San Francisco stands out as a prime tourist destination. Featuring trendsetting cuisine certain to tantalize your taste buds, world-class entertainment, and even beautiful natural oases nestled among high rises, it’s no wonder people flock to the city in droves.
All the sights are certainly stunning, but they can also mean long waits and crowds. Despite the constant action surrounding the city’s biggest attractions, there are hidden gems throughout that even natives tend to skip over.
Whether you simply want to explore the city off the beaten path or you need a quiet reprieve to recharge after a day of long crowds and excitement, these things to do in San Francisco can add a touch of intrigue and mystery to the whole experience.
From historical and cultural spots weaving tales of how the city came to be to outright stunning natural areas with beautiful views and places truly embracing the quirkiness of San Francisco, these secret spots are definite must-sees if time allows during your stay.
Historical and Cultural Spots
Sure, there are a lot of fun tourist attractions in San Francisco, but for a taste of the real city, visiting historical and cultural spots can be a game changer during your trip. These hidden gems in San Francisco are awe-inspiring, providing an authentic taste of history.
We love the intricate stories these locations weave with historical buildings, painting a picture of how the city came to be what it is today.
1. Fort Point National Historic Site
While the Golden Gate Bridge makes for an iconic site in San Francisco, most miss the Fort Point National Historic Site hiding in plain sight right underneath it.
This Civil War-era structure initially served as deterrence against a potential naval attack routed through San Francisco Bay.
Plans for the Golden Gate Bridge initially meant demolishing the fort, but Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss, recognizing the beauty in its construction, designed an arch to allow the bridge to be built above it, retaining the original infrastructure.
You can attend regular history talks lasting about 15 minutes throughout the day to learn more about the site or simply appreciate the view.
If you happen to be visiting during the winter, take a candlelight tour led by a ranger for an unforgettable experience.
2. Mission Dolores Cemetery
The Mission Dolores cemetery, named after the nearby creek, Arroyo de los Dolores (Creek of Sorrows), is one site history buffs won’t want to miss.
It’s next to the oldest building in San Francisco, and it's the oldest local cemetery, dating back to October 1776. Near the center stands a statue of Father Junipero Serra somberly overlooking the graves.
Another statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk maiden, rests near the unmarked burial sites of around 5,000 Ohlone natives with an inscription reading, “In prayerful memory of our faithful Indians.”
Numerous historic San Franciscans have found their final resting place within this cemetery, including the first Mexican governor of Alta California, Captain Luis Arguello.
Unique Views and Natural Spots in San Francisco
One of the biggest appeals to visiting San Francisco is admiring its stunning views that integrate the pinnacle of engineering ingenuity amid breathtaking natural features. With San Francisco Bay on the horizon and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the city’s skyline is truly unforgettable.
Finding the perfect vantage point is the key to enjoying everything the city has to offer, and many are accessible by hiking trails. While there are some tried-and-true sites throughout San Francisco, these hidden gems tend to be skipped over by those not in the know.
Some of these sites will provide new perspectives on fan favorites, while others are simply quiet natural reprieves. Pack your hiking shoes and get ready to see San Francisco in a whole new light at these secret hot spots.
And while you’re looking for unique things to do, why not discover some fascinating and romantic date ideas in San Francisco?
3. Kirby Cove
Nestled just north of the Golden Gate Bridge and featuring amazing views of architectural art is Kirby Cove. This park doubles as a campsite, making it a fun, off-beat choice for your stay in San Francisco.
It’s about a mile’s hike among the cypress trees from the parking lot to get to the coarse-sand beach, but it’s worth the effort. You’ll be rewarded with a beautiful oasis of nature amid the urban surroundings.
4. Tank Hill
While tourists tend to flock to Twin Peaks for a stellar 360-degree view of the city, those truly in the know skip it for Tank Hill.
It’s not far from Twin Peaks and doesn’t offer a 360-degree view. However, it does capture most of the sights to see, including Alcatraz, downtown, and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.
The real draw of this hidden gem is that it’s not busy. Even on sunny days, you’re not likely to run into many other visitors. It’s a great place to recharge your social battery while still admiring the sights.
5. Bernal Heights Park
With steep slopes and sprawling grasslands, Bernal Heights Park overlooks the city from all sides. This natural refuge is home to an abundance of native animals.
You could encounter over 40 species of birds performing all sorts of aerobatics. Notable favorites include Anna’s hummingbirds and American kestrels.
Other wildlife, such as salamanders, gopher snakes, and alligator lizards, scurry through the grass. If you get lucky, you might spot a coyote, once extinct within the city.
With reptiles aplenty in Bernal Heights Park, you can follow up your observation with one of our shows. Judge for yourself how well our Cirque du Soleil performers impersonate various animals.
To get to the summit, you’ll have to find one of the hidden staircases, which will take you on a quiet stroll lined with native plants.
The hike to the top is somewhat steep, but you’ll find a swing waiting for you atop the hill. Upon it, you can marvel at gorgeous views of the Golden Gate Bridge, downtown, and Twin Peaks in the distance.
6. Ina Coolbrith Park
This 0.8-acre park was once a nearly unscalable steep hill known as Inspiration Point. It wasn’t until 1947 that it was dedicated to Ina Coolbrith, an esteemed author who lived just a block from the park’s site before moving to Oakland.
It was no easy feat to transform the land into a park, requiring extensive excavation to install stairways to make it accessible.
Ina Coolbrith Park is an unassuming patch of greenery hidden within San Francisco’s concrete jungle atop the east side of Russian Hill. Tourists and natives alike often gloss over this hidden gem.
It’s worth the hike through sprawling stairs and pathways dotted with benches overlooking vistas. Your trek may even be graced by wild parrots singing in the trees.
If you explore the northwest tip of the park, you’ll find yourself in Poet’s Corner. Here, the Ina Coolbrith Circle, an association of writers in California, left a bench and boulder with a plaque in Coolbrith’s honor.
7. Seward Street Slides
During your trip, don’t overlook a trip to Seward Mini Park. What makes this small plot exciting isn’t its typical collection of native plants or the community garden — it's the slides!
The Seward Street Slides aren’t your typical playground slides, either. They’re made from concrete and take those brave enough to venture onto them down a steep slope.
Locals warn visitors to tote along a piece of cardboard if they want to give it a go — people have ripped their pants sliding down without one!
If you’re a fan of thrills, you can even toss a handful of sand down to speed up your slide even more. This is one hidden thing to do in San Francisco you won’t want to miss.
8. Vermont Street
While Lombard Street often gets all the credit as being the most crooked street, the distinct honor actually belongs to Vermont Street in San Francisco.
If you’ve always wanted to experience the joy of zigzagging down a street so curvy that it seems like it belongs on a child’s train table, Vermont Street is where you want to be.
This street snakes its way down Potrero Hill with seven major curves lined with trees. Since it’s nowhere near as popular as Lombard, there’s almost never any wait to experience it.
If you happen to be there in April, you can even jump in the annual Bring Your Own Big Wheel race. Just remember — it’s a one-way street!
9. Lands End Labyrinth
A well-kept secret of Lands End is the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean accessible by Lands End Trail.
Through winding hiking trails past the Lookout Center, you’ll make your way along some stairs and through wooded paths and eventually reach Lands End Labyrinth. There once was an intricate stone labyrinth built and maintained by dedicated artists.
Unfortunately, after repeated vandalization, the labyrinth is no more, but a massive heart is in its place, made entirely of stones. The spectacular views from this precarious position are unparalleled and worth the hike.
10. Sutro Baths
Self-made millionaire Adoph Sutro once had a vision: a massive oceanfront public bathhouse akin to those found in ancient Greece.
That dream became a reality in 1894. Sutro Baths featured seven swimming pools of different temperatures. Encased in glass, they could accommodate 10,000 people at once.
The expert engineering meant that the Pacific Ocean during high tide could fill all 1.7 million gallons of water for the pools in an hour. Unfortunately, this work of true engineering genius lost favor during the Great Depression.
Although slated with plans to develop high-rise apartments on-site, a massive fire swept through in 1966, leaving behind concrete ruins accessible by hiking trails. They’ve since been incorporated into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and are available to explore.
Urban Exploration and Quirky Spots
While San Francisco is now more of a trendsetting tech hub, its roots lie in the Wild West and the California Gold Rush.
Much of the evidence of its lawless origins was destroyed by the massive 8.25 magnitude earthquake on April 18, 1906, as well as the fires that burnt down the ruins, but the city’s unconventional nature still flows through its spirit.
Now, the city is home to some of the strangest and most unique sights. If you want to see the downright weird side of San Francisco and the secret spots that make it unique, these sites need to make it onto your list. These could even be some enlightening and entertaining things to do with kids in San Francisco!
11. Treasure Island
There might not be any buried treasure on this artificial island, but it’s a true hidden gem in the Bay Area nonetheless. All 400 acres of Treasure Island were built from mud from the bay. It was initially intended to host the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition.
Built for fanfare, gardens, dazzling lights, and towers, it was a massive endeavor. When the fair ended, the U.S. Navy used it as a naval station until 1997, at which point it was leased to the city.
Now, it’s open for general public access. Over 2,000 people, schools, community organizations, restaurants, and commercial areas call Treasure Island home.
The island is known for sporting exquisite panoramic views of the city, but there’s also plenty to do while visiting. From wine tasting and kayaking to shopping and dining, it’s a nice reprieve from the hustle and bustle of San Fran proper while still feeling like a vacation.
12. Yoda Fountain
The Yoda Fountain is a hidden gem that every film lover needs to see. If you’re a fan of Star Wars, a quick stop at the Lucasfilm HQ offers an iconic photo opportunity, and even better, it’s in the historic Presidio National Park, so it’s near lots of other things to do.
While visiting the fountain, don’t forget to pop into the lobby headquarters. It’s free and filled with other props and memorabilia celebrating Star Wars.
13. Holey Moley Golf Club
Sure, you can go mini golfing just about anywhere, but the experience at Holey Moley Golf Club is out of this world. Not only can you mini golf here, but you can also enjoy courses brimming with pop culture references. There’s even karaoke on-site, too!
Circus Fun Awaits You!
Why juggle plans when you can watch the pros? Discover amazing circus shows in San Francisco Amazement guaranteed!
14. Golden Gate Park Bison
Most people wouldn’t guess that bison live in a hidden spot in San Francisco, but they’re a must-see. Nestled into Golden Gate Park is a paddock full of meandering bison. They’ve been kept there since 1892, long before the city’s first zoo opened.
While bison were once populous in the 1500s, European colonization into the West destroyed their homeland; cattle outcompeted them for grazing spots; and they were hunted to near extinction.
While the Golden Gate Park was in the works, the intention was to honor the Wild West, which meant they needed bison. While they were initially there in part to conserve the species, today, the herd only consists of females to keep things calmer.
A visit often reveals a serene picture of grazing and resting bison venturing across sprawling fields.
15. Dangling Legs at Piedmont Boutique
Nothing says business like flashy displays of craftsmanship, and that’s the message the Piedmont Boutique in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood lives by. Dangling out of the shop’s second-story window is a pair of massive legs adorned with fishnet stockings and striking red heels. Talk about creative!
The store could have settled for typical signage like most of its neighbors but instead chose to hire a local artist (Barry Forman) to design the risque, seductive legs to catch the eyes of those who pass them.
Step off the Main Path and Explore the Best Hidden Gems of San Francisco
We like our cities weird, awe-inspiring, and unforgettable, just like our shows. We aim to challenge and provoke the senses with breathtaking displays of acrobatics and expert artistry while telling otherworldly tales sure to invoke awe and wonder.
If you’re waiting to be amazed by one of our shows in San Francisco, why not explore everything the city has to offer? These hidden gems inspire intrigue and imagination, each adding a distinctly San Franciscan touch to the city.
We love the way this city’s gems seem to defy conformity and how there’s something for everyone within its streets.