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Ups and downs amid gardens and grand views

An 1863 cottage on the Filbert Steps in San Francisco.
An 1863 cottage on the Filbert Steps in San Francisco. (Bill Strubbe for The Boston Globe)
By Bill Strubbe
Globe Correspondent / August 31, 2008
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Besides its foggy summers, sourdough bread, earthquakes, Golden Gate, and rather unconventional inhabitants, San Francisco is famous for its celebrated cable cars clanging up and down its equally acclaimed hills.

Before the 1849 California Gold Rush the city's population numbered fewer than 500. Two years later more than 20,000 people had walked, ridden, and sailed to "Frisco" with dreams of striking it rich. The city's hills - 42 all told - impeded the transformation of the sprawling tent village into a respectable city of wooden homes.

When its founding fathers laid out the city in the 1850s, novel street planning was required to navigate the steep terrain. Where the streets became too steep, steps were employed to mount the remaining incline, with eventually some 600 stairways anchored to precipitous grades.

Each step street is unique, its ambience dependent on the neighborhood, views, and construction, the wood, steel, cement, railroad ties, or brick lending their own nuance. While the lush gardens of the Filbert Steps are perhaps the most famous and Castro denizens are probably familiar with the elegant double staircase on Sanchez, only the most intrepid seekers are apt to locate obscure Acme Alley or the surreal "floating" Oakhurst Steps scaling the flanks of Forest Knoll.

While some step streets have gone to seed, ne glected by the city or the neighborhood, the Moraga Steps, tiled with hand-made ceramics, rise in a glorious swirl of fish and sea, flowers and lands, bird and sky. Joy Steps on the eastern slopes of Bernal Heights are nestled in an urban oasis of sylvan ambience, offering a dose of engaging history, some delightful wanderings, and exercise to boot. I've spent many afternoons traipsing up and down the city's neighborhoods and have selected a few favorite steep niches to share.

Filbert Steps

Even armed with a good map (and you'll need one), locating the Filbert Steps off Montgomery Street on the bay-side of Telegraph Hill can be daunting. Once I did, the first thing noticeable from the top is a classy Art Moderne apartment building with etched glass windows and sgraffito mural depicting the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, the structure itself magically in view just beyond. It was also the locale for the 1947 Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall film "Dark Passage." Across the street don't miss the delightful mural of a poodle behind a real water hydrant.

A few steps down and I entered what seemed another, rural world where the winsome cottages clinging to the slopes have endured earthquakes, fires, progress, and use as a dumping ground. Starting around 1950, Grace Marchant burned the accumulated garbage of decades and after 30 years created the garden gem that exists today. On a landing is a plaque dedicated to her. Now, this verdant swath blooms with purple clematis, fragrant tea roses, fuchsias, irises, and lilies vying for attention along with the basking cats that emerge at dusk.

The steps were built in the 1860s when bay waters still lapped the base of Telegraph Hill. Waterfront workers going home ascended the steps. No. 226 is a renovated miner's shack circa 1863, and the Gothic bungalow next door was a grocery store. While resting on a bench at the intersection of Napier Lane and Darrell Place - which appear as streets on maps but are both plank walkways - I caught sight of a dozen green parrots screeching overhead, some of the hundreds made famous by the delightful documentary "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill."

On my ascent, I struck up a conversation with a woman who has lived on Filbert for 28 years but declined to give her name. "Once people move in here, they're likely to stay for a long time. Many of these houses are passed down through the family," she said. "I lucked out and inherited mine after my divorce."

One block farther along Montgomery Street begins the 147 Greenwich Steps leading past the famous Julius' Castle restaurant, then under magnolia, purple princess, deodar, pepper, and redwood specimens. Raccoons, red foxes, and squirrels dwell in the hillside, and indeed three raccoons scampered across my path. Crossing Montgomery Street and continuing up the Filbert Steps brought me to Coit Tower, with its fine 1930s Works Progress Administration murals and fantastic view of the bay.

After all this trekking up and down, I was hungry so I headed down the west slope into North Beach to the recommended Bao Necci Danilo Bakery. Here, in this unassuming cafe on the edge of this raucous neighborhood, I ordered delicious homemade minestrone soup and a sandwich.

Lyon Steps

If you have aspirations to grandeur, strolling west along the few blocks of Broadway leading to the Lyon Steps will make you envious. With stunning views the architectural jewels come in every style: Jacobean, Tudor, Mediterranean, Mission, mock Château, and a few ultracontemporary creations of chrome, stucco, and glass.

Broadway dead-ends into the fence at the Presidio and the Lyon Steps, bordered with impeccably kept gardens of ivy, pink begonias, and agapanthus that descend the slope. Designed by Louis Upton in 1916, these steps compete with the Forest Hills Steps as the most elegant ones in the city. On this day a half-dozen aerobics fiends jog up and down the steps, eschewing the gym in favor of this StairMaster with a view. And a great view it is with sailboats gliding across San Francisco Bay and the domed Palace of Fine Arts below. The Romanesque columned rotunda with its surrounding lagoon and gardens is the last remnant of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, built on landfill from the rubble of the 1906 earthquake. It now houses the Exploratorium, a hands-on interactive science museum that is a favorite of children and adults alike.

As the 130 Lyon Steps end near Vallejo Street, in front of an imposing mansion (which I learned is US Senator Dianne Feinstein's new abode), they widen onto a garden with a heart sculpture in its center, one of the many from the "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" citywide art project.

Vulcan Steps, Saturn Steps

If you're starting out in the morning, duck into the Queen Malika Cafe for coffee and breakfast and try the delicious crepes. Walk up 18th Street, take a right on Ord Street, cross Market, and 100 paces on the left begin the Saturn Steps (in the vicinity are also Mars and Uranus streets), revamped by the city and neighbors after years of neglect. At a brief rise the stairs divide around an island of scented star jasmine and blue agapanthus, with a bench to sit on and take a breather. Here a man was working on a Japanese-style garden adjacent to his yard that featured a small pagoda.

Farther along Ord Street begin the Vulcan Steps. I love this place, which is quiet and shady with bamboo, azaleas, rhododendrons, cypress, and lemon trees. Several of the eclectic cottages, particularly two shingled ones midway on the right, have been remodeled into mini-Shangrilas. I had an empty bike water bottle - and filled it with handfuls of the plentiful, plump blackberries that ripen along the steps in July and August.

By the way, suggested paraphernalia for step scouting include: sensible walking shoes, layers of clothing, a city map (or MapQuest printouts), water bottle, snacks, camera, and binoculars. For earnest explorers, highly recommended is "Stairway Walks in San Francisco" by Adah Bakalinsky (Wilderness, 2004), available at city bookstores or online. When visiting step streets, you are often near private homes, so be respectful and keep your voice down.

Harry Steps

Anyone fortunate enough to have a front door on Harry Steps (where Noe Street dead-ends into Laidley) must cherish the uniqueness, tranquillity, and privacy the address affords. Though I can easily imagine the bouts of cursing on moving day, lugging groceries on a stormy night, or maneuvering the steps on crutches.

Constructed from cement, planks, and cobblestones, the long and steep Harry Steps lead through a jungle of plants and trees, ivy, and nasturtiums carpeting the ground. Several dozen steps up, accompanied by the scent of pine and eucalyptus, it was hard to imagine I was in the middle of a city. I picked several handfuls of the edible nasturtiums to liven up that night's dinner salad.

By the time I reached the top of Harry Steps I knew I would be skipping my leg exercises later that day. On the way back down a family emerged from the front door of a modest home. A brief conversation revealed that they had lived here for eight years. When asked about hauling groceries up all those steps - and moving in and out - the father laughed and said, "Well, we let gravity do most of the work by parking at the top and carrying them down. . . . And the only way we'll ever move me out from here is feet first in a coffin!"

Bill Strubbe can be reached at bsbillbs@yahoo.com.

If You Go

What to do

Exploratorium

3601 Lyon St.

415-563-7337

exploratorium.edu

Touch and tinker with hundreds of exhibits. Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults $14, children ages 13-17 $11, 4-12 $9, 3 and under free.

Where to stay

Willows Inn

710 14th St.

415-431-4770

willowssf.com

Recently renovated, 11 guest rooms (shared with eight baths). Generous breakfast included. $99-$190.

Galleria Park Hotel

191 Sutter St.

415-781-3060

galleriapark.com

Renovated boutique Art Deco hotel in the heart of downtown, with a park terrace to walk your dog. Rooms start at $159.

Hotel Vitale

8 Mission St.

415-278-3700

hotelvitale.com

Has an indoor-outdoor restaurant and rooftop spa overlooking the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero Waterfront. $249-$499.

Where to eat

Queen Malika Crepes & Coffee

4416 18th St.

415-626-4416

Neighborhood cafe serving light breakfast and brunch fare. $4-$8.

Bao Necci Danilo Bakery

516 Green St.

415-989-1806

A North Beach diamond in the rough with breakfast, lunch, homemade soups, pizza, and sandwiches. Closed Mondays. $4-$9.

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