go-round. But my favorite part was trying out all the treats and eats with a view.
With a few hours to kill, you can take your time sampling decadent chocolate, sipping a glass of Cabernet, indulging in a sushi roll, and popping into the candy shop for your choice of sweets. For dinner, there are a number of restaurants with window-walls serving seafood and local veggies overlooking the likes of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, or a marina. To polish off the night, end by munching on a handmade crepe while checking out the famous, comical sea lions at K-Dock. If you’re there before August 31, make sure to cast your vote for your favorite flower at the American Garden Award display garden (or, you can do so online).