Ten Tips to Better Enjoy the Barbary Coast Trail

The Barbary Coast Trail is roughly 4 miles in length and takes visitors through several of San Francisco’s colorful neighborhoods while exploring the city’s past and present. Here are 10 helpful tips for saving time and money on the trail:

1. Take a Map.
An excellent map is the “Walker’s Map of San Francisco,” by Pease Press Maps. It can be purchased at many bookstores and vendors in San Francisco. The map shows the Barbary Coast Trail route as well as many other great walking trails in the city. I found the map to be very durable even after heavy use and multiple trips.

2. Read Before You Go.
A good reference book is “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail,” by Daniel Bacon. It approaches the trail with a good deal of back-story. My copy of the book was published a few years ago but it is still a great reference. Read up a little before you go so you can identify where you want to spend more of your time.

3. Where to Find Bathrooms?
If you are starting your trip near the Old Mint in the Downtown area you can make a pit stop at the Westfield Shopping Center at the corner of Market and 5th near the Powell Bart station exit. Along the trail, you can always find facilities at storefronts, restaurants or small eateries. Many of the facilities at restaurants and eateries are for ‘customers only’ so you might need to buy something or at least offer a couple of dollars as a donation.

4. Take the Cable Car Like a Local.
San Francisco is known for cable cars. People queue up near a cable car turnaround waiting for their opportunity to experience riding on one. During weekends and especially in the summer these lines can be very long. Ride on the cable car early in the morning or late in the day to experience fewer people. The cable car system is part of the city’s public transit service and (if a cable car has room) will make stops along the route to pick up passengers. It is possible to walk a couple of blocks up from the cable car turnaround to one of these stops and flag down a passing cable car. Where you sit on the cable car is important: as you board sit in a seat in the open section, or if you like a bit of fun – stand on the outside railing. Inside the cabin, it can be a bit claustrophobic and you miss some the colorful antics and comments of the conductor. It is also a treat to stand on the back of the cable car.

5. Take Bart & CalTrain into the City.
Driving in downtown San Francisco can be very stressful and parking very expensive. If possible take the BART (the Bay Area Rapid Transit) system. It is a great way to get around much of the Bay Area and takes you directly to the beginning of the trail near the Powell Street Station. If you’re driving from the south (up to the peninsula) park at the Colma Bart Station. It is a clean place to park and does not have the grungy feel as the neighboring Daly City station. Parking at the Colma station on the weekend is free and access onto the freeway is close. Always check online for changes to parking fees routes, etc. The CalTrain runs along the western peninsula from San Jose to San Francisco. It is a good way to get into the city but you will have to the take a surface tram or walk, once you arrive in San Francisco to get to the start of the trail on Market Street. Walking the mile or so up to Market is much safer than it used to be and is ok in the daytime. The area has been greatly gentrified over the years and walking during the day has never been an issue for me.

6. Dude, Spare Some Money?
Panhandling does exist in San Francisco and you might be asked for money. Aggressive panhandling (when someone is belligerent and gets in your face) is not as common as it once was in San Francisco, though it can still occur. You are more likely to have your money ‘taken’ at a cheesy t-shirt stand in a touristy area than by a criminal. Be prepared to see a homeless person shuffling down the street or someone crashed out in a doorway. As with any big city, crime exists but I have never had any issues while walking on the Barbary Coast Trail.

7. Take Supplies: Water, Munchies, and Some Small Bills.
Bring some water, munchies and some extra cash with you. You will want to stay well hydrated and keep your energy up. Even after a short time, the best of us can become grumpy when we are hungry. Keep a couple of one-dollar bills in a buttoned pocket or somewhere that you can easily access as emergency cash, like if you need to use the bathroom facilities and need to offer some cash to a store owner. Several banks are along the trail’s route, but fees associated with ATMs can be expensive.

8. Shop Around Before You Eat.
SF has some excellent places to eat; but you still want to choose wisely, the problem isn’t finding a good place to eat, it is trying to figure out which of the many good places to eat. Along the trail are restaurants to satisfy every taste.

9. Avoid the Crowds.
San Francisco is a popular place for tourists. The mild climate makes the city a destination year round but summer is the busiest time. You will always find crowds but if you can visit mid-week or during the wintertime, you can have many of the attractions to yourself. I actually enjoy exploring in the wintertime. The cooler weather keeps most people away and the clear skies after a rain make for the most stunning views.

10. A Day Trip Suggestion.
The Barbary Coast Trail can be ‘walked’ quickly in as little as 4 hours and can really be explored if you have several days. However, if you have just one day I suggest starting your exploration early in the morning; being on the trail by 8 a.m. is ok. This allows for poking around different stores, people watching and enjoying the sights. You can easily spend several hours walking through Union Square and Chinatown. Enjoy some tea in Chinatown and continue past Portsmouth Square to the Wells Fargo History Museum to learn about the Gold Rush (note: only open during weekdays). Continue past the Trans America Pyramid along the old coastline and the Old Barbary Coast area. Around lunchtime, grab a sandwich at Molinari’s deli in the North Beach neighborhood. If you need a coffee, the nearby Caffe Trieste, offers some good coffee and sells some lunch items as well. Work off lunch by climbing up to Coit Tower and enjoying the views of San Francisco. As you walk down to the waterfront check out the sea lions at Pier 39. A lot of places at Pier 39 will be selling bread bowls filled with Clam Crowder – avoid this temptation and hold out for some crab later that day. As you leave the sea lions you might be tempted to catch a ferry and visit Alcatraz Island – I would suggest making this a separate trip. Continue down the waterfront to the World War II vessels and check these out. Just beyond this area along the trail are vendors who sell Dungeness Crab – grab a bite to eat at one of these vendors. Check out the Hyde Street Pier and climb aboard the myriad of old-time ships. If you need a snack the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory is nearby, but one dessert can easily feed several people and you might have to wait sometime for a table. The Hyde Street Cable Car turnaround is a few feet away and the line for a ticket has generally shortened by the end of the day. The Cable Car ride back to Powell Street is about 15 to 20 minutes and will take you back past Union Square to the starting point.

Read more about the Barbary Coast Trail:

Part 6: Northern Waterfront
Part 5: North Beach
Part 4: Barbary Coast
Part 3: Gold Rush City
Part 2: Chinatown
Part 1: Downtown

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