I have wanted to go to the top of Coit Tower for as long as I can remember. We go to San Francisco often and the tower is always there, rising above the city in the background… and it’s always been one of those “some day I’ll do that” activities.
Many years ago, the Natalie and Carter were toddlers, we tried to buy tickets, but it was mid-afternoon, almost nap time, the kids were a bit cranky, and the line was almost an hour long. Needless to say, we instead simply took in the views from the parking area and Pioneer Park and continued about our day.
This past weekend, when visiting San Francisco for a Mother’s Day weekend getaway, we finally got to ride the elevator to the top of Coit Tower — and not only that, we also got to experience two of San Francisco’s hidden staircases as part of the adventure!
Parking at Coit Tower is a nightmare, so we parked in a fee lot across from the Exploratorium on the Embarcadero and climbed up Telegraph Hill on the beautiful flower-lined Filbert Steps. Then after touring the tower, we descended the hill on the equally gorgeous Greenwich Steps making a perfect loop and headed to Chinatown to visit the Golden Gate Fortunate Cookie Factory.
About Coit Tower
Coit Tower, also known as the Coit Memorial Tower and the Lillian Coit Memorial Tower, is a 210 foot, white concrete tower rising from the top of Telegraph Hill at Pioneer Park in San Francisco.
This San Francisco skyline icon is named for Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy eccentric resident and patron of the city’s firefighters. Upon her death in 1929, she left a $125,000 bequest to the city of San Francisco “for the purpose of adding beauty to the city which I have always loved.”
Coit Tower, designed by Arthur Brown Jr. and Henry Howard, was built in 1933 to resemble the towers on London’s Battersea Power Station, completed just one year earlier. Contrary to popular belief, it was not designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle.
Views Of San Francisco From Coit Tower
Telegraph Hill takes its name from a semaphore telegraph erected on its summit in 1850 to alert residents to the arrival of ships. Pioneer Park, which surrounds Coit Tower, was established in 1876 on the former site of the telegraph station. From Pioneer Park and the parking area at Coit Tower you can experience amazing panoramic views of San Francisco and the bay below. The only bummer is that many of the views are partially obstructed by trees.
Many blogs and websites will tell you that the views of San Francisco from the top of Coit Tower aren’t much better than those you get from the parking area for free… and oh my gosh, are they wrong. I am so glad we didn’t listen to that advice!
We purchased our Coit Tower tickets online in advance, which meant that when the tower opened, the flood of people waiting poured into the lobby, and the ticket line became a 30-40 minute wait almost immediately, we got to skip the whole thing and go straight to the elevator.
The elevator is the original 1933 elevator and the views at the top are remarkable. From the observation deck at the top of Coit Tower, you have unobstructed, 360 degree views of the city, including the San Francisco Bay and Angel Island, Alcatraz, Treasure Island, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge, as well as Lombard Street, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Twin Peaks, Pier 39, the Financial District, the Exploratorium, and the Ferry Building.
The Coit Tower Murals
After taking in the amazing views from the top of the tower, we spent some time checking out the beautiful murals that line the walls of the lobby. Most people flock to Coit Tower for the breathtaking views of the city, but wow, the murals inside the ground floor lobby are not to be missed.
When Coit Tower was completed in 1933, its interior consisted of over 3,000 square feet of blank wall space. But in early 1934, the building became the pilot project of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), a part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Program.
As part of the project, 25 Bay Area artists, supervised by Diego Rivera-trained muralist Victor Arnautoff, painted fresco murals on the interior of the tower in Diego Rivera’s social realism style. The murals depict the daily life of working-class Californians during the Great Depression.
Unfortunately, some thought the Coit Tower murals depicted radical Communist themes and protests delayed the opening of the tower for several months. Eventually, the most controversial elements were painted over and the frescoes were finally opened to the public in the fall of that year.
You can see many of the murals on the tower lobby, but some are hidden from the general public behind a door next to the gift shop. Only on a guided tour can you see the murals behind the door and on the second floor.
Know Before You Go
- The 210 foot Coit Tower is located in Pioneer Park in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco at 1 Telegraph Hill Boulevard, San Francisco, California 94133.
- Coit Tower is open daily April to October from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm and November to March from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. It is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
- Visiting Coit Tower and viewing the lobby murals is free, but if you want to ride the elevator to the top for stunning 360 degree views of San Francisco, there is a nominal admission fee.
- Skip the long ticket line and walk right in and up the elevator by purchasing tickets online in advance.
- For an extra fee, guided tours for groups of 4-8 people are available to visitors with a complete tour of the Tower including the murals.
- Pioneer Park surrounding the tower is always open and free to visit.
- While visiting, be sure to check out the fresco murals in the lobby. Done in Diego Rivera’s social realism style, they are a collection of 25 pieces created in 1934 as part of a Public Works of Art Project.
- While Coit Tower does have an elevator, it is not accessible due to the stairs at the lobby entrance and those between the elevator landing and the observation deck.
- The observation deck at the top of Coit Tower offers 360 degree views of San Francisco including the San Francisco Bay and Angel Island, Alcatraz, Treasure Island, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge, as well as Lombard Street, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Twin Peaks, Aquatic Park, Pier 39, the Financial District, and the Ferry Building.
- Coit Tower was listed as a San Francisco Designated Landmark in 1984 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
- Parking at the tower is limited. There are only about 10-12 spaces and the line of cars waiting to reach the lot can get really long! Consider parking near the Embarcadero and climbing the Filbert Steps or the Greenwich Steps up Telegraph Hill to the tower. Make it a loop and follow one hidden staircase up the hill and the other back down — the gardens and views along the secret stairs are magnificent.
- Muni’s #39 Coit Bus travels between Coit Tower and Fisherman’s Wharf.
- There are restrooms available as well as a small gift shop.