San Francisco has remarkably survived through the earliest American inhabitants, Spanish settlements, the gold rush, and some devastating earthquakes and came out on the other side with some of the best tourist destinations in the United States. There are literally hundreds of historical landmarks, national, state and local in San Francisco that can keep a visitor, or even a resident, rushing from one to another in the desperate hope to see them all.
Known as The Rock, Alcatraz Island was originally home to the first lighthouse and U.S. fort on the west coast. It was during the Civil War that the military base served as a prison which carried over through the Spanish-American war. It wasn’t until the 1906 earthquake that civilian prisoners were transferred out to the island. Consider your trip to Alcatraz a two part excursion as the famed prison with its well-known inmates is only half of the tour. The rest of the island has a great history with Indians of All Tribes who liberated the island twice while trying to establish tribal rights. It’s the rest of the island that is actually incredibly beautiful with natural rock gardens, tide pools and bird colonies.
One of the most famous spans in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge is noted for its amazing suspension construction. More than 9 million visitors annually come to drive, bike, or walk across the 1.7 miles from the opening of the San Francisco Bay over a portion of the Pacific Ocean. Just make sure you stay on the trail and are not lured over the edge, the Golden Gate Bridge is the most popular place to commit suicide in the United States, roughly one person every two weeks either commits or attempts suicide on the bridge.
For a great view of Golden Gate Bridge try Fort Point. Originally the fort served as protection for the first Spanish settlement in San Francisco in 1776 but it was redesigned to protect the harbor from Confederates in the Civil War and foreign attack in the U.S. Civil War. Obviously not essential as a Fort in today’s modern era, the point now serves as a vantage point for people looking to snap a memorable picture of the Golden Gate Bridge.
City Lights Bookstore is a noted independent bookstore and publisher specializing in world literature, arts, and progressive politics. In 1953 Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin founded City Lights and tour buses were known to drive by so visitors could see an actual beatnik. Known for its anti-establishment publications and as the first all paperback bookstore in the country, City Lights has expanded over the years and become a regular stop for many simply looking for good books in a unique atmosphere.
In 1852 President Millard Fillmore authorized a mint be established in California. The process was slow and a building owned by Moffett & Company served as the mint in the meantime. It wasn’t until 1870 that the cornerstone was finally laid and the official opening didn’t come until a full four years later. The Old Mint Building is also known as the Granite Lady was designed to float on its foundation in the case of an earthquake and proved its structural integrity in the great earthquake of 1906. Currently the building is in a state of flux as the Sand Francisco Museum and Historical Society is pushing forward on a massive restoration program to create a world class museum.
Just the name San Francisco conjures up images of cable cars so no tourist’s visit would be complete without a visit to the Cable Car Barn. The first cable car started in 1873 but electric streetcars soon surpassed them in popularity. Several of the original lines have been restored and now serve the public daily, although the passengers are usually tourists rather than locals. In the Cable Car Barn you can see the actual cable that pulls these trolleys along as well as a load of artifacts including the first cable car.
The Ferry Building Marketplace opened in 1898 on the site of the 1875 wooden Ferry House and served as the welcoming point for people arriving by train from the east and from the East Bay and Marin regions. Until the 1930’s all visitors, except those from the peninsula, could only reach the city by ferryboat. Although ferry travel is not as vital today as it once was the Ferry Building Marketplace is still very popular as the focus has turned to the marketplace activities as locals can find fresh produce, tourists can grab inexpensive souvenirs and diners can have some of the best local cuisine available.
The 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition was like other expos of its day with temporary buildings set up for the celebration in the expectation that they’d be taken down or collapse upon themselves in the near future. The Palace of Fine Arts Theater was one of the last major buildings constructed and although it was designed to be destroyed a group formed in 1915 with the intent of duplicating the building in durable materials. But it wasn’t until 1964 that the actual replication began. The new building serves as a theater and exploratorium and has housed many noted events with famed people.
Perched on Telegraph Hill the 1933 Coit Tower was given to the city by Lillie Hitchcock Coit. Coit Tower is a 210 foot art deco concrete tower which houses murals by 26 artists who found work through the New Deal. Most murals are available for the public to view at all times but some are only available on Saturdays at 11:00 to people taking the free San Francisco City Guides tour.
These few highlights just graze the surface of the hundreds of historic landmarks in San Francisco. It would take more than one vacation to see all of them and some of them may not interest you as much as others. Be selective in what you decide to visit as you’re sure to find more than enough historic landmarks in San Francisco to occupy your time.