The City of San Francisco was officially incorporated on April 15, 1850, but its history begins long before that. In fact, several of the landmarks on this list predate that day. And though the oldest structure on our list was built in 1776, the earliest archaeological evidence of human habitation in San Francisco dates all the way back to 3000 BC and includes a strong Native American history.
Today, we’re celebrating some of San Francisco’s most interesting stories—from the construction of Mission Dolores and the occupation of Alcatraz Island to the legendary characters of Harvey Milk and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
You can use our map below to track down each landmark and keep reading to learn the brief history of each one.
Located just over one mile offshore from San Francisco, Alcatraz Island is famous all over the world for various reasons. Beginning in the 1800s, the island was developed with facilities for a lighthouse. When it was purchased by the government, the island was used for military fortification and a military prison. From 1934 until 1963, the famous federal prison was in operation on the island, and beginning in November 1969, Alcatraz Island was occupied for more than 19 months by a group of Native Americans who were part of a wave of Native activism across the nation. Finally, in 1972, Alcatraz became part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area and it became a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
To tour the island and see its history up close, check out Alcatraz Cruises.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and is one of the oldest and most established Chinatowns in the United States. Especially famous for its lively alleys and its bakeries, the district offers art, culture, food and more—all densely packed into a few blocks of the city.
Founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, City Lights is a landmark independent bookstore and publisher—and is quite possibly San Francisco’s most famous. A literary meeting place both then and now, it served as the city’s hub for Beatnik literature and has continued its legacy of community, independence and voice throughout the years. Most famously, City Lights and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are credited with publishing Allen Ginsberg’s collection Howl and Other Poems in 1956, which prompted a widely publicized obscenity trial won by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
This famous, all-day eatery has been a part of San Francisco history since 1863 and has experienced several tribulations, remodels and updates throughout its 156 years. Located at the waterfront of the largest urban national park in the United States, Cliff House now offers the walk-in only Bistro, the white tablecloth Sutro’s, and The Terrace Room. They also have an in-depth history page on their website which you can check out here.
Rising high above the city, Coit Tower is an iconic building that makes up the San Francisco skyline. The slender white concrete column sits at the top of Telegraph Hill and rises 210 feet up. Originally built between 1932 and 1933, guests are invited to ride the elevator to the observation deck where they can enjoy 360-degree views of the city. For more information on hours, pricing and history, click here.
One of the most internationally recognized symbols of San Francisco and the United States, the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937. At the time, it was the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world and today it still carries cars, pedestrians and bicycles between the city and Marin County.
Condensing Golden Gate Park into one section may be cheating because, within its 1,017 acres, it contains some of the city’s most beautiful and historic landmarks. For example, the Conservatory of Flowers is San Francisco Designated Landmark #50, California Historical Landmark #841, and it’s listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Originally built in 1879, it is the oldest building in the park and is only one of the park’s must-see attractions. Others include the California Academy of Sciences, the Dutch Windmill and the Japanese Tea Garden which is the oldest of its kind in the United States.
Development of the park itself began in the 1860s and 1870s and the park has become the heart of the city, from educational attractions to annual events and everything in between. For a complete guide of things to do, check out the Golden Gate Park Guide courtesy of SF Rec & Park.
Located in Nob Hill, Grace Cathedral’s history begins in 1849 with the founding of Grace Church during the California Gold Rush. Many of the original structures were destroyed in the fire following the 1906 earthquake, and the current Grace Cathedral was completed in 1964 as the third largest Episcopal cathedral in the nation. Through its history, the cathedral has hosted Martin Luther King, Jr. who gave a sermon on March 28, 1964. 5,000 people attended this sermon, which was the cathedral’s largest congregation until the September 11, 2001, memorial service.
A wonderful piece of San Francisco architecture, the building houses mosaics by Jan Henryk De Rosen, a replica of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, two labyrinths, stained glass windows, the Keith Haring AIDS Chapel altarpiece, medieval and contemporary furnishings, a forty-four bell carillon, and three organs.
The famous Haas-Lilienthal House was built in 1886 by Jewish immigrants and was miraculously spared destruction during the 1906 earthquake and fire. Today, the building houses San Francisco’s only Victorian house museum. There, guests can enjoy neighborhood walking tours, house tours, programs and holiday events, and even private event rentals.
Harvey Milk Plaza was named for Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the history of California. Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 and served as a visionary and a powerhouse behind LGBT activism until he was assassinated on November 27, 1978. In Harvey Milk Plaza, you can visit the famous Castro Pride Flag Pole flying the iconic rainbow flag. The original rainbow flag was designed and sewn right here in the city by Gilbert Baker after he was challenged by Harvey Milk to come up with a symbol of pride for the gay community. And in 1978, that first rainbow flag, made with hand-dyed fabrics, was raised up for the first time at the Castro Pride Flag Pole. For the full story, check out A Brief History of the Rainbow Flag courtesy of the San Francisco Travel Association.
Other Castro District landmarks include Castro Camera, a camera store operated by Harvey Milk from 1972 until his assassination in 1978. The building also served as his home from 1975 to 1978, Milk’s headquarters for his political campaigns, and the basis of the Castro Village Association which held the first Castro Street Fair in 1974. For more information on the neighborhood, check out Castro Merchants.
Jackson Square became the first ever San Francisco Landmark District in 1972 because the neighborhood contains the earliest surviving commercial area in the city. Today, the district boasts some of the city’s best shopping destinations, and the buildings themselves were originally erected in the 1850s and 1860s. It stands as one of the largest areas to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire.
Lombard Street extends east to west across San Francisco from the Presidio to the Embarcadero, but the section everyone is always talking about is located on just one block in Russian Hill. This short section of Lombard Street was first built in 1922 to reduce the hill’s natural 27 percent grade. Today, the winding segment sees about 250 vehicles per hour and 17,000 tourists per day.
Lotta’s Crabtree Fountain
This cast-iron fountain is located where Market, Geary and Kearny Streets meet in downtown San Francisco. It’s also San Francisco Designated Landmark #73 and is on The National Register of Historic Places. Given as a gift by actress Lotta Crabtree in 1875, the fountain famously served as a meeting point in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.
The history of this church in North Beach begins with a small, wooden shack built by Army personnel in the Presidio. This formally established the Saint Francis Parish on June 12, 1849, even before the City of San Francisco or the State of California were established. The present Norman Gothic church was completed and dedicated on March 17, 1860, but the entire interior was destroyed by fire during the 1906 tragedy. However, the brick walls and towers remained intact so the team rebuilt a new church within the original walls, which was completed on March 2, 1919.
Mission Dolores is San Francisco Designated Landmark #1, the first ever designated landmark in the city, and was designated with Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral on April 11, 1968. Originally founded on October 9, 1776, this church is the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco and represents the sixth religious settlement established as part of the Spanish missions in California, which were developed between 1769 and 1833 throughout the state.
Located high atop Mt. Davidson, the Mt. Davidson Memorial Cross is one of the oldest landmarks in San Francisco and stands today as a memorial to the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Originally developed in the 1920s, the cross has transformed over the years from a temporary wooden structure into a beautiful, sturdy, concrete symbol. And it was Margaret May Morgan, the first woman to sit on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who is credited with earning the contributions to create that concrete cross. Once it was completed, Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a golden telegraph key in Washington, D.C. on March 25, 1934, to light up the cross in front of an audience of 50,000 people.
Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Muir Woods National Monument is located north of San Francisco in Marin County and is famous for its towering, old-growth redwood trees. Federally protected as a National Monument since 1908, the more than 550 acres consists of more than 200 acres of redwood forests and a diverse array of plants and wildlife. The tallest tree on this land is 258 feet tall and most of the redwoods are between 500 and 800 years old.
Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral is San Francisco Designated Landmark #2 and it was designated with Mission Dolores on April 11, 1968. The structure was built in 1854 in Gothic Revival style and on Christmas 1854, it officially became the first cathedral of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. When it opened, the church was the tallest building in all of California.
Though the original 1875 Palace Hotel was completely demolished by the fire and earthquake of 1906, the “new” Palace Hotel stands in its place as a landmark of our city. This present structure covers most of an entire city block and was opened in December 1909—built from the ground up and on top of the original, destroyed hotel. Now more than a century old, the nine-story building is especially famous for its Garden Court—which occupies the same area as the Grand Court did in the original hotel—and serves as one of San Francisco’s most prestigious hotel dining rooms.
Originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, the Palace of Fine Arts once exhibited works of art during the exhibition and now stands as one of the few surviving structures developed for the event. Though the structure is still situated on its original site, it was rebuilt in 1965 and renovated in 2009.
The history of today’s PIER 39 begins in August 1977 when workers broke ground and began constructing the new pier using authentic, 1910 wood from Piers 34 and 3. Over a year later in October 1978, PIER 39 opened with 50 stores, 23 restaurants, a diving pool and several street performers. Quickly, the new attraction became one of the most visited in the country and the famous California sea lion began arriving on PIER 39’s K Dock in January 1990. Today, the K Dock sea lion population has grown as high as 1,701. In addition to these animals, guests can visit some of the city’s largest tourist attractions, including Aquarium of the Bay, the San Francisco Carousel, Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze and more.
Now part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Presidio has been a fortified location since 1776 when it was occupied by the Spanish Empire. From there, the land was passed to Mexico and then to the United States in 1848, when it became a prominent facility and grounds for the US Army. In October 1994, the land was transferred to the National Park Service which ended 219 years of military use and kicked off its current function as a destination for outdoor recreation, history education and cultural experiences. For things to do in the Presidio, check out Your Guide to Spending a Full Day in The Presidio, Mapped.
Located in the heart of SoMa and directly across the street from Yerba Buena Gardens, Saint Patrick Church is San Francisco Designated Landmark #4. The Gothic Revival building held its first mass on June 9, 1851. Since it was named for Ireland’s patron saint, the church still hosts a St. Patrick’s Day mass every year on or near St. Patrick’s Day.
The San Francisco Mint opened in 1854 to serve the thriving gold mines of the California Gold Rush. As a branch of the United States Mint, it turned $4 million in gold bullion into coins within its first year alone. Then, in 1874, the mint outgrew its first building and moved into the current one—one of the few structures that survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. The building served as a mint until 1937. Today, it operates as a chic private event venue, which you can learn about here.
The legendary Sutro Baths were developed in 1894 by the same person who designed Sutro Heights and the second Cliff House, a great spot for brunch, lunch, dinner and views right beside the baths. These baths were originally housed inside a glass enclosure that contained seven different swimming pools filled by the Pacific Ocean during high tide. These allowed up to 10,000 guests in the water at one time. But today, the quiet, outdoor baths offer a more simple, picturesque getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city.
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