Made for Walking: San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill

August 15, 2008 by

North America, Suggested Itineraries, Travel Advice & Inspiration

Editor’s Note: Tom Downs is the author of numerous guides to San Francisco, including his most recent “Walking San Francisco: 30 Savvy Tours Exploring Steep Streets, Grand Hotels, Dive Bars, and Waterfront Parks“.

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The wild parrots of SF’s Telegraph Hill

When people ask me if I’ve seen the Parrot Movie, I say yes. And when I ask people if they’ve walked San Francisco‘s Telegraph Hill, the answer, surprisingly, is almost always no.

To which I always say, Fer cryin’ out loud. Don’t just see the movie.

The Parrot Movie, of course, is The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, a documentary about a man with loads of time on his hands. He’s a squatter who inhabits a neglected shack on Telegraph Hill, and he becomes fascinated by the local flock of cherry-head conures, observing them obsessively, and ultimately developing what can only be described as friendships with many of them. This quirky and beautiful film was a big hit in San Francisco in 2003. A year after its release it was still playing in independent theaters around the Bay Area.

Telegraph Hill: First time’s the charm

I hike up Telegraph Hill often, but my first walk up and down its shady inclines left an indelible impression on me, and very likely influenced my move from New York to San Francisco two years later. My gal, Fawn, and I were in town to visit my brother James. A good eight years older than me, James is a native San Franciscan and a man of boundless energy, curiosity and intelligence. He’s walked and snooped down every street and alleyway from Bernal Heights to North Beach, usually without letting little things like backyard fences get in his way. He’s dry now, but in those days he had a hollow leg and was never too hung-over to walk for miles the next morning.

That was more or less our agenda on our visit. After a night out that was never properly encoded in my memory, James led Fawn and me through Chinatown and North Beach and on over Filbert Street to the lush garden stairways of Telegraph Hill’s eastern slope.

It was faintly cloudy, the streets busy with the un-insistent energy of Saturday morning. In part due to our mildly jagged state of mind we were highly receptive to the day’s subdued appeal. I’ve maintained ever since that the best time to walk Telegraph Hill is when the sun is not shining too brightly, when the light evens out above and beneath the trees. Luckily, in the summer, San Francisco complies five days out of seven.

North Beach Coffee Break

In North Beach, we stopped at Caffe Trieste, where older Italians had already claimed the best tables, and we enjoyed coffee and panini while the owner sang Italian songs to a packed house. Mandolin, trumpet and squeeze box all managed to fit into a corner of the room, and the woman operating the espresso machine paused to deliver some bel canto of her own. North Beach has always been very tourist-friendly, but its numerous cafes still manage to retain a neighborly vitality that hearkens to the district’s days as an Italian enclave.

The Coit Murals

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Coit Tower, from above

From Trieste, we marched up the steep incline to Coit Tower, which points skyward from the peak of Telegraph Hill like a giant flashlight. (The more common comparison is to a fire nozzle, but why make the same old analogy as everyone else? Besides, its architects always insisted it was not a fire nozzle.)

James wasn’t interested in taking the elevator to the tower’s observatory, and he had a point – views of SF can be found all over town. Even hotel elevators are made of glass, yielding views. But we did enter the ground floor lobby (no admission fee) to admire the 1930s murals inside the tower’s ground floor.

Public art is a vaunted tradition in San Francisco, still very much going strong. Coit Tower’s art roughs out the story of California history, with frescoes depicting the rise of industry without glorifying it. Indeed, some of these left-leaning murals were considered controversial when the tower first opened. They aren’t terribly shocking now, unless you’re a big fan of Rush Limbaugh. But they will always be beautiful and subtle works of art.

A Rocky Past

We found our way to some well-hidden steps that crooked downward into the dense, inviting greenery of the hill’s eastern slope. Though ‘slope’ is too gentle a word. Telegraph Hill hurtles downward for two blocks at an angle too steep for pavement before abruptly plunging in a sheer drop to the waterfront.

This final cliff is the legacy of a 19th-century quarrying company, which blasted away a huge portion of the hill. The company hoped to obliterate the hill, sell the rock for ship ballast, and make a killing on real estate. The people who lived on Telegraph Hill at the time weren’t crazy about the idea, and the blasting was eventually stopped. Someone once asked me if this was an early example of NIMBY nonsense, but I’d consider it more an example of self-preservation. This was not an elite neighborhood then. It was working class and bohemian, with strong artistic and pro-labor leanings.

Ultimately, thanks again to the creativity and passion of its residents, Telegraph Hill would become one of the city’s most beautiful hilltop enclaves. A retired Hollywood stuntwoman named Grace Marchant is credited with starting the gardens here in the 1950s, when she began to clear away an ad hoc garbage dump to make room for a crazy quilt of trees, vines, ferns, shrubs, flowers, ground cover.

As the price of property went up, the wealthy inevitably assumed their current position upon this lofty patch of real estate. But devoted gardeners, all volunteers, have continued the work of the old stuntwoman. The stairs wending through this hilltop jungle are city property – they are city streets, actually – to be shared with the public and the parrots, who perch and squawk in the canopy above.

Down Filbert, Up Greenwich

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The Victorians of San Francisco

We went down Filbert first, detouring along little sidestreets like Napier Lane, which is essentially a boardwalk that crooks between the foliage and the shiplapped siding of Victorian houses.

A handful of lucky people get to live on this quiet sanctuary. In San Francisco, it’s is about as close to Shangri-La as you can get, and yet the Financial District’s cold-hearted banks and skyscrapers are just a few blocks away.

Steps led the way down the rocky cliff, affording a view of flowers planted by determined gardeners who hung from belays to plant seedlings. A block away, we found steps leading back up, via Greenwich Street – yet another tilting gardenscape, improbably residential, leading back up to the top of Telegraph Hill. We rambled the blocks around the hilltop neighborhood, eventually finding our way back to North Beach, a Muni bus, and James’ apartment for a well deserved nap. We still had Saturday night ahead of us, after all.

San Francisco: A Most Walkable City

Thanks to the escalating price of gas, everyone’s talking about ways to have your fun without paying the piper at the pump. Taking public transit comes up often. So does riding a bike. And walking, of course. This is sensible talk.

It was in this spirit that rated American cities for their “walkability.” San Francisco rated highest, over New York and Boston. The San Francisco Chronicle ran the story on the front page – it was a slow news day. You can check out the story here. The New York papers didn’t find room for the story on their front pages. Sour grapes, I suppose.

Much to their credit, Walkscore doesn’t view SF’s hilly topography as a deterrent. They don’t go so far as to say the hills are what make San Francisco a walker’s paradise, but I will make that argument for them. The hills get your heart pumping. Reward follows effort, because the hills get you up above the rest of the city, making SF a city of fantastic views. And they separate the city into distinctive islands, surrounded by diverse tidepools and reefs, each with their own subcultures and microclimates. San Francisco isn’t a chest thumping town, except when it comes to its hills. But let it be known that even the most buxom of SF’s hills are all natural – no enhancements.

Tom Downs

Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s San Francisco tours & things to do, from SF walking tours to Alcatraz tours.

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3 Responses to “Made for Walking: San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill”

  1. Says:

    We love your blog!
    and yes, We ‘ve never walked SF’s Telegraph Hill.
    That’s a shame. Soon, we’ll do! 🙂

  2. North Star Cruises Says:

    Great post, I imagine this would be quite a workout, but looks well worth it. The parrots look very cute – going to have to try to find a copy of the documentary now. I’m not sure whether I love or hate the colored Victorians, probably better judged in person. Thanks again, I will look into one of your walking guides.

  3. California Beat Says:

    Real thorough review of San Francisco’s great places to walk in and around this town. Check out too! There’s some great fodder on where to go in the city as well!