San Francisco looks tiny and walkable on every map, but the maps lie. That teeny peninsula wedged up between the bay and the Pacific is actually over ten hilly kilometres across, far more territory than even the most determined backpacker is capable of covering on foot. There is a startlingly large amount to see, from the high rises downtown up to Chinatown, through hard luck corners to farmer’s markets in front of the Civic Centre (Wednesdays and Sundays), and up into colourful Castro.
So you can cram onto the bizarrely named BART metro or try deciphering the bus system, but the best way to see San Francisco is by bike. Feel the wind in your hair and test your brakes as you careen down those famously steep hills, pull over wherever you like without fretting about parking, cruise the parks and see, hear and smell the city around you as you roll down its ample bike lanes. Rental stalls abound along Market Street downtown or on the waterfront around Fishermans Wharf. Daily rates start around $32AUD (less if you book online) and will usually include a helmet, lock and handlebar bag.
The Golden Gate Bridge and surrounds
The first glimpse of a bending roadway floating over the mouth of the San Francisco Bay will have you slamming on the brakes to utter an expletive or two. Americans have always loved to defy nature with massive engineering projects and as far as examples go, the Golden Gate Bridge is probably the most stunning. It’s a steep ride up the bike path from Crissy Field, or along Alexander Street if you’re coming from Sauselito, but up top you’ll find benches to sit, catch your breath and absorb the view.
Cyclists can cross the bridge using the footpaths, which allows frequent stops for photos or perhaps to watch a huge container ship slide beneath you. It happens more often than you’d think. If the swell is big enough, there’ll also be surfers riding lefthanders off Fort Point, right under the bridge’s southern end. Go slow around the blind corners at those giant towers and prepare yourself with an extra jump for that wind chill.
From the southern end of the bridge, the San Francisco Bay Trail will take you past manicured Crissy Field and through the ritzy Marina District. Be sure to stop in at the Palace of Fine Arts, a relic of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition that would look more at home among the ruins of ancient Rome. Sticking to the waterfront will take you up to touristy Fishermans Wharf, where you can get fast food and typical souvenirs. Here you’ll also find ferries to Angel Island, a slice of cycling heaven, full of parks and paths with views across to the bridge and the city.
Golden Gate Park
Like the rest of the city, Golden Gate Park is deceptively huge, even bigger than New York’s Central Park. It’s also a long downhill run from the bridge. On top of its myriad of museums and gardens there are impromptu drum circles, pick-up games of pretty much any sport you can think of and concerts throughout the summer. Bring a picnic and you can spend an entire day exploring it. Best of all, the park contains miles and miles of car-free bike paths connecting it all.
There are also rumours of a herd of bison living here. We advise starting your search in the park’s west, between the Spreckels and North Lakes.
Test your calves
The Castro and surrounding districts are central to San Francisco’s history as a hub for gay culture and activism, and a stroll through its streets for a coffee in one of its cafes makes for excellent people watching. It’s a bit of an uphill grind to get there but one of the easiest approaches is along Market Street from downtown, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Look for the green bike lane. During peak hour, the Market Street becomes a cyclist’s highway of sorts, and you’ll find yourself absorbed into a diverse peloton of commuters.
The famous hairpin turns that descend down Lombard Street (look for the corner of Lombard and Hyde) are a mecca for tourists on foot and cars with out-of-state plates. However, the best way to see the bends is from the saddle as you hurtle past puffing pedestrians on your two-wheeled steed. Make sure the road is clear of cars before you push off to maximise that racetrack feel.
Across the Bay
San Francisco’s fog is so ubiquitous it has a name – Karl – and its own Twitter account: @KarlTheFog. If Karl is blocking the sun, you’ll often find better weather over on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay. There’s no way to ride your bike across the Bay Bridge, but you can take it on the ferries that embark for Oakland from the appropriately named Ferry Building. Alternatively, BART also caters to cyclists, but it’s easiest if you avoid peak hour. Oakland has a pretty ride around Lake Merritt, and the blue-collar neighbourhoods surrounding downtown make for good people watching and some excellent soul food. Think fried chicken, waffles, dive bars and a few dodgy streets. Oakland has a reputation and is probably best explored in daylight.
Just a few kilometres’ ride will take you into Berkeley and a completely different world. The University of California’s stately Berkeley campus has a thriving student scene, and a ride around it will take you past dance groups going through routines, activists handing out flyers and sustainability fairs. The campus was the birthplace of the ‘60s Free Speech Movement, which won students’ right to political expression during the Vietnam War and civil rights movement. The surrounding streets are full of preppy students, aging hippies and fantastic food. We recommend Cream for $2 ice-cream sandwiches. Seek it out near the top of Telegraph Avenue, lock up your ride on the street out front and know true joy.
(Lead image: Esteban/Flickr)
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Quinten Dol is a journalism and creative writing graduate from Brisbane's Queensland University of Technology, and a regular contributor to Global Hobo. He is currently riding his way south from Vancouver, Canada towards Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina.