SAN FRANCISCO — The hills in this town are so tough on cars that locals say St. Francis is the patron saint of clutch- and brake-repair shops.
But you can tour San Francisco on a bicycle without pumping up those legendary hills. Whether you make a short jaunt or circumnavigate the city, these routes are mostly flat and very scenic. It's a great way to spend an offbeat day in this offbeat city.
(Of course, if you would like to climb, there are hills that will pay back the effort with spectacular views. A number (in brackets) signals the start of an uphill detour.)
Start at Golden Gate Park. Despite its native-forest appearance, it is man-made--planted on top of what was once nothing but sand dunes and puddles. On Sundays, the city closes the wide JFK Drive to traffic; other days, stick to the well-marked bicycle path.
It's easy to detour off and return to the bike path, to circle some of the small lakes in the western half of the park. With every breath, you'll enjoy the pungent scent of eucalyptus (1).
For an extra five- or seven-mile (flat) loop, bear south just past the Polo Field and exit the park at Sunset Boulevard. There's a bike path on the west side of Sunset that will take you to the zoo. For an extra two miles of riding instead, pick up the scenic path that circles Lake Merced. After the zoo or the lake, take the bike path north along the Great Highway toward Golden Gate Park.
Continue north on the walkway along the beach. There should be surfers. Why are they wearing wet suits? Stick your toe in the Pacific and you'll find out.
Pedal north up the rise to the Cliff House. Lock your bike and go down a short stairway to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area visitors' center for a glimpse of the area's natural and man-made history. Take a trip back in time next door, at the Musee Mechanique, by putting a quarter in one of the melodeons.
The first quarter-mile northeast into Lincoln Park is uphill, so walk your bike to Clement Street. Ride north into the park at 38th Avenue and head for the Palace of the Legion of Honor. That museum has a major collection of Rodin's sculptures and other European treasures, and the site commands great views over the city. Then it's all downhill as you head east along El Camino Del Mar, savoring the vista of the Golden Gate and its fabulous bridge.
To make this trip a short loop, follow the bike path on Lake Street east to Park Presidio Boulevard, which has big trees along both sides (2). Turn south between Park Presidio and Funston and ride the dirt path--originally a bridal trail--through that wooded margin until you reach Golden Gate Park.
Otherwise, the next leg of the tour goes through the parklike Presidio, a military base since 1776 that's dotted with historic buildings.
Follow Lincoln through the Presidio to the visitor center at the Golden Gate Bridge. If you're feeling adventurous, go ahead and cross the bridge, riding on the walkway. As seen from the bridge or from the Marin headlands on the far side, San Francisco is arguably the most beautiful city in the New World.
The road back into the city is Marina Boulevard, where you'll see yacht clubs on the Bay side, and something that looks like an ancient Greek ruin on the city side. It's the Palace of Fine Arts, the only remnant of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. Now it houses the Exploratorium, a science museum full of hands-on experiences.
You'll feel the wind at your back as you pedal east, and quickly understand why kite flyers enjoy Marina Green Park. To the south is the Marina district, where last year's earthquake liquefied the ground under several buildings. The neighborhood is a showcase for Mediterranean and Art Deco architecture.
At the end of the park is Fort Mason. A million troops shipped out of there during World War II, and you can tour a restored "Liberty ship." But Fort Mason now is headquarters for dozens of nonprofit and arts organizations--a successful adaptation of military facilities to peacetime uses.
Continue east, past Fort Mason, up and down a very short hill to Aquatic Park and the streamlined National Maritime Museum. On most days there will be dozens of percussionists outdoors, pounding out extraordinary and exotic rhythms. Just past that is the famous Fisherman's Wharf, but it's so crowded with people and cars that you'll make better time walking your bike than riding.
The Ghirardeli Square, Cannery and Pier 39 shopping areas are famous, but don't miss the Hyde Street Pier, with its restored sailing ships. Wander along the wooden docks behind the restaurants and amusement parlors to catch a glimpse (and a whiff) of the fleet that still goes out fishing every night. Be sure to eat crabmeat and sourdough bread.