Bay Lights on the San Francisco Bay Bridge

  • 01 of 04

    The Bay Lights

    Bay Lights on the San Francisco Bay Bridge
    ••• Bay Lights on the San Francisco Bay Bridge. ©Betsy Malloy Photography.

    San Francisco's Bay Lights started as a temporary display for the iconic Bay Bridge's 75th anniversary, but everyone liked them so much that they're now a permanent installation. Before that, the Bay Bridge always took a back seat to the Golden Gate Bridge across the bay, sitting like a canvas waiting for a painter.0

    That's where artist Leo Villareal come in. To celebrate the bridge's landmark anniversary, he turned it into world’s largest LED light sculpture. Known internationally for his light sculptures and site-specific architectural works, Villareal installed 1.8 miles of sparkling, white, energy-efficient lights on the bridge’s vertical cables.

    It's amazing how quickly the San Francisco Bay Bridge went from being San Francisco's second-fiddle span - a plain little sibling of the more famous Golden Gate Bridge - to a shimmering, mesmerizing nighttime light sculpture. It was a monumental project that was eight times the scale of the Eiffel Tower’s 100th...MORE Anniversary lighting.

    Simple lights alone would have been pretty enough, but this light sculpture is dynamic, computer-controlled to create patterns and variations of patterns, so many of them that you're unlikely to ever see it doing exactly the same thing twice. One minute, the lighted pattern may bring to mind fish swimming, then it transforms into the look of falling raindrops. It's a mesmerizing show, to say the least.

    The original installation was designed to last two years, but they quickly became so popular that everyone wanted them to come back.  The organization Illuminate the Arts raised $4 million to make it a permanent fixture and the came back on in January 2016 — just in time for Super Bowl 50.

    We think the Bay Lights are one of the best things to do in San Francisco at night.

    Seeing the Bay Lights

    Known internationally for his light sculptures and site-specific architectural, he installed 1.8 miles of sparkling, white, energy-efficient lights on the bridge’s vertical cables.

    For an in-person look, these are some of the best places to see them:

    • Along The Embarcadero between the Ferry Building and the bridge, especially from the end of Pier 13
    • The end of Pier 39 is further away, but also nice
    • You can look down on the lights from the top of Telegraph Hill at Coit Tower
    • From the west side Treasure Island, you can see the whole span with San Francisco at the end of the bridge span
    • Another view from above is from the Top of the Mark restaurant and bar at the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel
    • From the Marin Headlands, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge at the same time. Drive to the high lookout point at Hawk Hill.
    • From Twin Peaks you can see the Bay Lights and a view of the whole city, too

    You'll find more information at The Bay Lights website and a behind-the-scenes look at CNET.

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  • 02 of 04

    Bay Lights Detail

    Details of Bay Lights on the San Francisco Bay Bridge
    ••• Details of Bay Lights on the San Francisco Bay Bridge. ©Betsy Malloy Photography.

    In this closer view, you can see the individual bulbs.

    Here's what Illuminate the Arts has to say about the Bay Lights: "...the monumental artwork we envisioned with artist Leo Villareal flickered to life. Then something strange and powerful happened—the world dropped its collective jaw. Response to The Bay Lights is so ​far reaching and profound that it has lit a path beyond itself."


    Continue to 3 of 4 below.
  • 03 of 04

    Seeing the San Francisco Bay Bridge

    View of the San Francisco Bay Bridge from Treasure Island
    ••• View of the San Francisco Bay Bridge from Treasure Island. Craig Cozart / Getty Images

    The Bay Bridge is really two bridges, a western section reaching from San Francisco to Treasure Island and the eastern span running from Treasure Island to Oakland. 

    There are no pedestrian walkways or vista points on the bridge, but you can drive on the bridge and get off midway at Treasure Island for a nice view of it and the San Francisco skyline.

    San Francisco Bay Bridge from San Francisco

    You can see the Bay Bridge from the waterfront along Embarcadero Street, near the Ferry Building. It's a nice place to see and photograph the span and walk under it. You can also walk out to the end of Pier 14 for a closer look.

    Driving to the Bay Bridge

    To see it from Treasure Island, drive east on I-80 toward Oakland. Take the Treasure Island exit, stop in the waterside parking area and you'll get a great view of the San Francisco Bay Bridge and city skyline.

    Just past the old guard gate, turn right on California Ave to drive to the east side of Treasure Island, where you can get an excellent...MORE view of the new span.

    There is no toll if you turn around at Treasure Island and drive back to the city.

    On the western section, the eastbound lanes travel on the lower deck, and you can see little from them. The view going west is much nicer. The eastern span is one level.

    If you are crossing the bridge from Oakland toward San Francisco, you'll have to pay a toll.

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  • 04 of 04

    What You Need to Know About the Bay Bridge

    San Francisco Bay Bridge at Twilight - from Treasure Island
    ••• San Francisco Bay Bridge at Twilight - from Treasure Island. ©2008 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    San Francisco Bay Bridge Facts

    The San Francisco Bay Bridge structure consists of two separate spans, joined by a tunnel cut through a hill on Yerba Buena Island. On the San Francisco side of the island, it consists of two complete suspension bridges, back-to-back with an anchorage in the middle.

    A few San Francisco Bay Bridge facts and figures:

    • The two San Francisco Bay Bridge sections combined are 23,000 feet long (4.5 miles)
    • From one approach to the other, the San Francisco Bay Bridge is 43,500 feet long (8.5 miles).
    • West span: 2,310 feet (9,260 feet total length), 220 feet above the water. The cables are made from 0.195-inch diameter wires, 17,464 wires in each cable, with a total diameter 28.75 inches.
    • East span is the world's longest self-anchored suspension bridge
    • The San Francisco Bay Bridge was once the longest high-level, steel bridge in the world.
    • The Yerba Buena Tunnel, which connects the two sections of the San Francisco Bay Bridge is 76 feet wide and 58 feet tall.
    • The deepest...MORE pier extends 242 feet below the water's surface and contains more concrete than the Empire State Building.
    • Over a quarter million vehicles cross the San Francisco Bay Bridge daily.
    • In 1933, San Francisco Bay Bridge construction consumed more than 6% of the total United States steel output.

    If you want to know more, visit the Bay Bridge website.

    San Francisco Bay Bridge History

    In 1928, the San Francisco Bay looked much different than it does today. Neither of its landmark bridges had yet been constructed. Forty-six million people crossed the bay that year, all of them traveling on ferries. The waterways were clogged with ferry traffic, and new alternatives were needed.

    In 1929, the State of California began studies to find an alternative. After years of study and a little more than three years of construction, the San Francisco Bay Bridge opened to traffic on November 12, 1936. Its total cost, including an electric railroad which has since been abandoned, was $79.5 million.

    Initially the San Francisco Bay Bridge upper deck carried 3 lanes in each direction, with trucks and the inter-urban railway traveling on the lower level. By 1936, the Bay Bridge had already reached traffic levels projected for 1950 and it became clear that something would have to be done. In 1959, the railway was removed and the lower deck converted to carry five lanes of eastbound vehicles. The upper deck was then devoted to five lanes of westbound traffic.

    The San Francisco Bay Bridge towers weathered the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake (7.1 on the Richter scale) without damage, but the decks were not so lucky. Bolts sheared, part of the upper deck came unhinged and fell onto the lower deck.