Have you heard of the scenic 49 Mile Scenic Drive? The original scenic road tour highlight was created by the San Francisco Down Town Association in 1938 to showcase the city’s major attractions during the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. While the route was modified several times through the years, the loop around San Francisco remained. To me, it’s the best way to explore the city’s downtown area and have a taste of all the historic sites, landmarks, and natural beauty.
The 49 Mile Drive trivia
First of all, why “49 Mile”? In fact, the number “49” is not the length of the drive, nor a numbered highway; it represents the coverage of the size of San Francisco downtown, which 49 square miles.
The route is marked by blue and white signs with a seagull featured on it. The sign was the winner of a design competition held by the Association back in 1955. Even if you don’t intend to, you might sometimes find yourself on the scenic drive when you are traveling in the city. The signs themselves are part of the history of the scenic drive, and the signs are just too cute they often got stolen! It takes time to replace the signs, so, while I don’t say you can truly rely on them to point you in the right direction on the drive, don’t forget to take a picture of it when you see them on the road.
How to Plan your 49 Mile Drive
A detailed, free, and printable map of the route is available on the 49 Mile Drive website, which includes full detail on every sport along the route. The list covers 37 spots and it might take a few days to complete if you stop by every one of them (For example, Alcatraz is an island in the harbor and it requires several hours to hop on a ferry and explore the island). The quickest way to complete the route takes about 4 hours of driving to cover the entire route (just stopping at each spot for about a minute); It is also possible to complete the route in a day if you stop for about 10-15 minutes for some photo-taking, and take about an hour for lunch. I would, however, suggest spending about 3 days to cover the key locations and re-visit some of your favorite spots if you have more time. Just visit these places at your own pace and pick up where you left off the next day. The route is a loop, and so even the spots are numbered, you may kick-start your scenic drive at any point and you would end up at the same spot – if you follow exactly the entire route.
I guess my point is, the Mile Drive is offering a good guiding reference for you to have good coverage of the major attractions (as well as places and Instagram worthy spots that you may not be aware of had you just explore the city on foot or by public transportation) in San Francisco Down Town – how and when and where is completely flexible and up to you.
Besides, tackling the traffic, parking spaces, the one-way streets, and the slopes in the city could be confusing and frustrating to holiday drivers – you don’t want to waste your precious time navigating these streets just because you are sticky to the map. Be smart and make good judgments on the road. For several spots, it would be much easier to simply park your car in one spot and explore a couple of places on foot. Whether you decide to follow the route strictly or not, the most important thing that you get acquainted and enjoy your time in San Francisco. All in all, it’s a nicely designed “marketing” plan for tourists that have been kept for decades.
Here are some of my favorite spots on 49 Mile Drive, maybe, some of these places are new to you!
#2 Ferry Building and #3 Embarcadero
This is marked the beginning and the end of the drive. The Embarcadero is the eastern waterfront and roadway of the Port of San Francisco, the Central Embarcadero Piers Historic District features a lot of Ferry Buildings along the city’s miles-long embarkment. It connects all the way to the Fishermans’ wharf in the north. If you start your day at this spot (like I do) – there are, in fact, some nice restaurants or cafes with windows of the ocean where you can enjoy a traditional America style breakfast before your “big” adventure.
The current Ferry Building is a historic rehabilitation in 2003. Facilitated by Mayor Brown Jr., and the San Francisco Port Commission. The building is a multi-function complex at the city’s waterfront that features a few great restaurants, shops, and a farmer’s market.
The front of the building offers a great and unobstructed view of the Oakland Bay Bridge that connects to Oakland, and this is also where ferries will take you to the Treasure Island.
San Francisco’s historic streetcar, Muni, intersect at the Ferry Terminal station in front of the building. The streetcar is a good way to get around the city, as well as to Castro District – a hip and trendy neighborhood with a lot of great restaurants and entertainment.
#4 California Street with Cable Car and #6 Cable Cars at Powell
The cable car runs in Downtown San Francisco and it has been one of the most popular and recognizable attractions. It is the world’s last manually operated cable car system. Don’t be surprised when you see a long queue at the California street waiting to get on the cable car. There are three cable car lines: one starts at California street and runs up the steep hills of the Financial District, and two starts at Powell and Market and continue to the Fisherman’s Wharf area. While passengers might be standing on the side of the car and holding on the poles, the busy streets and steep hills might make your cable car experience an exciting ride.
#7 Painted Ladies
The Painted Ladies (720 Steiner Street) is a row of remarkable Victorian and Edwardian houses with the dramatic San Francisco skyline in the background. The houses were repainted in the 1960s with different colors that embellish or enhance their architectural details.
They are called “Painted Ladies” since 1978, coined by writers Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen in their book Painted Ladies – San Francisco’s Resplendent Victorians. The term is actually a general term that describes a row of the house of the Victorian and Edwardian genre in three or more colors; Painted Ladies could be found in other cities like St Louis, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and more. Anyway, it is a great spot to take photos of historic houses with the city’s skyline in the background.
#8 Union Square and Steep Hill & Chinatown
There are actually quite a lot of “Union Square” in the world yet the not as busy as the one in San Francisco. The public plaza is the central shopping district surrounded by shopping malls, restaurants, hotels, theatres and entertainment in the busy streets of Powell, Geary, Post and Stockton Streets. It’s filled with festival cheers during holidays like Christmas and new year!
If you have more time (and if you can find a parking space’9, take a stroll a little further to the Moscone Center, SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and Contemporary Jewish Museum. Many of you may know that I am an art lover and so, naturally, SFMOMA is one of my favorite places to visit in the city.
I also love to hang out with my friends during Christmas at Union Square. The Christmas tree and Holiday Ice Rink has become a tradition to the locals!
“Christmas… in San Francisco What a lovely place to be…”
Check it out: Christmas… in San Francisco
Steep Hill is a very steep street in the city and Chinatown is one of the oldest and most well-known Chinatowns in North America. They are located closely with the Union Square that you could just explore all these places on foot.
#13 Coit Tower, #14 Filbert Steps & #12 Transamerica Pyramid
The Coit Tower stands at the top of Telegraph Hill in the Pioneer Park. This small structure plays a big role in the city’s history and development.
The Coit Tower was built in 1932 and it offers a great view of the city’s harbor front. Don’t forget to enter the tower as it’s filled with murals created by a group of artists. The public works of art project include 26 local muralists, they are the precursor to the Works Progress Administration and their paintings depict contemporary San Francisco life.
#15 Lombard Crooked Street
Lombard Street is a long street that dissects the city’s downtown. This is another iconic city highlights that you couldn’t see in any other parts of the world – one portion of this street though is named the crooked driving street in the world that put your driving skills to the test. In fact, the city boasts some of the steepest streets in the country, and Lombard Street is one of the most unique of the vertically endowed roads and it’s a great photo spot. To have a better idea of how steep Lombard Street is, go two blocks up to Filbert Street and look down over the ridge. Lombard Street is even steeper!
Come put your driving skills to the test as this is still a functioning road that connects Lombard Street between Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street.
These attractions (from Union Square to Lombard Street) may look very close to one another by driving but somehow that are actually not that close on foot. You may park at a few points and group a few spots at each stop. Find a place for lunch on the way, or take a walk to the Fisherman’s Wharf afterward.
Wow, the Alcatraz. The island is located 2 km offshore in San Francisco Bay and so it is not exactly lied on the route of 49 Mile Drive, but still, this is so famous that you simply can’t skip this place. The former military prison is featured in many literature and movies – from Escape from Alcatraz, Point Blank, to Leonardo’s Shutter Island – which makes the citadel so much more mysterious and fascinating. Myths and legends aside, the island has left some historical buildings behind, and the Lighthouse and Warden’s house outside the Cell House offers an amazing view of the San Francisco Bay and the city’s skyline!
Don’t forget to stand by the deck while you are on the ferry, not only you don’t want to miss the skyline that I just mentioned, but also you may spot sea lions swimming in the ocean and wave “hello”~!
#18 Sea Lions on Pier 39
Located in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, the Pier 39 is where sea lions reside. Look out for these lovely creatures on shore, enjoy a lovely and warming calm chowder at the Fisherman’s Wharf, and take pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge at the bayfront!
#22 Golden Gate Bridge (view from Fort Mason), and #30 Baker Beach)
Another great spot to view the Golden Gate Bridge is on the other side of the bay. Baker Beach is a popular beach in the city that offers a dramatic scene of the Pacific Ocean and beyond. There are nude areas on the beach also!
The area is an upscale residential area. You may also want to do some house-looking driving down the streets.
#24 Palace of Fine Arts
Not a lot of travelers know about this. The Palace of Fine Arts is located in the Marina District. The monument was built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition served as a venue to display artworks and exhibits. The pavilion is the focal point of the site, and it was built in Beaux-Arts architectural style which took inspiration from Roman and Ancient Greek architecture. The Exploratorium science museum is located nearby the site as well.
#33 Ocean Beach (to Golden Gate Park)
If you are taking the long route and driving through the Ocean Beach, you simply cannot miss the Golden Gate Park – it was a little bit weird to me that there’s not a numbered spot on the Official Map, but you will see its route clearing weaving through the park from one end to the other. While it is one of my Best Urban Parks in the World, the Golden Gate Park is a rectangular-shaped urban park wrapped by one of the American big cities. In fact, it’s even 20% larger than Central Park. The administration work began in 1871, (almost the same time with Central Park), and now, it’s the third most visited city park in the United States after Central Park and the Lincoln Memorial.
One thing that I think the Golden Gate Park is different from the Central Park, is that it’s a bit off from the city’s commercial district; instead, it’s surrounded by a residential area, and so to me, the park is truly dedicated to the well-being and recreation of the locals.
The park features a De Young Museum (I love the sculpture garden), Academy of Sciences, and a Japanese Tea Garden. At this point, I would also like to include the Presidio of San Francisco as the park is merely 5 minutes away through the Richmond district. The park is a former U.S. Army military fort and it’s part of the Golden Gate National Area. The park features a golf course, and don’t miss out on The Palace Of Fine Arts, an impressive monumental structure originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in order to exhibit art.
#34 Market Street from Twin Peaks
If you do complete the route in the right order, you should be reaching the Twin Peaks almost at sunset, which is a great spot to have a panoramic view of San Francisco.
If you are on the right track returning to the City Hall afterward, you should be passing Castro, and why not stop there for a nice dinner (there a lot of restaurants with cuisines from the East to the West) or even catch a show?
#36 Oakland Bay Bridge and #37 Treasure Island
Another architectural wonder connecting San Francisco and Oakland. The project is a manifestation of architecture achievements and it could be viewed at the Ferry Building or AT&T Park. The bridge goes through to the Treasure Island, which is a former naval base and now is used for housing and another tourist spot.