If you’re looking for beautiful buildings in San Francisco, you won’t have to look too hard. The City by the Bay is home to myriad buildings — some new, some older; some tall, some on the shorter side — that are considered architectural wonders. From the Castro Theatre to the Palace Hotel, keep scrolling for the 30 most beautiful buildings in San Francisco.
450 Sutter Street
450 Sutter Street
Although it’s filled with medical and dental offices, 450 Sutter Street is best known as, well, 450 Sutter Street. This massive building was designed by Timothy Pfleuger — a name you’ll read more than once on our list of the most beautiful buildings in San Francisco. 450 Sutter is most noted for its stunning interior, which is done in an Art Deco style Pfleuger has called “Neo Mayan.” Its elevator lobby is especially impressive, as it boasts a certain futuristic flare.
California Academy of Sciences
55 Music Concourse Drive
The California Academy of Sciences is notable for all sorts of reasons. As one of the biggest natural history museums in the world, it houses an aquarium, huge butterfly exhibit, and a rainforest habitat. But the Academy’s most famous feature is undoubtedly its roof. Designed by Renzo Piano, the 2.5-acre space is considered “living.” Its mossy covering naturally insulates the building, while simultaneously absorbing rainwater, and providing a habitat for birds and insects.
The Castro Theatre
429 Castro Street
Designed by Timothy Pflueger, the iconic Castro Theatre dates back to 1922. Pflueger is said to have designed the theater in a Spanish Colonial style in an effort to bring to mind a Mexican cathedral — a nod to California history. The exterior of the theater boasts a beautiful Baroque facade and the distinctive neon sign, while the interior is best known for its unique ceiling. Cast in plaster, the ceiling is meant to look like a leather tent complete with ropes, tassels, and swag. Indeed, the Castro has one of the few remaining examples of this stunning “leatherette” architecture. Though the Castro Theatre has been carefully renovated, many features such as the lobby, box office, wooden doors, and Art Deco chandelier are all original.
Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption
111 Gough Street
Opened in 1971, the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption is the primary church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese community in San Francisco. Designed by Pietro Belluschi and Pier Luigi Nervo, the cathedral is known for its minimalism style. The exterior is modern and angular, while the same interesting angles continue on the interior.
1 Carlton B. Goodlett Place
San Francisco’s City Hall building is exactly what it should be: imposing, rich, and elegant. Built in 1915 to replace a building which had been destroyed in 1906, the San Francisco City Hall was designed by Arthur Brown and John Bakewell. Conceived during San Francisco’s “City Beautiful” movement, City Hall was designed in the Beaux Arts style, and as such includes such features as a grand curving staircase, myriad features of sandstone and white marble, and a gold-plated dome thatis the fifth largest in the world. The building, which has been used as a backdrop for movies like A View to a Kill, spans two city blocks. Its exterior is often lit up for holidays and other special events.
1 Telegraph Hill Boulevard
One of San Francisco’s most iconic buildings is the Coit Tower. Situated atop Telegraph Hill, this single column structure was a gift to San Francisco from Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who wished to commemorate the city’s volunteer fire department. That’s exactly why designer Arthur Brown designed the tower to look like a fire hose. On the interior of the 200-foot-tall tower, visitors will find beautifully detailed murals depicting various aspects of city life which date back to the Works Progress Administration Era.
900 Kearny Street
Known also as the Sentinel Building, the Columbus Tower on Kearney Street isn’t a tower at all. Rather, it’s a flat-iron style building designed by Salfield and Kohlberg in 1907. Located near the Transamerica Building, the Columbus Tower is instantly recognizable thanks to its exterior made entirely of copper and white tile.
Conservatory of Flowers
100 John F. Kennedy Drive
The Conservatory of Flowers dates back to 1878, when it was constructed to unite San Francisco’s urban dwellers with the natural world. Inspired by the palm houses of contemporary Britain, the huge Victorian-style conservatory is made entirely of glass and wood. Don’t worry, it’s sturdier than it looks. Indeed, the fact that the building has survived earthquakes, fires, windstorms, and even explosions makes it the oldest building of its kind in North America. The Conservatory boasts nearly 17,000 glass windows, plus a huge 60-foot-tall dome complete with arches and gables. Its hot and humid interior houses orchids and other tropical plants from places like China, Brazil, and Ethiopia.
Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco
736 Mission Street
The Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco is one of the city’s newer structures — well, sort of. Designer Daniel Libeskind, the architect behind the new World Trade Center and the Jewish Museum in Berlin, added a 3,000-panel structure made of blue steel to a former brick power station that had been standing since 1881. The result is a stunning museum, with galleries lit by natural light. To understand all of the symbolism behind Libeskind’s design, take the museum’s architecture tour.
Thanks to its Brutalism architectural style, the five buildings that make up the Embarcadero Center aren’t often included on lists of San Francisco’s most beautiful buildings. But we think they belong on just such a list. Built between 1968 and 1983, the Embarcadero Center buildings were designed by John C. Portman, and have collectively become a San Francisco icon. As Jay Barmann of SFist describes, “The narrow profiles of each tower show a striking, asymmetrical set of columns of different heights and step backs, smashed together like a group of thin books standing on end.”
First Unitarian Church
1187 Franklin Street
Designed by George Percy, San Francisco’s First Unitarian Church was constructed in 1888. Perhaps as is expected of a church, it’s built in the Gothic Revival style, complete with a big and impressive rose window. In the 1970s, the church underwent a series of renovations. These upgrades saw the introduction of features like textured concrete and redwood details throughout the church’s interior.
1100 California Street
Though it’s located right there atop Nob Hill, Grace Cathedral looks as if it belongs in some European capital. The massive Gothic-style cathedral is the third largest Episcopal church in the United States, and it’s very visually impressive. The doors to the baptistry are ornate copies of the Baptistry of San Giovanni in Florence. Known as the “Doors of Paradise,” they’re cast in bronze, stand 16 feet tall, and each weigh more than a ton. Further inside the cathedral is some 7,300 square feet of stained glass. This includes the huge 28-foot rose window made up of 3,800 glass pieces. Other highlights include:
- two large labyrinths
- mosaics and wall murals designed by the likes of Jan Henryk de Rosen and Antonio Sotomayor
- an altarpiece by Keith Haring which doubles as a moving AIDS memorial.
2007 Franklin Street
San Francisco is chock full of impressive Victorian mansions, but one of the most famous is the Haas-Lilienthal House. Designed by Peter R. Schmidt and built in 1886, the house is a Queen Anne-style Victorian with an exterior boasting such intricate details as wooden gables and a circular corner tower. The interior, however, is even more impressive. It has been lovingly decorated with period furnishings to reflect the upper-middle class life of San Francisco during the Victorian Era. The house, which has survived both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes, is now a museum, and is the only intact Victorian in the city open to the public.
130 Sutter Street
If the Hallidie Building at 130 Sutter Street looks like something out of Mad Men, perhaps that’s because it is this building that is credited as the first with the glass-curtain front that would become so popular in the early- and mid-20th century. Built in 1918 by designer Willis Polk, the Hallidie Building also boasts ornamental balconies, Gothic metal details, and Edwardian fire escapes, all of which are worthy of our admiration. The building underwent a renovation in 2013 to make it “shinier than ever.” It currently houses the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects. How appropriate.
582-592 Market Street
When the Hobart Building was completed in 1914, it was one of the tallest buildings in San Francisco. Today, its 21 stories are dwarfed by the taller buildings around. Still, it remains as impressive as ever. Designed by Willis Polk, the Hobart Building is especially notable for its many Neoclassical architectural details.
Legion of Honor
Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street
Built in 1916 by architect George Applegarth, the Palace of the Legion of Honor was a gift to San Francisco from city socialite Alma de Bretteville Spreckels. Designed and named after the building in Paris, San Francisco’s Legion of Honor houses an impressive collection of artwork, including a slew of sculptures by Rodin. Located in the headlands overlooking the Golden Gate, it’s a beautiful example of French Neoclassical architecture.
M.H. De Young Memorial Museum
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
The M.H. De Young Memorial Museum that you would visit today is actually the second building to stand in that spot, as the original was destroyed in the 1989 earthquake. Designed in a collaboration between the Swiss Herzog & de Meuron and the San Francisco-based Fong & Chan Architects, the current museum building was built in 2005. Its perforated copper exterior is meant to evoke dappled sunlight, though over the years the copper will oxidize to blend in with the local trees. The museum building’s best known feature, however, is the 144-foot-tall twisting tower, which provides visitors with excellent views of the surrounding Golden Gate Park.
88 5th Street
Appropriately nicknamed “The Granite Lady,” San Francisco’s Old Mint building was constructed in 1874 and had no problem surviving the 1906 earthquake and fire. Built in the Greek Revival style, the Old Mint’s best features are arguably interior. These include 30-foot-tall ceilings, gaslight chandeliers, and a 4,000-square-foot interior courtyard. The building hasn’t been used as a mint since 1937, at which point it is said to have held 1/3 of the United States’ wealth. Still, its two ballrooms and multiple salons make it a popular location for special events.
The PacBell Building
140 New Montgomery
If you’re wondering why The PacBell Building has made the list, simply look up. Perched atop this 26-story office building are eight different eagle statues, each of which measures 13 feet in height. But the impressive features don’t stop there. Walk through the building’s revolving doors to find an Art Deco lobby gilded from floors, to black marbled walls, to chandeliered ceilings. Once the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco, The PacBell Building even caught the attention of Sir Winston Churchill, who visited in 1929.
Pacific Avenue Mansions
3200 Block of Pacific Avenue
Pacific Avenue is one of San Francisco’s swankiest addresses, home to such billionaires as Larry Ellison, Jony Ive, and Jeremy Stoppelman of Yelp. Though houses throughout the area are impressive, it’s specifically those on the 3200 block that make our list of the most beautiful buildings in San Francisco. The classic shingled homes on this posh row date back to 1900-1913, and rank as some of the best examples of San Francisco’s early mansions. If you track down just one, make it number 3232. Built in 1902 by the architect Ernest Coxhead, this beautiful home is most famous for its unusual balustrade.
The row of iconic Victorian houses lined up along Alamo Square Park on Steiner Street is easily one of San Francisco’s most famous sights. Movies and commercials have been filmed in front of the houses. The famous Full House house was apparently a Painted Lady, and the mansions have appeared on countless postcards over the years. Though typically Victorian, the houses are perhaps best known for their bright exterior colors, most of which were painted on during the psychedelic 1960s.
The Palace of Fine Arts
3601 Lyon Street
Architect Bernard R. Maybeck designed a number of San Francisco’s most iconic buildings, including The Palace of Fine Arts. The palace — which mainly consists of a large pergola and rotunda overlooking a man-made lagoon — was originally built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition. Though it was destroyed along with the rest of the buildings at the exhibition’s end, the beautiful Beaux Art-style structure was rebuilt in 1965. Once the home of the Exploratorium, the Palace is now used for special events and Instagram backgrounds. Highlights of the design include the columns topped with statues of weeping women, and the myriad Green iconography symbolizing things like art, intellect, and contemplation.
2 Montgomery Street
Walking into the Palace Hotel feels a bit like walking into one of the elegant European hotels of times past. When the hotel was opened in 1875, it was the largest luxury hotel in the world. Though the hotel was briefly closed, it was reopened in 1909. During the Panama-Pacific International Expo, it hosted a reception for the one and only Thomas Edison. Now owned by Marriott, the Palace Hotel is renowned for its beautiful ballrooms, high ceilings throughout, and the Garden Court restaurant with its stunning stained glass ceiling.
151 3rd Street
Everything about the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art feels like, well, a work of art — even the monochromatic restrooms! Though much of MOMA’s building is older, its modern facade was added as recently as 2016. According to Snohetta International Architects, the distinctive design was inspired by the fog and bay for which the city is so well known. Inside, the museum is one of the biggest modern art spaces in America. It spans four floors, including six terraces of sculptures. Especially noteworthy is SFMOMA’s living wall — the largest in the country — which consists of more than 19,000 plants, many of which are native to California.
2 Lake Street
The Temple Emanu-el on Lake Street first opened in 1926, and is yet another impressive San Francisco building designed by Arthur Brown Jr. It’s instantly recognizable for its Byzantine-style dome. In fact, the entire temple was inspired by the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. The interior of the temple has a slew of impressive features, including stained glass windows by Mark Adams and a blue ceiling painted with dozens of ornate motifs.
With its sparkling quartz exterior and pointed tip, the Transamerica Pyramid may just be San Francisco’s most iconic and recognizable building. Designed by William Pereira and publicly scorned when it was built in 1972, the pyramid is 48 stories of office space (that 48th floor consists of only 2,025 square feet!). Though an observation deck was once open to the public on the 27th floor, that was closed in the 1990s. Today, visitors will have to admire the building from the street.
V.C. Morris Gift Shop
140 Maiden Lane
Though it is best known as the V.C. Morris Gift Shop, the beautiful San Francisco building located near Union Square has been known by many names over the years, including the Circle Gallery and the Xanadu Gallery. Currently, it’s ISAIA, an Italian menswear store. But the building is best known as Frank Lloyd Wright’s only architectural contribution to San Francisco. Its famous curving staircase and bricked archway entrance are said to have been Wright’s prototype for the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Not surprisingly, the building’s connection to the famous architect makes it a popular spot for tourists. As ISAIA’s Director of Client Experiences has stated: “There are more Frank Lloyd Wright fans here than ISAIA fans.”
War Memorial Opera House
301 Van Ness Avenue
Just across from the San Francisco City Hall is another beautiful building: the War Memorial Opera House. The opera house is yet another building by Arthur Brown Jr., who designed it with inspiration from Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. When the opera house was opened in 1932, Time magazine stated it was “easily the most attractive and practical building of its kind in the U.S.”
William Westerfield House
1198 Fulton Street
Like the Painted Ladies, the William Westerfield House is also located across from Alamo Square. The 28-room mansion was built in the 1880s for a German-born candy maker. Since then, the house has been owned by a group of Czarist Russians (1920s), converted into apartments for jazz musicians (1940s), and been known as a popular hippie enclave and hangout spot for the likes of the Grateful Dead (1960s). In the 1980s, the house was purchased by new owners, and carefully restored to its former glory. Though the inside is not often seen, it is said to contain lots of dark wood and all of the original molding and mantelpieces. The house’s exterior is officially Italianate in style, but boasts hints of Greek, British, German, and Asian influence, too.
Yerba Buena Center
701 Mission Street and surrounding area
Located in the SOMA neighborhood, the Yerba Buena Center is named after the original Mexican settlement which ultimately became the city of San Francisco. The large center includes a number of iconic features, including an abstract dome, an all-glass exterior facing Mission Street, and an eclectic collection of bridges connecting the Yerba Buena Center with the Moscone Center.