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Alcatraz Island, Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, the Golden Gate Bridge—when in San Francisco, where does one explore first? While the free S.F. attractions and top tourist destinations are staples, the secret spots are where it's at. Curiosity leads adventurous souls to seek out San Francisco's hidden gems; never satisfied with just the normal touristic places, these types of travelers seek out eccentricities and lesser-known spots. Whether you're a local or a visitor spending a weekend in S.F., go on a hunt to discover San Francisco's hidden gems. They'll make for an extraordinary story.
In 1986, entrepreneur and mining engineer Adolph Sutro inaugurated a huge recreational facility equipped with a saltwater pool and an aquarium on Point Lobos Avenue. The millionaire took it upon himself to build a three-acre public bathhouse on the premises; due to a fire in 1966, the bathhouse was destroyed. Today, visitors can explore the ruins and cave on their adventure to discover all of S.F.'s hidden gems.
The Land’s End Labyrinth is among the most gorgeous hidden places in San Francisco. The creator and artist, Eduardo Aguilera, was inspired by the rocky shoreline of Land’s End. While the artist hoped to keep his creation hidden, hikers and travelers eventually discovered his work; though the labyrinth is more well-known than Aguilera would have liked, it is still an off-the-beaten-path destination in the city. While you're at the Land's End Labyrinth, indulge in views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
A wave-operated acoustic sculpture found on a jetty in the San Francisco Bay, the Wave Organ was designed as part of the Exploratorium in 1986. The sculpture bellows musical sounds when the waves crash and flow in and out of the 25 organ pipes, which are made of PVC and concrete. Visitors are advised to visit during high tide to experience the eeriness of the naturally occurring music.
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San Francisco is filled with staircases, but nothing comes quite close to the Vulcan Stairs, one of the best hidden gems in San Francisco. Tucked away in the Upper Market area, the stairway is the longest in the city. It's a great place for an urban hike; admire the Monterey pines, ferns, ivy, and bottlebrush trees as you climb up the stairs—oh, and check out the eccentric houses along the way, too. Views of downtown San Francisco will also emerge after you conquer the nearly two-block Vulcan Stairs.
One of the most intriguing San Francisco hidden gems is found within the Yerba Buena Gardens. This sprawling public park in the cultural heart of S.F. features several beautiful, interactive sculptures. Among them is Urge by Chico MacMurtrie; this work of art effortlessly follows the movement of the observer. Found in the Children’s Garden, this sculpture is a treat for the eyes—watch it move as you sit on the bench in front of it. Other visit-worthy sculptures in the garden include the Three Dancing Figures, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Silver Walls, and the Shaking Man.
This San Francisco hidden gem will surely put a smile on your youngster's face. Tucked away in a neighborhood park, the two lanes of slippery downhill slides are accompanied by a California native plant garden. The Seward Street Slides' goofy sign states, “No adults unless accompanied by a child,” preparing people for a fun time. Make sure to slide down during your next visit to the City by the Bay.
Although most tourists head to the zoo for an up-close view of tropical birds, the curious souls go to Telegraph Hill for a live show. The parrot flock here started in 1990 when an escaped pair of parrots discovered an ecological niche. As more parrots escaped, the parrot commune grew. By 2005, after several generations of offspring, over 200 wild parrots have been spotted. When you wind down the Filbert Steps in Telegraph Hill, the residential gardens and aromatic wildflowers will make you feel as though you're in paradise—especially as the parrots fly about overhead.
Located in Fisherman's Wharf, Musée Mécanique is an interactive museum consisting of 20th-century penny arcade games and artifacts. Considered one of San Francisco’s oddest hidden gems, the museum is home to more than 300 mechanical machines. From hand-cranked musical boxes to modern video arcade games, this museum has it all. The best part? You get a hands-on experience here—you can play with any of the original machines that are still in working condition. Bring plenty of coins with you for a trip down memory lane.
When exploring the city, meandering through San Francisco’s neighborhoods is a definite must—and nothing tops the artistic beauty of Balmy Alley. This one-block alley is home to San Francisco's largest collection of murals. During the mid-1980s, artists took out their socio-political frustration and angst on the city's walls. Today, artists still use this space to express themselves; from political stances to cultural diversity, you'll find a mural depicting it all.
The Bay Area community is quite artistic; a trip to the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps truly depicts San Francisco's creative side. Local artists transformed 163 dull stairs into a breathtaking masterpiece. Located in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood, the gorgeous sea to stars themed mosaic is only 15 minutes away from Golden Gate Park and is totally worth the climb. You won't want to miss the majesty of this masterpiece.
When it comes to indulging in seafood, Swan Oyster Depot is a San Francisco hidden gem. This local favorite, no-frills counter found in a fish market serves the tastiest seafood in town. So, while tourists make their way to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, leave the well-beaten path and follow the trail of local San Franciscans to the Swan Oyster Depot for the best oysters, crab, prawns, and shrimp.
San Francisco is all about outdoor adventures and explorations. What better place to escape the crowds and get in touch with nature than on an island located in the midst of an urban jungle? Angel Island State Park boasts hiking trails and awesome Bay Area vistas. Strap on your sturdy hiking boots to trek the North Ridge and Sunset Trail. This 4.7-mile pathway features gorgeous wildflowers and spectacular nature views. After your hike, you can swim, fish, and windsurf on Angel Island.
The Neptune Society Columbarium is quite the eye-catching San Francisco hidden gem. This columbarium is nestled in a cul-de-sac lined with pastel-colored homes just north of Golden Gate Park. The building, completed in 1985, features Baroque and Neoclassical elements as well as beautiful, elegantly detailed stained glass windows. The San Francisco Columbarium was once a part of the Odd Fellow Cemetery and is now the city's only non-denominational burial place.
Looking for other lesser-known attractions in the Bay Area? Add Oakland's hidden gems to your bucket list.
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