Nob Hill and Russian Hill

Cable Cars Climb Halfway to the Sky


This is the place to experience San Francisco’s famously steep hills, right in the heart of the city. See places where city planners wisely constructed stairs instead of sidewalks. Don’t miss the eight tight hairpin turns built into Lombard Street to create “The Crookedest Street in the World,” built just so cars could navigate its 27 percent grade.

And then there are the cable cars…

A moving landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, San Francisco’s manually operated cable car system is unique in the world.

Beginning in 1873, the new technology to replace horse drawn carriages flourished. However, by the turn of the century, newer and cheaper electric streetcars were introduced. During the 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire, the city lost 100-plus cable cars and most of the original 23 cable car lines. 

Today, all three remaining cable car lines connect to Nob Hill, with two lines passing through Russian Hill. A ride on the cable cars is a treat, and a visit to the San Francisco Cable Car Museum at 1201 Mason Street that powers them, is one of America’s best, free things to do.

Explore Russian Hill, one hill and one prestige notch lower from Nob Hill. Astonishing views can be glimpsed from pretty, treee-lined street with cozy, ethnic dining spots where the locals go, such as Zarzuela (2000 Hyde St.), where authentic Spanish tapas and hearty paella are perfect winter warmers.

Tales of the City

The notoriously steep inclines found on some Russian Hill streets, including Vallejo Street and Chestnut Street, are just too steep for cars, so stairs facilitate the climb. Pedestrians with cameras are plentiful at alleys like Macondray Lane, fictionalized by author Armistead Maupin as Barbary Lane and used as a setting for his eight-part series, “Tales of the City.” 

The Story of the Big Four

The ‘Big Four’ were enormously wealthy and powerful 19th century industrialists who made fortunes on the Central Pacific Railroad that connected America’s west.

These exceedingly rich people called ‘nabobs’ worked hard at building palatial homes to outdo one another atop this hill with phenomenal views, named ‘Nob Hill’ in recognition of their wealth. Each mansion covered an entire city block. Within a few years, all but two buildings were totally destroyed by the fires that ravaged Nob Hill in the days following the 1906 earthquake. 

Echoes of their names -- Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins -- and those of their exceedingly wealthy friends, are seen on Nob Hill today.

Connecting Yesterday to Today

Today, the Huntington Hotel, Mark Hopkins InterContinental, Stanford Court Hotel and Grace Cathedral occupy the blocks where the Big Four’s palaces crumbled.

The Fairmont Hotel (950 Mason Street), built by the family of silver magnate and U.S. Sen. James Graham Fair, was days away from completion when disaster struck. It was entirely re-built. Its 1945 Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar is a San Francisco original with tiki bar touches including flaming torches, a fake lake, a rain shower and live entertainment.

At the Mark Hopkins Hotel (999 California Street), the famous Top of the Mark rooftop lounge offers wraparound views, a dance floor and a cocktail menu featuring 100 Martinis. “Weeper’s Corner” looks out over the Golden Gate, where sweethearts bid a teary farewell to World War II servicemen heading out on military vessels. Evening opening hours are from 4:30 p.m. and at Sunday Champagne brunch.

The Huntington Hotel (1075 California Street) has a Big Four Restaurant and piano bar that evoke a ‘blast from the past.’ Directly across the street is charming Huntington Park. Wander in to see hummingbirds drink from the replica of Rome’s Fountain of the Tortoises, donated by the Crocker family.

Gothic-style Grace Cathedral (1100 California Street) houses a vibrant congregation in the third-largest Episcopalian cathedral in America, with stained glass, two replica Chartres labyrinths, replica Ghiberti Doors. Open daily, visitors may enter for services, choral evensong, talks, music, tours, and a popular Tuesday evening Yoga on the Labyrinth session open to all.  

Flood Mansion, built by another silver baron, is the only pre-1906 Nob Hill home left standing. San Francisco Landmark #64 can attribute its survival to Connecticut-sourced brownstone, shipped 15,000 miles around Cape Horn. Now the exclusive Pacific Union Club (1000 California Street), our best advice would be to not try ringing the doorbell.

Did You Know?

  • The Fairmont Hotel’s herb garden rooftop is home to 60,000 bees, producing honey served with tea and infused in an artisan beer at the Laurel Court.
  • At the Stanford Court Hotel entrance stands a single granite column, the only surviving piece of the former Nob Hill mansion.
  • “Bullitt,” the 1968 Steve McQueen movie filmed famous chase scenes in Lombard Street.
  • Fairmont Hotel: In 1945, The United Nations Charter was drafted here. In 1961, Tony Bennett first sang, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in the hotel’s Venetian Room.
  • Russian Hill has one of San Francisco’s steepest hills at Filbert Street between Leavenworth Street and Hyde Street, with a grade of 31.5 percent. 
  • Tackle hills by using Hop-On, Hop-Off sightseeing buses that make it easy to connect to Cable Car stops.


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