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6 Books About San Francisco to Read Before Your Next Trip


The famous Painted Ladies in Alamo Square, San Francisco
Hi, I'm Madigan!

Madigan Talmage-Bowers is a writer based in Denver, Colorado. She has also lived in Italy, San Francisco, and New York City, where she studied media theory at the New School. She loves introducing her kids to ancient history, local art, hiking trails, and new foods on adventures around the globe.

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Hi, I'm Madigan!

Madigan Talmage-Bowers is a writer based in Denver, Colorado. She has also lived in Italy, San Francisco, and New York City, where she studied media theory at the New School. She loves introducing her kids to ancient history, local art, hiking trails, and new foods on adventures around the globe.

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San Francisco’s fog-shrouded hills, storybook Victorian mansions, and history forged by both fortune and disaster have long made it an irresistible setting for poets and novelists. A writer myself, I lived in the Bay Area for nearly a decade and was inspired daily by its literary landmarks. If you’re dreaming of the City by the Bay but stuck at home, here are my favorite San Francisco reads to help you plan your next vacation.

An aerial view of downtown San Francisco, California
SF has one of the most iconic skylines in the US. | Photo Credit: Rosa Furneaux / Viator

"Tales of the City" by Armistead Maupin

Beloved characters, real-world plot lines.

These serial novels follow a diverse collection of neighbors and friends on their quest for love, belonging, and career fulfillment in San Francisco’s romantic Russian Hill neighborhood. The series spans nine books and five decades as its characters tackle pulled-from-the-headlines topics like the AIDS epidemic, Burning Man, and the Jonestown massacre.

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"Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas" by Rebecca Solnit

The city map, reimagined.

One of San Francisco's reigning literary legends, Solnit is best known for this highly original work that examines the city’s 49 square miles through a marriage of cartography and culture. Beautifully drawn maps are layered with landmarks both literal and social, from coffee houses and wartime shipyards to butterfly habitats and important civil rights locations. I received the book as a gift when I first moved to San Francisco, and it’s practically required reading for any transplant.

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"The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiell Hammett

Quintessential San Francisco noir.

Hailed one of the greatest detective writers of all time, Hammett actually worked as a private investigator in San Francisco in the 1920s. His most famous work is a classic hard-boiled sleuthing tale that takes its characters up and down Nob Hill and into shadowy rooms (based on real Civic Center hotels) in search of an elusive black statue.

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An empty cable car waits at Powell St San Fransico
Ride the cable car from Powell St for a scenic route to Nob Hill. | Photo Credit: Brittany Hosea-Small / Viator

"Everything Is its Own Reward" by Paul Madonna

Evocative visual storytelling.

Based on a weekly cartoon strip published in the San Francisco Chronicle, this coffee table collection pairs pen-and-ink drawings of quirky San Francisco architecture with poetic musings on urban life and longing. I once bumped into Madonna at a performance art pop-up in the city’s Little Saigon neighborhood.

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

A love letter to San Francisco’s grit and glory.

This collection of short essays invites readers to eavesdrop on personal reflections by a longtime San Francisco resident and historian. It's like having an old friend give a tour of handpicked local landmarks and their hidden stories, from the clifftop Lands End trail and Golden Gate Bridge to the Tenderloin district and Ferry Building perched at the bay’s edge.

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"The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan"

An emotionally charged, cross-generational saga.

The novel that catapulted Tan (a Bay Area native) to international acclaim weaves together the stories of four women living in 1980s San Francisco and their mothers who immigrated from China. This tear jerker features many scenes set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. One character is even named for Waverly Place—a now-famous alley I often walked down en route from my North Beach apartment to my office in the Financial District.

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A guide leads a group around Chinatown, San Fransico
The sights, smells, and tastes of SF's Chinatown are best experienced with a guide. | Photo Credit: Anthony Cruz / Viator

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734 tours & tickets
Things to do in San Francisco
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Sightseeing on a Budget in San Francisco
Sightseeing on a Budget in San Francisco