The City Is Your Gym

January 20th, 2021

Let’s all just put 2020 behind us. Good riddance. It’s the New Year and time for a new you. Gyms are still closed, and your apartment doesn’t have enough space for all the workout gear you want. Get out, get moving, get fit on the hills and stairs and wide open spaces all over The City. And best of all, it just costs the price of a Muni pass and your free time.


Stairs, Stairs, Stairs

Remember StairMaster machines? What a weird, awkward, horrible contraption that was. But real stairs are awesome. Especially when they lead you up to a view that literally takes your breath away. Some of the best ones around take you back into peaceful neighborhoods with scenic overlooks while providing a serious burn. You could easily get in 2021 shape just by tackling the stairways around the city. Here are just a few:

  • 16th Avenue tiled steps are on Moraga Street between 15th and 16th Avenues. They’re worth finding just to take in the blue psychedelic mosaic artwork.
  • The Lyon Street steps in Pacific Heights are a hardcore workout climbing nearly 300 steps from Green to Broadway. It’s a popular spot with fitness enthusiasts and there are MeetUp groups that gather here for a little encouragement if you need it. Great views of the Presidio greet you at the top.
  • The Filbert and Greenwich steps are some of the longest stairs in the city and they’ll take you up the east slope of Telegraph Hill. The Filbert steps start as concrete before you reach a steep wooden staircase that takes you through cool gardens and past charming bungalows. It’s the best area to see and hear the famous flocks of wild parrots, and the steps lead upward to the spectacular views from the base of Coit Tower.
  • The Greenwich steps take you past the statue of Christopher Columbus and up to the tower. Take a peek at the Depression-era murals in the base of the Tower, and for eight bucks you can relax your legs and go up the elevator for the premium view. The nearby Vallejo Street stairs are also some of the most beautiful in The City and offer views of the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island.
  • There are plenty of other staircases to choose from, all with their own unique appeal. Saturn Street and Vulcan steps are near each other above the Castro. Saturn steps meander through gardens and, like Vulcan, many of the houses are only accessible by the steps. Find a quiet bench and take in the view or dive into a great book. The Vulcan steps feature tended gardens and eclectic architecture.
  • The Baker Beach Sand Ladder might be the best workout of all, and whether it’s a stairway or a hike is open for debate. Soft sand increases the difficulty of climbing up these 200 ten-foot poles from the beach below. You can park at the lower Baker Beach lot in the Presidio, but be warned: this area is known as a nudist beach so you may be seeing more than just ocean views.


Hills, Hills, Hills

Walking the city streets can be an excellent workout, and there are plenty of hills to choose from to give your glutes an extra workout. Filbert Street between Leavenworth and Hyde has the designation as the steepest street you can drive on, but 22nd Street in Noe Valley might match it. For foot traffic only, a section of Stanyon Street and Belgrave is steeper than either and boasts a 33% grade. Broderick Street between Broadway and Vallejo is supposedly at a 38% grade in places. Charging up any of these hills will get you in shape in no time.

For the best views head up to Twin Peaks. For the easy way up, you can take a tour bus to the top of this 922 foot hill, but urban hiker Bob Choisser has mapped out a route from Castro Street that uses neighborhood stairs and back roads that provide a great workout. These two peaks (Eureka Peak to the north and Noe Peak to the south) aren’t quite the tallest in The City, but the 360-degree view is incredible.

Here’s a very San Francisco thing to do: race a cable car up a hill. No, seriously. A Runner’s Mind running store puts on this event on the last Tuesday of every month. Meet at their store on Sacramento Street at 7 pm and head out as a group to your destination, usually the Powell-Hyde line or the California line. The winner wins a prize and bragging rights.

For something a little flatter, Crissy Field is an excellent place for a run with trails separate from the bike lanes. Start at Fort Mason and go past Fort Point to the base of the Golden Gate. It’s a great vantage point to see the bridge, and don’t forget to find the pair of concrete hands and give them a slap to mark your achievement. The round trip back to Fort Mason is around five miles total.


Row, Row, Row Your Boat Frantically Against the Relentless Current

The currents are notoriously treacherous at the west end of the bay, but that doesn’t prevent some hearty souls from braving the cold water and marine traffic by rowing, kayaking, and open-water swimming.

The Dolphin Rowing and Swimming Club in the Marina District has a fleet of rowboats and offers training once a month (for a price). Once members are certified they can check out the boats, and the club also sponsors races and excursions. They have kayaks as well, and if you don’t want to spring for a full membership they have a day-use fee of $10.00.

If you’re new to open-water swimming, take precautions, have the right equipment, and consider joining a group. The Club uses the quarter-mile course in the Aquatic Park Cove and they sponsor an organized program for swims inside and outside the cove throughout the year. Highlights include the Golden Gate and Alcatraz swims for the fearless/crazy.



There are free guided nature walks in Golden Gate Park on the first Saturday of every month, and no registration is required. It’s a good, non-strenuous introduction to hiking for all ages and they explore different areas of the park each month. There are also several dirt running paths if you want to go it alone. A popular dirt path starts south of Fulton and heads west all the way to the beach. For an added bonus, stop and get a glimpse of the bison in the bison paddock between Spreckels Lake and North Lake. Here are some more:

  • Land’s End Park has multiple trails with some nice hills thrown in. Traipse through beautiful forested areas with great ocean views and catch some unique angles of the Golden Gate Bridge; you can hike down to the rocky shoreline in a couple spots. If you start near Eagle’s Point at the end of California Street and 32nd, take the Lincoln Park steps and follow the trail west then along the coast all the way to the Cliff House (for a well-deserved cocktail).
  • Fort Funston, despite the name, is not some kind of silly Chucky Cheese-style playground. It has some serious military history and was named for Frederick Funston, a Major General in the US Army. There are 200-foot bluffs down to the beach with remnants of artillery batteries strewn about. It’s a steep hike down to the beach (and the surf is dangerous). The bluffs are the best hang gliding spot in the area and the paved loop trails at the top are wheelchair-accessible. Watch for horseback riders on the unpaved trails.
  • Mt. Davidson is the highest point in all of San Francisco and the trails can be steep. The west side has an impressive urban forest of Eucalyptus trees. It’s only a mile to the top and back, but the views are impressive and there’s a 100-foot concrete cross at the peak. Definite Instagram moment; you feel like you’re on top of the world (#highpoint).

Marina Green Fitness Court

Marina Green Fitness Court

Free to use, this 32-by-35-foot fitness court with a waterfront location has bars, steps and benches for outdoor circuit training. There are no weights or machines, just seven stations designed to help you get a full body workout by maneuvering and lifting your own body weight. The court is open to the public anytime, but it can be reserved for small groups (415-831-5500).

The November Project

These free (year-round) workout sessions are hosted by world-class personal trainers and have been popping up around the country. These boot camp-style classes are Monday and Wednesday at 6:30 am; Fort Mason on Mondays and Alta Plaza Park on Wednesday. The November Project also leads group workouts on Fridays at different locations with details on their Facebook page. How does it work? Just show up and be ready to sweat.

Yoga in Grace Cathedral

Want the polar opposite of the boot camp/drill sergeant workout? Take an online yoga class held in the labyrinth of Grace Cathedral. Join The Rev. Jude Harmon, instructor Darren Main, and musical guests for a new series of yoga practices all held virtually. Visit Grace Cathedral’s website for online class schedule.

So get moving. You have no excuses anymore. Plenty of nearby options, mostly free, and never boring. Consider this your invitation for a lifetime membership.

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