Telegraph Hill is one of San Francisco's 44 hills and is one of the original "Seven Hills", with the others being Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Rincon Hill, Mount Sutro, Twin Peaks, and Mount Davidson.
Telegraph Hill has had many different names over the years. Originally called Loma Alta by the Spaniards, it was then called Goat Hill by the early San Franciscan settlers, and only became known as Telegraph Hill after 1849 when a large semaphore was built at the summit. The semaphore was used to signal the type of ships coming through the Golden Gate to the town below. The signals became so well known over time that merchants and speculators watched Telegraph Hill to see what ships were coming in, and what goods they were carrying, in order to speculate on goods and adjust market prices accordingly. In the early days of San Francisco, rock was quarried from the side of Telegraph Hill to provide ballast for ships departing the San Francisco Bay. You can still see the remains of the quarry from the Filbert Steps, and the quarry was the site of a rock slide in 1997 that damaged homes and forced people to evacuate the neighborhood.
Coit Tower sits in the center of Pioneer Park, on top of Telegraph Hill. It was built by the City of San Francisco in 1933 with money bequeathed by Lillie Hitchcock Coit. Coit left one-third of her fortune to the city "to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved."
Coit was a local eccentric, noted for smoking cigars, wearing trousers, being an avid gambler (and cross-dressing so she could get into male-only casinos), and her love for, and interest in, the San Francisco fire departments. She loved to chase fires in the years before San Francisco had an official fire department, and was particularly associated with the Knickerbocker Engine No. 5, a local fire company that she frequently rode with. She was made an honorary firefighter and is still honored by the San Francisco Fire Department for her support.
Coit Tower also houses a number of murals, which were some of the first projects created by the Public Works of Art Project, a New Deal program that was intended to provide federal employment for artists. Many of the murals incorporate Leftist political sentiments, an artistic response to the destruction of Diego Rivera's mural Man at the Crossroads by the Rockefeller Center, the original patron for the piece, for its inclusion of an image of Lenin. The murals are great, and make the trip worth the time. They are also free to view. The murals, plus the park, plus the Filbert Steps, plus the views from the top of the hill, all make Telegraph Hill a worthwhile trip. And there are parrots living up there.
Getting There By Bike...
Bring a bike with hill-climbing gears, and pack your legs and your lungs, because it's a steep climb to the top of the hill. Expect tourists, slow moving rental cars, and people wandering blithely across the street in front of you as they take in the views. But after all of that, it's a great climb and a beautiful place to check out the city and the bay. Be careful coming back down the hill, since the people driving poorly on the way up haven't improved their skills since you went by the first time. If you feel like being touristy, Lombard Street, the Filbert Steps, and North Beach are all close by.