San Francisco City Hall

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Rising from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake, this beaux arts landmark echoes with history. Demonstrators protesting red-scare McCarthy hearings on City Hall steps in 1960 were blasted with fire hoses – yet America's first sit-in worked. America's first openly gay official supervisor, Harvey Milk, was assassinated here in 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone – but, in 2004, 4037 same-sex couples were legally wed here. Recently, City Hall has made headlines for approving pioneering environmental initiatives and citywide sanctuary status.

Designed in 1915 to outdo Paris for flair and outsize the capitol in Washington, DC, the world's fifth-largest dome was unsteady until its retrofit after the 1989 earthquake, when ingenious technology enabled it to swing on its base without raising alarm. The dome's gilded exterior is a cringe-worthy reminder of 1990s dot-com excess, when the city squandered a short-lived windfall on gold leafing – but at least its foundations are solid. Don't miss ground-floor public art exhibitions, which range from portraits of iconic LGBT performers to photographs from western railroad journeys.

Free docent-led tours meet at the tour kiosk near the Van Ness Ave entrance, but City Hall is best seen in action. For insight into how San Francisco government works – or doesn't – you can witness Board of Supervisors meetings on Tuesdays at 2pm in City Hall; check the agenda and video archives online. Theoretically, visitors may be removed for 'boisterous' behavior – but, this being San Francisco, democracy in action can get pretty rowdy without fazing security guards.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby Downtown, Civic Center & SoMa attractions

1. SF Arts Commission Gallery

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2. Asian Art Museum

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3. San Francisco Main Library

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A grand light well illuminates SF's favorite subjects: poetry in the Robert Frost Collection, civil rights in the Hormel LGBTQIA Center, SF music zines in…

4. Twitter Headquarters

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5. United Nations Plaza

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This brick-paved triangle with an often-dry fountain awkwardly commemorates the signing of the UN charter in San Francisco. Most days, UN Plaza offers…

6. Patricia's Green

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The social center of hip, walkable, tree-lined Octavia Blvd is this pocket park, featuring Burning Man–inspired temporary sculpture installations, picnic…

7. Federal Building


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8. Root Division

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Get back to your creative roots at this arts nonprofit, which hosts curated shows on themes ranging from garden art to calligraphy made with human-hair…