The air was crisp and the sunshine glorious in Justin Herman Plaza. The Ferry Building towered above the square buzzing with street vendors and tourists like a benevolent giant, and we were getting ready to set out on our bike ride around the city.
I have always loved the light in San Francisco. On that March day, the city was shining brighter than a diamond – the sun’s rays reflecting on the high-rises of the Financial District and on the choppy waters of the Bay.
I have got to be honest… at first, I was a bit reluctant at the idea of riding a bike in San Francisco: the Californian city is known for the steepness of its hills, which had me think less of “relaxed pedaling” and more of how out of shape I was getting out of winter.
As it turns out, I had no reason to worry. Somehow surprisingly (probably only to me, as surely the eco-conscious, beard-sporting and quinoa-eating San Franciscans expect no less of their home), navigating the city’s hills was remarkably easy.
We went on a circular ride roughly following the perimeter of the peninsula SF lies on, which allowed us to cut off the steepest hills of the city center – Nob Hill, Telegraph Hill and Russian Hill – with their 30%+ gradient. So, aside from a sore bum and a pretty terrible sunburn (who knew the sun in California would be so strong in a 15° Celsius temperature!), I got out of biking San Francisco largely unscathed.
We had started off by biking down The Embarcadero – on our right, piers went by one after the other, while colorful streetcars clattered by on our left.
Minutes after we had begun pedaling, we stopped at Pier 39. I normally beware of tourist traps, but this pier has unrivalled views of Alcatraz – the eerie island in the middle of the bay that housed the world’s most famous penitentiary – and dozens of smelly sea lions basking in the sun to the delight of visitors. If you’d rather avoid that murderous feeling you get when you are surrounded by hordes of tourists, however, I suggest you ride past the Fisherman’s Wharf down Jefferson Street, until you reach Ghirardelli Square – home to the HQ of one of the planet’s most celebrated chocolate makers. From there, you can walk or ride to the end of the Aquatic Park Pier for awesome views of the bay and of the city’s skyline (to this day, the Transamerica Pyramid is one of my favorite skyscrapers on the globe).
From Ghirardelli Square, road works forced us to dismount and carry our bikes up a couple of steep flights of stairs to reach Van Ness Avenue. Before we knew it, we were back on the saddle, riding on the meadows near Fort Mason. In the distance, we spotted the distinctive and iconic silhouette of the Golden Gate Bridge, a bunch of grey clouds hovering above its majestic red towers.
Tourists often forget that San Francisco is more than just cable cars, Chinese food and the flowerbeds of Lombard Street. The city is pure heaven for outdoors lovers, and the Presidio – the former military outpost, built by the Spanish in 1776, which lies at the top northwestern corner of the San Francisco peninsula, between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean – is perhaps the best example of how ubiquitous nature actually is in Fog City (although, luckily, the infamous fog was not around that day).
At one point (after taking at least 300 pictures of the bridge) we found ourselves in a forest of redwoods, crisscrossed by a winding road that led us to the top of the Presidio. Had it not been for the city peeking through the trees from time to time, I could have sworn we had gotten lost in the middle of Yosemite National Park (actually, we kind of were, because the Presidio is officially part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area).
Reaching to top of the Presidio was by far the most strenuous part of the ride –the roads were steep and the sunshine unforgiving – but once we reached the upper stretch of Lincoln Boulevard things changed immediately: we stopped pedaling as gravity took over, dragging us down the boulevard at exhilarating speed towards Richmond. The city couldn’t have looked more different around here than it does a few miles to the east: the streets are quiet and the houses are low and colorful.
A few more ups and downs on 24th Avenue and we arrived in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco’s response to New York’s Central Park (but 20% bigger). We biked through the park looking for a place to eat (we felt we had burned more calories than an Olympic long-distance runner), with no luck. Our reward came in the form of delicious Mexican food at Street Taco, on free-spirited and lively Haight Street – which is lined with restaurants, bars and vintage shops. We spent nearly an hour at Amoeba, a massive record store built in a former bowling alley – I left $60 lighter but four Madonna vinyl records richer.
A few blocks away from Haight-Ashbury is Alamo Square, with the popular Painted Ladies, the six Victorian houses that have made their way into the homes of millions through the Full House TV show. The photo op is even greater because, behind the houses, the skyline of the Financial District is clearly visible.
We then spent an hour or so checking out the shops on Castro Street (no trip to San Francisco, especially one with your partner, would be complete without the cradle of the gay rights movement in America) and taking in the atmosphere of this great neighborhood. Plus, there is something empowering about standing by the gigantic rainbow flag waving in the Pacific breeze at the top of the Castro. Watch Milk to get an idea of what the district was like in the 1970s.
It was almost time to return our bikes, and getting back to Ferry Building from the Castro couldn’t have been easier… we just had to ride a final 3.6 miles down Market Street, one of San Francisco’s most important streets, using the wide bike lanes provided.
Almost 20 miles later, we had completed our bike tour of San Francisco.
Exploring the city by bike gave us a completely different feel for it. It showed us how beautiful its parks are, how laid-back and kind its residents are, and how “European” the city feels. More than anything else, it reinforced my belief that San Francisco is one of the best cities in the world.
MY TIPS FOR SIGHTSEEING ON A BIKE IN SF
- Get a good map, especially for the Presidio
- Always wear sunblock
- Bring a wind jacket
- Keep your camera handy – you will need it often
- Make sure your brakes work well if you are planning on riding down the steepest streets!