49 Mile Scenic Drive: San Francisco’s Best Kept Secret

by KNYCX Journeying
December 9, 2021 | 8 min read

49 Mile Scenic Drive: San Francisco’s Best Kept Secret

49 Mile Drive - Castro

Have you heard of the scenic 49-mile Scenic Drive? The original scenic road tour highlight was created by the San Francisco Down Town Association in 1938 to showcase the city’s major attractions during the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. While the route was modified sever times through the years, the loop around San Francisco remained. To me, it’s the best way to explore the city’s downtown area and have a taste of all the historic sites, landmarks, and natural beauty.


A detailed, free and printable map of the route is available on the 49 Mile Drive website, which includes full detail on every sport along the route. The list covers 37 spots and it might take a few days to complete if you stop by every one of them (For example, Alcatraz is an island in the harbor and it requires several hours to hop on a ferry and explore the island). I would suggest spending about 3 days to cover the key locations and re-visit some of your favorite spots if you have more time. The route is a loop, and so even the spots are numbered, you may kick-start your scenic drive at any point and you would end up at the same spot – if you follow exactly the entire route. I guess my point is, no matter you decide to follow the entire route or not, it is a very good guiding reference for you to have good coverage of the major attractions in San Francisco Down Town – especially for first-time visitors who wish to get acquainted with the city. So, you may, or may not complete the entire route, I reckon it is a nicely designed marketing plan for tourists.

Scenic 49 Mile Drive: https://www.sftodo.com/sanfrancisco/scenic-49-mile-drive/

The route is marked by blue and white signs with a seagull featured on it. The sign was the winner of a design competition held by the Association back in 1955. Even if you don’t intend to, you might sometimes find yourself on the scenic drive when you are traveling in the city. The signs themselves are part of the history of the scenic drive, and the signs are often stolen! It takes time to replace the signs, so don’t forget to take a picture of it when you see them on the road.


Here are some of my favorite spots on the 49 Mile Drive, maybe, some of these places are new to you!

Ferry Building

The current Ferry Building is a historic rehabilitation in 2003. Facilitated by Mayor Brown Jr., and the San Francisco Port Commission. The building is a multi-function complex at the city’s waterfront that features a few great restaurants, shops, and a farmer’s market. The front of the building offers a great and unobstructed view of the Oakland Bay Bridge.

San Francisco’s historic streetcar, Muni, intersect at the Ferry Terminal station in front of the building. The streetcar is a good way to get around the city, as well as to Castro District – a hip and trendy gay neighborhood with a lot of great restaurants.

49 Mile Drive - Ferry Building

California Street with Cable Car / Cable Cars at Powell

The cable car runs in Downtown San Francisco and it has been one of the most popular and recognizable attractions. It is the world’s last manually operated cable car system. Don’t be surprised when you see a long queue at the California street waiting to get on the cable car. There are three cable car lines: one starts at California street and runs up the steep hills of the Financial District, and two starts at Powell and Market and continue to the Fisherman’s Wharf area. While passengers might be standing on the side of the car and holding on the poles, the busy streets and steep hills might make your cable car experience an exciting ride.

49 Mile Drive - Cable Cars 1

Painted Ladies

The Painted Ladies is a row of remarkable Victorian and Edwardian houses with the dramatic San Francisco skyline in the background. The houses were repainted in the 1960s with different colors that embellish or enhance their architectural details.

They are called “Painted Ladies” since 1978, coined by writers Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen in their book Painted Ladies – San Francisco’s Resplendent Victorians. The term is actually a general term that describes a row of the house of the Victorian and Edwardian genre in three or more colors; Painted Ladies could be found in other cities like St Louis, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and more. Anyway, it is a great spot to take photos of historic houses with the city’s skyline in the background.


Union Square

There are actually quite a lot of “Union Square” in the world yet the not as busy as the one in San Francisco. The public plaza is the central shopping district surrounded by shopping malls, restaurants, hotels, theatres and entertainment in the busy streets of Powell, Geary, Post and Stockton Streets. It’s filled with festival cheers during holidays like Christmas and new year!


If you have more time (and if you can find a parking space’9, take a stroll a little further to the Moscone Center, SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and Contemporary Jewish Museum. Many of you may know that I am an art lover and so, naturally, SFMOMA is one of my favorite places to visit in the city.
I also love to hang out with my friends during Christmas at the Union Square. The Christmas tree and Holiday Ice Rink has become a tradition to the locals!

“Christmas… in San Francisco What a lovely place to be…”

Coit Tower, Filbert Steps & Transamerica Pyramid

The Coit Tower stands at the top of Telegraph Hill in the Pioneer Park. It was built in 1932 and it offers a great view of the city’s harbor front. Don’t forget to enter the tower as it’s filled with murals created by a group of artists. The public works of art project include 26 local muralists, they are the precursor to the Works Progress Administration and their paintings depict contemporary San Francisco life.


Lombard Crooked Street

Lombard Street is a long street which dissects the city’s downtown. One portion of this street though is named the crooked driving street in the world that put your driving skills to the test. In fact, the city boasts some of the steepest streets in the country, and Lombard Street is one of the most unique of the vertically endowed roads and it’s a great photo spot. To have a better idea of how steep Lombard Street is, go two blocks up to Filbert Street and look down over the ridge. Lombard Street is even steeper!



Wow, the Alcatraz. The island is located 2 km offshore in San Francisco Bay and so it is not exactly lied on the route of 49 Mile Drive. The former military prison is featured in many literature and movies – from Escape from Alcatraz, Point Blank, to Leonardo’s Shutter Island – which makes the citadel so much more mysterious and fascinating. Myths and legends aside, the island has left some historical buildings behind, and the Lighthouse and Warden’s house outside the Cell House offers an amazing view of the San Francisco Bay and the city’s skyline!

Sea Lions on Pier 39

Located in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, the Pier 39 is where sea lions reside. Look out for these lovely creatures on shore, enjoy a lovely and warming calm chowder at the Fisherman’s Wharf, and take pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge at the bayfront!

Golden Gate Bridge (view from Fort Mason, and Baker Beach)

Another great spot to view the Golden Gate Bridge is on the other side of the bay. Baker Beach is a popular beach in the city that offers a dramatic scene of the Pacific Ocean and beyond. There are nude areas on the beach also!


Palace of Fine Arts

Not a lot of travelers know about this. The Palace of Fine Arts is located in the Marina District. The monument was built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition served as a venue to display artworks and exhibits. The pavilion is the focal point of the site, and it was built in Beaux-Arts architectural style which took inspiration from Roman and Ancient Greek architecture. The Exploratorium science museum is located nearby the site as well.


Oakland Bay Bridge

Another architectural wonder connecting San Francisco and Oakland. The project is a manifestation of architecture achievements and it could be viewed at the Ferry Building or the AT&T Park. The bridge goes through to the Treasure Island, which is a former naval base and now is used for housing and another tourist spot.

49 Mile Drive - Oakland Bay Bridge

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Any thoughts, tips or questions?

Hey! I am Kenny. Since I was a kid, I was bitten by a travel bug quite seriously that I would choose a globe and atlas book for Christmas over video games. Now, the Knycx Journeying website was launched as a platform to share my passion - covering anything that interests me from history, culture, humanity, architecture, art, food, music to outdoor adventure.

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