At the scene of the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1938.
At the scene of the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1938.Alfred Eisenstaedt—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
At the scene of the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1938.
At the scene of the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1939.
Ferry near the the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, 1941.
Fong-Fong bakery and ice cream parlor, 1941.
Diego Rivera working on pencil sketches for huge mural depicting Pan-American unity, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, 1941.
Shipyard ironworkers, San Francisco, 1942.
San Francisco 1942
San Francisco, 1942.
A civilian observer and plane-spotter, San Francisco, 1942.
Cemetery of Mission Dolores, San Francisco, 1942.
Newspapers welcome Madame Chiang Kai-Shek to San Francisco, 1943.
American troops, San Francisco, 1945.
Author Gertrude Atherton and her dog outside of her home in San Francisco, 1946.
Cable car turnaround, San Francisco, 1947.
View of San Francisco, 1947.
San Francisco, 1947.
Drive-in theater, San Francisco, 1948.
Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, 1951.
South San Francisco, 1951.
Dancing the mambo at San Francisco's Macumba Club, 1954.
Pacific Heights, 1955.
The Tin Angel, a waterfront nightclub, San Francisco, 1955.
View of the Golden Gate Bridge toward the hills of Marin County, 1955.
San Francisco bar, 1956.
Getting one's hair done in San Francisco, 1956.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights, 1957.
Kenneth Rexroth at a poetry reading, 1957.
Housing construction in San Francisco, 1958.
Looking at Alcatraz, 1958.
Willie Mays and young fan, San Francisco, 1958.
Opening of the boating season on San Francisco Bay, 1958.
Opening Day at Candlestick Park, 1960.
Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, 1962.
The Beatles at a press conference, San Francisco, 1964.
Brand new BART, 1967.
Vietnam War protestors, San Francisco, 1967.
San Francisco, 1969.
Above San Francisco, 1969.
Black Panthers protest, San Francisco, 1970.
Author Richard Brautigan with his daughter, San Francisco, 1970.
Dianne Feinstein, San Francisco mayoral race, 1971.
Anti-war march, San Francisco, 1972.
At the scene of the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1938.
Alfred Eisenstaedt—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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LIFE in a Great City: San Francisco

Jul 30, 2014

For the latest edition of our “Great Cities” series, LIFE.com features classic photographs of that smallish, hilly gem by the Bay: San Francisco. For a town its size—with a population of 800,000, it has just a quarter as many people as, for example, Brooklyn—San Francisco holds a forceful grip on the imagination of people around the country and around the world.

From the legendary, wide-open debauchery of the Gold Rush years to the Beat poets of North Beach in the 1950s; the Haight-Ashbury era and the brief (over-romanticized) Summer of Love of the Sixties; the locavore restaurant revolution, which arguably started in the East Bay with Chez Panisse; the unstoppable flowering of gay rights; the first stirrings of "maker culture" and the dawn of the Digital Age (Wired magazine, etc.), San Francisco and environs have been at the center of countless movements and "isms" for more than a century and a half.

The pictures here document The City (as San Franciscans habitually call it) from the 1930s to the early 1970s—a handful of decades during which SF transformed itself as dramatically as any metropolis in America. Despite all the upheaval it's endured, however, San Francisco remains a singular place. It's at-once whimsical and tough, self-absorbed and endearing—a cultured, world-class city that retains some of its Wild West character, while harboring neighborhoods that feel like distinct, companionable hamlets.

So, let's celebrate a great American city. Whatever you do, though, do not call it "Frisco." San Franciscans young and old get weirdly worked up about that nickname. You've been warned.

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