The San Francisco Bay encompasses a large metropolitan area along the northern California coast. With over 3 million residents and abundant natural beauty, the area offers something for everyone. We’ll help you get off the beaten path in San Francisco with hidden gems and unusual attractions based on local recommendations.
Of course, first-time visitors need to tour Alcatraz, visit the sea lions at Pier 39, ride a cable car, try the sourdough and snap a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge.
This is a compilation of more unique spots for visitors looking to check out some non-touristy spots. We share how to get off the path beaten by millions of San Francisco tourists.
Keep in mind, more than 7 million people call the Bay area home. Hidden gems and secret spots will probably not be completely secluded during peak times. However, they will be less busy and crowded than tourist areas. Expect to see a few others enjoying the same spots.
Where do you get off the beaten path in San Francisco?
Like most large cities, San Francisco has many opportunities to get off the beaten path. Each neighborhood has a least one hidden gem or secret spot.
Below you’ll find 26 great ways to get off the beaten path in the San Francisco bay area but there are always a few more. Please comment below if you discover a hidden gem in San Francisco that you’re willing to share.
Who says these are the best 26 places?
To create this list, I interviewed two San Francisco locals about their favorite spots in the city. Many of these attractions are free or low-cost so you can enjoy many of them on a budget.
In addition to details for all 26 places to get off the beaten path in San Francisco, I’ve included a comprehensive map. If you are a visual person, you can skip ahead to the Google Map.
In the details of each item below, you’ll find GPS coordinates, the neighborhood and any other important things to know before you go.
How to plan a trip to San Francisco?
During our time in San Francisco, we planned our days of exploring by neighborhood so we didn’t waste time, energy and dollars crisscrossing the city. Instead, we focused our attention each day on attractions that are geographically close.
Our Trying to Unwind Off the Beaten Path San Francisco map is perfect for helping you plan a trip to San Francisco.
Table of Contents
- Things to do off the Beaten Path in San Francisco
- Sharable Google Map with exact location for all 26 San Francisco Off the Beaten Path Attractions
- Sharable Google Map with exact location for all 26 San Francisco Off the Beaten Path Attractions
- Where the Locals Go in San Francisco Bay Area
- Experience Art
- Experience nature at the city’s parks
- BONUS: Where to eat in Chinatown
- Can’t Miss Off the Beaten Path Spots in San Francisco
- Coit Tower
- Saint Peter and Paul Church
- BONUS: Where to eat in Little Italy
- Get a fresh sweet treat from the Fortune Cookie Factory
- Explore the Mission District on two wheels
- Secret Spots in the San Francisco Bay Area
- Victoria houses prettier than the Painted Ladies
- Nerd out at LucasFilm HQ
- Find a curvier street than Lombard
- San Francisco Hidden Gems
- Pose for a pic on some of the cities many Mosaic Steps
- Search for the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill
- Hike the Presidio
- Tour the Street Art alleys
- Grace Cathedral Labyrinth
- Unusual Things to do in San Francisco
- Game at an old school arcade
- Learn about Cable Cars
- Listen to Ocean Songs at the Wave Organ
- Check out the Presidio Pet Cemetery
- Be a kid again on the Seward Street Slides
- Presidio Beaches
- San Francisco Columbarium
Things to do off the beaten path in San Francisco Bay Area
If you have unlimited time in the bay area, I recommend exploring the city neighborhood by neighborhood. Pick a focus area for the day, check out Instagram and Google for some inspiration then spend the day exploring on foot.
Grab a cup of coffee or tea at a local shop. Chat with the employees and locals while you enjoy your beverage. It is a great way to learn about secret alleys with amazing lunch spots or hidden beaches perfect for enjoying the sunset over the bay. Patrons usually have a few minutes to chat while enjoying their beverage.
Don’t be afraid to chat with strangers but I find it’s less awkward and more productive if you try this while having a beverage at a local business. People aren’t excited about stopping on sidewalks to chat with strangers. Especially those asking for a longer conversation.
Keep reading for our list of 26 things to do off the beaten path in San Francisco. They are presented based on categories and not in order of importance.
Trying to Unwind Off the Beaten Path San Francisco Map
How to Use This Map: Click the individual icons on the map to get additional information about each point of interest. Click the star next to the title of the map to add this map to your Google Maps account. It will be automatically saved in “Your Places” and available on every device that you use Google.
Where do locals go in San Francisco
San Francisco locals don’t go to the main tourist attractions like Alcatraz or Pier 39 but you can find them in the city’s many museums and parks. If you want to get off the beaten path, we have a few recommendations to spend time like a San Francisco local.
San Francisco museums generally attract more locals than tourists so they are a great place to get off the beaten path during your visit. The museums of fine art, the de Young and Legion of Honor each focus on different types of art. Purchasing admission tickets to one will allow same-day admittance to their sister museum.
1. de Young museum
GPS Location: 37.77146, -122.46867
Price: certain areas allow free admission; $15 adult admission
The de Young Museum of Fine Arts is located in Golden Gate Park. The museum courtyard, cafe, store, outdoor sculpture garden and Hamon Observation tower are free to visit during normal operating hours.
Contemporary art sculptures are on display at de Young’s sculpture garden and it is free to visit. Another free attraction is the144 foot Hamon Observation Tower. At the observation level, you’ll experience birds-eye views of Golden Gate Park, San Francisco neighborhoods, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Visitors interested in fine art can purchase an admission ticket and explore the museum’s permanent collections. The de Young museum’s permanent collection includes African, Oceanic, New Guinea, American Indian art objects, Textiles, Piazonni Murals and 20th Century.
The permanent collections are free to enter during the last hour of each day. Additionally, admission is free to de Young on the first Tuesday of every month. For more free and reduced ticket opportunities check here.
Admission to the de Young museum also provides same-day access to their sister museum the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park.
2. Legion of Honor
GPS Location: 37.78446, -122.50084
Price: $15 adult admission (audio guide costs extra)
The Legion of Honor is a sister fine arts museum to the de Young. It is located in Lincoln Park.
The permanent collection includes European art, ancient Mediterranean art, one of the largest collections of paper art in the nation.
Visiting the museum shop and cafe does not require admission.
The Legion of Honor museum offers free admission several days each month, during the last half hour of each day, and to specific groups every day. To find other free and discounted admission opportunities at Legion of Honor check here.
Admission to the Legion of Honor museum also provides same-day access to their sister museum the de Young in Golden Gate Park.
San Francisco City Parks
One of my favorite ways to experience a new city is to take a blanket, a frisbee and a cold beverage to the local park. San Francisco has 220 city parks so the opportunity to spend time in a park is available in nearly every neighborhood of the city. Plus San Francisco city parks are free to visit so they are a budget-friendly way to enjoy the city.
3. Picnic in Delores Park
GPS Location: 37.75977, -122.42711
Delores park is the #1 place to join the local LGBTQ Sunday experience.
Seriously, Delores Park is a beautiful park in San Francisco’s Mission District and locals love spending their Sunday afternoons here. Pack a picnic and join the crowds in the grassy parks.
Warning- Everyone in Delores Park may not behave in a G-rated manner so leave your conservative family members at home. It is San Francisco, the local way.
4. Golden Gate Park
GPS Location: 37.76942, -122.48621
Golden Gate Park really deserves more than one number on this list. There is so much to see in this massive park. A few of my favorites are the Dutch windmills, Japanese tea gardens and the wild bison herd.
We visited on a Sunday when many of the park roads are closed to car traffic including JFK Drive. The road is filled with bikers, skaters and pedestrians during this time. During COVID, the SF Park & Recreation have also implemented a Slow Street program to allow limited car traffic through the park providing more recreation areas for bikers, skaters and pedestrians.
Park your car outside the park boundary and explore the park on foot or bike. Street parking is free on Sunday on the adjacent streets. If you have mobility issues, it is possible to drive in the park but expect a slow pace.
Pro Tip: San Francisco and many metro areas experience crimes of opportunity. Car break-ins are common. Clean everything out of your car to deter criminals. Some locals even leave their glove boxes open to show they are empty.
Passerbys may think your bag of dirty laundry in the backseat is something valuable. It’s not worth losing a car window so empty your car before parking on city streets.
5. Bernal Heights Park
GPS Location: 37.74321, -122.41477
Bernal Heights Park is one of the few remaining natural refuges in San Francisco. The Bernal Heights neighborhood was created in the mid-1800s when San Francisco was outgrowing the downtown district.
Now Bernal Hill’s summit offers 360-degree views of San Francisco Bay, Golden Gate Bridge, downtown, San Bruno Mountain and the East Bay hills. The park includes a network of dirt trails that wind around the hillside and provide access to the summit.
Bernal Height is a great off the beaten path city park in San Francisco. It offers a peaceful reprieve from the city and a view of the native grasslands and their inhabitants. Enjoy the panoramic city views while getting your heart pumping with some running, walking or hiking at Bernal Height Park.
6. Ina Coolbrith Park
GPS Location: 37.79827, -122.41345
Ina Coolbrith Park is a small urban park in the middle of the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. It is perched on top of a hill with amazing views of the city. The hill is actually too steep for vehicles including streetcars so Vallejo Street actually ends half a block before the park and starts back on the other side.
Ina Coolbrith Park contains two sections. The first section includes gardens surrounding two photo-worthy staircases. It feels like a secret garden in the middle of San Francisco and definitely qualifies as off the beaten path in San Francisco.
The top half of the block continuing into the park includes winding paths and benches. A few of the paths lead directly to neighboring yards so be aware. The park’s position on top of a steep hill boasts great city views.
7. Portsmouth Square
GPS Location: 37.79488, -122.40523
Portsmouth Square is a paved park in Chinatown that doesn’t have as much natural beauty as some of the other city parks. But it makes up for that in the people watching. We enjoyed lunch on a park bench in Portsmouth Square while watching two very heated card games played by senior citizens.
Chinatown in San Francisco offers a truly Asian neighborhood. It is the largest and oldest Chinese community outside of China. We felt like we were visitors outside of the United States and it was glorious. Signs were not in English and we couldn’t understand the conversations around us.
Shops were offering fresh produce we didn’t recognize. We saw locals buying fresh fish and bulk spices to make dinner. The meat markets were selling items you don’t generally find in Western markets.
Where to eat in Chinatown?
Honestly, our advice of where to eat in Chinatown is a bit non-traditional. To find out where to eat, look for where the locals are going. Are there blue-collar workers and grandmothers in line, then sign me up.
In that vein, we saw a small shop in Chinatown with a glass case and a line out the door of locals waiting to order. So we did the only logical thing and joined the back of the line at Wong Lee Bakery.
No, we couldn’t see a menu or into the display cases but we trusted the locals already in line. It was a great adventure. They only offer take out and the storefront is nothing fancy. Just good food.
When we got towards the front of the line we saw all kinds of dumplings and steamed buns for sale. We ordered a sampling of items and enjoyed them on a park bench in Portsmouth Square.
Can’t Miss Off the Beaten Path Spots in San Francisco
San Francisco has tons of can’t miss spots like Alcatraz, Lombard Street and Pier 39 but very few of them are off the beaten path. Most are overcrowded with other tourists doing the same things as you. Keep reading for a few ideas to avoid the crowds while enjoying the best of the city.
8. Coit Tower
GPS Location: 37.80239, -122.40582
Price: ground-level murals are free; $10 non-resident admission to observation level (resident, children and seniors discounts available)
Coit Tower was constructed in the 1930s in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood within Pioneer Park. A post-humous donation from Lillie Hitchcock Coit funded the construction of Coit Tower. The Coit bequest to the city was intended to beautify the city.
The slim white Coit Tower has been an iconic part of the city’s skyline for nearly 90 years. The tower offers two main attractions: the ground level murals and the observation level which is accessed by elevator. The observation level offers sweeping views of San Francisco but there are several free spots offering great views of the skyline. I would recommend checking out the Coit Tower murals which are free to visit.
During the construction of the tower, many murals depicting California life during the Depression were painted in the inner and outer lobbies of the tower. Most visitors to San Francisco don’t realize that many of these murals are free to visit today making them a bit of a hidden gem.
The artists were employed by the Public Works of Art Project which was the predecessor to the Work Progress Administration (WPA). A few of the murals contained controversial scenes and the frescoes were covered a few years after opening.
9. Saint Peter and Paul Church in Little Italy
GPS Location: 37.8014, -122.41016
Little Italy is most widely known as the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. Saint Peter and Paul Church’s 191-foot spires are a focal centerpiece of the neighborhood. You might recognize this church from Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dimaggio’s wedding photos or from the movies Dirty Harry or Deadpool.
Washington Square is a grassy park adjacent to Saint Peter and Paul Church. It is a great spot to enjoy lunch or a snack while taking the grandeur of the church’s lofty double spires.
Each of the pillars on the facade are topped with symbols of the four Evangelists. Matthew is represented by an angel. Mark is represented by a lion. Luke is represented by an ox. And finally, John is represented by an eagle.
The church is gorgeous with multiple murals and art pieces inside. It is open to visitors daily. As with most churches, a modest dress code is in place. If you aren’t interested in visiting the church’s interior, then do what we did. Grab a slice of pizza nearby and appreciate the beautiful exterior from nearby Washington Square.
Where to eat in North Beach ( Little Italy )?
Even though the residents of North Beach are no longer primarily Italian, we noticed the restaurants in the area still lean towards Italian cuisine. There are several great options for dining out in North Beach but we visited mid-day after snacking our way through nearby Chinatown. We opted to share a slice of pizza and dessert.
The best-rated pizza restaurant in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco is Golden Boy but they were only selling whole pizzas (no slices) during COVID.
I also recommend trying a cannoli or pastry from Victoria Pastry located on the corner of Filbert and Powell near the church and park. The bakery was founded in 1911 by four Italian immigrants and has multiple locations in California.
10. Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
GPS Location: 37.79572, -122.40733
Price: tips are appreciated for the workers folding cookies; bags of Fortune Cookies available to purchase
Not as traditionally Chinese but still one of my favorite spots in Chinatown was the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Fortune cookies are a San Francisco creation and therefore not traditionally Chinese.
The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company is definitely a tourist attraction but the small shop is located in an alley in Chinatown. We felt like we were well off the beaten path in San Francisco when trying to find this place.
The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory makes 10,000 cookies per day and you can watch how they do it at their factory in Chinatown.
What to expect at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory?
Don’t expect a large factory with a walking tour. It’s literally a few workstations in the corner of the storefront. Only a handful of adults can fit inside the area. You can easily watch the cookies being made from outside the shop. But don’t just stand outside, get in there for a close-up view of the process.
Visitors can watch as cookie batter is poured onto a rotating hot griddle wheel. But the best part is when the warm cookies are done, a worker uses their hands and a metal rod to fold the cookies. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it. They are professionals that make it seem easy.
Since the batter is poured by hand, uneven or imperfect cookies were discarded before being folding. About half of the cookies were discarded into a large bucket in front of each workstation. We were offered these ugly, warm and delicious cookies as samples while we watched the process.
Fortune cookies are one of my favorite parts about eating at a Chinese restaurant so I bought a few 1-lb bags of unfolded cookie rounds in both vanilla and chocolate flavors.
11. Bike the Golden Gate Bridge
GPS Location: bridge (37.81992, -122.47825) Battery Yates (37.83356, -122.47321)
Price: Rental bike prices vary
Biking is a great way to cover more area than just walking. It is also usually quicker and less expensive than other transportation options.
We enjoyed biking the Golden Gate Bridge and would recommend riding to Sausalito and taking the ferry back. However, during our trip, the ferry was not running on weekends. Instead, we biked out to Battery Yates for great bridge and bay views.
What is Battery Yates?
Battery Yates is an old military site that is free to visit. Free parking is also available if you don’t want to bike for your bridge views. It wasn’t crowded and was definitely an off the beaten path spot in San Francisco. Most of the other visitors were locals shore fishing.
The ride down to the water was fast and easy from the bridge as it was all downhill. Keep in mind the ride back up to the Golden Gate Bridge can be strenuous without an e-bike or regular bike conditioning. I did it and survived to tell the tale.
Should I rent bikes in San Francisco?
We took our own bicycles (not e-bikes) into San Francisco rather than renting bikes. As regular riders, we prefer the comfort and fit of our own bikes plus it is free to use our own bikes.
However, I’d recommend renting e-bikes to help with the hills in this city. The San Francisco hills are no joke and I had to push my bike on several of the steeper streets.
Rentals (including electric bikes) are available in several areas of town with several options around Golden Gate Park and Pier 39.
Blazing Saddles is the most common rental bike you will see around town. I do not have personal experience with Blazing Saddles but know they have multiple locations and several types of bicycles for rent.
Secret spots in the San Francisco Bay Area
Seriously there aren’t too many secret spots in the San Francisco Bay area. The power of the internet has made this even more true. It’s tough to keep beautiful spots a secret for long. So let’s skip the secret part and just admit these are a few of the lesser-known places off the beaten path in San Francisco.
12. Four Seasons Houses
GPS Location: 37.76915, -122.44536
After you get a photo at the Painted Ladies, check out the Four Seasons houses on Waller Street. They are less popular but even more spectacular.
Everyone who visits San Francisco takes a picture of the Painted Ladies Victorian row houses also known as Postcard Row. They are most famous for being in the intro of the 90’s sitcom “Full House”. Many people even call them the Full House houses.
I was a little disappointed on our visit to the Painted Ladies because of the trees growing in front of them and the busy street. It made getting a clear photo pretty difficult. The Painted Ladies are a popular attraction in San Francisco and they even have their own social media handles.
If you want to get off the beaten path a little more, check out San Francisco’s other Painted Ladies. The Four Season houses on Waller Street have beautifully ornate gingerbread details and exterior marble staircases. The houses are nearly identical in structure. But the tasteful seasonal color themes and decorative touches make them each unique.
The Four Season houses are also called the Waller Women. The winter house is painted in a cool light blue with a large snowflake gracing the facade. The autumn house is a deep warm red with decorative leaves to signify the season. Additionally, the street is less crowded so you’ll be able to get some nice clear pictures. Remember these are private residences so be respectful.
13. Yoda Fountain at Lucasfilm Headquarters
GPS Location: 37.79882, -122.45048
Yes, you can visit the wise Jedi master, Yoda, in San Francisco. This is a fun, quick stop for Star Wars fans.
The Yoda statute isn’t too far off the beaten path in San Francisco. A two-foot-tall elderly Yoda stands on top of a water fountain in front of the Lucasfilm Headquarters building about a mile from the Presidio.
In addition, to visiting Yoda, visitors can also check out a variety of Star Wars memorabilia in the Lucasfilm Headquarters lobby. It is open during weekday business hours. Remember this is the guest lobby for a film business so please be respectful while checking out the memorabilia on display.
Among the collection are life-sized Stormtrooper and Darth Vader costumes and many of the books that inspired the film’s creator, George Lucas.
GPS Location: Lombard Street (37.80213, -122.41872) Vermont Street (37.75907, -122.40393)
San Francisco is known for its hills which translates to curvy, steep streets. There is one really famous curvy street, Lombard Street. But for visitors who want to drive a steep and curvy road, there is an even better option, Vermont Street.
Everyone knows the photogenic curves of Lombard Street in the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. The one-block section attracts both pedestrians and drivers to the “crookedest street in the world”. It is common to see cars lined up waiting to drive down the curves of Lombard Street.
Most drivers stop and take photos which makes the process even slower. Granted, the short flowering shrubs along the famous one-block section make for great photos. However, if you are willing to get a little off the beaten path, there is an even curvier street in San Francisco.
Vermont Street in the Potrero Hill neighborhood doesn’t offer a nice view of its winding serpentine turns due to the large trees surrounding it. But it is much steeper with more curves than Lombard. Plus Vermont Street’s two-block section is much steeper and curvier than Lombard’s one block.
According to locals, Vermont Street is truly the curviest street in San Francisco. Sadly it does not have any great photography spots like Lombard Street. But there is never a line of cars waiting to drive down these steep, hairpin curves. If you have a car, start at the top and experience driving the curviest street in San Francisco, Vermont Street.
San Francisco Hidden Gems
In a city the size of San Francisco, you don’t have to get far off the beaten path to find a few hidden gems. We love wandering the streets of a new city searching for art. San Francisco has several opportunities for fellow lovers of outdoor art.
15. Find some of San Francisco’s many Mosaic Steps
GPS Location: 16th Avenue Tiled Steps (37.75624, -122.47322) Hidden Garden Steps (37.75981, -122.47358)
San Francisco is home to an abundance of colorful mosaic staircases. A lot of the fun is trying to find them. The excitement of discovering a new set without even seeking them is the best.
A few of the most popular sets of mosaic steps in San Francisco are the 16th Avenue Stairs, the Hidden Garden Steps, the Lincoln Park Steps, the Miraloma Mosaic steps, the three sets in Cayuga Park, the Tompkins Stairway, the Athens-Avalon Green Space Tiled Steps, the Kenney Alley Steps, the Flights of Fancy Steps, the Quesada Garden Tiled Steps, and the Unity Plaza Ocean Avenue History Staircase.
Each staircase has its own story but most were constructed by neighborhood volunteers wishing to beautify their street. Many of the staircases lead to alleys and narrow passages between buildings. They aren’t typically sweeping art displays that dominate a plaza or centerpieces in a park. Instead San Francisco’s mosaic steps are off the beaten path hidden art gems.
16. Wild Parrots at Telegraph Hill
GPS Location: 37.80134, -122.40566
The Telegraph Hill neighborhood in San Francisco is home to a flock of wild parrots. They are noisy and can be heard when visiting Coit Tower.
Books and documentaries have been made about advocates working to protect these tropical birds. The flock is thriving in the Bay Area’s not so tropical climate and has become a nuisance species.
It is believed that a pair of cherry-headed conures escaped and made their home in the trees of Telegraph Hill. Some others think an irresponsible pet owner released the pair after realizing the level of maintenance required to keep them as pets. The overly vocal species can live for decades.
The cherry head conure is a small South American long tail bird species, most closely related to parakeets. They are bright green with redheads. The natives of Ecuador and Peru are considering an invasive species to California however many advocates believe they should be left on Telegraph Hill.
They are wild animals and visitors should not feed or attempt to touch them.
17. Hiking at Presidio
GPS Location: East Battery Parking Area 37.80691, -122.47187
Price: parking at East Battery is $1.20/hr or free between 5 pm and 10 am
The Presidio in San Francisco offers 24 miles of hiking trails. Many of the trails offer great views of the Golden Gate Bridge including the aptly named Golden Gate Postcard Viewpoint. San Francisco locals definitely use the green space of the Presidio to get off the beaten path and enjoy some time in nature.
One of the most photographed trails in the Presidio is the 2-mile loop called Lovers Lane. Lovers Lane trail is home to the Wood Line sculpture. Artist Andy Goldsworthy designed the large wooden sculpture that follows the trail through the man-made eucalyptus and cypress forest.
The 6.1-mile Presidio Loop trail is also popular for those wanting more activity while they enjoy the Presidio area.
18. Street Art
GPS Location: Balmy Alley (37.7518, -122.41249) Clarion Alley (37.76298, -122.42079) Greetings from San Francsico (37.80638, -122.4212) Jack Kerouac Alley (37.79754, -122.40649)
San Francisco offers many opportunities for great street art walks.
The Mission District’s street art is particularly abundant so feel free to just wander in search of art if time allows.
If you are interested in just checking out a few street art sites due to time constraints, we have you covered too. A few specific sites you don’t want to miss are Balmy Alley, Clarion Alley, the “Greetings from San Francisco” mural in Umbrella Alley and the Jack Kerouac Alley which connects Chinatown to Little Italy.
19. Find Peace in one of the Grace Cathedral Labyrinth
GPS Location: 37.79191, -122.41302
Labyrinths are a maze-like pattern or divine imprint that is found in religious traditions all over the world. Walking a labyrinth is treated as a spiritual practice that is meditative in nature. A labyrinth is designed as one long path with no dead ends, unlike a maze.
You need to get off the main tourist path in San Francisco to find the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in Nob Hill. Actually, the Episcopal church in the heart of the city has two labyrinths, an indoor and an outdoor labyrinth. Both are free to visit. Access to the indoor labyrinth is limited to opening hours but the outdoor labyrinth at Grace Cathedral is accessible 24/7.
Grace Cathedral holds weekly peace walks on their labyrinths with trained labyrinth facilitators. Yoga classes are also held on the labyrinth weekly. Check out the Grace Cathedral labyrinth page for details on upcoming events.
Unique and Unusual Things to do in San Francisco
San Francisco is home to several unique things to do if you are willing to go off the beaten path.
There aren’t many cities where you can play vintage arcade games, visit a pet and human cemetery, watch harbor seals play on the beach, listen to a concert created by the ocean, ride a concrete slide from the 1970s, and learn how cable cars work ALL IN THE SAME DAY. Keep reading for some of San Francisco’s most unusual things to do.
20. Game at an Old School Arcade
GPS Location: Musee Mecanique (37.8093, -122.41596) Free Gold Watch Arcade (37.7682, -122.4527)
Price: Free admission; arcade game prices vary
Musee Mecanique is a family-owned and operated arcade at Pier 45 in San Francisco. It has been in operation since 1933.
Musee Mecanique is one of the world’s largest private collections of coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade artifacts.
There are over 300 original condition machines at Musee Mecanique that visitors are welcome to play. Food and drinks are not allowed in the arcade due to the delicate nature of the antique machines.
Musee Mecanique is open from 10 am to 8 pm 365 days a year. However, it does close occasionally during business hours for special events. During our visit, a TV show was being filmed at Musee Mecanique and it was closed to the public for the day.
Admission is free to Musee Mecanique so feel free to walk around and check out the machines. However, the arcade is a for-profit business and you’ll probably want to bring cash to play the machines.
Free Gold Watch Arcade
Free Gold Watch Arcade is a print shop that is also an arcade near the Upper Haight neighborhood of San Francisco. The screenprinting shop had some empty space and employees added a few pinball machines. This led to new customers and a new revenue stream. Based on the popularity of this hidden arcade, new pinball and arcade games continue to be added.
It is not just any arcade, Free Gold Watch has the largest pinball arcade in San Francisco. In addition to pinball machines of all vintages, the arcade includes Ms. Pac-Man, Tetris, Mortal Combat and other traditional arcade favorites.
Be sure to check out the Secret Juju room which has a rotating selection of historic games on loan from the Pacific Pinball Museum.
Free Gold Watch Arcade is a working screenprinting shop with limited hours. Call ahead at 415 876 4444 to confirm the hours of operations during your visit.
21. Cable Car Museum
GPS Location: 37.79463, -122.4115
The San Francisco Cable Car Museum is a great free educational attraction run by the non-profit, Friends of the Cable Car Museum. It is a bit off the beaten path stop but is the best place to learn about the historic San Francisco cable cars. The museum is located near Chinatown in the Washington/Mason cable car barn and powerhouse.
Admission is free. Call the museum at (415) 474-1887 to confirm operating hours during your visit.
You’ll learn the history of cable cars in San Francisco and view three antique cable cars from the 1870s. Various mechanical devices such as grips, track, cable, brake mechanisms and tools are on display. Multiple detailed models depict the mechanics of cable car operation. Also on display is a large collection of historic photographs.
We enjoyed watching the huge engines and winding wheels in the barn that operates the cable cars riding around town. The museum gift shop sells a variety of memorabilia.
22. Wave Organ
GPS Location: 37.80854, -122.44013
The Wave Organ in San Francisco’s Marina District is an ocean-powered musical instrument.
How do you get to the Wave Organ in San Francisco?
Disabled parking is available at the Wave Organ. Although small, the closest parking area to the Wave Organ is located beyond the Golden Gate Yacht Club. Drive further down the jetty than you think you should to find it. Follow the GPS coordinates above to find the Wave Organ.
The art installation is well hidden on a sea jetty with views of Alcatraz Island. It was created in 1986 by artist Peter Richards in collaboration with master stonemason and sculptor George Gonzalez. The project was funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant.
Construction materials used in San Francisco’s Wave Organ include reclaimed concrete, stone and pipes. The most interesting components were taken from a demolished cemetery.
Wave organ visitors have to get off the beaten path in San Francisco. Due to the construction below the jetty, it makes the San Francisco Wave Organ a hidden spot. Visitors need to walk most of the length of the jetty length before they see the Wave Organ.
The Wave Organ of San Francisco is hidden and most locals don’t even know about its existence.
The incoming and outgoing tide fills and empties the organ pipes which makes hissing, sloshing and thumping sounds. Music made by the San Francisco Wave Organ is literally powered by the ocean’s currents.
Peak high tide is the best time to hear the organ “music” at the San Francisco Wave Organ. Be sure to consult the NOAA tide charts to time your visit.
Prepare for subtle sloshing and light thumping from the ocean tide filling the 25 organ pipes. Do not expect a loud concert-quality performance. For the best acoustics at the Wave Organ, sit in the small gazebo.
23. Presidio Pet Cemetery
GPS Location: 37.80257, -122.46709
Probably the most unusual attraction in San Francisco is the Presidio Pet Cemetery. It is located near the former military outpost in San Francisco’s Presidio but you’ll need to get a little off the beaten path to find this hidden testament to the power of the human-animal connection.
The Presidio Pet Cemetery’s half-acre hillside plot is surrounded by a white picket fence.
It is located under the Presidio Parkway viaduct and is closed during the construction of the roadway. Parking is available at the Calvary Stable near the Presidio Archives.
In the 1950s, the Presidio was home to over 2,000 military families. 424 handmade gravestones mark the final resting place for military pets dating back to the 50s. Graves at the Presidio Pet Cemetery belong to birds, rodents, and reptiles, however, most are cats and dogs. The Presidio Pet Cemetery is officially closed for new interments.
The inscriptions range from tear-jerking “The love these animals gave will never be forgotten.” to hilarious “A GI pet. He did his time.” and “Mr Iguana”.
There are no official records regarding the Presidio Pet Cemetery however some believe the location served originally as a burial site for nineteenth-century cavalry horses or WWII guard dogs. The Presidio Trust has committed to the preservation of the Pet Cemetery.
24. Seward Street Slides at Seward Mini Park
GPS Location: 37.75752, -122.44028
Seward Mini Park in the Eureka Valley neighborhood of San Francisco is home to a single attraction, concrete slides.
These slides are not ideal for small children as they are steep and fast. Signs posted advise visitors that adults must be accompanied by a child.
The one-block Park & Recreation managed location houses two concrete slides and the Corwin community garden. It was designated green space in the 1970s when community protests halted planned development for the lot in the 1960s.
A neighborhood teenager designed the two concrete slides as part of the original park creation. The yellow slide is slightly steeper and therefore faster.
The concrete can tear pants so bring a piece of cardboard to ride. Sitting on the cardboard will protect your clothing and allow you to go even faster. Prepare to go fast on these downhill steep slides and it’s best to keep your arms tucked in.
The slides are open from Tuesday to Sunday between 10 am until 5 pm. During other hours, the slides are locked. The concrete slides are best for older children and adults as they are steep and fast.
25. Presidio Beaches
GPS Location: Baker Beach (37.79357, -122.48363) Marshalls Beach (37.80165, -122.47987) Chrissy Field East Beach (37.80642, -122.45069)
The Presidio offers several beaches in addition to hiking trails, a pet cemetery and great Golden Gate Bridge views.
The water is too cold and the currents are too strong for swimming at the Presidio beaches in San Francisco. However, the Presidio Beaches are great for picnics, beach walking, nature watching and sunbathing.
At low tide, visitors can find sea stars and unique rock formations along the beach. A variety of birds including pelicans and hawks can often be spotted along the bay. Dolphins and harbor seals frequent the waters of the Presidio shore providing entertainment for San Francisco beachgoers.
Sunbathing is popular when Karl, the fog, gives way to the California sun. Marshalls Beach is a clothing-optional beach but signs are posted to advise visitors.
For more beach destinations in California, check out our Guide to San Clemente: Camping in a Surfers Dream Destination. We share everything you need to know to plan an affordable vacation at our favorite California beaches in San Clemente.
26. San Francisco Columbarium
GPS Location: 37.78067, -122.45705
Due to a 1901 ban on burials within the city limits of San Francisco, very few residents remain in the city after their death.
The San Francisco Columbarium, also known as the Neptune Society Columbarium, is one of only five that remain in the city today making it unique. It is the only non-denominational columbarium site in the city, the other four are all Episcopal.
What is a columbarium?
A columbarium is a structure serving as a final resting place for humans after death. Although a columbarium and mausoleum are similar in appearance and function there is one main difference, columbariums contain only cremated remains.
The San Francisco Columbarium was built in 1897 as part of the 167 acres Odd Fellows Cemetery. It was built in the beautiful Neo-Classical architectural style popular during the era. For decades the building was neglected. The current caretaker and historian, Emmitt Watson, has worked to restore the building to its former glory including a stained glass ceiling dome.
The 1901 ban was created to increase available property for development amid rising real estate demand. As a result of later similar legislation, all bodies were exhumed and moved to the nearby city of Colma as part of the legislation.
The San Francisco Columbarium sits in a cul-de-sac surrounded by pastel mid-20th century homes in the Jordan Park neighborhood. Its uniquely hidden location means most San Francisco tourists won’t find the off the beaten path San Francisco Columbarium. Please respect the neighbors and obey all posted parking regulations.
The San Francisco Columbarium is open from 9 am until 5 pm Monday to Friday and from 10 am until 3 pm on weekends.
Summary San Francisco Off the Beaten Path
In summary, San Francisco can be crowded with tourists on their way to Alcatraz or Pier 39. If you have never visited, you’ll probably want to see a few of the more popular famous attractions but don’t miss the many free hidden gems in the same area. Seriously, where else can you visit a military pet cemetery, enjoy a beach picnic and a forest hike in the same afternoon?
To enjoy the more unique spots in San Francisco, all you have to do is go a few blocks off the beaten path. Comment below if we missed one of your favorite spots or if you loved a spot we shared.