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Visit Coit Tower for the panoramic views and acclaimed historic artwork

Telegraph Hill in San Francisco is topped by Coit Tower
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    Coit Tower has been a majestic symbol of San Francisco’s skyline since its completion in 1933. The towering white column atop Telegraph Hill, on the north-east side of San Francisco near Chinatown and North Beach, sits like a beacon, visible to those on land or sea.


    But the view of the tower is not nearly as spectacular as the views from the tower. Reached by elevator, the observation deck offers 360-degree views that include: Angel Island and Tiburon to the north; Treasure Island, the Bay Bridge and shoreline of Oakland and Berkeley to the east; the San Francisco cityscape to the south and west; and the Golden Gate Bridge and Golden Gate National Recreation Area to the west.


    From here, great photos are possible even with a pocket camera, but to fully take advantage of the panoramic vistas, come equipped with an ultra-wide-angle lens. To enhance your viewing experience, bring a map along with binoculars so you can zero in on sites of interest -- check out what’s going on at Fisherman’s Wharf, the Embarcadero or Nob Hill.


    If you’re under a time crunch, views from the parking area at the base of the tower are decent as well, but are partially obstructed by foliage.The views alone would be worth the trek to the Coit, but this attraction offers a second draw -- a museum of larger-than-life-size murals decorating the lobby, considered to be one of California’s best examples of Great Depression-era public art. Part of a Public Works of Art Project, they were painted by about 30 artists, created in Diego Rivera’s social realism style, with sympathetic portrayals of the daily life of working class Californians.


    Violence broke out during the 1934 longshoremen’s strike and controversy over the “Communist” themes in some of the panels became heated. Some of the most controversial elements were painted over, and the tower was padlocked for several months before it was opened in the fall of 1934.


    Crowds will be smaller on a weekday, but it may be worth waiting to go on a Saturday, when visitors can receive a free guided tour of the murals by City Guides and gain access to the second floor of the gallery, which is otherwise closed to the public.The construction of the tower was funded by a bequest from Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who left one third of her fortune to the City and County of San Francisco. The funds also were used for a monument to Coit’s beloved volunteer firefighters in nearby Washington Square. Telegraph Hill takes its name from a semaphore telegraph erected on its summit in 1850 to alert residents to the arrival of ships.


    Public transportation is strongly recommended for access to Coit Tower since lines to the parking lot are long during peak times. From the downtown area, take either the #30 or #45 line to Washington Square, located at the corners of Union and Columbus and transfer to the #39 Coit Tower bus. For additional information, routes and schedules, please visit the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency or call (415) 673-6864.


    If you’re up for some good exercise, it’s worth parking in a nearby neighborhood and walking. The hills are steep, so you’d need to pace yourself, but strolling through the quaint neighborhoods and trails in Pioneer Park surrounding Telegraph Hill enhances the overall experience. For the most scenic hike, walk Telegraph Hill’s eastern slope via the Filbert Street stairs, which pass through the Grace Marchant Garden, or the Greenwich Street stairs.


    Coit Tower elevator fees are $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and youths 12-17 and $2 for children 5-11. Daily summer hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and winter hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It’s closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Eve. For more information, call (415) 362-0808.