Explore San Francisco

Unexpected Places to Take Photos in San Francisco

A photographer's guide to going beyond the standard postcard and calendar shots

It’s common knowledge San Francisco is one of the most photographed cities in the world. Assuming you’ve already visited its most iconic sites—Painted Ladies, Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street—here are nine beautiful photo ops beyond what you typically see on the postcard racks or in the calendars.

Cliff House

The historic building home to two upscale restaurants is itself worth the visit, but the surrounding views are what make it such a popular destination. The cliff-top location overlooks Ocean Beach, Seal Rocks, Sutro Baths and, of course, the Pacific Ocean. A short walk to Sutro Heights Park above the Cliff House offers an even wider angle.

Cliff House
(©Cliff House)

Embarcadero Center

Flanked by skyscrapers, this elevated promenade is an architectural marvel popular with local photographers. Spiral staircases offer a variety of perspective shots, while the circular floor-tile pattern makes for an artistic backdrop. As you stroll above street level, you’ll have a birds-eye view of the action below and, while above, your line of site runs unobstructed all the way to the Ferry Building.

Embarcadero Center staircase
Embarcadero Center staircase (©Zachary Clark)

Hawk Hill

Across the Bay in the Marin Headlands, Hawk Hill features a series of lookouts with arguably the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge. You’ll have a panorama of the mouth of the Bay, and in the distance, the city skyline is visible on clear days. For bird lovers, the top of the hill—as you might guess—is popular with hawks, osprey and other birds of prey.

Hawk Hill across the Golden Gate Bridge
Hawk Hill across the Golden Gate Bridge (©NPS/Kirke Wrench)

16th Avenue Tiled Steps

This beautiful tiled mosaic covers 163 steps, which flow thematically from sea to sky and are especially brilliant at sunset. Be sure to walk to the top of Grand View Park (aka Turtle Hill) above the steps for a 360-degree view of the entire city.


16th Avenue Tiled Steps
16th Avenue Tiled Steps (©John Weiss/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPOS)

A San Francisco secret, POPOS are unique public spaces located mostly downtown. The city is home to 68 such spaces, most of which provide elevated photo ops of the Financial District’s historic buildings. Crocker Galleria—a rooftop terrace immersed in skyscrapers—is perhaps the most popular. Be sure to capture the mall's glass arched ceiling on your way to the rooftop.

Crocker Galleria (©Zachary Clark)
Crocker Galleria (©Zachary Clark)

Ferry Ride to Anywhere

This is the best way to photograph the city skyline, Alcatraz and the Bay itself, which on sunny days is dotted with sailboats. At night, you’ll have front-row seats to the Bay Lights, the world’s largest LED light sculpture adorning the Bay Bridge. Companies like Red & White Fleet offer cruises that take you under the Golden Gate and Bay bridges for a different perspective of these towering landmarks.

The Bay Lights
The Bay Lights (©SF Travel)

Chinatown Architecture

The oldest Chinatown in North America is home to colorful, historic buildings (many of which feature their date of construction on the façade), a Julia Morgan-designed museum and the majestic Dragon Gate. Try to capture the moody shadows of Chinatown’s famous alleys just before sunset.

Grant Street in Chinatown
Grant Street in Chinatown (©David Yu/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Mission District Public Art

The city’s oldest neighborhood is best known for its vibrant murals, the most famous of which you’ll find at Balmy Street and Clarion Alley. The 24th Street Mini Park is home to a colorful and kinetic mosaic sculpture of the serpent god, Quetzalcoatl. And almost every street in the neighborhood features elaborate Victorian buildings, which in San Francisco are artworks in their own right.

“Quetzalcoatl” at 24th Street Mini Park in the Mission
“Quetzalcoatl” at 24th Street Mini Park in the Mission (©Gwen Park)

Fort Point

You’ll likely recognize Fort Point from Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” when Kim Novak’s character jumps into the San Francisco Bay. You can capture the same wide-angle shot of the bridge today, while the top level of the fort offers unique views of the bridge’s underbelly. Point your camera in the opposite direction for perspective shots of the historic building and its courtyard. When the surf is up, the waves adjacent to the parking lot are packed with surfers and their close proximity makes for some great action shots. 

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Fort Point
View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Fort Point (©Ed Bierman/Flickr, Creative Commons)