SF's topography makes some things rather difficult—bike commuting and parallel parking top the list. But the hilly terrain and dramatic fog yields some undeniably great views of downtown San Francisco. Whether you’re looking for a hike with a payoff, a rooftop bar, or a birds-eye tour of an architectural landmark, San Francisco has no shortage of stunning views. Here’s where to find them.
San Francisco views
This 85-year-old landmark combines art history and gorgeous views. The distinctive white tower has been a Telegraph Hill fixture since 1933. Take a spin around the interior to admire the historic public art, which was restored to its former glory in 2014. The expansive murals, which depict Depression-era California, were the work of artists hired under the Public Works of Art Project in 1934. Then buy an elevator ticket at the gift shop for a panoramic view of the Transamerica Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, and SoMa through the tower’s arched windows.
This Diamond Heights park is small but beloved. The switchback network of trails spans less than half a mile, so it’s easily conquered by hikers of all ability levels. Find the entrance at Beacon Street or 30th Street and follow the path up the side of the hill among shady eucalyptus groves and grasslands. At the top, you’ll find a flat resting point overlooking all of Noe Valley, the downtown skyline, and the bay.
The Cliff House has been through a lot in its 150-year history—it survived the 1906 earthquake, only to burn down a year later—but the latest incarnation (rebuilt in 1909) remains an Outer Richmond mainstay. The oceanfront restaurant has achieved a degree of notoriety—over the years, the spot been patronized by various celebrities and five U.S. presidents. The window-grazing tables offer coastal views of the Pacific Ocean and Ocean Beach, which slopes from the Richmond all the way to the Outer Sunset. Meander north after your meal to see the remains of Sutro Baths, another late-1800s city relic.
When the Salesforce Tower finally opened in January 2018, it dethroned the Transamerica Pyramid as San Francisco’s tallest building. Most of the 61 floors are devoted to Salesforce’s sizeable workforce, but in late 2018, press got a glimpse of the Ohana floor (“family” in Hawaiian), the building’s top-floor viewing deck. The observation point affords 360-degree views of San Francisco and the bay—on a clear day, you can see all the way to the Farallon Islands. Though the Ohana floor was originally accessible only by Salesforce workers, in early 2019 it will be open and free to public visitors.
Once a harbor defense station in the early 1900s, Fort Funston is now, effectively, a gorgeous, oceanfront dog park. The sprawling site is backed by 200-foot-high sandy bluffs, crisscrossed with trails and laden with wildflowers and native plants. The black sand beach is dotted by crumbling concrete outlooks tagged in colorful graffiti. Climb up the southern sand ladder to watch experienced hang-gliders soaring off the side of the cliff: Funston is one of the best gliding spots in the country, particularly in March and October.
This park has staying power. During the 1906 earthquake, the homes atop Bernal Heights rock were some of the only to escape damage. It’s a worthwhile 30 minute walk up a dirt path to the park’s peak, which offers in-the-round views of the bay, downtown, the Golden Gate Bridge, the East Bay, and San Bruno mountain. In spring, the slope blooms with wildflowers and native grasses; the site is home to more than 40 species of birds. Don’t miss the rope swing at the top of Bernal Heights hill, which creates the impression of swinging across the entire city.
In a city rife with impressive views, this Castro peak may be the most striking vantage point in the city. Clamber up to the top of the hill’s distinctive red rock (which was quarried for brick-making in the 1800s), and you’ll be rewarded with a vista from downtown to Twin Peaks. The park is scalable via a paved staircase or a more challenging, winding trail at 15th Street—both routes only take about 15 minutes. At the top, you’ll find a windy cliff that’s ideal for sunrises and sunsets. Dogs and kids scramble among the rocks, and red-tailed hawks soar overhead.
This buzzy boutique hotel is slickly designed, but the real selling point is its ballpark-adjacent rooftop bar. It’s only accessible if you book a room or host an event—luckily, that “event” can be as small as six people. While reservations can be pricey (starting at $1,000 for a private cabana), the prime location and stunning views are worth the splurge. The indoor-outdoor space offers views of the city, the bay, Bernal Heights, and the East Bay. And unlike other SF rooftops, this one is downright cozy, thanks to fire pits and ample heat lamps. The strong cocktails don’t hurt, either.
Admission to the museum's Hamon observation tower is always free. Bypass the lines and take the elevator up to the 9th floor. There, the stunning, glass-encased space overlooks all of Golden Gate Park, downtown San Francisco, the Bay, and the Marin headlands. One wall is swathed in an enormous topographical map of the city, so you can pinpoint locations from multiple perspectives.
The 39th-story bar atop the Marriott Marquis artfully frames the city in its arched, floor-to-ceiling window. Though the décor is admittedly dated and the crowd can be touristy, even locals agree that this is one of the best barside views in the city. Seating is first come, first serve, so arrive early to stake out one of the coveted tables along the window. (Even better if you catch the sunset.) The cocktails, served in low, round tumblers, are simple, strong and pricey.
This Sunset district park may be relatively tiny—it measures roughly the size of a city block—but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in height. Known as Turtle Hill by locals, the hill reaches 666 feet. It’s made of a 140-million year old rock formation called Franciscan chert, which originally formed as part of the ancient sea floor. The park is crossed by a small network of trails, but the best route upward starts at 16th Street and Moraga, where a 163-step staircase is covered in a colorful, mirrored mosaic. The windblown peak reveals views of Point Reyes, Lake Merced, Sutro Tower, the Pacific, and downtown San Francisco and is and topped by cypress trees and native plants.
Originally opened in 1939, Top of the Mark is a stately, storied old bar. It was once a tradition for U.S. Navy officers to belly up for a send-off drink before shipping out during World War II. (The northwest corner, dubbed the “Weepers’ Corner,” is where their girlfriends would watch the ships depart the bay.) The vibe has changed significantly since then—Solange Knowles dropped in to DJ the bar’s 75th anniversary party—but the stirring view remains, encompassing the Financial District, Bay Bridge, Chinatown, North Beach and Golden Gate Bridge.