Victorian San Francisco: An Architectural Tour

If you’re traveling halfway around the world to San Francisco, you can’t leave without taking in some of the sights the city is most famous for its Victorian buildings. Victorian architecture is as iconic to San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge. When you’re planning to stay in San Francisco, your holiday would be incomplete without a visit to at least one, if not all, of these famous Victorian sites.
The Haas-Lilienthal House
Located at 2007 Franklin Street, the Haas-Lilienthal House is a private residence open to the public for a few hours on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. This 1886 home, done in Queen Anne–style Victorian architecture, includes period furnishings on the inside, so you can get a glimpse of life as it was over a hundred years ago. This is the closest you can get to see a true Victorian house both inside and out, as it’s the only private residence in the area open to the public that has these antique furnishings intact.
The price of admission is only USD 8 for adults and USD 5 for children and seniors. Call ahead before you go; sometimes tours get booked up or the house is closed for the residents.
The Octagon House
A national historical landmark, the Octagon House at 2645 Gough Street, dates back to 1861. It has been moved across the street from its original location and restored. Inside the house is a collection of Colonel and Federal period memorabilia, including furniture, art, and dinnerware.
The Octagon House is open every month except January, but only on the second and fourth Thursdays, and the second Sunday of the month, and it’s closed on holidays. Call ahead to confirm it will be open or to arrange a special group tour. Admission is free.
Alamo Square
Alamo Square is comprised of an entire row of Victorian houses on a sloped street that will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. One of the windiest parts of the city—but offering a spectacular view—Alamo Square dates back to 1856 when the mayor at the time dedicated the 13-acre area as a public park. The houses on nearby Alamo Hill came shortly thereafter, the most famous of which is “the Six Sisters” or “the Painted Ladies”—six identical, differently colored homes in a row (sometimes called “Postcard Row”). The exterior of these houses has been used for several productions, including the American TV series “Full House.”
If you want a guided tour, there are some free ones available. Just be sure to call ahead to reserve your place; booking special tours may be necessary for groups of eight or more.
Page Street
Close to the Alamo Square Painted Ladies is Page Street, another area resplendent with Victorian-era homes, including sprawling corner mansions. Although some of the buildings have been painted in colors that aren’t quite reminiscent of the Victorian era, the houses are still worth a look. Look for Page Street on a Victorian architecture walking tour, particularly one covering nearby Alamo Square. These are private residences, so you’ll have to view them from the outside.
Pacific Heights Mansions
This San Francisco neighborhood saw its first homes built in the 1870s. Although many of these homes were damaged or destroyed in subsequent years and events such as the 1906 earthquake, much of the Victorian architecture remains. Rather than aiming to tour a specific building—most of the area still consists of private residences, after all—plan a walk through the neighborhood for authentic Victorian exterior photos. There are shopping and dining on nearby Fillmore Street, too. Since you can view the exteriors of the Pacific Heights mansions at any time, this is an ideal stop if you’re not in San Francisco when one of the museums is open. Free walking tours of Pacific Heights are available but call ahead to reserve your spot. If you’re happy with the tour, you might want to donate to the organization sponsoring it, as a token of your appreciation.