SAN FRANCISCO — “I’d add 10 minutes to that,’’ he said, in response to my guess on how long it would take to walk to my new and wholly unplanned destination.
“In San Francisco,’’ the bartender continued. “Everything is uphill.’’
My rental bike had a flat. So I took the most sensible action for a person stuck in an unfamiliar city with the air punched out of his plans: I ducked into the nearest bar and ordered an extra dry gin martini. And I flipped through my cellphone, seeking out repair shops.
Fortified, at least spiritually, I struck away from the piers — and flat terrain — of the waterfront with my limp bike and headed for the heart of this city.
“In San Francisco,’’ I muttered, “everything is . . . ’’
To say the walk to Columbus Cyclery is uphill is like saying Willie McCovey was a slap hitter, that Grace Slick could hum a few bars, that Steve McQueen tooled around in a go-kart, that Alcatraz was nothing but a timeout room. I’ve climbed the tallest mountains in New England, in all seasons, yet as I scaled Montgomery Street, all I could think of was Eddie Hillary and Tenzing Norgay and oxygen masks.
Then I stopped.
Such a what’s-left-of-my-breath-taking view.
Up from the intersection at Vallejo Street: a verdant, vertical walkway disappeared into a pack of palms and ebullient bougainvilleas, bracketed by bow-windowed rowhouses. Down from the intersection: Light flicked across gray blue waters, with the Bay Bridge framing one side. Stunning.
An adjacent sign: “Telegraph Hill.’’
I had intended this article to be about riding your bike along San Fran’s famed and flat waterfront, across the Golden Gate Bridge, down the hills of Sausalito and back to the city on a ferry. Fellow bicyclists had warned me that San Francisco was not very bike-friendly, because of those hills, but I thought this was the perfect way to see it without my lungs getting suck-stuck into my throat.
I was wrong.
No excursion can capture this city unless you’re willing to leave the flats and huff it up its hills to those spellbinding views.
There’s a way to do both.
Start your bike trek at AT&T ballpark, that wonderful amalgam of muscular iron and iconic structures wrought high into the fickle winds.
Ride westward along The Embarcadero, the road hugging the waterfront. The bike paths in the street are well marked, the sightlines excellent. You’ll be riding next to one of the great urban walkways of North America, past piers of historic renown and present reclamation.
Stop at the Ferry Building. It was once a hub for wayfaring westerners before becoming an eyesore. It has been renovated into what is arguably the hub of the San Fran’s foodie universe. Often, outdoor stalls offer everything from a Jewish deli to Mexican tamales to fresh produce from nearby Sacramento Valley. Inside is packed with diverse palate-pleasing plates.
Once fueled, you’re ready for your detour into the hills. Nearby is Filbert Street, more precisely, the 400 or so Filbert Steps at its dead end. Park your bike at the foot, take a deep breath, and plunge up.
You’ll be climbing among gardens and Art Deco buildings. Keep an ear out for the raucous cacophony and an eye out for the colors of the birds made famous in the documentary “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.’’
They may distract you from that sensation of lungs being turned inside-out.
At the top, you’ve reached your destination, Coit Tower. For a fee, an elevator will take you to its observation deck for the pinnacle of panoramic views of San Francisco. Here, the sweeping sense of a city framed by water is acute.
At the base of the tower, murals in the style of Diego Rivera and done during the Depression, offer a different majesty.
You can take the Greenwich Steps down, offering a climbing loop.
Back on your bike, you’ll continue westward, skipping Fisherman’s Wharf, unless you have a hankering for knicks, crowds, and knacks, and skimming by the old Ghirardelli’s Chocolate headquarters, now a warren of shops. You’ll need to consult a map to find your way onto the San Francisco Bay Trail, near historic Fort Mason.
If you are interested in making this a more leisurely, two-day trip, Fort Mason has an excellent hostel ($42 includes bike locker and breakfast). The wall of tips on the best hidden gems of the city from the young eager staff is worth the price itself.
The bike trail takes you to the famed Presidio, long a military post, now mainly parkland. You’ll have your first climb with your bike along here, steep but short. Stop at Battery East for a postcard view of that poem of steel and audacity: the Golden Gate Bridge.
The bridge packs many qualities: a conduit from one of our most beautiful cities to the wild realm of the windswept Marin headlands; a evanescent marvel that marries high engineering with high art; a uniter of cleaved California.
But at its transcendental essence the bridge is this: a golden coda to the torch of Lady Liberty, symbolically bracketing a sea-to-shining-sea America.
The entrance from Battery East to the bridge is surprisingly easy. Aim to be on the bridge’s east sidewalk by 8 a.m. to avoid trying to weave through hordes of pedestrians or take the west sidewalk after 3:30 (5 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekends).
You’ll want to stop, often: to watch a squadron of pelicans fly under you, to see the geometric precision of the gunworks atop Fort Point, to listen to the thrum of cars and trucks across its grating.
Because it must withstand frequent winds up to 70 miles per hour whipping through the channel, plus vast tidal pulls and pushes, and tremors from the adjacent San Andreas Fault, the Golden Gate Bridge was made to move. You’ll feel that sway in high winds or that shudder when a tractor trailer blows by.
Make sure you stop at the South Tower for a moment of imagining.
Look down: The force of the basin flow is immense (When the tide is running out, the bay disgorges water at a rate more than three times the flow of the Mississippi River at its delta.) Before they could complete the concrete footing to the steel tower, engineers built an immense, oval concrete fender the size of a football field, 100 feet deep. Then they pumped out all the water within it to create a dry area for the concrete.
And look up: The bridge comes by its cinematic sweep honestly. Those towers and much of the bridge were designed in part by John Eberson, who was responsible for those ornate movie palaces throughout mid-America during Hollywood’s Golden Era.
Once you are off the bridge, the ride to Sausalito is winding and exhilaratingly downhill. There’s plenty of cafes and pricey restaurants to replenish the body; the soul, by now, is sated.
As you take the ferry back (a great deal at $12), make sure to look past the waterfront and gleaming skyscrapers to the heart of this great American city: those glorious hills.Michael J. Bailey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.