A Local’s Guide to the Best Hidden Gems in San Francisco

As my bucket list for San Francisco keeps growing, so does my desire to uncover all the unique and hidden gems this city has to offer.

We’ve covered all of the usual most popular things to do in San Francisco: Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz, and Lombard Street. And after peeling back the touristy layer, we’ve found there are so many more unique things to do in the SF.

San Francisco is a vibrant, quirky city with so many different neighborhoods begging to be explored. So you can guess that there’s no shortage of cool places and secret gems hiding in every corner. And after being a part-time residents of the gorgeous city for 5 years, we’ve had lots of time to explore off-the-beaten path hidden gems that we might otherwise have missed!

If you’re ready to go a little deeper too, here are the best hidden gems (that are actually not so secret!) in beautiful San Francisco!

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links, which may reward us with a small commission (at no cost to you) if you click them. Thanks for supporting the blog in this way!

pin it for later:

Evelyn standing on a log in The Presidio, San Francisco
Looking down a clearing in a wooded forest with a zig zag trail made of fallen logs in The Presidio, San Francisco

1  |  Andy Goldworthy’s Wood Line

As a city that was built on free thinkers and artists, there’s no shortage of unique things to do in San Francisco. And one such example of the best hidden gems in San Francisco can be found in the Presidio.

“Lover’s Lane” is the name given to the paved trail that leads you from the southeast corner of the Presidio on in. But what you actually want to seek out is Andy Goldsworthy’s ‘Wood Line’: an art installation that runs adjacent to the paved path. Here you’ll walk among the giant grove eucalyptus and cypress trees, balancing on eucalyptus branches that zig zag back and forth to a seemingly unknown destination.

Where to Find this San Francisco Hidden Gem

While public transportation is good for the more touristy areas, reaching the hidden gems of San Francisco without a car can be a little more challenging. If you do decide to rent a car, we like using RentalCars.com for their competitive low prices and flexible cancellation policies.

To reach Lover’s Lane, start near the corner of Pacific Avenue and Presidio Boulevard in the Presidio. You’ll find Lover’s Lane is clearly marked, but take a few steps to the east and you can’t miss the Wood Line. If you can, snag a parking spot at the tiny lot along Pacific Avenue, or walk in from the neighboring area outside the park.

Looking down a busy street in Chinatown, San Francisco
A tea pot, steamed pork buns, and potstickers at Great Eastern Restaurant, a traditional Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, San Francisco
Great Eastern Restaurant, a traditional Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, San Francisco

2  |  Great Eastern Restaurant

So you want to eat in Chinatown, but you also want to have a meal that doesn’t suck and cater to tourists?

Head to Great Eastern Restaurant. This restaurant is a favorite non-touristy gem among locals and even served President Obama once during his presidency.

Their dim sum is totally authentic, which you’ll see when you find yourselves surrounded by Chinese families at nearly every other table. But they make things easy for first timer’s too, and you won’t leave disappointed.

Where to Find this San Francisco Hidden Gem

Among the hundreds of touristy restaurants in Chinatown, it can be hard to know which to pick. Instead of wandering, head straight to Great Eastern at 649 Jackson Street. Those using public transportation can reach Chinatown from the nearby California cable car line, or by walking in from either the Embarcadero or Union Square.

Laura’s Tip: While in Chinatown, stop at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory tucked inside Ross Alley to watch the little old ladies making handmade fortune cookies in their tiny shop.

Point Bonita, a peninsula jutting into the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco, CA.
Point Bonita Lighthouse, a small white lighthouse perched on a narrow peninsula, San Francisco, CA.

3 | Point Bonita Lighthouse

On the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge are the Marin Headlands, a true gem you most definitely don’t want to miss when visiting San Francisco. This is where you’ll find the Muir Woods, Mt. Tamalpais and the Bay Area Discovery Museum.

For postcard views of the Golden Gate Bridge, most people will stop at Battery Spencer. But parking is extremely limited and with the overabundance of tourists that come here, an absolute nightmare.

Instead, for a more relaxed experience, take in the natural beauty and scenic views of the Marin Headlands at Point Bonita Lighthouse. This secret spot is home to the third lighthouse built on the West Coast and is still operating today. A relatively easy .5 mile trail will lead you to the lighthouse.

To visit this hidden gem, be sure to plan ahead. The lighthouse itself (accessible via a tunnel and suspension bridge) is only open from May through August, Friday to Monday, between 12:30-3:30 pm. Or, you can join a sunset tour led by a ranger for a guided hike to the lighthouse (tickets are required).

How to Get to this San Francisco Hidden Gem

Take the drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, taking the first exit (after the viewpoint) at Alexander Avenue. Take a right on Alexander and then a quick left onto Bunker Road. Follow this road for 4 miles until you reach the Bonita Point Trailhead and parking lot. (I would not recommend visiting this area without a car as it is quite remote).

An arched bridge in Swan Lake, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Fallen tree branches in Swan Lake, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Stow Lake Boathouse, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

4  |  Stow Lake Boathouse

For another unique experience in San Francisco, head to Golden Gate Park. Inside, Stow Lake is a not-so-hidden gem that offers a quiet escape from the big city. 

We loved renting a little row boat from Stow Lake Boathouse for a journey around Stow Lake that took us nearly the full hour’s rental time. Adventurous families should add in a hike to the top of Strawberry Hill, which sits at the center of the lake. Both are cool spots in San Francisco not to be missed.

Where to Find this San Francisco Hidden Gem

Stow Lake is located right in the middle of Golden Gate Park, with the boathouse being on the north end of the lake. There is a small parking lot at the boathouse, which also has a small cafe inside.

Stop Overpaying for Flights!

We use Going to help us find the cheapest flights to anywhere in the world, domestic and international. Trust me, the premium membership easily pays for itself after one cheap flight booking!

Evelyn climbing the mosaic steps of the 16th Avenue tiled staircase, San Francisco
Looking up at the mosaics tiles of the 16th Avenue tiled staircase, San Francisco

5  |  16th Avenue Tiled Steps

I’ve written about the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps before, but they bear mentioning again because they’re such a unique work of art! This time we arrived on a gorgeous, sunny day, and Evelyn was determined to climb all 365 of the mosaic steps commissioned by the neighborhood’s local residents. For a fun photo op and great views of Ocean Beach and Outer Sunset, it’s one of the best hidden gems in San Francisco.

Where to Find this San Francisco Hidden Gem

Park in the neighborhood near the bottom of the steps near Moraga Street and Lomita Avenue. Be sure not to leave any valuables in your car, as car thefts are thick in this area.

Once you reach the top, you can go up even further to Grandview Park for vast views over the city. Public transportation users can hop off the MUNI at 16th & Judah for a quick walk over to the steps.

Download our free travel planning bundle!

Thanks for being a subscriber!

PS. You can also find this and all of our printable family travel planning tools exclusively for subscribers in our free resource library.

A collection of concrete formations jut into the bay making up a wave organ, San Francisco
Evelyn looks into a pipe of the wave organ, San Francisco

6  |  The Wave Organ

Add this to your list of unusal things to do in San Franciso.

Developed by artists for the Exploratorium, the Wave Organ creates amplified ocean sounds using a series of pipes that vent out to the Pacific Ocean. Coming at high tide is supposed to be the best time to hear sounds from the organ (check here for upcoming tide information). 

Sadly all we heard was a few “gurgles” and “gluggs”, but what I really loved about the place was the location out on a jetty into the bay. We were surrounded on all sides by lovely San Francisco views: Alcatraz Island, the Marina, the downtown skyline, and of course, the Golden Gate Bridge standing tall in the morning sun. 

If anything, it’s worth making the trip off the beaten path for the breathtaking views alone.

Where to Find this San Francisco Hidden Gem

A car or Uber will make getting to the Wave Organ much easier. Park in the lot near the St. Francis Yacht Club and walk right along the jetty from there. For those taking public transportation, your best bet will be the #30 bus that stops near Crissy Field.

READ MORE: The Best of San Francisco in 48 Hours

A red pagoda towers through the trees of the Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco
Matt and Evelyn stand on the drum bridge in the Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco
Evelyn watches koi fish under a bridge in the Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco

7  |  Japanese Tea Garden

Another quiet, hidden spot in an otherwise bustling city, the Japanese Tea Garden is a nice escape for early mornings before visiting bigger giants in Golden Gate Park like the De Young Museum or the California Academy of Sciences. 

The Japenese Tea Garden sits on 5 acres of carefully curated land, originally designed to showcase a “Japanese village” for the 1894 California Mid-Winter Exposition. Over time, the village evolved into a full garden with lush greenery, koi ponds, a waterfall, Japanese pagodas, and even a small tea house. The drum bridge, in particular, is a cool spot for a unique photo op.

Where to Find this San Francisco Hidden Gem

By car, come early before the big museums of Golden Gate Park open and you’ll be able to snag a free parking spot along Martin Luther King Drive. If that’s not an option, there is a parking garage under the California Academy of Sciences.

Alternatively, take the Judah MUNI line to Outer Sunset, hop off at Irving and 9th, and walk into the park.

Laura’s Tip: While in Golden Gate Park, don’t forget to check out some other hidden gems, like the Bison Paddock or Murphy Dutch Windmill on the western end of the park.

A winding road leads up to a viewpoint at Twin Peaks, San Francisco, CA.

8 | Twin Peaks

The second highest point in San Francisco, Twin Peaks is one of San Francisco’s most iconic landmarks, offering 360 degree views of the city. While both peaks offer stunning views, you’ll have the best vantage point by taking the short climb up to the north peak where you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of downtown San Francisco and the city skyline. Of course, you’ll need to be mindful of San Francisco’s trademark fog: this is one spot you’ll want to save for a sunny day.

The area surrounding Twin Peaks is also home to a 64 acre park with loads of established trails for exploring San Francisco’s grassy hills. For a short (but moderately difficult) hike, head south on the 1.8 mile Creek to Peaks Trail through Glen Canyon.

Where to Find this San Francisco Hidden Gem

There is a small parking lot at Christmas Tree Point (as well as plenty of street parking) if you’ll be driving to Twin Peaks. If you’re without a car, take MUNI line 37 or 48 and hike your way up.

Fences and garages painted with colorful murals in Balmy Alley, The Mission, San Francisco
Hidden Gems of San Francisco: A mural depicting immigrant workers on a wooden fence in Balmy Alley
Matt looking at the mural in Balmy Alley, a San Francisco secret gem

9  |  Balmy Alley

The Mission neighborhood is filled with many of the best hidden gems in San Francisco. It’s a unique neighborhood bursting with street art. and many will make their way to the colorful Clarion Alley in the heart of the Mission to experience it.

However, most miss its sister alley and hidden gem Balmy Alley, which is a little more off-the-beaten path but still just as impressive. It’s a must-visit destination for the art enthusiast.

Along Balmy Alley, local street artists have used every canvas available to them, whether it be the sides of buildings, garage doors, or wooden fences that line the properties behind them. Take a guided tour with Precita Eyes Mural Arts, and you’ll learn even more about the stories the artists tell through their works of art.

READ MORE: Mission District Walking Tour in San Francisco

Where to Find this San Francisco Hidden Gem

Take the BART and exit at 24th & Mission. Then head east to Balmy Street between 24th and 25th Streets. Street parking can be tough in the Mission, but you might have some luck south of 25th street where the area becomes more residential.

TOP RATED TOURS

mission district, san francisco

Matt hiking Lands End Trail with Evelyn on his shoulders
San Francisco coastline along Lands End Trail
Lands End Labyrinth rock formation, a hidden gem in San Francisco, CA.

10  |  Hike to Lands End

For another off the beaten path experience with spectacular views, head to the far western edge of the city.

The scenic hike to Lands End is full of ups and downs, making it moderately difficult. But I can easily say it’s my favorite hike in the Bay Area and one of the best things to do in the San Francisco.

Unfortunately Lands End Labyrith, a rock formation that used to be located at the end of the trail, is no longer there. But this hike is still worth it for the beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge and surrounding scenery you would never picture in an urban city like San Francisco!

Where to Find this San Francisco Hidden Gem

Start your journey at Eagles Point near 32nd Avenue and El Camino del Mar. You can find parking along the golf course on Lincoln Highway.

The #1 bus will get you close to the area if you’re relying on public transportation, but being on the far reaches of SF, this is a journey best left to a cab or Uber.

Follow the Lands End Trail along the coast until you reach a right turn towards Mile Rock Beach. Keep going down that trail, just before you hit the beach, and then turn right up a small dirt path to a wonderful viewing area.

Concrete ruins filled with water overlooking the ocean in San Francisco, CA.
A huge camera, with the words "Camera Obscura and Holograph Gallery", overlooking the ocean in San Francisco, CA.

11 | Sutro Baths & Camera Obscura

Not far from Lands End, you’ll find another secret San Francisco spot that’s well-known among locals. On the far northern end of Ocean Beach, the Sutro Baths were once a fashionable social gathering point featuring a public bathhouse with seven saltwater swimming pools perched along the cliff. Now in ruins, they’re a popular spot for exploring this bit of San Francisco history from the early 1900s.

After exploring the Sutro Bath ruins, head south to Camera Obscura. Literally meaning “dark room”, this rare device produces magnified 360 degree images of the Seal Rocks and surrounding Pacific Ocean. The camera is open from 11 am to 5 pm on clear days.

Where to Find this San Francisco Hidden Gem

Visitors traveling by car can park at the Lands End Main Parking Lot and follow the trail down to the baths (you honestly can’t miss them). Then follow the trail back to Point Lobos Avenue when you’ll find the Camera Obscura tucked behind the Cliff House. 

If you don’t have a car, Uber or Lyft will be your best bet. You can access the area by public transportation (#31 or #38 bus lines), but it’s quite a long journey from downtown San Francisco. 

The view from Angel Island in San Francisco, CA.

12 | Angel Island State Park

Often overlooked by tourists, Angel Island is truly a hidden gem in the San Francisco Bay Area as the area’s largest uninhabited island. The island, just under 4 miles off the coast of San Francisco, is the perfect place to find a peaceful retreat away from the city offering some of the best views, hiking trails, and a rich history.

A sort of “Ellis Island of the West”, from 1910 to 1940 Angel Island was used as a processing point for hundreds of thousands of immigrants coming from Asia. You can still visit the immigration station and immigration museum during limited hours from Wednesday through Sunday.

Hiking and biking are popular on Angel Island, with 13 miles of trails and 9 miles of roadways, and a number of camping sites and picnic areas also dot the island.

Where to Find this San Francisco Hidden Gem

Angel Island is accessible via the Golden Gate Ferry, departing daily from the San Francisco Ferry Building. Be sure to check the current timetables here (during the winter months, ferry service is limited).

An animatronic sailor at Musee Mecanique in San Francisco, CA.
A row of vintage coin-operated machines at Musee Mecanique in San Francisco, CA.

13 | Musee Mecanique

A list of San Francisco’s hidden gems wouldn’t be complete without including the Musee Mecanique. This quirky spot, located just steps away from Fisherman’s Wharf, is a unique experience not to be missed.

With over 300 coin-operated games and instruments, these mechanical antiques are not just to be looked at, they’re for playing too! From fortune tellers to pinball machines and everything in between, be sure to include Musee Mecanique on your list of things to do in San Francisco with kids.

Where to Find this San Francisco Hidden Gem

Located just off Fisherman’s Wharf on Pier 45, hop off the F streetcar MUNI at Jefferson & Powell.

With a vibrant city like San Francisco, I’m sure we’ll have plenty more hidden gems to uncover in the future.

Have you been to these secret spots? What are some of your favorites?

xo laura

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *