San Francisco – Secret Monuments of Downtown

Discovering San Francisco's landmarks hidden in plain view

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Don’t let the startup valuations and tech IPOs fool you; San Francisco is a city rich with history and monuments. Though Downtown San Francisco is perhaps the city’s most modern neighborhood, monuments dating back to more rugged days can be found here if one knows where to look. These “hidden” monuments are often right in plain view, largely ignored as the mad rush shuffles up and down Market Street. With the right mindset, a whole universe of the past is unveiled offering humbling parallels to our current day.

Where to start your trek

Start inside the Ferry Building, where visitors compare the past and the present with displays that discuss the history of the transportation hub. From this flavor-filled marketplace, head down Market Street, keeping an eye out for large sculptures. You’ll find the Mechanics Monument, dedicated in 1901, a statue that served as inspiration for those rebuilding the city in 1906; the Admission Day Monument, dedicated to California’s admission to the Union in 1897; Lotta’s Fountain, a gift from actress Lotta Crabtree to the city after the Great Quake; and, finally, Union Square with its column, the Dewey Monument, a commemoration to Admiral Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Hotel monuments

Many of the hotels offer an abundance of history as well. The Palace Hotel on Market was once the go-to dining spot for anyone who was anybody. The Westin St. Francis, located on the western edge of Union Square, is another notable mention. Head inside for historical displays in their main lobby. Up on Nob Hill and near Grace Cathedral sits the Fairmont San Francisco, slated for completion right when the Great Quake struck in 1906. Now, the hotel serves as a popular stay for notables like the Obama family.

Chinatown monuments

Just a few blocks away stands another of San Francisco’s most historic quarters: Chinatown, a neighborhood worth mentioning on this itinerary due to its close proximity. Here you’ll find the unmissable Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, built in 1853 and renovated in 1909. Nearby, Ross Alley provides a look into the quieter side of Chinatown; it’s the oldest alley in San Francisco, once known for its brothels and gambling parlors. Today, you’ll find only a few small shops here, most notably a fortune cookie factory where you can get custom cookies made. Finally, head to Portsmouth Square to uncover the former location of the Hall of Justice, where the city’s lawmen once worked. It was here where the American flag was first raised in San Francisco. The memorial is marked next to a monument to Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson.

Plus more San Francisco Monuments

If all this still doesn’t satisfy your fancy for history, more modern historical attractions can be found, such as Ruth Asawa’s San Francisco Fountain outside the Grand Hyatt near Union Square. The artist included nearly every notable aspect of the city on her magnificent structure. At Yerba Buena Park, one can wander through a moving memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. Enter the fountain and read a series of quotes from the great human rights leader. Nearby, the California Historical Society provides even more passageways into the depths of the city’s rich history.

Explore Another San Francisco Itinerary

Best of Fisherman’s Wharf … Seafood and sea lions along the waterfront
Best of North Beach … Modern adventures on the Barbary Coast
Fun, Food, Arts and Culture in the Embarcadero District … A walking tour from Ferry Building to Union Square
Haight-Ashbury: Feeling the Groovy 60s … A stroll through the famous hippie hub
Yerba Buena: culture, art, innovation … A walking tour through the vibrant neighborhood

And more related itineraries below.

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