Anyone can find the Golden Gate Bridge or Alcatraz, but if you’re willing to embrace the unknown, you’ll find that San Francisco is full of hidden gems.
1. Cayuga Park
Thanks to one dedicated city gardener, what was once a somewhat seedy park was turned into a creative, art-filled haven. The 11-acre park is packed with wooden sculptures, totems, and hand-carved signs with uplifting messages like “All the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today.”
2. Sutro Baths Ruins and Cave
In 1894, self-made millionaire Adolph Sutro designed what was then the world’s largest indoor swimming pool. During the high tide, the Pacific Ocean could fill the pools with 1.7 million gallons of water in just an hour. His family maintained the Sutro Baths for a few decades, but the pools closed down during the Great Depression. The remaining structure still exists as stunning architectural ruins in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
3. The Parrots of Telegraph Hill
No one knows for sure how the feral parrots of Telegraph Hill came to be, but the most common theory is that the original two were simply domestic escapees. If that’s the case, they quickly expanded their flock. In 1989 there were just four birds, and by 1999 there were 50. They number about 100 these days, and can be found pretty easily perched in trees or flying overhead.
4. Camera Obscura
Originally built as part of a theme park, this giant camera obscura is one of just 20 in the world. Its location on the cliffs above Ocean Beach gives viewers unparalleled views of the ocean, Seal Rock, and the cliffs.
5. The Vulcan Stairway
Though many scenic stairways are tucked among the streets of San Francisco, locals often recommend this one. Spanning nearly two blocks, the steps offer a glimpse of gorgeous Victorian homes and carefully tended gardens accessible only by foot.
6. Labyrinth at Lands End
An artist took one look at the scenery at Lands End Park’s Eagle Point and decided it would be the perfect spot for meditating. He created a labyrinth out of rocks to help people get their serenity on in the private setting.
7. Tank Hill
Tank Hill itself may not be as pretty as destinations like Twin Peaks, but locals love it for its spectacular panoramic views of the city. Bonus: It’s not packed with tourists like other popular parks.
8. Yerba Buena Gardens Sculptures
Though Yerba Buena Gardens is teeming with thought-provoking artwork, there’s definitely one that stands out—or up, as it were. Near the children’s museum is a kinetic sculpture of a humanoid figure standing on top of a steel globe. When visitors sit on the bench that faces it, the figure sits too. When the person rises up from the bench, the figure also gets to its feet. Watching people try it is almost as fascinating as the art itself.
9. The Golden Fire Hydrant
When is a fire hydrant more than just a fire hydrant? When it saves an entire city from burning to ash, of course. The Golden Fire Hydrant at Church and 20th Streets is said to have been the only functioning hydrant during the fires after the 1906 earthquake, saving Noe Valley and the Mission District from the mass destruction the rest of the city experienced. The hydrant receives a fresh coat of gold paint every April 18 to honor its great service.
10. Seward Street Slides
In the 1960s, a 14-year-old girl submitted her idea to a “Design the Park” contest being held in her neighborhood. Decades later, kids and adults alike are still enjoying her winning idea - a pair of concrete slides. Visitors use flattened cardboard boxes to fly down the unique chutes.
11. Urbano Sundial
When it was first built in 1913, this 26-foot sundial at Ingleside Terrace was just a gimmick intended to entice people into buying homes in a new housing development. At the time, it was the largest sundial in the world. It’s not even the largest sundial in San Francisco these days, but it’s definitely the one with the most history.
12. Shakespeare Garden at Golden Gate Park
Ever wish you could transport yourself to some of the lush settings described by Shakespeare? At Golden Gate Park, you can. The expansive public garden showcases many of the flora Shakespeare rhapsodized about. Stone tablets engraved with quotations from his plays are mixed in with the plants to really put you in the mood.
13. Balmy Alley
If you want to see a lot of public art but don’t have a ton of time, head to the Mission District’s Balmy Alley. Since the 1980s the alley has been home to a rotating collection of murals, and today it’s the most concentrated collection of murals in San Francisco. With new murals going up all the time, it’s always worth a visit.
14. Lunchtime Concerts
San Francisco has offers up a unique lunch break: lunchtime classical, chamber, and international music concerts. If you’re in the mood for a little music after your sandwich, just do some scouting—Yerba Buena Gardens offers concerts at 12:30p.m. on Thursdays.
15. 16th Avenue Tiled Steps
Thanks to a mighty neighborhood effort, the stairway at 16th Ave. and Moraga has been transformed from boring gray concrete to a magical, colorful work of art. The risers of each of the 163 steps are adorned with tiles handmade by residents. The overall effect is a bright mosaic that epitomizes the creative, collaborative spirit of San Francisco.
And to see how Heineken is encouraging San Franciscans to embrace the unknown, check out “The Payphone,” featuring Portlandia’s Fred Armisen.