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.
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.
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.
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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.
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. (Though there may be other best views in SF!) 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.