As any budget-conscious traveler knows, some of the best things to do in a new place are free -- and a nice view is certainly at the top of the list! Since San Francisco is a city of hills, there are great views to be found everywhere, especially at the top of some 300+ public stairways. For the vista-hungry spectator who isn't afraid of an incline, this list of San Francisco's most scenic stairways will guide you on an epic adventure.
Stairways were first built in San Francisco to help combat the complex transportation problem -- as the city grew up and around several steep hills, building paved streets for people and horse-drawn carriages was a growing challenge. Cable cars eventually replaced horses on the city's steepest streets, and stairways were constructed for pedestrian access.
Such is the proliferation of stairways in this town that SF Weekly once created a "best of" award for the most scenic stairs! The winner of that honor was the Harry Street Stairs (or the Laidley Street Stairs, depending on who you ask). These stairs run up Harry Street between Laidley and Beacon streets in a region that borders the Noe Valley and Glen Park neighborhoods. A sweeping, panoramic view of San Francisco is the reward for the 250-step climb.
The popular travel idiom "off the beaten path" becomes literal when exploring the area between the Castro and the Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods, where two flights of stairs offer a quieter, less-populated alternative to the super-steep streets. Take the Vulcan Steps, which run between Ord and Levant streets, above the Castro, and enjoy the wild, jungle-like shrubbery and beautiful homes that border these stairs. The Saturn Street Stairs, which connect Saturn and Ord streets, are just a half-block from the Vulcan Steps and offer a similar experience -- residents tend to the lovely gardens on either side, and the views are picturesque.
In the northern part of town, the Lyon Street Steps that hug the edge of the Presidio function as both an outdoor gymnasium for the fitness-conscious residents and an alternative route for pedestrians who don't want to schlep up some of the steepest streets in the city. The amazing view of San Francisco Bay and the fresh smell of eucalyptus is more than enough incentive to brave the incline.
Though all of these stairways are special in their own way, the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps in the Inner Sunset neighborhood shine brightest -- due to their colorful mosaic tiles which were handmade by over 300 volunteers. A hidden gem among San Francisco's public art exhibits, these steps were inspired by the famous Santa Teresa Steps in Rio de Janeiro. Though beautiful, the view at the top of the 163 steps isn't the only reason to make the trip out to the Sunset -- these stairs are truly magnificent and worth a trip in and of themselves.
The Pemberton Stairway, on the north side of Twin Peaks, begins on Clayton Street in Cole Valley and ends at Crown Terrace. A tree-lined climb up to a shaded terrace with a gorgeous view is not a bad way to end an afternoon exploring Cole Valley, a small neighborhood to the southwest of Haight-Ashbury.
In that same part of town, you'll find the Farnsworth Stairs and Tank Hill, the underrated little cousin of Twin Peaks. At the top of this hill, on a very clear day, the views extend from Mount Tam in the north to Mount Diablo in the east.
And there you have it -- seven stairways that offer the best free views anywhere in San Francisco. Though man cannot suffice on views alone, a feast for the eyes is as important as any meal, especially while traveling.
Check out this map of the stairways mentioned in this article and go on your own view-finding adventure.
Stay at one of our hostels in San Francisco, and find a magic stairway to climb!