Barbary Coast Trail

A grizzled miner pans for gold. A sailing ship arrives in Yerba Buena Cove. Behind them, a stagecoach rumbles through town, and, in the distance, fog rolls over the hills. These scenes represent San Francisco during the California gold rush, and they are the images captured in bronze medallions that mark the Barbary Coast Trail.

01 BCT Medallion (Z28-6-304)

About 180 of these bronze medallions are embedded in the sidewalks along the 3.8-mile trail. They are strategically placed at every corner and turn along the way. Follow them and take a historical journey though San Francisco from its days as the gateway to the gold fields to present-day Aquatic Park. Along the trail, you will pass through Union Square, Maiden Lane, Chinatown, the original waterfront (the Barbary Coast), North Beach, and then through Fisherman’s Wharf.

The Barbary Coast Trail was inaugurated in 1998. It was “founded by historian Daniel Bacon in collaboration with the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.” Daniel Bacon, with illustrator Jim Blair, also designed the medallion and created an excellent official guide and an audio tour.

Walking the Barbary Coast Trail is a great way to experience San Francisco; here's a sample of the sights you’ll find along the trail:

02 Old Mint (Z28-2-059)

The Old Mint

On its southern end, the trail begins in front of the Old Mint at Fifth and Mission Streets. This sturdy Greek Revival building was completed in 1874, and for 63 years served to store and mint gold and sliver from the Sierra mines. The Granite Lady — as the building is called — suffered damage from the heat of the fire, but it withstood the 1906 earthquake. This was fortunate because the mint held a third of the nations gold supply, and the basement cistern was an important emergency water supply for the city.


03 Wright Bldg (Z28-6-437)


Maiden Lane

Once an infamous red-light district, this short alley is now home to upscale stores, restaurants, and art galleries. Checkout the Xanadu Gallery; the elegant brick building, with its arched doorway, was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, in 1949. The curving ramp inside is similar to New York’s Guggenheim Museum. 


04 Old St. Mary's (Z28-6-465)


Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral was built in 1854, and while it was badly damaged, it’s the only building in Chinatown that survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. Step inside and checkout the photo display in the foyer.






05 Waverly Place (Z28-6-466)

Waverly Place is the heart and soul of Chinatown and is known for its colorful wrought-iron balconies. It also has a colorful past involving Tong wars and sing-song slave girls.







06 Chinatown Bank (Z28-6-285)


On Washington Street, the trail passes by another historically important location. Now occupied by the United Commercial Bank, this unusual building — with its three-tiered pagoda roof — was built in 1909 and was the Chinatown telephone exchange. This is also a historic location because in 1848, the California Star was published on this site. The Star was the first to report the discovery of gold in California and helped ignite the California gold rush — the greatest migration in American history.

Portsmouth Square

This square was the center of Yerba Buena Village before it became San Francisco. It’s the oldest public plaza in the city, and it’s where John Montgomery, Captain of the USS Portsmouth, planted the first American flag in San Francisco. There are several monuments in the square. My personal favorite is the monument to the galleon Hispaniola, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

The Original Waterfront

During the gold rush, many ships sailed into Yerba Buena Cove and were abandoned. They became part of the landfill that covered the cove and pushed the shoreline north. The original shoreline was here, around Jackson and Montgomery, and it was home to saloons, bawdy houses, and illicit activities. This was the Barbary Coast; this is where the word “shanghaied” entered the American lexicon.

07 Hotaling Bldg (Z28-6-309)

A cluster of buildings in this area (including Hotaling’s whiskey-filled warehouse) miraculously survived the quake and fire. The sentiment at the time was captured in this ditty:

If, as they say, God spanked the town

For being over frisky,

Why did He burn the churches down

And save Hotaling's whiskey?

The Victorians in the 400 block of Jackson Street were built in the 1860s and are among the few gold rush era buildings still standing. Checkout the alley between the buildings; the wavy design element in the pavement marks the original shoreline.

«««« Hotaling Building; largest liquor repository on the West Coast (1866)

08 Vesuvio (Z28-6-353)

North Beach

Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, they were all here in the 1950s. This was the epicenter of the Beat generation. Most of the beats are gone now, but their old haunts — City Lights Bookstore, Vesuvio and Tosca Cafe — live on.



09 Kerouac Alley (Z28-6-354)

If you stand between Vesuvio and City Lights, you will be in Jack Kerouac Alley. Take a few minutes to walk into the alley and read the poetry engraved in the pavement. If you walk to the Grant Street end, you’re back in Chinatown. This short alley is like a “wormhole” through time and space. On one end, you’re in Chinatown; on the other end, you’re in North Beach. Chinatown is jam-packed with people during the day and shuts down in the evening; North Beach is sleepy during the day and comes alive at night.





11  Balclutha (Z28-6-405)

The Wharf

After meandering through North Beach, the trail passes by Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower (subjects for future blogs), and Jack Early Park — with its amazing bridge-to-bridge view of the bay. Then the trail turns left onto the Embarcadero near Bay Street, passes through Fisherman’s Wharf, and loops around the Maritime National Historic Park

The Maritime National Historic Park encompasses the Hyde Street Pier, with its collection of vintage ships and boats, and Aquatic Park, with its beach, lagoon, municipal pier, and bathhouse. 

«««« The Balclutha; Square-rigger at Hyde Pier (1886)

12 Bathhouse (Z28-6-425)

The striking art deco bathhouse, which looks like an ocean liner, houses the Maritime Museum and is also home to some wonderful depression-era murals and mosaics.

After looping around the Maritime National Historic Park, the trail ends at the Hyde Street cable car turntable.

You can take the trail from end-to-end, in either direction, or start and stop anywhere along the route. The ends of the trail are conveniently located near the Powell-Hyde cable car turntables. If you’d like a map and/or information about the sights along the way (which I highly recommend), there are several options. The San Francisco Museum and Historical Society website has a free downloadable map. The SF Convention & Visitors Bureau, in Hallidie Plaza, sells the Official Guide to San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail ($8.95 plus tax). Or go to the Barbary Coast Trail website and purchase and download the audio tour and maps. Guided tours are also available. 


I’ve intended, with a few examples, to show the variety of sights along the Barbary Coast Trail. This is just a sample; there’s much more to see and experience. Rather than walk the entire route at once, take it a section at a time and take time to explore the museums, churches, parks, cafes, and pubs along the way. Walking is the best way to see San Francisco, and there’s no more engaging way to walk this city than along the Barbary Coast Trail.

© Virginia E. Vail 2012