Coit Tower

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Offering some of the most prolific views of the city, the Bay that shares its name, and the bridges that unite it with mainland California, Coit Tower is more than just another San Francisco landmark, it’s an institution. Visiting the Coit Tower offers not only those amazing views, but also a unique and captivating story about the city and one woman who helped build it.


Coit Tower was built by a post-humus bequest from one of the city’s most eccentric residents, Lillian Coit. Born in West Point, NY to an Army doctor and his wife, Lillie moved to San Francisco as a young girl, and always had a special affinity for firefighters, even helping battle her first blaze as a volunteer at the age of 15. She was the epitome of an eccentric in an eccentric city, known for her love of dressing like a man, gambling, and smoking cigars near her home in Telegraph Hill. Lillie Coit died 1929 and left a sizeable portion of her estate, $118,000, to the City of San Francisco for the express purpose of improvement and beautification.

Initially, the city slated Coit’s money for use in road development, but protests from her estate’s executors lead instead to a commission for a memorial near her stomping grounds in Telegraph Hill. A search was instituted for the right designer and a local man named Arthur Brown, Jr. was chosen.  Brown was genius behind many of San Francisco’s landmarks including the War Memorial Opera House and City Hall. Yet, despite its uncanny resemblance to one, Coit Tower is not made in the likeness of a fire hose. Instead the 210-foot tower was designed in the extreme Art Moderne tradition, sleek and industrial, and meant simply for the purpose of “beautifying” the city that Mrs. Coit loved so very much.

In addition to its general design and prominent placement in the skyline of Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower was also the site for one of the first WPA projects commissioned in the city following the execution of FDR’s New Deal. Beginning in 1933, faculty and students from the city’s California School of Fine Arts (CSFA) painted a series of murals at the tower’s base, many of which are done in fresco and depict both Bay area scenes as well as “leftist” sentiment indicative of the feelings of the time.

Since the 1930s, Coit Tower has been a constant image on the San Francisco horizon, serving as a public gathering place, tourist favorite, and pop cultural icon. It most notably appears in the opening scene of the Eddie Murphy film Doctor Doolittle, the setting for an escaped tiger contemplating suicide.

Main Attraction

Located at the peak of Telegraph Hill at 1 Telegraph Hill Boulevard, Coit Tower only has one road leading in and out. This makes visiting during the peak tourist season somewhat of a waiting game, though one that is well worth it for the spectacular 360 degree views from the tower’s observation deck.

There is a nominal fee for riding up the elevator to the tower’s peak, which is open daily from 10-5:30 during the high tourist months, with reduced hours in the winter. Pioneer Park, which surrounds the tower, and the murals at the tower’s base are free to view at your leisure. Many city tours include a stop at Coit Tower as well, which is really the best way to see this landmark since the guides will often go over a history of the paintings as well.

Why It’s a Must-See

Because of its amazing vantage point, taking the walk or drive to the top of Telegraph Hill is well worth the trip. Offering one-of-a-kind views of the city and the water, the area surrounding Coit Tower along with the tower itself provide a unique perspective on both the city and its colorful history.