Top 10 Places for Photography in San Francisco

Photowalking 7Golden Gate Bridge at Dusk, Dedicated to My Good Friend Robert ScobleSkinSelf Portrait, August 24, 2005

One of the most common emails I get from readers is an email letting me know that they are coming to visit San Francisco and asking what I’d recommend that a visitor shoot while here on their trip.

With that in mind, I thought I’d put together a post today of what I feel are the top 10 not to be missed photographic sites to shoot while you visit.

To dig deeper into some of the things to shoot in the San Francisco Bay Area I’ve set up two collections on Flickr.

The first collection is called Bay Area Photographic Destinations and includes 74 different shooting sites that you might want to consider on your visit.

The second collection is called The Micro Neighborhoods of the San Francisco Bay Area and covers 40 neighborhoods in the Bay Area that you might want to explore further.

I’ve highlighted different views of the points of interest with links so that you can get a better idea what I’m talking about. Most images are geotagged so you should be able to find them pretty easily. If you can’t find a site for whatever reason, shoot me an email or comment and I’ll try to point you in the right direction.

So on with the list.

#1 The Golden Gate Bridge. This probably goes without saying, but the Golden Gate Bridge is probably the most photographed tourist spot in San Francico. That said, even as a local, I am constantly amazed at the shots I am able to get of the Bridge with each subsequent visit. There are four primary places that you should consider shooting the bridge from. The first one is simply to shoot on the bridge itself. I’d recommend both walking and having someone else drive while you shoot across the bridge. The three other spots I’d recommend shooting the bridge from are Fort Point (just under the bridge to the East), Baker Beach (a great beach West of the Bridge), and the Marin Headlines (many vista points just northwest of the bridge). There is also a spot just south of the bridge where you can get out of your car and shoot straight on at the bridge.

#2 Alcatraz. Not many things are more fun to shoot than abandoned old prisons. The best tip here is to reserve your ferry trip out to Alcatraz *early*. You will not be able to reserve a ride if you try and make your reservation when you are already here for your visit. Also I’d recommend making a reservation for a mid to late afternoon visit. This will give you an opportunity to shoot the prison during the day and after dark. The prison feels even spookier after dark and you can also get some great vista shots of San Francisco from the island (bring a tripod).

#3 Twin Peaks. At the top of Twin Peaks in San Francisco is one of the greatest vistas to shoot in the world. You can see the entire city of San Francisco as well as the Bay Bridge and Oakland. I find that this view is best shot at night. In addition to views of the City, City Hall, the Transamerica Building, downtown etc., there is an excellent far away view of the Golden Gate Bridge from this point as well as a great opportunity to shoot Sutro Tower.

#4 The Museums. The SF MOMA doesn’t allow photography in their galleries (shame on them) but you can still sneak photos here and there. The crown jewel for photographers in San Francisco though is the de Young. Although the de Young doesn’t allow tripods or backpacks (wear a photo vest), they do have an open policy towards photography. The other museum that you may want to visit is the Oakland Museum of California (currently under renovation so not 100% what it should be at present). You can take the BART over to the 12th Street BART station in Oakland and walk over to shoot the Oakland Museum of California. The Asian Art Museum allows photography as well and is a great shoot. There is also a great vintage arcade game musuem called Musee Mecanique in Fisherman’s Wharf.

#5 The Hotels. There are a number of hotels where you can get *great* overhead shots of San Francisco. Because hotels are fairly unrestrictive about who goes in and out, even if you are not a guest at a given hotel you can still gain access pretty easily to shoot.

The first hotel shot I recommend is from the catwalk atop the Mandarin Hotel. The Mandarin Hotel is the tallest hotel in San Francisco and there is the most amazing catwalk connecting it’s two towers on the top floor. You will catch a fantastic view of North Beach and the Transamerica Building from up there, especially at dusk.

The second hotel I’d recommend shooting from is the Financial District Hilton on Kearny. You’ll need to slip into the elevator with someone with a elevator key, but the views from the stairwell on the north side of the hotel are the best views of Coit Tower in the city.

The third hotel I’d recommend shooting from is the Fairmont Hotel which sits atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill. Take the elevator on the north west side of the hotel to the second floor from the top (the elevator won’t let you up to the Penthouse which is the Crown Room). Get off at the second from the top floor and make your way into the stairwell and use the employee service elevator to get to the top of the Crown Room (ignore the no trespassing signs). Usually it’s empty and you’ll have an amazing view atop the world all to yourself. I recommend shooting this pre and post sunrise.

The last hotel I’d recommend visiting is the Hyatt Grand Regency. Not only does this hotel have one of the most amazing modern interiors in the world of architecture, if you take the modernistic elevators up to as high a floor as you can you can sneak out the fire staircase on the east side of the hotel to get a spectacular view of the Bay and the Ferry Building. Make sure you prop this door open behind you as it locks and you’ll be stuck climbing down all the stairs if you don’t.

#5 Chinatown / North Beach. Chinatown and North Beach are comfortably close to each other by way of walking distances. Try walking up and down a few of the North to South streets in Chinatown (Grant, Stockton, Powell) to get some of the great neighborhood culture. After shooting Chinatown, make your way North to North Beach. There are some great night shots of the neon of the strip clubs on Broadway as well as great views in Washington Square Park of St. Peter and Paul church as well as beautiful views up at the top of Coit Tower.

#6 Haight Ashbury / Mission District. Not necessarily within walking distance, Haight Ashbury and The Mission are two of the best neighborhoods to shoot to see some of the best cultural sites in San Francisco. Both neighborhoods are rich with street art, graffiti and street murals and have lots of funky stores and art galleries where you can shoot the windows from the street. You’ll do best in the Haight sticking close to upper Haight Street itself. With regards to the Mission District I’d recommend shooting around Mission and 24th Streets. Especially pay attention to all of the little alleys shooting off of 24th Street and Mission itself. This is where you will find some of the best street art in San Francisco.

#7 City Hall. City Hall is one of the architectural high points of San Francisco. With unrestricted access to most of the floors of the building you can get several great vantage points to shoot the interior of the building. Bring a wide angle lens with you if you can. These shots work especially well there.

#8 The Ferry Building. Once a decrepited old rats maze of endless coridors of offices (if only I’d had more foresight back then to shoot them!), the San Francisco Ferry Building has transformed itself into a mecca for foodies. In it’s restoration it was also rebuilt to showcase the architectural beauty that it really is. Be sure and try to make your way up to the second floor and take the stairs just to the left of the grand staircase as you go up them. If you can act naturally enough like you work in the building you can squeak past the security guard and make your way up to a stunning interior walking bridge where you will get the best wide angled shots of the building of all. Try to visit the Ferry Building on one of the days (Tuesday and Saturday) where the farmer’s market is going on to get even more great shots.

#9 The Palace of Fine Arts / Exploratorium. The Palace of Fine Arts is a building in San Francisco originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. It’s especially stunning at night. Be sure to try to shoot a bit under the dome of the building to get a shot that looks like this.

The Exploratorium is a science museum inside the Palace of Fine Arts building. Although especially great for kids, the museum also has lots of fun things for adults to shoot as well.

#10 The cemeteries. There are two cemeteries that I’d especially recommend shooting in San Francisco. Neither are particularly easy to get to, but if you like shooting dramatic cemeteries both are worth a visit.

The first is the San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio. This is a large military cemetery with rows and rows and rows of identical grave markers. In addition to the stones themselves, there are dramatic views of the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Presidio from the top of this cemetery.

The second cemetery I’d recommend visiting is Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. You’ll probably want to rent a car to get to this location as it’s not so convenient, but this cemetery has the most spectacular cemetery sculpture in the entire Bay Area. This cemetery is where the wealthiest in San Francisco’s days gone by were buried and has dramatic sculptures of angels especially. Don’t miss Crocker’s angel.

There are lots of other great places to shoot in and around San Francisco. Browse some of my collections for some other great spots and feel free to comment if you have questions on other spots to shoot.

Bonus links:

Best Chinese Food in San Francisco: Henry’s Hunan (Downtown/Chinatown)

Best Mexican Food in San Francisco: La Taqueria (Mission District)

Best Reasonably Priced Sushi: Godzilla Sushi (Pacific Heights)

Best Expensive Sushi: Sushi Ran (Sausalito)

Best Breakfast Spot in San Francisco: Sears Fine Food (Union Square)

Best Used CD Store in San Francisco: Amoeba (Haight)

Best Wine Store: K&L; Wines (South of Market)

Best Wine Bar: Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant (Ferry Building)

Best Camera/Photo Store: None. They all are pretty much overpriced. Save yourself some money and make sure to buy from B&H; ahead of your trip.

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  1. Thomas, thanks for the summary. I really appreciate your willingness to share the great spots that you have found with everybody. It’s a good reminder that photography, like so many other things, is better when it’s about sharing.

  2. Tom H says:

    Great suggestions, Thomas. I keep a spreadsheet of great photo locations, and these all went right in there. I have never been to San Francisco, but hope to visit some day soon.

  3. Henrik says:

    Timing is everything. I’m flying to the Bay Area on Sunday, staying for three months :). Thanks Thomas.

  4. Jeremy says:

    Thanks for the well thought out post. I am visiting SF (again) in April and this will come in handy.

  5. Aaron Spence says:

    G’day Thomas,

    Great post, I’ll keep it handy for my next trip. I was over there last year from Oz and shot some of the places you mentioned…although I shot panoramas (virtual tours) for my pano/mapping site – SF panos. – Alcatraz panos.

    Thanks, Aaron.

  6. Thiago Silva says:

    Cool, I got six out of them without asking anyone 😀

  7. I would like to add that SF is great for street photography. I visited there last spring and shot a couple of sets of black and white photographs:

    By the way, I loved the city and hope to visit there again soon.

  8. J says:

    Here’s some favorites of mine that you missed:

    Treasure Island – Great for sunset over the city shots. Try a day when the moon and sun set near the same time.
    Fort Funston – West on the coast, an old coastal fort. Watch for the hang gliders there.
    Angel Island – Best kept secret of the locals. Rent a bike, take the ferry and spend the day. The Ellis island of the west coast.
    Devil’s Slide – About 30 minutes south on US 1, incredible landscape.
    Lighthouse at Montera. Just south of Devil’s Slide.

  9. Disoriented says:

    These suggestions are awesome! Thanks and I hope to be back to the City sometime soon.

  10. Stephen says:

    Oops, I spelled ‘Francisco’ wrong. 😛

  11. Stephen says:

    *wistful sigh* I love San Franscisco. My wife and I went on our honeymoon there.

  12. JivZ says:

    Great tips, thank you. I’ll be visiting this may and will use your tips for sure!

  13. Anonymous says:

    Fortune hotels are expanding fast with the opening of new properties across the country. The rooms of these hotels are well equipped with all the modern amenities, which a traveler is looking for. Recently Fortune has opened new properties in Navi Mumbai, Kolkata and Pune. These business hotels in Navi Mumbai, hotels Kolkata and Pune hotels are all set to be the preferred destination for the discerning business traveler. These hotels in Navi Mumbai, Kolkata hotel and Pune hotels offer a choice of F&B; outlets also. The services in these hotels are offered in a warm atmosphere. The traveler would certainly enjoy his stay in Fortune amidst all the facilities and would not look in for any other option in future. The starting price of the rooms in Pune is Rs 8000/-, Navi Mumbai is Rs 8500/-, and Kolkata is Rs 6000/-.

  14. William Beem says:

    I just had a 2-night business trip there and definitely appreciated this guide for my limited free time to plan some shots.

    One shot that I couldn’t get was from the Mandarin Oriental hotel. They keep the doors locked now. I spoke to some folks at the front desk. Were I a guest there, I’m sure they would’ve opened up for me. Likewise, they also said that I could obtain a permit as a non-guest. Unfortunately for me, it was my last night in town and they were unwilling to open up for me to take a shot.

    For those who want to capture this view, plan ahead.

  15. topfloor says:

    Hello from Germany!
    I had the pleasure to visit SF for 6 days in June 2008 – with your tips it was a really nice experience to explore the city around your tips. Thank you very much for the post.

  16. sfphotooo says:

    the best breakfast place in the city is a little place called “Dottie’s True Blue Cafe”… is on the corners of Jones and O’Farrell in the Tenderloin. It’s only open until 3. The only thing in the restaurant they don’t make from scratch is their english muffins. I highly recommend going and is worth waiting in line, I promise.

  17. Ray says:

    Thanks for all the links and info.

  18. […] reading Thomas Hawk’s blog post on the top 10 places to photograph in San Francisco, I felt the urge to go up to the Mandarin Oriental hotel in SF and […]

  19. Wendy Baker says:

    Wow. Thanks so much for info. Very,very useful. I appreciate it.

  20. Lena Y says:

    Thanks! I am heading for SF shoots this Friday. I would highly recommend spot from Treasure Island.
    Your photographs are great.

  21. Ronald says:

    Thank you very much sir for the insight this will definitely help in my San Fransisco Vacation Aug 09.

  22. Bob says:

    Great tips, thank you. Been visiting this week on business and taking photos early morning and late evening. Lots to process but I posted some to Flickr.

  23. Dale Ward says:

    Just what I was looking for for my upcoming trip. Thanks a million for putting this together.
    Any recommendations for the Sonoma/Napa area? (Anybody?)

  24. April Greer says:

    Thanks for posting this fantastic guide, I’m in SF for 4 days and your tips were great! I’m on my way out the door to capture day 1 of 4 and take advantage of this beautiful light. Dankeschoen!

  25. Emily L. says:

    What about equally beautiful places to stay? planning a wedding, and I need hotel rooms that are photogenic and gorgeous. Recommendations?

  26. fantastic suggestions; thank you!

  27. Mike says:

    Hey! great post! thanks!

  28. Ed says:

    Great blog, can you suggest hotel near wharf for myself and family? Ratings online can be somewhat misleading.


  29. Just when I thought about where to shoot next, I’ve stumbled upon your list. Thanks a lot – you probably saved me for the next few weeks 🙂

  30. Blueangel19 says:

    Thank you so much for posting this! I really love your work!!!

  31. RK says:

    Thomas, thank you so much for sharing all these locations for photography in San Francisco – very helpful and instructive for a learner like me.

  32. Eric from NZ says:

    Thank you a bunch Thomas. I get in Sunday noon and as soon as I drop my bags in my room (Hilton Kearny St so I’ll get the Coit tower shot on the way out) I’ve got my Google map list taking me to Painted Ladies, Baker Beach, Fort Point, a garage location on Vajello mentioned by another photographer on-line, the dinner at Henry’s and after I’ll try the Oriental before getting back to the hotel.
    Google says it’s a four hour walk, so with time spent getting the shot I reckon seven should do it!

    Thanks again and let me know when you’re heading down here to Christchurch NZ and I’ll return the favour.


  33. Iden Ford says:

    Need some help here. Gonna be in SF for a day in May. I want to do a kind of noir shoot with a model. Am happy to pay for permits or rent a cool space that has a 40’s feel to it. Can you give me any suggestions as I am in Canada

  34. Great website i love it. always recommendSuggest to all my friends and they love it to. Great Theme i love it. Always speak highly of to all my co workers and they love it to.

  35. GB says:

    Great list with awesome tips. Also, thanks for the foodie advice too. Looking forward to following this well thought out plan. 🙂 THANKS!

  36. Jackson says:

    Thanks for posting this article. I just booked a trip there this upcoming May. This info is priceless. Thanks again!