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San Francisco's 49-Mile Drive

What's the best way to see San Francisco? Maybe it's a drive on the scenic loop that chases the white gull around the city.

Stow Lake on S.F.'s 49-mile scenic loop
Photo caption
You can get out of the car and into a boat for a leisurely pedal on Stow Lake.


It was always with a certain pride that I propelled out-of-town friends around San Francisco on manic auto tours. And yet I knew deep down that my qualifications as a guide were suspect. After all, despite my having lived in this city for the better part of a half century, there were important places I had never seen. Shamefully, I had never actually set foot in Mission Dolores, the consequence, possibly, of an inveterate sinner's misgivings about violating the home turf of the Intelligent Designer. For that matter, where is Garfield Square? But such derelictions, I decided, could be remedied by a single act: I would take the 49 Mile Scenic Drive around the city and become a tourist in my hometown. The San Francisco Downtown Association created the drive, mainly as a promotion for the Golden Gate International Exposition, the world's fair held here in 1938. The starting point then, as now, was City Hall, but instead of being a loop it finished at Treasure Island, site of the fair.

At the scenic drive's grand opening on September 14, 1938, the reigning celebrity was, paradoxically, Douglas Corrigan, the intrepid aviator who achieved fame when, scheduled to fly solo from New York to California, he took a monumentally wrong turn and ended up in Ireland. This supposed navigational blunder so endeared Wrong Way Corrigan to the U.S. public that he was feted at a ticker-tape parade in New York.

Corrigan, of course, drove our drive backward, though not, as some suggested he should, in reverse gear. Thereafter it became a one-way route. If drivers today should pull a Corrigan, they would be deprived of the gull-emblazoned blue directional signs that have marked the correct passage since 1955.

Originally the drive was measured at 50 miles, but it was quickly reduced to 49, a more meaningful number in a city of some 49 square miles that owes its early prominence to the Gold Rush of 1849. Although I drove it all in one day, I can't confirm the mileage because I lost my way, as many motorists do, in labyrinthine Golden Gate Park. I am therefore willing to accept without protest the official measurement. So let's go the distance, whatever it is, with six stopovers and some places to grab a bite to eat (indicated on the map to the left), some of which are, to coin a phrase, off the beaten track.

1. North Beach
The first few miles from the Civic Center are easily the busiest, traversing Japan-town, Union Square, Nob Hill, and North Beach. Once in North Beach, park the car somewhere—not easy to do—and set off on foot through what is one of the city's most appealing neighborhoods. Drop into City Lights Bookstore on Columbus Avenue near Broadway and shamelessly browse, as a sign inside generously encourages you to do. By all means rise to the top of Coit Tower, and on your descent, spend time in its lobby looking at the murals of city and rural life painted in the mid-1930s.

Road Food: Caffe Trieste Jack Kerouac and other Beats were regulars here in the 1950s, but this friendly café remains unspoiled by fame. Linger over espresso or snacks. 601 Vallejo St., (415) 392-6739.

2. Presidio
Behind the wheel again, circumnavigate the aggressively commercial Fisherman's Wharf, drink in the verdant splendor of the Marina Green, and pause to admire the Palace of Fine Arts, the sole surviving structure of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition that remains at its original site. Stop almost immediately on entering the Presidio at its Lombard Street Gate and stroll the rolling landscape of filmmaker George Lucas's new 23-acre Letterman Digital Arts Center.

Farther oceanward into the Presidio and off the drive, you'll approach Crissy Field, once the site of an early West Coast army airfield and now a vast beachside park with unobstructed vistas of, depending on which way you're headed, the Golden Gate Bridge, the city skyline, the islands of the bay, and, on a clear day, the East Bay.

Road Food: Warming Hut This waterfront café-bookstore serves salads and sandwiches made from local ingredients. Western end, Crissy Field. (415) 561-3040.

3. Richmond District
Next you'll drive through Lincoln Park past the Legion of Honor museum, a must-stop for both its Beaux-Arts architecture and its collections of European paintings, prints, and drawings, and on to the ocean's edge. Pause here for another constitutional at Sutro Heights Park. Formerly the estate of Adolph Sutro, a 19th-century silver tycoon and mayor, these beautiful grounds look out on the Pacific from directly above the famous Cliff House and the ruins of the once popular saltwater Sutro Baths. It is a timeless setting. And on a blustery, densely foggy day, you may stand braced against the elements above the frothing sea feeling a bit like the protagonist in a novel by one of the Brontë sisters.

Road Food: Cliff House The specialty at this recently remodeled landmark is seafood. Try the cioppino. 1090 Point Lobos Ave., (415) 386-3330.

4. Golden Gate Park
Now continue alongside the ocean, past the San Francisco Zoo, around Lake Merced, and back up to Golden Gate Park. Here, chances are, you'll become as thoroughly lost as I did in search of the blue gull signs. I later learned from the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau that many of the markers have either been stolen or, as with one I puzzled over, turned by pranksters so that they face in the wrong direction. But fret not. Getting lost in Golden Gate Park is the best way to see it. And in your search for the route out, you will muddle your way to such sights as Stow Lake, the new de Young Museum, the Japanese Tea Garden, and the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum. The new (for many of us) Kezar Stadium is here too, and a mere glimpse of this truncated version of the old sports ground will stir fond memories in vintage 49er fans.

Road Food: De Young Cafe Even if you don't have time to take in an exhibition, consider a brief stop at the museum café, where the seasonal food is nearly as pretty as the art. 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., (415) 750-2614.

5. Mission District
Once out of the park, you'll skirt the western border of the now hippie-depleted Haight-Ashbury, climb to the summit of Twin Peaks, and descend to the outer reaches of the legendary Castro District. Next it's south on Dolores Street to the Mission San Francisco de Asis, known as Mission Dolores. This holy place dates to the city's Spanish beginnings in 1776. Be sure to visit the graveyard, where such notables as Don Luis Antonio Argüello, the first governor of Alta California under Mexican rule, are buried.

Road Food: La Taqueria Ready for a home-style snack? You'll find some of the best tacos in town here. Don't miss the cantaloupe or mango agua fresca. 2889 Mission St., (415) 285-7117.

6. Embarcadero
You'll return to the Civic Center along a circuitous route that passes the Giants' beautiful ballpark and connects with the Embarcadero and the revitalized Ferry Building. Since its restoration, finished in 2003, this 108-year-old landmark and longtime hub of bay ferry service has become one of the city's premier marketplaces. You can find everything from chocolate to caviar to oysters in the dozens of shops along its 660-foot-long Grand Nave, not to mention an impressive assortment of cafés, restaurants, and delicatessens, a wine bar, and a teahouse.

Road Food: Boulevard An unpretentious, upscale feast that's well worth the drive. Chef Nancy Oakes blends French sensibilities with California cuisine in this bastion of good service and good taste. Reservations are a must, but last-minute, drive-by drop-ins can usually snag a seat at the bar. 1 Mission St., (415) 543-6084.

and so, weary but enlightened, I'm back where I started, at City Hall. It occurred to me after my nearly four hours on the road that San Francisco, with its compact dimensions and luminous scenery, is one of the few cities where such a journey makes sense. Can you imagine a 200-mile Los Angeles scenic drive? Or what about a six-hours-in-jammed-traffic New York motor excursion?

Of course, no tour can hope to unveil San Francisco's layers of mystery and enchantment. But the 49 Mile Scenic Drive is a good way to start—even if, like me, you happen to live here.

Photography by Mitch Tobias


This article was first published in September 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.