San Francisco is nature’s city and thanks to the year-round mild weather, the residents are all about soaking up the great outdoors. Here are a few ways to enjoy the city’s natural beauty.
Beaches -- Most days it’s too chilly to hang out at the beach, but when the fog evaporates and the wind dies down, locals love to hit the sands. On any truly hot day, thousands flock to the beach to worship the sun, build sand castles, and throw a ball around. Without a wet suit, swimming is a fiercely cold endeavor and is not recommended. In any case, dip at your own risk—there are no lifeguards on duty and San Francisco’s waters are cold and have strong undertows. On the South Bay, Baker Beach is ideal for picnicking, sunning, walking, or fishing against the backdrop of the Golden Gate (most fisherman do catch and release here, due to pollution in the Bay). Ocean Beach, at the end of Golden Gate Park, on the westernmost side of the city, is San Francisco’s largest beach—4 miles long. Just offshore, at the northern end of the beach, in front of Cliff House, are the jagged Seal Rocks, inhabited by various shorebirds and a large colony of barking sea lions (bring binoculars for a close-up view). To the left, Kelly’s Cove is one of the more challenging surf spots in town. Ocean Beach is ideal for strolling or sunning, but don’t swim here—tides are tricky, and each year bathers drown in the rough surf.
Stop by Ocean Beach bus terminal at the corner of Cabrillo and La Playa streets to learn about San Francisco’s history in local artist Ray Beldner’s whimsically historical sculpture garden. Then hike up the hill to explore Cliff House and the ruins of the Sutro Baths. These baths, once able to accommodate 24,000 bathers, were lost to fire in 1966.
Biking -- The San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department maintains two city-designated bike routes. One winds 7 1/2 miles through Golden Gate Park to Lake Merced; the other traverses the city, starting in the south, and continues over the Golden Gate Bridge. These routes, however, are not just for bicyclists, who must exercise caution to avoid crashing into pedestrians. A bike map is available from the San Francisco Visitor Information Center, at Powell and Mason streets, for $3, and from bicycle shops all around town.
Ocean Beach has a public walk- and bikeway that stretches along 5 waterfront blocks of the Great Highway between Noriega and Santiago streets. It’s an easy ride from Cliff House or Golden Gate Park.
Avenue Cyclery, 756 Stanyan St., at Waller Street, in the Haight (tel. 415/387-3155; www.avenuecyclery.com), rents bikes for $30 per day. It’s open daily 10am to 6pm.For cruising Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge, your best bet is Blazing Saddles (tel. 415/202-8888; www.blazingsaddles.com), which has five locations around Fisherman’s Wharf. Bike rentals start at $32 per day, and include maps, locks, and helmets; tandem bikes are available as well. They even have electric bikes if you don’t have the energy to pedal but want to say you went biking. Hint: Reservations are not necessary, but if you reserve online you get a 10% discount.
Boating -- At the Golden Gate Park Boathouse (tel. 415/386-2531; www.stowlakeboathouse.com) on Stow Lake, the park’s largest body of water, you can rent a boat by the hour and steer over to Strawberry Hill, a large, round island in the middle of the lake, for lunch. There’s usually a line on weekends. The boathouse is open Monday to Friday 10am to 7pm, and weekends 9am to 7pm, weather permitting. Rowboats ($21.50/hour), pedal boats ($27/hour), and electric boats ($37/hour) are available with a $5 deposit.
City Stair Climbing -- Many health clubs have stair-climbing machines and step classes, but in San Francisco, you need only go outside. Several city stair climbs will give you not only a good workout, but seriously stunning neighborhood, city, and bay views as well. Click here for a map of stairways—with descriptions—in locations all over the city.
Golf -- San Francisco has a few beautiful golf courses. One of the most lavish is the Presidio Golf Course, 300 Finley Rd. at the Arguello Gate (tel. 415/561-4653; www.presidiogolf.com). Greens fees range from $49 (5pm start, no cart) to $145 (weekend morning with a cart) for non-residents. There are also two decent municipal courses in town. The 18-hole Harding Park, 99 Harding Rd. (at Skyline Blvd.; tel. 415/664-4690; www.tpc.com/tpc-harding-park-golf), charges greens fees of $157 Monday through Thursday, $177 Friday through Sunday. Opened in 1925, and home to the Charles Schwab Cup Championship, the Harding gets rave reviews from afficionados. The course, which skirts the shores of Lake Merced, is a 6,743-yard, par-72. You can also play the easier Fleming 9 Course at the same location. The 18-hole Lincoln Park Golf Course, 300 34th Ave. (at Clement St.; tel. 415/221-9911; www.lincolnparkgolfcourse.com), charges greens fees of $40 per person Monday through Thursday, $44 Friday through Sunday, with rates decreasing after 3pm. It’s San Francisco’s prettiest municipal course, with terrific views and fairways lined with Monterey cypress and pine trees. The 5,181-yard layout plays to par 68, and the 17th hole has a glistening ocean view. This is the oldest course in the city and one of the oldest in the West. It’s open daily at daybreak.
Parks -- In addition to Golden Gate Park and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco boasts more than 2,000 acres of parkland, most of which is perfect for picnicking or throwing around a Frisbee.
Smaller city parks include Buena Vista Park (Haight St. btw. Baker and Central sts.), which affords fine views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the area around it and is also a favored lounging ground for gay trysts; Ina Coolbrith Park (Taylor St. btw. Vallejo and Green sts.), offering views of the Bay Bridge and Alcatraz; and Sigmund Stern Grove (19th Ave. and Sloat Blvd.) in the Sunset District, which is the site of a famous free summer music festival.
One of my personal favorites is Lincoln Park, a 270-acre green space on the northwestern side of the city at Clement Street and 34th Avenue. The Legion of Honor is here, as is a scenic 18-hole municipal golf course. But the best things about this park are the 200-foot cliffs that overlook the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay. To get to the park, take bus no. 38 from Union Square to 33rd and Geary streets, and then walk a few blocks.
Running -- The Bay to Breakers Foot Race (tel. 415/864-3432; www.baytobreakers.com) is an annual 7 1/2-mile run from downtown to Ocean Beach. About 80,000 entrants take part in it, and it’s one of San Francisco’s trademark events. Costumed participants and hordes of spectators add to the fun. The event is held on the third Sunday of May.
The San Francisco Marathon takes place annually at the end of July or first weekend in August. For more information, call tel. 888/958-6668 or visit www.thesfmarathon.com.
Great jogging paths include the entire expanse of Golden Gate Park, the shoreline along the Marina, and the Embarcadero.
Tennis -- The San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department maintains more than 132 courts throughout the city. Almost all are available free, on a first-come, first-served basis. For an interactive map with addresses, directions, parking, and restroom information, check out www.sfrecpark.org/recprogram/tennis-program. An additional 21 courts are available in Golden Gate Park, which cost around $5 for 90 minutes. Check the website for details on rules for reserving courts (www.golden-gate-park.com/tennis.html).
Walking & Hiking -- The Golden Gate National Recreation Area offers plenty of opportunities. One incredible walk (or bike ride) is along the Golden Gate Promenade, from Aquatic Park to the Golden Gate Bridge. The 3 1/2-mile paved trail heads along the northern edge of the Presidio out to Fort Point, passing the marina, Crissy Field’s restored wetlands, a small beach, and plenty of athletic locals. You can also hike the Coastal Trail all the way from the Fort Point area to Cliff House. The park service maintains several other trails in the city. For more information or to pick up a map of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, stop by the park service headquarters at Fort Mason; enter on Franklin Street (tel. 415/561-4700).
Although most people drive to this spectacular vantage point, a more rejuvenating way to experience Twin Peaks is to walk up from the back roads of U.C. Medical Center (off Parnassus Ave.) or from either of the two roads that lead to the top (off Woodside or Clarendon aves.). The best time to trek is early morning, when the city is quiet, the air is crisp, and sightseers haven’t crowded the parking lot. Keep an eye out for cars, however, because there’s no real hiking trail, and be sure to walk beyond the lot and up to the highest vantage point.
Get Your Blood Pumping
When Eric Kipp, a certified yogi, conceptualized his wildly popular concept of Hiking Yoga, he aimed to bring tourists and locals alike out and about for some fresh air, intense cardio, and fantastic city views. Kipp's 90-minute urban treks, which take place several times a day, mostly on weekend days, depart from the clock tower at the Ferry Building and wind their way up to Coit Tower and around Telegraph Hill. Participants enjoy intense and fast-paced hill hiking—this is no leisurely walk in the park—while stopping at four stations throughout the city for a series of yoga poses. For information or a schedule of hikes, call tel. 415/261-3641 or visit www.hikingyoga.com. Reservations are required, and each session costs $20. Pacakge deals for multiple hikes are available.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.