This drive introduces you to large swaths of San Francisco’s history while allowing you to enjoy some great scenic views and hit up the highlights of the city. And even if you do have more time to spend in the city (or even if you live there) it’s worth it to take the drive at least once to see all that San Francisco is known for, discovering a few of the gems that people sometimes miss like Mission Dolores.
History of the 49-Mile Scenic Drive
One of the major highlights in San Francisco’s history was the Golden Gate International Exposition held at Treasure Island in 1939 to celebrate the building of both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, which had each only recently been completed at the time. One of the key features of this expo was the launch of the 49-Mile scenic drive, which showed off both of the bridges and ended at the Treasure Island fairgrounds. The current route takes you through large regions of the city and does allow views of both bridges but no longer goes all the way to Treasure Island.
How to Tell if You’re on the Scenic Drive
You can download a (free, printable) up-to-date version of the San Francisco 49 Mile Drive Map to follow the whole drive. However, even if you don’t intend it, you will sometimes find yourself on this drive when you’re in the city without even realizing it. You can tell that you’re on it because the attractions along the drive are marked with blue and white signs that tell you you’re on 49 Mile Scenic Drive. The signs have a seagull featured on the top left corner. For your hotel stay, we also offer a free map of San Francisco's downtown area and central neighborhoods.
These signs themselves are part of the history of the scenic drive. They were designed by an artist who won a competition held by San Francisco’s Downtown Association in 1955 and have marked the scenic drive ever since. One important thing for you to note if you’re taking this drive intentionally, however, is that the signs are often stolen and it takes awhile to replace them so you’ll want the map with you in addition to following the signage!
The point of a scenic drive is that you get to see a lot of things from the comfortable seat of your car. Some of the key attractions on the drive that can easily be enjoyed without getting out of the car include:
Great Highway. One of the most beautiful areas of the drive is the stretch that takes you along the Great Highway alongside the Pacific Ocean. You can see the Cliff House, Sutro Baths, Seal Rock and Ocean Beach. You will also be taken past Lake Merced on this stretch of the drive.
City Hall. This is arguably one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. The 49 Mile Scenic Drive officially starts and ends near here so you’ll get a good view of it on the drive.
Transamerica Pyramid. When this building was completed in 1972, it was one of the five tallest buildings in the world. Its height and unique pyramid shape make it hard to miss when driving around the city.
Hills. Some of the best scenic views in the city come when your car crests at the top of a San Francisco hill. This drive takes you over Nob Hill and Russian Hill, providing great views. It also takes you up to Twin Peaks where you can look down on much of the city.
Lombard Street. Many travelers enjoy taking the drive down beautiful flower-lined Lombard Street, the so-called Crookedest Street.
Alcatraz. As long as it’s not too foggy out you will be able to see a view of Alcatraz from the drive. This attraction is worth visiting at least once but if you can’t afford the money or time to ferry over then this is the next best thing.
AT&T Park. This baseball stadium is home to The Giants and host to numerous events throughout the year. You don’t have to attend an event to enjoy the beauty of the park, though; you can see what it looks like from the 49-Mile scenic drive.
The Bridges. Because of the history of the 49-Mile Scenic Drive a key attraction is a view of both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge. They are both beautiful bridges in their own right and certainly worth seeing on your drive.
Golden Gate Park
Attractions To Explore Further
Here are some of the attractions that the 49-Mile scenic drive will take you past but which may be worth getting out of the car and exploring in more depth:
Museums. The drive takes you past several prominent museums in San Francisco that are each worth exploring on their own if you have the time. These include the Asian Art Museum, SF MoMA, Legion of Honor, Exploratorium, San Francisco Zoo, de Young Museum, and California Academy of Sciences.
Golden Gate Park. The drive provides a great view of Golden Gate Park but this huge attraction has many smaller attractions within it that are absolutely worth your time. They include the Strybing Arboretum, the Japanese Tea Garden and the Conservatory of Flowers.
The Presidio. There is a lot of history in this neighborhood as well as some modern attractions (like the Walt Disney Museum) Also from here you can walk to Marina Green, Crissy Field and Aquatic Park, attractions that can be seen from the scenic drive but that are only truly enjoyed when you get out of the car and stretch your legs in them.
Neighborhoods. Some of the neighborhoods that the drive goes through but which are worth exploring in greater detail include Chinatown, Japantown, North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf, Haight-Ashbury, Financial District and the Castro.
Ferry Building. There is a lot to see inside of this building. There are great restaurants inside. Plus there is a 3-times-weekly farmers’ market. Take the time to stop here instead of just driving by!
Presidio Ocean View
What to Expect from the Drive
The 49-Mile scenic drive is a great experience and a terrific way to see a lot of what the city has to offer. However, you should know what you’re getting into before you tackle the task of doing the entire drive. According to an article on the history of the drive, a few of the annoyances you may encounter during the drive include:
Traffic. In particular there are certain areas of the city that are not very car-friendly, such as pedestrian-rich Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf. These areas of the drive can prove frustrating to drivers who were expecting a leisurely drive so just be prepared for that.
Fog. The city has a lot of it and it is not always predictable. Of course fog can obscure the views you’re seeking from the drive. On especially foggy days you may not even be able to see key attractions like Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid. Be aware of this as you start the drive.
Scenery. Not all of the scenic drive is actually very scenic. You will be taken through parts of the city that aren’t always all that pretty before you get back on route. Just be aware of this.
If you do the drive from start to finish with just a few stops at the major attractions it should take you three to four hours to complete the drive. Alternatives include taking a tour bus that goes along most of the route or renting a bicycle and doing it on bike, which takes approximately six hours but eliminates some of the difficulties of having to drive in the city.
Hotels Near 49 Mile Scenic Drive
The great thing about this drive is that it takes you through so much of the city that nearly any hotel you’re staying in within city limits is going to be close to a portion of the drive. However, if you are planning to start and finish the drive at the traditional spot, near San Francisco City Hall, then you’ll want to get a hotel close to that point. Some of the best hotels near San Francisco City Hall include Hotel Whitcomb, Renoir Hotel, and the Hayes Valley Inn.