San Francisco is a city that's famously full of instantly recognizable landmarks: from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Transamerica Pyramid, it’s easy for visitors to match many of our skyline’s star features with their guidebook descriptions. But for every Coit Tower or Alcatraz Island, there’s also an eye-catching oddity whose name might not spring so easily to mind.
So this week, we’re expanding your horizons with a primer on the bizarrely beautiful, the vaguely historic, and the tough to pronounce. In other words: all those stand-out structures that make visitors (and sometimes even San Franciscans) ask, “Hey – what is that thing?”
Pop quiz time: What's the highest point in San Francisco? Is it the pinnacle of Coit Tower? The tippity-top of a Golden Gate pillar?
Actually, the answer is “none of the above.” Instead, the highest point in San Francisco is an eyesore/icon that's earned the (sort-of) endearing nickname, "the space claw." Its real name, though, is Sutro Tower, and chances are you'll find its presence inescapable on a trip to San Francisco. Jutting up defiantly from atop an 834-foot-high mountain, this 977-foot steel tower can be seen from just about anywhere in the city. It's so tall, in fact, that its wiry tips can often be seen poking up through the city's famous blankets of fog.
While locals have been split between loving and hating Sutro Tower since its completion in 1973, it certainly seems to be here to stay. And for good reason: it's a vital part of the city's communications system. The tower sends signals to 11 TV stations and four radio stations throughout the Bay Area, as well as to cable and satellite providers, meaning it's just as valuable for getting safety information out during emergencies as it is for broadcasting Giants' baseball games.
Fun fact: The Tower's built atop a mountain that was once home to the grandson of Adolph Sutro, who left the city with no small number of head-scratchingly awesome landmarks, himself.
The Giant Camera Obscura
If you've ever sipped a cappuccino at the Cliff House or gone a bit off trail wandering around the Sutro Baths, you may have spotted what looks an awful lot like an enormous camera atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific. And, in a clever little twist of architectural design, that's pretty much exactly what it is.
This isn't a camera as you may know it, though: it's a "camera obscura" – which is a fancy, Latin way of describing this device that uses light and a parabolic screen to reproduce detailed, moving images of the surrounding ocean and sky. If it sounds technical, it is: the camera’s based on a 15th-century design by none other than Leonardo DaVinci. To get an idea of what the camera can do – and how – check out this video from the San Francisco Exploratorium. Better yet, visit the camera in person: for just a few bucks, you can step inside watch the area’s waves, clouds, and the rugged rock formations dance by dreamily.
Fun fact: The last surviving remnant of SF's famous Playland seaside amusement park, the camera obscura has been around since 1946.
The Palace of the Fine Arts
That dome… those columns… the way they seem so overgrown, crumbling, but elegant at the same time… is the Palace of Fine Arts a set of fading ruins, or just an artful rendition of one? And what's it doing in a city known more for its iron and concrete than its Corinthian columns, anyway?
The Palace of Fine Arts, in fact, is a complicated case of life-imitating-art-imitating-life. It was constructed for San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition to mimic the kind of Roman ruins often found in Europe. But as the decades wore on, bringing war, recession, and other major hardships to the country and the city, the faux-ruins fell into a state of disrepair, becoming exactly what they'd originally set out to imitate.
Over the years, the structure underwent iterations as an exhibition hall, a set of tennis courts, and even a storage base for Army trucks and jeeps. By 1964, the place was in such shabby shape that the famous rotunda and columns had to be demolished and carefully rebuilt. What visitors walk through today – though technically only about 50 years old – is a faithfully recreated version of the original, right down to its intentional illusion of age.
Fun fact: The Palace of Fine Arts overlooks a glimmering pond and grassy nooks perfect for a picnic, and is an easy walk from HI-SF Fisherman's Wharf.
If you're interested food, fashion, and the sunniest microclimate in San Francisco, chances are you've already heard of the city's Mission District. But have you ever wondered where the neighborhood got its name? Obvious as it may seem, many people have no idea the 'hood is anchored by an actual Spanish mission whose founding predates the Declaration of Independence.
Between 1769 and 1823, Spanish missionaries established a series of missions throughout what would later become California in an effort to spread the Christian faith. Mission Dolores (or "Mission San Francisco de Asis" as it was then known), was founded right here in San Francisco in 1776. It was one of the only buildings to survive the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906; today it’s the oldest building still standing in the city. Pop in during daily open hours (9:00 a.m. to 4:00 or 5:00, depending on the season; $5 adults, $3 students) and you'll be treated to a matchless display of early California history and priceless religious art.
Fun fact: After you've visited Mission Dolores itself, it's well worth continuing to explore the area. Pop over to nearby Dolores Park to sunbathe with the locals, walk a few blocks east to Mission Street for the best tacos in the city, take in the street art of Clarion Alley, or join your fellow hostellers on a free, Saturday afternoon neighborhood walking tour.
By why stop there? Dig up more forgotten relics with our guides to SF's hidden WPA murals and the lasting legacies of local characters Adolph Sutro and Emperor Norton. Then venture a bit further afield with a visit to one of Northern California's historic hostels, or pop over to Sacramento for a tour of the city's endless – and eccentric – small museums.
Stay at one of our three San Francisco hostels.