French soul food, Mickey Mouse, fly-casting ponds, salted caramel ice cream, and eye-popping views. What can’t you experience along the city’s circuitous route?
You’ll find them all over San Francisco, enigmatic traffic signs showing a friendly white gull with an outstretched wing. An avian migratory route, perhaps? In fact, the signs mark the San Francisco 49 Mile Scenic Drive, a loop past many of the city’s prime sights. Created in 1938 for the Treasure Island World’s Fair and originally proposed at 50 miles, the final route may have been cut by a mile in a tip of the hat to the city’s size (49 square miles) and the 1849 Gold Rush. A tour of some of our favorite landmarks, highlighted below, makes for a kaleidoscopic day trip. Do take a map and a navigator, and leave time for stops along the way. San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau, (415) 391-2000, onlyinsanfrancisco.com.
Area code is 415.
- Civic Center The route starts at a collection of National Historic Landmark public buildings, among them the War Memorial Opera House. Gape at the 307-foot dome of City Hall (554-6139, sfgov.org/cityhall), the fifth-largest dome in the world, or pop in to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (581-3500, asianart.org)—once the Main Library and also a National Historic Landmark—for a peek at treasures that include a bronze Chinese vessel nearly 3,000 years old. Just up the street, Brenda’s French Soul Food (345-8100, frenchsoulfood.com) delivers satisfaction New Orleans style, with gumbo and oyster po’ boys.
- Chinatown and North Beach Head northeast and park the car to explore two of the city’s most historic ethnic enclaves. Join throngs of food shoppers along Chinatown’s Stockton Street before a lunch of steamed pork dumplings (siu mai) and other dim sum treats at the modest, traditional Dol Ho restaurant (392-2828). Then repair to North Beach’s Caffe Trieste (392-6739, caffetrieste.com), an icon of the area’s Italian heritage, which has been offering the finest cappuccino in town for 50-plus years.
- The Presidio From North Beach, drive west to the Presidio (561-5418, presidio.gov), a former U.S. Army base that’s now a 1,491-acre national park—and one of the city’s most loved outdoor and cultural playgrounds. Park at its northern stretch to stroll along Crissy Field’s restored wetlands, or head into its restored barracks to check out the earliest known sketch of Mickey Mouse at the Walt Disney Family Museum (345-6800, waltdisney.org). For an unexpected kick, visit the new House of Air (345-9675, houseofairsf.com), a former airplane hangar now housing 67 linked trampolines, on which you can practice your snowboard technique or play dodgeball. And at the southeastern corner of the park, don’t miss Wood Line, a recent installation by internationally renowned eco-artist Andy Goldsworthy in the form of a sinuous line of eucalyptus branches laid end to end through a hillside forest.
- Golden Gate Park The “seagull route” is tricky through Golden Gate Park (sfrecpark.org), a 3.5-mile-long, 1,017-acre urban oasis that’s bigger than New York’s Central Park. If you momentarily lose your way, don’t despair. Stop and enjoy some park experiences, which range from viewing fearsome New Guinea tribal masks at the de Young Museum (750-3600, deyoung.famsf.org) and traversing a four-story rain forest at the California Academy of Sciences (379-8000, calacademy.org) to stopping by an arboretum, fly-casting ponds, or a garden dedicated to San Francisco’s official flower, the dahlia. Feeling hungry? The Academy’s excellent cafeteria has everything from spring rolls to panini.
- Twin Peaks For the ultimate San Francisco panorama, head south from Golden Gate Park to the parking lot near the 922-foot summits of these two matched hills, which are the city’s second-highest natural points after 925-foot Mount Davidson. Bring quarters to operate the telescopes. For a 360-degree view that includes ocean, city, bridges, and bay, leave the tour buses behind and climb the roughly 125 steps to the top.
- Mission Dolores Back down the hill and farther east stands whitewashed Mission Dolores (621-8203, missiondolores.org), founded in 1776 by Spanish Franciscans and now the city’s oldest intact building. In its little graveyard you’ll find pioneers—Moraga, Argüello, and others—who lent their names to city streets. About two blocks south, on 18th Street, give in to another city classic: The salted caramel ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery (626-5600, biritecreamery.com). Enjoy a cone at the high southwest corner of Dolores Park, on a bench with a fine downtown view.
- The Embarcadero From the Mission District, the drive heads east to the Embarcadero, a waterside boulevard featuring expansive bay and Bay Bridge views. It’s also a magnet for gourmands who laud the restored Ferry Building (983-8030, ferrybuildingmarketplace.com), built in 1898 and now home to top regional food purveyors such as Cowgirl Creamery and Hog Island Oysters. If you miss Cupid’s Span while driving the boulevard, you might need to have your eyes checked: Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s colorful sculpture of a bow and arrow soars 64 feet.
Photography by Tim Griffith
This article was first published in July 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.