CALL it San Francisco 101. The ultimate tour of California’s ultimate city. A drive that elicits such words as “awesome,” “stunning” and “amazing” from almost everyone who takes it.
There’s only one problem. You have to drive through San Francisco to see it.
The route is the 49 Mile Scenic Drive, designed in the late 1930s to introduce the city to visitors at the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition. The route winds from the mountains to the sea, through neighborhoods and parks, along cliffs and under huge bridges.
Unfortunately, it also dashes directly across town, where the streets run at 30-degree grades, and jumpy drivers turn blue from holding their breath at the top of blind hills. A tip: Leave the stick-shift car at home.
As a Bay Area college student, I drove the route often in a beat-up Volkswagen. When I visited last month, I was happy that my rental car was an automatic. But I still white-knuckled it driving up some of those hills. “Think of it as a growth experience,” I chanted to myself. (Hey, it’s San Francisco. You have to have a mantra here.)
Whatever it takes, the 49 Mile Scenic Drive is an incredible overview of the city, full of amazing views and bustling neighborhoods. It takes visitors to San Francisco’s highlights, from Golden Gate Park to Golden Gate Bridge, from Seal Rocks to Chinatown, from the honky-tonks of North Beach to the expensive shops of Union Square, from the top of the city at Twin Peaks to the bottom at Fisherman’s Wharf.
* The drive starts downtown at City Hall in Civic Center Plaza (McAllister and Grove streets) and takes a complicated counterclockwise route through the hilly city. Don’t try to follow it in the opposite direction. Blue-and-white sea gull signs identify the route, but they’re visible from only one direction. (And sometimes they’re not there at all because they’re popular souvenirs.)
* Invest in a good map that outlines the tour. Maps are available for $2.40 at the Visitor Information Center, 900 Market St., San Francisco 94103-2804; (415) 391-2000, sfvisitor.org. An audiocassette and map, “The Ultimate City Tour,” is available for $10.95 at the center or online (follow the links to “shop-n-sf,” then “travel planning”), or for $12.95 at www.omninav.com. Don’t expect to find a map highlighting the route at stores along the way.
* I broke the trip into parts, driving the nine-mile downtown section on a lazy Sunday afternoon when traffic was light. The Visitor Information Center suggests 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays for that stretch. The remaining segment -- Golden Gate Park, Golden Gate Bridge and Ocean Beach -- is busiest on weekends. I did it on a Friday.
* The “AAA Hidden Highways” guidebook ($17.95, Ulysses Press) suggests that visitors park their cars and walk, or take buses, cable cars and other forms of public transportation on the downtown section of the route. Drivers are advised to bypass the city section, following Van Ness Avenue (Highway 101) north to Bay Street to join the 49 Mile Scenic Drive at Fort Mason. The rest of the route includes easier-to-drive sections, such as the Presidio, Lake Merritt, Twin Peaks and Golden Gate Park and bridge.
* I avoided some big-city hassles by staying outside town at the Waters Edge Hotel in Tiburon, Marin County. But I wasn’t about to pass up lunch at the famous Cliff House, with its outstanding coastline and Seal Rocks view. The restaurant, founded in 1863 on rocky Point Lobos, is in the middle of a renovation, but my Cliff House Louie salad was excellent.
* Watch for cable cars, bicyclists and pedestrians, all of which always have the right of way.
* If the drive is too much for you, hire a driver or take a bus tour. It’s worth it.
Cliff House, 1090 Point Lobos, San Francisco, CA 94121; (415) 386-3330, www.cliffhouse.com. Lunch entrees $8.95-$18.95.
Waters Edge Hotel, 25 Main St., Tiburon, CA 94920; (877) 789-5999 or (415) 789-5999, fax (415) 789-5888, www.marinhotels.com. Doubles from $175.