Things to do in San Francisco

15 Must-See Buildings in San Francisco for Inspiring Architecture

Discover what makes San Francisco buildings so special, from their place in pop culture to the way they shape the city's skyline.

Famous for its foggy mornings and brilliant sunsets, San Francisco has had many nicknames over the years. Frisco, San Fran, The Golden City, and Paris of the West are just a few of them.

No matter what you call it, there are so many things to do in San Francisco. It has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes it one of the most popular U.S. travel destinations — and residents think it’s pretty special, too.

Whether you’re planning a trip to the City by the Bay or you’ve been living here for decades, there’s always something new to discover. Start with a visit to one of these iconic San Francisco buildings.

Historical Landmarks in San Francisco

There's no better way to familiarize yourself with San Francisco than by learning about its history. You can visit some of the city's most important locations to get a glimpse into why its culture is so diverse and rich. Take a hike in San Francisco and look up to see the top of these culturally significant structures.

1. Alcatraz Island

There’s a reason so many films take place at Alcatraz Island. It’s steeped in history — and it doesn’t hurt that you can see the Golden Gate Bridge looming in the distance. What you may not know is that Alcatraz isn’t a single building — it's a complex designed for army operations.

In 1934, it became a maximum-security prison, housing some of the most infamous figures in American history. Al Capone spent five years there in the 1930s, serving an 11-year sentence for tax evasion, contempt of court, and prohibition charges.

Today, Alcatraz Island offers self-guided tours and interpretive programs to help you understand what life was like for inmates. The Cellhouse Audio Tour is one of the most popular attractions, but the complex also has exhibits on mass incarceration and the Indigenous occupation that took place in 1969.

Best of all, the only way to get to Alcatraz is to take a ferry, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to take showstopping photos of the city skyline.

Photographer: BKD

2. The Painted Ladies

California's Painted Ladies feature prominently in Dirty Harry, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the Full House title sequence, making them some of the most popular buildings in San Francisco.

Located on Steiner Street, this group of Victorian homes sits on the eastern side of Alamo Square Park, a public space known for its willow trees and colorful flower beds. Each home has at least three paint colors, highlighting the pitched roofs, bay windows, and decorative trim characteristic of the Queen Anne style.

As an added bonus, a stop at the Painted Ladies comes with breathtaking views of San Francisco’s towering skyscrapers. Make your day even more special with a picnic in Alamo Square Park or a leisurely walk down nearby Grove Street.

3. Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts is an excellent example of beaux arts architecture, but it hasn’t always looked so magnificent. Constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition, the structure served as a place for attendees to get away from the crowds.

Architect Bernard Maybeck drew inspiration from ancient Greece and Rome, creating what amounted to an expensive set of ruins.

The original plan was to demolish the Palace of Fine Arts when the exhibition ended, but attendees fell in love with it, prompting Phoebe Hearst — mother of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst — to fight for its preservation.

During the Great Depression, artists employed by the Works Progress Administration replaced some of the murals in the rotunda, but they didn’t make any structural changes.

Since the Palace of Fine Arts was supposed to be demolished, the builders didn’t bother using high-quality materials. As a result, the structure didn’t even make it half a century before it started to crumble.

In 1964, San Franciscans said goodbye to the original and hello to a brand-new version, which took 10 years to complete. The new-and-improved Palace of Fine Arts features a domed rotunda, Corinthian columns, and multiple piers made from steel, concrete, and other durable materials.

Photographer: Dan Dennis

4. Coit Tower

Stretching more than 200 feet above Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower offers sweeping views of Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge. If you only have a few hours to spend in the city, we highly recommend a visit to this architectural wonder.

Although the tower has an elevator, you may not be able to use it due to unexpected mechanical issues.

Speaking of murals, each one depicts what it was like to live through the Great Depression. At one point, citizens became incensed by the “radical content” on Coit Tower's walls, prompting artists to paint over some of the original elements. Those elements are gone forever, but you can still enjoy the talent that went into each scene.

5. San Francisco City Hall

San Francisco City Hall houses government offices, but it’s more than just a place for bigwigs to do business. Designed by Arthur Brown, Jr. of Bakewell & Brown, the building looks like it would be right at home with Musée d’Orsay, Palais Garnier, and Grand Palais in Paris — and for good reason.

Brown used the beaux arts style to create a structure that’s just as attractive as it is functional. Like other beaux arts buildings, City Hall features a pediment, multiple columns, and a raised first story, making it one of the most popular photo backdrops in San Francisco.

Photographer: 12019

Modern Architectural Wonders in San Francisco

Out with the old, in with the new — these modern structures show just how architecture has evolved over time.

6. Salesforce Tower

When it comes to famous San Francisco buildings, Salesforce Tower is one of the newest kids on the block. Construction started in 2013, resulting in a 61-story structure with a curved exterior and an observation deck on the top floor.

César Pelli designed the building to meet strict environmental standards, so it has perforated sunshades, a specialized air intake system, and other features to help reduce energy usage.

Like other iconic buildings in San Francisco, Salesforce Tower is a mixed-use property. It’s next to the Transbay Transit Center, making it a convenient place to meet with clients or shop for essentials. Famous tenants include Accenture, Bain & Company, and WeWork.

If you’re in the city at night, look up to get a glimpse of the Day for Night light sculpture. Created by Jim Campbell, it has 11,000 LED bulbs, making it the perfect place to display video footage of the city.

7. Transamerica Pyramid

If you’ve ever wanted to leap tall buildings in a single bound, we recommend starting with the Transamerica Pyramid. Just kidding! Don’t try to leap over tall buildings — unless you’re Clark Kent, it probably won’t end well.

As one of the tallest San Francisco buildings, the Brutalist structure is about as far from the beaux arts style as you can get. Think about what would happen if you combined the Washington Monument with New York City’s Flatiron Building and encased the whole thing in concrete. That’s the Transamerica Pyramid in a nutshell.

You can't enter the building unless you work there or you’re visiting someone who does. But, despite the limited access, it’s still worth a visit. You can stand across the street and gaze at the top of the futuristic structure.

Photographer: misterfarmer

8. 555 California Street

Better known as Bank of America Tower, 555 California Street has more than 1.5 million feet of commercial space, making it one of the most desirable buildings in San Francisco’s Financial District. There’s nothing like demonstrating a new product or negotiating a life-changing deal while surrounded by panoramic views of the city below.

Flagship tenants include Bank of America, Starbucks, The Vault Steakhouse, and Bay Club Financial District. Microsoft, Sidley Austin, McKinsey & Company, and Morgan Stanley also maintain offices in the 52-story structure.

9. Millennium Tower

Billed as “a city within the city,” Millennium Tower is all about luxury. The ultra-modern building has 419 units with premium features — we’re talking Sub-Zero freezers, hardwood floors, and marble countertops.

The developer put a lot of thought into creating a building that would serve as an oasis, rather than just another ho-hum place to live. As a result, Millennium Tower has a wine-tasting room, Pilates studio, and club lounge to help you build a life you love.

Think of living in the Millennium Tower as taking up residence in a five-star hotel. Residents have access to 24/7 concierge services, a private dining room, a massage room, and more.

Sure, you could stand outside and admire the building from a distance, but we recommend making friends with someone who lives there so you can experience it all for yourself.

Cultural and Artistic Significance in SF

You've probably heard of Picasso. But do you know what cubism is? You can learn about abstract art styles and movements by exploring San Francisco's art scene.

10. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is every art enthusiast’s dream — a vast museum filled with natural light and plenty of places to sit and soak up the beauty around you. If you think Monet and Botticelli are yesterday’s news, you’re in luck.

One of the most famous museums in San Francisco, SFMOMA focuses on contemporary art, so you’re more likely to find a painting by Roberto Matta or a sculpture by Claire Falkenstein. Designed by Mario Botta, the building features a truss bridge, a cylindrical turret, and columns made of Canadian granite.

The main attraction — at least from a design perspective — is the grand atrium staircase, which leads visitors through four floors of permanent and temporary exhibits. SFMOMA also has a rooftop garden with gorgeous views of the San Francisco skyline.

If you’re a Bay Area resident, stop by on the first Thursday of each month to enjoy free admission and live entertainment. SFMOMA stays open late, giving you plenty of time to grab dinner and explore your favorite exhibits.

Photographer: Claudia Lorusso

11. de Young Museum

The de Young Museum has a large collection of American art, oceanic art, contemporary art, and African art. Whether you like portrait-style paintings or textiles in vivid colors, you’re sure to find something that catches your eye.

Although the de Young opened in 1895, the building there now isn’t the same one that was there at the turn of the 20th century. In 1989, the Loma Pietra earthquake sent shockwaves through the city, destroying the museum and much of its contents.

Architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron replaced the old structure with something much more modern. Copper, wood, glass, and other natural materials protect the collection inside without preventing visitors from enjoying the natural beauty of Golden Gate Park.

The building also has a textured facade, creating an optical illusion that makes it look as if sunlight is filtering down from the heavens.

12. Asian Art Museum

East meets West at the Asian Art Museum, one of the premier cultural institutions in the United States. If you can’t spend the whole day here, we highly recommend making time for the crowned and bejeweled Buddha image.

Created by a Burmese artist, the artifact looks like something straight out of Game of Thrones — but even more ornate. Lacquer, gilding, and mirrored glass come together to create a stunning work of art.

Although AAM opened in 1966, it’s been updated several times, evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of visitors and employees. Like City Hall, AAM features the beaux arts style based on classical Greek and Roman design sensibilities.

13. The War Memorial Opera House

Located near the San Francisco Civic Center, the War Memorial Opera House stands as a testament to the courage of America’s World War I heroes. Arthur Brown, Jr. chose the American Renaissance Revival style to honor the past and give San Franciscans renewed hope for the future.

Thanks to his design choices, the War Memorial Opera House remains one of the most beautiful buildings in the City by the Bay. In 1945, dignitaries gathered at the opera house to draft the charter of the United Nations.

Today, the San Francisco Opera puts on more than 60 performances per year, from experimental works to old favorites, such as The Magic Flute.

Notable Residential San Francisco Buildings

Why settle for ordinary, when San Francisco offers the best? These notable spots made it on our list of iconic buildings in San Francisco for a reason.

14. The Infinity Towers

The Infinity Towers has all the amenities you’d expect from a luxury building, but its views really seal the deal. Located on Spear and Main Streets, the complex has 650 units situated in four connected towers. All four offer unparalleled views of the city’s skyline and San Francisco Bay, making it feel like you’re living in a castle on a cloud.

The Infinity Towers also has 20,000 square feet of retail space and sits just a block from the Bay Bridge. When it comes to convenience, you just can’t beat this high-rise development.

15. One Rincon Hill

Imagine waking up in the morning, opening your eyes, and seeing the San Francisco skyline before you even get out of bed. That’s what it’s like to live at One Rincon Hill, a luxury high-rise designed to mimic the resort lifestyle.

You may not be able to quit your job, but you can enjoy high-end amenities while taking in the view from your floor-to-ceiling windows. Between the valet parking and the on-site party room, living at One Rincon Hill will have you feeling like a celebrity in no time.

Make Your Stay Even More Special

There you have it: a whirlwind tour of the most famous San Francisco buildings. Some house priceless works of art, while others provide space for Fortune 500 companies to broker multimillion-dollar deals.

If you need a break from strutting around the city, check out one of our shows in San Francisco. Our performers push the limits of human endurance day in and day out, delighting audiences with their creative acrobatics, whimsical silk routines, and unexpected comedy. Join us for hours of unforgettable entertainment.

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