Coit Tower sits on a hill that rises high above the streets of San Francisco and has been a city landmark and tourist attraction since 1933.
The story of this San Francisco tower starts with a woman by the name of Lillie Hitchcock Coit. She was a wealthy San Francisco socialite who donated money to the city to build a landmark in her name.
You can find Coit Tower on the top of Telegraph Hill on the eastern side of the North Beach neighborhood. You might recognize this San Francisco tower from movies such as Sister Act II: Back in the Habit, Doctor Dolittle and from the TV show The Streets of San Francisco.
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Lillie Hitchcock Coit was the San Francisco resident who donated the money to build this beauty. She was an eccentric character, a little rowdy, but well-liked by the community.
She was from a wealthy family and moved to San Francisco when she was young. Shortly after moving to San Francisco, the firemen from Local #5 saved her from a fire. From then on, Lillie spent most of her time at the firehouse. She was around so often that they named her their official 'mascot.'
In 1868, she married Howard Coit. They separated seven years later, but never divorced.
After a close family member was murdered, she fled the country and lived in Europe for more than 20 years. She finally returned to her beloved San Francisco after the murderer died.
Shortly after her return, Lillie became sick. She died in 1929 and donated one third of her money, $118K, to the city of San Francisco.
Rumors about Lillie Hitchcock Coit and the real meaning of the tower continue to swirl. Many believe the tower is in the shape of a fire hose, since she spent so much of her time with Local #5.
The reality is that the board of supervisors for the city made the decision on the final landmark that would bear Coit's name. She did not give any guidance except to use the money to increase the beauty of her adored city, San Francisco.
After the completion of the building in 1933, the city commissioned the US Government's Public Works Art Project to add murals on the inside. The murals showcase stories of life in California and San Francisco in the late 1920s and 1930s.
The artists assigned to the project created Diego Rivera-inspired works of art. After their completion, many of the murals received quite a bit of press. They were highly controversial, and many questioned the stories told throughout the murals.
The Coit Tower Murals were revitalized in 2014 and restored to their former glory. This is the first time they were reworked since they originally finished the murals in the 1930s. They look even better now, and you can see some of the additional details that had started to fade away a bit.
Here are just some of the murals.
Each mural has its own story and has a small write-up next to it that describes what it is all about.
You can also hear more about them is by joining the one of the free Coit mural walks given by the San Francisco library. There are two a week. Check the full SF Public Library calendar to join one of these or other free walks during your visit.
Another great way to learn more about the murals is from the book Coit Tower San Francisco Its History and Art. The book will give you more details into its history and has a great overview of some of the most talked about murals.
The main level of this attraction is free. You can walk around to view the murals at no cost, but I recommend learning more about the artwork through one of the two options listed right above.
You can also head up to the top of the tower for 360° views of the area. It's $8 ($6 for residents) to go up the elevator. From there, you will need to walk 40 or so stairs to the top. The stairs are pretty steep and usually a little crowded, so plan a little time to make your way up to the top.
The windows in the observation deck are small but give you great views around the city. This picture is from a distance, so you can get an idea on what they look like. Most of the time a few of them are open, so you can get a clearer view and photos of some of SF's top attractions.
The top is also open in the Observation Deck, so prepare for this on rainy days.
You can stay on the observation deck for as long as you like. When you are done, you usually have to wait in line again for the elevator to get down to the first floor.
Coit Tower is open from 10am to 6pm from May to October. It is open from 10am to 5pm from November to April.
The tower is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Eve.
It's free to visit Coit Tower's main level. On this level, you can take a close look at its WPA murals and visit the gift shop.
If you want to head up to the Observation Deck, you will need to buy tickets in the gift shop. They are currently $9 for adults, $7 for seniors (62+) and youth (12-17), and $3 for children (5-11). Kids 4 and under are free.
As I mentioned above, there is a free walking tour offered by SF City Guides, a part of the SF Public Library. They offer a couple of free walks a week and they cover the controversial (at the time) murals on the first floor of the building.
Here are a few additional tours that include a visit to Coit Tower or the surrounding areas.
San Francisco Urban Hike: This 5-mile urban hike will take you to Coit Tower, through North Beach and over to Lombard Street. The hike is steep with plenty of stairs, but the views and the history provided by your knowledgeable guide is worth the effort. It starts with a hike up the Filbert Street steps to the top of Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower. You will then descend down into North Beach and then make your way up the hill again to Lombard Street. The tour leaves at 1:30pm most Saturdays. It does not include a ticket to the Observation Deck.
Telegraph Hill & The Old Waterfront: This is a cool tour starts at the Ferry Building. As you walk along the waterfront, your knowledgeable guide will tell you about the important history of this area. You will then walk to the top of the Filbert Street Steps as you learn even more about Telegraph Hill's history. You'll make your way up to Coit Tower and then descend along the Greenwich steps. This tour is about three to three and a half hours long with lots of steps. It runs several days a week.
San Francisco City Tour: The final guided tour I recommend to visit Coit Tower is the San Francisco City Tour in a VW bus. Due to limited space to get up to the parking lot, not many tours offer a stop at this attraction. However, this one does! It's one of six stops on this 3.5-hour tour. You won't stay for long, but you can get a quick look to see if you want to come back for a more in-depth visit.
Coit Tower is on the top of Telegraph Hill. You can see it sitting high on the hill from both Fisherman's Wharf and the North Beach neighborhood. On the map below, Coit Tower is the blue star, Pier 39 in Fisherman's Wharf is the pink star, and the heart of the North Beach neighborhood is the green star.
You have a few of options to get to Coit Tower. Here are the best options:
There is a small parking lot located right in front. You'll sometimes see a line of cars waiting to get in, so be patient as others are finishing their visit inside. I've never had to wait too long, as the turnover is pretty quick. However, you'll want to anticipate at least a small wait if you decide to drive.
The second option is to take a bus from North Beach San Francisco to the front doors. Muni Bus #39 circles down the hill to pick up passengers in North Beach San Francisco. There are only a handful of stops and I'd recommend catching the bus at the stop on Union Street and Columbus Avenue.
The bus picks up about every 30 minutes. It starts in the morning around the time when Coit Tower opens.
The last option is for those who are looking for a little more exercise: hike up the hills and stairs until you reach the top! This is quite a walk, so I'll warn you now. It's great exercise, but it's not for the weak of heart.
There are a couple of options if you choose to walk. If you are walking from the west or the North Beach side, walk up Lombard Street to the top of the hill. The street will curve and begin heading up the final portion of the hill to Coit Tower. There is a staircase along the road that will take you the final distance to the top.
Another popular option is to take the Filbert Street Stairs to the top of the hill. The stairs are located on the southeastern side of Coit Tower. They start near Montgomery and Sansome Streets. This is the first section of the stairs.
This first section is very steep. However, the rest of this stair climb offers steps that are a mixture of brick, wood, and concrete surrounded by beautiful gardens and flowers. Each section also offers a great view of the SF Bay Bridge.
You will find several ways to get from our top attractions over to Coit Tower. The directions below are to get to the tower. If you plan to visit Coit Tower first and then these locations, just reverse the directions to find your way. Don't hesitate to ask the bus drivers a question when you get onto the bus. They will often help. Just don't ask them questions as they are driving as the streets of SF can be tricky.
Union Square: Coit Tower and Union Square are just over a mile away from each other. You can either walk (it's quite a hike with a few steep hills) or take public transportation. The Powell/Mason Cable Car will drop you off about a 10-minute walk away (you do need to climb the hill to the top). You can also take the 30 or 45 from Union Square, which will also drop you at the bottom of the hill. You can walk up the hill or transfer to the 39, which will drop you right at the front door of this SF attraction.
Fisherman's Wharf & Pier 39: Fisherman's Wharf is about a mile away from Coit Tower. It's an easier walk from Union Square, but you do have the steep hill to climb once you arrive. An easier way to get here is to head to Powell and Beach Streets to pick up the #39 bus. This will take you right up to the top so you can easily visit.
BART: If you plan to come into San Francisco on BART, you have two options. If you stop at the Embarcadero, you can take the F Streetcar to the bottom of the Filbert Street steps (see my details above about this walk). It's a gorgeous walk, but there are about three full blocks of stairs and they are quite steep.
The other option from BART is to get off at the Montgomery Street stop. From here, make your way to the corner of Sutter & Kearny to pick up the #30 bus. Get off on the stop at Columbus and Union Streets. From here, you can either walk up to the top or wait on Union Street for the #39 bus which will take you to the top and the entrance to Coit Tower.
Chinatown: San Francisco's Chinatown is less than a mile away from Coit Tower. You can walk or take the bus to the top. Once you exit Chinatown, make your way through North Beach to the corner of Union Street and Columbus. From here, you can wait for the #39 bus.
Golden Gate Park: Golden Gate Park and Coit Tower are on opposite sides of San Francisco. If you plan to take public transit between the two, you will need to make a few transfers. You will first pick up the N light rail in the Inner Sunset. You will take this to the Montgomery Street Station. From there, head over to Sutter & Kearny for the #30 bus. Take this to Union and Columbus. You can then either walk or wait at the bus stop on Union Street for the #39 which will take you to the entrance steps.
Pier 33/Alcatraz Landing: Pier 33 where you pick up the ferries to Alcatraz is about a half mile away from Coit Tower. You can walk along the Embarcadero to Filbert Street and climb the stairs. You can also walk from Pier 33 to the corner of Lombard Street and Grant Avenue. This is where you will find the bus stop for the #39, which will drop you off at the entrance.
As I mentioned above, there is a small parking lot right at the top of Telegraph Hill where you enter to visit Coit Tower. However, with more than 2,000 visitors a day, it can be a bit difficult to get a spot and/or you will have to wait a bit for one of these coveted spots.
You will also find a couple of garages down the hill. You can then either walk up the hill for your visit or you can take the #39 bus. Here are a couple of options.
501 Filbert Street: You will find plenty of parking at the official North Beach Parking lot. It's just down the hill and you will not have to wait in line to park.
625 Green Parking Lot: Another option is just a couple of blocks from where the #39 bus picks up. It's on Green Street between Powell and Columbus Avenue.
Levi's Plaza Garage: This is a good pick if you plan to climb the Filbert Steps to get to the top. There is no bus on this side that will take you to the top, but you will find plenty of parking here and won't have to wait in line.
The closest places to eat near Coit Tower are in the North Beach district. This is right down the hill and there are plenty of options. Since this is the Little Italy area of town, you will find dozens of Italian restaurants serving up pizza (full pies or by the slice), pasta and other favorites. Here are some of my go to places.
Tony's Pizza Napoletana: You are in for a treat at Tony's. He is the 12-time World Pizza Champion and offers up a huge selection of pies. His kitchen is decked out with a variety of ovens to make pizzas that you will find around the world. You will find American, Classic Italian, Napoletana, Romana, New York and others on the menu. Make sure to leave a little time as some of the pizzas take an extra 15 to 20 minutes to cook. 1570 Stockton Street.
Golden Boy Pizza: This is the best place for pizza by the slice. They are popular with the locals and serve focaccia pizza. They offer just a handful of types including vegetarian, cheese, pepperoni or sausage, and combination. One of their most popular and unique pizzas is the clam with garlic. It's delicious and I highly recommend it. They are located at 542 Green Street.
Original Joe's: Another great place to eat near Coit Tower is Original Joe's. They have a large menu with both American and Italian cuisines. You can grab some pasta, a burger or even a steak. They are located at 601 Union Street.