Coit Tower | San Francisco’s Observation Deck
This post is a visitors guide to Coit Tower in San Francisco with tips on when to come, how to get here, how much you will pay and what you will see. Coit Tower is one of San Francisco’s most recognizable landmarks and a place everyone should add to their list, if only for the wild parrots! Several of our pay-what-you-like tours start or end near the tower.
COIT TOWER HOURS AND TICKET COSTS
Open 10am – 6pm (May through October), 10am – 5pm (November through April)
Admission to the ground floor of the tower is free for everyone. This is where most of the murals are located. Admission to the second floor requires a ticket for their guided tours. These tickets are fairly inexpensive and provide an opportunity to see artwork that had been all but forgotten for over half a century.
- $6/adult resident | $8/adult non-resident
- $4/senior resident | $5/senior non-resident
- $2/child (5-11) resident | $2/child non-residents
- child (4 and under) – Free
- Preorder tickets here or pay onsite.
Guided Tour Admission:
- $8 for a full tour of the murals
- $5 for a tour of the second-floor murals
- Duration: 30-40 minutes
- Tours are limited to an 8 person maximum
HOW TO GET TO COIT TOWER
Option 1 – Take the Stairs
If you take a look at a map of the area, it looks like Coit Tower is within an easy walking distance of many different neighborhoods: North Beach, Chinatown, the Waterfront, etc. But be warned! Google Maps doesn’t mention the fact that you have to walk up a very steep hill to get there.
But, if you’re feeling good and you’d like some exercise, we think this is the best way to get up to the tower. Starting in North Beach at Washington Square Park, you can walk up the hill on Filbert Street. Or, starting on the other side near the waterfront, you can walk up the Filbert Street Steps.
On the eastern (bay) side of Telegraph Hill, you’ll ascend around 400 steps over a rocky, craggy hillside that formerly was a quarry. This is a wonderful walk to take if you have the energy for it, because residents of the area have planted beautiful gardens, and they have built incredible homes and cottages along the steps.
To get to these steps, You can easily reach the Filbert Street Steps from the Embarcadero. Cross through Levi Plaza and continue until you reach Sansome. When you’ve reached Sansome and Filbert, you’ll see concrete steps at the dead end. Walk to the steps and start climbing!
Option 2 – Drive, Taxi, Uber, etc.
If you choose not to hike up the Filbert Street Steps, there are some easier ways to get up the hill.
The drive up to the base of Coit Tower is a quick ride – maybe 10 minutes from downtown. The easiest way to get up the tower is to start on the western side, in the North Beach area. Your best bet is to start in North Beach. We’ve included a map of the drive below. There is a small parking lot at the top of Telegraph Hill, but it is important to know that the lot fills up very quickly on busy days, so you may be waiting around a while for a spot!
Option 3 – Take a Bus to Coit Tower
The best bus to take is the 39, coming from Fisherman’s Wharf. You can check out the detailed bus route and schedule here. Note that the bus costs $2.25 per person, and the bus does not make change. But it will take you directly to the base of Coit Tower.
Option 4 – Walking to Coit Tower
Perhaps you’re not interested in walking the stairs to Coit Tower but you still want to walk. Or perhaps you could only find parking down in North Beach and want a direct walking route to the top of Telegraph Hill.
The “easiest” (and we put that in quotes because Telegraph hill is still very steep, and you’ll get a workout any way you walk up!) is to start in North Beach and head up the western side of Filbert Street.
Walking up that street is not as steep as the eastern side, but at the top of Filbert Street, you will run into another staircase. Walk up the 50 or so steps, and you will arrive at Pioneer Park.
COIT TOWER MURALS
On the interior of Coit Tower, you’ll find 27 murals painted during the height of the Great Depression. Painted by various artists, these murals reflect the life of San Franciscans during the 1920s and 1930s, including many of the struggles of the working class. You’ll notice that some of the murals have a distinctive leftist (or even Marxian) theme, with one of the murals even including a depiction of a man holding Marx’s book Das Kapital.
Most of the murals are on the ground floor of the tower and are accessible for free whenever the tower is open. However, there are some murals that few people know about on the second floor of Coit Tower. This floor has been largely closed off to the public for decades due to its tight viewing space and other factors, but efforts have recently been made to bring more visitors upstairs. This area is currently limited to small groups in guided tours. For more information on these tours, check our tickets and times section above.
Epachamo at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
One of the best ways to experience the ground floor murals is to look at all of them in a clockwise direction around the entire gallery. Some critics suggest that each piece of art tells a story which leads into the next, giving you a better appreciation for how the artists interpreted the world around them. While a history book can tell you the facts, the only way to get the real story about what it was actually like to live during a certain time period is to see the artwork they’ve left behind. These murals do an excellent job of depicting some of the most common concerns that citizens felt during the Great Depression.
For a great guide to each of the murals, check out this page. Alternatively, SFToDo offers their own breakdown of the artwork, providing information and interpretations of each major piece on display. Either of these sources would be invaluable for a self-guided tour of Coit Tower.
THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL
Be sure to look (and listen) for some of San Francisco’s noisiest residents. Said to have arrived as part of a South American flock in the 1990s, these parrots (of the cherry-headed conure variety, as well as hybrids) chose to make San Francisco home. They’ve become such an integral part of the neighborhood’s identity that a documentary film was even made about them! See the trailer below.
VIEWS AND A BRIEF HISTORY
Coit Tower is one of our favorite spots in San Francisco, and the woman it was named after, Lillie Hitchcock Coit, is one of our favorite historic San Francisco characters!
Lillie Hitchcock (no relation to the movie director) was born in 1843 before California was even a state. When Lillie was only about 5 years old, her house caught on fire. She was in serious danger for her life, but the fire department pulled her out of the fire and save her life. From that moment, she was simply in awe of the fire department and firefighters.
For the rest of her childhood, if her parents ever didn’t know where she was, they knew they could go down to the fire department and find her there. The firefighters absolutely loved her and made her the unofficial mascot of Engine Company Number 5. She would often be found wearing a (huge!) fireman’s jacket and hat.
Later in life, she married Howard Coit, changing her own name to Lillie Hitchcock Coit.
Now, you have to remember that in the mid-1800s, women of that time (and especially upper-class women) were supposed to be “ladies.” They were meant to be dainty, proper, taking care of the home, wearing pretty dresses, etc. But Lillie Coit thought that was ridiculous.
For the rest of her life, she was a regular at the firehouse still wearing firefighters’ hats and jackets. She’d be smoking cigars, drinking whiskey, playing poker, and swearing like the dirtiest sailor around. And (horror of horrors!) you could often find her wearing pants! At that time, it was a woman dressing like a man! Insanity!
But “Firebell Lil” was definitely her own woman, and she played by her own rules.
When Howard Coit died, he left his (large) estate to Lillie. And when she died in 1929, she left a large portion of her estate to the city to beautify the area. The city used most of the money to build Coit Tower in her honor. The remainder of the money went to building a sculpture honoring the volunteer firefighters of the city.
While many loved Lillie, those who mingled in San Francisco’s high society regarded Lillie as an oddity and lamented for her poor parents. She was, in fact, odd for her time. But aside from ruffling a few feathers, she never truly offended anyone.
So take a trip to the tower named after her, and enjoy some spectacular views of San Francisco!
REVIEWS OF COIT TOWER
There are a lot of things to experience at Coit Tower, so it would be a little disingenuous to provide a rough overview of reviews for the landmark itself. With that in mind, we’ve decided to provide you a breakdown of reviews for each individual attraction available at this historic location. We will be using TripAdvisor to determine ratings and reviews.
Telegraph Hill – An overwhelming majority of guests agree that this area is absolutely beautiful. Whether driving up or climbing the Filbert Street stairs, several visitors really appreciated the views from this significant landmark. Some reviewers suggest that the artwork on display at Coit Tower is worth the walk, but others are simply happy to take in the sights and sounds of San Francisco from Telegraph Hill.
Observation Deck – Despite the fact that it is not free to access the top of Coit Tower, most visitors were very pleased with the experience. Some visitors noted that your time on the observation deck is not limited, allowing you to take in excellent views of the city for as long as you’d like. Some guests insist that this is one of the best ways to see San Francisco, indicating that the 360-degree view of the area allows you to see several major sites with ease.
Murals – Needless to say, the historic murals on display at Coit Tower are very popular. Visitors are typically very impressed with the artwork, describing it as both beautiful and incredible. Several reviewers made note of the fact that it is free to see the paintings on the ground floor, which is an excellent opportunity for anyone in the San Francisco area. Other guests were just as interested in the architectural structure of this tower, suggesting that the building was oddly constructed but very unique.
The Second Floor Guided Tour – Although there aren’t a lot of reviews for this service, those who have left ratings were very impressed. Most guests agreed that their tour guide was both friendly and well informed, providing a lot of valuable details about all of the murals on display. Some visitors indicated that the artwork and history discussed gave them a better appreciation for what life was like in San Francisco during the Great Depression.
Overall Ratings – With an overall rating of 4 stars on TripAdvisor, it’s clear that most people who visit Coit Tower are very happy with their experience. Complaints ranged from lack of parking to the price of admission. It’s worth noting that it’s free to get in on the ground floor, and they have actually lowered prices for access to the Observation Deck. With that being said, it’s almost impossible to please everyone while keeping this historic location well maintained. As of posting this, negative reviews only make up roughly 3% of the overall ratings, so it’s safe to say that a majority of guests are quite pleased with their trip.