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San Francisco’s Hidden Stairways

The Vulcan Steps

There’s a whole bunch of things I love about San Francisco, and many of them have to do with the fact that it’s one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It’s the kind of city where you say to yourself one morning, “I’m gonna go discover something cool,” and then you invariably do.

I’ve been intrigued by this city’s stairways ever since a dear friend of mine took me to the Vulcan Steps on my first San Francisco visit in 1994. And it might seem like searching out steps is an odd thing to do in a city known for iconic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid and tourist hotspots like Golden Gate Park and Chinatown. But it’s the fact that they’re under the radar that I find so appealing. They allow you to reach corners of the city that are off the sightseeing beaten path. You have to do a little work to get to them, but you’ll be well rewarded.

View from the Vulcan StepsOf course geography is a major reason why there are an estimated 300 sets of stairs scattered throughout the city. San Francisco occupies a very hilly peninsula, and in places the incline is so steep that building a street would be impractical—or impossible. Stairways thus provide access to areas unreachable by any other means, as well as a convenient shortcut if you happen to live in the vicinity. Some stairways are better known than others—like the Filbert Steps that lead up to Coit Tower—but many more are well-kept secrets, and I’m going to share a couple with you.

I was captivated by the tucked-away beauty of the Vulcan Steps and always come back to them when I’m in town. They connect Ord and Levant streets in a neighborhood near Buena Vista Park, between the Haight and the Castro. I recommend that you start at the top of the steps (off Levant) and walk down them to Ord Street. The stone steps are shaded by trees and bordered by luxuriant vegetation. The houses lining the steps are architecturally varied, and if you’re like me you’ll be wishing that you could live in one of them, despite the fact that they’re accessible only on foot (think about that the next time you go grocery shopping). Vulcan Steps garden

About halfway down there’s a very nice view of the rocky summit that is the centerpiece of Corona Heights Park, framed by a tall date palm; this makes a good photo op. A bit farther down on the right is a lovely little garden with a white stone pagoda (another good photo op). When you reach the bottom take a look at the masses of aloe plants growing along the right-hand side of the steps.

Saturn StepsHalf a block away (toward 17th Street) the Saturn Steps run parallel to the Vulcan Steps, connecting Ord and Saturn streets. There are gardens along these steps as well, and brick terraces with benches where you can sit and take in the view. At the top of the steps follow the path to the Saturn Street cul-de-sac and proceed up Saturn Street to the Lower Terrace (off Roosevelt Way). There are more nice views from the elevated perspective of this maze-like residential enclave. Then retrace your path and walk down the Saturn Steps back to Ord Street.

If you’re up for a strenuous hike (it’s good exercise!), take Ord Street to 17th Street, turn right and follow 17th to Stanyan Street (it’s a steep hill, but you’ll start descending before you reach Stanyan). Turn right on Stanyan and walk four blocks to Parnassus Avenue. Turn left on Parnassus and walk two blocks to Willard Street. Turn left on Willard (another uphill street) and walk about a block until you see the Farnsworth Lane street sign on the right side of the street. You’ve reached the bottom of the Farnsworth Steps.

These stone steps also are bordered with vegetation that makes for a lovely, leafy little hike. It only takes about five minutes to get to the top, and you can pause along the way for a great view of the Haight below, with the downtown skyline in the distance. There’s a house at the top that once belonged to Philo T. Farnsworth, an inventor who was one of the main individuals responsible for the development of the all-electronic television. 

Farnsworth stepsThe Farnsworth Steps connect Willard Street with Edgewood Lane. When I reached the top and looked down Edgewood, it didn’t seem to have access to any other street. Was this some self-contained island that existed apart from the rest of the city? If so, where do Edgewood Lane residents shop, and how do they get there? And I wondered again what it would be like to live along one of these stairways. The settings are utterly idyllic and the views gorgeous—but how much of a drag does it become to constantly go up and down steep steps in the course of meeting life’s daily demands? Somehow I think I’d get used to it.

I checked out some additional city steps that I’ll write about in a future blog, so stay tuned—and please share your own stairway experiences. As Robert Plant so memorably sang all those years ago, there might be a few that lead, at least rhetorically, to heaven.   

The Vulcan and Saturn steps can be accessed via Ord or Levant streets. The Farnsworth Steps are two blocks south of Golden Gate Park’s southeastern corner, near the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center complex.

All photos by Greg Weekes

AAA.com's San Francisco Travel Guide provides detailed information about the Bay area including things to see and do in and around the city. It provides a destination overview, suggested activities, restaurants, attractions and nightlife, and top picks and recommendations from AAA's professional travel editors.
  • Nancy in Orlando

    I love San Francisco and didn’t know about the stairs. I can’t wait to visit again and check them out. Thanks for cool post!

  • Greg

    Nancy, San Francisco stairways are one of the more delightful aspects of this delightful city, but unless you’re a resident or you actually use them they are not well known. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the blog, to let visitors know about these hidden places. I find them fascinating because they don’t stand out and you have to know where to access them. The beautiful landscaping is a bonus. Definitely check out the Vulcan Steps. I also plan on writing a blog sequel that includes my personal favorite, the Vallejo Steps; the views of downtown and North Beach from these steps are stunning.

    I too love San Francisco and will be back in November for three weeks. In fact I just found out that Berkeley has its own network of pedestrian pathways (news to me), so I will be checking those out. Stay tuned and thanks for reading and commenting!

  • http://carandtravelmagazine.com/ Terence Baker

    Great find, Greg. I wrote a piece for AAA Travel Views on Turku in Finland: http://www.aaatravelviews.com/post/2009/10/27/Southern-Finland-The-Old-and-The-New.aspx It, too, has many flights of stairs, and perhaps unlike San Francisco, it even has a brochure so that you can walk them all and know exactly how many steps there are before you clamber up. I, ever the thorough travel writer, ascended them all, and many secret corners can be discovered by doing so.

  • Barbara

    I love all these staircases! Have you seen the new San Francisco Stairways app on iTunes…it covers 49 different public staircases and costs just 99 cents.

  • Greg Weekes

    Terence, I just read your Turku blog. It makes me want to go to Finland and amble around every place you visited. Another city that has always intrigued me is Stockholm. I’ve never seen a photo of that city that didn’t make it look absolutely enchanting. I love cities that are pedestrian friendly. San Francisco, despite the chaotic traffic, certainly qualifies on that count because it’s so compact. It’s very walkable.

    Barbara, I had no idea there was a SF stairways app! What will they think of next? I’m telling you technology is just running rampant! Thanks for the tip.

  • http://www.onlypapertowelholders.com/shop-by-finish/stainless-steel-paper-towel-holders/ Nathan

    I wish I had read this piece before I went to SF last spring with the kids. Finding offbeat things like this is right up their alley.
    Love the idea of the SF stairways app!

  • Greg

    Nathan, kids would love these stairways. It not only uses up excess energy (always a plus, right?), but the bonus for you is prime city views from vantage points that not many visitors know about. Put this on your to-do list the next time you’re in San Francisco, and make sure you bring along your camera!

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