The Filbert Street Steps, or Filbert Steps, is the name for a very long section of steps and walkways where Filbert St scales the extremely step east side of Telegraph Hill , which is too step for anything but steps. This portion of the street therefore consists only of the steps and not a regular street for cars. It is interesting, going through wooded gardens between the houses on either side for part of the way, and down the almost sheer rock face at the bottom. It provides some nice views of the bay.
For movie buffs, it is famous for having several portions of it being seen several times in the 1947 film noir Dark Passage, most notably with Humphrey Bogart climbing his way up.
If you are following my Greenwich St. Stairs tip, you've come up Montgomery to the Alta and Union streets area:
As I mentioned in my Filbert Stairs tip, parts of this area of the city survived the 1906 earthquake that destroyed most of San Francisco - either via the quake itself or in the fires that followed. Telegraph Hill was settled in the mid 1800's by working class immigrants drawn to its inexpensive land prices and proximity to docks and businesses along the bay. Around Montgomery, Alta and Union streets are some remnants of these "cottage builders" who, while having to haul goods and building materials up these impossible slopes, had million-dollar views rivaling those of wealthy barons in more affluent neighborhoods. It's also a bit ironic that these modest little dwellings remained upright after the quake while many mansions of the rich crumbled and burned.
To keep this tip short, I HIGHLY recommend reading this excellent article on the history of Telegraph Hill and taking a copy along on your walk. it notes the addresses of the oldest buildings and gives you snippets about the original builder/owners.
Thanks to Christopher Verplanck for this:
Here also are some very interesting archival photos of what the hill looked like as far back as 1870.
Most people know Telegraph Hill only as the location of Coit Tower. What they don't realize is that this is one of San Francisco's oldest neighborhoods with rare, mid 19th-century homes that survived the devastating 1906 earthquake. It also has two of the most scenic hidden stairways in the city, providing an infinitely more fascinating (and calorie-burning) route to the tower than by car.
The stairways - Filbert and Greenwich Street Stairs, respectively - follow routes once used by the working class, who used to inhabit the hill, to access docks and businesses along the waterfront. They rise to/descend from the top of Telegraph Hill over 300 steps apiece and begin from locations near Levi Plaza. Both pass by small cottages, masses of lush pocket gardens, and "paper streets": routes impossible to access by vehicle so they only exist on paper. Homeowners here have to haul everything in on foot - just as former occupants did way back in the mid 1800's. There are nice spots to rest along the way and some great views of the bay.
I'd suggest taking the Filbert St. stairway up and Greenwich St. stairs down:
Take the F line streetcar to the Embarcadero/Greenwich Street stop near Levi Plaza. Walk through the park and across Battery St. to Levi Plaza. Buy a nice big coffee at Il Fornaio (see next tip) for your climb. Cross Sansome Street. The Filbert Street stairs begin between Pearson Professional and Education buildings - you will see them. The Greenwich St. steps, where you will descend, are only a block north. Your climb will cross Montgomery Street about 2/3rds of the way up - just keep going until you reach Telegraph Hill Blvd - cross the road and take the final flight of steps to the top of Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower.
Here's a terrific article about the history of Telegraph Hill for some background before you go (with thanks to Christopher Verplanck):
So now that you've caught your breath, we'll descend Telegraph Hill via the Greenwich St. Stairs:
These are similar to the Filbert St. Stairs, with lots of gardens and funky houses, but I'll throw in a good opportunity to take a side trip to another collection of San Francisco's oldest structures.
Find the light post at the top of the stairs and descend to Montgomery St. Head to your right, up Montgomery, to Alta St. and then Union St. area. Explore the architecture and admire the view (see next tip). Then return the way you came and continue your way down the stairs to Sansome St. and onward across Battery to Embarcadero: catch the F line to another destination or walk the waterfront. Or head west to Washington Square, Saints Peter and Paul Church and the cafes and restaurants in North Beach.
In 1850, a telegraph semaphore was set up here, because it provided an excellent vantage point for observing ships coming and going. This enabled local merchants to prepare for new arrivals. And so this neighborhood became known as Telegraph Hill.
Today, Coit Tower stands on top of this hill. In front of it is a statue of Christopher Columbus. The view of the city and bay from here are great, but the tower offers even better ones.