It's one of San Francisco's most picturesque neighborhoods: a hilltop perch filled with stately architecture and offering stunning views both of San Francisco Bay and the city. There's also plenty to see and do in Russian Hill, from dining out to winding your way down Lombard Street — though it's best to save those iconic car chase scenes that the neighborhood's so synonymous with for the movies (a little Bullitt, anyone?).
Peruse the Shops on Polk Street
Running north-south from Market Street to Fisherman's Wharf, Polk Street is one of San Francisco's main thoroughfares and links multiple neighborhoods, including Nob Hill and Russian Hill — both of which are home to a bevy of fun shops, bars, and restaurants. It's easy to spend a few hours perusing the stretch, browsing the family-owned Russian Hill Bookstore's seemingly endless stock, or seeking at the perfect gift at Picnic, billed as a “one-stop urban emporium.” Along with ample cafes you'll find retail stores, charming boutiques, and high-end consignment shops. Polk Street is also known for its bicycle lanes, which makes getting around on two-wheels easy.
First opened on the corner of Union and Hyde streets in 1948, Swensen's went on to become a global phenomenon, with outlets in countries like India, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Still, it's the original Russian Hill location — an easy stop along the Powell-Hyde cable car line — that most captivates hearts after more than 70 years. This old-fashioned ice cream parlor rotates between dozens of all natural flavors — delicious offerings like Green Tea, Lemon Custard, and Thin Mint — and serves up sundaes and shakes as well. It's cash only, so be sure and swing by an ATM beforehand.
See a Master's Mural at a College of Contemporary Art
Over one month in 1931, legendary Mexican painter Diego Rivera painted a mural in the San Francisco Art Institute's Russian Hill campus that would become one of the neighborhoods (if not the city's) best hidden gems. Rivera's "The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City" depicts artists — including Rivera himself — engaged in their own creative process, working from various levels of scaffolding to complete one all-encompassing work. Signed and dated by the artist, it occupies a central wall in the institute's aptly-named Diego Rivera Gallery, which also serves as an exhibit space for SFAI students. "The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City" is free to view and is one of three Rivera masterpieces in SF: the City Club of San Francisco and City College's Diego Rivera Theater.
Wind your Way Down Lombard Street
It's one of the world's crookedest streets (the honor of “World's Crookedest Street” actually goes to Vermont Street in the city's Potrero Hill), and arguably San Francisco's most iconic: the curvy, eight-turn block of Lombard Street between Hyde and Leavenworth streets has been fascinating crowds since it was first constructed in 1922. Cars line up on the brick-paved, one-way series of flower-lined switchbacks to descend its harrowing 27 percent grade incline while taking in spectacular scenery. Steps line either side for those on foot, and one of the best vantage points is from atop Russian Hill's Hyde Street, with passing cable cars and an unobstructed view of Alcatraz.
Explore the Neighborhood's Scenic Staircases
As it's nestled atop of one of San Francisco's “seven hills,” Russian Hill is also a neighborhood of staircases — and ones that are really exciting to explore. The non-profit organization San Francisco City Guides offers free monthly tours of the Russian Hill stairways, but they're also fun to seek out on your own. Just beyond the neighborhood's tiny Ina Coolbrith Park are the Vallejo Street steps, which along with stately homes and bucolic gardens offer views of Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge, and Coit Tower. The parrots of nearby Telegraph Hill even hang out here occasionally. Chestnut Street, between Polk & Larkin, provides an additional climb, with 115 shaded steps and more incredible scenery.
Reimagine the Reservoir
Constructed in 1859 and vacant since 1941, Russian Hill's long abandoned reservoir between Bay, Hyde, and Larkin streets is slated to become one of San Francisco's newest city parks — hopefully by summer 2020, if all goes well. In lieu of the longstanding eye-store will be a 4.5-acre public recreation ground chock full of offerings, from a community garden to a children's playground, as well as a separate area for pooches. The space already provides exquisite views of Alcatraz Island and the San Francisco Bay, and it's conveniently located right along the Powell-Hyde cable car line.
Choose Your Own Dining Adventure
Russian Hill boasts an excellent selection of culinary ethnicities and styles, from Afghan eats to casual pizza joints, not to mention a bevy of nightlife options ranging from dive bars to cocktail lounges. The bulk of the neighborhood's finds are located along Polk Street: places like Leopold's, an Austrian-themed restaurant with mountain lodge décor and servers dressed in dirndls; and Lord Stanley, a Michelin-starred modern European eatery known for its inventive cuisine — dishes like duck breast with turnip, yam butter, and toasted seeds and roasted suckling pig with barbecued pineapple. Either pre-dining or post, grab a pint at the pirate-themed Buccaneer, or sip vino to your heart's content at the laid-back Union Larder.
Hopping aboard a historic San Francisco cable car — part of the last manually operated cable car system on the planet — is a highlight of this bayside city, and perhaps its most scenic line runs right through Russian Hill. The Powell-Hyde cable car line is one of SF's three remaining cable car routes, beginning (or ending) in Fisherman's Wharf and traveling up through Russian Hill — where it stops right at the top of Lombard's iconic stretch — and continues on through neighborhoods that include North Beach, Chinatown, and Nob Hill before eventually culminating at Powell and Market streets. Take a seat (or grab something to hold onto) bayside (east) for the most rewarding views.
Step into the World of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City
Fans of local author Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City book series will recognize Russian Hill's Macondray Lane as obvious inspiration for the fictional Barbary Lane, a tiny tree-shaded pedestrian stretch where eccentric landlord Anna Madrigal rents to a handful of story-inspiring tenants. Maupin himself lived in the neighborhood at one point, though it's the flora-filled lane — part of the (slightly) larger Macondray Lane Historic District — that truly inspires anyone with an imagination: an idyllic hideaway that's simply bursting with both Old World charm and remnants of a lost San Francisco. The Tales of the City TV mini-series (based on Maupin's books) had its own Netflix revival in 2019.