The World's Crookedest Street?
Lombard Street in San Francisco is often called the most crooked street in the world. Actually, it's the second crookedest, but San Francisco has the number one street as well!
The pretty, postcard view of Lombard Street has become famous worldwide and many visitors enjoy seeing the cars carefully winding down the turns among the beautiful flower beds.
But it wasn't "discovered" until the late 1950's, when it was featured in a news article. The first post card of Lombard Street appeared in 1961.
City planners and residents have struggled with San Francisco's steep hills from the very beginnings of the city.
Lombard Street was just one of the many cliff-like streets that horse-drawn wagons and early Model T Ford's had trouble with. Cable cars were one solution, and curvy switchbacks were another.
In 1922, the home-owners on the 1000 block of Lombard Street decided that their street was too steep for comfort, and created the plan to create a series of eight sharp turns to make it more manageable.
The result: eight tight switchback turns in 600 feet of road. Around one million cars drive down it every year.
Originally it was a two-way street, but in 1939 it became one-way going down. Lombard Street didn't become the photogenic beauty it is today until the hill was planted with hydrangea bushes, which bloom pretty much all year round.
Drive or walk?
This is a cool experience. Not that it's difficult (the speed limit is 5 miles per hour), but it feels like such an odd thing to do.
The cobblestones are a little slippery, and the turns are tight. Winding down a steep hill in a field of blooming hydrangeas...such fun! And what a great view of Coit Tower, the Bay Bridge and the bay, if you can take your eyes off the road.
Go Cars. And to up the adventure a bit, try Lombard Street in a little Go Car. I finally got around to it, and it was great! Only a little dicier than doing it in an SUV.
Here's my account of it, with lots of tips on the best routes and what not to do (our mistakes revealed!) See Go Cars in the City.
Want to try it? For more info and booking a Go Car, click here.
There are also Segway tours that go down Lombard Street (more for intermediate riders, they say). I haven't tried it yet, but it looks like fun. See Segways for details and booking information.
Best times to go. On sunny weekends, there can be a long line of cars waiting to go down the street. During the week, it's not usually a problem.
Summer and early fall are busier, generally, but I recently went down it on a beautiful sunny afternoon in October and there was no one ahead of me.
Most people walk down Lombard. There are stairs all the way, so it's pretty easy, though it's a full block down. Walking up would be great exercise, which is probably why most visitors start at the top!
From the bottom, it's only a few blocks over to Fisherman's Wharf or North Beach.
Walking down gives you plenty of time to check out the street and houses, and to admire the view, which is very nice. Photography is a lot easier, too.
Several of the buildings have some interesting history attached.
Real World San Francisco. One of the early reality TV shows, Real World, used the house at 949 Lombard, filmed in 1994.
The Haunted Montandon House. One of San Francisco's most famous haunted houses is sitting right on the curves of Lombard Street.
The apartment building at 1000 Lombard belonged to well-known socialite of the 1960's Pat Montandon. In addition to being a famous party hostess and having her own local talk show, she later became known for her work with children's charities. After being cursed by a tarot card reader at one of the parties, her home on Lombard became notorious for a series of tragic deaths, as well as numerous reported supernatural manifestations.
It eventually became unlivable, and after a ghostly woman kept showing up in photographs taken inside the house, Pat arranged for an exorcism, after which things apparently settled down. See an interesting article about the hauntings. Pat herself wrote a book about it, called The Intruders.
The building is obscured by trees on Lombard; there's a better view from Leavenworth Street at the bottom of Lombard, on the right looking up.The House in Hitchcock's Vertigo. Just below the crooked block is the house Alfred Hitchcock used as Scottie's home in the film Vertigo. Both the exterior and interior of 900 Lombard were used in the film, though the current owners changed the outside appearance in 2012, building a wall around the front (to avoid the tourists, they said).
This section of Lombard Street is in the Russian Hill neighborhood, a very affluent, expensive area of San Francisco.
Just to give you an idea, the pink building at 1047-1049 Lombard, consisting of one 2-bedroom flat and one 3-bedroom flat, sold in January 2016 for $4,050,000.
The "crookedest street in the world" is actually Vermont Street, in the Potrero Hill neighborhood on the other side of town.
This neighborhood has more than its share of steep streets, but it's off the beaten track for visitors to San Francisco. Three of the streets here rival the better known Filbert Street for extreme grades.
Vermont, between 20th and 22nd Streets, was one of those steep ones until 7 curves were added, with tighter turns than Lombard's (Vermont Street surpasses Lombard in sinuosity, one measure of curvature).
Vermont Street is tucked away in a pleasant older neighborhood of pretty Victorians and great city views. The trees and shrubbery have grown up around it, so it's harder to get the full view of the whole curve sequence.
Vermont Street's other claim to fame is its weird and light-hearted annual event, the Bring Your Own Big Wheel Race, where people (mostly adults) race plastic Big Wheel tricycles down the winding road. Held Easter Sunday at 4:00 p.m. every year. Draws a big crowd of locals.
Film note: the curves of Vermont Street starred in a chase scene in Clint Eastwood's Magnum Force (1973).
(Another contender for crookedest street in the world is Snake Alley, in Burlington , Iowa. It has 7 turns and is curvier than Lombard, but I don't know where it stands vs. Vermont Street.)
Actually, Lombard Street was pretty tame, at a 27% grade before alteration. San Francisco has much steeper streets than that.
The reigning steepest streets in the city had long been Filbert Street (between Leavenworth and Hyde) and 22nd Street (between Church and Vicksburg), both at a 31.5% grade. I've driven down both of these guys and it's a bit of a white knuckle experience. There's that moment when you feel like your car is driving off a cliff and can't see the street in front of you. Quite a thrill! And safe in most cars (with good brakes). Both are one-way, down only.
An intrepid local explorer, Stephen Van Worley, went out and hunted down, drove and measured the candidates for steepest San Francisco streets and found seven more that tied or beat the grade of Filbert and 22nd Streets.
Stephen found that Bradford Street, in the Bernal Heights neighborhood above Tompkins Avenue, maxed out at a 41% grade, which actually qualifies it as the steepest urban street in the world (passing even Canton Avenue in Pittsburg at 37%). Check out the amusing account of his search at steepest SF streets.
Worse than driving down those black diamond runs? Driving up one of those and having to stop at the top, especially with another car attached to your bumper! I used to drive a manual shift car around the city; that was always good for an adrenaline rush...and a great test of coordination getting started (with some help from the emergency brake).
For a stimulating challenge, try the two blocks of Jones Street between Filbert and Union, in Russian Hill: two nice stop signs to practice on! Going up Gough and stopping at Washington is always fun, too; the steady traffic enhances the experience.
The crooked part of Lombard Street is between Hyde (at the top) and Leavenworth.
The Powell/Hyde Street cable car that runs from Powell Street on Market Street to Fisherman's Wharf goes right by the top of Lombard Street. The cable car stops there, at Hyde and Lombard, and you can get off at the top of the street for great views of the city, Coit Tower and the Bay Bridge, then walk down.
The #19 bus runs from Beach Street at Aquatic Park on Fisherman's Wharf, along Polk Street to Lombard, two blocks from the curvy part.
San Francisco's handy 511 Muni trip planner can show you the routes and buses available; you just plug in the start and stop points. See 511 SF Bay
If you walk to the bottom of Lombard Street, you will be in walking distance to North Beach (5 blocks) and Fisherman's Wharf (4 blocks).
It's back, but only through June 30, 2017.
(But it might become permanent.)