Eye-catching and endlessly fascinating, San Francisco is a scenic showcase of California’s past. Founded by Spanish missionary zeal and built on gold mania, the city bounced back from earthquakes to become a byword for counterculture and technology.


Pre-Columbian hunter gatherers known as the Ohlone were the first known inhabitants of the area. Spanish explorers established the trading settlement of Yerba Buena, which grew from an anchorage at what is today the foot of Market Street. From 1776 the bay was guarded by the Presidio de San Francisco fort, now a leafy park. The Jesuit settlement that became known as Mission Dolores was founded the same year; its chapel is the oldest surviving building in the city. Within the mission you will also find a memorial recalling the sad fate of the Ohlone population, conscripted into building missions and decimated by introduced diseases.

At the end of the Mexican-American War of 1846–48, the city – and the rest of California – was in American hands. It was officially named San Francisco in 1847, just before the 1848 Gold Rush, driven by speculation of gold deposits in northern California, sparked a surge in the city’s population as prospectors – so-called ’49ers – arrived from around the world. Head to the former Barbary Coast district around Portsmouth Square, Chinatown and Jackson Square to explore the history of that era. I would recommend joining a guided walk led by experts from the San Francisco Museum & Historical Society.

There are signs of the city’s mid-19th-century expansion elsewhere, too. First occupied just before the Civil War, Fort Point is a dramatically sited US military bastion guarding the entrance to the strategically and economically important San Francisco Bay. Today it sits in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, the city’s most famous landmark. The graceful, vermilion-hued structure bridging the strait between the city and Marin County was finished in 1937.

The first cable cars trundled in the 1870s. Trolleys remain an enduring symbol of the city, and a perfect way to tackle its steep hills. Turn your back on those hills to face the waterfront and the bay’s most infamous landmark: Alcatraz. Fortified from 1853, it held Civil War PoWs and, from 1868, other military prisoners before becoming a civilian jail. Now a national park, its occupation in the late 1960s by Native American activists was also a landmark in the history of recognition of native land rights.

More like this

Streetcars rattle along the Embarcadero shore, carrying visitors from the Alcatraz dock to the Ferry Building, a Beaux Arts beauty that survived both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes unscathed. Today it’s a fine spot to eat, drink and browse the farmers’ market.

Reconstruction after the 1906 earthquake gave many districts unique architectural identities

The 1906 earthquake and resultant fires ravaged the city; reconstruction efforts gave many districts unique identities. Take a cable-car ride or brisk walk to Nob Hill and the Fairmont Hotel, the grand edifice that hosted the drafting of the UN charter in 1945. Imbibe the ambience with an evening drink at the Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar, a tiki joint that’s served Polynesian-style food and cocktails for over 60 years.

By the 1950s, the city had become a magnet for poets, writers, dropouts and dreamers who formed the ‘Beat Generation’. Head to the movement’s epicentre, City Lights Books, to admire Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s hand-painted signs. Next came the free love and mind-bending drugs of the hippy movement. In January 1967 Golden Gate Park’s Polo Fields hosted the Human Be-In event, heralding the ‘Summer of Love’. Today, it’s a great place for a picnic or a stroll.

In the 1970s and 80s, San Francisco’s famed liberal values found new expression in the Castro, a district long synonymous with LGBT history and political activism. The area is named after the 1920s Moorish-style Castro Theatre, still a thriving cinema and a historic landmark. The area’s Rainbow Honor Walk pays tribute to key figures in the gay rights movement including locals such as Harvey Milk.

San Francisco in nine sites

1: Dolores Mission - Oldest surviving building in the city, with memorial to native Ohlone people

2: Golden Gate Bridge - Bay-straddling span completed in 1937

3: Fort Point & Presidio - Defensive bastion at the northern end of the park on the city’s original fort

4: Alcatraz - Infamous prison island echoing with tales of hardship and escape attempts

5: Ferry Building - Beaux Arts building from 1898 thathas long welcomed arrivals to the city

6: Fairmont Hotel - Landmark hotel, opened just after the 1906 earthquake

7: City Lights Bookstore - Beat Generation epicentre

8: Golden Gate Park - Home of Polo Fields, birthplace of the 1967 hippy ‘Summer of Love’

9: Castro Theatre & Rainbow Honor Walk - Key San Francisco LGBT landmarks

Tom Hall is a travel writer and editorial director of Lonely Planet Publications


This article was taken from issue 9 of BBC World Histories magazine, first published in April 2018