Few cities possess an icon that so distinctly pronounces, “I’m here.” New York has the Statue of Liberty, Sydney has its Opera House, but nothing makes you sigh “San Francisco” like the elegant profile of the stupendous Golden Gate Bridge, which links the city peninsula to the forests of Marin County.
It’s not just an emblem. It was also an epic engineering feat that, when it was completed in 1937, changed the city from a clunky, ferry-dependent one to one of the motor age. President Franklin Roosevelt, in Washington, pushed a button and opened it to traffic, and what was then the world’s longest suspension bridge went into service, as it has been reliably ever since (although now it’s the second-longest in the country). It cost $35 million—less today than what it would cost to destroy it in an action movie, as so often happens. On the big day, cars paid 50 cents, and pedestrians surrendered a nickel to thrill to the sight of deadly swirl of rushing currents far below. In an era when strides in steel and engineering measured a country’s worth, this was a potent symbol of power.
The bridge is not named for its color—it’s red, after all, not yellow—or even after the miners of old, but for the channel below, which was originally named by knowing sailors after the treacherous Golden Horn in Turkey. Depending on the weather or the time of day, the stately bridge presents a different personality. That mutable color, known to its 38 ever-busy painters as “international orange,” can appear salmon in daylight or clay red as the sun goes down. (It was originally going to be gunmetal grey, like the Bay Bridge, but folks fell in love with the red hue of the primer coat.) Wisely, the architects worked wonders in figuring out how to integrate the bridge with the landscape and not obliterate everything that led up to it, as usually happened in the 1930s. Consequently, getting a good snap of the thing isn’t as easy as you’d think.
There’s a pathway across the east side bridge for pedestrians (5am–9pm in summer, 5am–6pm in winter) that is on the best side for fantastic city views (the other side takes in the Pacific), but as you can imagine, it gets crowded on weekends. Unfortunately, the bridge isn’t easy to reach on foot, as its entry on the San Francisco side is tangled up among the confusing and unfriendly roadways of the Presidio. The six-lane bridge, built to 1937 proportions, isn’t the easiest or safest place to take photographs from your car, either, although plenty of tourists snarl traffic in the effort. Instead, planners constructed a viewing deck, complete with a restroom, at the bridge’s northern end that is accessible no matter from which direction you’re coming on the 101. I prefer using it on the way into town, because visitors from southbound traffic must use a walkway that goes underneath the bridge, giving them a unique second perspective of its structural underpinnings. Try to show up earlier in the day, when the sun is unlikely to ruin your shots. If you do go on the bridge, for an extra thrill, be in the middle when a boat goes underneath; freighters are exhilarating when seen from above, and the regular tourist sightseeing boats bob helplessly for an amusing moment as they turn around in the teeming waters; sometimes, you can hear their passengers shout in alarm.
A sad but hopeful note: After many years of suicides committed by jumping off the bridge, the city is finally moving forward with construction of a “suicide net” that would extend 20 feet out over the water, preventing people from plummeting the nearly 750 feet to the water below.