Planning a trip to San Francisco? This incredible place is famous for its amazing food, steep and winding streets and its vibrant history (not to mention all the good food!). Instead of dragging yourself to all the overly-done tourist things, it’s time to dig a little deeper and uncover the lesser-known places San Fran has been hiding from you. Here are a few of the very best hidden gems just waiting to be discovered…
1. The Pirate Shop
Ahhh yeah, you read that right. The Pirate Shop is a real place and it exists at 826 Valencia Street. You can pick up all kinds of things, like a treasure shining kit, ‘Scurvy Begone’ (perfect for broke backpackers), beards, captains quills, belts and Jolly Rodger flags too. Honestly, there are so many COOL things in this store, you can’t miss out on going.
2. 16th Avenue Mosaic Steps
These insanely beautiful steps were built by the local community. It took them two years and countless hours of hard work and a whole lotta love to turn them into what they are today. Climb all 163 steps and you’re treated to some pretty spectacular views of San Francisco too. You’ll find the steps at 16th and Moraga Street.
If you love pugs, make sure you visit the Alta Plaza Park on the first Sunday of the month. You’ll find it swarming with pugs from 2:30pm onwards, with as many as 75 of the little critters descending on the park. This pug-a-palooza is an organised event for pug lovers and offers a very fun way to spend an hour or two.
4. Institute of Illegal Images
One of the most amazing and unique art collections you could hope to visit, Mark McCloud has the most comprehensive collection of LSD blotter paper in the world. It’s cost him two criminal trials and a tonne of media attention, good and bad. Given San Fran supplied most of the world’s LSD at one point, it seems fitting to visit the Institute of Illegal Images.
5. Paxton Gate
Another really cool, weird little shop, Paxton Gate is well worth the visit. You’ll find it stocking all manner of the curious and bizarre, inspired by the garden and natural sciences. What does that mean exactly? You’ll find cool things like terrariums and air plants alongside oddities like taxidermy mice, pinned grasshoppers and fish skeletons. Well worth the visit!
Brunch culture is real in San Francisco, so it’s worth lining up at French bistro, Zazie. Their brunch menu is not to be missed, you guys, especially their famed Tahiti French Toast, which is stuffed with caramelised bananas and walnuts. They also knock out some amazing buttermilk pancakes and all manner of delicious French breakfast treats.
7. Seward Street Slides
Take a trip to the Seward Mini Park, a great spot in itself, and visit the two long, concrete slides hidden within. They were designed by a 14-year-old in 1973 after winning a competition run by sculptor Ruth Asawa. Be sure to keep the noise down, wear some thick pants and bring a piece of cardboard to butt-scoot along with.
8. China Beach
Most visitors to San Francisco will walk the Golden Gate Bridge and find themselves taking photos from the same spot as everyone else. For a unique viewpoint, get yourself out to China Beach, a small cove in the Sea Cliff neighbourhood. It forms part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and offers the most amazing views across the bay, all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.
9. Flora Grubb Gardens
If you love cacti and succulents, take a trip to the Flora Grubb Gardens to discover a hidden oasis of beautiful plants. You’ll find a huge array of cacti and succulents you probably haven’t seen before and some very cool ways of displaying them too, like bursting out of an abandoned car or covering an entire section of wall.
10. New World Market
For a unique experience, visit the European markets on Geary Street. They offer up interesting eats like smoked fish, salami and pickled cabbage rolls. The must-visit spot is New World Market, where you’ll find a dose of SanFran food culture and insanely delicious chocolate-covered cheesecakes that will, seriously, change your life!
11. The Wave Organ
Head down to the San Francisco marina to find the Wave Organ, a musical instrument played by the San Francisco Bay. It’s made of an insane series of PVC organ pipes jutting into the water below the jetty. As the water ebbs and flows, the pipes let out a serious of strange and haunting sounds.
12. Brenda’s French Soul Food
The food at local favourite, Brenda’s, is spectacular and makes it a not-to-be-missed spot in San Francisco. Chef Brenda grew up in New Orleans, making the menu an amazing foodie experience. You’ll find amazing must-try food, like sweet and savoury beignets, hang town fry, shrimp and grits, big fluffy pancakes and crispy pork belly. Brenda knows what’s up!
13. The Golden Fire Hydrant
On the southwest corner of Dolores Park, on the corner of Church and 20th Streets, you’ll find a golden fire hydrant. This is one for people who like to see cool historical stuff (me!). It’s a super cool story! After the devastating earthquake that hit in 1906, a fire erupted and began tearing through San Francisco. Many of the city’s fire hydrants failed and fire crews were helpless to contain the flames. Somehow, the little fire hydrant on the corner of Church and 20th still worked and it managed to supply the water that saved the Mission District from meeting a fiery end. The hydrant was deemed a miracle and painted gold, with a fresh lick of paint being applied each year on April 18, in honour of the fire crews who fought so hard that day.
Useful travel resources for your trip to North America
As always, our guides and content are completely free. If you found this post (or anything we do) useful, we’d be grateful if you considered using the affiliate links below. We’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you. Rest assured, these are the services we love and use ourselves. Thank you in advance for your support! Phoebe and Matt
Agoda – one of our go-to sites for booking hotels
Skyscanner – our go-to for booking flights
RentalCars.com – a great search engine for renting a car
Booking.com – another of our go-to sites for booking hotels
TourRadar – a great search engine for booking tours
Uber – our go to ground transport option