SAN FRANCISCO - It's not that I forgot how hilly San Francisco is. But I'm a sucker for walking so when I arrived in the city to learn that I had only a .long walk from the BART train station to the Huntington Hotel where I was staying, I thought no sweat. I'd been warned to take a cab, but I'm a marathon girl. Surely, a walk of about one kilometre would be no trouble, right?
What MapQuest failed to tell me was that I'd be walking straight up Nob Hill. It's one of San Francisco's 43 hills, although I might beg to differ on the terminology. What they call hills in San Francisco, we call mountains where I live in Indiana. And did I mention that my husband Chris and I were lugging bags?
It took a little while, but we made it. And while San Francisco is walkable (as long as you don’t mind a few hills) and yes, the cable cars can provide transport (although they can get expensive), I found a better way to see the city: Rent some wheels.
We started with what we knew: Bicycles. "The city's super bike-friendly," an employee at Bay City Bike, where we rented two bikes, told me as he handed me a map with kilometers of cycling trails.
But which way to go?
As soon as I saw the route over the Golden Gate Bridge, though, the decision was a no-brainer -- ever since I walked New York City's Brooklyn Bridge a few years ago, I've developed a thing for bridges – especially when I learned the roughly 10-kilometre route from the Wharf area to Sausalito, via the Golden Gate, was flat. (Climbing hills on a cruiser bike is no fun.) Or so they said. So off we went, winding past Fisherman’s Wharf, Municipal Pier, Crissy Field, and Fort Point.
Left: Getting around in San Francisco is made easier by mike in mini Go Cars. Right: Riding across the famed Golden Gate bridge on a bicycle can make your heart race.
If there's one thing I've learned about San Franciscoans, though, it's this: They tend to underestimate things. Indeed, there were hills, including a few that required some muscle. I even had to walk up one because I got trapped behind a slow group of cyclists and couldn't make my way around them. Talk about having a bruised ego after that!
A small incline brought us to the start of the Golden Gate, and we veered onto the sidewalk for cyclists. (The other side has a sidewalk for runners and walkers.) Our only obstacle on the 2.5 kilometre route across the bridge? The 90 km/h gusts. Once we crossed, though, it was about a five-kilometre descent into Sausalito, a charming town with a Mediterranean feel.
We spent the afternoon in Sausalito, grabbing lunch at a waterfront cafe and popping our heads into the eclectic shops. Yet by the time we were ready to pedal back, rain was falling. So we did what every diehard cyclist does: We bailed. We bought tickets on the Blue & Gold Fleet ferry (they allow bikes) to San Francisco and enjoyed a short, dry ride back to the city.
How do you top a two-wheel adventure? Naturally, you graduate to four wheels, hence the reason we rented a GoCar, a street legal, GPS-guided car. They’re easy to operate, require you to wear a helmet, and turn a lot of heads (and not just because of their flashy yellow colour). There are several tour choices, but we opted for the four-hour Presidio route, which was a blast.
As we drove, the car talked, telling us fun stories and directing us where to go. Yet whenever we wanted to stop, we could, and the narrative would continue once we were moving again. Our female guide navigated us to the Golden Gate Bridge where we watched surfers catching huge waves, through the Presidio, and even down Lombard Street, the one-way street on Russian Hill famous for its eight hairpin turns.
Left: The Go Cars can be rented at various locations around the Bay area. Right: The Go Cars now fight San Francisco’s iconic streetcars for space.
To be honest, I’m not sure which was more fun: Our tour guide’s comments – one time she told us to shout “whee” through a tunnel, which we did, although we felt a little silly – or the actual tour. No matter, it allowed us to see a chunk of the city we'd never have seen on our own.
And those hills? Even our GoCar struggled; at one point, it needed a nudge to make it up.
Yes, we even hitched a ride on a third set of wheels, although technically it shouldn’t count, as it was a bus tour. We’d signed up through Extranomical Tours for a day trip to Muir Woods where we walked among the ancient redwoods and then sipped wine at three wineries in Sonoma Valley.
And when it came time to leave and hike back down to the train station? I finally said the magical word: “Taxi!”
Whether you’re hoofing it or riding those wheels, give your body some well-needed fuel at these culinary standouts:
- Nob Hill Cafe (415-776-6500, www.nobhillcafe.com): This quaint, neighbourhood cafe serves killer Italian food.
- Waterbar (www.waterbarsf.com)
- First Crush (www.firstcrush.com): This cozy, intimate restaurant specializes in small plates (you can get large plates, too) and flights of wine.
- Horizons (415-331-3232, www.horizonssausalito.com/Horizons): If your travels take you to Sausalito, head to this waterfront cafe where you’ll be mesmerized by the water.
Catch Some Z's
After your active day, bunk in at one of these top picks:
- The Fairmont San Francisco (415-772-5000, www.fairmont.com/sanfrancisco): This Nob Hill favourite features all of the amenities Fairmont is famous for, plus sweeping city views and an impressive photo gallery of its history in San Francisco.
- Huntington Hotel (415-474-5400, www.huntingtonhotel.com): This boutique hotel offers cozy accommodations, incredible service (you'll get complimentary tea and cookies when you check in) and a first-class spa. At night, enjoy piano entertainment in the