San Francisco has always been synonymous with creativity. From the Beat movement of the 1950s to the boho period that birthed hippie culture in the 1960s, this hilly city situated at the tip of a peninsula along the Northern California coast is nothing if not progressive – and that creative spirit extends to its rich architectural heritage.
Beyond the iconic beams of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco offers a treasure trove of eclectic architectural styles that reveal the city's many transformations from a far-flung frontier town to a cosmopolitan hub. In leafy neighbourhoods, Victorian rowhouses made from local redwood timber give way to Art Deco buildings epitomising 1920s opulence in San Francisco's downtown core. In recent decades, the city has also provided a canvas for the kind of cutting-edge design ushered in by the Silicon Valley boom.
"San Francisco is a different kind of city," said Mark Cavagenero, a renowned San Francisco architect who has designed a variety of cultural, commercial and civic projects around the city. "It's always been something of a dreamer's city – a visionary's city – and the buildings that I like are the ones that have these aspirations latent in them."
Here, he shares with us his favourite architecture gems across San Francisco, and the best ways for you to experience them.
The Palace Hotel's glass skylight is a stop-in-your-tracks stunner (Credit: Stefano Politi Markovina/Alamy)
1. The Palace Hotel (Downtown)
"I enjoy visiting older buildings like [The Palace Hotel] as much as San Francisco's newer buildings, because they're just really beautifully put together," said Cavagnero. "We've always been a really proud and sophisticated city, and so they're really well-maintained."
Take the Palace Hotel, a landmark property just off of downtown's Market Street that first opened in 1875, and then was rebuilt following San Francisco's 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire. Today, the hotel has been restored to its opulent 1920s splendour.
"Go into its Garden Court," Cavagnero suggested, "and enjoy lunch or a cocktail beneath its glass skylight," a dome of antique stained-glass panels that are framed in steel. "I especially like being there from late afternoon into the early evening, when you can watch the light of the sky as it changes colours above you. Some evenings they also have live music."
Address: 2 New Montgomery St, San Francisco, CA 94105
Phone: +1 415 512 1111
2. Salesforce Park (SoMA)
Part of downtown's Salesforce Transit Center and right next to Salesforce Tower, San Francisco's towering new 61-storey-tall Salesforce Park is a natural oasis smack-dab in the middle of an urban centre.
"It's a beautiful, elevated park that's about four blocks long and located 70ft up in the air," Cavagnero said.
While Cavagnero and his team designed the plaza in front of it, architect Peter Walker and his firm, PWP Landscape Architecture, dreamed up the park itself: a 5.4-acre expanse with 600 trees, 16,000 plants and 13 botanically diverse ecosystems.
"What distinguishes it from many of San Francisco's other parks is that it's almost like it's been carved right into a forest of high-rises," Cavagnero said. "This park is urban, it's downtown, and it's very San Francisco."
Brimming with redwoods and palm trees, honeybees buzzing around in a lavender patch and a casual trail that encircles its perimeter, the park plays host to movie nights and yoga, boasts a restaurant and cafe, and even has a gondola to connects it with the street level.
Cavagnero especially loves the rotunda of the city's City Hall (Credit: Sean Xu/Alamy)
3. San Francisco City Hall (Civic Center)
"I think this building, in particular, displays San Francisco's aspirations of being a great city, and trying to become the New York City of the West," Cavagnero, said of San Francisco City Hall. "It's a very ambitious structure that was really trying to tell the country – if not the world – that San Francisco had arrived."
Cavagnero says that the Beaux-Arts building's rotunda is especially impressive. "And if you're willing to walk the grand marble staircase, you'll see the corridors lined in oak panelling," he said. This is also where you'll find the mayor's office, as well as the bronze busts of former Mayor George Moscone and former County Supervisor Harvey Milk, a poignant reminder of both their legacies and their assassinations, which occurred together in city hall on 27 November, 1978.
Every night, city hall's exterior is illuminated by 220 LED lighting fixtures, which are colour-coordinated to coincide with a particular holiday or event, like purple for Women's History Month or orange and black when the San Francisco Giants (a Major League Baseball team) make the playoffs. For the best views, Cavegnero recommends a half-block walk to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, one of his firm's projects. "It's home to a big performance hall," the 200-seat Barbro Osher Recital Hall on the building's 11th floor, "where they host 100 free concerts a year," he said. The hall's floor-to-ceiling glass walls offer "a magnificent view of the city, and specifically, the city hall dome," he added.
Address: 1 Dr Carlton B Goodlett Pl, San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: +1 415 554-4000
The Osher Rainforest inside the California Academy of Sciences is a sight to behold (Credit: Nancy Hoyt Belcher/Alamy)
4. California Academy of Sciences (Golden Gate Park)
Hailed as a masterpiece in sustainable architecture, San Francisco's California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park features natural light, radiant floor heating and a living roof that's populated with native plants to act as a natural insulator. However, "it's the Osher Rainforest that's really spectacular," said Cavagnero. "It's covered by a large glass dome that's tucked within a bigger room with plenty of lighting, and you walk along a ramp," one that's gently inclined and winds among living plants like the Brazilian beauty leaf and West Indian mahogany, stunning orchids and hundreds of free-flying birds and butterflies. Keep an eye out for brightly coloured poison-dart frogs and Amazonian tree boas wrapped around branches as you make your way through this four-storey neotropical rainforest.
The courtyard of the Legion of Honor offers visitors a quiet, contemplative space (Credit: B&Y Photography/Alamy)
5. Legion of Honor (Outer Richmond)
"I really like the museum's courtyard," said Cavagnero, speaking about the entry space to this Beaux-Arts-style fine arts museum housing Claude Monet paintings and Ed Ruscha screen prints. "It's a very stripped-down, contemplative space lined with a colonnade, and here you can just look up and see San Francisco's sky in action. As the fog rolls in, you can almost feel the drama unfold over the abstract stone space, with Rodin's Thinker sculpture kind of brooding about it," in the courtyard's centre.
A major renovation of the museum between March 1992 and November 1995 was Cavagnero's first large project, and the one that set him on a path of working on museums, theatres and music halls.
"When we first started, the museum was really rundown and hardly ever visited," said Cavagnero. "But we brought it back to life, restoring the Porcelain Gallery … the Spanish ceiling [a painted and gilded wooden beauty that was once housed in Madrid's Palacio de Altamira] … basically inserting a modern museum into the shell of this 100-year-old space."
The Frank Lloyd Wright Building's simple brick-wall exterior belies its masterfully rendered interior (Credit: Charles O Cecil/Alamy)
6. Frank Lloyd Wright Building (Union Square)
San Francisco's only building designed by the eponymous visionary American architect, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building now houses ISAIA Napoli, an Italian men's clothing boutique.
"It's a stunning little gallery with a spiral ramp that predates the iconic one in New York City's Guggenheim," Cavagnero said, though noting that Wright had already designed the latter. "Outside, it's a simple brick wall and a beautifully detailed gate, but once you walk through the arch entrance and into the space you say, 'OK, this is why Frank Lloyd Wright was a master.'"
Inside is a glass-tunnel atrium with skylight filtered through a domed ceiling of bubbled and circular acrylic, and curved built-in cabinetry throughout.
Address: 155 Maiden Ln, San Francisco, CA 94108
BBC Travel's The SpeciaList is a series of guides to popular and emerging destinations around the world, as seen through the eyes of local experts and tastemakers.
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