Take a drive around the Bay Area and you’ll surely pass by some breathtaking buildings, whether they’re mainstays of the San Francisco skyline or hidden gems that you can’t quite find your way back to. We’ve rounded up some of the most iconic and interesting buildings in San Francisco and beyond, including both well-known skyscrapers and discreet homes that are off the beaten path.
Read on to discover our incomplete list of iconic buildings in the Bay, and be sure to scroll to the bottom for a map to help point you in the right direction.
1. MIRA tower
This 40-story, 400-foot tower in the Transbay neighborhood has a striking fluidity to its surface due to a repeating spiral pattern on its entire façade. Either this is Inception, or you’re looking at the MIRA tower.
Architect Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects designed MIRA in 2014, and construction was completed in 2020. The modular design repeats every 11 floors, and aerospace engineering techniques were used to construct the smooth, flowing design, according to Architectural Digest.
The residential building has also achieved a LEED Gold Certification with its high-efficiency green living enhancements. These include a graywater harvesting system, green roofs, and a VRF cooling system.
Location: 280 Spear Street, San Francisco
2. California Academy of Sciences
The mind-blowing California Academy of Sciences building opened in 2008, and it’s been an essential attraction in Golden Gate Park ever since thanks to the vision of architect Renzo Piano. The award-winning building is a monument to sustainable architecture, from the thriving living roof to the building insulation made from recycled denim.
The Academy’s living roof is a marvel of building design that has influenced countless other such roofs over the years. Not only does it insulate the building below and capture 100% of excess stormwater, but the beautiful canopy of 1.7 million plants plays home to local birds and insects from the surrounding park. The roof, along with the floor-to-ceiling glass walls, allow for plenty of natural light to enter the building. What’s more, the building has an automated ventilation system that opens and closes to admit natural air currents from the surrounding park.
On your next visit, be sure to check out the four-story indoor rainforest aflutter with free-flying birds and butterflies, as well as Claude the albino alligator. And of course take advantage of the Academy’s Thursday NightLife series.
Location: 55 Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco
3. “Four Seasons” Victorians
Painted Ladies who? Few people know about the stunning “Four Seasons” houses in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, a row of Queen Anne Victorian homes styled to represent the winter, spring, summer, and fall seasons.
The winter-themed house is a denim blue color with an ornate white snowflake carving on the façade. It’s followed by a pastel yellow home with a flower vase carving representing spring, a pale pink home with blue-green vines for summer, and finally a rust-colored home with a gold sprig of wheat representing the fall.
Shipwright John Whelan built the Four Seasons Houses in 1896, and his family lived in the “winter” home until 1905. The outer façades remain unchanged, although the previous owners of the “winter” home gutted and refurbished the interior before selling it for $2.75M in 2016.
Location: 1315 Waller Street, San Francisco
4. Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts was built as a temporary exhibition space for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which gave the city a chance to celebrate the construction of the Panama Canal as well as SF’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake.
Architect Bernard R. Maybeck designed the palace as a decaying Roman ruin situated in a semicircle around a manmade lagoon. The Neoclassical structure’s most prominent feature is a 162-foot-tall open rotunda which is flanked on each side by large colonnades. The colonnades are topped with statues of weeping women with their backs turned, meant to evoke a sense of melancholy and contemplation among the hustle and bustle of the fair.
When the fair ended, prominent philanthropist Phoebe Hearst helped to preserve the beloved Palace structure and saved it from demolition, and in 1964 the palace was completely rebuilt as a permanent concrete structure thanks to a $2M donation from philanthropist Walter S. Johnson.
Location: 3601 Lyon Street, San Francisco
5. SF’s octagon houses
Have you seen this bizarre blue home in Russian Hill? The McElroy Octagon House is a famous reminder of the octagon craze of the 19th century, and it continues to turn heads even 160 years after it was built. You may also be familiar with the Feusier Octagon House and the Lands End Octagon House.
The octagon craze was a wild Victorian trend resulting from the 1848 book The Octagon House: A Home For All, written by amateur architect Orson Squire Fowler. The octagonal design was meant to let in sunlight on all sides of the building throughout the day, and use fewer materials to approximate a circular shape. The design ended up being quite cumbersome given the strange angles, and one estimate says there are just over 2,000 octagon houses left in the United States from this era.
- McElroy Octagon House – 2645 Gough Street, San Francisco
- Feusier Octagon House – 1067 Green Street, San Francisco
- Lands End Octagon House – 2301-2409 El Camino Del Mar, San Francisco
6. de Young Museum
The de Young Museum has been one of SF’s most iconic fine art museums since it was founded in 1895, having begun as a temporary display space for a collection of oddities and curiosities.
The current building was designed in 2005 by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron and San Francisco firm Fong & Chan Architects, using primarily copper, wood, glass, and stone. The perforated exterior is meant to let in dappled light similarly to a tree canopy, and copper was chosen in order to achieve an oxidized patina over time that blends in with the surrounding gardens. The building also features a 144-foot observation tower offering 360-degree views of Golden Gate Park, and it’s free for the public to visit whether or not they hold a museum ticket.
In the museum’s courtyard you’ll find a piece of art hidden in plain sight. At first glance, it might look like a simple break in the stone, but it is actually a meticulously planned, symbolic art piece by legendary English artist Andy Goldsworthy. Drawn Stone is a large crack cutting through 8 large sandstone blocks, meant to blur the lines between what is natural and what is man-made.
Location: 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco
7. Transamerica Pyramid
Once the tallest building in San Francisco at over 850 feet, the Transamerica Pyramid is now only surpassed by the enormous Salesforce Tower. Regardless, the brilliant pyramid is still an unmistakable part of the SF skyline and maintains an imposing presence covering an entire city block.
Architect William Pereira headed the building’s design, which was completed in 1972. The exterior is sheathed in dazzling white quartz, and the pyramid shape allows for distinct floor designs at each level ranging from 3,000 to 20,000 square feet. In keeping up with green building techniques, the Transamerica Pyramid earned a LEED Platinum certification in 2019. When luxury real estate company SHVO purchased the office building in 2020, they added a fitness center, lounge, restaurant, and sky bar. However, the building is not open to the public, so you’ll have to admire its design from the street.
Location: 600 Montgomery Street, San Francisco
8. Salesforce Tower
Don’t come for us, SF skyline purists — love it or hate it, Salesforce Tower is these days an undeniable part of San Francisco’s cityscape. The 61-story building stands at 1,070 feet tall and is a landmark of sustainable engineering, having exceeded LEED requirements by 61% at the time of its construction in 2018.
Famed architect César Pelli designed the imposing tower, and it was the last of his designs to be completed in his lifetime. Some impressive features include the nation’s largest water recycling system in a commercial high-rise, as well as the nation’s tallest public art display, created from 11,000 LED lights on the top 9 floors of the building.
You might be wondering how a structure 7 feet taller than the Eiffel Tower is feasible in earthquake territory. The building is situated on top of a 14-foot-thick foundation mat with 42 piles driven 300 feet down into the bedrock. The result is a skyscraper so tall that you can see the Farallon Islands from the top floor on a clear day.
Up until the Covid-19 pandemic, visitors could tour Salesforce Tower and see the views for themselves. As of August 2022, there’s still no word on whether they’ll bring tours back.
Location: 415 Mission Street, San Francisco
9. Salesforce Transit Center and Salesforce Park
Downtown SF is home to countless modern marvels, but none so impressive as Salesforce Park, a lush rooftop landscape situated atop the Salesforce Transit Center. The park features 600 trees and 16,000 carefully maintained, drought-tolerant plants across 11 botanical gardens on the living roof. Ned Kahn’s Bus Fountain is a water sculpture running the length of the park (about 1,200 feet) that is activated by the coming and going of the buses from the deck below.
Within the transit center itself you’ll discover a 182-foot-long LED light installation by artist Jenny Holzer, which flashes quotations from over 40 writers including Maya Angelou and Harvey Milk. And far beneath the Transit Center is a gigantic subterranean space dedicated to the future California High-Speed Rail — which has yet to exist.
Location: 425 Mission Street, San Francisco
10. Vedanta Society’s old Hindu temple
This beautiful building turns heads up and down Webster Street, but not everyone knows that it was originally the very first Hindu temple in the United States. It was built at the beginning of 1906 by the Vedanta Society, miraculously surviving the city’s massive earthquake a few months later. The building continued to serve as a temple until 1959, when a new temple was erected elsewhere and the original building was converted into dormitory and classroom space.
Swami Trigunatitananda, one of the Society’s original supervisors, once said, “this Temple may be considered as a combination of a Hindu temple, a Christian church, a Mohammedan mosque, a Hindu Math or monastery, and an American residence.”
Location: 2963 Webster Street, San Francisco
11. Grace Cathedral
Grace Cathedral started out as “Little Grace Chapel” in 1849 during the Gold Rush, and went through several changes and additions until it was destroyed in the earthquake and fires of 1906. The entire structure was rebuilt starting in 1927, inspired by medieval cathedrals in the Gothic Revival style, and construction continued on and off for decades until it was consecrated in 1964. It is now the third-largest Episcopal church in the United States.
In 1991, the cathedral added a large floor labyrinth, which is a replica of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth dating back to 1220 in France. The labyrinth is dedicated for walking meditation, which you can enjoy on your own during cathedral hours or with a live music accompaniment from 6-8pm on the second Friday of every month. Be sure to check out their Tuesday yoga sessions on the labyrinth as well.
Location: 1100 California Street
12. Albion Castle
John Hamlin Burnell built this giant stone castle in 1870 as a state-of-the-art brewery, which was eventually shuttered as a result of Prohibition and transformed into the Albion Water Company. It changed hands several times – notably, sculptor Adrian Voisin added many of its medieval elements – and is now owned by SF Police Lieutenant and real estate investor Bill Gilbert.
The castle has two enormous subterranean cisterns accessible through secret caves, which still provide clean water to this day. The 150-year-old castle is not open to the public and you can’t see much of it from the street, but it is available to book for private events and there’s a great photo tour on its website.
Location: 881 Innes Ave, San Francisco
13. Conservatory of Flowers
The Conservatory of Flowers is a beautiful, lush green space that’s one of SF’s favorite escapes from city life. Not only is it a national, state, and local landmark, but it’s been curating a vast collection of rare and unusual plants since 1879. The elegant Victorian structure is a shape and color reminiscent of the Taj Mahal, making quite a statement on the eastern end of Golden Gate Park.
The sprawling Conservatory is the oldest wood-and-glass conservatory in North America. The story goes that California pioneer James Lick commissioned two conservatories patterned after those found in London’s Kew Gardens, but he died before getting a chance to install them — it’s still unknown whether the conservatories were intended for personal use or as a gift to the city of San Jose. The conservatories, whose glass panels were stored in large crates, changed hands several times and were eventually donated to the Park Commission in 1878. A year later, the Conservatory of Flowers was opened… and no one truly knows what happened to Lick’s second conservatory.
Golden Gate Park’s newest spectacle was an instant success, if not for its gleaming architecture then for its giant water lilies, which remain a popular fixture in the Aquatic Plants Gallery to this day. The fragile structure took a beating over the years and underwent extensive reconstruction efforts after fires in 1883 and 1918, although it survived the 1906 earthquake and even hosted a refugee camp in Conservatory Valley. The Conservatory almost closed for good in 1995, when a massive wind storm took out 40% of the glass paneling and destroyed some of the rare plants within. After a visit from First Lady Hillary Clinton and years of fundraising, the Conservatory was restored and reopened in 2003.
Location: 100 John F. Kennedy Drive, San Francisco
SFMOMA is one of the city’s most famous museums, dating back to 1935 when it began operating in the War Memorial Veterans Building. In 1995, the museum moved to its current location in a Mario Botta-designed building in SoMa. SFMOMA made waves when it tripled its gallery space in 2016, a $305 million project headed by international architecture company Snøhetta.
The San Francisco Bay’s fog and turbulent waters inspired the expansion’s façade, which is composed of over 700 fiberglass-backed-polymer panels that appear to ripple and shift depending on the light. The expansion added countless exciting new features including the Roman Steps in the Roberts Family Gallery, a sculptural staircase winding up beneath the museum’s Oculus, and six outdoor terraces dedicated to sculpture installations. It’s also home to the largest public living wall in the United States, which cultivates over 26,000 plants across 150 feet on the third-floor terrace.
Location: 151 3rd Street, San Francisco
15. San Francisco Columbarium
This stunning columbarium is another of San Francisco’s few remnants of the 19th century, and one of the few places where San Franciscans remain interred within city limits. At the beginning of the 1900s, the city relocated nearly all of its cemeteries to nearby Colma, in order to free up real estate. This historic building was one of the few relics left behind, and it existed for decades abandoned and vandalized until it was cleaned up by the current caretaker Emmitt Watson.
Of course, the Columbarium is wildly rumored to be haunted. A woman a who once felt an icy touch on her back later discovered a white handprint on her shirt, and the caretaker and several security guards have witnessed the ghost of a little girl in 19th-century clothing wandering the circular walkways. Visitors sometimes report a child giggling or the touch of a small hand.
Location: 1 Loraine Ct, San Francisco
16. Oakland Cathedral
Walk past this building next to Lake Merritt and you’ll probably do a double take – it looks like something between a spaceship and an ice sculpture, and is undeniably other-worldly. The Cathedral of Christ the Light, also known as Oakland Cathedral, is one of the Bay Area’s most interesting modern buildings. Architect Craig W. Hartman headed the building design between 2005-2008, making it the world’s first cathedral built entirely in the 21st century.
The building itself is essentially a massive tapered cylinder with a wedge cut out of one side, coated in glossy glass paneling that glimmers in the sun and evokes a brilliant golden lantern effect at night. Step inside and you’ll see the structure is based around a vesica piscis (“fish bladder” in Latin), which is the almond shape created by two intersecting circles of equal radius. The shape is visible externally in the building’s cut-out, but it’s more pronounced when viewed from within. Despite its stark elements, the cathedral’s symmetry brings about a soothing harmonious quality.
Location: 2121 Harrison Street, Oakland
17. Marin County Civic Center
Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright is the mastermind behind the mind-blowing Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, which was one of the last works of Wright’s career. Any architecture buff will be blown away by the building’s smooth scalloped balconies, pale-pink exterior, blue roof, and crisp symmetry. And anyone who’s seen the 1997 film Gattaca will likely recognize some of the interior and exterior views, as they served as the film’s imposing Gattaca complex.
After Wright’s death in 1960, his protégé Aaron Green oversaw construction of the Civic Center in 1962. The design comprises a three-story, 580-foot-long Administration Building; a four-story, 880-foot-long Hall of Justice; and a circular library with a flattened dome roof. These long horizontal buildings are nestled purposefully on the hillside, and the expansive glass walls are a reflection of the transparency that Wright felt government buildings should adhere to. As for the skylights, they were a necessary practical addition, but Wright’s original design had the atriums open to the sky. Within the building you’ll also find custom Wright-designed furniture built by San Quentin inmates.
You can learn about the building’s “complicated and scandalous” history during docent-led tours. Public tours happen from 10:30am-12pm every Friday starting in the Civic Center cafeteria (Room 233), and cost $10.
Location: 3501 Civic Center Drive, San Rafael
18. Apple Park
The innovation and aspirations of Silicon Valley are perhaps most evident in the revolutionary circular “groundscraper” that is Apple Park. Apple’s gargantuan round fortress of a headquarters is closed to the public, but it’s an era-defining building that is captivating even in photos. It is the largest naturally ventilated building in the world and contains one of the world’s largest on-site solar energy installations. The gigantic building is a perfect circle covering approximately 64 acres, of which 80% is green space.
Steve Jobs personally presented his vision of Apple Park to the Cupertino City Council just a few months before his death, and then-Chief Design Officer Jony Ive worked with design firm Foster+Partners to make Apple Park a reality in 2017.
Although the public cannot visit the campus, the Apple Park Visitor Center is worth a trip in its own right. The beautiful two-story building is the only part of Apple’s massive campus that’s open to the public, and it makes for an interesting peek into life for the highest echelon of Silicon Valley. It features a full cafe, a roof terrace with views of the neighboring Apple Park, and a state-of-the-art Apple store with Apple-branded merchandise available nowhere else. You can also check out an interactive 3-D model of Apple Park, which allows you to explore the building via augmented reality.
Location: One Apple Park Way, Cupertino
19. Winchester Mystery House
The famous Winchester Mystery House was owned by Sarah Lockwood Pardee Winchester, who continuously renovated and added onto the mansion for decades. The story goes that Sarah was haunted by the ghosts of people killed by Winchester rifles, which drove her to create the enormous, sprawling mansion in order to hide from them.
The building measures 24,000 square feet and is full of bizarre twists and turns, hidden doors, and staircases that lead to nowhere. It has 10,000 windows; 2,000 doors; 160 rooms; 13 bathrooms; 6 kitchens; and 47 stairways and fireplaces.
The Winchester Mystery House has been investigated by many paranormal experts over the years, including Houdini, Sylvia Brown, and TAPS West Coast. Many visitors report experiencing bizarre phenomena, or otherwise capture something strange in a photo. But is it really haunted? You’ll have to visit to see for yourself!
Location: 525 S Winchester Blvd, San Jose
20. Sather Tower, a.k.a. The Campanile
UC Berkeley’s Sather Tower, more commonly known as The Campanile, is the third-tallest clock-and-bell tower in the world. At 307 feet tall, it’s visible for miles with an observation deck providing unparalleled views of the Golden Gate Bridge and surrounding East Bay. John Galen Howard, founder of the UC Berkeley architecture department, designed the tower after the Campanile de San Marco in Venice in 1915, and it remains an enduring symbol of pride for both students and locals.
The tower houses a full 61-bell concert carillon, on which student carillonists perform 10-minute concerts at 7:50am, 12pm, and 6pm on weekdays; and 12pm and 6pm on Saturdays. There’s also a 45-minute concert at 2pm on Sundays. Concerts can be anything from classical music pieces, to contemporary pop songs, to movie themes.
UC Berkeley’s Integrative Biology department stores hundreds of fossils, mainly from the La Brea Tar Pits, on the Campanile’s seven floors. And since 2017 the tower has hosted several pairs of peregrine falcons, which have an extensive social media presence thanks to Cal Falcons‘ webcams.
You can visit the Campanile from 10am-4pm Monday-Friday, 10am-5pm Saturdays, and 10am-1pm and 3-5pm on Sundays. It costs $5 general admission and $4 for seniors, Cal alumni with ID, and youth under 18 (payable by card only). Current Cal students, faculty, staff, and children under 3 can visit the top of the tower for free.
Location: Above Memorial Glade on UC Berkeley campus, Berkeley
Featured image: Photo by Checubus on Shutterstock