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San Francisco — California’s City by the Bay — is famous for many things: the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, foggy weather, and the backdrop of Victorian houses featured in the intro of Full House. For those reasons, and a million others, this breathtaking town is popular with tourists from all over. While it’s easy for visitors to get sucked into the standard list of Bay Area attractions — Alcatraz, the Painted Ladies, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Japanese Garden — to name just a few. But there are many sites that fly under the radar and are just as worth your time. These places will help you discover the city’s true quirkiness through food, art, natural beauty, history, and unique local culture.
Seward Street Slides
Tucked away in the historical Castro District is Seward Mini-Park — home of the Seward Street Slides. And it’s exactly what it sounds like — large, public slides! The two slides are made from concrete and surrounded by rarely-enforced warnings that read, “No adults unless accompanied by a child.” The concrete is slippery, but you’ll have an easier time if you bring some cardboard to slide down on. Chances are you’ll find some there in case you forget; keep your arms tucked in to avoid scraping your elbows!
The slides were designed by a local teenager as a community activism project in the 1970s, when the site was slated for residential development. And, while the slides are the centerpiece of the park, visitors can also enjoy a native plant garden. If you want to spread out a bit more, trek to nearby Kite Hill Park. It’s an uphill walk, but you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the city.
Balmy and Clarion Alleys
The Mission District of San Francisco has been famous for its vibrant and colorful street art since the 1970s. And much of the area’s artwork — mainly murals and graffiti — relates to the local Latino culture. A lot of the work is concentrated along the 24th Street corridor, especially between Mission Street and York Street. Some of the most immersive spots for taking in the artwork are off the main drag in slim alleyways that most people walk right by without a glance. Balmy Alley is right off the aforementioned corridor near Harrison Street. Further north, Clarion Alley is tucked away between 17th Street and 18th Street, connecting Valencia Street and Mission Street.
Every wall along these alleys, in addition to the street itself and a series of overhead installations, is covered in beautiful artwork. The colors are vibrant and the overall effect is an absolute feast for the eyes. If you look closer, you’ll note that many of the themes in the artwork are political, relating to issues in the neighborhood and around the city.
The Wave Organ
San Francisco’s Wave Organ is a piece of public art located near the Golden Gate Yacht Club. It was built in 1986 as part of the Exploratorium — San Francisco’s science museum. The work consists of 25 PVC pipes of various sizes, arranged in the bay near a jetty. As the waves roll in and around the site, the structures amplify the rushing water and music is created from the natural sounds of the ocean. (The acoustics are similar to the sounds you hear when you put a conch shell up to your ear.)
Anyone can access this peculiar sculpture for free — though the music is best at high tide. Beyond the pipes, the waterfront park offers spectacular views of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge, not to mention a safe and shallow spot to get your feet wet. And take note of the jetty itself — it consists of grand pieces of marble and granite from a demolished cemetery!
The Parrots of Telegraph Hill
Seasoned birders visit San Francisco and its surrounding hills and coastal areas to spot a number of native birds — but these parrots are different. They’re called red-masked parrots (or cherry-headed conures), and they aren’t indigenous to the Bay Area. In fact, this species of bird is typically only found in South America. For some reason, these birds thrive in San Francisco and there are now at least three separate flocks living near the city. You’ll probably hear the birds before you see them — parrots are loud! Your best bet for spotting them is in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood near the Filbert Street Steps — but they’ve been spotted in the Mission District and in Brisbane.
No one is sure how these parrots colonized the City by the Bay, but the common theory is that the original birds were caught in the wild and brought to California to sell as pets. Whether they escaped or were released, they made themselves at home and put on a great show for anyone lucky enough to catch them.
Mount Davidson is often overshadowed by the famous Twin Peaks, but it’s actually the highest point in San Francisco. At 927 feet tall, Mount Davidson offers stunning views of the skyline and the iconic Twin Peaks. But it also offers those who walk to the summit a chance to experience a beautiful eucalyptus forest that is even more enchanting in San Francisco’s signature fog (so don’t let misty weather keep you from the site!)
There are over 40 acres to explore — look for a series of easy hiking paths and plenty of blackberry and elderberry bushes. At the top of the hill is a 103-foot-tall concrete cross. The cross is visible from different vantage points across the city and is dedicated to the victims of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, serving as a symbol of peace and reflection. Today, the cross and surrounding area are owned and maintained by the Council of Armenian-American Organizations of Northern California.
The Presidio is a popular section of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. But the site is vast and there are a few hidden treasures for more adventurous visitors. One is Marshall’s Beach, a hidden segment of wild coastline offering sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge along with the Pacific Ocean and the Marin Headlands. You can reach the spot via the Batteries to Bluffs Trail, which also offers access to the more crowded Baker Beach as well.
The area is sparsely visited and secluded, and the further you walk along the natural shoreline of sand and rugged rock formations — a haven for wildflowers, birds, and sea life — the more remote and idyllic the surroundings feel. The trail is easily navigable, but it’s a long walk to the sandy stretch at the end of line. It’s worth the effort, though — the breathtaking point is the closest beach to the Golden Gate Bridge!
For another under-the-radar spot within Golden Gate National Recreation Area, visit Fort Point. This Civil War-era fortress defended the city’s coastline during California’s Gold Rush up until the end of World War II. The fort is directly located under the southern span of the bridge and features intricately-laid brick walls that are seven feet wide in some places, along with a three-tiered arcade of casemates for up to 126 cannons. Fort Point was the only fort of its kind west of the Mississippi River!
Inside the fort are exhibits about the military history of the area, and outside are a series of trails plus former gun batteries and other military shelters aimed at protecting the bay from attack. But, perhaps even more interesting, you’ll get a rarely-seen perspective of one of the world’s most famous bridges — a view of the underside of the span along with the Golden Gate’s masonry arches.
Land’s End Labyrinth
Land’s End is a quiet parkland and winding, windswept trail at the northwestern tip of San Francisco — a rugged stretch of cypress forest and steep cliffs overlooking the narrow ocean channel leading to the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay. Visitors often check it out just for the views, but those in the know follow signs for Mile Rock Beach and detour to a narrow strip of land featuring the Land’s End Labyrinth.
Constructed from various found rocks in naturalistic forms, this hidden spot is no accident. The installation was created by local artist Eduardo Aguilera in 2004. Of course, the site is a great place for an Instagram selfie, but take the time to explore the full, circular maze. It’s a beautiful opportunity to relax and meditate — and when you look up from the labyrinth’s borders, you will experience an unrivaled view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Sitting on the cliffs near Land’s End in a neighborhood called Outer Richmond is Camera Obscura (also called the Giant Camera) — a rare imaging device based on a design by Leonardo da Vinci. One of only a few in the world, the camera in San Francisco is set inside a small building and reflects live, 360-degree images of the western end of the city and the ocean on its walls using Renaissance-era technology.
Camera Obscura was built in the 1940s as part of an amusement park that once stood on the site. The tiny museum and its rare camera were almost demolished twice — first, when the amusement park shut down, and later, when the nearby, now-closed Cliff House restaurant was planning renovations. In 2001, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and continues to welcome visitors.
Sutro Baths Ruins and Cave
On the other end of the Presidio — and just below the cliffs where Camera Obscura is located — a Gilded Age millionaire built a massive public pool in 1894. It was once the largest indoor pool in the world — able to host 10,000 people across six various Pacific-fed pools, 500 dressing rooms, multiple restaurants, and a series of lavish arcades under 100,000 feet of glass. The Sutro Baths — named for Adolph Sutro, the former San Francisco mayor and millionaire who built the complex — waned in popularity over the years, and were converted to an ice-skating rink before a fire destroyed the shell and halted redevelopment plans in the 1960s.
Today, the eerie ruins and hidden caverns of this once-grand bathhouse are offset by expansive ocean views, making it a unique spot to explore and take photographs. You won’t be disappointed by the stunning sunsets, but the spot is just as captivating in the fog.
Mount Sutro Forest
Speaking of Gold Rush millionaire and Bay Area politician Adolph Sutro, the eccentric man is also behind the mystical Mount Sutro Forest. Nestled behind the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center and campus, the Mount Sutro Forest sits below the mountain’s peak, covers about 80 acres, and features over five miles of trails. Many of the trees — a mix of native species and more exotic plants like eucalyptus — date to 1886, when Sutro began planting the hillside in honor of the city’s first Arbor Day celebration.
Today, UCSF is replacing some of the trees with native grasses and plants, but the expanse still offers a beautiful juxtaposition of mist-cloaked cloud forest alongside Californian wildflowers and grasses.
Despite its location at the mega-touristy Fisherman’s Wharf, the Musée Mécanique is often missed. Nonetheless, it’s a delightful nostalgia trip featuring over 300 penny arcade games and other artifacts and ephemera from the 20th century. It's actually one of the largest privately-owned collections of antique arcade games in the world.
Look for working, old-school photo booths, crank-operated musical instruments, a steam-powered motorcycle, and even some tidbits of local history. Some of the games and artifacts on display were a part of the long-running Playland at the Beach amusement park (which built and hosted the aforementioned Camera Obscura).
From the outside, the Gregangelo Museum looks like an ordinary house on a residential street. Inside, however, visitors are greeted by colorful and bizarre-themed rooms and vignettes, secret passageways and chambers, interactive experiences, and an endless assortment of art and mirror installations. The experience is immersive and captivating, and it certainly isn’t like any other home tour you’ve ever taken.
The space was designed by artist Gregangelo — ringmaster of the Velocity Circus — over four decades. The rooms are themed on moments in history, humanity, and space, and can be explored during guided tours that can be reserved in advance.
Lincoln Park Steps
Various sets of steps connect neighborhoods and streets across San Francisco, helping pedestrians navigate the area’s hilly terrain. Many of them are covered in colorful tiles, joining the aforementioned murals and graffiti as a form of joyful street art. But much like those murals, it is easy to miss these stairways unless you know where to look. A favorite among these unique works of art is the Lincoln Park Steps, located on the western edge of the city near Land’s End. Built in the early 1900s, the steps were overhauled in multi-colored Beaux Arts-style mosaic tiles in 2007. Find them where California Street dead ends at the Lincoln Park Golf Course and the Katherine Delmar Burke School.
Other decorated stairways that add a colorful pop to residential neighborhoods include the Hidden Garden Steps at 16th Avenue and Kirkham Street and the 16th Avenue Tiled Stairs at 16th Avenue and Moraga Street.
Nob Hill Audium
The Nob Hill Audium is considered one of the best music venues in San Francisco. And it’s certainly the only theater — in the city or anywhere — that was designed exclusively for sound and the way sound waves travel. Every aspect of the building relates to acoustics, including the room’s 176 speakers. The venue utilizes both architecture and technology to channel sound to audiences sitting in concentric circles on a floating floor. The ceiling is suspended, and speakers are built into the building’s sloping walls. The design allows for exceptional, unparalleled sound quality and an immersive auditory experience.
Established in 1975, the Audium was designed by experimental music composer Stan Schaff. The space offers weekly public performances and workshops, but it only seats 49 people, so don’t sleep on tickets!
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company
In another win for San Francisco’s busy alleyways, the Golden Gate Fortune Company — operating out of a Chinatown alley — is one of the oldest producers of handmade fortune cookies in the country. Many fortune cookie producers now use automated or factory-style processes to produce, but Golden Gate’s staff of three manages to pump out up to 10,000 cookies a day! Their process involves peeling still hot, flat cookies off a press and hand-bending them into shape before the delicate cookies harden and shatter.
The Chang family has run this tiny operation since the 1960s, using a secret family recipe for classic cookies as well as new varieties like strawberry, chocolate, and tea. The spot offers tours that detail the intricate cookie-folding process — and you can pick up a bunch of the famous cookies to go, of course!
Before the 1939 World Fair Exposition, Treasure Island was just another sandbar. But the bay was filled in and altered for the exposition, and a series of fairgrounds and exhibition halls were constructed onsite. Since then, Treasure Island has served many purposes as a transoceanic airport hub, an army base, a filming site, a radar station, and more. Today, Treasure Island is a cool, emerging neighborhood offering spots to explore and recreate, with sweeping views, great food and wine, a plethora of activities, and a National Register of Historic Places designation.
Visitors should check out the Art Deco building erected for the exposition, which now houses a historical museum. Otherwise, check out multiple wine-tasting rooms and seafood restaurants, monthly flea markets and music festivals, and Clipper Cove for kayaking and sunbathing. Bike rentals are a great way to see the island, but you only need to get there to take in the incredible views. Treasure Island offers the best vistas of the San Francisco skyline — especially at night when the buildings are illuminated.
Located north of Berkeley in the city of Albany, the Albany Bulb was a commercial dump opened in the 1960s. By the 1980s, a series of lawsuits and zoning issues had closed the site. But since the area offers unparalleled views of the bay, it wasn’t long before artists took over. Today, the land consisting of wetlands and rocky outcroppings features a series of stunningly eccentric found-art sculptures along with murals and graffiti. The highlights include a series of massive sculptures made from driftwood by artists Scott Hewitt, Scott Meadows, and David Ryan, as well as the “Castle” — a crumbling concrete structure covered in graffiti.