Last Updated on 29 Mar 2021 by Jim
Walking the San Francisco Barbary Coast Trail is a great way to experience the city’s sights, food, and fascinating history. It’s easy, fun, and interesting.
No matter where your interests lie, whether it’s food, drink, shopping, interesting sights, architecture, history, or simply exercise — the Barbary Coast Trail has it all. The trail goes through the heart of San Francisco, and along the way, wanders through interesting neighborhoods with connections to historically significant events.
The trail passes by or through the Old US Mint, Union Square, Chinatown, the original waterfront (Barbary Coast), North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Aquatic Park. The 1849 gold rush, 1906 earthquake and fire, and wave upon wave of immigrants influenced and shaped these neighborhoods.
For more ideas about things to do and see in San Francisco, visit our San Francisco Itinerary article.
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In This Article We Cover the Following:
- Barbary Coast Trail at a glance
- How bronze medallions mark the trail
- Link to map with the trail plotted and sights pinned
- Sights to see along the trail (it’s a long list)
- Upper trail for a round trip (Nob Hill via cable car)
- Ways to take the trail (round trip, one-way, or a bit at a time)
- Best time to walk the Barbary Coast Trail
- How the trail was created
San Francisco Barbary Coast Trail at a Glance
Follow the Barbary Coast Trail Bronze Medallions
The trail is marked with 180 bronze medallions embedded in the sidewalks along the 3.8-mile trail. They are strategically placed at every corner and turn along the way and have arrows showing which direction to go. The images captured in the bronze medallions represent San Francisco during California’s gold rush.
Tip: I recently walked the trail again and noticed a couple of medallions are missing (in places where sections of sidewalks have been replaced), and the medallion on Montgomery at the corner of Jackson is pointing the wrong way. Turn right onto Jackson.
Barbary Coast Trail Map
Click the map image below to go to the expandable, interactive Google Map. It has the trail plotted and many of the sites along the way pinned (red pins). Click on the pins for brief descriptions.
Sights to see along the Barbary Coast Trail
There’s a lot to see along the trail, so this is a really long list. Use the page jumps below to navigate the list:
- Downtown: The Old U.S. Mint, Union Square, and Maiden Lane
- Financial District
- Barbary Coast: The Original San Francisco Waterfront
- North Beach
- North Beach to the Embarcadero
- The Waterfront: Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf and Aquatic Park
- Upper Trail for Round Trip — Cable Car and Nob Hill
Downtown: Old U.S. Mint, Union Square, and Maiden Lane
Old San Francisco Mint
The southern end of the trail begins in front of the Old Mint at Fifth and Mission Streets. The Greek Revival building, nicknamed the Granite Lady, was completed in 1874. For 63 years, it stored and minted gold and silver from the Sierra mines.
The building was damaged by the fire in 1906, but it withstood the earthquake. This was doubly fortunate because it held a third of the nation’s gold supply, and the basement cistern was an important emergency water supply for the city.
The trail continues to Market Street and briefly follows Market between 5th and Powell Streets. Take a moment to notice the street lights on Market. They were the first electric lamps in San Francisco and are over 100-years old.
Union Square beautifully landscaped park is in the heart of San Francisco’s upscale shopping district. Walk through it or to buy a drink and sit awhile. Union Square is also the entrance to a station for the new (coming soon) Crosstown Subway.
En route between Union Square and Grant Avenue, the trail goes through Maiden Lane. Once an infamous red-light district, this short alley is now home to upscale clothing stores. The building at 140 Maiden Lane was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1949.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the biggest (covering 24-blocks) and oldest in the country. It’s teeming with people, interesting architecture, restaurants, and shops. There are herb shops, teashops, art and jewelry shops, and lots of shops selling inexpensive souvenirs.
Grant Avenue is Chinatown’s main street and is quite distinctive with its ornate street lights and rows of red lanterns above the street. It’s also the best location for souvenir and gift shops. Stockton Street (1-block west) is the main shopping street for locals and is where you’ll find roast ducks hanging in shop windows.
This ornate gate, with dragons on top, is the main entrance to Chinatown. It’s at the intersection of Grant and Bush.
Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral
Built in 1854, Saint Mary’s was badly damaged, but is the only building in Chinatown that survived the 1906 quake and fire. Step inside and checkout the photo display in the foyer.
This two-block-long alley is the heart and soul of Chinatown and is known for its colorful wrought-iron balconies. It also has a colorful past involving gambling, Tong wars, and sing-song slave girls.
This one-block alley is home to the world-famous Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company. Step inside and watch the workers pull the hot cookies from little grills on a revolving belt and quickly add a fortune and fold them. You can buy them while they’re still warm, and, for a small fee, you’re welcome to take photos.
Old Telephone Exchange in Chinatown
On Washington Street, the trail passes by another historically important location. Now occupied by the East West Bank, this unusual building — with its three-tiered pagoda roof — was the original Chinatown telephone exchange, built in 1909.
This square was the center of Yerba Buena Village before it became San Francisco. It’s where John Montgomery, Captain of the USS Portsmouth, planted the first American flag in the city. Portsmouth Square also has public bathrooms and is a station for the new (coming soon) Crosstown Subway.
Wells Fargo History Museum (short detour from trail)
This small museum is free and well worth visiting. It has several exhibits from the California Gold Rush including a Wells Fargo Overland Coach used in the 1860s, gold dust and ore, photos, paintings, and interactive exhibits. The Wells Fargo History Museum is inside the Wells Fargo Bank at 420 Montgomery Street.
Transamerica Redwood Park (short detour from trail)
This amazing little park has about 45 redwood trees, a whimsical fountain with lily pads and jumping frogs, and a wonderful sculpture of children running and jumping. This privately owned public space is provided by Transamerica. The park is on the east side of the Transamerica Pyramid; and the entrance is on Clay Street.
Barbary Coast: The Original San Francisco Waterfront
During the gold rush, hundreds of ships sailed into Yerba Buena Cove and many were abandoned when their crews headed off to the gold fields. The ships became part of the landfill that covered the cove, pushing the shoreline north.
The original shoreline was here, around Jackson and Montgomery, and it was home to saloons, bawdy houses, and illicit activities. This is where men were drugged, clubbed, or drunk, and woke to find themselves on a ship at sea. This is where the word “shanghaied” entered the American lexicon.
The Victorians in the 400 block of Jackson Street were built in the 1860s and are among the few gold rush era buildings still standing.
Hotaling’s Whiskey Warehouses
Three of the most ornate buildings along Jackson Street were built in the 1860s by Anson, Parsons Hotaling (Hote-uh-ling), and they held the largest liquor repository on the West Coast. Miraculously, the whiskey-filled buildings survived the 1906 quake and fire. A bronze plaque on the west side of 451 Jackson captures the sentiment of the time:
If, as they say, God spanked the town For being over frisky, Why did He burn the churches down And save Hotaling's whiskey?
Hotaling Place (tiny detour from trail)
On Jackson, take a slight detour into Hoteling Place. The wavy design in the pavement marks the original San Francisco shoreline. North Beach was actually on the beach. Everything between the current waterfront and this wavy line is built on top of sunken ships, trash piles, and whatever else was dumped here. Also, checkout the hitching posts.
The Comstock Saloon is one of the few remaining traces of San Francisco’s rough and rowdy Barbary Coast. Amazingly, this popular watering hole still has much of its original interior. The beautiful mahogany bar is still there along with the embossed tin ceiling, the pukka walla fans, and the tiled trough that runs along the base of the bar (don’t’ ask).
Since it first opened in 1907, this establishment has always been a saloon, but it was not always called the Comstock. It’s been the Andromeda, the Albatross, and the San Francisco Brewing Company. The Comstock has an interesting menu and great drinks. It’s located on the corner of Pacific and Columbus
Once a village literally on a beach, North Beach has gone through several phases: a manic gold rush landing, the Barbary Coast, and for a while, home of the Beatniks. Now, it’s Little Italy and one of my most favorite neighborhoods on the planet.
Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were all here in the 1950s. This was the epicenter of the Beat generation. They’re gone now, but their old haunts — City Lights Bookstore, Vesuvio, and Tosca Cafe — live on.
City Lights Bookstore
An historic independent bookstore opened in 1953 by poet Laurence Ferlinghetti, City Lights was headquarters for the 1950s Beat Generation literary movement. City Lights was and still is a defender of free speech and carries social and political publications not available elsewhere.
Vesuvio was a favorite hangout for the “beats.” It does not serve food, but it serves drinks in a pleasant, memorabilia filled pub. Don’t miss the mural on the outside wall.
Jack Kerouac Alley
Between Vesuvio and City Lights Bookstore there is a short alley dedicated to Jack Kerouac. Take time to walk through it and read the bits of poetry engraved in the pavement. The alley is magic; on one end, you’re in Chinatown; on the other end, you’re in North Beach.
Saints Peter and Paul Church
Facing Washington Square, this beautiful church has appeared in several movies and is a popular spot for photos. The 1906 quake destroyed the original church, which was built in 1884. The current structure was completed in 1924 (Source).
The Barbary Coast Trail nearly circles this popular park. Take time to walk through it too, or even have a picnic. Or take a break at one of the many restaurants surrounding the park.
Original Joe’s is my favorite restaurant around Washington Square. I love their Caesar Salad and Hamburger Sandwich on sourdough.
North Beach to the Embarcadero
After meandering through North Beach, the trail heads north on Grant. It goes about half way up Telegraph Hill, so there’s some serious uphill/downhill parts. It passes by Coit Tower and Jack Early Park, jogs right on Francisco and takes a major flight of stairs down to Kearny, which then turns left onto the Embarcadero.
If you’d rather avoid the hill and stairs, then exit Washington Square, onto Stockton, head north on Stockton, turn right on Bay, and then left on Kearny.
Coit Tower (detour from trail)
If you’re up for a significant detour (including stairs), hike up Greenwich to the top of Telegraph Hill. Pioneer Park and Coit Tower are at the top.
Coit Tower is a monument honoring the city’s firefighters. Depression era artists covered the walls in the rotunda with murals. Purchase a ticket in the gift shop to ride the small elevator to the top for great 360° views of the city and bay.
Jack Early Park
On Grant between Chestnut and Francisco, take the short flight of stairs (about 60 steps) to tiny Jack Early park. It has a great bridge-to-bridge view of the bay and beyond.
The Waterfront: Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Aquatic Park
The trail goes by Pier 39, through Fisherman’s Wharf, loops around the Maritime National Historic Park, and ends at the Powell-Hyde cable car turntable.
Located on the east side of Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 has food, crowds, souvenirs, more food, entertainment, public restrooms, and still more food and souvenirs. The biggest attractions at Pier 39 are:
- Sea Lions
- Aquarium of the Bay
- Double decker carousel with interesting creatures to ride
There are lots of restaurants, shops, bike and Segway rentals, and a variety of tour operators at Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s also home to these sights, which are popular with Kids:
- Musée Mécanique
- Ripley’s Believe it or Not
- Madame Tussauds Wax Museum
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
This park includes:
- Aquatic Park with a beach and cove that is protected by a long, curved municipal pier. The beach and cove are popular with swimmers and boaters (non-motorized boats only). Walk out on the pier for a great view of the bay.
- Hyde Street Pier Museum with a collection of vintage ships and boats, including the beautiful square-rigger Balclutha.
- Maritime Museum with huge collections of everything nautical including figureheads from gold-rush era ships and dozens of large-scale ship models. It’s in the striking art deco building that looks like an ocean liner. The building was originally a bathhouse and is graced with a whimsical depression era mural by Hilaire Hiler and other art works.
After looping around the Maritime National Historic Park, the main Barbary Coast Trail ends at the Powell-Hyde cable car turntable on Hyde at Beach.
But wait, there’s more! Take the upper route and turn your sightseeing walk into a round trip.
Upper Trail for Round Trip — Cable Car and Nob Hill
The Barbary Coast Trail is designed as a round trip: in one direction, walk the main trail; in the opposite direction, combine a cable car ride, with a sightseeing stop on Nob Hill. If you go to Nob Hill, here’s what you can see and why it’s historically interesting:
It’s called Nob Hill because it was home to the “nobs,” the wealthy citizens of San Francisco. Among the wealthiest were the Big Four: Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Charles Crocker who together built the western half of the Transcontinental Railroad.
In the late 1870s, each of these men built an opulent mansion on Nob Hill. The 1906 earthquake and fire reduced all four mansions to rubble. None of the Big Four mansions were rebuilt, but their names still dominate Nob Hill.
The Stanford and Hopkins mansions were replaced by the Stanford Court and Mark Hopkins Hotels. Huntington Park replaced Huntington’s mansion. Grace Cathedral rose from the ashes of the Crocker mansion.
The cathedral is modeled after Notre Dame in Paris and was completed in 1964. The incredible bronze doors alone are worth the trip to Nob Hill. The original doors were created for the Baptistery in the Piazza del Duomo in Florence. Lorenzo Ghiberti and his son worked on them for 27 years and completed them in 1452.
Ghiberti was among the first to use linear perspective and graded relief — techniques that mark the beginning of the Italian renaissance. The doors are called the Bible in Bronze because they represent biblical events. Michelangelo called them The Gates of Paradise.
The doors here, of course, are replicas and not the priceless originals. During WWII, the originals were removed from the Duomo Baptistery and hidden from the Nazis. In the process, their caretaker made a new set of molds from the original doors. The doors at Grace Cathedral were created from these molds.
There’s more to see at Grace Cathedral, including dozens of beautiful stained-glass windows, a Benny Bufano sculpture of St. Francis, murals, mosaics, and two labyrinths — one inside and one outside.
This popular little park is nicely landscaped with lots of seating, and, like the Cathedral, it also has a replica of an Italian renaissance treasure. It’s Rome’s Fontana della Tartarughe — fountain of the tortoises.
James C. Flood was one of the Silver Kings who made his fortune from the Comstock Lode. It must have been an incredible fortune because Flood had Connecticut brownstone shipped around the horn to build his massive mansion. It was completed in 1888.
Although the interior was gutted by the fire, it was the only Nob Hill mansion to survive the 1906 earthquake. The Flood family sold the mansion to the Pacific Union Club. As you wander by, you can admire the stonework and the beautiful bronze fence, but unless you have connections, you won’t see the inside because Pacific Union is a private club.
Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar at the Fairmont Hotel
The Tonga Room is the Grand Kahuna of Tiki Bars. The décor is elaborate and real — real wood, rigging, thatch, and fixtures. The intermittent rain showers and thunder are a nice touch too, and then, of course, there are the exotic, fruity drinks with little umbrellas (open evenings only).
Follow California Street downhill to Powell and board the next cable car to continue on to Union Square and Market Street.
Ways to Get to Nob Hill
Important: San Francisco Muni has temporarily shortened or suspended several routes. It’s a very fluid situation, so please check the SF Muni website for current conditions.
- All three cable car lines have stops at or near Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill. Both the Powell-Hyde and California lines stop at Taylor, and both the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines stop on Powell at California.
- Muni bus option: catch a 1 California bus at any stop along Sacramento Street and exit at the Sproule Lane stop.
Tip: If you want hop-on-hop-off privileges on cable cars, a Muni Visitor Passport is the best option. A one-day passport is $13. Install the MuniMobile app on your smartphone, purchase the passport, activate it on the day you wish to use it, and show it when you board or are asked to do so. You get unlimited rides on cable cars, historic streetcars, Muni Metro (light-rail), and Muni buses.
For more information about using San Francisco’s public transit system, like fares, ways to pay, apps, and maps, visit our article San Francisco Excursions on Public Transit.
Ways to walk the Barbary Coast Trail
- One-way: Walk the main trail in either direction.
- Round trip: Take the main trail in one direction and the upper trail in the opposite direction. The upper trail is a cable car ride between the Wharf and Market Street with a sightseeing stop on Nob Hill.
- A bit at a time: Walk the main trail in sections so you have time for stops along the way.
Tip: The ends of both trails are conveniently located near the Powell-Hyde cable car turntables and are also near historic streetcar stops.
Best Time to Walk the Barbary Coast Trail
Take this trail any day any time of year as long as the weather suits you comfort level. The most predictably good weather is in the fall (mid-September through mid-November). But even during the rainy season (December into March), there are often nice sunny 60-70° days.
How the Trail was Created
The Barbary Coast Trail was a collaborative project with historian Daniel Bacon and the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society; it was inaugurated in 1998. Daniel Bacon and Illustrator Jim Blair designed the medallion and created an excellent official guide and an audio tour. The guide, audio tour, and guided tours are available on the Barbary Coast Trail website.
Daniel Bacon also published a book: Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail. I just bought the 3rdedition (2019) on Amazon and highly recommend it to anyone interested in a much deeper dive into the history of sights and events along the Barbary Coast Trail.
Walking is the best way to see San Francisco, and there’s no more engaging way to walk this city than along the Barbary Coast Trail. Walk the entire trail at once, if you like, or take it a section at a time and take time to explore the museums, churches, parks, cafes, and pubs along the way.
For more great trails, visit our Hiking in San Francisco article.