While San Francisco is known for its Victorian pageants, climbing skyscrapers, and the orange piece of metal in the bay, the city’s many stairs are installed to get you from point A to point B more comfortably. In a city of hills they are a blessing – often overlooked.
Granted, some of them are pretty mundane, like the stairs at the end of Lansing in Rincon Hill, an enclosed concrete step that leads pedestrians between Harrison and Beale. Some are downright lazy, like the fragrant couple over the tunnel on Stockton Street. And some are purely superficial, like the sidewalk stairs on Taylor Street between Pine and California, necessary because the hill is so steep.
But there are a few unconscious steps that are guaranteed to increase your affection for the city and its urban architecture. In fact, San Francisco has the coolest stairs in the country. Convince yourself step by step.
Filbert Street Steps
A series of wooden stairs (just under 200) that take visitors up and down the famous hill and lead Filbert Street from Coit Tower to the cul-de-sacs and up a steep slope at Kearny, over the Montgomery Median and down to Sansome. The highlight of these steps is Napier Lane, a wooden-boarded sidewalk lined with pre-1900 cottage-like houses, as well as a public garden known as the Grace Marchant Garden. (Note the houses along Napier that have no garages or parking spaces. Gorgeous.)
The steps also offer uninterrupted views of the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island, as well as the native wild parrots that visit them regularly.
Embarcadero Center Steps
Although the retail stores in the Embarcadero mall are dying, the beauty of the stairs and tile work just keeps getting better over the years. Most notable are the often-photographed spiral staircases with mosaic tiles that look like a brutalist structure took too many acid hits. Ideal for Instagram – and totally far away.
Lyon Street Steps
Located between Presidio and Pacific Heights, this chic staircase offers two options: lush forest to the west and Tony Mansions to the east. Not only is it a favorite of fitness fans who love to hop up and down its 332 steps, but it’s virtually unknown to tourists.
You can dodge the hordes of trainers by walking at noon. However, to dodge the runners, walk along the center rail so fitness fanatics can come right by. Also don’t miss the San Francisco Heart at the bottom of the stairs.
Photo by Willis Lam
Alta Plaza Park steps
Although these staircases lack the vivid punch of the city’s more kaleidoscopic staircases, the exceptionally wide and long steps of Alta Plaza Park ask for your own Audrey Hepburn, “Take a picture!” Wait a la funny face.
The Lincoln Park Steps. Shutterstock
Lincoln Park steps
While these steps date back to the early 1900s, the mid-1980s renovation brought this staircase back to life, overseen by Irish ceramist Aileen Barr. Bright greens, yellows and oranges make for a series of breathtaking steps on California Street where they open into Lincoln Park Golf Course.
Fireclay Tiles and Heath Ceramics donated pieces for the new staircase, making this climber a good place for local ceramists.
This gateway to Forest Knolls is named after Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of television, to whom these steps were dedicated in his honor. (They’re located near the house he lived in when he developed the first television system in the late 1920s.) While they’re not memorable steps in and of themselves, they offer lovely green views with bushes in bloom in the spring.
These hidden steps in Corona Heights, first laid out in 1925, are notable for being featured in Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Less (Saturn Street mentioned above also gets a hat tip in the book), in which the book’s title character, Arthur, appears less, once lived. That said, “The volcanic steps, as they are called, meander from Levant Street above between Monterey pines, ferns, ivy and bottle brushes to a brick landing with a view of downtown to the east.”
Hidden garden stairs
While these mosaic beauties aren’t as well known as their older sibling, 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, they feature trippy shapes like snails, flora, and mushrooms.
The garden theme, completed in 2013, honors the city’s fire fighters. According to the official Hidden Garden Steps website: “The tiles in the Indian Paintbrush element were crowdfunded by 47 people as a tribute to the firefighters. Right down the stairs on 16th Avenue, two blocks away on Irving Street, is Station 22 of the San Francisco Fire Department. Virtually every time they get a call, one of the fire engines drives out of the station towards the stairs. Now the crew can look uphill and see the mosaic in the distance, knowing that people have cared enough for them to permanently thank them for their service. “
16th Avenue tiled stairs
Arguably the most famous staircase in San Francisco, the 16th Avenue Tiled Staircase, completed in 2005, has 163 unique steps made of mosaics that create a seascape-themed piece that connects Golden Gate Heights with the inner sunset. Aileen Barr and mosaic artist Colette Crutcher worked together to create the steps.
My Modern Met: “The names of over 220 sponsors were actually woven into the sweeping design from sea to sky and, amazingly, over 2,000 handcrafted tiles and 75,000 fragments of tiles, mirrors, and stained glass went into the finished piece. A total of 163 separate mosaic panels were created, one for each step riser. “
Gardens adorn each side of the stairs, including a butterfly habitat and an array of succulents.
Avalon Greenspace Steps
Pedestrians at the intersection of Athens Street and Avalon Avenue at the Excelsior can now find these new rainbow-colored mosaic steps that lead where Athens Street turns into Valmar Terrace. The area had long been a place where people threw away their rubbish, old furniture, trash and bottles. But in 2009 neighbors banded together to change the area. After nine years, the stairs were finally opened to the public in 2017.
Arelious Walker stairs
Another creation by Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher (the minds behind 16th Avenue Tiled Steps), the Arelious Walker Stairway in Bayview pays homage to Dr. Arelious Walker, a neighborhood pastor and lawyer. The stairs connect an isolated portion of the neighborhood to the India Basin Shoreline and Bay Trail, and use textiles and ceramics from Africa, Central America, and the Middle East.