I am guessing you, and other travelers might not have heard of these hidden gems in San Francisco.
Or, you may have heard of them but not considered it as part of your San Francisco trip.
Perhaps your head is too filled with the best things to do in San Francisco like riding the cable car, watching the sea lions at Pier 39, or bike riding across the Golden Gate Bridge. Don’t miss checking those off your San Francisco bucket list.
BUT, I can promise you these lesser known San Francisco attractions will offer you a more rewarding and enriching experience.
These San Francisco hidden gems are the places the locals love to go. And if you’re like me, you love to experience what is unique about a city or destination and what makes it a treasure for the locals living there.
Hearts Scavenger Hunt
A cool way to visit San Francisco California would be to find several of the 131 vibrantly decorated San Francisco hearts scatted around the side streets, business foyers and windows, and staircases.
The hearts are decorated with painted mosaics, compilations of polaroid’s, abstract works, even portraits of San Francisco’s infamous wild parrots.
Inspired by the classic Tony Bennett song, I left my heart in San Francisco, the San Francisco Hearts Project began in 2004 for the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation, raising money with artistic contributions from some of the world’s most notable artists.
Each year, San Francisco artists are invited to paint their very own Heart to be displayed in the city for that year.
At the end of each year, Hearts are auctioned off with proceeds going directly to the hospital foundation, which has raised over $10 million dollars through the hearts.
The most recognizable Tony Bennett’s heart titled, America’s Greatest City By the Bay resides permanently on the corner of Powell and Post Streets in San Francisco’s Union Square. The three other corners of the square also have hearts.
All of the ‘heartworks’ are privately owned and some are in easily discovered locations, such as the lobbies and storefronts of our generous corporate supporters, others are at the homes of private individuals
Find some in locations such as City Hall, Pier 39, San Francisco General Hospital, and AT&T Park.
Andy Goldsworthy Art, Presidio Park
Andy Goldsworthy is Andy Goldsworthy OBE is a British sculptor, photographer and environmentalist who produces site-specific sculptures and land art situated in natural and urban settings.
Several of his art installations are located in the Presidio.
Goldsworthy’s four Presidio pieces – Spire, Wood Line, Tree Fall, and Earth Wall – can be visited individually or explored together via a three-mile hiking loop
Spire, made from the trunks of 35 cypress trees towers 90 feet into the air and blends in with the surrounding Monterey cypress trees. It is located off the Bay Ridge Trail.
My favorite was Woodline, expertly camouflaged and in beautiful synergy with the surrounding forest landscape of Eucalyptus trees and fallen foliage.
It took me a moment of walking on the logs lying on the ground to realize they were the art installation and then I could follow their weaving pattern down the tree lined path and was quite astounded by its beauty.
Whereas Spire invites you to look up and ponder the rejuvenation of this beautiful city forest, Wood Line invites you to contemplate where the life of a tree begins…the fertile earth.
Tree Fall is within the red-tile roof of the Powder Magazine building southeast of the Main Parade Ground and Earth Wall is inside the Presidio Officers’ Club.
Both invite viewers to come inside and to contemplate the relationship between what is “natural” and what is “built.
Video: Driving tour of San Francisco Neighborhoods
Tin How Temple, Chinatown
Most people come to Chinatown looking for Golden Fortune Cookies, Ross Alley, and Dim Sum.
You can find many other treasures and San Francisco secret spots in the oldest neighborhood in the bay area – and one of the best neighborhoods in San Francisco.
Pop into Tin How Temple, the oldest extant Tao Temple in temple in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and one of the oldest still-operating Chinese temples in the United States.
It’s only a small space on the 4th floor of an apartment building on Waverly St and there is not much else to do but smell the incense, soak up the peaceful ambiance and marvel at something quite ancient and magical.
While walking around Chinatown, pay attention to the murals on the walls too. They are just as worthy of attention as the murals in the Mission District and can be classified as hidden San Francisco points of interest.
Jack Kerouac Alley
I thought this was one of the best places in San Francisco I saw.
Flanked by the Vesvuio café and beatnik bookstore, Jack Kerouac Alley is where the East meets the West.
Chinatown merges into Little Italy and as you walk from one end to the other, look down to learn a few nuggets of wisdom from Confucius to Maya Angelou.
Nearby is the steepest street in San Francisco, Caffe Trieste where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay for the Godfather, and Vesuvio Café where Jack Kerouac and Allen Ghinsberg used to sit and ponder the meaning of life over a few cocktails.
For years it’s hosted writers, poets, artists, and musicians. Its original Beat-era Bohemian spirit is still very much alive, with little changes to its design and purpose since its establishment in 1948.
Add this to your list of secret places in San Francisco.
City of Lights Bookstore
City Lights Bookstore was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin and became became an instant gathering place for readers, writers, artists, and activists.
This bookstore is synonymous with Beatnik culture, showcasing the Beat Generation’s writing works and is best known for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howland Other Poems.
City of Lights is one of the most famous independent bookstores in the USA and has the most comprehensive collections of any bookstore in San Francisco.
Across three floors you’ll find new-release books from major publishing houses as well as harder-to-find, specialty publishers.
I headed straight to the second floor where the Beatnik publications are and did what anyone wannabe writer and devout traveler would do, picked up a copy of The Open Road at City of Lights Bookstore and headed next door to Vesuvio Café to read a few chapters.
Vesuvio Café has been on my San Francisco bucket list for some time, but as its 21+ bar we walked past on our previous visit.
I was not going to pass up this moment on my own to read a book with a glass of wine in one of the most famous bars in the USA.
It’s the kind of bar you want to sit around in all day and, while I relished the opportunity to sit on my own and read, I was envious of the twenty-somethings sitting around the bar deep in conversation and laughter.
This was the kind of pub I found myself in as a traveler in London and Europe – chasing dreams.
This was a pub that told stories.
And had stories born from within – many of the greats have gotten sloshed here: Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan.
I chose one of the balcony tables by the window over looking the bookstore and Jack Kerouac Alley.
Transamerica Redwood Park
What local wouldn’t want to escape from their busy office to sit with a redwood grove on their lunch break?
Travelers are going to love it as well.
As you’re exploring the Financial District in Downtown San Francisco and gazing up at the Transamerica Pyramid shaped building you can see from all over the city, be sure to pop next to the small half acre pocket park next to it.
80 mature redwood trees brought in from the Santa Cruz Mountains were planted there in 1972. Fifty of the original trees remain, creating a shaded, green oasis amidst the area’s glass and steel skyscrapers.
With ferns and fountains it’s a tranquil place to sit for a while and one of the true San Francisco hidden gems.
Mark Twain once lived and wrote on this site. Contemplate that as you stare at the jumping frog sculptures in the fountain that are in remembrance of him.
Video of our Private Walking Tour of San Francisco (+Alcatraz tour)
Twin Peaks View
Look down at the winding road from above, car lovers will recognize it from numerous car Commercials. Quite the backdrop for it right?
Twin Peaks is named for a pair of 922-foot-high summits in a remote residential neighborhood with modern homes densely packed on steep lots along winding streets.
Best time to visit Twin Peaks is either early in the morning right before sunrise or sunset.
Getting there by car:
- From downtown, take Market southwest until it turns into Portola. From Portola, take a right on Twin Peaks Blvd. and follow the road up to the top.
- Or, take Market to 17th, then go left on Clayton, then right on Twin Peaks Blvd. After you take the right, take another left to stay on Twin Peaks Blvd. and then you can wind up to the parking lot on the summit.
Lands End and Sutro Baths
How did I not know about, or pay attention to this area of San Francisco before?
The Sutro Baths at the end of the Lands End Trail (or beginning depending where you start) is so interesting.
It was once the largest public swimming recreation area in the world, before it was destroyed by a fire in …
There are now a few crumbling remains on the edge of the ocean – the ultimate infinity pool. The view here out to a few rock outcroppings is beautiful. The Pier 39 seals used to live here and then somehow were spooked by the 1986 earthquake and moved themselves to their current location.
The beautiful Lands End Trail will give spectacular views of San Francisco’s rugged coastline hugged by cypress pine and the odd gum tree.
It’s also a trail to get many beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge spanning across the bay. I loved how quiet this trail was. It’s a mile return hike.
We walked from the start of the trial on the east side until the path going down to the Labyrinth.
Unfortunately we ran out of time but the labyrinth is another of the hidden gems in San Francisco that is meant to be worth the return hike down to.
Video: Bike Ride through Golden Gate Park and Lands End Trail
Baker Beach wouldn’t be a place I’d recommend to hangout for a whole beach day. I couldn’t imagine that’s one of those best things to do in San Francisco, ever?
Too cold, too windy, dangerous water conditions. I also found the sand pretty dark and yucky and there was a bit of trash around.
Thankfully, our girls picked up a lot of it – the good Junior Rangers they are.
But the view from Baker Beach of the Golden Gate Bridge against the Marin Headlands is special.
You can also admire the houses perched on the cliffs at Sea Cliff. The big brownish red one at the end is Jack Dorsey’s house, owner of Twitter. You can also see it from the Lands End Trail from the China Beach side.
Be sure to drive through the gorgeous Sea Cliff neighborhood after to look at the million-dollar homes lining the cliff face.
Bike Ride over Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito
You might not think of this as one of the best hidden gems in San Francisco, as this wonderful half day or full day experience is becoming very popular on a trip to San Francisco.
But, Sausalito is a place locals love to go for a calmer local bayside experience and fresh seafood. And it’s an area that reminds me so much of Sydney.
Craig and I biked from Fisherman’s Wharf to Tiburon, which is further around the bay from Sausalito in 2006. It was a highlight of our trip to San Francisco. We caught the ferry back instead of riding as it would be too big of a day. The bike over the bridge is much further than you think.
We contemplated biking the bridge with our kids on this San Francisco vacation, but felt it was too cold and windy. After six months of RVing in the winter I just couldn’t handle any more cold conditions!!
We rode around Golden Gate Park instead.
Check out the Sausalito houseboats while there – it’s a little energy saving enclave that has popped up complete with a community of mailboxes. They are cute, but dont be deceived, in true San Francisco style, these run down looking homes are worth a fair bit of money.
Our pick for coffee would be Cibo.
Definitely put this on your list of activities to do in San Francisco.
Spectacular Views from Coit Tower
Coit Tower is a 210-foot white, fluted tower in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. It’s surrounded by Pioneer Park, which was established in 1876 on the former site of the telegraph station.
It costs $10 to go to the top of the tower for the views, but it is worth it. You’ll get 360-degree unobstructed views of San Francisco city and bay area – all the way out to the Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge, Alcatraz Island and Angel Island.
If the typical San Francisco fog has risen and the blue sky is radiating, you’ll see views that will make you think you’ve landed on a Greek island. (Check out this Reel)
You may enjoy the murals downstairs on the walls telling the story of life in California during the Depression.
Pioneer Park, at the bottom of the tower has nice gardens and seating areas and trails. I absolutely LOVED the gigantic gum trees around here. As if San Francisco didn’t’ remind me of Sydney enough.
I’ve been told there are parrots along the paths in Pioneer Park. the tower here. I did not see any but was not paying attention.
Staircases decorated with Mosaic Tiles
San Francisco is a hilly city, so to reduce the pain of getting up and down the streets they have created a few pretty stairways around the city with patterned mosaic tiles, or beautiful gardens.
Two staircases we liked were:
- Lyon Street Steps have manicured gardens on either side with stunning views of the Palace of Fine Arts and San Francisco Bay. You’ll even find a Heart of San Francisco at the bottom of the stairs.
- The Lincoln Park staircase in Sea Cliff is a bright and colorful tiled mosaic staircase leading up to views and gorgeous trees standing guard.
We discovered these stairs as a hidden gems in San Francisco on our private Audi tour with our friend Michael who owns Boutique Traveler.
Other San Francisco Staircases of note:
- At 16th and Moraga, you will find SF’s most famous mosaic stairway, the 16th Avenue Tiled Staircase
- Hidden Garden Stairs feature flowers, butterflies, leaves and other garden staples.
I was so surprised I had not heard of Presidio Park until January of this year!
The Presidio Park was a true delight to spend time in and it quickly became one of my favorite San Francisco attractions.
It is included on our 3-day San Francisco itinerary as I believe it is so unmissable.
With walking trails, historical buildings, museums, art installations, biking trails, beaches, spectacular bay and bridge views, and large open green spaces for picnics and communal gatherings make one of the true San Francisco hidden gems.
Don’t miss the Sunday Presidio Picnic during the summer when the Parade ground is lined with local food and beer trucks.
The Walt Disney Museum is also awesome as is the many different hiking trails you can do. Ecology Trail is an easy overview that takes you to some viewpoints.
Video: Things to do in Presidio Park:
Check out how cool Presidio Park is! Plus, peer inside our hotel, The Kimpton Sir Francis Drake.
Ice Cream from Bi-Rite Creamery
Your quest for delicious and unique ice cream flavors will take you into the vibrant neighborhood of the Mission District and to Bi-Rite Creamery.
My pick: Coffee and Toffee. Perfect for a refreshing afternoon pick me up.
Take your ice cream to Mission Dolores Park. The views from here was one of my favorite views of San Francisco.
While in the Mission District be sure to check out:
- Mission Dolores Park. The top of the park (between Church and Dolores St) You’ll find outstanding views of the city skyline and is a perfect spot for the skateboard lovers, families and picnickers.
- Mission Dolores was founded by Spanish priests in 1776, making it the oldest building in San Francisco and the oldest mission chapel still standing in California.
Admire the Mission Murals
Hundreds of walls and fences throughout the Mission District are adorned with colorful murals displaying cultural heritage and social political statements.
It’s a vibrant outdoor art gallery and one of the cool places in San Francisco for you to explore on foot.
- Clarion Alley reflects a variety of artistic styles and shares themes of social inclusiveness.
- Balmy Alley has been showcasing local thoughts and arts on its walls since the mid-1980s favoring outrage over human rights and corruption.
- The Women’s Building has a stunning full Maestra Peace mural across two of its walls and is a collaboration between seven women artists.
Video: GoCar tour of San Francisco and Mission District Murals:
Chocolate Croissants from Arsicault Bakery
Arsicault bakery is one of the true hidden food gems of San Francisco!
These are award winning croissants guys! And not just any award, but the BEST CROISSANTS IN THE COUNTRY award!!
Oh My Gosh.
They certainly earned that! I’m gluten free and could not resist a bite. It was so difficult not to demolish the entire thing.
The croissant was so soft and buttery and sweet. Totally melt in your mouth goodness.
For foodies, this is one of the best off the beaten path San Francisco places to eat.
Coming second in the best croissants in San Francisco is Tartine Bakery in the Mission District. Our friend and tour guide Michael from Boutique Traveler gave us that tip.
Ferry Building Lunch and Farmer’s Market
How the Ferry Building is not more popular with tourists I don’t know.
They’re all vying for clam chowder and fried seafood down at Fisherman’s Wharf. I’ll trade that for the all local, organic seafood from The Ferry Building any day.
This place been an iconic San Francisco landmark since it opened in 1898, where it began as the transportation focal point for trains and ferries.
The building’s brilliant blue façade and clock tower offers views out over the Bay and Bay Bridge, and there’s a farmers market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and (even bigger) on Saturdays.
Buttery lemon mussels or fresh oysters not your thing? What about freshly baked bread or empanadas.
There’s also local honey, chocolate, cheese, ice cream, chocolate almond brittle and my favorite and entire store dedicated to gluten free pastries.
The Ferry Building showcases the amazing produce California has on their doorstep. I was so disappointed we had to run out of this building with food in hand to catch our Alcatraz Island Ferry tour and could not try something from every store.
There’s history inside these walls as well. When all else around it crumbled and burned, the Ferry building withstood the wrath of Mother Nature.
Be sure to walk out the back for a gorgeous view of Bay Bridge and Treasure Island.
The F Market streetcar stops right out the front.
Seward Street Slides
We didn’t make the >Seward Street Slides, but we had several people recommend it to us as one of the places to visit in San Francisco that the locals love.
Two long, steep concrete slides, designed by 14-year-old Kim Clark, are the main event in this community garden.
It says to bring a piece of cardboard and wear sturdy pants and enjoy the thrill. All adults must be accompanied by children!
This island in the San Francisco Bay tends to get overshadowed by the much smaller Alcatraz Island.
Angel Island is San Francisco’s answer to Ellis Island, a place where immigrants were processed before making their way to their new life in California or beyond.
Now it is a state park and is full of hiking and biking trails. Ferries leave…
Most people head to Chinatown, but we also enjoyed visiting Japantown.
The five-tiered Peace Pagoda and bright red cherry blossom banners mark the space of the oldest of three remaining Japantowns in the US.
Whilst we have not yet visited Japan, our private tour guide Michael from the Boutique Traveler has (learn more about him and his tours down below) and he says this Japantown is as authentic as it can get outside of Japan.
Things to see and do:
- Head for the Japan Center, a shopping complex that is two blocks long filled with dozens of shops and plenty of places to get your Japanese food fix.
- Kabuki Springs and Spa for a traditional Onsen experience
- Catch a movie at the Kabuki Theater
- Enjoy the Cherry Blossom Festival in the spring
- Self-guided historical walking tour. The first plague is on the Eastern side of the Peace Plaza and will guide you to what you will see and do and where the next stop is.
- Relax in the Peace Pagoda situated in a courtyard between Japan Center’s East and West mall. The Peace Pagoda was gifted to the people of San Francisco by Osaka Japan in 1968.
Hawk Hill is one of the best places to watch the sunset with views of the city.
We did not make it to here as the road was closed for some reason. We also ran out of time.
But this was another thing recommended to us as a local’s favorite. There are various trails for hiking, Rodeo Beach, and gorgeous views of the Pacific Coast and San Francisco.
Recommended is a scenic drive along Conzelman Road from the northern foot of the Golden Gate Bridge to Point Bonita.
Be sure to also visit Muir Woods, which we talk about in our post on things to do in San Francisco with kids. It’s a San Francisco bucket list item!
Private Walking Tour
A vast number of these San Francisco hidden gems we discovered (and more) thanks to our Boutique Traveler tours.
Michael Glass is the founder of this award winning tour company, which began in San Francisco and now runs tours in three countries.
Michael is also a friend of ours. He’s Aussie but has lived in San Francisco for the past 8 years and during that time has amassed a vast amount of insider San Francisco travel tips.
He spent two days with us showcasing his tours and the city he now calls home. And as our friend, of course we can attest to his friendly personality.
But we also discovered his passion for the stories that lie behind what felt like every building in the city. Stories that you pass over unknowingly when walking the streets on your own, or joining one of the heavily scripted tours.
Michael helped San Francisco come alive for us through stories of the past from the Gold Rush to the San Francisco earthquakes and fires to its current vibrant and exciting melting pot of cultures and neighborhoods with their own style and flavor.
He made us want to stay longer and return often and explore even deeper.
His tours are small and personalized AND the best thing is, tour guides also become your own personal photographer on the trip.
Relax and enjoy everything you are seeing and learning, the guides will capture photos of you experiencing San Francisco.
I’m sure if you are like us, there is always someone missing in your photos. we were so grateful to have photos of the four of us as we made these amazing memories in San Francisco.
UPDATE: our friend is no longer running these tours (Thanks COVID!!) but I found another private walking tour option here that gets good reviews. We still highly recommend this San Francisco activity!
3-Day San Francisco Itinerary
We mapped out your 3 day trip to San Francisco, including what we think are the must see San Francisco attractions and give you a time frame to enjoy them, plus a handy map to help you get around!
How to Save Money on San Francisco Attractions
The City Pass saves travelers 42% or more on combined admission to San Francisco’s top attractions.
Pricing $94 adults and $74 children age 5-11. It’s valid for nine consecutive days and includes:
- California Academy of Science
- Non our bay cruise
- Aquarium on the Bay
- Exploratorium or SF Museum of Modern Art
- and 3 unlimited MUNI bus and cable cars.
But, I much prefer the San Francisco Sightseeing Pass as it includes more diversity in their attractions and more local tours.
We only used the MUNI from the city pass. We’re not big museum people so it wasn’t a win for us. And I don’t like how the bay area attractions are chosen for you.
Video: top attractions in San Francisco with Kids
Click play to watch the fun we had visiting the Top attractions in San Francisco. You’ll love the Museum of 3D Illusions.
Best Selling Tours of San Francisco
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