Once upon a time, in the fair city of San Francisco, there was a raunchy old lady named Lillie Hitchcock Coit. Ever since she was saved from a burning building as a child, Lillie loved to watch brawny, muscled firefighters do their work. She found it so exciting that she used to follow them around from fire to fire. She also liked to dress up in men's clothing and explore some of the more interesting corners of the city. When she died, dear old Lillie left the firemen of San Francisco a long-lasting legacy in the form of a phallic tower sitting high upon a hill.

Okay, so most people in San Francisco know about Coit Tower. It's a fairly well-known tourist spot. What most San Franciscans don't know is that it's actually pretty cool. Unlike Fisherman's Wharf or Union Square, there's actually something there once you get past all the tourists.

What's there is a 210-foot tall tower that is supposedly shaped like the nozzle of a fire hose. Built in 1933, the views from the top of Coit Tower are absolutely breathtaking. If you don't feel like paying to take an elevator to the top, there's no charge for entering the lobby, which is breathtaking on its own.

The lobby is decorated with gorgeous Depression-era murals done in the style of Diego Rivera. Painted in 1934 by 25 artists as part of a Public Works of Art project, they are are sympathetic portrayals of the daily life of working class Californians during the Depression. The artists were paid $38 a week to create the 19 murals. The original opening of the tower was delayed because authorities felt the murals were subversive and depicted "pinko" themes. Whether or not the murals are subversive, there's no arguing that they are absolutely amazing.

They're hard to see, though, when the place is packed. I would recommend visiting on, say, a Tuesday afternoon in October, when you can get an unobstructed look at the murals and the view. When it's quiet, Coit Tower is a great place to study. The lobby is filled with big marble benches to recline on while you admire the murals. And if you bring a sweater (there are warm days in San Francisco. There are not warm days on top of Telegraph Hill), you can sit outside and enjoy the fabulous view and the chilling wind.

The tower is open from 10am to 6pm October through March and 10am to 7:30pm April through September. It costs $3.75 to go up to the top. The lobby is always free. To get there, you can huff and puff your way up two incredibly steep blocks on either Filbert or Greenwich coming up from Grant Avenue, or you can wait forever for the 39 Muni bus. Don't drive, there's no parking.

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