On foot is really the best way to explore the hidden alleys and parks in Russian Hill.
When someone says they’ve been to San Francisco, they might just mean they’ve been to Russian Hill. It’s got everything a tourist needs. There’s Lombard Street and the cable car line along Hyde Street (The cable car museum is a quick must visit with your children). They can visit the San Francisco Art Institute to see the Diego Rivera mural, titled The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, which he painted in May 1931, or the Academy of Art University’s photo classrooms and photo studios. Other attractions include Ghirardelli Square, Aquatic Park, and Fisherman's Wharf.
Because of Russian Hill’s high altitude, they can enjoy great views in all directions and see the Golden Gate bridge, Marin County, and Alcatraz (on a clear day). In fact, a lot of the images you’ve seen from San Francisco are probably from Russian Hill since the hilly streets have been featured in car chases in films like the 1968 thriller Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen, and the incredible views have been featured in films like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
If you are a tourist, my advice is as follows:
On foot is really the best way to explore the hidden alleys and parks in Russian Hill. At Budda Park on Macondray Lane, for example, or the Greenwich Pathway just one block away from Lombard street, you will find a park which is very well maintained by the neighbors. Show your kids the gold fish in the pond at the art institute, while you check out the Diego Rivera mural, and the stunning views over the Bay.
The fun doesn't stop there! Take a walk down the crooked section of world famous Lombard street, hop on the Hyde & Powell trolley, and grab a slice at Za Pizza. Russian Hill, with its twists, turns, and attractions, is arguably one of the most San Francisco-esque neighborhoods out there!
If you are looking to live in San Francisco, however, my advice is quite different.
Russian Hill is one of the most underrated neighborhoods to live in in all of San Francisco.
First of all, there is no reason you can’t enjoy all the benefits of tourism. Because the city knows that so many visitors will want to take a look at the attractions there, they really put their best foot forward in Russian Hill. From the gorgeous foliage along the streets, to the charming, French themed shops along Polk Street, everything is nice and quaint. Who wouldn’t want to live there?
What is often overlooked however, is all of the quiet neighborhood that separates these tourist attractions. The terrain is so steep that the streets need to be stepped and the sidewalks often become stairways to allow people to scale up and down them. This keeps the looky-loos crowded around the photogenic attractions and tire them out quickly if they wander off course. As long as you can develop enough calf strength you can easily avoid the masses to live in the neighborhood undisturbed.
When you look deeper, though, Russian Hill has always been more than its outward appearances.
This has been the case from the very beginning. Though there are now 48 named hills in San Francisco, at the time of the city’s founding, Russian Hill was one of only 7. It got its name when settlers found a small cemetery on the top of the hill. The 7 graves probably belonged to Russian fur traders, sailors from nearby Fort Ross, an old Russian outpost north of San Francisco, or from Russian naval and merchant ships that frequently visited San Francisco in the 19th century. The graves were removed and now a small plaque and memorial (dedicated by the Russian government) in a tiny park at the top of Vallejo Street is the only remnant of the Russian influence. And yet, the name has stuck.
Take Lombard Street as another example. The curvy path of the street was suggested by landowner Carl Henry in 1922 as a way to mitigate the hill’s natural 27 percent grade (a raise of 27 feet vertical per 100 feet horizontal) because it was too steep for most cars to climb. It is popularly known as "the crookedest street in the world," even though the curvy section is only one block long and the rest of the street is a straight major thoroughfare. It’s also not the steepest street. (That would be Filbert St, between Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street, also in Russian Hill, at 31.5 percent grade.
Another example are the Alice Marble Tennis Courts located at Lombard and Hyde Streets, The placement of the 4 hardcourt tennis courts offer exceptional views of North Beach and the bay, but pose a huge challange on windy days.
As a whole, Russian Hill seems to be built as a beautiful photo op. Tourists stop to get instagram worthy images as they pass through, sampling cheese and wine and ice cream from the original Swensen’s Ice Cream Parlour, but they don’t linger too long. The secret that residents know, however, is that this is what makes it a great neighborhood to live in.
Russian Hill is most suited to stopping at a cafe or one of the numerous tiny parks dotted throughout the area to sit on a bench and contemplate while taking in the incredible view. Perhaps this is why the neighborhood has drawn so many notable writers to it over the years; from Beatnik legends Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassady to poet and librarian Ina Coolbrith (a prominent figure in the San Francisco Bay Area literary community as well as the first California Poet Laureate and the first poet laureate of any American state) who has a park named after her here.
Living in Russian Hill is like living in the Eiffel Tower. You can experience all of the beauty that attracts millions of tourists per year, while also enjoying comforts of living that out of towners can not even imagine.
As a perk, it won’t be long until your calves look like Popeye’s forearms.
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