San Francisco Hidden Gems to Explore

posted by Sharon Odegaard 58 Comments
San Francisco Hidden Gems

A trip to San Francisco is most enjoyable when you include both city highlights and hidden gems. Of course, if it’s your first time in the city, you will want to visit the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and Golden Gate Park. But you can enrich any visit to the City by the Bay by also including some appealing hidden gems in your itinerary.

A few of my favorites are hiding in plan sight but are easily missed, and others call for a bit of searching. I didn’t discover these until I’d been to San Francisco many times. Do yourself a favor and go to one or more these delightful sights on your next trip.

The Painted Ladies of San Francisco

While the Painted Ladies are not literally hidden gems, they are situated so far off the beaten path that I missed them trip after trip. These “ladies” are Victorian houses that survived the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. They are generally on the outskirts of the city center. The most well-known of the homes are lined up along Steiner Street at Hayes. They are painted in delicious colors, and behind them the city skyline decorates the view. These homes, built just before 1900, have been featured in movies and TV shows, most famously on “Full House.” San Francisco Painted Ladies

People arrive to see them by taxi and Uber. We finally ventured to see these iconic houses in person, and it was so much fun. San Francisco Painted Ladies

San Francisco Painted LadiesThe intricate painting, peaked roofs, and detailed architecture are fascinating.San Francisco Painted LadiesSan Francisco Painted Ladies

San Francisco Painted LadiesDirectly across the street is Alamo Park, and by chance we arrived late afternoon when locals were out and about, walking their dogs and ambling through the park. People stopped to chat with us. One young man asked us to give his dog treats, as he was working on socializing her. Lady is a charmer.San Francisco Alamo Park San Francisco Alamo Park

San Francisco Alamo ParkThis neighborhood boasts other Victorian homes on the blocks around the park, so if you have time, check them out. Each one offers colorful and unique architecture.

Coit Tower Art

Coit Tower sits high on Telegraph Hill and can be seen from vantage points all over the city.San Francisco Coit Tower

What many people don’t realize is that you can go inside Coit Tower and view an amazing art gallery that’s painted right on the walls.

The murals are unique hidden gems and have a fascinating story. A year after Coit Tower was completed, in 1934, a group of artists was funded by the Public Works of Art Project, a forerunner of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Each of the scenes depicts life in California during the Depression. The artists painted an assigned subject in an assigned area. Scenes show different aspects of industry and commerce. The artists worked at the same time, side by side, day after day, until the murals were finished a few months later. The lively colors of these fresco paintings are vibrant after their recent restoration.San Francisco Coit Tower MuralsSan Francisco Coit Tower MuralsSan Francisco Coit Tower MuralsSan Francisco Coit Tower Murals

The detail is amazing. Here’s a closeup of a little dog.San Francisco Coit Tower Murals

Check this website for more information about hours and tickets to take the elevator to the top of the tower.

The Filbert Stairs

The Filbert Stairs are literally hidden from view but worth sleuthing out. They connect the wharf-level street to Coit Tower on this hillside.San Francisco Filbert Steps

The 400 stairs wind up through the backyards of homeowners. At first, I felt like we were trespassing, but as we climbed, we met a few locals who told us they wished more people knew about the stairs. San Francisco Filbert Steps

One friendly neighbor said to look for the 18th-century homes among the more modern ones. These are vintage homes built by whalers. Their wives would hang out on the decks overlooking the bay, watching for their men’s safe return.

This being a city where the unconventional is welcome, we found surprises along every stretch. A (ceramic) tiger peers out from the vegetation. A parking meter decorates a garden. A random old street sign stands where there’s no street. A bench is almost buried by autumn leaves. These “secret” gardens are a gift, meant to delight one and all. San Francisco Filbert Steps

San Francisco Filbert StepsThe easiest way to find the steps is to go to the back of the parking lot at Levi Strauss Plaza at 1155 Battery Street. Start up and stop as often as you like to catch your breath and admire the views of the bay. Once you get to the top, you can visit Coit Tower and then come back down the stairs, which is far easier than going up, of course. San Francisco Filbert Steps

The City Lights Booksellers and Publishers

San Francisco City Lights Bookstore

I always love to explore an independent bookstore. City Lights comes with intriguing history as well as its own inventory of titles. Located in North Beach, down the hill from Coit Tower, City Lights publishes as well as sells books. Founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1955, it has served as a literary meeting place for decades, drawing thinkers who could be termed alternative as well as offering traditional books. It looks normal when you enter, but you can pick up on the quirky and fascinating right away. There are even books that map out fog for you.San Francisco City Lights Bookstore

San Francisco City Lights BookstoreSan Francisco City Lights BookstoreSan Francisco City Lights BookstoreYou’ll find City Lights at 261 Columbus Avenue at Broadway. If you see this street art and aerial display of books, you are very close. San Francisco City Lights Booktore

Plan Your Visit to San Francisco

Boudin’s Bakery Museum

I saved this as the last of the hidden gems to tell you about because it’s inside Boudin’s Bakery, where you can enjoy a relaxing dinner after sightseeing. Boudin’s, of sourdough bread fame, offers a casual cafe downstairs and a more elegant restaurant upstairs. San Francisco Boudin What I missed on previous visits is that there’s a small museum halfway up the stairs and off to the side where you can learn about the history of sourdough bread. The Mother Dough started here, folks! A timeline tells not only about bread but also notes events in San Francisco’s past. San Francisco Boudin

San Francisco BoudinSan Francisco Boudin

Be sure to stop in the gift shop, too, and follow the conveyor belt of bread baskets around the ceiling.San Francisco Boudin

Finish up with dinner and a hearty helping of sourdough bread. San Francisco Boudin

How about you? Have you discovered San Francisco hidden gems you love?San Francisco Painted Ladies

Read More About San Francisco

Iconic Hotels of San Francisco
Visiting Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco
Exploring San Francisco with Kids
Walking the Golden Gate Bridge
Touring Alcatraz
Coit Tower — A San Francisco Landmark
Riding San Francisco’s Cable Cars
San Francisco at Christmastime
Finding the Filbert Stairs

This post may contain affiliate links. Clicking on them may result in a commission being paid if you purchase afterwards. This is at no extra cost to you. All opinions are always my own.


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William Kendall at

Beautiful Victorians!

Cathy Keller at

Oh my how this post has brought back memories of our time in the Bay area. We’d spend our weekends in the city. It is a grand place to explore. It was so much fun watching the kids playing in Golden Gate Park and seeing their enthusiasm when we would visit the Steinhart Aquarium. But the most fun they had was when we’d travel down Lombard Street!! Thanks for the memories! Have a wonderful week!

Elīna Kalniņa at

Great tips! I have been to San Francisco twice, and still haven’t see the Painted Ladies. They look amazing!

Tamar A Strauss-Benjamin at

Love those iconic rows of homes!!

Shiju Sugunan at


junieper/jesh at

Easy to tell you like San Farncisco These painted ladies look so familiar, I must have seen them “somewhere!” A lot of upkeep! As well as these frescoes! They keep California’s tendency to “show” alive! fun scenes here:) A bookstore like this – what a temptation to discover some new books! All in all, a fun post of a great tourist city in California for All Seasons Sharon – many thanks! Have a beautiful week!

Joanne at

You found lots of great hidden gems; those murals are stunning!

Carol at

Most of your hidden gems are favorite places I’ve visited.

Veronica Lee at

Those rows of houses are so pretty! I love San Francisco.

Ann at

We’re planning our first trip to US this year, first stop New Orleans but San Fransisco is definatly in the running for a second destinations 🙂

Julien at

I love visiting San Francisco! Such a vibrant city with a short but rich history. The murals inside Coit Tower display that history beautifully!

Kelleyn at

Visited many of the same places as you on your visit. Such a great city! Glad you had a good time.

Melissa at

I love finding the hidden gems of a destination, especially when they include a bookstore as well! San Francisco always looks lovely.

Meghan Emcee at

Thanks for sharing these hidden gems of San Fransisco! I’ve only been once and missed all of these so definitely going to be planning a trip back there!

Mapped by Megan at

I just love all the colors of the city! The bookstore would be high on my list of places to visit.

Emese at

Those “painted ladies” are gorgeous! They look great for their age, for sure 😉 I love Victorian houses, I would enjoy seeing them. But I am pretty sure I’d spend a day in the City Lights book store, looks so inviting!

Michelle at

What a lovely tour of these hidden gems. I must admit the Painted Ladies just delight me to no end. Such works of art!


Wendy Lee at

I have been to San Francisco many time and always love it! But despite all of my visits I have not yet seen the Painted Ladies in person, maybe next time? Thanks for all the great information and lovely photos.

Kay at

I’ve been to SF like 8 times and I still haven’t seen the Painted Ladies!

Patti at

San Francisco is one of my favorite places to visit. You covered some great spots. This post makes me want to go back again.

Kristina at

I love San Francisco! I’ve never heard of the Filbert stairs and now they are on my list for next time for sure!

Natalie at

I just love the colours they choose for the streetscapes, wandering around in San Francisco would feel just like you have stepped onto a TV or movie set. Beautiful.

Jay Artale at

That mural is fabulous, and great that it’s stood the test of time. In cities and built up areas I think some form of art should be compulsory, whether that’s a mural or street art, colour and creativity can add a unique twist to an area.

Mandy at

Those are some fun hidden gems! I’ve explored SF once before and didn’t love it, but your hidden gems might encourage me to give it a second chance. Bookmarking for later! Thanks!

Jan at

I am totally blown away! I love every one of the hidden gems – can’t decide which one is better than the others. Thank you for this very informative post. I will definitely visit all of them in my next visit to SF! 🙂

Sarah at

Ooh, it’s been years since I visited San Francisco. Would love to return one day – never saw the painted ladies so there’s a good excuse to return.

Slavka at

The painted ladies is such a great name for these cuties. Another itinerary point to add to the plan. Thanks for the idea.

Nancy Hann at

San Francisco is a colorful city in so many ways! 🙂 The last time I was there we did mostly the top touristy stuff. I love all these hidden gems. Especially the gorgeous murals and those “secret” stairs. Independent bookstores are some of our favorite stops on any trip. Thanks for sharing all this info.

Sharon at

Beautiful photos of Sanfrancisco, truly a hidden gem. Thanks for sharing

Carrie Ann | Should Be Cruising at

I love those WPA murals in Coit Tower! I never would have guessed you’d find something like that inside. If I’m ever back in SF, I’ll definitely check them out for myself 😀

Sinjana at

Wow! honestly San Francisco is such a popular destination yet I have never read about most of these things. The painted ladies are just a delicious treat to the eyes and so are the murals. These are my favorites on your list.

Becki at

Those colourful houses are so pretty, I’m glad they survived the 1906 earthquatke and are still around for us to enjoy today. I’d love to go to San Francisco one day to cehk out some of these gems like the wall murals and the hidden stairs. Great article.

Jenn | By Land and Sea at

It’s been a few years since we visited this awesome city. I think we saw most of these things, but might have to go back anyway!

Yukti at

I love hidden gems and those colorful houses named as The Painted Ladies of San Francisco are my favorite. I would take lot many photos here Coit tower too looks interesting.

Annalisa Fran at

Look at those painted ladies, are those real? San Francisco has been on my bucket list forever!

Kristen Larter at

I have been to San Francisco a couple times and have to say it’s my favorite “big city.” I love all of your pictures! The architecture is beautiful!

Rosanna T Mitchell at

It’s been so long since I was in SF! We will be making our way there again soon. Thanks for this summary of places to see!

Josy A at

I love the look of the Filbert Stairs! It looks a bit soggy when you went, but it must have been great to walk through the trees in the middle of the city!

It must be strange for the people who live in the painted ladies. I mean, having people outside your home taking photos every day!

Nina Out and About at

I’ve never done San Fran like this! When I was there I mostly ate chocolate by the pier. I definitely need to check out the murals and the bakeries!

Lily at

I’m visiting SF later this year and I’ve never been! Your post being here is just great timing, and I can’t wait to explore these cool-looking neighborhoods!

Maria Elsa Jose at

I thought it wasn’t real until i saw your face. That’s amazing. You uplift my mood. Thanks!

Andi at

I worked in San Francisco for 10 years and lived in the Bay Area 30 – have visited these spots and I can attest they are good ones!

Patti at

I haven’t visited San Francisco in a little while. Your post makes me want to plan another trip soon. I live in LA so it should be a quick and easy trip for us.

Photo Cache at

How beautifully you have presented my city. I live across the bridge (we all are, we could not afford to live in the city) and my fave spot is Clement Street for shopping fresh produce and dining. It’s mostly locals you see over there.

Karthika at

Love all these hidden gems of SF. The painted ladies is my favorite spot in the city. I love just sitting and people watching in the park. And at sunset the house just seem to glow in that beautiful California light.

Lady Fi at

Wow – amazing and beautiful!

Andi at

It lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for close to 30 years and worked in the city over 10 and can attest that these are some great spots. I really enjoyed exploring the city by the Bay, it is pretty amazing!

Sue at

I love this! It’s always good to hunt out hidden gems. I have been to San Francisco loads of times & never saw any of these. Particularly interested to see what’s actually inside the Coit Tower & I love the look of the quirky stairs to get there. Thanks for sharing!

Jess Agostino at

This is a lovely post! San Francisco is my favorite city in the USA! 🙂


I was supposed to go to San Fransisco this week but we cancelled due to the wildfires in Oregon and California. I will love to see all of these beautiful places! San Fransisco seems like an incredible place.

Vanessa Shields at

Lovely photos and these are indeed great gems in SF! I used to spend a lot of time there and forgot how wonderful the city is. I’ll have to plan a trip back one day soon.

Kelsey L Weakly at

These are amazing places! We have a weekend getaway planned to go up to San Fran so we will totally use your reccommendations! Thanks so much!

Kaylini Naidoo at

I’m a firm believer in finding hidden gems! These look fabulous, would love to visit SF! Thanks so much for sharing!

Bob Valdez at

I would spend my Summers with uncles &aunts in the Sunset District from ’63-’67. Moved there after graduation. Here is where I left my heart. In the city of love, San Francisco.

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