Last updated on August 30th, 2022
On this day, we will cover a lot of ground, so renting a bicycle for the day is a good option. We’ll focus on two possible options, one involving crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and the other heading to a beautiful lesser-known beach park.
If cycling isn’t your thing, both options are suitable for those who enjoy walking. You might find that crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on foot is a bit too much but you can simply go as far as you feel comfortable and turn around. Alternatively, you can take the bus or cab from Baker Beach (option 2) and return to the downtown area.
The area we wish to explore on this day is close to Fisherman’s Wharf and that’s also where most of the bicycle rental outfits are located. So why not get there in style? From the downtown area, hop on the scenic Powell & Hyde cable car and stop at the top of Lombard Street. Queues at the start of the cable car lines can be horrible so you can simply walk “up the line” and flag the cable car at one of the stations. The corner of Lombard and Hyde is one of the best photography spots in San Francisco. With Alcatraz straight in the background, you’ll see cable cars climb up and down the hill.
The queue to get onto the cable car at its starting point can be quite long and a big “time waster”. If this is the case, you can walk “up the line” and flag a passing a cable car from one of its stations.
And now for Lombard Street. This famous street snakes its way down the hill via 8 steep curves and is famous around the world. Originally conceived to help drivers safely negotiate the hill, this section of Lombard Street is popular with the tourists who drive down the hill in endless amounts. For those of us on foot, it’s great to walk down and admire the landscape, along with the panoramic views that the lucky (or unlucky) residents of this street enjoy.
Today we will cover a great distance so renting a bicycle is a good option. The parts we’ll cover in today’s itinerary are quite well-geared for bicycle riders so it’s no surprise that renting a bicycle is such a popular activity in San Francisco. If cycling isn’t your thing, you can do large chunks of the itinerary on foot and easily return to the city by bus or cab.
(1) It’s best to reserve your bicycle rental in advance and to aim for an early departure to avoid the queues. (2) Be prepared for both sunny and windy conditions with suns screen, something warm, and some water and snacks.
Start things off where we ended yesterday’s walking tour, at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and the municipal pier. Take the steep climb towards Fort Mason, where the views are fantastic and from where you’ll catch the first good glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. Cycle or walk across the Great Meadow Park at Fort Mason and head down to Marina Boulevard (don’t worry, you’ll see many other cyclists with you). The Marina District is one of the most sought-after neighborhoods in the city and it is easy to see why. There’s a sense of a never-ending vacation around here, not to mention fine views of one of the prettiest natural bays in the world.
The first “real” stop is at the Palace of Fine Arts which requires a slight detour at the very end of Marina Boulevard. This is another famous landmark in San Francisco and you’ll surely recognize this open classical rotunda. Built for a fair in 1915, the palace has since managed to go through a period of decay and reconstruction. It’s popular with the swans in the center pond and couples on pre-wedding photoshoots (the houses around it aren’t too bad either).
Back on the bikes, continue along the San Francisco Bay Trail which slices through the Crissy Field Marsh with its sandy landscape and beautiful beach.
Further on, you’ll eventually reach Crissy Field, a huge park that’s very popular with locals on weekend BBQs. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city’s skyline behind you keep getting better and better. This is a great spot for a picnic lunch but if you didn’t pack anything with you for the ride, that’s no problem. Head to the Warming Hut Cafe, a bookstore and gift shop that also sells great sandwiches, and dine outside with a view.
After fueling up, you are now faced with two choices: either cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge or cycle towards Baker Beach across the Presidio, eventually getting to Golden Gate Park. Both options involve doing a bit of climbing.
When you think about San Francisco, the image that first comes to mind is no doubt, that of the Golden Gate Bridge. After four years of construction (costing over $1B in today’s money), the bridge opened in 1937. This beautiful suspension bridge (spanning 1,200 meters between towers) is the symbol of the city and connects Marin County to San Francisco, almost 3 kilometers away. Continuously pounded by the Pacific winds (it’s pretty windy up here), the bridge was designed to endure the worst that Mother Nature can swing at it, and hanging over 60 meters above the water, is, unfortunately, a popular spot for suicides.
Crossing the bridge is certainly another achievement unlocked and only when crossing by foot or bike, do you get a true sense of this engineering marvel.
It can get pretty crowded on the bridge but you do have a few spaces to stop and enjoy the sites. When crossing the bridge heading north, you’ll be on the opposite side of the city. However, there are plenty of good viewing areas just beyond the bridge. One good option is the Golden Gate Bridge View Vista Point, but we’ll cover this with the car the next day when we head out of the city to Muir Woods.
As you finish crossing the bridge, you’ll just follow the path that takes you onto Conzelman Rd, below the bridge then onto Moore Rd and finally East Rd and into Sausalito.
There’s no need to cycle back unless you really want to. From Sausalito, catch the ferry back to San Francisco where you can return your bike.
Sausalito is the kind of town you’d love to live in. It is tiny but its charming main street is lined with restaurants, cafes, and boutiques. Its hills are dotted with beautiful cottages that have million-dollar views, and its houseboats further to the north have become iconic. The marina in the city center makes Sausalito very accessible to day-trippers from San Francisco.
Park the bikes near the marina and head for a stroll in town. If you have a sweet tooth (and you deserve some candy after all that riding), head to Munchies Candy and try their saltwater taffy. If you fancy something to eat or just a nice drink, head to one of the restaurants or wine bars around the Sausalito Yacht Harbor. If you fancy some sushi, try your luck at getting a table at Sushi Ran. This busy place usually requires a reservation and it’s a great way to end the day.
When you’ve had enough, catch the ferry back to the city. The ride back offers great sunset views of San Francisco Bay. Check the ferry times here and be sure to come back before your bike rental outfits close for the day.
If crossing the Golden Gate Bridge is not your thing or if you’ll be crossing it by car – here’s an excellent alternative. Instead of crossing the bridge when you reach HWY 101 just after climbing from The Warming Hut, climb to the Presidio A military fort for 218 years, this present-day national park is dotted with scenic viewpoints and beautiful mansions. Many roads and trails criss-cross the Presidio, making it a popular destination for cyclists and for those seeking to escape the city for a few hours.
Even if you’re not cycling, you can walk part of or the entire way to Baker Beach and use a cab or bus to get back to the downtown area.
The first highlight on this leg is right as you begin to climb to the Presidio. Pause at the Viewpoint Golden Gate Bridge for additional classic San Francisco Views. From there, head to the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point South and pick up the California Coastal Trail for a safe walk to Baker Beach. Stop at Golden Gate Overlook for a unique vantage point of the bridge traffic.
This is a beautiful part of the city, a world away from the hustle and bustle of the downtown area. The coastal trail offers many chances to head down to scenic and remote beaches, such as Marshall’s Beach, or to abandoned concrete forts that were erected in the past to protect the entrance to San Francisco Bay. From here, just follow the signs and head down to Baker Beach.
Not too many tourists venture to Baker Beach. That’s a shame because this beach is one of the nicest city beaches you’ll come across. With a unique view of the Golden Gate Bridge to the east, stroll along the fine white sand and watch as huge ocean liners enter the bay. Don’t be alarmed if you see a few nudists in the northern part of the beach. This beach is the birthplace of the legendary Burning Man festival which now takes place in Nevada – so you can imagine it’s quite a free spirit spot.
From Baker Beach, you are faced with two options.
If you’re tired or out of time at this point, order a cab or walk to California Street and catch a bus (about 20 mins on foot from Baker Beach) – if you’ve been walking. If you have been cycling, you can head back via Lake and Clay streets, eventually making it back to the bike drop-off zones. The cycling is mostly flat and, on the odd hill, just walk the bikes. You’ll pass through one of the nicest (and quietest) parts of San Francisco and be amazed that in the heart of the city, you have such grand Victorian-style houses.
If you still have some gas (and daylight) left, head via 25th Av and enter Golden Gate Park. Rivaled only by New York’s Central Park, this is one of the finest city parks in the world. Golden Gate Park is huge and deserves its own day to explore but if you don’t have the time but do have a bike, it makes for a pleasant ride.
There are a few highlights within the park, with the most famous (and touristy) one being the Japanese Tea Garden – the oldest Japanese garden in the US. The garden’s footpaths lead visitors to pagodas, bonsai and cherry trees, ponds, and everything you’d expect from such gardens. Other highlights include the famous bronze Buddha sculpture and the oversized U-shaped bridge.
During my last visit, I found the Japanese Tea Garden to be quite a rip-off. The price of admission was high compared to its small size and lack of ability to spend a considerable amount of time exploring the premises. Instead, consider the adjacent San Francisco Botanical Garden or rose garden, or even the de Young Museum if you have the time. Two additional lovely spots are worth checking out if you’re already here, the symmetrical Rideout Fountain and its square, and the tranquil grounds of Stow Lake.
If you’ve walked all the way here, it’s very easy to take the bus back to town. You can catch the 5 or 5R Fulton Street or use Google Maps to find additional routes. Alternatively, ordering a cab from one of the major streets should not be a challenge.
If you’re still up for some adventure, cycle east out of the park to the corner of Haight-Ashbury, the iconic peace movement area. Nowadays, this neighborhood is still popular with the hippy crowd and its most “classic” section stretches from the park entrance to Masonic Street. Check out the tie-dye clothing shops, smoke shops, vegan cafes, vintage clothing shops, and, of course, the record stores. From here, it’s quite a long cycle back to the bike drop zones.
After all that cycling, you deserve a sweet and calorie-rich reward. Conveniently enough, Ghirardelli is not far from bike drop-off zones. Famous for their chocolate squares, Ghirardelli is also famous for sundaes. What a perfect way to welcome the evening with a sundae in Ghirardelli Square.
Apart from the ice cream restaurant and chocolate store, you’ll find additional shops and convenient public restrooms at Ghirardelli Square. The San Francisco waterfront is just meters away if you still feel like wandering around after this busy day.
Your cable car ticket might award a small discount at Ghirardelli’s.