Distance: 18.4-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1100 ft
A Best of the Best ride
This ride is one of the best rides in California and a Bucket List ride if there ever was one. Like the Golden Gate Loop, it’s more a cultural experience than a bicycle ride. It takes you on a non-stop Greatest Hits tour of most of San Francisco’s iconic landmarks—a rolling introduction to almost every spot on a visitor’s to-do list. You’ll experience about ten of the City’s most charming neighborhoods. You could easily crank out the route in under two hours, but you don’t want to do that—ride slow, look around, take it in, stop often. Bring a lock, money, and walking shoes, put on your puncture-resistant tires (this is, after all, a city), and schedule as much time for the ride as you possibly can—five hours at a minimum.
Prepare for sensory overload. In 19 miles you will ride by, among other things,
The Ferry Building
The Maritime Museum
The Hyde St Pier of Historic Ships
The Hyde St. Cable car turn-around
The Buena Vista Cafe
The Marina Green
The St. Francis Yacht Club
The Golden Gate Bridge
The Legion of Honor
The Cliff House
The Great Highway
Golden Gate Park
The Painted Ladies
The Opera House
The Asian Museum
Any one of these is worth from an hour to a full day. Good luck budgeting your time. Since most of the landmarks are familiar images, I’ve used the photos in this post to show some of the less familiar sights along the route.
So how’s the riding? It’s mostly flat, with two noticeable climbs (as you pass the Golden Gate Bridge and ascending to the Legion of Honor). Yes, SF is famously hilly—17 streets in the City top out at 30% or more, but none of them is on this route. You ride over roads, broken pavement, sidewalks, bike paths, bike lanes, glass, and lots of trolley and cable car tracks, and ride through hordes of pedestrians and tourists. It’s a bit chaotic and nervous-making at times, though there are stretches of near isolation. Best of all, SF is perhaps the most bike-friendly city in the United States, and thousands of cyclists are following this route in bits and pieces on any given day, so it’s well-marked and blessed with bike lanes—I wouldn’t encourage you to go otherwise.
By the way, the Wiggle is a zig-zag bicycle route through a 17-block stretch of town just before our route returns to Market St.
Take BART to the Embarcadero BART station (see the Rides by Region section on the Bay Area for tips on riding BART with a bike). Climb to street level, and ride the short stretch of Market St. east to the Embarcadero in the shadow of the Ferry Building, which is full of artisanal food shops and other interesting stuff. From here we’re going to follow the shoreline north, then west, then south, keeping as close to the water as we can, until we get to Golden Gate Park.
Ride north on the Embarcadero, following the wide, bold green bike lane. If the traffic bothers you, ride on the sidewalk, dodging pedestrians, which is perfectly acceptable all the way from the Ferry Building to the end of Crissy Field. Coit Tower looms on the hill to your L. On your right is a series of numbered Piers. Here much of the history of maritime San Francisco was writ, and there’s still a lot of stuff to interest a waterman. You pass the Alcatraz ferry terminal, where you can buy a ticket for a tour of the prison, and the Exploratorium, a legendary hands-on science museum that’s one of the City’s best ways to spend a day. Soon you near Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, which almost touch, and you have a route choice. Locals and old hands don’t go near either place, so they turn L on North Point St. (the green bike lane on Embarcadero will direct you there) and skip the crush of tourists, the sensory avalanche, and the trinket shops. But you don’t want to—for a first-timer, it’s a happening, not to be missed. Stay by the water and ride past Pier 39 on the sidewalk, among the pedestrians.
Pier 39 is fun in a P. T. Barnum sort of way, a marketplace of about 100 shops catering to tourists. Watch for street performers. There’s a colony of sea lions you can see on the L at the far end of Pier 39 itself—just head toward the barking. Just past Pier 39 there’s a relatively deserted, pretty pier you can ride out on and see the sea lions from the back side, as well as the best view of Alcatraz in town. The Blue and Gold ferry fleet runs sight-seeing tours around the Bay from here, a lovely way to spend half a day.
Keep on, riding on the street (trolley tracks are treacherous here), the sidewalk, or the parking lots—nobody minds—and pass Fisherman’s Wharf, where a few fishing boats still moor and head out every day in search of a catch and the famous restaurants charge way too much. Continue on past two trendy (or once-trendy) marketplaces—The Cannery and Ghirardelli Square (famous sundaes)—the Hyde St. Pier of historic ships, the Dolphin Club (whose members have been swimming in the Bay since 1877), the Cable Car turn-around (a spectacle in itself), Aquatic Park, and the Maritime Museum (a great one). At Hyde and Beach, you pass “the BV”—the Buena Vista Cafe, an innocuous-looking little bar and grill that opened in 1916, introduced Irish Coffee to the United States, and is on every local’s list of “real San Francisco” places. At the far end of Aquatic Park, take a few minutes to ride out to the end of the Municipal Pier, cutting off Aquatic Park from the Bay, for the second-best view of Alcatraz in town.
From the base of the Pier, follow the stream of tourists pushing rental bikes up the delightfully steep little hill on your R and look down on Fort Mason, which was a military base and is now a sort of performance space for local artists. Ride through the lovely grassy knoll to Marina Blvd and take it, past the Marina and the Marina Green. This is kite central, so look for kites flying. The houses on your L were worth millions when that was a rare thing in San Francisco, and it’s all because of the view out the living room windows.
At the far end of the Marina Green is the St. Francis Yacht Club, one of the most prestigious yacht clubs in the world (not the San Francisco Yacht Club, which ironically is across the Bay in Belvedere). You can ride over and watch people work on their boats, or ride to the end of the break-water and watch sailboats come and go.
Go straight onto Mason St. when the main road swerves L onto the Highway and ride along the south edge of Crissy Field, which used to be a military air field and is now a celebrated example of habitat restoration. Birds abound. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge are stunning, but they’ll get better. When Mason St ends, continue along the waterfront on the San Francisco Bay Trail to see Hopper’s Hands, a sweet little nod to the Bridge iron workers and the City’s runners, and Fort Point, the abandoned military base directly under the south end of the Bridge. There’s a lot of history here—Kim Novak throws herself in the Bay right here in Vertigo, for instance.
Backtrack to Mason St and ride up the steep 150-ft connector on your R to Lincoln Blvd (navigating is easier than the maps make it look). Make the tiny detour to the Golden Gate Bridge overlook, soak it in, and find your way to the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center if you want more history. Then continue on Lincoln through the Presidio, a peaceful park that was once a military base and is now a home to upscale inns, George Lucas’s offices (the Yoda statue is worth seeking out), restaurants, wooded hiking trails, and the splendid Walt Disney Family Museum, Mecca for the Disney faithful. The Presidio Visitor Center has a nice free map of the area.
Stay on Lincoln past the turn-off to Baker Beach (the beach itself is well worth a stop, with perhaps the single most magnificent view of the Bridge). Notice the WW2 gun emplacements below you. Notice the Marin headlands and the Point Bonita Lighthouse across the Golden Gate (which is not the bridge, but the strait itself). Notice the Bridge, breathtaking beneath you. Lincoln turns into El Camino del Mar and enters the Sea Cliff neighborhood, home to some of the City’s most magnificent homes. Feel free to wander the neighborhood streets (the locals love it when people do that…).
El Camino ends at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, one of the City’s great art museums (and the end of your climbing). Here you have a route choice. You can continue past the front of the Palace heading south and go R on Clement and down to the Great Highway. But easier and better is to ride along the north side of the building, through the north parking lot. At the far end of the lot, you find the trailhead for the El Camino del Mar Trail. Walking your bike, hike the easy, pretty dirt trail, staying on the main trail and ignoring all spurs, for 0.4 miles to its south terminus at the USS San Francisco Memorial.
Land’s End is prime hiking territory, so if you want to stay off your bike, here’s a good place to wander. Consider hiking out to the Land’s End Labyrinth.
From the USS San Francisco Memorial, ride the one and only road out to the first, obvious R turn down to the Cliff House (a restaurant rich in City lore, mostly for its location). Stop at the Cliff House to savor the view of Ocean Beach stretching away from you to the South, and the Great Highway along its edge. Consider checking out Sutro Heights and the ruins of Sutro Baths nearby, both interesting spots that played major roles in the City’s history.
Ride down the Great Highway a stone’s throw and the grand windmill on your L marks the west end of Golden Gate Park. Enter the park and ride by any one of a number of routes to the east end, the more indirect and meandering route the better.
I can’t begin to list the wonders of this magical place that has risen from the dunes, one of the world’s great parks, but off the top of my head I’d say, be sure to see Spreckels Lake and its model sailboats, Stowe Lake and its rentable paddle boats, the Tea Garden, the Arboretum, the Academy of Sciences, the Steinhart Aquarium, the De Young Museum, the Conservatory (a gigantic greenhouse), the Rhododendron Dell (in season), the Bowling Greens, and the carousel (a restored 1914 masterpiece with hand-carved wooden animals of all sorts—even an ostrich—with no two alike). The De Young has a tower from which the view of the City is spectacular, with labeled photo boards telling you what you’re looking at. An off-the-radar treasure is the fly casting pools, where many national fly casting champions (there are such) have honed their art.
Exit the Park on John F. Kennedy Drive, named after a famous 20th-Century serial adulterer, and enter the Panhandle, a long, one-block-wide extension of the Park. At the entrance to the Panhandle, the road forks—go L and take the lovely, serpentine bike path up the L side of the Panhandle, ending at the corner of Baker and Fell.
Here commences the Wiggle, a bicycle route laid out to allow you to ride from the Panhandle to Market St without climbing by zigzagging its way between the hills. It consists of constant turning, so I won’t detail the route—instead, go to the website above for directions. Even though the Wiggle is short (about 10 blocks, depending on which side of the street you’re counting), a San Francisco institution, and heavily ridden and marked along the route, I got lost 3 times.
The Wiggle isn’t particularly fun riding, but the architecture in the area is world-famous. The stunning Victorian houses, known as the Painted Ladies, are so famous that the entire area around Alamo Square (a one-block detour off the Wiggle proper) is a designated Historic District. The architectural show continues at a slightly more restrained pace for the bulk of the Wiggle, almost to Duboce Ave (rhymes with “dose”).
Duboce runs into Market St, the spine of the City and one of the busiest, most chaotic streets in my experience. It’s perpetually crammed with every imaginable sort of traffic, and since the intersecting streets on the north side hit it at an odd angle and the streets on the south side don’t, every intersection is a madhouse. So you have a decision to make: you can jump on the nearest BART station (at Civic Center, a few blocks down Market, or at 16th and Mission if you absolutely don’t want to ride on Market) and get out of there, or you can ride Market (L from Duboce) back to the Embarcadero Station.
How awful is Market on a bicycle? It’s a bit nerve-wracking, especially if you’re new to urban riding, so expect your blood pressure to rise a bit. But it’s got a bike lane, you’ll have a lot of cyclists for company, it’s a San Francisco “scene,” every foot of it is exhilarating, and I flat-out loved it. Just keep an eye out for cars, trucks, buses, taxis, cops, trolleys, trolley tracks, pedestrians, broken glass, broken pavement, bike messengers, and the eternal road construction and you should be fine.
Ride back to the Embarcadero BART Station. On the way you’ll pass City Hall and the Opera House, both architecturally worth a look, and the Asian Museum, my vote for the best museum in the City. Enter the station and return by BART to your starting place.
Shortening the route: In one sense this is the easiest of routes to shorten, because any mile of it offers a day’s worth of exploring. Particularly rich legs might be 1) from the Ferry Building to the Golden Gate Bridge and back; 2) from the Presidio to Golden Gate Park; 3) Golden Gate Park by itself; and 4) Market Street.
Adding miles: This route overlaps our Golden Gate Bridge Loop from Pier 39 to the Bridge.
There are a surprising number of good bike rides in San Francisco. From the Panhandle you’re close to Twin Peaks—attaining the summit is easier than it looks and offers one of the world’s most stunning urban panoramas. Half the roads at the summit are now closed to cars, which makes the trip even sweeter. Continuing down the wide-open, dead straight Great Highway past the Park allows you the rare opportunity to do some in-city time trialing and takes you down to Lake Merced, a lovely area. Continuing on the Great Highway, you reach Hwy 1, whence you can ride south along the coast all the way to Half Moon Bay, a very nice ride once you clear town. And of course you want to tackle at least one of those 30% pitches so you can say you did it. For any riding in the City, The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has prepared for you the SF Bike Network Map, detailing all bike routes, lanes, and such. You can request a paper version by mail.
Afterthought: BART at Market St. is five flights of stairs below street level, so when I start from North Berkeley the ride involves me in climbing 16 flights of stairs, by far the hardest part of the ride. There are (almost unusable) elevators. The escalators are off limits to cyclists.