Forget the San Francisco Icons: The Most Beautiful Spots in the City
Herb Caen once said, “There are a thousand viewpoints in this viewtiful city.” With 50 hills (according to Wikipedia), countless skyscrapers, sandy beaches, lush gardens and hiking trails, most of these jaw dropping views are accessible to everybody. It’s hard to get away from the icons, but there are spots that are lesser known right near them. The next time you're in San Francisco, you’ll want to check out all of these beautiful spots, not just the icons.
Coined the Ellis Island of the West, Angel Island processed more than 1 million immigrants during its time as an immigration station. Since then, it has been turned into a state park where you can camp overnight. It’s perfect for that early morning sunrise, where you’ll be able to see expansive 360° views of the San Francisco skyline, the Marin Headlands and Mount Tamalpais.
It’s true we might not have beach weather year-round in San Francisco like beaches in Southern California do, but we have something they don’t have, a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Walk along the beach towards the Golden Gate Bridge. Once you hike over to the rocks, you’ll get an Instagram shot that will make your friends jealous.
Bernal Heights Park
Adjacent to the Mission District, Bernal Heights Park is also popular with the Instagram crowd. On clear days you can see all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge on one side and Bayview-Hunters Point (where Candlestick Park used to be) on the other.
San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park
This is the first of many spots to visit within Golden Gate Park. With its unique micro-climates, the San Francisco Botanical Garden is able to recreate conditions of the high elevation tropical cloud forests of Central and South America and Southeast Asia. Rare high elevation palms as well as plants from New Zealand and temperate Asia also thrive here. Largely due to these natural advantages, the San Francisco Botanical Garden is known for its unique, diverse and significant botanical collections.
California Academy of Sciences
Situated on the Music Concourse of Golden Gate Park and opposite another beautiful spot is the California Academy of Sciences. Explore an aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum — all under one living roof in Golden Gate Park. A four-story living rainforest and awe-inspiring coral reef ecosystem make for many photogenic moments, while immersive planetarium shows will transport you through space and time for a new perspective. The best part is the living roof at the top, which you can visit with your admission to the museum.
The most colorful spot on this list, Clarion Alley is an alley filled with colorful gravity piecers from a community of artists. It was originally created from six local artists (two of which were living in the alley at the time) in 1992. On any given weekend, you're likely to see new pieces going up or current canvases being maintained. This is where creativity in San Francisco continues to flourish. When walking down the alley, please be respectful of the artists and their masterpieces.
Corona Heights Park
People always talk about the fog rolling in at the end of the day. While it is true, the perfect place to see the fog cascade like a waterfall over the city is Corona Heights Park. You’ll get an up close look at Karl, so remember to layer up.
The de Young Museum
Across from the California Academy of Sciences sits the copper-clad landmark de Young Museum building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron. Reopened in October 2005, the de Young showcases the institution’s significant collections of American painting, sculpture and decorative arts from the 17th to the 21st centuries; art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and international contemporary art. Be sure to access the Hamon Education Tower Observation Level, free to the public.
Once a harbor defense installation for the military, this beach is now home to our best furry friends. On any given day (especially the weekends), you see thousands of canines runnng along the sand. Fort Funston is also a popular spot for hang gliders due to the high sea cliffs.
Before the Golden Gate Bridge was a twinkle in the eye, Fort Point stood at the mouth of the Golden Gate Strait in its defense. Built right before the Civil War, this fortification stands at the southern end of the bridge. These days, Fort Point is recognized as a national historic site and maintained by the Golden Gate Recreational Area.
From this Sunset District Park, you have gorgeous views from downtown San Francisco and Golden Gate Park all the way to Pt. Reyes and around to Lake Merced. There is a small trail network, consisting of 0.2 miles ascending to the top of the park hill, but the view at the top makes it totally worth it.
The Labyrinth at Lands End
We’re happy to see this one on the list. Hiking out from the Sutro Bath Ruins, you’ll find a trail that leads you to a spectacular view and the labyrinth, created by Eduardo Aguilera in 2004 and maintained by a community of volunteers. Recently, this treasure was vandalized, but a new group of volunteers rebuilt it from scratch. A story of resilience and redemption always puts a smile on our face.
Lincoln Park Tiled Steps
The Lincoln Park Tiled Steps, which sit at the edge of Lincoln Park on the western end of California Street, is the newest edition to this list (they were dedicated in May, 2015). Designed by local artist, Aileen Barr, the spot is more about the view of the steps than at the top.
Tree covered, this Presidio trail is the perfect place to hold hands with your sweetheart and walk down the Wood Line by Andy Goldsworthy. Once you soak in the beauty, head to his other art structure, the Spire.
Lyon Street Steps
The Lyon Street Steps are a beloved Marina spot to the many who live nearby. Early in the morning, you’ll see people running up the 332 stairs to the top. Halfway up, you can stop to gaze at the house from the movie, The Princess Diaries, and then continue your ascent to the top where you’ll turn around and look out on San Francisco Bay.
Any inkling of heat emanating from our 49 square miles, you can bet that this park is packed. This is your go-to-spot for spectacular people watching, robot dance parties, picnics and a spectacular view at the southwest corner of the park.
The highest peak in San Francisco, Mount Davidson also has the biggest cross in the city at 103 feet tall. From time to time, services are held up here, most notably for Easter Sunday.
It’s chilly at Ocean Beach most of the year, but that’s what bonfires are for. There’s nothing more beautiful than seeing hundreds of s’mores being roasted over all the bonfires at once.
Palace of Fine Arts
As the last standing structure from the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, we couldn’t keep the Palace of Fine Arts off this list. The detailed design from the reflecting lagoon to the weeping women at the top accents the Roman and Greek architecture beautifully. Also, Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage shared a bench here during the film, The Rock. That’s reason enough to see it.
Sutro Bath Ruins
Out of fire and disaster comes beauty. Once the home of the wealthy elite as a getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city, the Sutro Bath House fell into disrepair and caught on fire. Since then only the ruins have survived, which have provided the perfect backdrop for chasing sunsets.
An artificial island built for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, Treasure Island boasts some of the most spectacular views of the Bay Bridge and the skyline. Come sunrise or sunset, you’ll see tripods dotting the island’s edge.