Russian Hill is one of San Francisco’s neighborhoods most famous worldwide. This very neighborhood is home to the famous Lombard Street, the street that with its bends has become one of the city’s icons, and the height of the hill on which the neighborhood has developed provides splendid views. The proximity and good connections to equally famous San Francisco areas and attractions also make Russian Hill a good choice for an overnight stay. Let’s see what lies ahead in this interesting neighborhood.
- General Information and History of the Neighborhood
- How to Get to Russian Hill
- What to Do in Russian Hill, San Francisco
- Events and Performances
- Best Restaurants at Russian Hill
- Where to Stay
General Information and History of the Neighborhood
Russian Hill is one of the ‘original’ hills of San Francisco and is therefore one of the Seven Hills. It owes its name to the Russian cemetery that was located here in the 1800s during the Gold Rush period. The many Russian ships and merchant vessels that docked in the harbor buried their dead in the hillside cemetery. Today it is only possible to admire a plaque at the site where the cemetery once stood.
Although the area has always been characterized by a slope exceeding a 50-percent gradient in several places, there are many architects and famous people who over the years have decided to build their homes and live on Russian Hill. These include the Atkinson family, whose mansion dates back to 1853 and is one of San Francisco’s oldest surviving mansions; Jack Kerouak; Fanny Stevenson, wife of Robert Louis Stevenson; Nobel laureate Milton Friedman; former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom; and Olympic skating champion Brian Boitano.
The iconic Lombard Street was built in 1922 and is now one of the most photographed and visited streets in the world.
How to Get to Russian Hill
Russian Hill is the San Francisco neighborhood between Bay Street to the north and Broadway to the south, and between Van Ness Avenue to the west and Columbus Avenue and Powell Street to the east. The neighborhood borders Nob Hill to the south, one of the city’s most upscale neighborhoods. Descending the hill to the north you find Ghirardelli Square. Descending instead to the northeast you will reach the famous Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood. To the east, Russian Hill borders North Beach, and to the west the Marina District. Needless to say, therefore, its location is a strategic one.
Another element that entices you to visit this neighborhood is the ease with which it can be reached by public transportation:
- Hyde Powell Cable Car: surely one of the best ways to get to Russian Hill is to take the famous cable car and get off along Hyde Street, perhaps at the intersection with Lombard Street. From there you can then leisurely get off on the main streets of the neighborhood.
- Buses 30 and 91 drop you off at the Columbus Avenue and Lombard Street stop
- Bus 19 leaves you between Lombard Street and Polk Street
- Bus 45 leaves you between Union Street and Polk Street, where there are several restaurants and stores.
What to Do in Russian Hill, San Francisco
The construction of the famous Lombard Street dates back to 1922 and was due to one of the owners who lived on the street, Carl Henry. The slope in this area reaches 27° (51%) and so it was impossible for cars to get up here by driving along a ‘normal’ road. While in other areas the only solution had been to build stairs to reach the houses, in this case, Carl Henry’s idea of having 8 hairpin bends in the 1300 feet between Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street allowed cars to be able to drive down the street (today only downhill) and gave us one of the most winding streets in the world.
San Francisco Art Institute
The San Francisco Art Institute was a private college specializing in the teaching and appreciation of contemporary art. It was founded in 1871 and was therefore one of the oldest art schools in the United States. The complex of buildings at 800 Chestnut Street became the school’s main campus in 1926, and in 1931 the Mexican artist Diego Rivera painted the large mural ‘The Creation of a Fresco, Showing the Construction of a City.’
Today this work, one of the painter’s four murals in San Francisco, is estimated to be worth $50 million. In the 1950s, the San Francisco Art Institute also became one of the most famous meeting points in San Francisco for the Beat Generation. In July 2022, the institute closed, permanently ending its courses of study, but instead promoting a foundation and becoming a nonprofit organization. The Diego Rivera mural was viewable inside the Diego Rivera Art Gallery until the school closed. Today the fate of the work remains, at least for the time being, uncertain.
THE MUSEUM IS CURRENTLY CLOSED
Ina Coolbrith Park
Ina Coolbrith Park is a small park in the Russian Hill area known as the Vallejo Street Crest Historic District. The garden is located at the intersection of Vallejo Street and Taylor Street. Needless to say, the view from this park of San Francisco Bay, North Beach, Treasure Island, and Coit Tower is wonderful. Ina Coolbrith, who lived between 1841 and 1928, was the first poet laureate in the United States.
Macondray Lane Historic District
The Macondray Lane Historic District is famous for Macondray Lane, a pedestrian street mentioned in Armistead Maupin’s book The Tales of San Francisco. The author actually named it Barbary Lane but also confirmed in a recent documentary produced in 2017 by Netflix that it was Macondray Lane that inspired him. The beautiful little street nestled amidst the green is located between Leavenworth and Taylor Street, parallel to Union Street and Green Street. This small suburb has historical value and has been renamed the Russian Hill-Macondray Lane Historic District.
Vallejo Street Crest Historic District
Between a wall and a natural promontory, the Vallejo Street Crest area is located in the southeastern part of Russian Hill and is famous for its history and the many historic buildings present. Fortunately, this area withstood the 1906 earthquake and it is here that you will see the 1853 Atkinson House and various other historic residences designed by architects such as Charles Frederick Whittlesey, Julia Morgan, and Alber Farr. In the two blocks of this district you will find various stairways and Ina Coolbrith Park from where, as we have already mentioned, there are views not to be missed.
Russian Hill – Paris Block Architectural District
Russian Hill is also famous for another historic area: the Russian Hill – Paris Block Architectural District. With its 11 historic residences, this area is particularly interesting architecturally. Each of the 11 buildings is renowned for its style, design and excellent workmanship. Among them, at 1067 Green Street, you can admire the Feusier Octagonal House, one of the rare octagonal houses still standing in California, and at 1050 Green Street, the Bos Apartments, whose Parisian style may have given this small neighborhood its name.
Events and Performances
Moving down to North Beach, at 1025 Columbus Avenue, there is a concert hall famous for its live music, cover bands, and the many nightly shows on offer. I’m talking about Bimbo’s 365 Club. This beautiful 1950s venue boasts a chic décor where red velvet is the star along with large chandeliers, small tables and a large stage that has hosted national and international artists.
Specializing in live rock and jazz, Bimbo’s 365 can accommodate more than 400 people seated and, should the event not require tables and food, nearly 700 people will be able to watch their favorite artist standing on stage. A venue that has undoubtedly made history.
Cobb’s Comedy Club
Another famous venue in Russian Hill is Cobb’s Comedy Club. The club is located at 915 Columbus Avenue, not far from Bimbo’s 365. If you love the sense of humor and would like to see a stand-up comedy show this is certainly one of the best places to enjoy it. Local comedians and famous American stars have kept the audience in the room laughing in the many shows that have made Cobb’s Comedy Club one of San Francisco’s most celebrated venues over the years.
Best Restaurants at Russian Hill
As with other residential areas in San Francisco, restaurants in Russian Hill tend to be concentrated on a few streets: Hyde Street, Polk Street and Columbus Avenue are the main ones.
- For some fine American cuisine, at 2401 Polk Street you will find The New Spot on Polk. This small diner offers traditional dishes prepared by them with the freshest ingredients, a friendly atmosphere and prices that are not exaggerated for San Francisco.
- Among the Italian restaurants, I suggest Frascati at 1901 Hyde Street. Prices a bit high, but it is a great Italian restaurant with dishes that are beautiful to look at and good to taste!
- If you’re in the mood for Indian cuisine, don’t miss Curry Leaf Restaurant at 943 Columbus Avenue: a quiet setting, good appetizing portions, friendly staff, and great prices. Note that the restaurant does not serve alcohol, but the place is worth it.
Where to Stay
The Russian Hill neighborhood is among the recommended neighborhoods for staying in San Francisco. Easy to reach by public transportation, well-connected to the city’s other tourist areas, scenic views from its streets and gardens, as well as the opportunity to admire fine historic buildings and visit iconic San Francisco sites such as the famous Lombard Street. Sleeping in one of the hotels in this neighborhood is undoubtedly a good choice but, for a broader overview, take a look at our guide on where to stay overnight in San Francisco (see button below), with recommended areas and hotels.