13 Of The Best Songs About San Francisco: Golden City Playlist

Avatar photo
Written by Laura Macmillan
Last updated

Nicknamed “The Golden City” and “The Paris of the West,” San Francisco has been the focal point of countless songs over the years. 

The San Francisco Bay’s atmosphere has inspired songs that invite us to relax on the dock, talk about city life or love, and the 1906 earthquake. 

Others are psychedelic or peace-themed, taking inspiration from the 1967 Monterey International Pop Music Festival and the Summer of Love. 

In this post, we’re going to take a deep dive into 13 of the best songs about San Francisco. Let’s get started.

Related: Check out more songs about California here.

1. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding

Up first we have “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” which is a peaceful soul song released shortly after the great Otis Redding’s passing. Redding co-wrote “The Dock of the Bay” alongside guitarist Steve Cropper. 

The song is about relaxing beside the San Francisco Bay and doing nothing but watching the waves.

According to Cropper, Redding got the idea for the song after staying at a San Francisco boathouse.

Redding told Cropper, “I watch the ships come in, and I watch them roll away again,” and they took the song from there.

2. “Lights” by Journey

“Lights” is an iconic soft rock song about San Francisco., where the members of Journey first got together and found fame. 

The song was co-written by frontman Steve Perry who had grown up a few hours from San Francisco and had only recently joined the group. 

Perry had initially written “Lights” to be about Los Angeles, with the main chorus saying “the sun shines on LA” instead of “the sun shines on the bay.” The band changed the song’s locale after Perry joined. 

The inspiration for the “bay” line came from a beautiful sunrise Perry saw across from the Golden Gate Bridge.

3. “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)” by Scott McKenzie

“San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)” was the anthem of the 1967 Monterey International Pop Music Festival.

It was written by The Mamas and The Papas frontman John Phillips as a warm invitation to the event.

The song was considered one of the defining songs of the Summer of Love, rising to 4th place on the Billboard Top 100 Chart in 1967

Its counterculture lyrics inspired countless activists and “hippies” to wear flowers in their hair, whether or not they were headed to San Fran. 

4. “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” by Tony Bennett

San Fran’s second official city song, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” is a slow-paced love song about the Golden City.

It was originally written by George Cory and Douglass Cross in 1953 before being recorded by Tony Bennett in 1962.

The song praises San Francisco as a glorious city, even above Paris and Rome. 

“I Left My Heart In San Francisco” peaked at No. 19 on the Billboard charts and stayed on the charts for nearly a year. It is considered by many to be Bennett’s signature song. 

The US Library of Congress placed “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” into the National Recording Registry in 2018. Bennett received the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s “Towering Performance Award” in 2003 for the song.

5. “San Francisco” by Jeanette MacDonald

“San Francisco” is a song that praises the glories, strength, and welcoming attitude of the city.

It was written for the 1936 Clark Gable movie of the same name. The song was named one of San Francisco’s two official city songs in 1984.

The movie San Francisco follows a singer played by Jeanette MacDonald, who takes a job at a nightclub during the events of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. MacDonald performed “San Francisco” six times throughout the movie. 

Judy Garland’s 1954 cover opened with a tribute to MacDonald’s San Francisco character. The song is still played and sung at San Francisco’s earthquake commemorations.

6. “San Francisco Blues” by Peggy Lee

Heavy on the horns, evoking a cool, big-city feeling, “San Francisco Blues” is hardly blue at all.

This upbeat song follows a woman eager to see every inch of San Francisco while her boyfriend only paints murals of specific landmarks.

This song was released on Peggy Lee’s experimental album Blues Cross Country in 1962. 

The album’s twelve tracks took a blues-style perspective on various US cities. Lee’s “Fisherman’s Wharf” from the same album was also about San Francisco. 

7. “San Franciscan Nights” by Eric Burdon and The Animals

“San Franciscan Nights” took inspiration from McKenzie’s “San Francisco” during the Summer of Love.” It was written in protest of the Vietnam War. 

Eric Burdon and The Animals saw the massive peace movement in the United States and wanted to encourage their listeners in Europe to join the cause.

The song opened by praising San Francisco’s beauty and ordering listeners to fly to San Fran to “understand the song.” 

The lyrics invite the listener to let go of hate and hold onto love.

8. “Cold Wind” by Arcade Fire

Initially, Canadian rock band Arcade Fire did not release “Cold Wind” on any studio albums. The song remained primarily unknown until it appeared in the HBO series Six Feet Under

“Cold Wind” is a somber, indie rock song that contrasts sharply against many of the numbers written about the Golden City. 

Tinged with sadness and hopelessness, “Cold Wind” invites anyone headed to San Francisco to “lay some flowers on the gravestone” rather than put flowers in their hair.

Even with the sun out and the radio on, all the singer feels and hears is cold wind.

9. “San Francisco (You’ve Got Me)” by Village People

“San Francisco (You’ve Got Me)” was the Village People’s debut hit. The group recorded the song in 1977 before they’d officially formed, and it is about finding freedom in San Fran. 

“San Francisco” became a cult hit in the Disco community and nearly reached Billboard’s Hot 100.

The song heavily relied on a large chorus which gave the song a new and unique style at the time of release.

This style paved the way for many of the Village People’s other hits like “YMCA,” “Macho Man,” and “In the Navy.” 

10. “Fake Tales of San Francisco” by Arctic Monkeys

“Fake Tales of San Francisco” is a song about the city as a metaphor for other bands’ lack of authenticity. 

It is a complex, honest look at how many musicians proclaim the city as a catalyst of inspiration while creating remarkably uninspired music. 

It also criticizes “weekend rockstars” who spend their time indulging in drugs, wine, and other Californian vices instead of letting their own experiences guide their art. 

The lyrics invite the aspiring artists to forget what they’ve heard about San Fran and set the handbook aside.

11. “San Fran” by Moses Sumney

“San Fran” is the closing track of Moses Sumney’s self-recorded debut EP Mid-City Island. The album’s recordings were early versions of the songs, which developed more as Sumney performed. 

Interestingly, the artist, who had grown up in California, emphasized his performance in “San Fran” rather than the content itself. 

The song is slow and simple. The lyrics are about someone chasing their dreams and refusing to allow others to clip their wings. 

By the end, though, the metaphor shifts, instead portraying the song’s subject as an anchored boat in the Bay, another victim of big city dreams gone wrong. 

12. “Save Me San Francisco” by Train

The title track of Train’s fifth album, “Save Me San Francisco” is a love letter to the city where the band got their start.

The lyrics are about an unsatisfying road trip from San Francisco to Seattle that leaves him wanting to return home.

In the music video, Train frontman Pat Monahan catches word that his girlfriend is ditching him and getting hitched to someone else. Monahan returns to San Francisco to crash the wedding but learns his girlfriend has left him for another woman. 

The two part ways contently with Monahan learning the song’s lesson not to go looking elsewhere for love.

13. “San Francisco Girls (Return of the Native)” by Fever Tree

Fever Tree’s “San Francisco Girls (Return of the Native)” was one of many late 60s songs about San Francisco following the success of McKenzie’s “San Francisco” and the Monterey International Pop Music Festival. It was the biggest hit single by the psychedelic rock band.

“San Francisco Girls” was co-written by Fever Tree guitarist Michael Knust, despite keyboardist Rob Landes being the only band member with significant experience in the city.

The song opens with a Clavinet, a unique-sounding clavichord keyboard that the band would use at concerts, paired with guitar instrumentals and fast-paced tempo changes. 

Summing Up Our List Of San Francisco Songs

San Francisco has transcended its meaning as just a city in the music world to become a beacon of pacifism in the 1960s and a place for aspiring musicians to find a captive audience. 

Its mark on the music industry has not faded, as evidenced by the continued popularity of songs about the Golden City. 

Did we miss any songs off? Let us know which ones we should add!

Photo of author

Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.