Flights of Fancy

This stunningly beautiful and wonderfully crafted mosaic stairway is in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood in the Sunset District. The mosaic is the creation of a band of neighbors who pooled their time, talent, energy, and money and transformed an ordinary concrete stairway into a work of art. 

2) Mosaic Stairway (Z28-2-965)

They painstakingly designed and made the ceramic tiles and covered the risers on all 162 steps. The mosaic forms a panorama that flows from the deep blue sea at the bottom to the brilliant sun at the top. Vibrant colors, whimsical creatures, a flowing river that sparkles with inlaid bits of mirror, it’s little wonder some call it the magic stairway.

1) Mosaic Stairway crop (Z28-2-955)

The mosaic stairs are reason enough to visit this neighborhood – but wait there’s more. At the top of the mosaic stairs, take a second short stairway up the retaining wall, then, off to the right, take the winding wooden stairway to Grandview Park at the top of Larsen’s Peak (aka Turtle Hill). The 360° view is well worth the trek.

I first learned about the mosaic stairway from an Urban Outings column in the Chronicle, and it got me thinking about stairways here in the city. I googled “Stairways in San Francisco” and was amazed to find there are hundreds of them, and there’s even a wonderful book about them. The book, written by Adah Bakalinsky, is cleverly titled Stairway Walks in San Francisco, and I promptly bought a copy. In addition to numerous stairway-filled walks, it includes an appendix that lists 630 public stairways.

Six hundred and thirty stairways in San Francisco -- how can that be? The answer, as Freud could have said, is that topography is destiny. Our 47-square-mile city is small, but it certainly is not flat. It’s home to at least 47 hills ranging in height from 100 feet (Rincon Hill) to 925 feet (Mount Davidson). In many places, pedestrian walkways are just too steep for conventional sidewalks. So we have stairways – lots and lots of stairways. Here are a few other favorites.

3) Filbert Steps (Z28-3-050)

Filbert Steps

The Filbert Steps are San Francisco’s best-known flight of stairs. From Sansome Street to just below Coit Tower, they zigzag (for 377 steps) up the eastside of Telegraph Hill. The first section, up the cliff face, is steep and rocky, but higher-up the steps meander through a public garden that is situated between rows of art deco buildings and Victorian cottages. This spectacular garden is a jungle of trees, ferns, and flowers. It’s a credit to Grace Marchant, who started it in 1952, and to the Filbert Street neighbors who continue to maintain it.


While walking through the garden, watch and listen for birds. This side of Telegraph hill is a hangout for the famed green parrots of Telegraph Hill. Arrrgh -- there be parrots here.

Lyon Street Steps

These steps, between the Presidio and several beautiful Pacific Heights homes, occupy the space between Green Street and Broadway that would be Lyon Street if the hill were not so steep. Built in 1916, the four flights of stairs are flanked on both sides by hedges and gardens. They serve as the neighborhood Stairmaster. The day I took the photo, there were a dozen or so people doing laps up and down the 288 steps. One young man (and believe me, they were all young) was hopping up four steps at a time. Another young man was doing some tricky sideways cross-step maneuver that made Rocky Balboa’s run up the Philadelphia Museum steps look positively easy.

4) Lyon Steps (Z28-3-087)
6) Vallejo Steps view (Z28-5-697)


Russian Hill

The Vallejo steps between, Mason and Jones, have it all: Great views, vintage architecture, lovely gardens, and exercise. At the Jones end, these steps are at the crest of the Russian Hill summit and afford a stunning view. At the lower end, between Taylor and Mason, the stairs pass alongside Ina Coolbrith Park.


«««« View from the top of Russian Hill

7) Lombard Steps (Z28-2-649)

Lombard Street between Hyde and Leavenworth is known as the crookedest street in the world, but there’s more here than a crooked street and great views. Stairs run along both sides of the street, and, while they aren’t as curvy as Lombard, they also weave down through the beautifully manicured hydrangea garden. The day I took this photo, the street had been transformed into Candyland, and the stairs were packed with people.


8) Vulcan Steps (Z28-3-134)

Vulcun Steps

The Vulcan Steps are in the upper Market neighborhood between Ord Drive and Levant. The 218 steps wind for about two blocks through densely planted gardens. The gardens and stairs are bordered on either side by an eclectic mix of homes and cottages.


9) Oakhurst Stairs (Z28-5-671)

Oakhurst and Blairwood

These two stairways are in the Forest Knolls neighborhood on the south and west sides of Mt. Sutro. They both go from Warren to Crestmont and are just a couple of blocks apart, so you can easily walk up one and down the other. Made of steel with concrete steps, they are sturdy, steep, and long: 355 steps for Oakhurst and 320 steps for Crestmont. Both stairways go through areas overgrown with ivy, brush, and trees and provide views of the City and really close-up views of Sutro Tower.


Yeah! Eight stairways are done – I only have 622 left to go.


© Virginia E. Vail 2012