I recently got back from San Francisco – one of the most photogenic cities in the U.S., if not the world. The Golden Gate in particular regularly makes top 10 most photographed places in America.
There’s an old saying with photographers: the best camera is the one you take with you. I used to be a camera-nut, lugging my DSLR everywhere I went, but as iPhone cameras keep getting better and my bags keep getting lighter, I’ve opted for just investing in the latest generation iPhone and taking most of my pictures that way.
Here’s my little guide on how to get the best shots in San Francisco, depending on your angle 🙂
For the architecture hound:
Palace of Fine Arts
This beautiful building was the one of the only permanent structures of an entire neighborhood built out of plaster and burlap for the Panama Pacific Expo in 1915. The Expo was to demonstrate San Francisco’s recovery from the devastating earthquake of 1906.
The earthquake of 1906 leveled most of the Victorian buildings in San Francisco, and Haight-Ashbury was one of the few neighborhoods left standing, and is a great place to see the ornate Victorian houses today (even if many have been modified and painted into modern storefronts today).
The largest Japantown in the United States. The famous Peace Pagoda was designed by architect Yoshiro Taniguchi and presented as a gift from Osaka to promote cultural exchange between the US and Japan.
One of the most culturally important gay districts in the US, the Castro was also one of the first gay neighborhoods in the country. The famous Castro Theatre was built in 1922, and still hosts many film festivals, including those with LGBT and multicultural focus.
Legion of Honor
The Panama Pacific Exposition had a beautiful French Pavilion that was eventually torn down. Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, a sugar magnate’s wife, had the Legion of Honor art museum built as an exact replica in Land’s End.
It’s also in a key scene of one of my favorite SF-set movies, Vertigo. The main actress is enchanted (or possessed) by one of the paintings (a prop, unfortunately) and the main actor watches her stare at the painting for hours in a trance.
For the street photographer:
It’s a little hard to distinguish between architecture and street photography (since… well… streets are surrounded by… architecture) but check out these areas if you are more interested in beautiful murals and colorful alleys.
The Mission District has some of the oldest buildings in San Francisco, back from when Spanish missionaries founded the Mission San Francisco de Asis in 1776 (also called the Mission Dolores). This building is now a museum and preserved historical landmark.
The Mission District is an important Latino neighborhood (the parts that haven’t yet been gentrified) with a vibrant arts scene. You can see gorgeously detailed bright murals and street art all over the place.
The oldest and largest Chinatown in North America. Filled with vibrant architecture, streetside grocery and produce shopping, and tchotchkes for the tourist.
An absurdly twisty and drivable street with 8 switchbacks, as seen in What’s Up Doc, Vertigo, Bullitt, Herbie the Love Bug, and GTA: San Andreas among other films and games. Definitely a big tourist trap, but worth the visit.
For the sweeping views:
De Young Observatory
The De Young is a wonderful fine arts museum featuring art from the Americas, the Pacific, and Africa that also has an amazingly architected 9 story observatory with a 360 degree view of San Francisco. The observation tower closes one hour before the museum, so make sure to check it out before the end of the day.
Tip: You also get in free to the museum if you have a ticket from the Legion of Honor on the same day (it also works in reverse, a De Young ticket will get you into the Legion of Honor). Museum away!
Currently closed until fall/winter of 2016, Alamo Square has the famous Painted Ladies, a famous row of brightly colored Victorian San Franciscan houses with the view of the SF skyline behind it.
Featuring a flock of feral parrots, Telegraph Hill has great views of the city, and you can go to the top of the Coit Tower to get the city panorama you are looking for ($6-$8 for adults).
Coit Tower was funded by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, an eccentric fire-chasing socialite woman who wore trousers and smoked cigars in the mid 1800’s. She left one third of her estate “to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved”, which the city then turned into Coit Tower.
For the iconic Golden Gate Bridge:
Fort Point is the best place to get an up close shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s pretty much impossible to get a bad snap of it, if you go all the way up to the end where the fence is. The orange and blue make for a great contrasting color photo. Even if it’s a foggy day if you can snap a pic of the pylons rising above the fog and it makes for a very dramatic shot.
If you want a different angle, try going up the hiking paths right behind Fort Point so you can get a top-down shot. They are a bit steep, but fairly short, and you should be up in 5-15 minutes depending on your fitness level.
Baker Beach is on the Pacific side of the Golden Gate. It’s unique in both views and the fact that it is “famously frequented by nude-sunbathers”. I’m still puzzled why anyone would go to a beach nude when the days average about 60 degrees in the summer, but people will do as they will. Most of the nude sunbathers stick to north end of the beach, nearest to the bridge itself.
I love visiting any city’s most famous parks with the most dramatic views and unique scenery. Land’s End is a surprisingly secluded park with trails to get some height and get a distant shot of the Golden Gate.
I highly recommend the Coastal Trail, providing you with opportunities for shot from hilltops to stumbling down a steep path to Mile Rock Beach, where you can get a dramatic shot of stacked stones, driftwood, a small labyrinth or giant waves crashing on the huge rocks.
Land’s End also has gorgeous trails to get good shots of the Pacific Ocean, giant cliffs, shipwrecks (!), and even the Legion of Honor Museum, which is a cheap and easy visit for just $15.
This post contains affiliate links