6 Books About San Francisco to Read Before Your Next Trip
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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.