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San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts

See the Marina District’s over-the-top palace, surrounded by hiking trails, museums, art galleries, and restaurants

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The Palace of Fine Arts is an extravagant neoclassical icon—a faux palace surrounded by an idyllic pond, its reflective surface graced by snow-white swans. It’s one of San Francisco’s most popular spots for wedding photos and has appeared in countless fashion layouts and Instagram shots.

The Romanesque structure was designed by architect Bernard R. Maybeck for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair that celebrated the Panama Canal’s opening—and gave San Francisco a chance to shine after its devastating 1906 earthquake. The Palace’s domed rotunda, filled with more than 12,000 works of art, was one of dozens of monuments, temples, and pavilions constructed for the nine-month-long expo.

When the grand affair ended, all structures except the Palace were destroyed. San Franciscans couldn’t bear to tear down their glorious tribute to the arts, but since it was built to be temporary—made from plaster, wood, and burlap—the structure slowly crumbled. In the early 1960s, a wealthy philanthropist donated money to save the decaying ruins by recasting them in more enduring concrete. Today’s Palace duplicates the original, with a soaring colonnade and bas-relief urns, domed ceiling with allegorical paintings, and Corinthian columns topped with female figures draped in togas, their weeping faces turned away to symbolize “the melancholy of life without art.” The Palace’s 1,000-seat theater, added in 1970, hosts cultural events, live performances, film festivals, and theater productions year-round.

Marvel at this Beaux-Arts wonder, then head over to the woodsy parklands at the next-door Presidio, which served as an Army post until 1994 and is now a National Park. Ride the free shuttle bus or just use your feet—24 miles of trails lead to scenic overlooks, many showcasing the glorious Golden Gate Bridge.

In a city full of must-see architecture, the Presidio Officer’s Club is a gem. With adobe walls dating back to 1776, it’s San Francisco’s second-oldest building and houses a history museum and Arguello Restaurant, a bistro run by award-winning chef Traci Des Jardins. Nearby, visit the Walt Disney Family Museum or let the kids burn off energy at House of Air, a trampoline park in an aircraft hangar. View the public art at Tides Converge, a nonprofit workspace with two community galleries. Down the hall, Café RX serves authentic Latin American pupusas and tamales, or if it’s not yet noon, Sessions at the Presidio nails the perfect outdoor-patio brunch with its cardamom beignets, avocado toast, and Belgian pancakes.

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