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Architectural Landmarks of San Francisco

The Top Architectural Sights in The City by The Bay.


San Francisco is unequaled on the west coast in terms of it's sheer architectural wealth. From towering public monuments built by the city or generous philanthropists to grandiose private residences and businesses formed from new found wealth of the "Golden" state, San Francisco is a living showcase of building styles and iconic structures. Here is our list of the top architectural landmarks in San Francisco, just a small sample of what the city actually offers.

1. Coit Tower

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The city's most iconic historical landmark, Coit Tower was built in 1933 out of funds left to San Francisco by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy resident and patron of the arts. The art-deco gem is 210 feet tall but towers even higher over the city and bay as it is situated on the top of Telegraph Hill. It provides a striking backdrop to the North Beach neighborhood below it and offers some of the best views of the San Francisco Bay from the observation deck on it's top floor.

2. The San Francisco Victorians

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Victorians are to San Francisco what Brownstones are to Brooklyn, and in some neighborhoods they literally line block after block. Typified by extreme ornamentation, to the point that many appear quite whimsical, San Francisco Victorians are usually hand crafted from the fire and pest resistant redwood tree which once covered the entire Northern California coast. While few Victorian homes are open for public visitation, they are easy to enjoy from the outside and are often painted in bright rainbow colors - in true San Francisco spirit.

3. The Palace of Fine Arts

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Built for the Panama-Pacific expo of 1915, this replica of a fantastical ancient Greek Temple overpowers the senses and whisks visitors away to bygone eras. One of the most romantic destinations in San Francisco, the building and the surrounding park are often full of picnickers, couples and children, who often come to spend the day in the Exploratorium science museum located inside the structure.

4. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

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Designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta and finished in 1995, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is the city's most iconic piece of modern architecture. The five-story building houses a circular atrium at it's center, which allows the galleries of every floor to have natural lighting, and a spectacular rooftop garden, complete with sculptures and a gourmet cafe. The SFMOMA, as it is usually called, is also the cream of the crop of San Francisco's art museums, and houses extensive collections of contemporary art from all over the world.

5. San Francisco's Historic Hotels

Photo by Ocean Malandra
From the towering Mark Hopkins at the crest of Nob Hill to the castle-like Saint Francis in the heart of San Francsico's Union Square, the historic hotels of the city are each a architectural treasure in their own right. You do not need to be a guest to visit these hotels as most of them have an onsite bar or restaurant open to the public, some with awe-inspiring views of the city to boot.

6. Grace Cathedral

Photo by Ocean Malandra
San Francisco's version of Paris's Notre Dame, Grace Cathedral crowns Nob Hill like a an elegant queen. The Gothic Cathedral features stunning stained glass work, Renaissance-era bronze doors and even dragon-like gargoyles along it's roof. It's also right on the cable car line, making it easy to visit from both downtown and Fisherman's Wharf.

7. The Palace of the Legion of Honor

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An exact three-quarter scale replica of an actual palace on the left bank of the Seine River in Paris, this landmark also sits in one of the most dramatic setting in the city. High over the cliffs of Land's End in San Francisco's outer Richmond district, the museum commands sweeping views over the city from it's sculpture lined entryway.

8. Mission Dolores

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Mission Dolores is San Francisco's oldest building, one of the most northern of the original Spanish missions that once dotted the Americas all the way down to Patagonia. Inside Mission Dolores, which is located across from sunny Dolores Park and was built in 1776, a museum holds key artifacts from early San Francisco and California history. The Mission Dolores Basilica, which lies right next door, is a functioning Catholic church that was built in 1913 and is also architecturally interesting for it's ornate Baroque Spanish style details.

9. San Francisco's City Hall

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Sporting the fifth largest dome in the world and standing 20 feet higher than the U.S. Capitol building, which it was modeled after, San Francisco's City Hall is the crown jewel of the Civic Center area. The Beaux-Art masterpiece sports gold leaf details and is open for visitation by the public daily.

10. The Transamerican Pyramid

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The tallest building in the San Francisco skyline and the only non-rectangular peg in the puzzle, the Transamerican Pyramid is another iconic San Francisco landmark. The 850 foot skyscraper was built in 1972 and was designed by architect William Pereira. Unfortunately, there is no public access to the building beyond the ground floor lobby.
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