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A Walk Around Russian Hill

A Walk Around Russian Hill


One of the city’s iconic hilltop neighborhoods, Russian Hill rises above the fog (most days) between Pacific Heights, Nob Hill, and North Beach. Breezy bay views, hidden parks and gardens, and a trove of some of the oldest houses in San Francisco are rewards for a ramble around this leafy aerie above the bay—one of the best things to do while you’re visiting.


Along steep stairways and alleyways, explorers will marvel at the lineup of pre-earthquake, Italianate, and Spanish Mission Revival houses. Bring along a map to locate these architectural landmarks and take time to enjoy the dazzling views, and the gardens that are the pride of the neighborhood. At the end of your walk, descend to European-style cafes and capricious boutiques at the foot of the hill.

Vintage Architecture

Start at Jones and Vallejo Streets on the whimsical, Beaux-Arts stairway, designed in 1915 by Willis Polk, a seminal architect of post-1906 earthquake reconstruction. At the top of the stairs, on both sides, notice the Spanish-tile-roofed, Mission Revival-style houses with their fanciful balconies and arched windows, then walk into the short alleyway of Russian Hill Place to see the backs of those homes and their gardens. #6 is a turn-of-the-century First Bay Area Tradition style house.


Lining Vallejo Street are a variety of fanciful homes and apartments built between 1888 and the 1940s. Turn right into short Florence Street; one of the oldest houses on the hill, built in 1850, #40 Florence is hidden within additions from later decades. Peek through the fence to see a 8-foot-tall rabbit, and, on the garage roof, a contemporary, mobile sculpture. Note the treasury of Pueblo-Mission Revival style homes along this street. 

Willis Polk

The gems of Russian Hill are two Willis Polk-designed, steep-roofed, gabled houses, side-by-side under the same roof at #1013-1019 Vallejo. Heralding a move away from the gingerbread-laden architecture of the Victorian era, Polk designed a home in 1892 for a wealthy client who hosted there, among others, Robert Louis Stevenson and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Polk’s own house next door (1013) is a shingle-sided, 6-story arrangement influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement. (After the earthquake, Polk became supervising architect of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair celebrating the building of the Panama Canal and the rebuilding of San Francisco.) Below his house, he created the zigzagging, Beaux Arts-style Vallejo Street steps, known as “the ramps.” All along the rambling, 3-part stairway are overflowing gardens––blue hydrangeas, pink azaleas, palms, magnolias, and over-arching pines and cypress. 

A Park, a Woodsy Lane

At the bottom of the steps, cross the street to take in the sun at tiny Ina Coolbrith Park. Perch on the stairs or on a bench amid the greenery to enjoy views of islands in the bay, North Beach, the Bay Bridge, and the lower Financial District.


Proceed north a block to woodsy Macondray Lane, accessed by a creaky wooden stairway winding through dense vegetation. Along the two-block, pedestrian-only pathway are shingled Edwardian cottages, ballast stones from sailing ships, and rustic country houses surrounded by flower gardens. The lane is the site of Barbary Lane in the long-ago “Tales of the City” TV series. At #5-17, rococo plaster garlands drape over the doorways of a rare earthquake survivor.


Head west on Green Street to the 1000 block between Jones and Leavenworth, which is sometimes called “the Paris Block,” in reference to the apartment house at #1050, reminiscent of those in Paris. A dozen buildings on the block are on the National Register of Historic Places, including the last firehouse built for horse-drawn vehicles, and, across the street, the flamboyant 1857 Freusier Octagon House, complete with mansard roof and cupola.

Hyde Street Eateries

Continue on Green to Hyde Street where cafes and shops cluster between Jackson and Union. Francophiles meet for farm-to-table French cuisine at Hyde Street Bistro and, at Frascati, for a rustic, pan-European menu of paella, cassoulet and coq au vin in an intimate setting. Zarzuela Restaurant at 2000 Hyde at Union is a long-established emporium of tapas, paella, empanadas and more traditional Spanish dishes––and sangria!


Getting to Russian Hill: parking is difficult. Take the Hyde-Powell cable car or the 45 MUNI line to Vallejo Street and walk east two blocks.


—By Karen Misuraca
Travel and culture writer Karen Misuraca is the author of Fun With the Family Northern California and founder of DeepCultureTravel.com.


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