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By Amy Senk | Contributor




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Photos credit courtesy of Amy Senk

Before our temporary move to a tiny apartment in San Francisco’s North Beach this spring, we experienced a very common reaction from friends: warnings to be careful, that the city was failing, that we would be confronted continually by drug overdose deaths and crime and vacant storefronts. 

What we found instead was a friendly neighborhood where residents picked up trash from the sidewalks each evening, where the letter carriers knew us by name, where empty businesses were noisy with construction inside. The city has problems for sure — a record number of drug overdose deaths last year, a Financial District still reeling from the pandemic work from home era, retail establishments closing and leaving a void in once-vibrant areas. 

But many locals are getting tired of the “failed city” narrative. 

“It just makes me furious, because it's just not our experience,” said my longtime friend Dru, who moved to the city in 2021. “It’s so opposite of our experience.”

Dru spent 30 years figuring out how to move to San Francisco after a visit when a stranger on a park bench overheard her wishing aloud, put down his newspaper and said, “Do it.” She’s been living there for two years, working downtown and commuting on public transportation where her fellow riders will cheer when she figures out Wordle. She and her husband have made a point to visit a new neighborhood every weekend. Her social media posts frequently show a stunning San Francisco cityscape. Almost every time, someone inevitably comments that the pretty picture doesn’t zoom in enough to see the filth and crime and danger of her adopted hometown.

“I am really radical when it comes to sticking up for San Francisco online, and I do it over and over and over again,” she told me. “There are a few neighborhoods you want to avoid — just like in any big city.  But to me, the city is magical. I wake up every morning and think, I live in San Francisco! There’s something so wonderful about that.”

Dru and her husband don’t own a car, so they take public transportation or walk everywhere. They spend weekends exploring new areas, letting themselves stumble upon historic Cottage Row or the smallest park in San Francisco, which offers amazing views of Alcatraz (and battles with another park for the “smallest park” title). Their favorite place to take visitors is the observation deck in the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, close to their apartment. 

“We tell our friends they are in for a surprise, and you go up an elevator, and there’s this 360-degree view of all of San Francisco,” she said. “And hardly anyone knows about it. It’s just public space.”

We had a similar approach during our two months in the city. We’d head out on foot with a loose idea of a destination. Once, we ended up walking from North Beach a mile or so, down past the Buena Vista, which is famous for introducing Irish coffees to the United States, and where my late uncle once bartended decades ago. We walked past Ghirardelli Square, through a park with Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Mason views, and ended up on the Marina Green. Another day, we walked from Telegraph Hill to Russian Hill, found ourselves by the cable car stop at the top of the crooked part of Lombard Street, then walked downhill past a different park we never had heard of before. It turned out to be Francisco Park, “built on the site of the city’s first reservoir,” and is only a couple years old. There were kids on the swings, visitors sprawled out on the grass and again, incredible Golden Gate Bridge views.

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One afternoon, my Newport Beach friends, Danny and Lorna, were visiting and we planned to spend some time together. Lorna had never been a fan of the city, and all the recent doom and gloom reports about the state of San Francisco hadn’t changed her outlook for the better.

“I just never had any fun there,” she said. “Show me your San Francisco so I can see the good things.”

After giving this some thought, I decided to take them on my favorite walk past semi-hidden, private gardens, which I knew Lorna would enjoy. We started at Coit Tower near my apartment, then found the path to the Greenwich steps, one of many San Francisco staircase paths that can be hard to find but worth the effort.

The Greenwich steps take you down nearly 400 steps, some brick, some concrete, all with handrails. In places the foliage is dense; other times, there are views of the bay. In the middle, when you must cross a city street to find the next set of steps, it’s easy to get mixed up. Thankfully, someone spray painted a sign that says “Steps” along with an arrow, which clearly marks the way. 

At the bottom, we strolled across Sansome Street to walk through Levi Plaza, a private park that is open to the public during the day. We walked along the Embarcadero, past a few of the piers, toward the Ferry Building. Then we circled back and made our way to the base of the Filbert steps, a similar path back up to Coit Tower with more amazing views and gardens and sculptures dotted along the uphill path. 

We passed plenty of other tourists and sightseers along our walks, and the failed city narrative never seemed to apply. That’s not to say that you couldn’t create an itinerary that took you through struggling areas of town, or where you might be able to find evidence that supports your “San Francisco is a hellscape” viewpoint. We could honestly do that in any city in America, but in San Francisco, it doesn’t take a lot of squinting and denial to have a peaceful, amazing day. 


In fact, one of the most objectionable parts of my afternoon with Danny and Lorna, other than a little boy who became sick in the Coit Tower staircase, was a noisy group of motorbike riders on the Embarcadero. This group had been by my apartment on Green Street a few days earlier, revving and roaring and making a racket while they performed wheelies and different tricks on their bikes. Loud and annoying, yes, but at the same time, interesting and a little entertaining in a completely unexpected way.

“That’s why I love it,” my friend Dru said. “It’s so different than anywhere else I’ve ever been.”




de Young Museum: The museum is in Golden Gate Park at 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. The Hamon Observation Tower does not require a ticket for entry and is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Francisco Park: Located at 2445 Hyde St., there are four entrances to the park at Bay Street, Lower Hyde Street, Bruce’s Stairs/Upper Hyde Street Stairs and Larkin Street. It is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.


Coit Tower: The tower is located at 1 Telegraph Hill Blvd. Hours vary by season, and fees range from $3 to $10 to visit the top.


Filbert Steps: Find the steps going down by Coit Tower (there is a small sign) or going up at Filbert and Sansome streets.


Greenwich Steps: Find the steps down by Coit Tower. Going up, the beginning of the stairs are at Battery and Greenwich streets. 


Jack Early Park: The park is located at 100 Pfeiffer St., with an entrance on Grant Avenue between Chestnut and Francisco streets. There is a gate that is open from sunrise to sunset, daily.



Golden Boy Pizza: It’s takeout only, so grab a slice and head to nearby Washington Square Park for a picnic.


Trattoria Contadina: Open for dinner only, reservations are suggested at this North Beach restaurant.


Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Café: While Mario’s stopped selling cigars in 1992, you can savor Italian staples like focaccia sandwiches.


Caffe Trieste: Visit the West Coast’s first espresso coffee house located in North Beach for a morning pick me up.


Victoria Pastry: Close to Washington Square Park, the bakery has great pastries and coffee with a few outdoor tables.


Tony Nik’s Cafe: This iconic cocktail lounge was one of the first bars to open in North Beach after Prohibition.

Comstock: At the crossroads of North Beach, China Town, the Financial District and Jackson Square, the historic saloon serves classic cocktails with live jazz nightly.


Maggie McGarry's Irish Pub: There’s live music every weekend at this authentic Irish pub in the heart of North Beach.

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