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The Tailor-Made Top 25 Hidden Attractions of San Francisco

Hidden Attractions of San Francisco

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Author: Barry Pickard

Hidden Attractions of San Francisco


San Francisco is well known for its iconic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, but it is often the little gems, which are unexpected or have an interesting story, that make a trip to San Francisco truly memorable.

Read on to find out what my favourite hidden attractions are.

Planning an independent trip to San Francisco?


All information in this post is based on my own experience travelling around San Francisco, backed by extensive research to bring you everything you need to know to have your own amazing experience.

Don’t forget that Tailor-Made Itineraries delights in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting any of these unlikely highlights appeal to you, reach out to me by email. I would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating the hidden attractions of San Francisco, or indeed, a general tour of the city.

It is difficult to create a list of the best hidden attractions of San Francisco and is sure to be a little controversial with some, but here are my top twenty-five.

The Hidden Attractions of San Francisco

25 – 23 Ingleside Sundial, Alvord Lake Bridge, Maltese Falcon Alley

The Ingleside Sundial was touted as the world's biggest sundial when it was built in 1913. This tranquil monument now dominates a quiet cul-de-sac within the Ingleside Terraces residential area.

On the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park, the Alvord Lake Bridge was the first reinforced concrete bridge built in America. It was built in 1889 by Ernest L. Ransome, an innovator in reinforced concrete design. The face of the bridge was scored and hammered to resemble sandstone and the interior features sculpted concrete "stalactites" created during the initial construction to give the bridge underpass a faux cave-like appearance.

In the Maltese Falcon Alleyway, you will find a tongue-in-cheek plaque that reads “On approximately this spot, Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O’Shaughnessy.” This immortalises a scene from Dashiell Hammett book “The Maltese Falcon” which was turned into the iconic Humphrey Bogart film of the same name.

22 – 20 Ruth Asawa's San Francisco Fountain, Lotta's Fountain, Vaillancourt Fountain

The San Francisco Fountain is an intricately designed monument created by sculptor Ruth Asawa which comprises 41 individual bronze panels which detail the life and stories of the city.

Lotta's fountain was commissioned by actress Lotta Crabtree in 1875 as a gift to the city of San Francisco and would serve as a significant meeting point in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. It is a twenty-four-foot cast iron sculpture, painted bronze and adorned with lion’s heads, griffins, and other ornaments.

Vaillancourt Fountain is a large fountain in Embarcadero Plaza, designed by the Québécois artist Armand Vaillancourt in 1971. The fountain is about 40 feet (12 m) high, weighs approximately 700 short tons (640 t), and is constructed out of precast concrete square tubes. An ideal stop when visiting the Ferry Building.

19 – 17 Camera Obscura, USS San Francisco Memorial, Dangling Legs

The Camera Obscura is a large-scale camera obscura, in the Lands End area and was installed on the site in 1946 and has been in continuous operation since then.

The USS San Francisco Memorial remembers the battle in 1942 when the cruiser USS San Francisco attacked a vastly superior Japanese force off the coast of Guadalcanal. The San Francisco took some 45 direct hits and sustained heavy damage while sinking one Japanese ship and seriously damaging two others (including a battleship). The San Francisco safely made it back to port. The memorial is made from the bridge wings of the heavy cruiser.

An icon of Haight Ashbury and the hippie counterculture for many decades, the legs, complete with fishnet stockings advertise the risqué Piedmont Boutique. The legs were made by local artist Barry Forman.

16. Film & TV Houses

San Francisco is a popular filming location for TV and cinema, with many of its houses being used as backdrops. For example, if you walk along Broadway, there are two houses almost next door to each other which should be recognisable to most: Mrs. Doubtfire's House, used in the 1993 hit movie of the same name and the Salinger Residence from Party of Five, which was a mid-90's family drama starred Scott Wolf and Neve Campbell. Another favourite of mine, which can be found near Buena Vista Park, is the home of Dr Hank Pym in the Marvel film 'Antman'.

15. Portals of the Past

Portals of the Past is a small columned memorial which sits on the edge of Lloyd Lake in Golden Gate Park. Originally, it stood as the entry to the Nob Hill mansion of railroad tycoon Alban Towne in 1891. However, this house and 25,000 other buildings, burned down following the 1906 earthquake. The columned entry was captured in an iconic photograph of the earthquake’s devastation, and it was decided to conserve this as a memorial to all that was lost, and was removed to the edge of the lake in 1909.

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14. Yoda Fountain

Outside of the Letterman Digital Arts Center, which is the combined home of Industrial Light and Magic, LucasArts, and Lucasfilm is the amazing Yoda Fountain, which commemorates one of my favourite Star Wars characters.

13. Andy Goldsworthy's Wood Line

Just a short walk from the Yoda Fountain is Andy Goldsworthy’s Wood Line. One of three art installations in The Presidio by this artist, the Wood Line is made up of timber poles laid down, snaking through the woodland floor, making an interesting and visual impact.

12. Short Story Vending Machine

The Short Story Vending Machine is to be found as you enter Café Zoetrope, which is housed within the iconic Columbus Tower. With the touch of a button, you can print off a short story, which is printed out from the dispenser like a receipt. Choose from a one, three-, or five-minute story, and pick from genres that include humour, horror, and even fairy tales. The database is filled with thousands of user-submitted shorts sent in by amateur writers looking to share their work with others.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: Why not stop at the Café Zoetrope for a glass of wine or some food and browse the Hollywood memorabilia on display at this lovely restaurant owned by Francis Ford Coppola, the famous film director.

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11. 450 Sutter Building

450 Sutter is a twenty-six-floor, 105-meter (344-foot) skyscraper, which was completed in 1929. The tower is known for its "Neo-Mayan" Art Deco design by architect Timothy L. Pflueger and is a real eyecatcher. Check out the lobby and prepare to be dazzled!

Read on to find out which hidden attractions are in our top ten.

10. Paxton Gate + 826 Valencia Pirate Supply Store

These two eclectic stores can be found right next door to each other on Valencia Street, in the heart of the Mission District. Paxton Gate is a weird cross between a gardening store, taxidermy shop, entomological treasure trove, art book retailer, and natural history boutique. Meanwhile, the Pirate Supply Store boasts of a dizzying array of paraphernalia that all good pirates require. Mermaid tears or eyepatches anyone???

9. Martin Luther King Jr Memorial and Waterfall

One cornerstone of the Yerba Buena Gardens is the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and Fountain. The King memorial, titled "Revelations," consists of large, etched glass excerpts of King's speeches in the languages of San Francisco's sister cities.

8. Seward Mini Park

A must for big kids and small, Seward Mini Park’s only attraction is its dual 40-foot-long and very steep concrete slides which were built in 1973. To go faster, use a piece of cardboard that is piled up at the bottom of the slide. Ythan loved this slide and didn’t want to leave. I, meanwhile, was courageous enough to go down it once. That was enough for me!

Read on to find out which hidden attractions are in our top ten.

7. Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory was opened in 1962. The factory makes traditional fortune cookies, as well as chocolate flavoured fortune cookies, almond cookies, and other sweets. Visitors can observe workers using motorized circular griddles to create fortune cookies. It is free to enter, but a small tip to the cookie makers is appreciated, if you are observing them working through the fascinating production process.

6. Wave Organ

The Wave Organ is a sculpture constructed on the shore of San Francisco Bay in May 1986 by the Exploratorium museum. , Designed by Peter Richards and constructed by stonemason George Gonzales, the Wave Organ is a series of pipes which extend down to the shoreline, allowing the waters to lap over them, producing a symphony of gurgles and murmurs.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: Try to avoid low tide, otherwise you may miss the full effect of the organ.

5. Lands End Heart

The Lands End Heart is a large art installation made of hundreds of pebbles. It can be found along the Lands End Trail at the Lands End Lookout. This is a lovely scenic hike, and the Heart is placed on a flat plateau, with a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge off to the north. The Heart is on the site of end of famous Labyrinth, which has now been removed, following various incidents of vandalism.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: Make sure to wear appropriate shoes for this hike. The path is well-maintained, but can be either dusty or muddy, and there are plenty of stairs to climb.

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Lands End Heart, Hidden Attractions of San Francisco
Lands End Heart

4. Haight Ashbury’s Houses of the Famous

Being ground zero for the Summer of Love, the Haight Ashbury area naturally became home to many famous artists of the Hippie Movement. The beautiful Victorian and Edwardian era houses of this district are a joy to walk round, and, with a little planning, you view the homes of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Charles Manson, and the Grateful Dead, to name a few.

Jefferson Airplane bought their three-story, 17-room mansion for $70,000 in 1968 and turned the large basement into a recording studio. The band lived and recorded there until the mid-1980s (address: 2400 Fulton St, San Francisco, CA 94118).

Jefferson Airplane house, Hidden Attractions of San Francisco
Jefferson Airplane house

Meanwhile, Janis Joplin lived at 122 Lyon Street with her boyfriend, musician Country Joe McDonald, before moving into a second-floor apartment at 635 Ashbury St. In 1967 with her lover Peggy Caserta.

Jimi Hendrix lived in 1524A Haight Street for a few years in the 1960's. The Jimi Hendrix House is also called the Red House after it was painted red in the rock star's honour. The apartment itself is a private residence, but you can admire the murals that are painted on the exterior.

Jimi Hendrix's Red House, Hidden Attractions of San Francisco
Jimi Hendrix's Red House

Charles Manson spent a few short months in 1967 at 636 Cole with early recruits into his Family: his girlfriend Mary Brunner, a librarian in Berkeley; Susan Atkins; Patricia Krenwinkel; and Lynnette "Squeaky" Fromme, who famously went on to attempt an assassination of President Gerald Ford years later.

Charles Manson's house, Hidden Attractions of San Francisco
Charles Manson's house

The Grateful Dead’s original members—Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan—lived in the purple Victorian house located at 710 Ashbury St. from 1966 until 1968. Originally a boarding house, the Dead house gained icon status from photos of the group taken on its front stoop.

The Grateful Dead House, Hidden Attractions of San Francisco
The Grateful Dead House

3. Jack Kerouac Alley

Jack Kerouac Alley nestles between the City Lights Bookstore and the Vesuvio Café. Named after the Beat writer who frequented the area, and transformed into a pedestrian zone in 2007, with a repaved pathway (which has several quotes from Beat writers engraved on the tiles), the alley has an ever-changing collection of murals which tend to promote social change or have Chinese themes (the alley connects to Chinatown).

Tailor-Made Top Tip: Pop into the Vesuvio Café and enjoy a ‘Jack Kerouac’ cocktail and read your selection of beat poetry that you bought from City Lights. Cheers!

Have you guessed yet which hidden attraction tops the list?

2. Hidden Garden Steps

A five-minute walk from the more famous 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, the Hidden Garden Steps is an equally beautiful staircase covered in colourful mosaic tiles. Lovingly edged by gardens tended by a community arts collaborative, the Hidden Garden Steps are a real find.

1. Mount Davidson Cross

Mount Davidson is the highest geographic point on the San Francisco skyline. It provides a peaceful 39-acre oasis of public open space, a forest in the middle of San Francisco's dense built-up environment. The peak hosts the Mount Davidson Cross and offers spectacular views. The cross stands 103 feet tall. It is also the site of a famous scene from the film 'Dirty Harry'.

Where to Stay in San Francisco

As befits a world-famous destination, San Francisco has a wide range of hotels to cater for all tastes and needs. Travellers should note, however, that hotels here tend to be more expensive than other US cities. There are some budget hotels in the Tenderloin area, but I would advise against staying there.

Luxury Icons: For travellers seeking opulence, there are plenty of grand establishments that blend historic charm with modern amenities. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to stay the night, I enjoyed a lovely lunch Fairmont San Francisco and a drink in their iconic Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar.

Boutique Gems: San Francisco boasts a variety of boutique hotels, such as the historic Victorian charm of Queen Anne, or the modern quirkiness of the Staypineapple.

Family Fun: As for families, they are also well catered for, especially around Fisherman’s Wharf, with the likes of the Hotel Zephyr and the Argonaut.


San Francisco has a great variety of attractions to visit, and it is easy to combine some of the more famous ones with one or two more unusual and overlooked ones, so as to add to the excitement and fascination when visiting this engaging city.

Related Blog Posts

If you are interested in finding out more about San Francisco, please view the Tailor-Made Itineraries posts below:

Comment below and let us know what your favourite hidden attraction of San Francisco was.

Don’t forget that Tailor-Made Itineraries delights in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting any of these unlikely highlights appeal to you, reach out to me by email. I would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating the hidden attractions of San Francisco, or indeed, a general tour of the city.

Join me next time when I reveal my favourite viewpoints of San Francisco. Tailor-Made Itineraries posts every two weeks, and you can subscribe to the latest blog and newsletter here. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.


Tailor-Made Itineraries creates one-of-a-kind bespoke self-guided travel itineraries for adventurous and curious travellers.

These self-guided tours deliver a personalised and exciting holiday experience that takes the effort out of trip planning.