San Francisco: 12 Iconic Sites

Now that travel has begun to open up after Covid, we are seeing more tourists return to San Francisco. Here are 12 of the popular sites for visitors and locals of all ages.

1. Golden Gate Bridge

Probably the most famous bridge in the world, Golden Gate Bridge is 1.7 miles long (2.7 km) and hosts cars, trucks, pedestrians and cyclists. Its art deco design, striking International Orange color, and numerous suspension cables encase each person crossing with a sense of awe.

2. Alcatraz Island

As you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, you can see the rock island of Alcatraz prominently centered in the bay. Formerly a military fort and prison, maximum security federal penitentiary, and civil rights protest occupation, today it is one of the top tourist attractions in San Francisco.

3. Cable Cars

One of San Francisco’s most exhilarating tourist activities, a cable car ride is a spirited mix of old-time travel through the neighborhoods of this modern city. Climbing and descending steep hills to the accompaniment of clanging bells and hand-operated brakes is one of my favorite ways to traverse the city.

Fog in San Francisco is as common as a sunrise.

4. Fisherman’s Wharf

With restaurants, museums, an aquarium, and more, the Wharf is also a good place to catch boat tours. Pier 39, also located at the Wharf, is an animated shopping center complete with rafts of barking sea lions.

My favorite Wharf spot is at the west end at Maritime National Historic Park where you can tour the old sea-faring vessels, watch the birds and swimmers. The square-rigger Balclutha, launched in 1886, is permanently moored here for self-guided tours.

5. Ghirardelli Square

Also down at the Wharf’s west end is Ghirardelli Square. Once the factory where Ghirardelli chocolate was made, this building is now a restaurant and retail complex with views overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

6. Transamerica Pyramid Building

A popular symbol of the San Francisco skyline, the Transamerica Pyramid was completed in 1972. Here, visitors can enjoy a park with redwood trees in the middle of the Financial District. There is also a virtual observation deck experience that allows lobby visitors to operate four cameras positioned atop the building’s spire.

7. Coit Tower

San Francisco 1930s history comes alive inside this building decorated with stunning fresco murals. The tower was built in 1932-1933 and dedicated to volunteer San Francisco firefighters who lost their lives fighting fires. Visitors to the open-air top are rewarded with city and bay views.

This is one of the many murals inside Coit Tower.

8. Palace of Fine Arts

A pleasant stroll around this structure and lagoon brings the visitor back to the days of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition when it was erected as a temporary building. The only Exposition structure not to be torn down, it has been rebuilt and renovated since then, and has had a lifetime of different purposes.

9. Chinatown

The oldest Chinatown in North America, this neighborhood is a densely populated Asian enclave covering 24 blocks of shops, restaurants, homes, hospitals, and churches. A walk through on any day is an interesting combination of old and new culture.

10. Painted Ladies

Seven Victorian houses in a row on Steiner Street. Alamo Park, seen here in the foreground, is often busy with tourists taking selfies in front of the houses.

There were 48,000 Victorian and Edwardian houses built in San Francisco in the years 1849-1915; many can still be seen. The advent of painting them in bright colors started in 1963 and still exists today.

11. The Ferry Building

Completed in 1898, the Ferry Building was originally built as a transportation hub for ferry boats as well as transcontinental railway lines. Since then there have been many changes and renovations, but it still remains a hotspot for ferry boats, commuters, and tourists.

12. Ocean Beach

On the far western side of San Francisco is Ocean Beach. It has been a local recreational site for over a century with Playland, the Sutro Baths, Fleishhacker Pool and several renovations of the Cliff House. Today it attracts residents, visitors, joggers, dog walkers and families.

Whether you visited decades ago or are planning a future visit, these 12 iconic San Francisco sites are just a few of the many picturesque highlights of the City by the Bay.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

San Francisco’s Ferry Building

Ferry Building, San Francisco

Located on the San Francisco Bay waterfront, the Ferry Building is an indoor marketplace with shops and eateries, a busy ferry transit station, and year-round outdoor farmers markets. It is a wonderful place to spend an animated day in San Francisco.

 

Ferry Building Marketplace

 

With status as a San Francisco Landmark and National Historic Place, it has been a transportation terminal hub since it was built in 1898.

 

Ferry Building in left center, Golden Gate Bridge in back right

 

Ferry Building

The Beaux-Arts architecture includes a 245-foot-tall (75 m) clock tower with quarterly Westminster Chimes.

 

The Great Nave, a 660-foot long (200 m) indoor promenade, is brightly lit with skylights and features approximately 50 shops today. Originally it was bustling with freight, baggage, and mail activities.

 

Ferry Building, History

 

Ferry Building, Interior Nave

 

Indoor mosaic tiles throughout the building

From 1898 to the 1930s, it was the second busiest transit terminal in the world. In the 1920s, fifty million passengers a year, and automobiles, used the ferries. When the two big commuter bridges–the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge–were built in the 1930s,  ferry traffic significantly diminished.

 

Nearly a century later, taking ferries to work has come back into vogue, a good way to avoid the auto-clogged roads. It may not be the cheapest means of commuting, but it is the most civilized, and thousands of commuters prefer it.

 

Commuters enjoy a visit with a friend or a good read, a coffee in the morning or beer after work, as they are nautically ushered home after a long day. Rush hour in the Ferry Building hums with commuters.

 

Ferry boat, The San Francisco, Athena commuting on the top deck

 

An extensive web of public transportation continues just across the street from the Ferry Building, whisking people further into the city or far away from it.

 

With the water right here, this corner of the city has been a beehive of activity for nearly as long as the city has existed with trains, ships, horses, carriages, and cable cars.

 

Here is an entertaining You Tube video, worth a minute or two of your time. It is original footage of Market Street traffic, including the iconic building always in center view, getting closer. The year is significant: the film was made four days before the 1906 earthquake that would destroy 80% of the city.

 

A Trip Down Market Street – video

 

That year, 1906, was a devastating one for San Francisco, but you can see from the photograph below that the Ferry Building remarkably survived the earthquake.

 

Ferry Building 1906 after Earthquake

 

Over the years, the Ferry Building has undergone many changes and survived another big earthquake in 1989.

 

Some residents objected strongly to the Embarcadero Freeway built beside the Ferry Building in 1968. Then in 1989, the freeway was heavily damaged, and demolished a few years later. (You can still see it in “Dirty Harry” movies.)

 

YMCA next to Embarcadero Freeway 1972 (Telstar Logistics)

Embarcadero Freeway, Ferry Bldg., and Bay Bridge, 1972 (Telstar Logistics)

 

More recently, the Ferry Building was revitalized after an extensive four-year restoration, re-opening in 2003. Since then it has been decorated and celebrated by millions of visitors.

 

Gandhi Statue, Ferry Building, San Francisco

 

Ferry Building, Saturday Farmers Market

 

Graced by surrounding water and squawking gulls, tidal changes and every kind of boat, the Ferry Building continues to host and entertain the patrons and visitors of San Francisco, as it has for over a century.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Super Bowl Fiftieth Anniversary celebration in San Francisco, 2016

Hermann Plaza Winter Ice Rink and Ferry Building

SF Ferry Bldg and Giants Banner, they won the pennant that year, Oct. 2014.