As I roam the globe, one of the first questions I’ll pose to locals is, “Can you point me in the direction of an overlook or vantage point that gives me a unique perspective?” Trusting their advice often leads to spectacular panoramas while putting me in a position or place to scope out an even better spot for unmatched views.
In recent travels, posing my question has lead to favela hikes above Rio de Janeiro, a train ride through the mountains in Curitiba, Brazil, a scaffolding climb up a building renovation for never before seen views of the 2014 Tour de France finish in Paris, rooftop climbs backdropped by the Manhattan skyline in Brooklyn, summits in Acadia National Park, and overwatch views from a medieval castle that looms high above Tbilisi in the European capital of Georgia.
Having visited San Francisco multiple times in recent years, I’m always enamored with the topography, peaking hills, and the dramatic fog that blankets the city in sweeping fashion. I visited SF a week ago to catch up with friends in The Mission neighborhood, attend another outstanding church service at RealitySF, and to diligently scope out spots for terrific views of the City by the Bay.
With a weekend spent climbing, biking, and exploring hilltops, here are my picks for “vistas with a view” in the city limits of San Francisco:
Bernal Heights-A nostalgic neighborhood on the southern edge of The Mission valley, Bernal Heights is a homey community full of boutique shops, corner markets, loving pet owners, and small families looking for a quiet slice of life in the midst of busy SF. Rising out of the neighborhood sits Bernal Heights Park—perched steeply at the top of its namesake hill. The roads to the top are closed to vehicles so cyclists, joggers, and pedestrians can peacefully enjoy the climbing views to the summit. At the top, you’ll find phenomenal views of the city as you look east towards Oakland and the bay while northern glances bring views of downtown and Golden Gate. While “closed” to the public, there is a broken fence we squeezed between that leads to a climbable cell phone tower for even higher views and wind gusts that threatened to carry away our hats. Brave the tower climb for a little more risk and reward as your heart slows to a normal pace after the hike and climb.
*Also of note—If going for max speed downhill on a bike, be careful for the clumsy St. Bernard dog who doesn’t pay attention, crosses into your bike bath, and threatens to have you make a split-second decision between hitting him or bailing on your bike and flying over the handlebars—crash averted as I barely missed him to the applause of a few onlookers.
Twin Peaks-With an elevation of 922 feet, Twin Peaks is the second highest viewpoint in the city behind Mt. Davidson. Perched atop San Francisco, you’re offered reaching views of the Bay Area as it’s the perfect place for a picture perfect shot on a clear day or as the fog rolls up and over from the Pacific Ocean. Originally called “Los Pechos de la Choca” (Breasts of the Maiden) by the Spanish, the northern peak is now Eureka and the southern peak is Noe. While crowded with tourists, the 64-acre park at the top is undeveloped and is a stunning natural habitat for plants, wildlife, and the endangered Mission Blue butterfly. The natural scenery allowed me to picture what the hills around the city would be if these viewpoints had never developed into the residential retreats they are today. On Saturday when I visited, it was very windy with sweeping fog—conditions I was told are typical for the Twin Peaks. It’s an easy drive to the top and well worth a visit if in the neighborhood.
Lands End-I hesitate to share this newly discovered outcast in the northwestern corner of San Francisco. It’s stunningly beautiful and often gets overlooked by tourists who visit the well-known Golden Gate Park just south of here. The surrounding community rallied together to restore this area in recent years and there’s a push to keep it “off the tourist map.” The revitalization efforts and backing by volunteers have made it my new favorite viewpoint in the city. Armed with a takeout dinner, we sat on cliffs overlooking the Pacific and watched an Asian bound cargo ship disappear on the horizon. Cypress trees line the hillsides and wildflowers bloom along the narrow trails that branch off into seldom-visited coves and beaches below. We picked and ate wild blackberries, wandered into darkened forests as the sun set, and sprinted down steps to catch the last light of day as the Golden Gate Bridge flickered to life with brightening lights against a darkening backdrop. There’s a labyrinth created with rocks from previous visitors that would entertain a child or in our case, my friends. Lands End offers views of three shipwrecks: the Ohioan (1937), Lyman Stewart (1922), and Frank Buck (1937)—vessels that never made it out of the bay on those eerily foggy nights. Dramatic ruins from the famed Sutro Baths are also found here in this oft forgotten preserve. While visiting, I chatted with a couple local guys who were trying to capture that perfect Instagram shot from the drone they were piloting overhead. The scenery at Lands End can be described with a multitude of adjectives but as is the case with all my writing, I’m hoping it will spur you to go see it yourself. Pack a picnic, bring a camera, and set out for my newfound one-of-a-kind spot in San Francisco.
Two days of biking, climbing, and exploring hilltops wouldn’t be complete without meals spent laughing and discussing the little things like the fact Jamie and I were given matching hoodies to wear the entire weekend as SF went through a typical summer cool down with 50 degree temperatures. As a guy who typically eats only one meal a day, I’m counting on the friends I’m with to make that meal special, unique, and budget-friendly. Lucky for me, my friends in San Francisco know right where to land us when it calls for cheap and delicious eats in a city known for food. When dining on a budget and looking for cultural cuisine, check out some of these local options: Shanghai Dumpling King, Regent Thai, Burma Superstar, and El Farolito Taqueria.
On previous trips, I’ve hiked the Marin Headlands across the Golden Gate Bridge and swung on swings in the residential retreat atop Potrero Hill. Both of these are worth checking out, but didn’t make my list of hilltop hideouts. Would you have added these to the list? Have your visits to San Francisco provided other opportunities for unique views? As always, leave a comment about the fun you find through travel.