The Palace of Fine Arts near San Francisco's Presidio is one of the city's most photographed spots along with the Golden Gate Bridge, which visitors can also see within a short stroll. Enjoy our photos and tips for visiting this landmark.
Palace of Fine Arts Location, Getting There, and Hours
The Palace of Fine Arts and the surrounding lake is located by Baker Street, between Bay Street and Marina Boulevard, next to the Presidio and close to Crissy Field. It's about a 15 minute drive from downtown hotels such as the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco. If taking public transit, the 130 bus to San Rafael and 101 bus to Santa Rosa take about 30 minutes from downtown to the Richardson and Francisco Street stop, and from there it's a 4 minute walk to the Palace of Fine Arts.
The Palace of Fine Arts is closed Mondays, but is otherwise open Tuesdays-Sundays from 10am-5pm. It tends to get busier later in the day, so we recommend going early.
Palace of Fine Arts: Brief History
The original Palace of Fine Arts was built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition to exhibit works of art. It was one of ten palaces; others showcased agriculture, food products, transportation, mines, metallurgy, machinery, education, liberal arts, manufacturing, and varied industries. The Palace of Fine Arts designer was Bernard Maybeck, who conceived of a beautiful ruin recalling ancient Rome (Piranesi's etching of the Temple of Minerva was a particular inspiration) to serve as a tranquil area that attendees could enjoy after viewing the paintings and sculptures displayed in the buildings behind the rotunda.
For the Expo, the Palace of Fine Arts was constructed of plaster and burlap, since it and the other Expo buildings were meant to be temporary, and taken down after a year. But thanks to the preservation efforts spearheaded by prominent philanthropist Phoebe Hearst, after the Expo concluded, it was spared demolition. The structure wasn't built to last, however, and became a genuine ruin in the decades that followed. Only from 1964-1967 was it completely rebuilt (at about ten times the original cost) with far more permanent concrete.
The Weeping Women
Look at the top of each of the columns and you'll notice that around each of them are four weeping women with their backs turned. Sculptor Ulric Ellerhusen made the weeping women to express both the melancholy of life without art and to emphasize Maybach's themes of melancholy and sadness for the wonder and grandeur of a lost time. Originally, Maybeck intended the figures to be partially shrouded with vines to appear even more of a ruin, but there weren't sufficient funds to accomplish the vines and desired vegetation.
Picnic at the Palace of Fine Arts
Enjoy one of San Francisco's most beautiful landmarks with an impromptu picnic. There are several benches dotting the grounds (it may be hard to find one in the shade, since many other visitors also like to linger and take in the view). We purchased tartine open face sandwiches at one of our favorite bakeries, B Patisserie, and paired them with some fresh fruit for our own simple al fresco lunch.
Nearby: View the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the Wave Organ
An easy 13-15 minute walk from the Palace of Fine Arts past the marina and Golden Gate Yacht Club brings you to the Exploratorium's Wave Organ, dedicated to The Exploratorium's founder, Frank Oppenheimer. The sounds you can hear by putting your ear up to the pipes are created by waves moving in and out of the other end of the pipes, submerged in the ocean.
There's also a good view of Alcatraz from The Wave Organ:
The best listening experience is during high tide. Our visit didn't coincide with high tide, so we heard nothing through some of the pipes, but we could hear interesting tones and gurgling water though some of the pipes on the edge of the structure.
This area is also the perfect place to see San Francisco microclimates in action; looking across the marina and at Alcatraz it was clear, but our view of the Golden Gate Bridge was shrouded by fog.
Have you enjoyed visiting the Palace of Fine Arts and the Wave Organ?
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