Stairways to heaven

San Francisco's Russian Hill neighborhood is full of green discoveries
Lisa Taggart

This month, 300 feet above downtown San Francisco, the lofty, leafy neighborhood of Russian Hill bursts into bloom. Tucked away in the alleys and steep stairways of the city's north side are several pocket gardens and green retreats that make for a delightful day of strolling.

Macondray Lane (off Taylor Street between Green and Union Streets) is the area's most famous walkway, thanks to its alleged role in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City; it supposedly was the model for Barbary Lane. A goldfish pond and cottages with gardens of hydrangeas line the two-block path hidden by buildings and lush foliage. Maupin crafted his books while living on Havens Place (off Leavenworth Street between Union and Filbert Streets), a less famous dead-end stairway lined with gardens.

Molinari Mana Park, also called Marion Place (off Union between Taylor and Jones Streets), is a tiny pocket marked by a large acacia tree. The steep, dead-end walkway has been targeted by building owners as a driveway for a proposed garage, but so far green-space advocates have prevailed.

Poet's namesake Ina Coolbrith Park (off Vallejo Street between Mason and Taylor Streets) rewards you with gorgeous views of Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge after the blood-pumping climb up the Vallejo steps.

Though Lombard Street isn't technically the most twisted route in the city, its hill is still the most popular with tourists. Weekdays, when the traffic is lighter, take a pleasant winding climb on foot past hanging baskets and front gardens packed with impatiens.

For a hilltop picnic, hit sleek Andrew & Company (closed Sun; 2238 Polk St.; 415/447-4094) for take-out food. Or linger on the west side of the hill to enjoy the many outstanding eateries-you can't go wrong with pasta at Antica Trattoria (closed Mon; 2400 Polk; 415/928-5797), Spanish tapas at Zarzuela (open Tue-Sat; 2000 Hyde St.; 415/346-0800), or the onion soup at Le Petit Robert (closed Tue; 2300 Polk; 415/922-8100). Hyde and Polk are also lined with interesting boutiques.

For dessert, venture to the original Swensen's Ice Cream Shoppe (closed Mon; 1999 Hyde; 415/775-6818), established in 1948. Owner Richard Campana has worked here since 1959 and says one thing hasn't changed after all those years: "The most popular ice cream flavor is still vanilla."

Just as beauty blooms eternal up on top of Russian Hill, below, it seems, old favorites endure.

REGARDING RUSSIAN HILL

WHERE: Russian Hill is bounded by North Point St., Columbus Ave., Mason St., Pacific Ave., and Van Ness Ave.

CONTACT: For more information, contact Russian Hill Neighbors, www.rhn.org or (415) 267-0575.