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Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco: Tips to Visit this Free, Gorgeous Attraction in the Marina

Jill on a windy day at the Golden Gate Bridge

by Jill Loeffler  •

Updated: August 31, 2021

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The Palace of Fine Arts is a free attraction that features a beautiful dome and curved columns. It's set in a colorful park on the northern side of San Francisco in the Marina District. It's one of my favorite places to sit back, relax, and enjoy the beauty of the city.

It is one of just a handful of remaining structures from the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition. It's the largest remaining structure and draws in hundreds of visitors a day. 

It was built as a temporary structure for the expo and was supposed to be torn down. However, both visitors and locals fell in love with it, so the city of SF decided to keep it standing.

panama pacific expositionA view of the dome and the small lake on the eastern side of the building

In the 1960s, the city of SF fully rebuilt the temporary structure to make it permanent. It was then damaged in the 1989 earthquake. The city repaired it and did some retrofitting to ensure its survival during larger earthquakes. They also did more repairs to it in 2009. It celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2015 with several events all year long.

Before I talk a little about what you will see when you visit, let's take a step back and look at the history of this structure. You can also click the links below to jump ahead to a specific top for your stay.

Panama Pacific Exposition History

The 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition was a celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. This expo also turned into one of the most important events in the history of San Francisco.

Before the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco showed some interest in hosting this large international event. However, after the earthquake hit, city officials knew the event was critical for the city. With millions of visitors expected, it was one of the best ways to showcase how far San Francisco had come after the devastating earthquake.

SF was selected as the city to hold this large event shortly after the earthquake hit.

A City Undaunted, a plaque at the Palace of Fine Arts describing the event.You will find this at the Palace of Fine Arts where you can read even more about its history and its importance to the city of San Francisco.

The site only took four years to build. The buildings covered 635 acres of land in an area that is now the San Francisco Marina. It stretched all along the waterfront from Van Ness Street to Fort Point. In total, the buildings for the event housed more than 70,000 exhibits from around the world.

The Panama Pacific Exposition opened on February 20, 1915. For 288 days, more than 19 million people from around the world visited San Francisco for the event. 

At the close of the event in December 1915, the buildings were scheduled for demolition. However, the city decided to keep one of the most beautiful buildings -- the Palace of Fine Arts.

Weeping Women at the Palace of Fine Arts

When you walk around the Palace of Fine Arts, you will see many beautiful architecture and special art on the walls. The Palace was originally built in 1915 for the World’s Fair. They decided to have it here to show that San Francisco is alive and well after the 1906 earthquake.

During the World’s Fair, there were loads of stores and other temporary exhibits. The Palace was originally designed by Bernard Maybeck who wanted to make a grand building and choose to show off some classic European and classic style. So why are there 4 weeping women built into one of the colonnades?

Because Mr. Maybeck wanted to show that, even though everything was recovering in San Francisco, and there was a major World’s Fair happening right here, we should still remember the past and what has been lost to time. So, these 4 women face inwards and weep for the times gone by and what has been lost.

Being that this was originally only supposed to be for the World’s Fair, and then knocked down, the city worked with the US government to be given the land to become part of the Presidio. So, luckily for us, the Palace and the two colonnades. Were saved and are still with us today. 

Fun Fact: They were originally going to be partially covered in vines and flowers to make it even more mournful, but it cost too much money, so they’ve continued to stay exactly as they were over 100 years ago.

More on the Palace of Fine Arts

This San Francisco attraction was designed by famed architect Bernard Maybeck. The entire building is a work of art with intricate details on its columns and beautiful dome inspired by Roman and Greek architecture.

It's free to stroll around the outside of the building. It is also the perfect place for a picnic lunch or a place to hang out to relax for a little while.

The beauty of the building attracts both locals and visitors. It is very common to see at least one wedding party taking pictures here -- in fact, you might even see two or three during your visit.

To give you a sense of work that went into the building, here are just a few pictures from my last visit.

palace of fine artsA closer look at the columns and inside of the dome
panama pacific expositionA view of the top of the large columns that line the sidewalk on the western side of the building
Statue on the Palace of Fine ArtsPeaking through the columns at a statue on the Palace of Fine Arts
Dome with Trees around it in San FranciscoAnother look at the detail of the gorgeous dome that is the centerpiece of this magnificent building

Palace of Fine Arts Swans

For those that birds, you will definitely want to visit the Palace of Fine Arts to see them around the lagoon. There are many types of birds, including herons, seagulls, owls, and of course ducks and mallards. However. the most famous is Blanche, the mute swan. She is named a mute swan since her type rarely are vocal. However, she will quack once in a while. She’s over 20 years old and is a Polish mute breed.

Something we love is that swans have lived at the Palace of Fine Arts since it opened originally for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition. That means they have been here as long as it has which is rather amazing. Being that the designers of the Palace didn’t plan for these birds to stay here at night, they never planned a special hiding spot for them.

Thankfully, swans know their way around and are smart. They found a fenced in area and go there to sleep at night. For many years, there were two swans that were always together, the abovementioned Blanche and her partner, Blue Foot. Sadly, Blue Boy died in 2020 at the age of 17. So, when you go there, make sure to wave at Blanche and give her a smile to help cheer her  up.

Visiting the Palace of Fine Arts

The park is open both day and night. It's free to visit and it usually takes about 30 minutes. You will find it at 3301 Lyon Street.

The map below offers a look at the layout of this San Francisco attraction. In total, it sits on about 20 acres. The red dotted lines show the walking path in and around the park. The small white area behind it is where you will find some on-site parking as well as a small lot just to its north. Both are marked with the blue 'P.'

Map of the Palace of Fine Arts

I recommend visiting around lunch time. You can pick up a sandwich or salad in the Marina and spend some time outdoors as you enjoy the Palace of Fine Arts as you eat. There are plenty of places to sit on the grass (shown in green on the map) and all offer amazing views. You will find a few ideas below on where to find some of the best grab and go lunches in the Marina.

Tour Options

San Francisco Public Library Walking Tour: The San Francisco library has a number of free walks throughout San Francisco. This one is a dedicated tour of the history surrounding the Panama Pacific Exposition and the Palace of Fine Arts. Your guide will also share with you more about the importance of this event to the revitalization of San Francisco. Find out more here.

Premium City Tour: If you want to see several top SF attractions, then check out this 4-hour guided tour. It will take you to several places around SF in addition to the Palace of Fine Arts including the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, Chinatown, and others. Some you will see from the tour bus and others are stops where you will get out to see them for yourself for a couple of minutes. Visit GetYourGuide to learn more about this tour and to check for availability.

Hop On Hop Off Tour: If you prefer to explore on your own, then check out Big Bus Tour's Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour. It includes 20+ stops around SF including one at the Palace of Fine Arts. You can stay as long as you want and then hop on the next bus to continue on your journey. Find out more about the Big Bus Tour here.

Palace of Fine Arts Theater

Inside the building, you will also find a theater. They offer a variety of shows throughtout the year from theater performances to comedy. You will also find some great shows each holiday season. Here are just a few of the top upcoming performances.

Where to Eat Nearby

The Palace of Fine Arts is in the Marina District and just a couple of blocks away from one of its main commercial streets, Chestnut. Here are just a few places close by that I recommend.

Grab & Go Options

As I mentioned above, I love coming to the Palace of Fine Arts with a sandwich or salad and spending time here as I eat lunch or a snack. Here are my favorite places to grab something to bring with me.

The Sandwich Spot SF: This is the best place to grab a tasty sandwich. They have a variety of options and are about a half mile away. You will find them at 3213 Pierce. 

Marina Delicatessen & Liquors: Another great spot to grab a sandwich or a snack and enjoy it on the lawns of the Palace of Fine Arts. It's about 5 blocks away at 2299 Chestnut.

Chestnut Street Coffee Roastery: This is another spot that is about 5 blocks away. It's perfect if you need a coffee pick me up for your visit. They also have grab and go sandwiches and salads. You will find it at 2331 Chestnut.

Other Options in the Marina

If you prefer to sit down for a bit to eat either before or after your visit, here are a few of my recommendations.

Super Duper Burgers: This casual burger joint is perfect if you want to grab a quick bite and keep exploring. Their menu is simple, and the food is tasty. 2201 Chestnut

Pluto's: Sandwiches and salads are on the menu at this casual, yet healthy stop in the Marina. 3258 Scott

Causwells: This bistro offers American cuisine with a European flare. They also offer many dishes on their menu that are light and perfect for sharing. 2346 Chestnut

MAC'D: If you love mac and cheese as much as me, you are going to never want to leave MAC'D. It's a casual spot where you pick your pasta, your sauce and dig in! 3347 Fillmore Street

Tips on Where to Park

If you plan to drive to the Palace of Fine Arts, you will find several places to park. Parking on the street is very difficult as this is a neighborhood with hundreds of residents. However, there are several lots within a few blocks of the building.

Parking On-Site: You will find a limited amount of parking on-site. One lot is behind the building and the other is on the northern side. If you arrive early or visit during a slow time of the year, you might get lucky and be able to grab a spot right near the park. 

Marina Green/Yacht Road Parking: If you head just north of the Palace of Fine Arts on Yacht Road, you will find a free parking lot. You are free to park here during your visit and/or while you check out some other local attractions. 

Crissy Field Parking: Another option is to park at Crissy Field. This lot is also open to the public and free parking during the day. It's about a 5-minute walk from this lot to the park. It's a grass and dirt lot and you can enter it from Mason Street.

It's best to select a parking area before you arrive, add in the directions to your phone and then use them to navigate to your parking area. They have closed off certain streets for turning, so it can be confusing when you arrive. By using a map on your phone, it will give you the best directions to get to the lot when you arrive.

Movies Filmed Near the Palace of Fine Arts

Do the pictures of the Palace of Fine Arts look familiar? If so, you might have seen this beauty in several movies over the years. Here are just a few of them.

When the World Came to San Francisco (2015) -- This is a documentary about the Panama Pacific Expo and the Palace of Fine Arts. I highly recommend watching it before you arrive.

The Rock (1996)

Vertigo (1958)

The Room (2003)

The Woman in Red (1984)

Murder in the First (1995)

It's also been featured in several TV shows over the years including Falcon Crest, Monk, Chance and The Streets of San Francisco.

How to Get to the Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts sits on the northern side of San Francisco. Since SF is only 7 miles by 7 miles, you will find it's close to many of our top attractions and districts.

In the map below, the Palace of Fine Arts is the red star. Fisherman's Wharf is the blue star and Union Square is the green star. I've also highlighted Golden Gate Park with the yellow star. Scroll down for additional tips on how to get here from these and other top locations around SF.

Palace of Fine Arts Map and distance to other top attractions

Pier 39 & Fisherman's Wharf: If you need to travel between Fisherman's Wharf and the Palace of Fine Arts, you have a few options. The distance between the two is about 2 miles. You can walk or take the bus. If you plan to take the bus, pick up the #30 at Columbus Avenue and North Point (or on North Point on the western side of Columbus). Take it to its last stop at Divisadero & Chestnut and you will be about 5 blocks away.

Crissy Field: It's a quick walk between Crissy Field and the Palace of Fine Arts. They are less than a half mile away from each other. Walk along Mason to get from one location to the next. 

Union Square: Union Square is the green star on the map above. It's about 3.5 miles away from the Palace of Fine Arts. The best way to get here is to take the #30 bus. Pick it up at Stockton & Sutter and take it all the way to the end at Divisadero & Chestnut.

Golden Gate Bridge: The Golden Gate Bridge is also not too far away. You can either walk along Crissy Field to get between these two attractions or take the bus. If you walk, there is a steep hill with stairs to climb when you arrive. The walk is about two miles to the southern side of the bridge (it's another 1.7 miles across). You can also pick up the #28 bus, which will take you to the southern side of the bridge. You can pick it up at the bus stop at Richardson Avenue & Francisco Street. It's about a five-minute walk to the stop and about a 10-minute ride (during non-commute hours) to the bridge.

Golden Gate Park: Golden Gate Park is another popular stop for those visiting San Francisco. It's on the western end of SF and is marked with the yellow star. It's about 4 miles from the Palace of Fine Arts. You would take the same bus as the one for the Golden Gate Bridge, the #28. You will stay on this bus and continue on to the stop at Park Presidio Avenue & Fulton Street. From here, you can enter the park and then head to your destination.

Hotels Near the Palace of Fine Arts San Francisco

Travelodge by Windham Presidio: This 2-star hotel is located right on the edge of the Presidio. It is a classic looking hotel from the outside, but up-to-date and very nice inside. We think this is a good choice for people that want to get out, see the city easily as there is a bus stop very close to it.

They have a free breakfast, and they are pet friendly. They are a AAA approved hotel and they have limited free parking. It is only about a 10-minute walk to the Palace of Fine Arts. It is about a 15-minute walk to the Palace of Fine Arts. 2755 Lombard Street

Lodge at the Presidio: If you want to have an experience like no other when in San Francisco, you will want to stay here. This was originally built as barracks for soldiers back in the late 1800s. Therefore, it has an all-brick exterior and has great views to defend the city from attackers.

Some of the amenities include a free breakfast, evening wine and cheese reception, an outdoor fire-pit, and much more. You can get some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge when you stay here. It is about a 15 to 20-minute walk to the Palace of Fine Arts. 105 Montgomery in the Presidio

Hotel del Sol: This 3-star hotel is a very cool place if you want to go a bit retro and back to the 1950s and still have all the benefits of today’s hotels. The rooms are very comfortable, the beds are soft, and you will not find another hotel like this anywhere. Some of the fun features include hammocks, palm trees, and a heated outdoor pool in their courtyard.

They offer a free breakfast (including grab-and-go if you are in a hurry), parking, and more. Sometimes they even have specials such as “Park for a penny” or other surprising deals. It is about a 10-minute bus ride or a 20-minute walk to the Palace of Fine Arts and 3100 Webster Street.

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