San Francisco is a city of poets, writers, musicians, actors and artists, which has drawn and spawned creative types for centuries, not to mention a healthy dose of counterculture characters. Here is but a tiny sampling of the traces of genius past and present still to be found in the City by the Bay. Gaze upon the Golden Gate, stroll through Chinatown, or explore the gardens of the Presidio and feel the inspiration.
Writers & Poets
Born in the counter-culture of post-World War II USA, City Lights Bookstore and publishers was founded in 1953 by Peter D. Martin and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. This anarchic North Beach joint was a hub for the Beat Generation of writers – think Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, et al, and published Ginsberg’s famous poem Howl in 1956. It still champions anti-authoritarian politics and insurgent thinking and now covers three floors of poetry, fiction, translations, politics, history, philosophy, music, spirituality and more.
Visit for a browse, or one of the weekly readings and literary events. Nip around the corner to visit Jack Kerouac Alley and read the engraved Western and Chinese poems by the likes of Kerouac, John Steinbeck and Maya Angelou (pay tribute to poet and author Angelou with a ride on a streetcar – she was San Francisco’s first African-American female streetcar conductor). For more Beat culture, visit The Beat Museum in North Beach.
Another restaurant with a literary connection is John’s Grill, which was a setting for the 1929 detective novel The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. The steakhouse in Union Square has a veritable roll call of famous patrons, from business leaders to artists to film stars, writers and politicians. Upstairs is a shrine to Humphrey Bogart’s 1941 film, based on the book. You can also pay homage to the mystery writer at Hotel Union Square, with a stay in the Dashiell Hammett suite. It features an antique suitcase filled with Hammett books, an old-fashioned typewriter and more.
Screen & Stage
San Francisco has long starred on the big screen, in movies ranging from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Mrs Doubtfire. But one film character that looms as large as the setting is Harry Callahan – aka Dirty Harry – made famous by actor-director Clint Eastwood.
You can make the rounds of Dirty Harry movie locations, but the main ones are ‘Triple Five’ (the former Bank of America Building at 555 California Street) from the opening scene; Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park (the original was demolished but you can see a replica of the original concrete arch at the entryway), and Mt Davidson Landmark Park and Cross (check out the nature trails and spectacular views).
These days Eastwood owns the Mission Ranch hotel and restaurant at Carmel-by-the-Sea – where he was mayor for a term in the 1980s – about a two-hour drive south of San Francisco.
Kung fu legend Bruce Lee was another movie tough roaming the streets of San Francisco. In fact, he was born in the Chinese Hospital in Chinatown, where there is a small plaque, but strangely the city has no other monument to mark his connection to his birthplace. Nevertheless, a stroll through Chinatown will give you a sense of the dawn of martial arts in America.
Legendary filmmaker George Lucas has his Lucasfilm HQ at the Letterman Digital and New Media Arts Center in San Francisco’s historic Presidio National Park. The centre also houses his visual effects and animation studio, Industrial Light & Magic. The nine-hectare campus has public parks, sprinkled with a collection of statues celebrating Bay Area legends of moviemaking, including the Yoda fountain. Also check out the lobby, which contains Star Wars artefacts.
The Grateful Dead raised the roof for hippies in San Francisco in the 1960s and the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Make a pilgrimage to the Bay Area to The Grateful Dead House in Ashbury Street, where the band lived from 1965-68. There is a small stencil of band member Jerry Garcia on the footpath and a skull-and-rose emblem on the kerb, but be aware it is now a private home.
Don’t worry, you can stay at the Jerry Garcia Suite at Hotel Triton near Chinatown. It was designed by Garcia himself, and features his watercolour paintings and drawings on the wall. Or hang out at Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park, one of the Grateful Dead’s favourite spots for impromptu performances, and a gathering place for the counterculture movement of the ’60s. Another member of the psychedelic rock of the time – Janis Joplin – also performed here. And Joplin lived just down the street from the Grateful Dead House in Haight-Ashbury.
San Francisco has long drawn artists to its vibrant streets, and these days the street art scene is where it’s at. Keep an eye out in Oakland and other spots around the city for the works of Eddie Colla, who believes urban environments were never meant to be coated with advertising – and instead uses the space to have a visual conversation. Similarly, murals by Alynn-Mags – aka artists Amandalynn and Lady Mags – lend an otherworldly air to San Francisco’s streetscape.
For more old-school murals, seek out the work of Mexican painter Diego Rivera, which he created in the 1930s and ’40s. In the grand stairwell of The City Club in downtown San Francisco is Allegory of California, but you’ll need to join a guided tour to see it. Over at the San Francisco Art Institute is The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City; and the Diego Rivera Theatre on the campus of the City College of San Francisco houses the mural Pan American Unity.
Finally, influential San Francisco-born photographer Ansel Adams is known for his black-and-white images of California’s Yosemite National Park, but he also took a range of photographs in and around San Francisco. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has a large collection that will keep you spellbound by images of people and places held in a moment in time.