Most visitors can recognize a few icons of San Francisco’s urban landscape—Alamo Square’s Painted Ladies and the international orange Golden Gate Bridge are two of the most famous. But San Francisco is even more of a visual wonderland than many realize. Here’s a glimpse into the soul of the City by the Bay through the architectural marvels of today and yesterday.
San Francisco’s contemporary buildings are inspired by the natural world’s light, energy and wildlife. Impressive, environment-friendly design that harnesses the beauty of its natural surroundings is the standard when it comes to the city’s modern architecture.
Salesforce Tower, SoMa
Nothing has altered the city's skyline as much as the Salesforce Tower, the new jewel of San Francisco’s changing SoMa neighborhood. Commissioned in 2007 and completed in 2017, the Salesforce Tower is the tallest office building west of the Mississippi, soaring to an impressive 1,070 feet. Built with space, wellness and the environment in mind, its 61 occupied floors have 13-foot-high ceilings that are sided with clear glass and supporting metal rods to let in as much light as possible and to help regulate heat throughout the building. A water recycling system and a custom air conditioning system, built to bring in fresh air and designed for the unique San Francisco climate, are also part of the tower’s sustainable design. From a distance, the Salesforce Tower resembles an obelisk with a top that seems to disappear into the sky. Adorning its highest point is the tallest art installation in the world: a crown of 10,000 LED lights, created by artist Jim Campbell.
Transbay Transit Center, SoMA
SoMa Sitting at the base of the Salesforce Tower, the Transbay Transit Center spans five city blocks just south of San Francisco’s Financial District. When it’s complete (June 2018 is the target date), it will serve as a grand transportation hub and an integral part of SoMa’s neighborhood development. The curved, light-conducive walls of the transit center are already visible from the surrounding streets. Inside those walls will be bright and airy, thanks to interior light columns that will allow natural sunlight to pervade even the bottom-most floors. The entire building is on track to be LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) Gold certified. The structure’s sustainable design also includes a 5.4-acre rooftop park, complete with oak trees and other native Bay Area flora. The park will also be home to an amphitheater that can fit up to 1,000 people, quiet spaces and a playground for children.
With a façade inspired by the fog and water of the San Francisco Bay, SFMOMA is an architectural wonder after its renovation in 2016. The 235,000-square-foot expansion nearly tripled the amount of exhibition space and includes free public galleries, live art space and classrooms. In line with San Francisco’s sustainable values, the completed building earned LEED Gold certification.
California Academy of Sciences, Golden Gate Park
Built in 2008, this museum and research center is an architectural vision—walls of glass beneath a bed of green. Its living roof, which is home to San Francisco’s densest concentration of native wildflowers, is a testament to architect Renzo Piano’s vision to “lift up a piece of the park and put a building underneath.” It was the first ever museum to achieve Double Platinum status from the U.S. Green Building Council.
de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park
The de Young Museum’s natural shade of brown blends in amidst the park’s towering eucalyptus trees. Up close, it’s easy to see the small holes that cover the façade, intended to mimic light shining through a forest canopy. Copper—approximately 950,000 pounds of it—was chosen for the exterior so that eventually, through oxidization, the museum itself will match the green of the park’s own canopy.
A multitude of cultures, natural disasters, prosperous eras and technological advances have influenced San Francisco throughout history. And the proof is in the architecture.
Mission Dolores, Mission
The oldest of San Francisco’s 261 historical landmarks is Mission Dolores. Constructed in 1791 by the Franciscan Order of Spanish missionaries, it is a reminder of the city’s earliest European settlers. Nestled among the homes of tree-lined Dolores Street, today the mission is an active church and the location of the city’s oldest cemetery
Haas-Lilienthal House, Pacific Heights
The Haas-Lilienthal House was built from redwood and fir trees in 1886 and remains a steadfast example of middle class life in the late 19th century. Today, the house is open to the public and is, appropriately, the home of San Francisco Heritage, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the city’s historical architecture and culture.
Palace of Fine Arts, Marina
Built for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, the Palace of Fine Arts has impressive Greek and Roman characteristics, complete with a Romanesque rotunda and Corinthian columns. The structure, which was not durable enough to stand the test of time, was completely reconstructed before the Exploratorium (now relocated to Pier 15) and the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre were open and operational in 1970.
Hallidie Building, Financial District
Designed by Willis Polk, the architect who helped plan some of the most iconic buildings in San Francisco, the Hallidie Building is perhaps one of his most impressive creations. Built in 1917, it was one of the world’s first buildings to include a glass curtain wall. Its liberal supply of light and air was revolutionary at the time and helped pave the way for modern commercial architecture in San Francisco.
See for Yourself
Interested in learning more? Experience San Francisco’s amazing architecture firsthand. Take a walking tour with local Rick Evans, recognized as one of the world’s greatest tour guides by Travel + Leisure magazine, or venture out with SF City Guides, a volunteer organization that offers free tours. For self-guided explorations, there are a few apps that could come in handy. Know What and Detour both feature architectural audio tours. And visit San Francisco Heritage at the Haas-Lilienthal House for preservation projects and events.
Spot the Style
Among the many architectural styles found here, San Francisco is perhaps most famous for its historical Victorian homes. See if you can spot these three distinct types of Victorians throughout the city.
Italianate (1850-1890) Straight roof lines, bold brackets, lean windows. Italianate homes were wooden adaptations of a style elsewhere made of brick or stone.
Stick (1860-1890) Flat bay windows, thin wooden “sticks” at corners. The Stick style became more ornate over time, with fake gabled roofs and highly decorative elements.
Queen Anne (1870-1910) Round turrets, balconies, more decoration. Many Italianate and Stick residences were renovated to the fashionable Queen Anne style around the turn of the century.
Map of San Francisco Architecture