By Melissa Chandler
Russian Hill is a neighborhood with that rare advantage of being tucked away, yet central to almost everything. I feel lucky that from where I live I can walk to Union Square, the Marina, Pacific Heights, Aquatic Park, Chinatown, or North Beach in about 15 minutes. This is also a neighborhood that eludes stereotypes. If the Mission = hipsters, the Marina = yuppies, SOMA = techies, and the Haight = hippies, Russian Hill is just a bunch of great people coming together to eat free pizza on Monday nights at Robberbarron.
On a sunny day there’s nothing better than trekking up Leavenworth or Jones, where, upon cresting the hill, all steepness is immediately forgiven as you’re hit with the sweeping blue of the Bay and some of the best views around of Alcatraz and Coit Tower. If you haven’t taken a coffee, a blanket, and a book to the little patch of grass known as Ina Coolbrith Park at Taylor and Vallejo, please remedy this oversight immediately. The view from the park is amazing, and though it’s teeny-tiny, there will be room for you. Every time I’ve headed up there to get in some reading and sunbathing, I’ve had it mostly to myself. Maybe visitors are too distracted by the hidden steps and lush gardens leading down to North Beach.
I sometimes wonder if everyone has a favorite signature neighborhood noise. In Russian Hill, I love dropping off to the rumbling of the cable cars on Hyde Street, a block down the hill from my apartment.
Speaking of Hyde, if sushi, pizza, and ice cream are the keys to happiness, this street has eternal bliss dialed within a one-block radius. Elephant Sushi at Hyde and Green is among the best I’ve had in the city. Try the sizzling mango sea bass. It arrives at your table foil-wrapped and lit with blue flames! Intimate and hip, this is a great date spot.
Nearby is Za Pizza, which wins hands down for most charming pizza spot in the city. It’s small and warm, and the tables are usually occupied by families with kids. You can have a beer at the bar and catch a game on TV with your perfect New York–style cornmeal crust slice. The owners, Buzz and Brooks, filled me in on the deets of the house a block away at 29 Russell, where Neal and Carolyn Cassady lived, and where Jack Kerouac shacked up in the attic for a few months while he wrote Visions of Cody.
After checking out the Beat crash pad, head over to Swensen’s at Union and Hyde and eat ice cream like it’s 1949. I recommend a scoop of banana with a scoop of chocolate peanut butter. This location is nearly 70 years old, and it’s the very first Swensen’s, which went on to become an international franchise.
When it’s time to burn off the ice cream, here’s my favorite jogging route: up and over the hill on Leavenworth, past Lombard (where you’ll see tourists with cameras at all hours, which is oddly comforting), and down to Aquatic Park, along the water. Do some zigzagging up and down the concrete bleachers to mix it up a little, then head onto the Municipal Pier. It’s the perfect spot to stop for a rest and check out the boats, and to watch the Dolphin Club members swimming tirelessly in the Bay (most without wetsuits – my heroes.)
This particular part of the waterfront amazes me. Backed up against Ghirardelli Square you’d think it would be tourist central, but it hardly ever is (unless the Blue Angels are in town). The bleachers and the path next to the beach have a serene, dreamy quality, as if, in just this one pocket of the city, time has been slowed down by half. When it’s time to run back, the hills are without mercy, but this is our cross to bear as San Franciscans. And what Russian Hill lacks in level running routes, it more than makes up for in great views. Not to mention that being a runner here gives you the gift of nice calves.
I’ve been in Russian Hill for four years now, and I don’t think I can ever leave. I was tempted to say that this neighborhood has stolen my heart, but if you want cheesiness, you’re better off checking out Cheese Plus at Pacific and Polk. It has everything you will ever want to bring on a picnic for the rest of your life. If you’re not in a shopping mood, visit the window counter around the side, where you can order a coffee or a sandwich from the sidewalk and sit down at one of the outdoor tables.
Then wander down the street and leaf through used poetry and cookbooks at the Russian Hill Bookstore at Polk and Green. A visit to the neighborhood wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Nick’s Crispy Tacos, where the food is okay but the strip club–like décor of the lounge is classic, quirky San Francisco. Wind down your evening at a candlelit table in the back of Cresta’s Twenty Two Eleven Club, our neighborhood’s version of Cheers, where the bartenders are always up for a chat, and they make the best hot brandies on cold nights. See you there!
Check out more neighborhoods that we covered in our "Why I Love ..." series here.