We’ve all been to the Golden Gate Bridge, but what other must-see architecture and design spots have you crossed off your San Francisco list? The next time you have a few free hours in the city, check out these icons small and large — and don’t forget the camera.Read More
Must-see architecture and design in San Francisco
1. Grace Cathedral
San Francisco, CA 94108
Home to no less than 7,290 square feet of stained-glass windows and a seven-bay nave, Grace Cathedral takes after the Gothic likes of Notre Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, and other French cathedrals. But its two labyrinth floors — where locals vie to snag a spot for special yoga, music, and other events — have a flair and welcoming spirit that’s all the church’s own. Also uncommon for churches of this style is a steel and concrete framework, a necessary accommodation for San Francisco’s seismic activity.
2. 16th Avenue Tiled Steps
The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps is an under-the-radar local favorite for good reason. Spilling over 163 steps off a quiet Inner Sunset street, this stunning mosaic of the sea, the stars, and all the natural life in between is most aptly described as a vibrant dreamscape. It’s as much a symbol of community as it is a photo op; more than 300 neighbors and volunteers took part in creating each panel of high-fire outdoor tiles. Construction and landscaping took nearly a year before it was completed in 2005.
3. Sutro Tower
San Francisco, CA 94131
One of SF’s most recognizable icons is also a bastion of free speech — the 977-foot-high Sutro Tower that opened in 1973 continues to be used by dozens of TV and radio stations and other communication providers today. Don’t let its spindly silhouette fool you; 15 million pounds of cement have been poured into its three legs and the whole structure is propped up by 3.5 million pounds of steel. While visitors can park around the tower’s base, panoramic views are better had from Twin Peaks or Bernal Heights.
4. Language of Birds
San Francisco, CA 94133
Paying homage to the North Beach neighborhood's ethnic and literary roots, this permanent sculpture is a small but meaningful (not to mention eye-catching) installation. A collection of books evoke a flock of birds at the northwest corner of Columbus Avenue and Broadway, suspended above a plaza embossed with words in English, Italian, and Chinese — the languages spoken by many of the area’s residents. The words themselves are a nod to various literary luminaries tied to North Beach, and the illuminations are offset by a solar power collaboration with City Lights, a bookstore known for its focus on progressive politics across the street.
5. Transamerica Pyramid
San Francisco, CA 94111
The Transamerica Pyramid is arguably the most definitive building in downtown San Francisco’s skyline. Commissioned in 1969 by the eponymous insurance company, then headquartered in the city, it’s also the city’s tallest building at 853 feet with 48 floors (until the new Salesforce tower is complete, anyway). While there isn’t public access up the pyramid, live 360-degree camera feeds from the top are on view at the ground floor visitor center — the place where you can learn about the building’s history, view storyboards, and, of course, pick up a few souvenirs.
6. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
SFMOMA reopened in the spring of 2016 with an extra 235,000 square feet of space, after closing for nearly three years of construction. Among other highlights, the $305 million makeover unveiled striking ripples of fiberglass-enforced panels on the new exterior and a sculptural staircase that helps frame the oculus above. Also notable are six new outdoor terraces, including one on the third floor that hosts more than 19,000 plants on the largest public living wall in the U.S. Current exhibits include a collection of Isamu Noguchi's playground designs and a study of sound in contemporary art and media.
7. Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco
The architecture of this nine-year-old museum is nearly as fascinating as the modern rotating exhibits that it houses. Daniel Libeskind — also responsible for the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the reimagined World Trade Center in New York City — has married a futuristic 3,000-panel blue steel structure with the reconstruction of an 1881 brick power station. Inside, especially beautiful is the 2,200-square-foot Yud gallery, studded with light from the 36 diamond-shaped windows. To learn more about the history of the building and the symbolism in its design, visitors can take a free first-come, first-serve architecture tour.
8. San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge
San Francisco, CA
Though not quite as famous as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge contains the world’s largest light installation with 25,000 LEDs. The 1.8-mile-wide and 500-foot-high installation is the brainchild of Leo Villareal, a light artist whose works belong in permanent collections at institutions like NYC's Museum of Modern Art and Kagawa, Japan's Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum. The delicate animations, running from dusk till dawn, provide a counterbalance to the hinge pipe beams and angled rebar piles that protect the bridge from seismic damage.