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The Palace of the Fine Arts | Marina District Attractions

Jan 25, 2023 | Just For Fun, San Francisco Plumbing

Visit the Palace of Fine Arts San Francisco

Alfred Hitchcock used the misty lights and steep streets of San Francisco to great effect in creating the unsettling atmosphere of Vertigo (1958). In one scene, James Stewart and Kim Novak walk down Baker Street in the backdrop of an imposing structure resembling a Roman ruin. This is the Palace of Fine Arts Theater, the city’s architectural landmark.

What is the Palace of Fine Arts Theater?

The Palace of Fine Arts, a monumental structure dating to the early 1900s, is historically significant to the people of San Francisco and one of our staff favorites for history and beauty. It is located on the eastern edge of Presidio, in the Marina District.

Standing tall in the center of a 17-acre park, Palace of Fine Arts adjoins an exhibition center, which is used as a venue for trade fairs and weddings. A lagoon separates it from immaculately maintained grassy fields.

People come here to unwind, attracted by its calming atmosphere, gazing at the birds on the lagoon or plopping on the grass to have a nice outdoor lunch. The rotunda’s Corinthian columns and 162 foot high dome – unmissable in San Francisco’s northern skyline – also beckon tourists and architecture buffs.

What is the history of the Palace of Fine Arts?

The Palace of Fine Arts Theater was originally built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE). Intended as a temporary showpiece for the expo, it was preserved, eventually renovated, and is today a prime attraction in the Marina area.

The structure was conceived by the architect Bernard Maybeck in his vision of “sadness, modified by the feeling that beauty has a soothing influence.” [1] The evident cues are in the weeping figures of the colonnade, who with their backs turned to viewers underscore the melancholic sentiment.

It was one of multiple temporary buildings erected for the PPIE, which was held to proclaim SF’s emergence from the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire and celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. While the other structures were taken down when the event ended, the Palace of Fine Arts was deemed too beautiful to let go.

Maybeck used materials that were considered unusual at the time, including industrial steel, cement, and fire-resistant materials like bubblestone. [2] He choose wood and plaster as the main materials for the original structure. Over decades, the Palace of Fine Arts underwent renovations, being recast in reinforced steel and concrete but with its original architectural details intact. It included a 7-year work costing $21 million dollars, completed in 2011. New paths and landscaping around the lagoon made it a wonderful place for walks.

Why Visit the Palace of Fine Arts?

San Francisco is one of America’s most beautiful cities. The Palace of Fine Arts is an instance of what makes the city enriching to the senses. Sit back and relax, taking in the beauty around you. Go under the dome to see the details of the colonnade. Do a picnic lunch with the family. The kids will love the swans, herons and mallards on the lagoon. A famous resident was Blanche, a 20-year old mute swan, who was born here in 1994 and who at the time of writing had died just a few days ago. [3]

The Palace of Fine Arts was home to the Exploratorium Museum, founded by Frank Oppenheimer and opened in 1969. It closed doors in 2013 and moved to Piers 15 and 17 on Embarcadero. The famous museum has numerous fun and educational exhibits that delight people of all ages.

The Palace of Fine Arts is a popular destination for “I Dos”. You’re very likely to see at least one wedding party taking picture here, apart from the regular tourist groups. Entry is free. The closest street parking is on Palace Drive, which allows free parking for up to four hours. Free parking is also available at Crissy Field East Beach lot near Crissy Field Center.

What Else to Do?

Palace of Fine Arts is a short walk from the Golden Gate Bridge, Presidio, and the neighborhood’s restaurants, shop and bars. It is also a short drive to O’Grady Plumbing, about 18 minutes. Here are some ideas on exploring the neighborhood:

Shopping at Chestnut Street and Union Street

Chestnut Street is the main thoroughfare with unique restaurants and cafes, and one-off stores and boutiques. Union Street is an upscale street with shops, bars and restaurants. After a spot of shopping, people like to head down to Marina Green and gaze upon the Golden Gate Bridge. Catch the stunning views at the promenade and watch sea lions lounging in the sun.

Crissy Field

Make time for Crissy Field, home to one of SF’s largest beaches with the added appeal of the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. There’s a running/walking trail here and a grassy field for frisbee, football or other sports. It’s a great photography spot for top-quality photos of the bridge and Sausalito.

Marina Green

The Marina Green also affords spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and Angel Island. It is a green space that runs continually between Fort Mason to the east and Presidio to the west along the SF Bay. It is a popular place for volleyball and kite flying, and home to the Wave Organ, an acoustic sculpture that makes music based on the waves. Its acoustics are active when the tide is in, so it sounds best at high tide.

Fort Mason

Fort Mason is another attraction to stop by. The former US army military complex features cafes and museums, and hosts local events and college courses. Its resident organizations include the non-profit Long Now Foundation, which is known for its innovative projects. Among them, a project that aims to preserve all languages under a threat of extinction between 2000 and 2100, and a timepiece designed to keep time for 10,000 years. [4]

How to Get There

Palace of Fine Arts is about two miles from Fisherman’s Wharf and three miles from Union Square. Crissy Field, which falls between the Golden Gate Bridge and Palace of Fine Arts, is less than half a mile away. If using public transportation, take the bus lines 22, 28, 30, 41, 43 or 45.

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