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9 of the Best Books on San Francisco History

Updated: Aug 23, 2018 10:02
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San Francisco is an old, iron safe filled with gold, glory, disaster, and secrets. SFCentric History is a column, by SF writer V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi, that digs in the vaults of local history and shares the sensational people, places, and things that rocked San Francisco.

One of the best ways to learn about history is through written accounts. I have a growing collection of curated books on San Francisco, and they include random old photos, SF lists, and story upon story about the things that shaped The City. With so many books on a single topic, it can be difficult to find the real gems covering local history. Enriching our understanding of  San Francisco and helping to preserve the past, these following books are some of the best avenues for learning about San Francisco’s yesterday.


San Francisco Almanac: Everything You Want To Know about the City, Gladys Hansen

Photo: Amazon

The San Francisco Almanac is probably my favorite and most referenced book on San Francisco. It contains about anything and everything you’d want to know about SF, including notable dates, Ohlone history, songs about San Francisco, and more. Get it right here.


Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco, Gary Kamiya

Photo: Amazon

This bestseller and reader favorite contains 49 chapters celebrating the San Francisco experience. Each chapter covers a different area/topic, from The Farallon Islands to the Gold Rush to the AIDS crisis, and the era, in a first-person narrative that blends walking tour, history lesson, and conversation with a Bay Area native. Get it right here.


Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, Rebecca Solnit

Photo: Rebecca Solnit

Maps give us detailed information about where we are and the areas surrounding us. If you ever wished that maps would give just a little more background about where you’re standing, then Infinite City is for you. This atlas is made up of 22 maps, with corresponding stories, on local film, Ohlone place names, coffee shops, the Black Bay Area, and more. Get it right here.


The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area, Malcolm Margolin and Michael Harney

Photo: Amazon

The real natives of San Francisco are the Ohlone, who inhabited this city first. Their stories are important, valid, and integral to San Francisco history. They are still present in the Bay Area, and their culture continues to flourish, yet we overlook their narratives when talking about local history. The Ohlone Way is a great book for learning about Ohlone history and culture. Get it right here.


Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love, David Talbot

Photo: Amazon

There seems to be a lot of text on old San Francisco, but what about more recent history? Season of the Witch focuses on the after effects of The City’s liberation, with stories from 1967 to 1982. Recognizable subjects include Janis Joplin, Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and Patty Hearst. Get it right here.


Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, Grey Brechin

Photo: Amazon

With history, you have to learn the good and the bad. As beautiful as San Francisco is, it has a lot of messed up history tucked behind its beautiful architecture and rolling hills. Imperial San Francisco brings to light the expoitation that The City suffered at the hands of people including the Spreckelses, the Hearsts, and the de Youngs, over the course of 150 years. Get it right here.


The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, Herbert Asbury

Photo: Amazon

We all have heard about the raucous Barbary Coast, but we don’t know many of the stories behind it. This book by the same name dives deep into the seediness that was early San Francisco. Get it right here.


The Great San Francisco Trivia & Fact Book, Janet Bailey

Photo: Amazon

This is another great book that I have referenced for articles pertaining to San Francisco. It’s one of those fact-filled books that you can just open up anywhere and learn something new about The City. Get it right here.


The Magnificent Rogues of San Francisco: A Gallery of Fakers and Frauds, Rascals and Robber Barons, Scoundrels and Scalawags, Charles F. Adams

Photo: Amazon

Continuing on our quest to find out about the history of the less than well-behaved population of San Francisco, we have this book, The Magnificent Rogues of San Francisco. In it, we learn about those who names have been etched in SF history for their questionable behavior. Shanghai Kelly, Emperor Norton, and Black Bart are amongst these characters. Get it right here.

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V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi

V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi

V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi is one of those rare born-and-raised San Franciscans (unicorn status). She is the Style & Culture, SF Editor for Hip Latina, and writer for several publications on fashion, art, culture and all things San Francisco. Alex aims to educate everyone (including natives) on anything you could possibly want to learn about the best city in the world. Follow her at @SFCentric and @TheItFactorBrand.