Explore Telegraph Hill's beautiful stairway streets, lush gardens, postcard views, and get your exercise for the day! This is a great walk to talk out of town visitors on, but is also great for locals! The gardens create a sense of peace and serenity. The views of the Bay, the FiDi and Coit Tower help even the most jaded San Franciscan remember the magic they fell in love with.
I suggest venturing up one and down another for a full loop, but you can also use them and Coit Tower as a midway point on a journey from The Embarcadero to North Beach. Either way, be prepared for a lot of stairs, some sweat, and a pounding heart. These of course aren't the only landscaped stairway streets in San Francisco, but are some of the most easily accessible and are always worth the trek.
The staircase streets are San Francisco's answer to hills vs. the grid. Where the base of the Filbert Street steps is now was formerly a rock quarry, and the hill was a working-class slum complete with small, wooden shacks and dirt tracks. The slope was a steep jumble of sandy soil, rocks, grasses and a few trees. There were even goats roaming around well into the 1940s.
In the 1930s, Grace Marchant (who would later be credited with creating the gardens, and a former Hollywood stunt-woman and WWII welder), moved into one of the shacks with her daughter, Valleta, and son-in-law Desmond Heslet. Valleta had fallen in love with the cottage, and begged Desmond to buy it. Not far down the Greenwich Street Steps was a jumble of connected cottages that had been sub-divided into rented rooms barely large enough for a bed and dresser. Valleta and Desmond leased the long, ramshackle building, and after promising not to evict any of the tenants, slowly began to haphazardly renovate it. The cottages had all been build without permits, and with an array of found building materials. Their renovation continued the tradition, and Desmond dubbed the practice "bootleg architecture." As the units were renovated and expanded, a cast of artists, musicians, and bohemians moved in and the property became known as The Compound.
During World War II, and after, The Compound lost some of its wildness, but not its spirit. In 1948, Grace Merchant moved into an apartment on the Filbert Steps, and began to work on the expansive gardens you can still see today. Greenwich and Filbert are both steep, and lined with old cottages. When Grace moved in, both were covered in garbage, and the unbuildable lots were overgrown. Grace obtained permission from The City, cleared the garbage and weeds, and slowly began a garden. While Grace worked on her garden, Valleta began her own on the Filbert Street Steps.
The gardens grew over time, and with plants and supplies found wherever they could. They inspired other residents below and above them on the steps, and even on some of the side lanes to create their own little jungles that have since morphed into a seamless escape complete with winding pathways and even honey bees. Both gardens are romantic, overgrown and lush. They offer people and wildlife an oasis less than 1/2 mile from the Financial District.
From Embarcadero : Turn west, away from the Bay, on Green, Greenwich or Filbert Streets. If you take Green, you'll find a clear view up the rocky face of the hill, and a plaque outside the building television was invented at. You'll need to head north on Sansome a block, past more unbuildable rocky outcroppings to get to the base of the Filbert Steps. Greenwich is one more block north. Take a deep breath, and take either set of stair up. There are plenty of little side streets to explore, flowers in bloom, and unique homes. Don't forget to turn around and take in the view of the Bay! Try to spot The Compound among the other 19th century cottages.
From North Beach : Head up Lombard, Greenwich, Filbert, Union, Green, or Vallejo Streets. If you're on Union or Green, you'll want to head north (to the left and toward Coit Tower) when you reach the top of the hill at Montgomery. If you're on Vallejo, there is another small, beautifully landscaped stairway down to Montgomery. There are great views around here towards Downtown and the Bay Bridge. Montgomery dead ends at Julius Castle, and both the Filbert and Greenwich Steps are accessible from it. Head up the stairs to check out Coit Tower, or down towards the Embarcadero. I like to wander around, see what's blooming, and explore the small pathways. Be respectful of no trespassing signs, and remember people live here. Don't be loud, don't leave the path, and definitely DO NOT litter!
From Downtown/FiDi : I like to come up here to clear my head, get some exercise, and unplug at lunch time. I work in the Transamerica Pyramid, so the walk is pretty close. Walk up Montgomery, all the way to Julius Castle, and then follow the above directions from North Beach. Bring some water and give yourself plenty of time.
Where's your favorite place to explore in San Francisco? Let me know--I'm always up for new adventures!