San Francisco Hidden Gems – The Other Places to See

categories: Northern California

San Francisco at sunset

San Francisco has many well-known sites that are worth a visit including the Golden Gate Bridge, Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, Coit Tower, Oracle Park, and Lombard Street. But did you know it also has some odd factories, museums, markets, parks, and oddities? Here are some of the best of San Francisco’s hidden gems.

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Did you know that the fortune cookie was created in San Francisco? Don’t listen to the people who say it was invented in Los Angeles. There is still a small fortune cookie factory in Chinatown: the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Now the word “factory” may bring up the wrong picture in your head. This small business located off an alley in Chinatown is not for the claustrophobic. It has room for two fortune cookie making stations, a woman who takes the money for cookies or pictures (taking a picture costs $1) and about 6 customers. Golden Gate Fortune Cookie FactoryIt is interesting watching the process of the cookies being made. A machine creates a series of circular cookies. A worker then grabs a fortune and folds the still-warm cookie over a metal bar.

The factory is between Grant and Stockton. Grant Avenue is where most people go to in Chinatown, but the heart of the real Chinatown is a block to the west on Stockton Street. On Stockton, you will find food markets selling live turtles, live fish, and vegetables that you might not normally see at your local corner grocery. So next time you are in Chinatown get off the beaten path. Try a fresh cookie or a bean pastry filled pasty from a local bakery. We all enjoyed a visit although there were some differences of opinion between my wife and me about how good a fortune “a new pair of shoes will do you a world of good” is.

Cable Car Barn and Museum

Cable Car Barn and Museum – Nob Hill

Did you know that a cable car does not have a motor? Each of the cars has a “grip” which is, in essence, a very large pair of pliers. The cars move because the grip man uses the grip to grab onto the cable which moves at a steady 9.5 miles per hour. What keeps the cable moving are some very large GE motors and these are in the Cable Car Barn and Museum.

Cable Car Barn and Museum

Just down the hill from Grace Cathedral on the top of Nob Hill is the place where the cable car lines cross and this is where you can find the Cable Car Barn and Museum. This is a free museum which is great for nerds like me who like to know how things work.

You can watch videos that show what the signs on the cable car line mean. Some signal the gripman to let go of the cable and drift through an intersection because they are about to cross another line. Watch other videos that show the history of the cable cars. Come to the museum before you take your cable car journey.

Comic Art Museum – Fisherman’s Wharf

San Francisco has a number of better-known museums like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, de Young Fine Art Museum, and the Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum. But one of my favorite art museums is a little more niche. We took our kids there when they were in elementary school and I still have fond memories of the museum, but especially the classes. Check out the calendar for classes like cartooning, RPG character drawing and summer cartoon camp.

The museum was founded in 1984 and has expanded from the days when we first visited. Its current convenient location is right next to Ghiradelli Square. If you want to see Rodin sculptures go to the Legion of Honor. If you love weird modern art visit the de Young or the MOMA, but if your favorite artist is Bill Waterson, then check out the Comic Art Museum.

  • Museum Hours: 11 am to 5 pm daily, CLOSED Wednesdays
  • Admission: Adults – $10, Students/Senior/Military/Educator (with valid ID) – $6, Kids (6-12) – $4
  • The first Tuesday of every month is Pay What You Wish Day.

Golden Gate Park

Buffalo in Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park has some well-known highlights like the Japanese Tea Garden and the wonderful California Academy of Sciences museum. But did you know that Golden Gate Park has a buffalo (ok technically bison) herd?  Right next to Spreckels Lake is a paddock with American bison. While the park first got bison in 1890, the current herd only dates back to 1984. California’s Senator Diane Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco in 1984 and for her birthday her husband gave her a bunch of bison. While I do have to wonder if this was a massive miscommunication between the Feinsteins, San Francisco is better off for the gift. So if you don’t have time to get to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming or Custer State Park in South Dakota, you can still see these majestic animals.

Don’t imagine that this is a petting zoo. Bison deserve to be given some distance. They can run up to 30 mph and weigh a ton.

Hyde Street Pier

Hyde Street Pier

One gem that you can find in San Francisco isn’t hidden that far away from places that most tourists get to and that’s the Hyde Street pier. The Hyde Street pier is part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park and it sits right next to Fisherman’s Wharf and just across the lawn from Ghirardelli Square but is often ignored by tourists. Within the Hyde Street Pier, you can find many historic ships including square-rigged sailing ships, a steam tug, and a  paddle wheeler tug.

The Hyde Street Pier is open seven days a week from 9:30 am to 5 pm but you need to arrive by 4:30 pm if you want to buy an entrance ticket to the historic ships.

For many tourists the area around Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf.

USS Pampanito (SS-383)

Near the Hyde Street Pier but not part of it is the USS Pampanito which is a WW II era submarine that saw action in the Pacific during the war. If you are a fan of such things touring the close quarters of a submarine can be a great, if claustrophobic, experience. The Pampanito is mored at pier 45 right behind Fisherman’s Wharf. It is declared as a national historic landmark. As with the Hyde Street Pier ships, they are also educational and overnight programs for school kids on the Pampanito.  The Pampanito is open from 9 am to 6 pm Sunday through Thursdays and open until 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets for adults are $20 in tickets for youth (ages 5 to 13) are $10.

Ferry Building San Francisco

Ferry Building Market

The San Francisco ferry building, at the end of Market Street, used to be one of the busiest ferry terminalS in the world before the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge. You can still hop on a ferry at the ferry building, but many people these days just come for the food shops that have breathed new life into this classic San Francisco landmark.

Angel Island

Angel Island is a California state park with some of the best views of San Francisco. This island was mentioned by the author Richard Henry Dana Jr in his book “2 Years Before The Mast” as a wooded island in San Francisco Bay. Dana visited the island in the 1930s but the island is still wooded today. There are a number of cycling and hiking trails.

The island is also a significant historic spot as it used to function as the Ellis island on the west coast. You can still see the ruins of the old Angel Island Immigration Station in the northeast corner of the island.

You can get to Angel Island by ferry either from San Francisco (pier 41) or from Tiburon near Sausalito.

Wave Organ

The Wave Organ

At the end of a breakwater that protects the Marina, you will find what may be one of the strangest science projects since the potato clock – the Wave Organ. The Wave Organ plays “music” or at least sound through tubes that extend out into the bay. It is best to visit on a day with some wave action. This project was created by one of the designers at the Exploritorium museum and was designed to look like the ruins of an ancient civilization.

Labyrinth Nob Hill

Grace Cathedral Labyrinths – Nob Hill

Grace Cathedral holds two surprises that are popular with tourists. Both inside and outside of the cathedral you will find a labyrinth that you can walk while you meditate. Don’t worry if you get lost in thought because you cannot get lost in a labyrinth. Unlike a maze, there is only one very twisty path. Just keep going and you will come out the other side.

City Lights Bookstore

If writers like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S Burroughs are still haunting San Francisco you would expect to find them in the City Lights Bookstore which was the epicenter of the Beat Generation culture in San Francisco. This iconic bookstore is independent in so many ways and you are still not likely to confuse it with your local Barnes and Noble. If you love books City Lights is one of two particularly great independent book stores in San Francisco. The second would be the sprawling Green Apple Books in the Richmond District. City Lights is in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid at 261 Columbus Avenue at Broadway.

Clement Street Restaurants

Unlike City Lights, the Green Apple Bookstore I mentioned above is not in an area frequented by tourists. The Richmond District is in the west side of town between Golden Gate Park and the Presidio. It is a residential neighborhood but it is also the home to some of San Francisco’s best ethnic food.

San Francisco has many great ethnic restaurants and many great neighborhoods. For Mexican and a burrito, visit the Mission District. For Chinese, visit Chinatown. For Italian, visit North Beach. But for a great mix of cuisines from Burmese to Vietnamese to sushi to hot pot, take a trip to Clement Street.

San Francisco

Fort Mason

Right next to fisherman’s wharf is a little patch of greenery that used to be a US Army base called Fort Mason. Fort Mason is now part of the National Park system and is the headquarters for both the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. It has a center for Arts & Culture at the Fort Mason Center. It has a farmer’s market every Sunday and it has a hostel with million-dollar views of the bay, all within an easy walk (uphill) from Fisherman’s Wharf.


Marin Headlands and Baker Beach

Marin Headlands

Just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge is a large area of open space that is the Marin headlands. It is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It offers a beach and numerous hikes. In the Marin headlands, you’ll find an old army base that has been turned has been repurposed. One of the old officers’ quarters is now a hostel and some of the other military housing is the upscale Cavallo Point hotel. You can also find the remains of America’s last line of defense against nuclear attack from the Cold War. You can find rescued animals at the Marine Mammal Center and some of the best views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge

Hidden Gems - The Other Places to See | What to do in San Francisco | Places to see in San Francisco #travel #trip #vacation #california #sf #san-francisco #museum #park #food Hidden Gems - The Other Places to See | What to do in San Francisco | Places to see in San Francisco #travel #trip #vacation #california #sf #san-francisco #museum #park #food

Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won numerous awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine. He move to California in 1964.

2 Responses to “San Francisco Hidden Gems – The Other Places to See”

Wayne Skigen


How about Jack Early Park?

Chris Christensen


I have been going to SF for 50+ years and I don’t think I have ever been to Jack Early Park Wayne. Thanks! I will check it out.

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