San Francisco is an amazing city with an endless amount of activities and things to do and it’s not a surprise that it’s always one of the most visited cities in the United States. Thousands of people flock every year to see some of the city’s most popular sights, such as the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, the famous, Union Square, Pier 39, etc. A lot others stop by while taking a Pacific Coast road trip or traveling around Napa Valley. But don’t think that by visiting the city’s main tourist attractions, you’ll get to know San Francisco. In fact, you’ll barely scratch the surface. You’ve probably heard the saying “If you’re not alive, San Francisco will bring you to life” and there’s a lot of truth in it. And the best way to prove that this is true are not the main tourist attractions but the hidden gems in San Francisco that most tourists don’t even know exist!
Jack Kerouac Alley
I’m starting off this list of hidden gems in San Francisco with Jack Kerouac Alley; an alley that left a lasting impression on me from the first time I saw it. To put it simply, nothing showcases San Francisco’s diversity the way this alley does. It’s at Jack Kerouac where the East meets the West in San Francisco, both figuratively and literally. This is the spot where Chinatown suddenly fuses into Little Italy.
The alley is named after famous writer Jack Kerouac who was a frequent visitor to Vesuvio Café that’s still located on this alley. There’s no better place in the entire city where you can get a glimpse of the city’s legendary bohemian spirit. Want to experience some of it? Check out this Northbeach-Chinatown food tour; I warmly recommend it.
Tin How Temple
Not too far away from Jack Kerouac Alley, you’ll find Tin How Temple. Most people who visit China Town, go searching for Golden Fortune cookies and dim sum but most somehow ignore the oldest Taoist extant temple in San Francisco and one of the oldest in the whole country. Technically, the temple is a small place in an apartment building on Waverly Street which makes it a perfect addition to this list of hidden gems in San Francisco. The temple doesn’t look as impressive as some other Taoist temples but the peaceful and ancient ambiance is a reason enough to visit.
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If you’re looking for some fine, affordable local eateries, head to Belden Place; a tiny alley in San Francisco’s financial districts with a myriad of roadside eateries and cute little cafes that will make you feel like you suddenly went from San Francisco to Europe. The alley is pedestrian-only and is one of the locals’ favorite quick-bite spots. Tourists, however, aren’t aware of the existence of this tiny, charming alley (at least from what I could see).
What was once a seedy park at the edge of Cayuga Terrace has become a quaint park filled with spectacular artwork, such as totems, sculptures, and boards with inspiring messages. And we owe most of these sculptures and boards to one man. Most of the aesthetics of the park are the work of Demetrio Braceros from the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. He has been working on turning this park into what it is today for over 20 years and single-handedly transformed this barren land into one of the most picturesque parks in the area.
Lovers’ Lane Trail and the Spire
If you’re planning to visit San Francisco, Presidio Park and the breath-taking views of Golden Gate Bridge are probably one of the first places you want to see. At least, that’s the case with most tourists. However, even though a lot of people visit this place every day, only a handful discover Lovers’ Lane. Lovers’ Lane is the oldest foot trail in Presidio. The trail got its name in the 18th century when Spanish missionaries and soldiers were using it to meet with their girlfriends.
However, the real gems on the trail are a couple of pieces of art by Andy Goldsworthy. Along the trail, you’ll see the Wood Line- a beautiful installation that flows adjacent to the paved path. Not too far away from the trail, you’ll also see the incredible sculpture Spire by Andy Goldsworthy. The 90-feet-tall sculpture towers over the park and stands high above most of the trees but is located in a secluded area that remains relatively unfrequented most of the time.
And speaking of hidden gems in San Francisco in relatively crowded places…
Shakespeare Garden at Golden Gate Park
Did you know that the famous Golden Gate Park is home to a beautiful garden that resembles some of the settings described in Shakespeare’s novels? Thousands of people visit Golden Gate Park every day, but most of them never discover this beautiful public garden. At this little oasis, you’ll find a lot of beautiful plants and stone tablets with inspiring quotes.
Looking to explore Golden Gate Park? You can rent a segway and cover much more ground than you would on foot. The park is enormous and a lot of people who visit underestimate its size thinking they can cover it by walking.
Speaking of hidden gems in San Francisco, we just have to mention Kirby Cove. It’s one of San Francisco’s most peaceful trails and the views at the end of the trail are just amazing. To get to this big swing with an amazing view of Golden Gate Bridge, you have to walk the one-mile-long trail near Conzelman Road. If you’re in your own car, you can park at Battery Spencer. The walk is relatively easy and almost anyone can do it but because of its remote location, the trail is one of the more secluded places in San Francisco.
Lands End Labyrinth
The Labyrinth is another quaint place in San Francisco with an amazing view of the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s located at the end of Eagle’s Point hanging off the tip of the West Coast of the North American continent. To get there, you have to walk an unmaintained trail but don’t worry, it’s nothing difficult and you can use Google Maps to navigate to the labyrinth.
The labyrinth is a creation of a stone outline that follows the classic seven-circuit Chartres labyrinth. Combine this with the dramatic views you could get from here and you get one of San Francisco’s best-kept secrets. If you’re planning to visit, try to go during the week. A lot of locals visit during the weekends and the place can get crowded.
If you’re an avid trekker and looking for places in San Francisco to get off the beaten track, you should definitely check out Mount Sutro. Mount Sutro is one of San Francisco’s seven hills and is completely covered in lush forests filled with eucalyptus trees. The hill is a part of the San Francisco fog chain and gets quite foggy during summers and with the high trees peaking above the fog, this is one of the most Instagramable places in San Francisco.
And speaking of Instagramable places, Tank Hill has arguably the best view of the city. From here, you can see the entire city of San Francisco at the tip of your palm and see just how big Golden Gate Bridge is from far away compared to the surrounding area. The best part? Not a lot of people usually visit, so you would have this amazing view for yourself!
See the parrots of Telegraph Hill
We never support going to zoos when traveling and instead we always try to promote more ethical animal encounters. You’ll find one such place at Telegraph Hill in San Francisco that’s home to a large colony of parrots since the early 1990s. It all began when a couple of parrots escaped from the local zoo and found an ecological home at one of San Francisco’s seven hills. Many other parrots soon followed and today, we have this large group of parrots living very close to the city’s busiest streets. If you look close enough, you might spot some of them in different parts of the city too.
Even though not exactly hidden, Marshall’s Beach deserves a mention on this list of hidden gems in San Francisco just for its remoteness. This is the main reason why you won’t see a lot of other tourists on the beach but what you will get is one of the best sunset views of the Ocean in the entire San Francisco area. If you’re looking for a romantic picnic spot, this is your place (and it’s totally worth the long drive).
The only public transport line that will take you near the beach is bus #4 but if you don’t want to rely on public transport, the best way to get to this hidden beach is by renting a car. Use this special offer by AutoEurope to make sure you’re always getting the best deal. It will save you hours of research and compare the prices of all car dealers in San Francisco for you, making sure you always get the best deal.
Another place that a lot of tourists are blissfully unaware of is Treasure Island. Even though the island is artificial, it’s one of the most peaceful places in San Francisco unless one of the music festivals that take place on the island is on. Once there, you can rent a cruiser and explore the coast, take a dip in the water, or just enjoy the soothing sounds of the ocean.
Unlike Treasure Island, this group of islands that stretches 27 miles off the San Francisco Coast isn’t man-made but it’s also very secluded. The Farallon Islands are famous for being a white shark feeding ground and the rich marine life that includes sea lions, seals, 18 different types of dolphins and whales, and thousands of nesting seabirds. If you have the chance, do take a boat tour and learn about the marine life and ecosystem of this part of California. It’s totally worth it!
The Wave Organ
This jetty is a giant acoustic sculpture (from cemetery stones and pipes) that amplifies ocean sounds as waves hit the shore. Supposedly, the higher the tide, the louder the sound will get but even if you don’t get to experience this, the view from the jetty is worth visiting; on the left, you can see Golden Gate Bridge, on the right- the beautiful skyline of Downtown, and straight ahead- the legendary Alcatraz Island.
The Vulcan Stairs
In San Francisco, you’ll find a lot of famous stairways, such as the 16th Avenue Steps and the Mosaic Stairway but most tourists don’t even know about the Vulcan Stairs. The steps are decorated by beautiful gardens and quirky-looking houses from both sides, making the whole area a real treat for all visitors who decide to pass by.
Ingleside Terraces Sundial
Unless you live nearby it or heard about it somewhere else, you probably don’t know about this giant white sundial at Ingleside terraces. When it was built in 1913, it was supposed to become the focal point of Ingleside Terraces. However, the urban planning of the area went into a different direction and left the giant sundial at the end of the cul de sac, forgotten by most people, except, of course, those who seek to discover some of the best hidden gems in San Francisco.
And speaking of hidden gems in San Francisco forgotten by most people, I have to tell you about Camera Obscura. I don’t know if there are any models of this giant camera in other places but even if there is, I’m sure none of them enjoy a better view than the one at the cliffs above Ocean Beach in San Francisco.
The Obscura works by projecting an image on a horizontal table via a reflection from the viewpoint above the building. Subsequently, a metal hood at the top rotates making a full circle every 6 minutes and giving an amazing 360 panoramic view of everything around the Obscura.
Free Gold Watch Arcade
Are you a sucker for vintage arcade games? Then you’ll surely love the Free Gold Watch Arcade. It’s home to several different pinball machines and even more other classic games from the 80s and early 90s. Stepping into this shop feels like traveling back in time. Even the prices for the arcade games are the same as the 80s!
Cartoon Art Museum
And if arcade games aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other unusual things to do in San Francisco to connect with your inner child. One of those things is a trip to the Cartoon Art Museum. The museum boasts an impressive permanent collection of over 7,000 pieces of vintage cartoons and Japanese anime movies and is specially designed to bring a smile on your face.
The Fire Museum showcases the history of the SF Fire Department. It includes an interesting collection of artifacts, including the first engine the department used and remnants of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake & Fire. The museum is a great place to learn not only about the fire department but also about some parts of the city’s history. One of the reason why not a lot of people know about this museum is that it’s run by volunteers and you have to call in advance to inquire about the working hours.
Wells Fargo Museum
When it comes to hidden gems for history buffs, the Wells Fargo Museum deserves a special mention on our list. Located in the busy Financial District, the museum features a lot of interesting documents about the Wells Fargo history and the banking sector in general. My favorite artifact in the museum was the original Abbot-Downing Concord Coach that was traditionally used as the Pony Express.
Institute of Illegal Images
If you’re into quirky museums, you’ll love the Institute of Illegal Images. Even though its name can be misleading, the museum aims to showcase the history of the city that gave the world most of its LSD supplies.
The museum was founded by an avid LSD lover who figured out that the only way to stop himself from consuming the drug is to make art of it. Hence, you can see an LSD Mickey Mouse, LSD comic books, The Sorcerer’s apprentice made of LSD, etc. The museum is home to more than 30,000 sheets of LSD. The DEA tried to take the sheets twice but so far unsuccessfully and until that happens this museum is the frontrunner as one of the quirkiest attractions of San Francisco.
This museum befitting the city responsible for supplying the majority of the world’s LSD.
The intersection of the Arts
The place known as the Intersection of the Arts is San Francisco’s oldest community alternative art space. The place exists since 1965 and is run by a non-profit organization. According to their website, this community space strives to help local (or visiting) artists grow. They do this through a range of different projects, workshops, and seminars. Oftentimes, you can also see theater plays, group readings dance performances, jazz concerts, etc.
San Francisco Columbarium
When we talk about hidden gems in San Francisco, we also shouldn’t forget about the local Columbarium. A columbarium is basically a repository for cremated remains and I know it sounds quirky or even creepy, it’s a great (and unexpected) way to learn some of the city’s not-so-known history.
In addition to this, the Columbarium is located in an old baroque building with beautiful glass windows at the cul de sac of a neighborhood dotted with quirky pastel-hued houses. Some of the most famous people whose remains are stored in this building include Chet Helms (the promoter of 1967 Summer of Love), Jerry Juhl (writer for “The Muppets”), and Harvey Milk (the first openly-declared gay official elected in the state of California).
Haas Lilienthal House
And last but not least, if you’re looking for hidden gems in San Francisco, you just have to visit the old Hass Lilienthal House. This old building was built in 1886 and belonged to William Haas. Today, it’s one of the oldest houses in San Francisco and a standing monument of the good old days in San Francisco. Even the interior is relatively well-preserved with the furniture and artwork inside the house remaining intact throughout the years.
Helpful resources for traveling to San Francisco
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Last but not least, don’t forget about travel insurance. Personally, I always use World Nomads. They are on the more expensive side but they cover anything that can happen to you on the road. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
Looking for some more West Coast/Pacific travel inspiration? Check out some of our other articles from the region!
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Hidden vacation spots in the US
How did you like this list of hidden gems in San Francisco? Which one would be at the top of your bucket list if you decide to visit San Francisco? Let us know in the comments!
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Monday 24th of August 2020
The panoramas are incredible! The first thought that came to mind after what he saw - the end of the world, so that's what it is! The journey is fantastic!
Monday 24th of August 2020
They sure are, Anna :)