It’s no wonder that so many musicians have literally sung the praises of the City by the Bay.
San Francisco is known for a one-of-a-kind cityscape that includes a larger-than-life fog and world-famous monuments like the Golden Gate Bridge and Painted Ladies. Meanwhile, the incredible diversity, inventiveness, and spirit of rebellion of San Franciscans created the wonder of a city we all adore today.
Whenever a place boasts countless exclusive features like San Francisco does, it’s really hard to come up with such a short list of the items that most distinctively define it. But I think I did it! Check them out and tell me which ones you love the best in the comments.
Table of Contents
San Francisco is known for its recognizable landmarks
I could have gone with a Top 100, yet a Top 4 seemed more reasonable. I have other aspects to cover after all!
1. The Golden Gate Bridge
I just had to start our list with the quintessential San Francisco symbol, or did I? Can you believe, though, that the U.S. Navy wanted it painted black with yellow stripes for safety reasons? Thank God they didn’t get their way!
The bridge owes its pompous name to the strait it spans, which connects San Francisco Bay to the Pacific. Its construction, like that of its less prominent (but more heavily trafficked) cousin, the Bay Bridge, started in 1933. People needed work in the middle of a worldwide depression! They opened five months apart between 1936 and 1937.
You may wonder, what’s the best way to marvel at this iconic landmark? Free walking tours are offered by the San Francisco City Guides but you can also rent a bike and cycle from SF to Sausalito. If you’d rather experience the bridge from below it, you can cruise along San Francisco’s waterfront and around the infamous Alcatraz. Which leads me to the next point…
2. Alcatraz Island
The most infamous federal prison in America, where the likes of Al Capone were jailed, was turned from a military to a federal facility in 1934. It was meant to keep guys who made trouble somewhere else in the system.
Apparently, 36 of the 1,576 inmates ever held there tried to pull a Clint Eastwood on Escape from Alcatraz. None succeeded.
The government shut it down in 1963 because its operational costs were way higher than that of other prisons. It opened to the public as a monument less than ten years later.
This self-guided Alcatraz tour includes ferry rides, entrance tickets, and an audio guide. Entering the main building, however (and a few cells in particular), can take an emotional toll on some people. If that might be your case, visit Treasure Island instead.
3. Painted Ladies
While many of the ultimate San Francisco houses were painted bright colors, a great deal of those the devastating 1906 earthquake didn’t tear down were dyed gray between the two world wars, with surplus paint the Navy handed out.
The stunning color schemes we see today, emboldened by white stucco details, are a creation of artist Butch Kardum, who first started repainting the drab old houses in the early 60s. By the 70s, when “less is more” was giving way to “less is a bore”, the fad caught on for good. Luckily!
4. Lombard Street
As it turns out, Vermont Street is the most crooked road in San Francisco, but it’s not nearly as scenic as Lombard Street. The eight switchbacks in a single block were built in 1922 to help cars face its 27% grade.
Up to 17,000 tourists visit Lombard Street on busier days, which does make me wonder… Lombard Street dwellers, why did you sign up for that?
The city is famous for its cultural icons
San Francisco is known for its extremely exciting culture. The city gave birth to a legendary baseball team, a few delicacies, a mode of transportation unique in the United States, and at least one enduring controversy.
5. Cable cars
Since only three of the original 23 cable car lines have survived, talking about a “system” might sound like an overstatement. Yet San Francisco’s are Earth’s last manually operated cable cars today, which means they’re a fascinating piece of history.
Locals tend to go with faster and more comprehensive options, as tourists often overwhelm the cable cars. Still, they’re a delight to watch, especially if you pay attention to where they come from: some have been imported from cities as far away as Milan and keep their early color schemes.
6. The Giants
Originally founded in the City that Never Sleeps as the New York Gothams, the team was renamed the San Francisco Giants from 1958, when it moved there. So despite not being born and bred in the city, they’ve been a fixture for a long time.
The orange-and-black-clad team is indeed a record-setting one, with more than 11,000 victories and 67 Hall of Fame inductees. Ironically, though, they didn’t win a single World Series between 1954 and 2010, for a total of eight championships overall.
7. Golden State Warriors
Nicknamed the “Dubs” (short for W), the Golden State Warriors are an NBA (National Basketball Association) basketball team based in San Francisco. But just like the Giants, the Warriors aren’t originally from SF.
The Warriors were founded in 1946 as Philadelphia Warriors. In 1962, the team moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and was renamed San Francisco Warriors. In 1971, the franchise finally adopted the name Golden State Warriors to suggest that the team represented the entire state of California.
As of writing, the Warriors have won one Basketball Association of America (BAA) title, one NBA championship as Philadelphia Warriors, and four NBA championships as GSW.
A port city par excellence, of course, San Francisco has an enduring fishing tradition. Cioppino specifically became a thing when poor Italian fishers living in the city, after an unlucky day at sea, would ask around for clams to cook their own meal.
They would then mix it into a wine and tomato sauce. The name derives from ciuppin, which is a similar recipe from Liguria in northwestern Italy. To this date, cioppino remains the stereotypical San Francisco dish.
Ghirardelli is arguably the most celebrated food company originating in San Francisco. It’s also the third-oldest chocolate factory in America. What ensures that it’s still top-notch among commercial brands? The fact that Lindt bought it out!
Even though the manufacturing plant moved to nearby San Leandro in the 1960s, Ghirardelli’s coveted chocolate squares remain closely associated with San Francisco. The gigantic store on the converted factory is worth a visit (and a shopping spree, maybe?). Their dark & sea salt caramel squares are to die for, honestly.
10. Famous people
We can’t think about icons without mentioning the famous people born in San Francisco. And there are many of them.
Actor and director Clint Eastwood is one of the popular people who hail from San Francisco. His family relocated several times but he had spent most of his life living in California, even becoming mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea in 1986.
Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco before he was raised in British Hong Kong. Comedians Rob Schneider and Ali Wong are also San Francisco natives, and so are Darren Criss, Jamie Chung, and Leslie Mann.
O.J. Simpson, Tom Brady, and Johnny Miller are among the famous sportspeople from San Francisco. And, of course, I’d be remiss to not mention Apple co-founder Steve Jobs!
11. The nicknames (and the controversy)
Locals refer to San Francisco simply as “The City”, which might be a legacy of the days when it was the only decently sized town in much of California. And while “City by the Bay” can be great either or poetically sarcastically, SF is an acceptable initialism.
That’s it, though. San Franciscans seem to scoff at or outright despise the shorthands “Frisco” and “San Fran”. To us, they might sound affectionate; to locals, they’re lazy and cheesy. So go with the long version if you don’t wanna leave a bad impression!
San Francisco is known for unique natural features
A rocky peninsula squeezed between a bay and the Pacific is as peculiar a location for a city as it gets.
12. The hills
Tons of cities built on hills started fashioning themselves after Rome and claim they’d been founded on seven of them. San Francisco was no exception, but the city has actually over 40 steep elevations.
Apart from downtown, the city looks (and feels!) like a never-ending network of ups and downs. That can be bad on our knees, yet the dazzling views definitely make up for it.
13. The parks
You have the historic ones like the Presidio, the huge ones like Golden Gate Park, the popular ones like Mission Dolores (seen above), the imposing ones like the Palace of Fine Arts… There’s a park for every taste in San Francisco.
We’re talking about one of the most eco-friendly cities in North America. It’s not exactly surprising, then, that San Francisco has so many green areas to pick from.
A guided segway tour of Golden Gate Park is a unique way to explore this park. While you’re at it, don’t miss De Young Museum, the Academy of Sciences, and the Japanese Tea Garden.
14. Karl the Fog
Just like the best of us, Karl is a fan of summer, during which it rolls in almost religiously each afternoon to cover most of the city till the next morning. It’s another element adding to the magic of San Francisco.
15. Indian summers
Granted, the city’s climate is mild year-round. But in case you’ve been (California) dreamin’ of lounging at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach on a summer day, fuggedaboutit. Unless you’re a surfer, you won’t feel like going into the ice-cold waters. Plus, that’s not when the city is at its warmest (yup, thanks, Karl).
If you visit between September and October instead, that’s a totally different story. San Franciscans go crazy over the exceptionally warm weather for that time of the year, and virtually every event takes place outdoors (including Folsom Street Fair) — much to the envy of the rest of the country.
16. Fault lines and earthquakes
San Francisco is famous (or infamous) for earthquakes. Many people mistakenly think that the city sits on fault lines because of how vulnerable it is to earthquakes.
It’s easy to assume this since two of the deadliest earthquakes in the history of the U.S. occurred in the Bay Area. The first one, the 1868 Hayward earthquake on the Hayward fault has an estimated magnitude of 6.3–6.7 and caused 30 fatalities.
The San Andreas fault was responsible for the legendary 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which led to devastating fires that lasted for several days, over 3,000 people dead, and over 80% of the city destroyed.
That said, San Andreas and Hayward faults don’t actually physically pass through the city itself. It is true, however, that earthquakes happen daily in San Francisco and in California as a whole. The good news is that most of them are too low in intensity to be felt. Still, the threat of major earthquakes continues to play a large role in the city’s infrastructure development.
Some districts and surrounding areas are more famous than entire cities
San Francisco is known for its extraordinarily inventive economy, which owes a lot to the melting pot it has always been.
Unlike Los Angeles’ fake one (sorry, L.A., I love you!), San Francisco’s Chinatown is the real deal. It’s actually the largest of four (!) predominantly Chinese districts in the city. Though the U.S. banned immigration from China for decades starting in 1882, Chinatown resisted and thrived.
Whereas it has always been a major tourist attraction, Chinatown never lost its authenticity as a community of immigrants and their descendants, which remains a key part of its charm.
Here’s a tip: sign up for a walking tour that’ll take you to both popular and lesser-known gems in Chinatown — from buzzing food markets to an herbal pharmacy to a fortune cookie factory!
18. The Mission
Blame it on the sunny microclimate that the shadow of Twin Peaks blames the Mission with, but this vibrant Latino enclave has been one of the trendiest neighborhoods in San Francisco for at least a decade now. With delicious taquerías, colorful murals, and a relatively flat topography (yaas!), that’s hardly shocking.
On top of that, the oldest building in town, Mission San Francisco de Asís, is within the neighborhood too. What does the Mission not have, again? In case you’re staying elsewhere in the city, do yourself a favor and take a walking tour of the district!
19. Silicon Valley
San Francisco is known for its exorbitant cost of living mostly because of these guys. Surely, the tech hub that developed at the southern end of the Bay, around San José, brought much prosperity to an area in need of reinventing itself.
Talk about a double-edged sword! Love them or hate them, Big Techs seem to have come to stay and are now an integral part of the Bay Area’s economy and culture.
To experience Silicon Valley for yourself, check out this self-guided audio tour that starts at Facebook’s headquarters and ends at Stanford with the help of an app.
The birthplace of the 1960s counterculture movement, the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood is named for the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets.
Haight-Ashbury was home to famous bands and singers of the 60s, including the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. It was the center of hippie history and even today, that spirit still lives in the neighborhoods eye-catching clothing shops, tattoo parlors, hip restaurants and cafes, dive bars, and old music stores.
The neighborhood became even more prominent during the 1967 Summer of Love, a time that highlighted hippie music, psychedelic movement, anti-war, and free-love scene.
When visiting, don’t miss the street sign marking the intersection of the two streets.
21. The Castro District
Commonly referred to as the Castro, the Castro district was one of the first gay neighborhoods in the U.S. Named after Jose Castro, a Californian politician and leader of Mexican opposition, the neighborhood was created in 1887 when the Market Street Railway Company built a line that linked Eureka Valley to downtown.
The Castro slowly became a gay mecca after many discharged gay servicemen settled in the Bay Area, San Francisco and Sausalito. This continued until 1960s at the peak of the Summer of Love.
In the 1970s, Harvey Milk, who would become the most famous resident of the neighborhood, moved to the Castro, opened a camera store (Castro Camera), and soon led the gay political movement in San Francisco.
Exploring the diverse and colorful sites of the Castro — the Harvey Milk Plaza, Rainbow Honor Walk, the Pink Triangle Park and Memorial, and more — is a great way to learn about San Francisco’s crucial role in LGBTQ culture and civil rights.
San Francisco is known for its rich history
Who would’ve guessed that an isolated Spanish mission would go on to be the hippie capital of the world and a gay haven a little more than a century later?
22. The Gold Rush
Thanks to the discovery of gold in California in 1848, the then-territory went on to be granted U.S. statehood merely two years after its annexation from Mexico. San Francisco, which so far was a quiet fishing village of around 1,000 souls, witnessed the astonishing influx of 24,000 people in a year.
A maze of about 500 abandoned ships jammed San Francisco’s harbor as prospectors rushed inland. Of course the city would never be the same. By 1870, almost 150,000 folks were calling it their home.
23. Birthplace of Denim
Well, sort of. Denim as we know it today was invented in France. In the late 1860s, Taylor Jacob W. Davis settled in Nevada to sell functional clothes to railway workers.
But it wasn’t until a few years later, when he moved the production to the facilities of wholesaler Levi Strauss & Co., that denim finally took off. About a century passed by before everyone was wearing it, though.
24. 1967 and the Summer of Love
The time to be sure to wear some flowers in your head might be long gone. Yet since the hippies of the world united in Haight-Ashbury over a make-love-not-war, acid-fueled mindset, much of our relationship with the arts, sex, food, nature, ourselves, and each other has changed.
While the psychedelic scene was short-lived, it left deep marks in Western society — and the city, including turning Hashbury into the tourist trap it is today.
25. LGBT Activism
San Francisco’s been at the forefront of the struggle for LGBT rights since the movement took shape in the late 1960’s. This hasn’t been without its downsides; city councilor Harvey Milk, the first gay official elected in California, and Mayor George Moscone were infamously murdered in 1978. The acquittal of their killer the following year triggered the so-called White Night Riots.
1978, by the way, is when the six-stripe rainbow flag was introduced in San Francisco. The original version, which featured eight stripes, had been created eight years earlier… where else? The city’s first pride parade dates back to that time and is one of the oldest nationwide.
Now that you’re (roughly!) familiar with what San Francisco is known for, don’t forget to go over our post on the best things about California. You can’t possibly miss out on the rest of the Golden State when San Fran (oops, my bad, San Franciscans!) is so close to L.A., the Wine Country, the redwoods of northern California, and everything else!