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So You Think You Know San Francisco?

You’ve been to Alcatraz, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, and indulged in a Michelin feast. Now what?

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Posted 3 months agoby Theresa Gonzalez

It’s easy to understand why both locals and repeat visitors keep heading back to San Francisco’s tourism standbys: they’re extraordinary. Crissy Field offers up panoramic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Ferry Building is brimming with culinary delights, and the Painted Ladies look positively dashing on anybody’s Instagram feed.

That said, there’s something truly exhilarating about encountering something spectacular for the first time. This collection of lesser-known attractions and underappreciated experiences is designed to do just that, in settings both coastal and urban. Bring your walking shoes, an extra layer (as always), and get ready to fall in love with San Francisco all over again.

Harry Street Steps, Glen Park

San Francisco’s steep hills will get your heart beating faster, and so will the little surprises you find along its urban stairways. A climb up these 230 stairs offer city views up top and nature and architectural delights along the way. Enter at Laidley Street to ascend or Beacon Street to head down (both entrances are easy to miss; look behind the hedges). You’ll find tranquil beauty canopied by trees and a welcome respite from urban bustle.

Batteries to Bluffs Trail, Presidio

With so many urban enticements at your disposal, it’s easy to overlook San Francisco’s natural beauty. Don’t sell the coastline short: The Batteries to Bluffs Trail offers dramatic views of the Presidio’s western shoreline, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin Headlands. Enter at Lincoln Boulevard and take in the native plants and flora until you reach the Battery Crosby, a gun battery built in 1900. This connects you to Marshall’s Beach, a secluded spot where you could spot a dolphin or seal in the distance.

Balmy and Clarion Alleys, Mission District

These ever-evolving mural alleys are located about a mile apart in the Mission District and are worthy of a dedicated visit (and your Instagram followers will thank you). Balmy is the original mural alley near 24th Street and has served as a platform for artists to protest political and social injustices since the early ‘80s. The Clarion Alley Mural Project, near the more gentrified 16th, has created more than 700 murals since the early ‘90s, including the current George Floyd mural by artist Keyvan Shovir.

San Francisco Art Institute, Chestnut Street Campus

When it comes to museum options, San Francisco has an embarrassment of riches. But when was the last time you visited the San Francisco Art Institute, where artists Kehinde Wiley, Annie Leibovitz, and Kathryn Bigelow got their start? From the peaceful courtyard to the public patio with a spectacular view of Coit Tower to the adjacent Diego Rivera Gallery, there’s always something worthy on display here.

The Wave Organ, Marina District

This acoustic sculpture, located on a jetty in the Marina District, was developed in the 1980s by Exploratorium artist-in-residence Peter Richards and sculptor George Gonzalez. The crash of waves against the 25 organ pipes—which are made of PVC and concrete—creates the beautiful Wave Organ sounds, which are best heard at high tide.

Magic Flute, Laurel Village

If you’ve already made a pilgrimage to James Beard winners Tartine Bakery and B. Patisserie, it’s time to try Magic Flute. This quiet spot serves up the best cinnamon and sugar beignets—with cinnamon mascarpone whipped cream!—this side of Bourbon Street. It’s the kind of unhip place you’ll want to take your mom to (but all the while you’ll secretly soak up its unpretentious charm). A mimosa brunch is the best way to enjoy the garden setting.

Crosstown Trail

For a car-free walk through San Francisco’s diverse neighborhoods, check out this newish 17-mile trail for hikers and bikers. Pop in and out for a day of exploring new haunts and sites, including a 360-degree view of the city at Grandview Park, Stow Lake Boathouse, the Moraga 16th Avenue mosaic tiled steps, Baker Beach, and Lands End.

Home Coffee, Chinatown

Lavender lattes and mochi pastries at this modern Chinatown spot add a twist to your San Francisco coffee experience. (You can stand in line at one of the national chains, but why?) If you’re looking for a less touristy neighborhood experience, head to Home’s just-as-charming second location on Clement Street.

Salesforce Park, Downtown

Whenever you’re downtown, consider a quick detour to this elevated four-block-long public space/living roof just above Salesforce Transit Center. On the northern end, you can’t miss the 1,200-foot-tall granite sculpture “Bus Fountain” by artist Ned Kahn. Its 247 water jets create an interactive fountain triggered by the movement of buses coming and going in the transit station below. Stake your claim on a bench and read a book or play a boardgame on the grassy lawn.

Letterman Digital Arts Center, Presidio

If you’ve already explored the Palace of Fine Arts, head across the street to the headquarters for Lucasfilm, Industrial Light and Magic, and the George Lucas Educational Foundation. Tours are not available but the 17-acre property is open to the public and features a tree-filled meadow and lagoon as well as views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Star Wars fans will want a snapshot with the iconic Yoda fountain and you can head into the lobby (when open) to find props, memorabilia, costumes, and a life-sized Darth Vader statue.

Martuni’s Piano Bar, Mid-Market

If stiff drinks and showtunes are your thing, then Martuni’s—one of San Francisco’s last piano bars located on Valencia and Market—does not disappoint. Talented locals belt out Broadway and other kitschy tunes to a lively crowd, fueled no doubt by the generous pours. Order the Martuni to get things started—Bombay Sapphire gin, dry vermouth, lemon twist or olive—and if you’re feeling brave, consider upshifting to the Dragon Fruit Martini.

Before you explore, be sure to visit our Responsible Travel Hub, which includes helpful Travel Updates.

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