In a city known for its great views and vantage points, Coit Tower is one of the best. Located atop Telegraph Hill, just east of North Beach, the round stone tower offers panoramic views of the city and the bay. Completed in 1933, the 1933 tower, more than 400 feet over the rest of the city, is the legacy of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy eccentric who left San Francisco a $125,000 bequest “for the purpose of adding beauty to the city I have always loved.” Though many believe the tower is a fire hose–shaped homage to San Francisco firefighters (Coit had been saved from a fire as a child and became a lifelong fan and mascot for Knickerbocker Engine Co. 5), the tower is merely an expression of Coit’s esteem; a memorial to firefighters lies down below in Washington Square Park. The statue to Christopher Columbus was added decades later.
Inside the echoing base of the tower are impressive and slightly controversial (by 1930s standards) frescoes entitled “Life in California” and “1934,” which were completed under the Depression-era Public Works of Art Project (the forerunner to the WPA). Depicting California agriculture, industry, and even the state’s leftist leanings (check out the socialist references in the library and on the newsstands), the murals are the collaborative effort of more than 26 artists, some of whom were Russian-born, and some of whom had studied under Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. They're a time capsule of the era, and the more you look, the more you see. Around the exterior base of the tower, which is ringed with 12 columns that mimic the fluted column above you, there's a lovely park overlooking the city, and above its door, you'll find a carved phoenix, the emblem of always-being-born-again San Francisco.
An elevator takes you most of the way to the top—the last flight is up to you. The only bummer: The narrow street leading to the tower is often clogged with tourist traffic. If you can, find a parking spot in North Beach and hoof it. The Filbert and Greenwich steps leading up to Telegraph Hill are one of the most beautiful walks in the city.
- Erika Lennert