San Francisco wears many hats to its hordes of annual visitors. Some come to indulge in a broad variety of eating experiences, from chic California and New American cuisine to cheap burritos and dim sum, or to take in iconic sights such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. Others are drawn to its side-by-side, yet discrete neighbourhoods – this is a place, after all, where distinguished Nob Hill sits a few blocks from the gritty Tenderloin. And there are many who flock here to soak up the city's reputation as one of the gay capitals of the world and a centre of progressive thought.

But regardless of what draws a visitor to this one-of-a-kind place – it's been called a three-sided island surrounded by reality – there's no escaping San Francisco's signature hills.

Along with a breezy waterfront setting and persistent fog, San Francisco's 50-plus high points are its defining natural characteristic, providing anyone with a willingness to explore (and a sturdy pair of shoes) no shortage of heart-thumping exercise and astonishing vistas. Among the city's dozens of hills, a handful are laced with evocative stairway paths that showcase an otherwise unseen tame side of this notoriously splashy city. None, however, remain exempt from becoming consumed by the city's glurgy fog on a seeming moment's notice, so it's wise to keep an extra layer of clothing on hand.

Steps up Telegraph Hill, San Francisco, California, USAhelenadagmar via Compfight cc

GREENWICH AND FILBERT STEPS

Scaling the exceedingly steep east side of Telegraph Hill, these parallel-routed stairways lead through lush foliage that turns alluringly fragrant in spring. Given their proximity to one another – Greenwich is one short city block north of Filbert – it makes sense to turn this less than half-mile walk into a lazily paced loop. You're free to begin either from Pioneer Park at the top of Telegraph Hill (take the 39-Coit bus) or down below in the Northeast Waterfront district (served by the F-Market streetcar – parking is often hopeless).

The partly brick-laid Greenwich steps connect the tiny Pioneer Park parking lot with Sansome Street far below, crossing a hillside block of Montgomery Street en route. Along the way, classic film enthusiasts may recognize the lovely Art Deco apartment building at 1360 Montgomery as the home of Lauren Bacall's character Irene Jansen in 1947's Dark Passage, which also starred Humphrey Bogart. As you find 1440 Montgomery and continue to descend toward San Francisco Bay, keep your eyes open for the cleared area to the left of the paved path with a smartly placed bench and, simply for fun, an uprooted parking meter replanted next to it. Steeper throughout than its Greenwich counterpart, the Filbert steps' lower section between Montgomery and Sansome features a wooden plank surface and, along its short perpendicular offshoot Napier Lane, an abundance of honeysuckle and rose that turns redolent during the spring months. You'll want to pause and admire the fleet of charming cottages clinging to the sharply angled hillside, including the smartly restored bungalow at 224 Filbert that dates to San Francisco's nascent days of the 1860s.

Be sure also to look and listen for the flock of parrots – now hundreds upon hundreds strong – that makes its home in this area, a phenomenon chronicled in the 2005 documentary film The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. The birds' green plumage can make them difficult to spot when they're perched in the trees, but it's impossible to escape their squawking.

Moraga steps, San Francisco, California, USAMoraga steps, image by Charles Hodgkins

MORAGA STEPS

While the gradients in San Francisco's western neighbourhoods generally slope gently toward the Pacific Ocean, you'll find one major exception where Moraga Street meets 16th Avenue in the sprawling Sunset district. Gracefully laid along the west flank of Grand View Park, the Moraga steps comprise the most artful stairway path in the city, with the front-facing side of all 160-plus steps covered in mosaic tiles that, when viewed as a whole from below, reveal a stunningly colourful scene of sky, sea, flora, and fauna.

San Francisco map

The ambitious project was initiated by neighbourhood residents, with its design based on the Scala steps in Caltagirone, Italy; the steps' tiles were designed by a pair of local mosaic artists, Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher. Following several years of fundraising and other time-intensive work, the Moraga steps were dedicated in 2005 and have since become a main destination in an area of town dominated by Golden Gate Park five blocks to the north. The 66-Quintara bus stops adjacent to the bottom of the stairway, and parking here is relatively easy.

HARRY STEPS

Quietly sequestered on an east-facing hillside above the southern reaches of Noe Valley, this little-known cousin of the Filbert steps sees few city visitors traipsing up and down its alternately wooden and paved surfaces. Take either the 24-Divisadero or 36-Teresita bus and get off at the nearest stop (the parking situation is also usually OK), then find the bottom terminus of the Harry steps near 100 Laidley Street – itself worthy of a slow wander for its brilliant collection of large custom homes on its uphill side.

Harry steps, San Francisco, USAHarry steps, image by Charles Hodgkins

As you climb over 240 steps up to Beacon Street, you'll encounter a variety of vines, palms, and even banana trees, to say nothing of a few driveway-less homes reachable solely by foot. Lovely gardens are in view all along the way, with the upper section feeling positively jungle-like as you climb beneath a thick canopy of foliage that provides ample coverage during a light rain.

Once you arrive at Harry steps' apogee, turn right and walk a couple minutes to Billy Goat Hill Park, which boasts one of San Francisco's finest views; Bernal Hill, the Mission district, Downtown's skyscrapers, San Francisco Bay, and points beyond are in clear view from here on all but the foggiest days.

Featured image by SteffanyF! via Compfight cc. Explore more of the USA with the Rough Guide to the USA. Book hostels for your trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.