While San Francisco's famously steep streets can be a hassle if you're hoofing it around town, all those hills provide spectacular views of the city and its landmarks. Fortunately, San Francisco is compact enough that almost any spot you'll want to visit can be reached by a quick drive no matter where you start from, so you can make the most of your trip without getting too worn out. Even after years of exploring the city, I'm still discovering the local favorite spots, away from the side of San Francisco most visitors see. If you're looking to get a unique perspective on San Francisco, check out some of my favorite vantage points.
1. Telegraph Hill
Instead of heading straight up to Coit Tower to check the iconic building off your travel list, start at the bottom of Telegraph Hill and climb the Filbert Steps. The narrow wooden staircase is lined with lush gardens and historic houses that look out over the Bay Bridge. If you're lucky, you might even spot one of the colorful wild parrots that make Telegraph Hill their home.
2. Bernal Hill
The windswept slopes of Bernal Hill (also called Bernal Heights Summit) are a favorite spot for local hikers and dog lovers to get some fresh air. One of my favorite memories from the year I moved to San Francisco was climbing the Hill in the dark on the Fourth of July to watch people set off fireworks in the streets of the nearby Mission District. For the true local experience, take a morning to park on the residential streets on the south side of the Hill and grab coffee (or hot chocolate) on Cortland Avenue before taking a short walk up the Hill to watch the fog roll in over the city.
3. Dolores Park
Dolores Park is the go-to picnic spot for San Franciscans on sunny weekends. It's a great place for families and friends to gather and spend time together. Kids love the expansive play structure, and locals of all ages come to enjoy the view from the park's grassy slopes. Complete your park side adventure with a few scoops of ice cream from the famous Bi-Rite Creamery across the street. My insider's tip on getting your sugar fix faster: head to the soft-serve window to the right of the main store for a sweet treat without the long line.
4. 16th Avenue Tiled Steps
A hidden gem in the Sunset District, The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps feature a gorgeous mosaic that started as a neighborhood art project. Climb all the way up to Grandview Park for the ideal perch to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, but don't forget to turn around and look east for a unique view of San Francisco. If you can convince everyone to hold still and pose, it provides a great backdrop for a family photo to remember your trip! This is one of my favorite lookout spots in the city, and I always make sure to bring out-of-town guests up for a sunset trip.
5. Golden Gate Park Museums
If San Francisco's famous fog rolls in during your visit, the museums of Golden Gate Park provide the perfect refuge from the chilly weather. Kids and adults will both love exploring the hands-on exhibits at the California Academy of Science. To get a 360-degree birds-eye view of the city without climbing a single step, head to the neighboring de Young Museum and take the elevator to the enclosed Observation Deck.
6. Lands End
A few minutes' drive from Golden Gate Park, you'll encounter the wild, windy Lands End. This rugged park in the northwest corner of the city hosts a variety of short, easy trails. Wander through groves of tall cypress trees or explore the flooded ruins of Sutro Baths. For a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge, see if you can find the hidden labyrinth along the Coastal Trail.
7. Mount Tamalpais
Want to give your family a view they'll always remember? Jump in the rental car and take a quick trip across the Golden Gate Bridge to visit Mount Tamalpais. "Mount Tam" is my favorite place to get away from the hustle of the city, get some fresh air, and maybe spot a banana slug or two. From the peak, you'll be above the fog and have a breathtaking view of San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area. The drive to the top only takes about 45 minutes from the city, and the once-in-a-lifetime view is well worth it.
San Francisco is no small city and walking up and down all those hills can be tiring. I've had more than my share of sore muscles and chafed feet after a day of exploring. To make sure you're creating memories, not blisters, driving your rental car in SF to and from attractions will give your feet (and your kids) a break. Driving through the city is a great way to save time and energy so you can spend more of your day where you want to be. Each of these spots provides not only a great view of the city, but also a new landscape to explore and enjoy.