Although LA is considered the heart of the US movie industry, filmmakers have always liked shooting in its sister San Francisco to the north and many a major movie has the city’s steep, Victorian-studded hills and their panoramic views as a backdrop.

The Golden Gate Bridge has had a starring role in many a San Francisco-set movie © Alexander Howard / Lonely Planet

Film is tied to the very history of the Golden Gate City. The first moving picture, Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horse, was caught in the Bay Area, and in the decades following, silent movie innovators like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin came to San Francisco to film. Since then, directors and producers including Alfred Hitchcock, Clint Eastwood and Francis Ford Coppola have captured the magic of SF on celluloid.

With such a strong connection to the world of cinema, San Francisco is a great place for movie buffs to have a where-do-I-recognise-this-place-from experience. Here are the most memorable movie locations in the City by the Bay.

Golden Gate Bridge: Vertigo, Rise of the Planet of the Apes

It's from the wall next to Fort Point that Madeline jumps into the bay in Vertigo © Alexander Howard / Lonely Planet

Art deco and orange (officially International Orange), the Golden Gate Bridge is San Francisco’s signature landmark and has been featured (and destroyed) in more movies than we can count.

In our opinion though, Hitchcock used it best. The bridge appears in an important scene in Vertigo (1958), when a distraught Madeleine (Kim Novak) leaps into the waters at the base of the bridge’s abutment, and Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) jumps in after her.

A foggy Golden Gate Bridge was also used for a showdown between humans and apes in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, although the scene wasn’t actually filmed on the bridge.

Today, visitors are barred from accessing the seawall where Madeleine went for a swim, but the nearby Fort Point National Historic Site, yields excellent views of the bridge and surrounding waters. For a great cycling tour of the area, rent a bike at Fisherman’s Wharf and cross the bridge on two wheels. Continue up to Sausalito and catch the ferry back to the Wharf.

Also starring in:

Pacific Rim (2013), Ant-Man (2015), Star Trek (2009), Zodiac (2007) and many more.

Alcatraz: Escape from Alcatraz, The Rock

Infamous Alcatraz and the choppy waters around it were the setting for the did-they-didn't-they movie Escape from Alcatraz © Alexander Howard / Lonely Planet

A federal prison from 1933 to 1963, Alcatraz housed some of the United States’ most notorious criminals, including George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, Al Capone and James ‘Whitey’ Bulger.

It was the setting for the 1979 Clint Eastwood film Escape from Alcatraz, which fictionalized the only known and potentially successful escape attempt from the island. In 1962 inmates Frank Morris and Clarence and John Anglin created paper mache heads which successfully tricked prison guards into thinking they were asleep in their beds. The inmates had chiseled out the vents in their cells and crawled into a utility corridor that led outside the prison. From the Alcatraz shore, the trio used an inflatable raft to escape the island. No one knows for sure if they made it to freedom.

Today the site is a National Historic Landmark managed by the National Park Service. Audio tours tell the tales of the prison, using voice actors to recount the guards’ and prisoners’ versions of what life was like on the island. NPS rangers will also happily point out the area where Sean Connery dove into a bathtub to escape an exploding grenade in the 1996 movie The Rock.

Also starring in:

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

City Hall: Milk, Raiders of the Lost Ark

San Francisco's seat of government, City Hall, has appeared in an eclectic mix of movies © Alexander Howard / Lonely Planet

San Francisco City Hall might not get as much screen time as other sights, but the building has served as the memorable setting of several American films.

As a symbol of the political forces Harvey Milk was trying to change, San Francisco City Hall appears several times in the 2008 biopic Milk, which follows the nation’s first openly gay politician. The interior staircase was also used in the end Raiders of the Lost Ark as a stand-in for a federal building in Washington, DC, from which Indiana Jones denounces the ‘bureaucratic fools’ who now have the Ark of the Covenant.

Tours of City Hall are available Monday through Friday, but weekend visitors can enjoy a stroll through Civic Center, an area lined with classical architecture, the center of which is domed City Hall.

Also starring in:

Dirty Harry (1971), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Coit Tower: The Enforcer, Dr Dolittle

Coit Tower, with its hilltop position, has appeared in the background of several SF movies © Alexander Howard / Lonely Planet

Built in 1933, the art deco Coit Tower was constructed using a financial gift from wealthy socialite Lillie Hitchcock Coit as a memorial to the city’s firefighters (some say the tower looks like the nozzle of a firefighter’s hose, but that's coincidental).

The tower can be spotted in several wide shots of the city, but it’s prominently featured in the Dirty Harry movie The Enforcer (1976), during a scene in which Harry (Clint Eastwood) and Inspector Kate Moore (Tyne Daly) discuss the tower’s potential symbolism. It also appears in the 1998 version of Dr Dolittle with Eddie Murphy, although most of the shots were faked in a film studio.

Inside, murals painted by artists from the federal Works Progress Administration line the concrete walls. Inspired by the social realism art of Diego Rivera, the murals are free to view during opening hours. You can pay to take the elevator up to the top for sweeping views of the city.

Also starring in:

Sister Act 2 (1993)

Lombard St: The Love Bug, What’s Up, Doc?

Lombard Street's pretty switchbacks attract tourists and film crews © Alexander Howard / Lonely Planet

Twisty Lombard St has become a top attraction in San Francisco, and on film it’s come to represent the city’s quirky, hilly layout.

The characteristic switchbacks of Lombard St between Hyde and Leavenworth were installed in the 1920s for safety reasons. That didn’t stop the anthropomorphic racecar Herbie in the 1968 film The Love Bug. The spunky VW Beetle can be seen tackling the turns as it races through the city. The street is also the comedic location of the scene in What’s Up, Doc? where Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand are pursued by thieves.

Today the area is a frequent stop for visitors, so head out early in the morning to catch sight of Lombard St without the crowds and with good backlighting. Drivers should make their approach from Hyde if they want to drive the one-way street. Pedestrians can ride the Powell-Hyde Cable Car to the top of Lombard St, while walkers ready for a hike can make the trek up from the Wharf.

Also starring in:

Inside Out (2015)

Other filming locations: B-list stars and small screen cameos

Union Square – the location where Gene Hackman snoops on an unsuspecting couple in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 thriller The Conversation.

Ferry Building – the movie that made Humphrey Bogart a star, The Maltese Falcon (1941) uses the Ferry Building in its storyline

2640 Steiner St – the home where Robin Williams dresses in drag to spend time with his children in Mrs Doubtfire.

The Painted Ladies – a sight unto themselves, this row of Victorian homes, on the east side of Alamo Square, is featured in the opening credits of Full House.

Palace Hotel Atrium – featured in the climactic moment of the 1997 David Fincher mindbender The Game, the Palace Hotel is the sight where the movie’s twist is ultimately revealed.

Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.

Explore related stories