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If your impression of San Francisco’s sights and geography have been shaped almost entirely by the car chase in “Bullitt,” the seminal sixties McQueen detective movie, that’s OK. But watch out when you go there and try to follow the exact route, as you will quickly discover that director Peter Yates suffered from chronic discontinuity.

Clearly not allowing facts to get in the way of telling a good visual story, Yates teleports McQueen from the east to the north and then the south of the city during the chase’s seven-minute run. You would probably never notice or care if no one pointed it out. But we’re here in a quasi-forensic role ourselves, to find the best route around this city, so it’s the sort of thing we want to know.

Beat the Crowds

Our route starts, like many others, in Union Square, named after the fact that it acted as the rallying point for the Union Army during the American Civil War. Today, it’s a gathering place for shoppers and tourists who flock there for the high-end shops, hotels and theaters, and it’s normally a nightmare to drive through. But not by the time we get there.

In the dying hours of the night, it’s eerily quiet as we head steeply north out of the square to Chinatown, one of the largest and oldest Chinese communities outside Asia. Ignoring the smells of exotic food pouring into the car from the restaurants lining the streets, we punch further north to get a good view of the Transamerica pyramid, one of San Fran’s signature landmarks and the tallest building in northern California. 

Driving in San Francisco
Driving in San Francisco

Now we have turned west onto Lombard Street, heading towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

Technically, we should probably be running this part of the route the other way, as the interesting part of Lombard — the series of switchbacks known as ‘the crookedest road in San Fran’ — is a one way street back in the opposite direction. It might look like an illusion in some lights, but the Golden Gate Bridge just up the road feels very real as it looms over us in the darkness.

The structure was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it was completed in 1937, although it has now been beaten by ten other structures.

Doing a U-turn on the north side and taking another pass over the Golden Gate, we now head out to San Francisco’s west side, to the upper great highway.

As much as the east side is teeming with life, this dragstrip-straight stretch of deserted road runs parallel to the Pacific ocean and is the ideal place to get away and surf the swell. It’s also a quick route to the last, and in many ways the most impressive, stop on this exciting drive: Twin Peaks.

Admiring the View

We take a left on Sloat, another on Portola, then another onto Twin Peaks Boulevard, and the road conditions worsen as we climb the hill. But we’ve got no complaints when we get to the top, as the view is nothing short of breathtaking. Here, 922 feet up in the geographic center of San Francisco, on this rare clear evening, the whole of the city is fanned out beneath us in a blanket of light.

There’s no time to dwell, however. The view will be there tomorrow, but I will be heading for home in LA. We head back down the hill to have one last tour around the sleeping city in Frank Bullitt’s honor.

Driving in San Francisco