(Chuck Clarino for the Boston Globe)

San Francisco on foot, uphill -- and an eyeful

Email|Print| Text size + By Yvonne Daley
Globe Correspondent / December 17, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO -- From the top of Sanchez Stairway, we looked out onto a geometric tapestry of roofs, treetops, and streets in both symmetric al and oddly shaped segments, punctuated here and there by church spires.

We observed the clever ways in which San Franciscans have made their homes and gardens conform to the contours of the land. Climbing even higher, we were entertained by the intimacy of the neighborhoods and by the dramatic views across the city to San Francisco Bay.

The fog had lifted earlier in the morning, so we were in full sunlight as we reacquainted ourselves with one of our favorite stairway walks in one of our favorite cities. The hour long hike in the Dolores Heights section begins at 19th and Sanchez streets, follows pedestrian staircases and walkways up heart-thumping inclines, ambles past Art Deco, Victorian, and Queen Anne-style homes, wraps around impressive rock outcroppings and pleasant cul-de-sacs before descending to Castro Street.

Everywhere, nature and man have decorated nearly every inch of open ground: riotous Pride of Madeira plants and crimson bougainvillea in one yard, stately globes of agapanthus behind manicured hedges of rosemary in another. It's not just the beauty and color of the flowers, but the combination of smells along with the antics of Anna's hummingbirds flitting about that add to the full pleasure of the scene.

Tourists flock to Fisherman's Wharf at Pier 39, but that busy area hardly gives visitors a sense of what this city is all about. The best way to see San Francisco is on foot, and with 42 hills, many of them connected through ingenious stairways like those found in Dolores Heights, you can get a workout taking it all in. The city has more than 350 stairways that link diverse neighborhoods and provide the structure for much more inspiring exercise than any health club could offer.

I'm often with those tourists on the F train s -- refurbished antique trolleys from around the world, including one from Venice shaped like an open gondola -- that make their way down Market Street to the Embarcadero and Pier 39. But I get off by Pier 23 near the Fog City Diner and head away from the waterfront toward the famous Greenwich Stairway, which heads uphill toward the also famous Coit Tower.

Crossing Sansome and Montgomery, there's a public water hydrant and faucet off- limits to dogs "except teacup poodles." Then come the Filbert Steps.

The Filbert Steps and their gardens are dedicated to Grace Marchant, who turned an old dumping ground into a city landmark that she tended for 30 years before her death in 1982 at age 96. Along the climb, you have a most intimate view into people's homes and their terraced gardens, all clinging to the steep rise. Trumpet-shaped datura blossoms perfume the air next to bottlebrush trees and magnolias. Nasturtiums know no bounds as they cascade down the hills. And then there are the roses, blooming basically year round high above the bay.

Landings along the staircases provide opportunities for catching your breath as you take in the sweeping vistas of the bay dotted with sailboats. The racket you might hear comes from the infamous parrots of Telegraph Hill -- actually, cherry-headed conures -- that feed on loquat fruit and juniper berries growing here.

You can't miss Coit Tower, shaped like a giant spark plug above North Beach. Inside the tower, murals from the 1930s, many of them done by Spanish artist Jose Moya del Piño, decorate the walls. Then you can either head down Telegraph Hill to North Beach or head toward Bay Street. That route provides panoramic views of Fisherman's Wharf and Marin County to the north.

I usually take the North Beach route, wending downhill to Washington Square, where you can watch ancient Chinese practitioners of tai chi while yuppies walk their dogs and couples walk hand -in-hand. This is the perfect time for a glass of wine or a cup of cappuccino and a meatball sandwich at Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store and Café , located directly across from Washington Square Park, or to wander down Columbus Avenue to one of dozens of Italian restaurants.

My favorite is Calzone's, which serves popcorn calamari, Italian pot stickers, and a full line of ethnic goodies. From here, I normally make my way to City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's oasis of world literature. If you're still up for a walk, it's easy enough to continue on to Chinatown from here. Otherwise, you can catch a MUNI bus out front of City Lights back to Market Street.

I was introduced to San Francisco's staircase walks through Adah Bakalinsky's "Stairway Walks in San Francisco," now in its 20th anniversary edition. Not only is it a valuable resource for planning a staircase walk, but also the book is full of historical, architectural, literary, geological, and botanical notations that make the walks even more interesting.

Thanks to Bakalinsky, I found myself rambling along Macondray Lane, a pedestrian path reminiscent of 19th-century Europe that is one of the settings in Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City " (Harper Perennial, 1989). The lane is bordered by small condos, gardens, and goldfish ponds.

Bakalinsky's walk begins at Filbert and Polk, directs the walker along the little-known Havens Stairway, and up to Russian Hill's Vallejo Street Crest District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Several more stairways lead past architectural treasures, benches for resting, and more wonderful gardens, to the Ina Donna Coolbrith Park and past an 1857 octagonal house.

Nearly every San Francisco neighborhood contains stairway walks, many of which began as shortcuts between neighborhoods and have evolved over the decades from paths better suited to goats to a variety of passageways made of wood, concrete, brick, and other materials.

Some are widely used while others provide secret sanctuaries through alleys, up hills, and around precipices. Best of all, the adventure is free.

Contact Yvonne Daley, a freelance writer in Vermont and California, at

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