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The 33: San Francisco’s most beautiful bus ride

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A cathartic journey from the Mission to Presidio Heights

Transit lines lacing throughout San Francisco offer scenic views of nature (e.g., the greenery of the Presidio, the expansive Pacific of Ocean Beach) or architectural wonder (the Golden Gate Bridge, Cupid’s Bow), but the true beauty of the city, inside and out, can be seen in its entirety aboard the 33 Ashbury/18th.

Still known to many as the 33 Stanyan, this Muni ride begins at 24th Street and Potrero, right outside a Walgreen’s (a beacon of all that is good and pure in the world) and a block away from Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital (a sign of how much the city has changed in such a short time)

The first few blocks of this ride are unimpressive. In fact, it’s a bit depressing. From the construction trucks digging up Potrero Avenue to the dilapidated housing, it’s not the prettiest part of this line. But glimmers of hope and humanity can be spotted just outside the window. The street’s Homeless Prenatal Program building shows off the city’s benevolent side. And the Handel Architects-designed Rowan residential building, a gleaming work with a giant, zig-zagging concrete exoskeleton, shows a city not afraid to grow.

While hardly a jaw-dropping ride thus far, the main reason I’ve always adored this line (except for a glorious view, which I’ll get into later) is that, in its entirety, it takes the rider on a journey—literally and metaphorically. Almost every socioeconomic layer of San Francisco’s many facets are represented within a herky jerky 45-minute jaunt. From the gentrified Mission and Dolores Park tech brethren to Castro cruising and tony Ashbury Heights, the beautiful landscape of a city in flux can be felt just from looking outside the window.

Speaking of beautiful things, there are Victorians aplenty. From distressed to renovated, the city’s signature housing stock can also be seen in its many changing forms.

In the Mission, heading up 16th Street, I find a well-worn covered Victorian apartment building strewn in graffiti, while in the Castro I gaze in awe at the pastel-hued beauties on 18th Street just after Castro.

And up on Ashbury, well before I hit the famous patchouli-scented part of the street, the large estates sit peacefully atop the hill—as grand as anything you would find in Pacific Heights, only far more humble.

But in between Ashbury and the Castro finally comes the ace up the 33’s sleeve—a panoramic view of the city’s skyline and bay. As the bus line makes an ungodly sharp hairpin turn from Market onto Clayton, or vice versa if heading inbound, a sweeping vista makes a splash across the windows. Rain or shine, it’s a sight to behold and the best the city has to offer. (The J-Church’s Dolores Park view isn’t at all as impressive, contrary to the hoi polloi.)

As the bus slips over Twin Peaks, it dips down and veers left onto Haight Street. Passengers will be treated to a mini-tour of the famous strip. (As any local can attest, a little of this exhausting and madcap street goes a long way.) Highlights include views of Amoeba Records’s neon signage and local color creating scenes on the sidewalk.

Winding its way over the the Richmond District via Stanyan Street, I’m treated to views of the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park. Then the 33 makes a beeline over to the super exclusive Presidio Heights neighborhood where the Arthur Brown Jr.-designed Temple Emanu-El greets me near the finish line.

For a more postcard-friendly, wish-you-were-here route, I recommend waiting in a long line for the Powell Street cable car. For a route that shows San Francisco’s heart, warts and all, unfold over 45 minutes or so, board the 33.