San Francisco, a city notorious for its steep hills and foggy weather, might not seem at first glance like the sort of city cyclists would love, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, when I first moved to the city two years ago, biking was the reason I fell head over heels for San Francisco.
I didn’t fall in love with San Francisco immediately. My heart was still in Seattle, and though I liked the city, it was a slow burn kind of romance.
Biking, however, totally changed my opinion. Especially when, on one sunny day in February, I was pumping through the last 30 miles of a bike ride north of San Francisco, the Pacific Ocean on one side, rugged green hills on the left, thinking “this is incredible, where else in the world could I spend my weekends doing this?”
When it comes to getting around San Francisco by bike, however, a little local knowledge can really make a difference in learning to love it. From navigating “the wiggle” to getting out of the city, there are a couple of things that’ll make your life easier as a cyclist. To help you navigate the city on a bike, and fall in love with it yourself, read on for a guide on how to get around San Francisco by bike.
How to Avoid the Hills (Sort Of)
The stereotype doesn’t exist without reason; hills are unavoidable in San Francisco. Of course, some are worse than others. To bike the easiest routes possible, I recommend:
- Use Google Maps for directions — unlike Apple Maps, they give you bike routes and you can see elevation in advance, which is helpful for comparing routes.
- Make use of The Wiggle — the Wiggle is a one-mile long, zig-zaggy route through the center of San Francisco that helps cyclists avoid hills. It’s well marked, and will lead you right into Golden Gate Park (yay!).
Of course, when a hill just can’t be circumvented, get in your lowest gear and go slow!
I’d argue that you can’t fully enjoy a city or a bike ride if you’re not safe or don’t feel safe. As you would anywhere, wear a helmet, use bike lanes (not sidewalks!), and watch out for cars backing out of parking spots. In San Francisco specifically, I’d also recommend:
- Watch out for train and trolley tracks — they’re the perfect width for getting your bike wheel stuck, causing you to fall over. Just make sure you bike over them with your wheel perpendicular, not parallel, and you’ll be OK.
- Be very, very careful locking your bike up — tbike theft is, sadly, a huge problem in San Francisco, especially if it’s a nice bike, and especially if you’re in the Tenderloin / FiDi / SoMa areas. If you are going to lock up your bike, lock the wheel and the frame; though I’d try to avoid locking it up at all (and just bring it inside) if it’s especially nice.).
Also, not much of a safety thing, but take a jacket wherever you go. San Francisco’s micro climates mean that you might start in the sunny Mission district feeling comfy in your t-shirt, but will be freezing your butt off by the time you reach Ocean Beach.
Renting a Bike
If you’re simply visiting the city as a tourist, there are several bike rental companies you can choose from that I’ve listed below. However, if you’ve recently moved here and want to rent a bike a few times before buying one, I’d recommend going to Sports Basement. Any money you spend renting one of their bikes can later be put towards the purchase of one.
- Blazing Saddles – $8 / hour or $32 for the day.
- City Ride Bike Rentals – $8 – $12 / hour (more for a road bike) and $32 – $48 for the day. They also offer 20% discounts to riders booking online.
- The San Francisco Bike Hut – $6 – $7.50 / hour and $24 – $30 for the day.
Destinations Within the City
Some areas in San Francisco are best explored on two wheels. If you’re looking for a fun bike ride in the city, three of my favorite destinations to ride to include:
Ocean Beach (~8 miles)
Best done on a Sunday, when Golden Gate Park is closed to cars, cycling to Ocean Beach is an easy escape to nature, without actually having to leave the city. Ride through majestic redwoods, lush ferns, and — yes — even a field of buffalo in Golden Gate Park before ending at the beach. It was one of my first bike rides, and I couldn’t believe such a wild patch of nature could exist right in the heart of one of the country’s major cities.
Twin Peaks (~8 miles, depending on where you start)
Biking to the top of Twin Peaks is challenging, but as long as you’re willing to power through, it’s a very rewarding ride. From the top, you’re able to look out over the whole city and — so long as Karl the Fog permits it — the East Bay.
The Ferry Building & The Embarcadero (~6 miles, depending on where you start)
Market Street might be a little stressful for newbie bikers, but it really is made to be biker friendly. Ride straight down Market Street (watch the tracks!) to the Ferry Building and grab a cup of Blue Bottle Coffee or, if it’s the weekend, some farmers market goods. After a quick pause, take a peaceful ride along the banks of the bay down the Embarcadero and catch a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Escaping the City
I love travel and adventure, and nothing makes me happier than biking to a super cool destination. Fortunately, there are a ton of spots outside of San Francisco that make for a fun day-trip or weekend escape into nature.
Most of my favorite bike routes are across the Golden Gate Bridge in the North Bay. Almost immediately upon crossing the bridge, you’ll find yourself in a very remote-feeling, woodsy recreation area. It’s pretty incredible that you can be so close to a city but in the middle of nature. Two of my favorites rides include:
Hawk Hill/Point Bonita Lighthouse (16 – 24 miles; Medium)
For a short but steep, medium-level ride, go across the bridge and swing a left to the top of Hawk Hill. Stop for a few scenic shots of the city and the bridge before rolling downhill on the other side to Point Bonita lighthouse (either from the roundabout halfway up, or the at the top). Once done, you can ride back through Sausalito and take the ferry home, or be a bad-ass and bike the hill out of Sausalito and back across the bridge.
Stinson Beach/Point Reyes (60 – 100 miles; Difficult)
If you’re a more experienced, distance cyclist, I highly recommend biking up Mount Tam (it’s challenging!) and down to Stinson Beach. Once in Stinson, you can head back to the city through Muir Woods Beach, or you can continue north up the coast to Olema / Point Reyes and loop around through Fairfax. Either way, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful ocean vistas from the 101 and jaw-dropping stints through cool, misty, redwood forests.
And if you get hungry, this also happens to be a big cheese producing region…
Why I Love the Bay Area Bike Life
Biking made me realize how accessible nature is from the city, appreciate how I’m able to hop on a bike 365 days a year, and helped me embrace San Francisco’s healthy, environmentally conscious mindset. If it weren’t for bikes, I’m sure I’d have a totally different opinion of the city. Hopefully, hopping on two wheels will help you see the beauty in the Bay and explore this wonderful city to its full potential as well!
About the author: Jessie Beck is a San Francisco based writer and content marketer with a passion for food, bikes, travel, and adventures in any form. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @beatnomad, or read more of her work at Beat Nomad.