It is an enduring symbol of San Francisco and of California, one of the most recognizable icons in the world. The Golden Gate Bridge has captivated artists, writers; locals, and tourists for nearly a century; its orange spans have achieved an almost mythical status. And yet, for so many, experiencing the majesty of the Golden Gate remains a bucket list item. The bridge is hard to reach, having to defy San Francisco traffic. And once crossed, it fades quickly in the rear view mirror. So how does one truly experience the Golden Gate?
Prior to the bridge’s completion in 1937, access between San Francisco and Marin County was only possibly by ferry. This route was, in fact, one of the busiest ferry routes in existence, served by a subsidiary of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The entrance to San Francisco Bay, called the Golden Gate for its resemblance to Istanbul’s Golden Horn, was 2,000 meters long, more than a mile, subject to intense winds and currents. While many wanted a bridge built – San Francisco’s lack of land links to the surrounding communities was hindering the city’s growth – estimates to construct such a bridge were in excess of $100 million ($2.4 billion in today’s money).
One engineer, Joseph Strauss, submitted a design based on drawbridges he had constructed prior, and promised to complete the project for $17 million. After a number of heated hearings, law suits by the ferry companies, and objections by the US Navy who feared a collapse or sabotage would block the San Francisco Bay, the project was given the go-ahead, but with a new design by Leon Moisseiff, the engineer behind New York’s Manhattan Bridge. This iconic suspension is what you’ll see today.
Construction on the Golden Gate Bridge began in 1933, and the bridge opened ahead of schedule just more than four years later, on May 27, 1937. A $27 million bond was issued for the project, and the entire bond issue was purchased by San Francisco-based Bank of America in order to help the local economy. At its open, the cost to cross the bridge was $.50 each way (about $18 in today’s money), but half the price of the ferry. Since then, it has been crossed more than one billion times, with a current daily average of about 110,000.
Eleven people died during construction, although a net in place below much of the span saved another nineteen. This was a harbinger of things to come, though, as until a 2017 installation of fencing, the Golden Gate was the most used bridge in the world for suicides. (Sometimes interesting facts are a bit dark.)
Additional retrofits have expanded traffic to six total lanes, upgraded wind resistance – the bridge can withstand gusts up to 100 miles per hour and remain open; it used to close with winds over 70 mph – and increased earthquake standards, but the graceful suspension of the original design still stands as constructed. The longest suspension bridge in the world until 1964, it has also kept its iconic orange color (called “international orange”) for the entire time it has stood. That color was originally just a primer, as the Navy wanted the bridge done in blue and yellow stripes for visibility in San Francisco’s famous fog, but when installed it worked so well that it was kept orange. (The original lead-based paint was replaced over 30 years between 1965 and 1995, but the color remained.)
Ok, so all this said, what is the best place to view the Golden Gate Bridge? While there are viewpoints on both the San Francisco and Marin sides, I recommend driving north over the bridge (it is free in this direction; southbound costs $8 and has to either be paid in advance or a bill will be sent when your license plate is scanned) and then taking the exit for Alexander Avenue. Follow the signs for the Marin Headlands, go through the Baker-Barry tunnel, and then you’ll see signs for the Golden Gate View Point. There are two on this side, one an observation deck, and another a bit closer that sits astride Battery Spencer. That is the money shot. Even in the fog (pretty much a daily occurrence in the summer) the view from here is majestic. Street parking is available, though not plentiful, but spots open regularly as people get their photos in and leave. (As of this writing, the northern viewpoint just off US 101 is closed, making the Marin Headlands the only place to see the bridge from this side.)
If you don’t want to cross out of San Francisco, there is also a viewpoint just before the bridge begins, on Fort Point. Called the postcard view, it is fantastic, but parking can be hard to come by. One can also get a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the bay itself on any number of ferries, bay cruises, or even from Alcatraz. It is also possible to walk across the 1.7 mile bridge, though strong winds can make it daunting at times.
No matter if you cross it or just catch a brief glimpse, there is no question that the Golden Gate Bridge will capture your heart. I’ve seen and crossed it multiple times, and each one is as exciting as the first time I walked the bridge with my uncle when I was a teenager. Iconic, beautiful, emblematic, it is indeed a wonder of the world, worthy of every travel bucket list.
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