San Francisco’s unique charm, eclectic communities, and magnificent landmarks draw visitors from all over the world. Behind these alluring attributes lies a rich and multifaceted history that makes San Francisco such an important (and beloved) city.
Explore San Diego’s fascinating history and culture by visiting the most intriguing San Francisco historical sights during your next visit to the city. These San Francisco attractions are as diverse and compelling as the history itself. By the end of your trip, you’ll be as in love with the city as those who call the Bay Area home.
San Francisco was first established by the Spanish in 1776, with the building of the fortress Presidio of San Francisco and the Mission San Francisco de Assisi (aka Mission Dolores). Today, Mission Dolores is the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco. The Mission Dolores Parish now includes the Basilica, built in 1918, in addition to the Old Mission, and while many parishioners still worship here, it’s also open to public visitation. The historic, cultural, and architectural significance of the site, as well as the tranquility of the garden and cemetery, attract many tourists.
Jump ahead a hundred years or so and discover one of the most well-known and intriguing historic San Francisco attractions, Alcatraz Island—made famous by Hollywood movies and television series, though these have not always offered accurate portrayals. You can discover the real history, starting with the light house and military reserve established in the 1850’s, the Island’s unique role in the Civil War, its 29-year run as an inescapable U.S. penitentiary (where infamous inmates like Al Capone and “Public Enemy #1” Alvin Karpis spent many years), and the American Indian occupation of “the Rock” by the activist group Indians of All Tribes.
You can sail out to Alcatraz Island, and learn all about its fascinating history, on the 90-minute Escape from the Rock Cruise. You’ll circle Alcatraz and see the haunting island and its prison from all angles. Another option is to take the Alcatraz and Twilight Cruise to see the Island by night, along with other stunning attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts, and Treasure Island.
Next, take a journey through San Francisco history while riding aboard one of the city’s most distinct historic attractions—I’m talking about a cable car, of course! With the Hop On/Hop Off City Tour, you can relax on a motorized cable car while a knowledgeable tour guide gives you the low down on just about every important landmark and attraction in San Francisco. Best of all, you can hop off (and then back on) at five prime locations along the way.
On your tour, you’ll see many San Francisco attractions and get a feel for the geography and historical significance of the city. Just a few of the historic landmarks sites you’ll visit are detailed below:
- Fisherman’s Wharf: This neighborhood’s history has its roots in the Gold Rush era. The community of Italian immigrants who settled in the area established a fishing fleet to fish for the Dungeness Crab. The neighborhood is still the base of San Francisco’s fishing fleet, although in the 1970’s and 80’s it was revitalized to become a popular tourist attraction. Historic landmarks like the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park and the SS Jeremiah O’Brien are also located in Fisherman’s Wharf.
City Hall: San Francisco’s City Hall has an important place in the artistic and architectural development of the city. The current City Hall, rebuilt in 1915 following the destruction of the original building by earthquake, is a Beaux-Arts monument to the City Beautiful movement during the American Renaissance of the early 1900’s. The building’s elaborate dome is the 5th largest in the world.
- Chinatown: San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in North America and represents the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. Established in 1848, San Francisco’s Chinatown has a long history of retaining and celebrating traditional customs, languages, and social institutions. Herbal shops, street markets, authentic restaurants, temples, pagoda roofs, and colorful festivals attract more tourists annually than the Golden Gate Bridge!
- North Beach/Little Italy: North Beach, San Francisco’s Little Italy, is most famous for two things: it’s Italian American heritage and its 1950’s Beat Generation subculture. Famous Americans that once lived in North Beach include Joe Dimaggio, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti—Ferlinghetti founded City Lights Bookstore (where the Grateful Dead first played), which is still open today.
Painted Ladies Victorians: These Victorian row houses, known for their bright colors at Italianate style, are seen on many San Francisco post cards and are often shown in media representations of San Francisco. The most famous section of these houses, sometimes called “Postcard Row” is across from Alamo Square—you’ve probably seen them on the opening credits of Full House!
San Francisco’s historical sights are so numerous and diverse that you could spend days, or even weeks, exploring them! Of course, you may not have time to see them all. Instead, pick the San Francisco attractions that interest you most and build your own itinerary with the Smart Destinations Go Select San Francisco Pass. Your pass will include only the sights you’ve chosen at affordable. We guarantee you’ll pay less than the combined gate prices, no matter what attractions you choose.