Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. We may earn a small commission for purchases made through links in this post, at no extra cost to you.
What Is San Francisco Known For and Famous For?
San Francisco is one of the more popular cities in the United States. Located in Northern California, this city attracts tourists, tech companies, artists, and filmmakers. In its rich history, San Francisco has been known for its landmarks, its politics, and the many quirks it has developed through the years.
San Francisco, California is known most notably for the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, it’s cable cars, and it’s steep hilly landscape. The city is also known for pioneering LGBTQ+ rights as well as it’s famous Summer of Love. The persistent fog and Silicon Valley are two more things this city is known for.
If you are looking to find out more about San Francisco, read on to see what has made this city famous.
The Most Famous Bridge in the World
The Golden Gate Bridge is a sight familiar to most people across the world, even if only through a screen. This suspension bridge was opened in 1937, and it stretches over the Golden Gate strait between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. It connects the San Francisco Peninsula to Marin County.
The Golden Gate Bridge is said to be one of the most photographed sights in the entire world. You can drive across it, but if you’d rather take in the sights, you can also cross it by foot or by bike via its walkway, although it might get windy. This feat of engineering is a sight to behold, and there are plenty of viewpoints to it in the city.
Visiting Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island, also known as The Rock, houses what was once a maximum-security prison known as the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. The prison was closed in 1963 and has since become a massive draw for tourists. It has also featured prominently in movies like Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996), The Book of Eli (2010), and Point Blank (1967).
These days, Alcatraz is a museum operated by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and it welcomes over a million tourists per year, attracted by its legends and its mysteries. The location has also appeared on shows like Ghost Adventures or Ghost Hunters. To add to the legend, famous American gangster Al Capone spent some years imprisoned here.
The Tech Paradise of Silicon Valley
Silicon Valley is located in the southern part of the San Francisco Bay and has attracted plenty of attention from the tech industry. At the moment, Silicon Valley is host to many Fortune 1000 companies and even more start-ups. It has become a hot bed for tech innovation, and it is a popular spot for investors and tourists.
The Silicon Valley area houses many museums such as the Intel Museum, the Computer History Museum, and even the infamous Winchester Mystery Museum. You can also visit the HP Garage, the Tech Museum of Innovation, and the Portuguese Historical Museum. The largest city in the valley is San José.
The Fog Has a Name
Locals are so used to the almost constant presence of the dense fog that they have given it a name: Karl. The San Francisco fog forms frequently due to the city’s location and the microclimates that have formed around it, specifically because of its proximity to the ocean. The fog is particularly dense in the summers when the cool winds meet the low-pressure area caused by hot air rising elsewhere across California.
The fog is as much part of the city as its landmarks, and it can frequently be seen enveloping San Francisco, no matter the season. Karl has even been given a Twitter account, where it has been documenting the mark it leaves on the city whenever it passes through.
It’s the setting for many movies and shows.
Beyond the movies featuring just Alcatraz, the San Francisco skyline has inspired many a filmmaker. It has appeared as a location on family classics such as Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), The Princess Diaries (2001) and George of the Jungle (1997), as well as action movies like San Andreas (2015) and Dirty Harry (1971).
Alfred Hitchcock changed the location of his movie Vertigo from the original Paris featured in the novel to San Francisco. The classic Barbra Streisand comedy What’s Up Doc (1958) and the murder mystery The Maltese Falcon (1941) have been joined by the modern classic The Social Network (2010), which tells the story behind the creation of Facebook.
The popular ’80s sitcom Full House was set in San Francisco but mostly filmed on sets around Los Angeles. The house featured on the show can be visited in San Francisco, and you can take guided tours that will lead you to all the most important locations in cinema.
The San Francisco area plays host to many leading academic institutions such as the University of California, the San Francisco State University, and the University of San Francisco. The prestigious Stanford University is located nearby, in Silicon Valley, and the University of California Berkeley is also within reach.
San Francisco is the second city in the United States, with the highest percentage of residents holding college degrees. It follows closely behind Seattle. This statistic shows the importance placed on education in the area, as well as the many options it offers to pursue higher education.
Home of Beat, Rebellion, and Progress
The era following the end of WWII saw many countercultures arise in San Francisco, from the hippies to the beatniks. This was influenced by more liberal politics, service members returning from overseas, and a great deal of immigration. This led to protests against the Vietnam War and many actions for civil rights.
The Beat Generation had many hangouts in San Francisco, especially in the North Beach neighborhood, where Jack Kerouac preferred to spend his time and where you’ll continue to find plenty of beatnik memorabilia today. You can visit the City Lights Bookstore, where Allen Ginsberg’s groundbreaking poetry book Howl was published, not without controversy.
City Lights Publishers decided to defend their author, Kerouac, against charges of obscenity regarding the contents of his poems. This case went on to have a massive impact on the publishing industry and changed the game for many authors.
While in the area, you can also visit the Vesuvio Café, where Kerouac would hang out with Ginsberg and Dylan Thomas. You can walk where Kerouac sought inspiration, around Russian Hill where he spent time as a guest of the Cassadys.
If you are interested in Beat memorabilia, you can stop at the Beat Museum. The museum includes enviably sized collections of photographs and books, some of which had remained unseen by others until now.
Pioneering LGBTQ Rights
San Francisco has had a long history of championing LGBTQ rights. The first known gay bar opened in 1908, and the first lesbian organization was founded there in 1955. Life Magazine called San Francisco the Gay Capital of American in 1964. The first gay pride parade took place in San Francisco in 1970.
In 1961, José Sarria was the first openly gay person in the country to run for public office. In 1977, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man elected to the Board of Supervisors and, therefore, the first elected gay official in California. That same year, Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin was published and went on to achieve great accolades.
In 1978, the first rainbow flag was designed by Gilbert Baker, and 1982 saw the first-ever Gay Games. In 1994, the first World Aids Day was observed in the Golden Gate Park Memorial Grove dedicated to the victims. Since then, San Francisco has seen the appointment of the first lesbian judge in Mary C. Morgan.
It has also witnessed the appointment of the first transgender police commissioner in Theresa Sparks. Other than San Francisco Pride, which continues its huge parade every year, another big draw is the Folsom Street Festival, which occurs every September and celebrates the leather subculture.
The Evolution of the Castro
Until the 1960s, the Castro District of San Francisco was known as Eureka Valley and was mostly populated by Irish workers and their families. The city’s comparative freedom and liberal nature allowed LGBTQ people to meet up, create unions, and fight together for their rights. The Castro became the headquarters of the LGBTQ movement in San Francisco.
Today, the district remains adorned with pride flags from one end to another, and it is also dotted with reminders of loss and fighting, and celebration of the movement. If you are around in the early days of October, you should visit the Castro Street Fair and immerse yourself in this district that has become synonymous with San Francisco.
The Colorful Cable Cars
There is a good chance that you’ll have an image of the famous cable cars in your head when you think of San Francisco. These cable cars are a piece of history as the last manually operated cable car system left in the world, and you can get the best views of the city while riding them.
One tip from the locals is to make sure to be on the side facing the San Francisco Bay if you want to have the best viewing experience. The cable cars will also help with the constant climbing of the characteristic steeply inclined streets. The experience can give you an adrenaline rush: these little cars are not afraid to take on the hills, and you should hold on.
This mass transportation system was built in 1873 and has been a National Historic Landmark since 1964. There are three cable car lines crossing the city and, no matter where you find yourself, you’ll have easy access to at least one of them. When you’re on the cable car, make sure it comes to a complete stop and keep an eye on traffic signals.
The cable cars are the only National Historic Monument that can move. They maintain a constant speed of 9.5mph.
The Diverse Neighborhoods
In San Francisco, the neighborhoods define the city. There are thirty-six neighborhoods officially recognized by the San Francisco Planning Department, and many of these are composed of various minor districts. The neighborhoods can vary significantly, not just in looks and population, but also in climate.
San Francisco enjoys a Mediterranean climate, but there are various microclimates across the city’s hills and neighborhoods. Those in the high hills central to the city receive more rainfall, while those same hills protect the eastern neighborhoods from the full effects of the fog and winds that are common to other areas.
The Sunset District in the central west area of the city tends to get the worst conditions in terms of rain, low temperatures, and visibility, while the eastern neighborhoods like Mission, Central Waterfront, and South of Market get the most pleasant conditions when it comes to sun and temperatures.
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most popular neighborhoods in San Francisco. It is usually filled with tourists visiting one of the biggest attractions in the area: Pier 39, where you’ll be able to shop, visit the Aquarium of the Bay, and see the Californian sea lions sunbathing. You can catch a cable car from here and enjoy some of the most touristy activities. This is also where you can take the ferry to Alcatraz.
These are some other neighborhoods you can explore to bask in the city’s diversity:
- North Beach: This Italian neighborhood is a culinary delight and will make you feel transported to the old world.
- Telegraph Hill: Here you’ll find Coit Tower, which is free to visit and offers some of the city’s best views.
- The Mission: A district with a Latin flair, you’ll find the best pizza and burritos here, as well as striking street art.
The Steep Hills and How to Climb Them
When the Spaniards arrived in San Francisco, they counted seven hills across the land. These may have been the hills now known as Mount Sutro, Lone Mountain, Mount Davidson, Rincon Hill, Twin Peaks, Russian Hill, and Nob Hill. Despite this calculation, there are many more within the city limits. There are more than 50, but only 48 of them are named.
These range in altitude from the tallest, Mount Davidson, at 928 feet, to Rincon Hill, at 100 feet. The differences between the hills created the perfect opportunity for the steep San Francisco streets that we are so used to seeing depicted in the media. One such almost impossible street is the famous Lombard Street.
Lombard Street links the Embarcadero to the Presidio, but it is most known for one block of its itinerary that includes eight hairpin turns! This area is known as the “most crooked street in the world,” and it’s not recommended for anyone with motion sickness. But for adventurous tourists, it can be quite a rush and definitely a unique experience to navigate in a city.
The Photogenic Architecture
San Francisco architecture is known the world over for its beauty and its colors. It makes frequent appearances on the social media of visitors. Due to the earthquakes that have plagued the area, the city has had to adapt. Most of it was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, and numerous styles have emerged since that time.
These are some of the most common architecture styles you’ll find during your stay in San Francisco:
- Gothic Revival: This style falls under the general Victorian architecture that is so prevalent in the city, but it is characterized by emulating the look of medieval cathedrals, with their stained glass and spires. Private homes make use of pointed arches and pitched roofs. To see it in person, check out Grace Cathedral.
- Queen Anne: This is another Victorian variety that is pleasing and features bay windows, bold colors, turrets, and gingerbread trim. The Painted Ladies in Alamo are a great example.
- Tudor Revival: This type of construction features half-timbering and leaving the wood exposed. You will find good examples of this in the Sunset District, where developer Olivier Rousseau created a model home in this style. In Presidio Heights, Bernard Maybeck brought his vision to life.
- Shingle style: This style is self-explanatory in its inclusion of shingle façades on an otherwise plain design. This style is traditionally used on redwood homes.
- Brick warehouses: These were some of the original industrial buildings, dating back to the Gold Rush era. Now, exposed brick walls are a great bonus to company offices.
- Beaux-Arts: Inspired by this Parisian architecture style with roots in the classical styles of Greece and Rome, the San Francisco City Hall with its huge dome is the ideal example. This also extended to the buildings that house the Ferry Building, the Hibernia Bank, and, fittingly, the Palace of Fine Arts.
Check out this book on Amazon with 50 years of aerial photography of the city.
The Summer of Love
By 1967, the influence of the post-war atmosphere and the Beat Generation had given rise to the hippie community and the tenets of free love, peace, drugs, and mistrust in the government. That summer, over 100,000 people gathered in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to celebrate these principles.
The previous January, LSD was banned, and in response, tens of thousands of people gathered in Golden Gate Park. There were speeches, live concerts, and copious amounts of the banned substance. This is considered the precursor to the Summer of Love. Hippies, particularly of student age, started gathering from all over the country in San Francisco.
During the Summer of Love, the massive amounts of people and the rampant drug abuse took their toll on the Haight-Ashbury district, but that time in 1967 has remained part of the city’s legacy despite the excesses committed.
By fall, the Summer of Love faded as students had to return to their colleges across the country. A mock funeral was held on October 6th to commemorate the “end of the hippie.”
The California Gold Rush
A defining factor that influenced the making of San Francisco was the California Gold Rush. In 1846, San Francisco was known as Yerba Buena. It was a colony of around 200 people that grew to over 400 the following year. At the beginning of 1848, gold nuggets were found at the American River in California.
This event started what was known as “the gold fever” with people from all across the country making their way to California to prospect for potential treasure. By 1849, San Francisco had become a city of over 40,000 people. By 1850, the population numbered 50,000. By 1873, it was 183,732.
This huge boom in development and population directly impacted the way San Francisco evolved from the small colony into a sprawling city that had been extending over the land. The gold rush influenced the entire state of California, but San Francisco exploded and made considerable strides in a short amount of time.
During the gold rush, San Francisco had the largest economic boom and experienced great strides in modernization and economic development. The first transatlantic railroad had its western terminus in San Francisco. This line connected the distant East Coast with California, and it brought plenty of commerce and people to the area.
Chinatown and Japantown
The oldest Chinatown in North America is the one in San Francisco, which is also the second-largest one outside the Asian continent. It is currently the most densely populated area of the city. If you’re visiting this cosmopolitan area, you can visit sights like the Dragon’s Gate, which is the only Chinatown gate in the country that is entirely authentic.
San Francisco also has Japantown, only one of three which exist in the United States. Among the three, San Francisco’s is the largest and oldest. This six-block area gives you a taste of Osaka while not leaving California. You can walk the area, shop, and eat at the many options available for you to try.
The Burrito Love
San Franciscans take most of their food very seriously, but they have made the burrito a star item and have created their take on it: the Mission burrito. Two different eateries have wanted to lay claim to inventing the Mission burrito in the 1960s. Still, regardless of which one came first, the result remains delicious and has become part of San Francisco’s culture.
Most taquerias in the city now provide the Mission burrito, and you should sample at least one of them to understand why it shaped the culinary world of San Francisco to this extent. If you only make one burrito stop, your choice should probably be La Taqueria, which was voted as offering the best burrito in America.
You may have heard of Levi Strauss, but did you know that the denim jeans that became Levi’s were invented in San Francisco to help the miners during the Gold Rush? The miners needed durable clothing that was also comfortable to deal with the conditions in the mines, and so the history of jeans became entangled with the history of San Francisco.
San Francisco puts a lot of stock on the importance of cultural stimulation. It benefits from a consistently liberal population, but it still offers access to venues where you can watch shows, participate in events, go to galleries, etc.
If you’re looking for a cultural boost, there are many things to choose from:
- Learn about the city’s military history at El Presidio: This used to be a military base, but it’s now a museum on national park grounds.
- Go to a festival: There are many to choose from depending on when you’re going. A fan favorite is the Treasure Island Music Festival, which takes place on a small island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. It celebrates electronic, hip-hop, and indie artists.
- See the world in a different light at Illuminate SF: This art festival involves 30 light installations that can be found through 17 of the city’s neighborhoods.
The Transit History
You may have already noticed that transit directly influenced the development of San Francisco into the sprawling city it is today. If you’re looking to discover more about it, you can stop at the Wells Fargo History Museum, where you can experience life as it was when stagecoaches and telegrams were in use.
Other stops you can make include the Cable Car Museum and the San Francisco Railway Museum. Here, you’ll be able to experience a train ride on one of the vintage trains and discover this influential part of the city’s history, while finding small treasures of information on the way.
San Francisco is a well-known name to those who’ve visited and those who remain to see it in person. Numerous elements have contributed to the city’s popularity, from its political movements to its rapid progress, to its food scene and its multicultural and diverse population.
The California Gold Rush and the Summer of Love have greatly influenced the city’s development in different ways, as has the Beat Generation. San Francisco also has a climate that is unlike that of other Californian cities, and it offers some of the most beautiful and varied styles of architecture.
You may just be visiting for the Golden Gate Bridge or Alcatraz, but you’ll certainly stay for all those other unique amenities you just can’t find anywhere else. When even the geography is fascinating, you know you are in for an incredible and unforgettable stay here.
If you’re planning a trip to San Francisco be sure to check out this book on Amazon with 500 hidden secrets to see all around the city.
Recommended for you: