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.”
Directly 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.
Coit Tower Art
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.
Check this website for more information about hours and tickets to take the elevator to the top of the tower.
The Filbert Stairs
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.
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.
The 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.
The City Lights Booksellers and Publishers
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.
You’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.
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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. 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.
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