Posted by: acooksca | 11/18/2011

The Stairways of Telegraph Hill

Filbert Steps

San Francisco has 300 stairways connecting streets and alcoves on its steepest hills. Most were built as neighborhoods were laid out 100 or so years ago. There is a surprising number of homes anchored to slopes where no streets can be built, accessible only by public staircases. Some stairways are hidden shortcuts connecting busy boulevards, giving pedestrians a moment of quiet with stunning vistas. The longest and most famous stairways climb Telegraph Hill from the Embarcadero to Coit Tower. On a recent sun-filled morning I set out with a map and 2 hours free to stair-step up and down Telegraph Hill then go find lunch.

 Telegraph Hill was inhabited during the 1850’s by Irish and Italian immigrants whose livelihoods depended on the nearby wharves. They were longshoremen, fishermen and warehouse workers of low wages and built modest dwellings along dirt paths on the hill. The eastern flank was made into a sheer cliff by local contractors who, in the 1880’s, began dynamiting the hill to use it as a rock quarry. During the early 20th century Telegraph Hill were largely by- passed by city transit lines and the area remained under developed, attracting artists and providing grazing for goats until 1928.

Greenwhich Street Stairs

That wild, natural look still exists along much of the Greenwhich Street Stairs. This series of staircases rises from the base of Telegraph Hill on Sansome Street, several blocks back from the waterfront. At about 400 steps it is the longest staircase, but has convenient rest stops for enjoying excellent views and catching your breath as you climb.  The steps meander like a path under the shade of thick-trunked cypress and eucalyptus. Secluded clearings offer benches and works of art provided by the neighbors. Homes with front doors along the stairway still have the feel of Bohemian hideaways.

The stairway zigzags past the crenulated structure of Julius’ Castle, a restaurant known more for its views then its food. It was built in 1922 when this part of Montgomery Street was still a dirt road. Keep ascending and you arrive at one of San Francisco’s best known sites, Coit Tower. Vertically fluted sides of the tower capture light and shadow making the tower distinct and lovely. The first floor contains murals telling stories of The City. With a popular 360 degree view, the Coit Tower approach and parking lot can be congested with cars, while arriving on foot feels like a well earned reward.

Vallejo Street Stairway

Just one block from the Greenwhich Street Stairs, the Filbert Steps have a totally different feel. Street paving during the Depression years increased accessibility on this side of Telegraph Hill. Art deco apartment houses show off their details and elegant sculpted gardens border immaculate European-styled homes. This is a well known stairway. Walkers stopped me to take their picture surrounded by the elegant houses with panoramic views of The Bay in background. There is less shade, fewer rest stops and unrelentingly steep stairways on the Filbert Steps, making the decent from Coit Tower to Sansome Street a good choice.

With the two longer stairways walked it was time to locate the nearby Vallejo Street Stairway. This one block stairway is perhaps the most beautiful of the Telegraph Hill stairways. Maps show it as Vallejo Street (not as steps) where it connects Montgomery Street on the west to Sansome on the east. Lovingly cared for, it shows off a lush profusion of flowering shrubs in its one block length. The top is bordered by a row of San Francisco Victorians that survived the 1906 fire.  Turn right up Kearny Street and you pass one of the old-time markets that used to dot Telegraph Hill. Stand next to the painted wood sign of Fog Hill Market and listen to a dedicated local clientele greet each other as they pass.

Fog Hill Market

A block further up turn right onto Union Street and pass the two oldest structures on Telegraph Hill.  Irish immigrant John Cooney built number 291 in 1851 with a store on the bottom floor and his family home above. Two years later he erected number 287 as two rental units. Go another block up Union, past the “No Outlet” sign and find the less-than-a-block-long Calhoun Terrace. Calhoun Street used to be longer and wider, until the late 1800’s when the rock quarrying undermined the east side of the street and sent all seven homes crashing down. The residences lining the west side of the street face an unobstructed view of the Embarcadero, Bay Bridge, Treasure Island and the East Bay.
Search around and you will find another neighborhood tended stairway… this one ends part of the way down the hill.
It was now time for lunch and there are plenty of fine options nearby. Follow the flow of the hill downward using the Montgomery Street Staircase to Broadway and turn right. Within a few steps you come to Naked Lunch: a trendy kitchen in the old Enrico’s facing Kearny Street. Stop here for menu items such as foie gras and duck prosciutto sandwich, roasted Japanese eggplant sandwich with chevre and melted onions, and butternut squash, apple and chive soup.

Gold Mountain Dim Sum

I chose to cross Columbus Avenue and go one block to the massive Gold Mountain dim sum restaurant. Always packed with locals, I hope to be directed to a seat in the back near the kitchen door to catch the circulating carts of they emerge loaded with fresh small plates. I chose roasted duck and pork filled sticky balls. I felt I earned these delights after all that stair stepping.

A good reference for stairways in San Francisco:

A good reference book for historic walks: Historic Walks of San Francisco by Rand Richards



  1. I just enjoyed a wonderful “stairway trip” and I’m not even tired. and since I’m not crazy about duck didnt miss a thing.

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