Things to do in Bay Area

Hidden Gems in the Bay Area

Ready for an adventure? Shake off the crowds at these secret spots in the Bay Area.

San Francisco is home to some of the most iconic places in the western part of the United States—the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, and Alcatraz Island are just the tip of the iceberg. If you're in the mood for something different, take advantage of the area's mild weather and go on a treasure hunt for the hidden gems in the Bay Area.

From giant cameras to wacky museums—San Francisco has the beautiful and the bizarre. Exploring the hilly streets for unusual adventures is one of our favorite things to do in the Bay Area.

You'll get to explore often overlooked parts of the city, leaving you with a profound appreciation for this charming metropolis. Here are some hidden gems in the Bay Area that you don't want to miss.

Natural Attractions

One of the first things visitors notice about this part of California is its staggering natural beauty. These hidden gems in the San Francisco Bay Area show the secret side of the city's green spaces.

1. Huntington Falls

Tucked away in the expansive Golden Gate Park, Huntington Falls is among the most peaceful hidden places in the Bay Area. This man-made waterfall tumbles over rock cliffs into a pool below. To get there, find your way to the island on Stow Lake, recently renamed Blue Heron Lake. The waterfall flows from a reservoir on Strawberry Hill and empties into the larger lake below.

It's easy to visit the park and never realize Huntington Falls is there since it's tucked into the trees. You can rent a boat and paddle close to the base or check out the view from the bridge over the cascade.

Photographer: Sundry Photography

2. Lands End Labyrinth

Lands End Labyrinth is set on a rocky point near Mile Rock Beach. Hundreds of carefully placed rocks form a maze overlooking the entrance to San Francisco Bay. When it's deserted, this is the perfect spot for a walking meditation. Accompanied by the sound of the sea, you can focus on each footstep.

If you visit the Bay Area with kids, they'll love racing around the rings to reach the center. Even if you don't set foot on the stone-lined paths, the labyrinth offers beautiful views of the rocks offshore and the massive ships sailing into port. Getting there requires a pleasant hike on the well-maintained trails in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

3. Tank Hill

Tank Hill is the site of a local legend. It was home to a large water tower until 1957, when the city drained it and let the water run freely into the neighborhood below—allegedly sending a few goldfish along for the ride. Today, the hill is one of the hidden gems in the Bay Area. You get a magnificent view of the city and the far-off hills from the top.

The hike up Tank Hill is relatively short, with stairs in a few sections. When you get to the top, look for the base of the old water tower.

Historical Sites

San Francisco's history is the stuff of legends. It started out as a Spanish mission and later became a gold rush boomtown. Our top historical sites provide unique perspectives on the origins of this diverse region. As a bonus, they also offer some of the best views in the Bay Area.

4. Fort Point National Historic Site

Wondering where to get the best photos of the Golden Gate Bridge? Fort Point National Historic Site is one of our top secret spots. This historic fort sits right below the span, offering spectacular views of the familiar red towers.

If you can pull yourself away from the view, you'll find the fort is packed with interesting and little-known historical tidbits. The exhibits introduce you to the Ohlone people who originally lived on the land and the military groups that used the strategic location to exert power over San Francisco Bay.

Photographer: Zack Frank

5. The Presidio’s Andy Goldsworthy Art

The Presidio is known for its long military history. It's also a surprising treasure trove of public art. Artist Andy Goldsworthy created four larger-than-life pieces in 2013 to reflect on the Presidio forest and its rejuvenation.

One of his most compelling pieces is the Spire, a sculpture made from ancient felled cypress trees. On the outside, a ring of living, growing cypress trees signifies the restoration of the historic forest.

At the Presidio Officers’ Club, you can see Earth Wall, a surreal installation featuring a eucalyptus-wood sphere partially buried in an earthen wall.

6. Camera Obscura

You may remember learning about the camera obscura as a child. Why not recapture the wonder of your youth at the Camera Obscura San Francisco, where you can actually walk inside a giant camera?

Once the door closes, you'll be treated to a once-in-a-lifetime sight. Light enters through a small hole in the top and passes through convex and concave lenses. Then, it projects the image of the view outside on a parabolic screen. It's a remarkable visualization of scientific principles that excites kids and adults.

Cultural Spots

The Bay Area has evolved into an important cultural center over the years. Beyond the grand opera houses and stately art museums, a thriving counterculture brings life and energy to the city streets. If you appreciate these spots, you might also enjoy some karaoke in the Bay Area.

7. The Beat Museum

The Beat Generation—a 1950s subculture movement that challenged commonly held beliefs about politics, religion, economics, and morals—has deep roots in the Bay Area. The Beat Museum explores the lives and writings of its members, including influential changemakers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs.

Whether you're a Beat expert or barely remember reading On the Road in high school, the museum is a must-visit destination. It's loaded with memorabilia, and the connected bookstore is a great place to add to your reading list. We often chat with the staff, who offer great book recommendations.

8. Musée Mécanique

Remember the Zoltar Speaks fortune-telling machine from the Tom Hanks movie Big? That's the kind of treasure you can expect to see at the Musée Mécanique. This curious museum features a collection of mechanical slot machines, coin-operated musical instruments, arcade games, and more.

Edward Galland Zelinksy lovingly collected each piece throughout his lifetime. The museum is located inside a large industrial building near Fisherman's Wharf, making it a great side quest during a day of exploration. Admission is free, and you can wander freely among the displays.

9. Queen Wilhelmina Garden

Golden Gate Park's massive windmills are a familiar sight for Bay Area travelers, but not everyone takes time to see the nearby hidden garden. As you might guess, Queen Wilhelmina Garden is best visited during tulip season (usually in March), when the blooming flowers carpet the area with brilliant colors.

Even if you can't make it in March, the garden is a peaceful spot year-round—except for May and October. There are two windmills in the park. The garden is located at the Dutch Windmill near the intersection of Fulton Street and the Great Highway.

Photographer: Marcus Jones

Unique Experiences

The Bay Area is packed with trailblazers who are actively shaping the country's technological and cultural landscapes. Some have turned their considerable talents to creating unique experiences for anyone lucky enough to drop by.

10. Wave Organ

Here's a musical instrument you've probably never seen before. The Wave Organ is an acoustic sculpture that's played by the movement of the ocean. The sounds you hear come from the 25 innovative organ tubes. Artists Peter Richards and George Gonzalez built the entire structure, which is located on a jetty across from Marina Green, in 1986.

The Wave Organ has the clearest sounds at high tide. We recommend parking at Crissy Field and walking east along the shore. You'll find the organ at the end of a small peninsula next to Coghlan Beach.

Photographer: pikappa51

11. Pirate Supply Store

The Pirate Supply Store is filled with pirate-themed gifts and novelties. It's the perfect pit stop if you're traveling with a pirate-obsessed child or adults with a sense of whimsy. From eye patches to hourglasses, you'll find unique souvenirs and gifts—some hidden in unexpected places.

The store helps fund a creative writing nonprofit that offers workshops, tutoring, and publishing services for local kids. You can buy the young authors' work in the shop or find your own inspiration by picking up a classic novel, such as Treasure Island.

12. Aunt Charlie's Lounge

San Francisco has been a major center of LGBTQIA+ culture for decades. Experience the Bay Area's welcoming and inclusive spirit at Aunt Charlie's Lounge, a gay bar in the Theater District. The bar, which is open to everyone, hosts DJs and drag shows.

The vibes are high, the drinks are affordable—in defiance of San Francisco's increasingly high cost of living—and the dancing lasts until the wee hours. This is a beloved local spot, so reserve a table in advance if you want to see a drag show. Just make sure to bring cash with you. The bar doesn't accept debit or credit cards.

Leisure and Relaxation

After a few days of huffing and puffing up San Francisco's infamous hills, you might be ready for something slower-paced. Give your legs and lungs a break at these hidden Bay Area oases.

13. Kabuki Springs & Spa

Leave the sights and sounds of the Bay Area behind at Kabuki Springs & Spa, a Japanese-style retreat. The plant-heavy, earth-toned interior is softly lit, creating a soothing atmosphere that encourages you to be present.

Start your visit with one of the spa's treatments and holistic therapies, many of which come directly from the Japanese tradition. When you're well and truly relaxed, head to the springs area and spend a few hours cycling through the hot pool, cold pool, sauna, and steam room. By the time you leave this spot, you'll feel like a new person.

14. Seward Street Slides

If laughter and thrills are your preferred methods of de-stressing, the Seward Street Slides will have you feeling fresh in no time. This isn't your ordinary playground equipment. Built from concrete, these slides are extra tall and fast. They've been attracting adults and kids since the 1960s, but most tourists aren't aware they exist.

Located in Seward Mini Park, the slides are seriously steep, so take great care with small children. Here's the trick to a great trip: Bring a piece of cardboard. It will move easily across the concrete, so you can pick up speed quickly. While you're at it, wear full-length pants and a pair of sturdy shoes.

15. Ina Coolbrith Park

Ina Coolbrith Park is one of our favorite hidden gems in the Bay Area. Every visit starts with a cardio session since you need to climb steep trails to reach the park. The workout will become a distant memory as soon as you see the breathtaking views of the city skyline and Bay Bridge.

For the full San Francisco experience, travel to the park by cable car. The Powell-Mason, 41-Union, and 45-Union/Stockton lines get you within a few blocks, and you can walk the rest of the way.

Photographer: Kit Leong

Experience the Unseen Bay Area Through These Captivating Hidden Treasures

Tucked into the hills of the Bay Area, a wealth of discoveries await travelers who take the time to seek them out. Can't get enough of the Bay Area's hidden gems? Join our performers for an evening that's mysterious and magnificent.

Spinning stories punctuated by thrilling acrobatics, we bring you into an imaginary world of color and creativity. Let yourself go—we'll guide you on the voyage. Experience the limitless wonder under the big top at our shows in the Bay Area.

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