To really see The City, there is one place where you can get a true visual feel for San Francisco — the slender 210-foot Coit Tower.
Its observation deck offers a 360-degree view of The City from its vantage point atop Telegraph Hill.
The vastness and variety of the view is unmatched. Upper floors of Financial District skyscrapers are limited.
The views are almost as impressive from the base. While some suggest that you forgo the elevator fees to go to the top of the 210-foot tower — they are $10 for adults, $7 for those 62 and older, $7 for youth 12 to 17, $3 for children 5 to 11 while those younger are free.
The panorama you can take in at one time is much more impressive. Besides, if you end up taking the hike up the hill given parking is limited you are going to want to make the most of the effort.
From the observation deck you can take in the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, Fisherman’s Wharf, the changing skyline, and get a great feel for the entire city. You can’t beat it for a view of the “crookest street in the world” — Lombard Street. That said, the small Plexiglas windows on the observation deck atop the art deco tower employing unpainted re-enforced concrete can be challenging especially for smartphones. I’ve seen great pictures taken from the top and I’ve seen so-and-so.
That said, the vantage point from the observation deck and your ability to take in a 360-degree without a lot of movement is a tad more inspiring. However if you want to do it on the cheap and skip the elevator and the charges you won’t be disappointed.
To be honest, what grabs my attention the most being a California history buff of sorts is not the views as much as the 19 iconic Depression-era murals inside the base of Coit Tower.
Twenty-seven muralists plus assistants were commissioned by the Public Works of Arts Project — the forerunner to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) — when the tower was built in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression. The murals reflect California life and strife at the time.
While you can meander around for the most part on your own, a tour of the entire tower including all the murals is available for $10 and well worth it. The one I took about six years ago was led by a guide well versed not just in the tower and its history but the story behind each mural and what they depict as well as the history of the artists.
Expect to spend about 40 minutes on the tour. The tours are available for groups of four people but not more than six. There is a $5 fee per person for a tour of only the second floor.
You can purchase time-specific mural tour and elevator tickets online by going to the Coit Tower page on the sfrecprark.org website or calling 1-800-655-6751. There is a service fee for pre-purchased tickets.
For those faint of heart that are politically correct the statue of Christopher Columbus at the tower’s base was removed in 2020 after repeated vandalism and protests.
The placement of the monument made sense given it was overlooking The City’s famous Italian neighborhood — North Beach — and Columbus Square. It was also appropriate in a way that Columbus is overlooking the bay with a clear shot of Alcatraz. The rocky island that was once home to one of the nation’s most notorious federal prisons was once occupied by Native American Indians in a protest against government policies.
Political correctness aside, it’s tough to separate the two — North Beach and visiting Coit Tower. That’s because it gives you the perfect excuse to try the varied dining options that include some of the best Mom and Pop Italian restaurants I’ve ever enjoyed.
Unless you catch San Francisco Muni Bus 39 to ride from Fisherman’s Wharf to Coit Tower, you are going to have a long wait to reach the top. If you’re driving due to a small parking lot and the fact street parking on the narrow and fairly steep streets leading up to the tower are restricted to residents only with aggressive — and expensive — enforcement by the San Francisco Police Department, I prefer hiking to the top. From Columbus Square where you can find 2-hour parking meters it’s about a 20 minute hike via the Filbert Street steps. The views are a good excuse to take frequent breaks. Along the way you may take in the sound of — or even see — one of the many wild parrots that sometimes populate the hill. You can also take the steeper and longer Greenwich steps.
I’d be remiss not to remind you this is San Francisco so finding a parking space may be challenging in North Beach but not nearly as challenging as at the tower’s base.
The art deco design will remind you of the Golden Gate Bridge that was built in the same era.
The simple fluted Coit Tower was created from a large bequest Lillie Hitchcock Coit left upon her death in 1929 to add “beauty to the city” that she loved. The money was used to build the tower as well as erect a monument to the volunteer firefighters she admired greatly at nearby Washington Square.
Despite the public’s perception, the architects that designed the tower — Arthur Brown Jr. and Henry Howard — did not set out to make Coit Tower look like a fire hydrant, they always firmly denied that it was the case.
Coit Tower is open May through October from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and from November through April from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Just a few steps away from Coit Tower is the Coit Tower Café. It offers hot and cold drinks, pastries, paninis, pizza by the slice and frozen yogurt. Food and drinks are not allowed in Coit Tower.
San Francisco — given that you are afforded a chance to visit it often given we live in the 209 — is best savored in small bites. Coit Tower combined with North Beach restaurants — all that hiking works up an appetite — and exploring the neighborhood is a savory morsel of The City.
You can also tie it into Fisherman’s Wharf or The City’s ultimate tourist trap — Pier 39.