Why San Francisco Is An Excellent City For Runners
Leave your heart—and a whole lot of footprints—in San Francisco.
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San Francisco is famous for hilly streets, historic landmarks, sourdough bread and heavy fog—but it’s also one of the greatest cities in the world for runners. Whether you’re itching to weave down the eight hairpins of Lombard Street or fixing to jaunt across the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s no shortage of ways to explore the City by the Bay on foot.
“San Francisco offers the best in sights, landscape and weather for runners,” says Bay Area marathoner Jenny Radloff. “The city is relatively small and you can easily get from the bustling Embarcadero, surrounded by buildings, to the Presidio, where you feel like you’ve been transported from the forest to the beach in one run.”
Off-road lovers can explore dozens of dirt trails all over the city. Architecture aficionados can enjoy views of tightly stacked bayside homes across from the Bay Trail. City gals can kick off at Union Square and trot down any street—and get seriously distracted by beckoning street vendors along the way. No matter your pleasure, San Francisco is sure to strike your fancy faster than you can say Ghirardelli Square.
San Francisco Running
Golden Gate Park
Run the 7.4-mile perimeter loop or stride through the center and create your own route. With a labyrinth of trails, there’s no shortage of options. Often hyped as the West Coast’s Central Park, the lush, open gardens and serene lakes provide a calming escape from the bustling city—a perfect place for an unplugged run.
An army post for 218 years and potentially the best taste of countryside this side of the Golden Gate, the Presidio plays host to more than 25 miles of trails. Soak in the sun with a jog up and down the slopes of Fort Mason, and hook up with the Bay Trail for an added sea breeze to cool the sweat and calm the breathing.
Baseball fans can catch a long run down the Embarcadero, ending at AT&T Park, where the San Francisco Giants play. The 10-mile out-and-back route is mostly concrete, but the street entertainment makes this pavement pounder well worth the urban journey. Running on a Saturday? Stop at the Ferry Building for a mid-run snack at the Farmers Market.
The northeastern corner of the city sweeps runners along the bay with its brisk winds. Head out early to avoid trails clogged with photo-taking tourists and be prepared for some steep climbs. The challenging trail leads striders up the coastal cliffs—stair climbs included—with views that aren’t to miss when the midday sun beams over the water. Stop for a dip into history as you pass by the ruins of the Sutro Baths, once the largest indoor swimming establishment in the country.
Race The City
If you dig Bay Area quirk, add the Bay to Breakers 12K (baytobreakers.com) to your list. Held every May for the last 102 years, this 7.5-mile party hosts runners wearing crazy costumes (or nothing at all). A less-wild option is Rock ‘n’ Roll ½ Marathon San Francisco (runrocknroll.com), starting on the Great Highway and finishing in Civic Center Plaza next April. For an all-girls weekend, complete with Tiffany jewelry and hunky firemen in tuxedos at the finish, enter the lottery for a sought-after bib into the Nike Women’s San Francisco Marathon and ½ Marathon (nike.com).
San Francisco Exploring
Golden Gate Bridge
You’ve seen it before, but pictures just don’t do this gem justice. Soak in the sparkling views of the bay, Alcatraz Island and the city from afar as you cross over this 1.7-mile structure. If you’re curious about how those Cali earthquakes affect this 77-year-old suspension bridge, tap the mini model at the south-end lookout point and watch it wobble.
Sean Penn’s Oscar-winning performance in “Milk” showed off not only his unparalleled acting skills but also the historic Castro district during the 1970s. Experience the area today by taking the trolley until you see the humongous rainbow flag, symbolizing equal human rights. This area continues to draw spectators to its impressive display of pride—look out for “cheeky” residents show-ing off their assets proudly.
For the thrift shop junkies, the famous district is a hilly two-mile walk from the Castro—feast your cash on the best hippie-inspired boutiques in the city. Although the ambiance has since shifted from the free-lovin’ 1960s, original establishments unique to the era still remain among modern-day chic shops. Amoeba Music, once a bowling alley, is now home to the largest collection of I-can’t- believe-you-have-it CDs.
Every SF explorer needs to make a stop at the city’s famous wharf. Seafood stands and restaurants line the main drag, with persuasive vendors teasing your hunger with freshly caught creatures of the sea. Soak in a simpler time at Pier 45’s Musée Mécanique featuring a free exhibit of arcade games, from the turn of the century to modern day.
Not just for kiddos, The Exploratorium (exploratorium.edu), an innovative learning laboratory along the Embarcadero at Pier 15, is one of the coolest museums in the country. The tactile dome, a pitch-black, by-feel maze, is worth every penny of the $25 entry fee alone.
San Francisco Eating
The most important meal of the day is break-fast—and Honey Honey Cafe and Crepery (honeyhoneycafeandcrepery.com) is an ideal spot for a.m. fueling. Nestled just outside of Union Square, this tiny restaurant has an entire wall dedicated to its extensive chalkboard menu. The Nutella crepe served with crispy potatoes is just one of the reasons the wait often pours out the door.
For lunch, forget the chain that’s spawned from this San Fran eatery. The Boudin Bakery and Cafe (boudinbakery.com) serves up the best clam chowder bread bowl in the city. Visit the original location on Jefferson and experience a free baking demonstration as you tour the sourdough museum.
To enjoy a palate-pleasing seafood dinner adventure, get a reservation at Farallon (farallonresataurant.com). Located in Union Square, foodies dive into some exquisite underwater decor, including jellyfish lighting, octopus stools in the lounge and kelp columns. If you’re ready for a triple-digit price tag, splurge and go for all three courses!
Get a sugar high at the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop (ghirardelli.com) with one of the epically huge sundaes, made with real Ghirardelli melted chocolate. Don’t worry—it’s big enough for two but small enough to devour solo if you’re feeling greedy. For a warming night cap, walk up the street to The Buena Vista Cafe (buenavistacafe.com) for an excellent Irish coffee, inspired by the original goodness brewed up in the Shannon Airport in Ireland.
Call it A Night In The Bay
There are upwards of 35,000 hotel rooms in San Francisco. Enjoy one of the best at the Clift Hotel (clifthotel.com) in Union Square. Old-world sophistication and a contemporary vibe collide to offer guests a luxurious yet unique experience. For budget-savvy ladies, Hotel Tomo (hoteltomo.com) embraces the culture of Japantown with anime-inspired decor and brightly colored walls and furniture.