As a visitor to San Francisco, you’ve probably ridden the street cars, seen the Golden Gate Bridge, and watched the sea lions at Pier 39. You’ve been to Alcatraz, explored Chinatown, and wandered around the museums. You might also have explored the street art and walked up to the famous Painted Ladies. But what are some of the less-touristy, unique things to do in San Francisco?
Visit The Wave Organ
The Wave Organ is possibly the most unique thing in San Francisco and a very family-friendly SF activity. Located by the sea at the end of a long spit of land in the Marina District, this is an acoustic sculpture that amplifies the sound of the waves as they rise and crash against the shore. Put your ears to the pipes and you can hear the different noises generated by the waves.
The Organ seems to have been built out of lots of bits of recycled concrete. It is large and there are places to sit beside it. When I visited there was no one else around: it was a peaceful place to sit and watch the birds and the sea.
Discover Japanese Culture
It was a surprise to me to discover that San Francisco has a strong Japanese heritage and is the largest Japantown area in the United States. The Japan Center is an excellent place to start your exploration. Follow the Historic Walk, then try some authentic cuisine in one of the Center’s many restaurants and cafés.
Elsewhere in the city, you can enjoy the tranquillity of the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.
Explore The Stairways
You may already know about the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, the 163 steps that collectively form a giant mosaic. However, this is just one of around 300 stairways built to allow the city’s residents to climb its 49 hills. Many of these stairs are purely functional, but some have tiles, sculptures, and other quirks. And, of course, most of them lead to spectacular views.
Follow The Barbary Coast Trail
During the gold rush era, the Barbary Coast area of San Francisco was the red-light district, with clubs, bars, and entertainment venues. The Barbary Coast Trail connects 20 of the most important historical sites via a series of pavement plaques and arrows. This 3.8-mile walk takes you through Chinatown and Little Italy and towards Fisherman’s Wharf.
What I liked about this trail is that it went along some streets I hadn’t seen before, and drew attention to some buildings I might not otherwise have noticed. Like the Hippodrome, formerly a rather grand nightclub, now an art shop. Or the quiet back streets, lined with once-smart Victorian houses.
The Barbary Coast Trail goes from the cable car at Powell Street to the terminus at Hyde. Trail guides can be bought online or at the Visitor Information Center.
See A Stone Labyrinth
The Eagle Point Labyrinth, at Land’s End in the parkland beyond Golden Gate Bridge, is a modern seven-circuit stone maze. When it was built in 2004 it was intended to be a “secret place”. However, the secret didn’t last for long, and walkers began to seek out the labyrinth. As a stone structure built on sand the maze has been destroyed – and rebuilt – several times.
To get to Land’s End I followed the “Battle of the Bulge” walk through Golden Gate Park. This is a downhill trail with the names of various battle sites along the way, a pleasant stroll ending at a steep coastal path overlooking the sea and the labyrinth. I have to confess that I didn’t tackle the treacherous-looking path down to the sea, being content with seeing the maze from above, and enjoying a different view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Drink And Shop At The Ferry Building
San Francisco’s historic Ferry Building may not be particularly “lesser known”, but I have included it in this list because it is primarily a place where the locals go. Once the city’s main transport hub, it is now a bustling market place where you can buy all sorts of fresh and homemade produce. Look out for specialty cheeses, unusual mushrooms, handicrafts, and much more.
Three times a week there is a farmers’ market displaying the best of Californian produce. When you’ve treated yourself to some mouth-watering chocolate or organic cosmetics head off to one of the bars or cafés. You can sip cocktails at the Market Bar or sample a vast range of wine at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant.
As you can see, San Francisco offers a plethora of experiences that go far beyond its iconic landmarks. From the serene sounds of the Wave Organ to the rich cultural tapestry of Japantown, the city has hidden gems waiting around every corner. The stairways provide not just a means to traverse the city’s numerous hills but also serve as canvases showcasing vibrant art. Following the Barbary Coast Trail offers a glimpse into San Francisco’s colorful past, while the Eagle Point Labyrinth invites contemplation amidst stunning natural beauty. And for a taste of local life, the Ferry Building delivers with its diverse market and social atmosphere.
Each of these six activities presents an opportunity to see San Francisco through a different lens—one that perhaps even some locals have yet to explore. So, the next time you find yourself in the City by the Bay, stray a little from the beaten path and discover the unique character that truly makes San Francisco one of a kind. Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a returning admirer, these lesser-known attractions are sure to enrich your experience and create lasting memories of this vibrant and ever-surprising city.
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Karen Warren is a freelance writer, book reviewer, and novelist. She writes about travel on her website WorldWideWriter