Palace of Fine Arts

Built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, this beloved iconic structure now hosts art exhibitions.

TravelCurious Tip

Keep your eyes open for wildlife in the lagoon. It’s artificial but that has not stopped all sorts of fish, birds and turtles from setting up there

Just over a hundred years ago the Palace of Fine Arts was built to exhibit works of art for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, celebrating the city’s recovery from the colossal 1906 earthquake and the completion of the Panama Canal. Altogether the exposition featured 11 exhibit palaces with objects from all over the world, including more than 1,500 sculptures and displays from 21 countries.

Run to Ruin

The Palace of Fine Arts was considered the pick of the bunch. Today, it one of the only buildings still standing from that exposition, although it has had a few upgrades over the last century. It was originally inspired by Classical architecture and intended to look like a fictional ruin from another era. The designer, Bernard Maybeck, wanted to show “the mortality of grandeur and the vanity of human wishes”, a sentiment which seems a little out of keeping with the exposition as a whole.

The palace was not intended to last beyond the duration of the exposition but it was so popular that it was kept on. However, it was so shoddily built the first time round that, before long, the faux-ruin had become a very real one.

When it was refurbished in the 50s, it was built to last. The palace is set around a small artificial lagoon, on the smooth surface of which you can catch a perfect reflection of the buildings themselves.

Today, the building still houses some of the city’s finest art exhibitions, and is also home to the Fine Arts theatre. As a cultural centre it is outstanding, but the building and gardens alone warrant a visit. Lounge around in the grassy areas and admire the views — you can see the Golden Gate Bridge hovering on the horizon.

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San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
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