We truly believe that in order to fully understand and appreciate a place, you have to know its history. And landmarks are a beacon in that story. San Francisco’s history is so rich that there are new layers to discover all the time.
Today is a San Francisco History 101 lesson told through some of it’s most stunning pieces of historical architecture. Go on a journey of fascinating and essential SF history through these 12 amazing landmarks. And let us know what you think!
We explore many of these historical landmarks of San Francisco on our cool electric bike tours.
1. Fort Point
There has been a fortification at Fort Point ever since 1794 when Spain occupied San Francisco and recognized that the location was strategically ideal to defend the area from the British and the Russians.
After US victory in the Mexican–American War, the fortification (previously known as “Punta del Castillo”) became known as Fort Point. The fortress that stands today was completed in 1861 and features stunning masonry work. While it stood throughout the Civil War and into the 20th century, it luckily never saw any action.
However, it was so culturally and historically significant that Joseph Strauss redesigned the Golden Gate Bridge to prevent its removal. Lucky for us, Fort Point still stands today as one of the absolute most interesting and beautiful places to appreciate the Golden Gate Bridge and SF history.
Visiting: Fort Point is run and preserved by the National Parks Foundation and is open for tours Friday through Sunday, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Years Day. It’s an absolute gem to explore, so don’t miss it if you can!
For film fans, Fort Point is also a must-see because st see makes an appearance in one of the most notable scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s dark homage to SF, Vertigo. If you haven’t seen it put it at the top of your list; it’s easily the most acclaimed San Francisco film of all time (and our personal favorite).
2. City Hall
After the previous building was destroyed in the earthquake of 1906, City Hall was rebuilt in under two years. The impressive dome is 42 feet taller than that of the nation’s Capitol.
Since that time a lot has changed and City Hall has seen moments of tragedy and progress. It was the place where, in 1978, Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated. In 2004 San Francisco City Hall defiantly held same-sex marriage ceremonies, a full four years before it was legal. This year (2020) London Breed, the first African American Woman to be elected mayor of San Francisco, stood on the steps of City Hall to join other black community leaders to speak out on the killing of George Floyd. History continues to play out here.
Visiting – City Hall is open to the public for guided tours which last approximately one hour Monday – Friday 10:00 am and 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm. Find the full details here.
3. Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of the Fine Arts was constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition, though the buildings you see now were all reconstructed from 1964-1974. Now it stands as one of San Francisco’s iconic landmarks.
Today it functions as an event space for weddings and trade shows, but the surrounding area is open and a great backdrop for a picnic, or a romantic stroll.
4. Legion of Honor
Alma Spreckels (aka “Great Grandmother of San Francisco”) convinced her husband, sugar baron Adolph Spreckels to gift the Legion of Honor to the city in 1915. It’s modeled after a building of the same name in Paris and recreation of the French Pavilion featured in the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition (see the Palace of Fine Arts below). After a triumph rough over the rough, windswept sand dunes it opened in 1924. It’s dedicated solemnly to the soldiers of California lost during WWI.
Visiting: It’s definitely worth checking out, especially since a ticket will also get you into another world-class art space, the Deyoung Museum in Golden Gate Park. It features stunning neo-classical architecture, a brilliant version of Rodin’s The Thinker statue out front, and beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
PS It was also featured in SF’s most famous film, Vertigo.
5. Fresco Murals at the Beach Chalet
During the Great Depression, the Federal Art Project commissioned artists to paint murals around the city. The most significant being the frescos by artist Lucien Labaudt at the Beach Chalet, depicting the bustling city and its people in the early 1930s. Included are incredibly vibrant cityscapes, the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge under construction, plus plenty of playful and priceless historical scenes to discover.
It’s also interesting that for the longest time these incredible works of art and brilliant building that housed them were so irreverently treated. As you can see in the above photos, from 1947-1981 the space was used as a notorious hall and bar for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. While it must have been an amazing place to shoot pool and have a beer (the best maybe!), lucky for us the frescos and space were intensively restored in 1988.
6. Mission Dolores (Mision San Francisco de Asís)
The oldest intact building in the city (and California!) dates back all the way back to 1776 when Spain occupied San Francisco and the United States was just catching on as an idea out east.
As the Mission Dolores website states: “Mission Dolores is the final resting place of some 5,000 Ohlone, Miwok, and other First Californians who built Mission Dolores and were its earliest members and founders.” It’s perhaps, a bit of sugar coat of the brutality of colonialism but at least they acknowledge it!
Interestingly the cemetery next door is the only civilian resting place left within the city because all the others were removed and relocated! It houses some of the most important early citizens of the city.
Visiting: The Mission is open daily and the self-guided tour is fantastic. It also allows you to see the old church, cemetary and gardens, plus the grand basilica church next door, completed in the 1920’s.
7. Mission High School
Two blocks from Mission Dolores stands Mission High School. While the high school was founded in 1890, the masterpiece we have today was built in 1925 during the golden era of public school construction in SF. Indeed some of the most beautiful buildings in San Francisco, are public schools build during that era.
It also doesn’t hurt that Mission High School is right across the street from Dolores Park, our favorite neighborhood park in the city and awesome lace to view the school and get a stunning panorama. Fun fact: one of SF’s legends, Carlos Santana is an alum of the school.
8. Coit Tower
Rising from the top of Telegraph Hill, the 210 ft (64m) art deco styled Coit Tower has been is an iconic part of the SF skyline since 1933. The viewing deck at the top also offers a 360-degree panorama of the city and the bay, providing some of the most unique views in the city. The ground level of Coit tower is also decorated with incredible fresco murals, dating to the WPA-era (like those at the Beach Chalet above) that celebrate the working people of California. In short, it’s worth a visit and is a great compliment to the North Beach neighbhorhood aka Little Italy, below.
Some say that Coit Tower is modeled after a fire hose nozzle (though it’s purely coincidental), but it does pay tribute to the firefighters that fought the 1906 Earthquake’s fires in many of its fresco panels. Indeed, the namesake and funder of the tower, Lillie Hitchcock Coit was fascinated with firefighting. In fact, she legendarily helped a fire brigade put out a blaze when she was 15. She received so much notoriety from the occasion that she gained honorary firefighter status and became a beloved mascot and booster for the SFFD until her death.
Also, according to Wikipedia: ” ‘Firebelle Lil’ Coit was considered eccentric, smoking cigars and wearing trousers long before it was socially acceptable for women to do so. She was an avid gambler and often dressed like a man in order to gamble in the male-only establishments that dotted North Beach.” Bravo Lillie, you rock!
9. Conservatory of Flowers
The oldest building in Golden Gate Park, dating to 1879, the Conservatory of Flowers is also one of San Francisco’s most impressive examples of Victorian architecture. Inspired by the Palm House in Kew Gardens in London, this “theater of nature” (as they were called during the Victorian era) is home to many rare and unusual plants, including a dazzling orchid collection. Stepping into the Conservatory of Flowers really transports you completely from the bustle of city life; it’s a slice of natural zen.
Visiting: You can find full details of opening times and admission prices on their website. Also note that at night there is a spectacular light display, originally installed for the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, featuring dazzling art and 1960’s music born in SF. One of the coolest art displays of all time!
In true San Francisco style, Grace Cathedral stands out from the crowd at its Nob Hill location. It’s architecture heavily inspired by French Gothic Cathedrals while its interior is based on Palma Cathedral in Spain. It is San Francisco’s modern homage to Norte Dame, with a modern twist. It’s stunning stained glass windows feature progressive figures of science
To celebrate its completion in 1965, Martin Luther King gave a sermon, drawing a crowd of around 5000 people.
Duke Ellington also composed a “Concert of Sacred Music” that for the opening of the cathedral. He called it, “the most important thing I have ever done”. If you have time to watch the concert, it’s truly one of the most most moving musical pieces you’ll likely ever see.
This is the most iconic building of the SF’s legendary Castro neighborhood, a mecca of world LGBT culture. The Spanish colonial architectural design of Castro Theatre was meant to pay homage to the newly-completed Mission Dolores Basilica (right next to the Mission described above; another building of the style and influenced by the basilica was Mission High School). Completed in 1922, with 1400 seats, its lovingly preserved interior is as opulent as you might hope or expect given its stunning exterior.
It continues to showcase films today and also hosts events such as the SF Slilent Film Festival, The Noir City film noir festival (our fave!), San Francisco International Film Festival and associated film festivals celebrating LGBTQ, Asian American, South Asian, and Jewish cinema.
12. The Bay Bridge
So much love is given to its younger sibling, we thought it was about time to pay our respects to the Bay Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Oakland.
Cynics didn’t believe such a bridge could withstand the turbulent waters or high winds in the Bay, but The Bay Bridge proved them all wrong, and the Golden Gate Bridge soon followed.
As you can see from the above photo it’s also SF’s most stunning night landmark, lit up by 25,000 LED lights in permanent and ever-changing light installation appropriately called The Bay Lights. It debuted to celebrate the bridge’s 75 anniversary and through crowd-funding and public support has been made a permanent fixture.
13. (Bonus!) – The Ferry Building
The Ferry Building is one of San Francisco’s true icons. Built in 1896, this 245-foot (70m) tall building remarkably survived the 1906 earthquake and defines the San Franciso waterfront. It also marks the start (or end) of Market Street and is our main entry point to the Bay. Before the bridges were built it was also the world’s second busiest ferry port.
However the building went into grand disrepair in the following decades, major highway was literally built in front of it, and ferry service nearly ceased. Lucky for us the highway was removed after the 1989 earthquake and it underwent an exhaustive renovation starting in 2002. It now houses the brilliant and beloved Ferry Building Marketplace, a collection of some of San Francisco’s best food businesses.
Visiting: The Marketplace is open daily and Saturdays hosts the finest farmer’s market in San Francisco. If you get a chance definitely catch a regularly-departing ferry to Sausalito, Larkspur, or Oakland to experience the bay and get a change of scenery.
More Hidden Gems
For even more check out this post we collaborated on SF’s hidden gems. It gives tons of places to explore curated by locals.
The best way to explore SF’s Historical Landmarks
These are just some of the landmarks that tell San Francisco’s rich history. Whether you’re a history buff, or you just want to know a little more about the buildings and neighborhoods that comprise SF, we’re always happy to indulge you with more information whenever we can on out on a DandyHorse bike tour. So don’t be shy to ask questions along the way.