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Coit Tower and Telegraph Hill: The best view in San Francisco

There’s so much to see in San Francisco, but there’s one thing I recommend to anyone visiting San Francisco: a walk up and down Telegraph Hill to see Coit Tower. I think Coit Tower offers the very best view in San Francisco, and getting there involves a beautiful walk.

On the left, a row of small apartment houses. A street sign says "Grant" and "Dead End". The tower is a tall concrete cylinder on a tree-covered hill.
View of Coit Tower from a residential neighborhood below it.

Back when I lived in San Francisco, when things got a bit much for me, or just when I needed some time for myself, I would take this walk. It would always be enjoyable and calming. It was also good exercise.

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First published in 2014, extensively revised and updated in May 2022, after walking it again.

Text: Coit Tower San Francisco: Beautiful views, big and small (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo). Images: above, a close-up of a flower with a bee; below, a view across the water to Alcatraz Island.
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Coit Tower

Telegraph Hill is the one with the big odd-looking tower on top of it: Coit Tower. You can see it from Fisherman’s Wharf and the Piers below. You might think it’s some sort of lighthouse or water tower at first glance, but it’s not. It was built just to be a tower. That’s how they roll in San Francisco.

Completed in 1933, Coit Tower was Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s gift to the city. Wealthy and eccentric, she meant it simply as a thing of beauty. A simple fluted art-deco cylinder made of concrete, designed by Henry Howard, it has an elevator shaft in the middle with space around it for muraled walls and a gift shop. The only windows are at the bottom and up on the roof. An excellent leaflet gives detailed information about the tower itself and the murals inside it.

Getting to Coit Tower

Walking up there is a bit tough if, like me, you’re normally not much of a walker. Start from Washington Square Park and just walk up hill. Take it slowly. Stop often and look at the views that appear between the houses. Admire the increasingly upscale homes.

If you don’t want to huff and puff up the hill, by the way, you can catch the number 39 bus from Washington Square Park to Coit Tower and then spend your energy on the walk down.

view of Pier 39, covered with buildings. On the left and the right of it are harbors. The one on the left is mostly empty while the one on the right is crowded with pleasure boats. Open water beyond that, with Alcatraz Island at the top of the picture.
A view from Coit Tower. That’s the touristy Pier 39 in the center, with Alcatraz Island beyond it.

Coit Tower inside and out

Coit Tower is two destinations rolled into one. One is, obviously, what I think may be the best view in San Francisco. Both from the base and the top ($8 for the elevator) you can see magnificent views in all directions: the downtown big-city skyline, the hilly residential areas, the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz – everything is visible from up there if it’s a clear day.

The best view in San Francisco: the cluster of downtown skyscrapers.
Photo courtesy of Anne Hellersmith

The other “view” is inside the tower, but on the ground floor. The walls are covered with murals – frescoes, actually – painted in 1934 by 25 WPA artists. They depict life in California during the Great Depression. Done in a typical 1930’s deco style with elements of socialist realism, they’re definitely worth seeing, and it’s interesting to spot the subtle social criticism they express. The murals were clearly planned to work as a whole, and the different artists’ styles are barely discernable from each other.

A crowded street scene, people in 1930s clothing, buildings behind, a newsstand on the right, a postman emptying a mailbox in the center, men working on a car at right.
City Life, by Vicor Arnautoff, is quite a gritty mural when you look at it closely. Notice the man getting mugged in front and the car accident, including dead body, in the background.

There are also some murals on the second floor of the tower which are only viewable on a guided tour. I’ve never seen them but apparently the space is smaller up there so it’s necessary to limit numbers and to supervise visitors to avoid any contact with the murals. Ask at the ticket desk about taking a tour.

A narrow window in the center, painted with wine bottles on shelves around it. Left, women sit at a lunch counter, people behind the counter read a paper or serve food. Right, shoppers carrying various items, a white girl holding a dark-skinned doll.
Department Store, by Frede Vidar, depicts rather unhappy customers in a well-stocked store. Notice the clerk on the upper right, carrying a box with the Nazi SS insignia, while one of the waitresses at the lunch counter wears a star of David on her cap. The artist used the deep window frame as a paint surface as well, showing a wine shop selling California wines. You can see part of another mural on the right-hand wall: Banking and Law, by George Harris. This section shows lawyers reading law books.

The Filbert Street steps

There’s more to the best view in San Francisco, though, as you leave Coit Tower: a lovely walk down. You have two options for getting down to the piers and Fisherman’s Wharf: the Greenwich Street steps or the Filbert Street steps. Both are pretty, but I think the Filbert ones are the best.

Ask someone how to find the steps, but here I can generally describe where they are. As you exit the tower down to the little parking lot, take a right. There’s a sidewalk along the road. Follow that and you’ll soon see a steep stairway down on your left. That’s the Greenwich steps. Keep walking further down the sidewalk instead, and you’ll come to what looks like a small road on the left. Turn there, and you’ll see the top of the stairway a few steps away.

Close-up of a flower with pointy purple and white petals, and a bee at its center.

As you descend a long series of stairways, just keep heading downward. Along the way, you’ll pass a lush garden that’s positively magical: Grace Marchant Garden. You can’t actually enter the garden, but you can walk alongside it down the stairs between it and the small private gardens of the houses on the left. If you visit in the spring or summer, it’s absolutely overflowing with flowers.

The Steps edge the garden, and “streets” branch off of it. These streets are really just paths, creating leafy corridors for the lucky residents to access their homes. On one side the houses are mostly small, whether single-family wooden cottages or holding a few apartments. On the other, they’re larger apartment buildings, but none are very tall. Most of the paths are blocked off, marked as private property, but you can at least peer down them.

A wooden walkway straight ahead with a brown-shingled house on the right and trees and bushes obscuring a fence on the left. A black cat halfway down the walkway.
One of the larger paths, with a furry resident.

Take your time. Admire the plants and houses, and the views you glimpse through the overgrowth. It’s a lush, green island in the middle of the city.

close-up of a digitalis flower: small trumpet shape flowers, bright pink with, on the inside, speckles of dark red and white.

I took this walk just a couple of times a year when I lived there, usually alone, and always finished it tired and satisfied. Something about it charmed me and calmed me. I love the big views of San Francisco from the tower, and the smaller views of the garden below. I think you’ll feel the same way.

This 3-4 hour tour takes visitors from the waterfront up the Filbert Street steps to Coit Tower, then back down to the waterfront via the Greenwich Steps.

This guided “urban hike” climbs up the Filbert Street steps, visiting the tower and then moving on to Lombard Street (“the crookedest street”) and North Beach.

A view of Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, with its two tall towers. In this photo there's a thin layer or cloud stretched above the bridge.
Another view from Coit Tower: the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo courtesy of Anne Hellersmith.

Do you have any particular walks that are special to you? Add a comment below!

Coit Tower: Open daily April to October 10:00-18:00 and November to March 10:00-17:00. Admission is free to see the ground-floor murals. The elevator costs $10 for non-residents. Tours are $10 per person for a full mural tour, or just $5 for only the second floor.

Text: Coit Tower: The best view of San Francisco. Image: a view of downtown San Francisco, a cluster of tall buildings of various shapes and sizes.

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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments! Read more…

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How fun! I haven’t been to San Francisco since I was 5, so I remember very little of it. However, it’s stuff like your post that make me realize that I need to make the cross country trek from South Carolina to California again as an adult! Pinning this post for my future SF trip! 🙂

My last visit of Sanfran has left me confused. The city itself is really beautiful and I will always look forward to come back, but what about those homeless people? There is no city in the US where I have seen more homeless people, than in San Francisco.

Hi Rachel!
Really nice views! Loved the pic from Alcatraz!
Back home I used to walk along the breakwater, have great views from the sea and the city 🙂
Merry Xtmas!!!!

My ‘special walks’ will always be in Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires because of the graffiti you’ll see everywhere! I don’t see much of that where I came from so it’s really amazing how these things are allowed here in South America.

I did this walk many years ago, would love to see the restored murals! LOVE San Francisco, a great city for walking.