San Francisco is undoubtedly a popular tourist destination. Best known for its gorgeous Golden Gate Bridge, steep streets, Fisherman's Wharf, and the infamous Alcatraz, the city offers so many iconic things to see and fun things to do. But there's more to San Francisco than its most popular attractions.
A Local's Guide to The Best-Kept Secrets in San Francisco
From rooftop gardens and secret cocktail lounges to vintage arcade games and yoga classes in an Episcopal cathedral, some of the best things about my favorite city are hiding in plain sight. As a resident for over a decade, I've loved every minute of exploring every nook and cranny of the beautiful City by the Bay. Here's my local's guide to the best-kept secrets in San Francisco.
1 – Salesforce Park
The rooftop garden in downtown San Francisco sits 70 feet above the sidewalk atop the Salesforce Transit Center. At five and a half acres and the length of four city blocks, Salesforce Park is home to a lush and colorful landscape, paths perfect for strolling, and the bus fountain, a public art installation that spouts water as buses below arrive and depart.
The unique garden is also great for kids. There are grassy lawns, a climbing rope frame, a children's reading room, and board games from a cute game cart.
2 – Hamon Observation Tower
San Francisco is known for its world-renowned museums, and the de Young is one of the city's most impressive. The museum's 144-foot Hamon Observation Tower is a free observation deck with spectacular 360-degree panoramic views of San Francisco and the surrounding area. Just enter the de Young's lobby and head to the right, where you'll find an elevator. Ride it to the top and enjoy the views.
3 – Bar Nonnina
Inside Fiorella, a popular Italian restaurant in the Inner Sunset is a hidden cocktail lounge. It's intimate, dimly lit, and the perfect spot for a cocktail flight with food pairings or a fireside drink. The space is small, so reservations are a good idea, but they do accept a limited number of walk-ins each night.
To get to Bar Nonnina, walk through Fiorella, climb up the back stairs, and head left until you reach an unmarked door. Bar Nonnina is on the other side.
4 – Musee Mecanique
There are many reasons San Francisco is one of the best cities for family vacations, and Musee Mecanique is one of them. Tucked away on Pier 45 in Fisherman's Wharf, you'll find one of San Francisco’s best-kept secrets. Stepping inside is like stepping back in time.
From turn-of-the-century music boxes to vintage coin-operated fortune tellers, black and white photo booths, pinball machines, and old favorite arcade games like Pac-Man and The Simpsons, an afternoon at Musee Mecanique is one of the most unique things to do in San Francisco.
5 – The Hidden Steps on 16th Avenue
At the corner of 16th Avenue and Kirkham Street, you'll find a steep staircase decorated with beautiful mosaic tiles depicting plants, flowers, and insects. As you climb the colorful steps to the top, turn right and follow 16th Avenue until you reach another beautifully tiled staircase. This unique set allows climbers to step from the sea (at the bottom) to the stars (at the top).
If you have the stamina, turn right and find a third set of stairs. These concrete steps aren't as pretty, but they lead you to the top of Grandview Park, where the views will make your jaw drop. Witness the Pacific Ocean, the bay, and the entire city below while congratulating yourself on quite an urban climb!
6 – Sutro Baths
When the Sutro Bath House was built in 1894, it was the world's largest indoor swimming pool. After burning down in the 1960s, the remains are ruins with concrete walls, staircases, and even a hidden tunnel cave.
Set on the Pacific Ocean, the spot is still open to the public. Spend time on the beach, explore the ruins, and wander into the cave, where you'll hear waves crashing against the rocks as you walk further inside.
7 – Huntington Falls
Did you know San Francisco had a waterfall? It does, and it's beautiful. Exploring Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park is one of the best outdoor activities in San Francisco. Encircle the lake on the paved path and cross one of the two stone bridges leading to a little island. Follow the dirt trail along the island's base until you reach Huntington Falls. With staircases on each side of the water, you can climb past lush vegetation and colorful flowers, pausing to take breaks at little inlets until you reach the top.
8 – Shakespeare Garden
Looking for a quiet place to picnic or sprawl out on a blanket with a good book? Shakespeare's Gardens is the perfect spot. Never crowded, full of flowers (many of which are featured in Shakespeare's works), and plenty of shade, the immaculate garden is a quiet respite from a busy Golden Gate Park.
9 – Bourbon & Branch
A genuinely unique bar, this speakeasy is one of the best around. Step back to the 1920s, when the sale and consumption of alcohol were outlawed. For the full menu at the main bar, make reservations. But If you just want to sample a cocktail or two, the Library is open seven days a week. Just ring the buzzer and use the password “book” to be escorted to a secret spot with floor-to-ceiling, you guessed it – books.
House rules include “no cell phones,” “no photography,” and “no standing at the bar.”
10 – The Castro Theater
Built in 1922, the Castro Theater is arguably the most beautiful in San Francisco, and it's one of the few remaining movie palaces in the U.S. from the 1920s that is still in operation. With a diverse range of films, from old classics to modern hits and even sing-a-longs, guests are entertained while relaxing in lavish and historic décor.
11 – Thursday Nights at The California Academy of Sciences
Cal Academy is a fantastic museum featuring a planetarium, an aquarium, a rainforest, and natural history exhibits, all under one living roof. And on Thursday nights, the aquarium is open to 21+ to enjoy creatures with cocktails. Each week has a unique theme, DJs, live music, food, and drinks. You can peruse the museum in a completely different light – there's ambiance lighting on Thursday nights!
Don't forget to check out the museum's most famous resident: Claude, the albino alligator.
12 – Yoga at Grace Cathedral
The iconic Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill is an Episcopal cathedral with striking architecture and beautiful stained-glass windows. And while it's inspiring to visit anytime, you can join yoga classes inside the stunning building on Saturdays. Classes are set to diverse live music from around the world.
Tickets are required, and you'll need to bring your mat and any other props you might need.
All ages and abilities are welcome, and the registration fee goes to the yoga teachers, musicians, and the social justice work done by Grace Cathedral.
13 – Parrots of Telegraph Hill
The Filbert Street Steps lead you from Sansome Street to Coit Tower. You'll pass cute cottages, rose bushes, and lush gardens along the way. As you might expect, the higher you climb, the grander the views. But what you might not expect is a flock of tropical wild parrots.
First spotted in 1990, a pair of escaped cherry-headed conures settled on Telegraph Hill. Joined by more parrots, the flock continued to grow, until now, they're spotted all over the city and, most often, on Telegraph Hill.
14 – Mission Murals
The Mission District is home to gorgeous and eclectic murals. A stroll through the neighborhood displays hundreds of artworks. Clarion and Balmy Alleys and 24th Street to the east of Mission Street are great places to check out large concentrations of masterpieces.
15 – American Bison
Stroll through Golden Gate Park, and you might just find yourself face-to-face with a herd of American bison. The big, shaggy animals browse in the park's western end on John F. Kennedy Drive and have been a beloved institution since 1892.
Nicole is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. As a former professional athlete, she gravitates toward active vacations, but also loves a great luxury hotel (The Palace Hotel in San Francisco is her favorite). In addition to travel writing, Nicole has published pieces about sports, parenting, entertainment, art, technology, and law. When she's not writing, she can be found reading a good book, hiking around the Bay Area with her son, trying to train their 70 lb. puppy, or watching reruns of I Love Lucy.