Cycling around San Francisco

When I asked for advice on things to do in San Francisco there was one suggestion that repeatedly cropped up. I put it at the top of my list of things to do and I wasn’t going to miss it for the world. Or, in this case, I wasn’t going to miss it on account of my inexperienced cycling friend, Robert the Italian, who was travelling with me around America for two weeks.

“But what would mamma say if I risk life and death to cycle in San Francisco – Andreas you are crazy, I won’t do this!”

I reassured my Italian friend, who unfortunately doesn’t use the word Mamma or have a strong Italian accent.

“It will be perfectly safe and we won’t be cycling with traffic – trust me!”

The second part was a little white lie. Part of our route was to involve cycling on the road. However, as I was about to discover, in San Francisco drivers give you more than enough room.

On our second day in San Francisco I took a quick glance at my Lonely Planet and plotted our route. I then located a nearby bike rental from Avenue Cyclery, rented a couple of Trek bikes for around $40, grabbed a quick holiday snap and off we went!

Me posing next to my rented blue Trek Mountain bike

Fortunately, my friend Rob, who hadn’t cycled in over 10 years, took to cycling like a duck to water. Truly a skill you never forget. On the first section of the route we were pedalling through Golden Gate Park on the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Despite being a fast and downhill ride through Golden Gate Park it took longer than expected proving my complete inability to estimate distances! What I realise now is that Golden Gate Park is actually 20% larger than Central Park at over 3 miles long. Of course, pedalling quickly through the park isn’t something you’ll want to do. It truly is a gorgeous green expanse that you can see why it was the scene of much of the hippie revolution during the Summer of Love.

At the end of the ride we reached the Pacific Ocean.

Reaching the white sandy beach at the end of Golden Gate Park

This is another beautiful spot to pose for a picture. However, we needed to return the bikes by six and was unsure of how long it would take to ride so we got moving. This time uphill towards Golden Gate Bridge.

To get there we followed the coast as much as we could and took routes using the El Camino del Mar trail. At points we had to dismount the bikes and carry them up stairs but we were rewarded with picturesque teasing views of Golden Gate Bridge along the way. 

View of Golden Gate Bridge as well as the beautiful blue coastline with waves crashing into the rocks below

Needless to say the coast line here is incredible. Whilst I saw the Grand Canyon and, to be honest, wasn’t overly enthused, I can easily say the coast on this side of San Francisco as well as along route 1 was something I couldn’t stop taking pictures of.

After we made our way through Lincoln Park we continued to pedal upwards, much to the dissatisfaction of my travelling buddy. This part of San Francisco must be one of the richest if the house fronts are anything to go by and the views the area provides. Pedalling here was a real pleasure.

Finally, we reached Golden Gate Bridge. Here, we had our first and fortunately only brush with the law during our trip. We tried to pedal on the side meant for pedestrians only and were promptly stopped by a police officer. She explained we were on the wrong side and using our heaviest of English accents we apologised and walked back to get to the left side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

On the golden gate bridge in San Francisco

Remember, our American cousins enjoy driving on the right side of the road so you’ll probably want to do the same when cycling.

The Golden Gate Bridge is an awe inspiring steel structure. Pedalling across it required a little cautiousness, as cyclists could often appear at high speeds. Just remember, if they shout “left” it means they are overtaking you on your left.

Reaching the other side you can then coast down a steep hill to head towards Sausalito. We took it in turns to overtake each other providing a Tour De France style commentary.

After a short ride we stopped off for food somewhere with a view of Angel Island and Alcatraz. Of course, the portions were huge and we were quickly getting used to reaching half way through a meal and being completely full.

If you’ve rented your bike from other vendors then there is the option of taking the ferry to return. However, our bike rental was on the other side of San Francisco so the ferry didn’t suit us. This is a personal preference as to which ride you want to try but I preferred choosing a route that starts off at Golden Gate Park.

After a short call to check in with the family. “Hey mom I’m in San Francisco! Yes, the weather is nice” and a long call by my Italian friend to his family (Italians love their families) we set off on the slow pedal back.

There is hope emergency councelling box on the Golden Gate Bridge with a view of the sea where we originally pedalled from

Unfortunately, this involved following largely the same ride we took before but we cut across 25th Avenue to get back a little faster. We didn’t really mind as the route was so beautiful.

We returned our bikes and I congratulated my mate on his pedalling skills, teased him at being scared of riding in traffic and grabbed a bus back to our hotel. This was easily one of my highlights of the 2 week trip.

If you’d like to do the same trip

  • Tons of bike rental places in San Francisco but we used Avenue Cyclery
  • I’ve posted up a rough map of our route below
  • For flight comparison my secret weapon is which always beats the price of Expedia etc
  • We found the Best Western Hotels offer good value for money
  • Temperatures in San Francisco vary wildly so pack a warm top

View Golden Gate Park over Golden Gate Bridge by Bike in a larger map

May I take this opportunity to also say thank you to the people who emailed me with local tips and advice on San Francisco and the west coast in general. It is hugely appreciated and you made a big difference to my trip!

If you don’t fancy travelling 5500 miles for this bike ride then why not try one of my 30 London bike rides in London.

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12 Responses to Cycling around San Francisco

  1. Matt 04/05/2011 at 9:06 am #

    Excellent choice – can’t think of a better way to spend a day in SF! Next time I recommend turning left when you’re over the bridge instead of right – rather than going down to Sausalito, go up onto the Marin Headlands. Steep hill, but the views are unbelievable, and the long downhill ride to Rodeo Beach makes up for the climb. Then you can come back to Sausalito through a tunnel if your legs are tired 🙂

    • Andreas 04/05/2011 at 7:24 pm #

      Matt – good tip. I saw a few road cyclists doing your route suggestion but wasn’t sure if it was going to take me where I wanted.

  2. Adrienne 04/05/2011 at 6:25 pm #

    Isn’t my City fantastic? It is such a great place to ride around. There is always so much to see. I am happy you enjoyed yourself! If you return to the Bay Area I have a million great rides for you to try, all of them with something truly fantastic ti experience.

    • Andreas 04/05/2011 at 7:24 pm #

      Thanks Adrienne – I enjoyed San Francisco not just this route but also taking in all the different parts to the city. I think by the end of it I was actually starting to work out the different neighbourhoods. Would love to live there for a year or so!

  3. John Riley 05/05/2011 at 9:57 pm #

    I see people on rental bikes puzzling over maps all over the city. I often ask if they need help, but no one has taken me up on the offer.

    An alternative to the trail with steps is to go down Geary to 34th, left (north) on 34th. It goes up to the Legion of Honor. Then you go down El Camino del Mar (the road) through Sea Cliff ( the big houses) and into the Presidio.

    For your return, you could have taken a different route through the Presidio (out the Arguello gate) and gotten back to the shop with less climbing of the same hills.

    The maps typically provided to renters aren’t adequate for exploring. The full on city bike route map would be better. Shops should have it or it is on line.

  4. John Riley 05/05/2011 at 9:58 pm #

    Also, bikes are on the west side of the bridge on weekends and at commute times only. Otherwise they are on the east side with the pedestrians.

  5. Andrew 06/05/2011 at 9:21 am #

    How amazing is SF for cycling!!

    How did you cope on those 30%+ gradient roads? Is the worst one called Filbert?

  6. Nigel 06/05/2011 at 10:34 am #

    Hi Andreas,

    You didn’t fancy riding up Californian (California Street) then!!

    That’s a real challenge.

  7. John Riley 06/05/2011 at 2:18 pm #

    Certainly riding in San Francisco involves hills. Just getting from the Marina to the GG Bridge is a climb. I might have thought this would be a deterrent to the rental business, but apparently not.

    The official bike route map allows you to avoid the steepest hills. Some neighbourhoods are actually mostly flat (SOMA, Mission).

  8. Matt 07/05/2011 at 8:01 am #

    If you have a little more time on your next trip, head south down Hwy 1 towards Pacifica and Half Moon Bay – my favorite ride here at home! Can’t wait to try a few of your London rides on my next trip.

    • Andrew 07/05/2011 at 1:25 pm #

      Matt – completely agree…i rode PCH in Oct 2009…lovely riding south…

      …the pumpkins were on show at time of year too!

  9. Tim 09/05/2011 at 2:50 pm #

    The ride from Stinson Beach to San Fran is a killer!!! But so beautiful

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