A Cinematic Tour of San Francisco

From Hitchcock’s sweeping masterpieces to George Lucas’ adolescent opus about this particular galaxy, these classic films utilize San Francisco’s splendor in ways that have inspired tourists for years. Use them as a guide to the city’s best sights and attractions.

Vertigo (1958)

The Movie: Jimmy Stewart plays a beleaguered San Francisco detective whose career is offset by severe acrophobia, the result of running around on rooftops:


Stewart’s Scottie takes a job to follow Madeline, a friend’s mysteriously possessed wife, on her excursions throughout the Bay Area. He winds up embroiled in a convoluted criminal plot, chasing his mark up the steps of the mission San Juan Bautista. She plummets, which really doesn’t help his vertigo. Madeline’s death and spectral presence become Scottie’s sole fixation, and the film only gets creepier after her demise.

The Sights: Fort Point at Golden Gate Park, where Scottie saves Madeline from drowning, is a popular vista of the Bridge and the Bay. Muir Woods provides San Francisco’s visitors with easy access to the Pacific’s impressive Redwoods, and the Mission San Juan Bautista is a popular stop for Hitchcock devotees and history buffs alike.

The Birds (1963)

The Movie: Tippi Hedren plays Melanie, an heiress who bonds with a guy named Mitch in a pet store over a pair of lovebirds. She makes a gift of the avian friends and delivers them to Mitch’s Bodega Bay home, only to be attacked by an errant gull on her way. As Mitch and Melanie become more involved, the bird attacks become more frequent and vicious. Eventually, they reach swarming and apocalyptic levels, as illustrated in the clip below:

The film’s inexplicable violence makes it a horror classic, and while its Pacific Coast setting makes for beautiful viewing, its viewer might wind up a bit wary of Bay Area birds.

The Sights: Bodega Bay, the small town where Mitch resides, is a celebrated local beach and an easy day trip from the city. San Francisco’s central hub, Union Square, also features prominently in the film.

The Graduate (1967)

The Movie: Ennui-laden Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, returns home to Pasadena after completing his Bachelor’s in the Northeast. He embarks on an affair with Anne Bancroft’s seductively talismanic Mrs. Robinson, only to fall for her daughter Elaine. When he confesses his dalliance with her mother, Elaine refuses any further contact with him. Until, that is, he road-trips to Berkeley to reconcile:

We all know how this one ends: Ben overcomes parental adversity to successfully stop Elaine’s quickie wedding and they ride away, a little confused, on a public bus.

The Sights: Benjamin meets Elaine at the Monkey House at the SF Zoo, one of the country’s most scenic zoological parks. Many of the Bay Area scenes take place at UC Berkeley‘s campus, and one memorable moment features Benjamin’s drive over the oft-ignored Oakland Bay Bridge.

Dirty Harry (1971)

The Movie: “Dirty” Harry Callahan is a police inspector with a knack for delivering some of cinema’s most memorable lines:

When San Francisco is terrorized by a serial killer, it’s up to Clint Eastwood’s trigger-happy Callahan to enact justice on the baddie. What ensues is basically a battle of madness, Harry v. the maniacal Scorpio killer, through SF’s major parks, monuments, and recreation areas. It’s a strange premise, but Eastwood’s delivery sells it as a classic.

The Sights: The movie utilizes many popular Bay Area tourist spots as showdown sites, including San Francisco’s City Hall, the Potrero Hill neighborhood, Mount Davidson, and Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park.

Harold and Maude (1971)

The Movie: Melancholic teenager Harold, a wealthy Northern California kid who spends his time going to funerals and modding his sports car to look like a hearse, meets Maude, a lively septuagenarian who also enjoys going to funerals. Together they excavate Harold’s troubles, exploring his psyche whilst having adventures. Harold hopes to marry Maude, but she has alternate plans. For a better look, the following video claims to successfully condense the movie into a few meager seconds:

The movie has sparked mimicry, several theatrical productions, and a school of philosophy. It’s definitely a cult cinema classic.

The Sights: As the clip illustrates, the action reaches its zenith in the Sutro Baths and the surrounding Sutro Heights Park, the dilapidated grounds of a former swimming pool that is now one of San Francisco’s most photogenic sites. Harold and Maude also visit the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.

American Graffiti (1973)

The Movie: George Lucas used the town of Petaluma to create the Bay Area of his early Sixties youth, but the center of the movie’s action is San Francisco’s Mel’s Drive-In, a vintage diner that still exists. The coming-of-age vignettes that comprise the movie are full of mid-century signifiers like Sock Hops and drag races, like the one in the following clip:

The movie’s main characters grapple with the choice of leaving for college or staying in their small-town environs, and many audiences consider it a classic portrayal of adolescence.

The Sights: Mel’s Drive-In still serves burgers to nostalgic audiences, and the pristinely preserved Petaluma is a popular location choice for films set in the mid-twentieth century. Audiences will instantly recognize both the diner and the town as American Graffiti’s evocative locations.

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About the Author:

Rob Bruce Rob works out of the Dallas office for HotelsCheap. He has worked in the travel industry for 17 years, and has written articles for several travel publications. Rob is married with 5 kids. In his spare time he enjoys soccer, tennis and hiking. His favorite travel destination is Papua New Guinea. You can follow Rob on Google Plus +Rob Bruce.

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