While San Francisco is beloved for its Victorian pageantry, climbing skyscrapers, and that orange hunk of metal in the Bay, the city’s many staircases—installed to get you from point A to point B more conveniently; in a city of hills, they are a blessing—are often overlooked.
Granted, some of them are quite mundane, like the stairs at the end of Lansing in Rincon Hill, an enclosed concrete set of steps that whisks pedestrians between Harrison to Beale. Some are downright putrid, like the odiferous pair above the Stockton Street tunnel. And some are purely perfunctory, like the the sidewalk stairway on Taylor Street between Pine and California, necessary because the hill is so steep.
But there are a smattering of swoon-inducing steps guaranteed to heighten your affection for the city and its urban architecture. In fact, San Francisco has the coolest staircases in the country, period. Find out for yourself, one step at a time.
A series of wooden stairs (just under 200) that take visitors up and down the famed hill, connecting Filbert Street from Coit Tower to where it dead-ends and into a steep slope at Kearny, across the Montgomery median, and down to Sansome. The highlight of these steps is Napier Lane, a wooden plank sidewalk lined with pre-1900, cottage-like homes, as well as a public garden dubbed Grace Marchant Garden. (Note the homes along Napier that have neither garages nor parking spots. Glorious.)
The steps also offer unobstructed views of the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island, as well as the local feral parrots who visit regularly.
Although retails stores at the Embarcadero Shopping Center are diminish, the beauty of the its staircases and tile work only gets better as the years go by. Most notable are the oft-photographed spiral staircases, with mosaic tiling, that look like a Brutalist structure took one too many hits of acid. Ideal for Instagram—and totally far out.
Located between the Presidio and Pacific Heights, this chic set of stairs offers two choice settings: lush forest to the west and tony mansions to the east. In addition to being a favorite of fitness buffs, who love to hoof up and down its 332 steps, it’s practically unknown to tourists.
You can avoid the hordes of trainers by going midday, but to avoid the runners, walk along the center-rail so fitness fanatics can pass on the right. Also, don’t miss the San Francisco Heart found at the bottom of the steps.
Although these set of stairs lack the vivid punch of the city’s more kaleidoscopic staircases, the exceptionally wide and long Alta Plaza Park steps beg for your own Audrey Hepburn “take the picture!” moment a la Funny Face.
While these steps date to the early 1900s, the mid-aughts renovation brought this staircase back to life, care of Irish ceramist Aileen Barr. Bright green, yellow, and orange hues make for a set of stunning steps situated off California Street where it dead ends into the Lincoln Park Golf Course.
This gateway to Forest Knolls was named after Philo Farnsworth, inventor of the television, who had these steps dedicated in his honor. (They’re located near the house he lived in while he developed the first television system in the late 1920s.) While not memorable steps in and of themselves, they do offer a nice verdant views with flowering bushes during the springtime.
First laid out in 1925, these hidden steps in Corona Heights hold the distinction of being featured in Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Less (the aforementioned Saturn Street also gets a tip of hat in the book), where the book’s titular character, Arthur Less, once lived. To wit: “The Vulcan Steps, they’re called, curving from Levant Street at the top, down between Monterey pines, ferns, ivy, and bottlebrush trees, to a brick landing with a view of east downtown.”
Although not as well known as its older sibling, the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, these mosaic beauties feature such trippy shapes as snails, flora, and mushrooms.
Completed in 2013, the garden-themed steps honor of the city’s firefighters. According to the official Hidden Garden Steps site: “The tiles in the Indian Paintbrush element were crowdfunded by 47 people as a tribute to firefighters. Directly down the steps, on 16th Avenue two blocks away at Irving Street, sits Station 22 of the San Francisco Fire Department. Virtually every time they get a call, one of the fire department vehicles pulls out of the station, facing the Steps. Now the crew can look uphill and see the mosaic in the distance, and know that people cared enough to put a permanent thank-you to them for their service.”
Arguably San Francisco’s most famous stairway, the 16th Avenue Tiled Staircase, completed in 2005, features 163 unique steps made up of mosaics that create a seascape-themed piece connecting Golden Gate Heights to the Inner Sunset. Aileen Barr and mosaic artist Colette Crutcher collaborated in the creation of the steps.
According to My Modern Met, “The names of over 220 sponsors were actually woven into the sweeping sea-to-sky design and, amazingly, over 2,000 handmade tiles and 75,000 fragments of tile, mirror and stained glass went into the finished piece. There were a total of 163 separate mosaic panels created, one for each step riser.”
Gardens adorn each side of the steps, including a butterfly habitat and a series of succulents.
Pedestrians at the intersection of Athens Street and Avalon Avenue in the Excelsior can now find these new rainbow-hued mosaic steps leading up to where Athens Street turns into Valmar Terrace. The area had long been a place where people threw their garbage, old furniture, junk, and bottles. But in 2009, neighbors banded together to transform the area. After nine years, the stairs were—at last—opened to the public in 2017.
Another Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher creation (the minds behind the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps), the Arelious Walker Stairway, located in the Bayview, pays homage to Dr. Arelious Walker, a pastor and neighborhood advocate. Connecting an isolated part of the neighborhood to the India Basin Shoreline and Bay Trail, the stairs use textiles and ceramics from Africa, Central America, and the Middle East.