Up Above in Bernal Heights
It’s hard to say who loves Bernal Heights better, the local residents, their children or their dogs. With cozy cottages and brightly painted bungalows lined up in terraces on its slopes, Bernal Heights is a quieter neighborhood overlooking the bustling Mission District below. At the breezy summit of Bernal Heights Park, the 435-foot peak is only half as tall as nearby Twin Peaks, but the views are equally worthwhile and resistant to the path of fog. Some say this peak’s panoramic views are the city’s best, spanning 360 degrees to encompass downtown, San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, San Bruno Mountain to the south and the hills of the East Bay. From time to time, a red-tailed hawk swooping overhead will embellish a photo.
Because dogs are allowed off leash here, it’s popular with pets, too. Well-worn, unpaved trails crisscross the slopes where native grass is dry in summer months, sprinkled with wildflowers before the calendar says spring, and red chert outcrops give the hill a year-round countryside feel.
Perhaps in many cities such a steep hill would not have had houses built upon it. Not so in San Francisco. Bradford Street above Tompkins Street at a 41 percent grade is probably the steepest paved street in the city, the nation and the world, according to several sources. Prentiss Street between Chapman Street and Powhattan Avenue and Nevada Street above Chapman Street are only a smidgen less sharply inclined.
The Village Life
Following a hike to the summit, coffee snobs say the reward comes as an impeccably brewed cup of joe from a Bernal Heights café with a sidewalk table or a leafy back garden hideaway. For others, it’s heavenly thoughts of creamy Chocolate Indulgence or tropical Halo Halo in a waffle cone from Mitchell’s Ice Cream, at 688 San Jose Avenue since 1953, that makes the descent melt away.
Cortland Avenue is the main shopping street, a laidback one to suit the small business theme and local pride. There’s no cinema, no designer shops, no neon lights or billboards, but there are independently owned boutiques and tea shops, ethnic eateries, art galleries and bookstores. And, there’s one special parking lot.
Meet the Farmers
In fact, the huge parking lot in Bernal Heights is located at its southeastern edge by Alemany Boulevard, where it’s used as the site for the city’s original farmers’ market since 1947, one of California’s first. Every Saturday from six o’clock in the morning until mid-afternoon, fresh organic and local, seasonal produce sells alongside street eats and samples to be enjoyed on the spot. What this market lacks in a picturesque setting it makes up for in down-to-earth prices and selections with an accent on must-haves for Asian and Mexican kitchens.
Did You Know?
- Bernal Heights’ bedrock means a sturdier foundation in case of quakes, hence the post-1906 development of the neighborhood built up by quake refugees.
- Partners Nancy and Pat opened The Wild Side West at 424 Cortland Avenue in 1962 during a time when a lesbian-owned establishment was unwelcome. Creative outdoor garden sculptures were crafted from junk dropped at their doorstep, and that defiant tradition lives happily on.
- In 2014, Bernal Heights gained national attention when Redfin realty named it the “hottest neighborhood in the USA,” where prices pushed up 196 percent in 12 months.
- Muni buses 23, 24, 27 and 67 plus the J-Church trolley and 24th Street BART station are the easiest ways to reach Bernal Heights on public transportation.