At twilight, the Bay Lights turn the plain-looking San Francisco Bay Bridge into a shimmering, mesmerizing nighttime light sculpture.
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 ever to see it doing the same thing twice. One minute, they may bring to mind fish swimming, the next they look like falling raindrops. It's a mesmerizing show, to say the least.
Seeing the Bay Lights
Going to view the lights is one of the best things to do in San Francisco at night. 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 lovely.
- 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 and the San Francisco skyline.
- See them from above at 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 get a view of the whole city, too.
How the Bay Lights Got Started
Before 2014, the San Francisco Bay Bridge always took a back seat to the Golden Gate Bridge across the bay, sitting like a canvas waiting for a painter.
For the Bay Bridge's 75th anniversary, artist Leo Villareal turned the unremarkable old span into world’s largest LED light sculpture. Known internationally for his light sculptures, Villareal installed 1.8 miles of sparkling, white, energy-efficient lights on the bridge’s vertical cables. It was a monumental project that was eight times the scale of the Eiffel Tower’s 100th Anniversary lighting.
The original installation was designed to last two years. Then as Illuminate the Arts says: "...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." At the end of those two years, everyone wanted them to come back. Illuminate the Arts raised $4 million to make it a permanent fixture, and they came back on for good in January 2016.
Seeing the San Francisco Bay Bridge
The lights aren't the only thing you may want to explore about the Bay Bridge.
To enjoy the bridge by bike or walking, take the 4.4-mile bike and walking trail. It starts in Oakland and runs on the south side of the bridge. Vista Point at Yerba Buena Island has benches where you can catch your breath, pretending it's the view that took it away and not the over-exertion. Luckily it is all downhill going back.
You can also Uber or Lyft to the vista point and ride or bike it one way. Use 9 Hillcrest Rd, San Francisco, CA as the destination, which is the address of Naval Quarters 9 near the vista point.
San Francisco Bay Bridge from San Francisco
You can see the Bay Bridge from any of the locations listed above for viewing the Bay Lights.
Driving to the Bay Bridge
On the western section of the bridge, the eastbound lanes travel on the lower deck, and you can't see anything. The view going west is much more beautiful. The eastern span is one level.
There is no toll to drive from the San Francisco side to Treasure Island and back. If you are crossing the bridge from Oakland toward San Francisco, you'll have to pay a toll.
To see the Bay Bridge from Treasure Island, drive east on Interstate Highway-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.
To see the new span, turn right on California Ave just past the old guard gate, and go to the east side of Treasure Island, where you can get an excellent view of the new span.
What You Need to Know About the Bay Bridge
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 of 28.75 inches.
- The east span is the world's longest self-anchored suspension bridge.
- 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 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, and new alternatives were needed.
In 1929, the State of California started planning what to do. 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 three 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. 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.