A 180-foot cylindrical tower that crowns the top of Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower is a landmark that stands out in the city skyline, and one that most San Franciscans view with fondness.
A visit to this iconic tower can indeed be worth it, but it's best when you can avoid the heavy crowds.
Reasons to Go:
360° views of San Francisco
historically significant murals
located in the charming neighborhood of North Beach
conveniently close to downtown and Fisherman's Wharf
Coit Tower offers great 360° views of San Francisco and surrounding bay. Most uniquely, it has cool perspectives of the long steep streets that rise and dip over the hills of San Francisco. You can even see cars as they zig-zag down Lombard, the crookedest street in the world!
It has beautifully painted and historically significant, depression-era murals inside the tower, and if you climb the nearby Filbert Steps, you'll get glimpses into a charming part of San Francisco, as well as a chance to spot the famous Parrots of Telegraph Hill. (more about that below...)
It's also located in the fun and lively neighborhood of North Beach which is definitely worth exploring.
can get extremely crowded, especially on summer weekends
long waits during the busy season
trees obstruct the view at the base of the tower
hard to take quality photographs
During the summer, especially on weekends, it can be very crowded with long wait times. If you drive, it's not unusual to wait 30 minutes or more to get a slot in the small parking lot.
There may be a lengthy wait to ride the elevator up to the observation deck (as well as another to ride back down).
The observation deck itself is quite small, and the narrow windows at the top of the tower are covered in weathered glass, making it difficult to take quality photographs of the views.
It used to be that the area around the base of the tower provided pretty great views, and although they are not bad, trees around the parking lot have grown enough that they obstruct some of what you are able to see.
If you want to consider an alternative to Coit Tower, a visit to Twin Peaks or Grand View Park (aka Turtle Hill) could be really rewarding as both offer grand and sweeping views of San Francisco, but with less of a crowd.
Lillie Hitchcock Coit was a wealthy and eccentric socialite and it is after her that the tower is named. An unusual lady for her time, she was a cigar-smoking, trouser-wearing gambler who had a special place in her heart for the fire-fighters of Knickerbocker Company No. 5 who worked Telegraph Hill. Her volunteer work with the fire fighting company began at the young age of 15, and earned her the nickname "Firebelle Lil". By 1863 she was named an honorary member, a title she was very proud of.
When she passed away in 1929, she left a third of her estate to the city of San Francisco with the request that it be used in a way that would add to the beauty of the city that she loved so much.
Although it took a couple of years to determine how the money would be spent, Coit Tower was eventually completed in 1933. Built in an art-deco style, some say that it resembles the nozzle of a fire hose in honor of Lillie Coit's love of fire-fighters, however the rumor that this was intentional has been denied.
When you visit Coit Tower, check out the murals painted on the inside of the first floor.
Commissioned by the PWAP - Public Works Art Project - an organization created under FDR's New Deal, the murals were completed by 25 different artists, and intentionally painted to imitate famous muralist Diego Rivera's style.
The scenes depict working-class life during the Depression, as well as some communist and "subversive" themes that were very inflammatory for that time. There was such a controversy over some of the content, in fact, that the opening of Coit Tower was delayed for several months. One particular mural, a painting with the communist symbol of a hammer and sickle, was removed before opening.
An example of some of the contentious material in the murals is in this image on the right. Taken from the mural titled Library, it shows a representation of the artist John Langley Howard taking the book Das Kapital by Karl Marx off the shelf.
Other men around him read newspapers with headlines regarding current events. One particular headline describes a group of artists' protests over the destruction of Diego Rivera's mural at the Rockefeller Center in New York City.
If you are curious to learn more about the murals, City Guides offer free tours on Wednesday and Saturday mornings at 11:00.
Location: 1 Telegraph Hill Boulevard Phone number: (415) 362-0808 Hours: 10 am - 5 pm daily to visit the observation deck, rotunda with murals and gift shop. The base of the tower is open any time.
Admission: Entrance to the murals, gift shop, and vista points at the base of the tower are free.
To go up to the observation deck:
$5 for Adults
$3 for Seniors, 65+
$1.50 Children, ages 11 under
Follow the small signs that direct you uphill to Coit Tower from either Stockton or Grant Streets in North Beach. There is a small parking lot at the top with a 30-minute time limit.
The muni bus line #39 stops at Coit Tower, and leaves every 20 minutes from Fisherman's Wharf. If you are already in North Beach, and don't feel like climbing up the hill to get to there, you can also catch it at nearby Washington Square Park. For a route map, click here.
Walking: There are several possibilities for walking to and from Coit Tower, and since it is such a visible landmark, it's easy enough to make your way there without set directions.
That said, for the easiest and most picturesque route, my recommendation is to ascend the Greenwich steps from the west side (starting at Grant and Greenwich in North Beach), and then descend the famous Filbert Steps on the east side of the hill.
The Filbert Steps are a set of stairs you can climb to get to Coit Tower and are located on either side of it. However, when people mention the "Filbert Steps", they are usually referring to the section of stairs on the east side, beginning at Filbert and Sansome and ending at the top of Telegraph Hill.
The stairs along the block of Filbert just west of Coit Tower are notable for their location on one of the steepest navigable streets in the Western Hemisphere; however, it's the steep 377-stair climb on the east side that will be of most interest to you.
Previously built as a way for fishermen and dock workers to commute by foot to work, today the stairs are a lovely pathway through quiet, blossoming gardens and historic San Francisco homes.
The Greenwich Steps also extend on either side of Telegraph Hill, and, again, the ones most note-worthy are on the east side. Similar to the Filbert Steps, they are a steep climb through green gardens and charming house fronts and offer glimpses of the Bay Bridge and Alcatraz. If you are trying to decide which ones to climb up, keep in mind that the east-side Greenwich steps are slightly steeper than the east-side Filbert steps.
While visiting Coit Tower, make sure you keep your ears and eyes open for a flock of wild, green parrots. You'll likely hear them before you see them as they make a very distinct and loud squawking sound.
It's unclear how or why this group of birds from South America ended up in Telegraph hill, but it's where they decided to call home and they have remained for many years.
If you are curious to learn more about them, a sweet and heart-warming documentary film, called The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, was made about it. It's a very San Francisco-type story.
This little video clip (not from the documentary) offers some great footage of the parrots...
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