United States

Around San Francisco: 8 Lesser Known Places to Visit

When visitors arrive to San Francisco, they often picture the Golden Gate Bridge and maybe also Alcatraz, yet the city has more to offer than just these locations. As I explained prior Chinatown is also an interesting location with much to offer though it is particularly popular as well among tourists. In the 5 or so times that I’ve been to the city, I haven’t exactly explored all that much aside from the waterfront but this past visit, a small break from my Peace Corps experience, I was able to see much more of the city than I usually would have. This of course had a price given that after walking around 30 miles (50 kilometers) in 2 days, my feet and legs were exhausted

1. The Piers:

After a visit to the iconic Chinatown, I headed East towards Pier 1 which still remains the hub for ferries arriving to San Francisco from across the bay area. In the early morning, hundreds if not thousands of people disembark from Pier 1, after which the offices of the Financial District are only a short walk away. Built in the 1930s, the Ferry Building’s interior is now home to a collection of food stalls for hipster foodies that want to explore the latest food or on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays a farmer’s market selling organic local food can be seen setting up just outside.

The following piers are other alternatives for ferries while some offer tours of the bay. Due to being long and skinny, Pier 7 is a popular place for fishing while Piers 15 and 17 are home to the Exploratorium which offers a hands-on opportunity to learn about science; though at a price of $30 per ticket, it may not necessarily be the most affordable thing to do.

The further north you go along the shore line, the closer you get to interesting sights such as Pier 29 where you might see a massive cruise liner waiting to depart. If you’re interested in taking a tour of Alcatraz Island, then Pier 33 is the only pier that will take you there but if you only care for a quick tour of the bay then plenty of piers are available.

Ferry Building at Pier 1
Sea lions of Pier 39

Next there is Pier 39 which offers plenty of opportunities for shopping, especially in terms of pricey souvenirs. With an aquarium being part of the centerpiece for this pier, as well as a large pack of sea lions that hang out nearby, this is one of the most recommended places to go. It’s near impossible to miss the sea lions, the fishy smell and constant barking of territorial males looking for a mate and occasionally picking fights with each other are hard to not identify, even from a considerable distance they can still be heard. It is here at Pier 39 that you can sample clam chowder served in a sourdough bowl, an iconic food of San Francisco though plenty of other restaurants around the area can also offer you the warm goodness.

2. Fisherman’s Wharf:

Eventually I walked past the piers and arrived at the old fishing district, now known as Fisherman’s Wharf. It is a place that still retains much of its fisherman heritage, with many restaurants overlooking hard-working fishermen bringing in their catch; though just down the street, large boutiques and Madame Toussade’s Wax museum can be a bit too touristy and jarring at first.

The original Fisherman’s Wharf still remains as it has since it was built on the ruins of fire from the 1906 Earthquake, faithfully carrying on the legacy of the Italian and Chinese immigrants that has shaped San Francisco and its love of the ocean. For that matter, if you’re interested in a more authentic feel when it comes to clam chowder then Fisherman’s Wharf and the restaurants of the area are an excellent alternative to the more tourist-oriented and pricey restaurants at Pier 39.

The  sign to Fisherman’s Wharf

3. Lombard Street:

From Fisherman’s Wharf, the famous twists and turns of Lombard Street are a short walk away. Designed in 1922, the 8 curves of Lombard Street was an attempt to make driving easier given that the steepness of this part of the street was too steep for the majority of cars and other vehicles. It is marketed as the “crookedest street in the world” though whether that is really the case or not is debatable. Still its unique design in a city of grid-like steep inclines makes it somewhat of a unique attraction, with some people waiting almost an hour to drive on Lombard’s curves during peak hours.

Lombard Street’s winding road

4. Diego Rivera:

Famed Mexican muralist and Marxist, Diego Rivera was somewhat of a controversial figure when he was invited to paint in the united States. As part of his works he captured the essence of everyday life while also injecting his political views into murals. At the City College of San Francisco, Rivera’s 1940 mural to Pan-American Unity remains one of the city’s most iconic and important works of art. For that matter the Diego Rivera Gallery at the San Francisco Art Institute focuses on the construction of San Francisco with immigrants and Californios (California Mexicans) being much of actual labor behind its construction. Even at Coit Tower, the murals of striking workers and labor struggle are decidedly socialist in nature and while not directly painted by Rivera, artists inspired by his work and politics created the murals as a testament to solidarity and hope for a more just world.

Diego Rivera mural at the Art Institute

5. Ghirardelli Square:

If you’re like me and have a sweet tooth, then chances are you’ve heard of Ghirardelli Chocolates. Italian-born Domenico Ghirardelli immigrated to Uruguay, Peru and finally the United States, bringing with him his talent for chocolate. Upon his arrival to san Francisco in 1849, at the onset of the California Gold Rush, his chocolates quickly became a local favorite. What is now Ghirardelli Square is the iconic red brick structure where Domenico first set up his chocolate factory in the States. While the chocolate company’s headquarters has move elsewhere since the 1960s, the square was bought and has since been renovated to preserve the history of the iconic chocolate. Upon visiting Ghirardelli Square you can visit one of the many different chocolate or ice cream shops, many of which offer varieties on the original chocolate. Howver if chocolate is not really your thing then fear not, for the area is host to over 40 different restaurants and stores to choose from.

The red brick building of Ghirardelli Square

6. El Presidio:

Walking to the West towards the Golden Gate Bridge, you will eventually hit El Presidio, a fortified hill first founded in 1776 under the rule of the Spanish Empire. Later it passed to Mexico upon independence but fell into disrepair due to instability until the United States seized control of the area. Up until 1989, the Presidio was still part of the U.S. Military but is now run by the National Park Service. From here it is possible to get a fantastic view of the Golden Gate Bridge, assuming it’s not one of those famous foggy Bay Area days.

While barracks from the olden days of military control still can be seen at the Presidio, there are new buildings around the heavily wooded area. If you look closely enough you can find  fountain with a statue of Grand Master Yoda; at first it might seem as a rather strange find given the area’s history but  in fact George Lucas won the right to develop part of the area in 1999 with Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic being headquartered here.

Yoda statue in front of Lucasarts

7. Golden Gate Park:

Further to the south of El Presidio is Golden Gate park but unlike what the name might suggest, you won’t be finding the bridge here. No, in fact Golden Gate Park is a massive park, bigger in fact than Central Park but just as full of different activities for visitors to enjoy. In its vast spaces the park hosts the De Young Museum, Academy of Sciences, a Japanese Tea Garden, Musical Concourse, Conservatory of Flowers, plenty of lakes and even an enclosure for bison.

It’s vast collection of activities are near impossible to accomplish all in one day, yet they do offer something for everyone. With trails all across a wooded area, running, cycling or taking a stroll through the grounds are all popular activities. If you have some money to spend, the exceptional collection of museums and other activities around the park are sure to offer something that you’ll enjoy.

Conservatory at Golden Gate Park

8. Painted Ladies:

By this point I had walked further than my feet would have liked but I had one more stop on my walk around the city. Almost directly east from Golden Gate Park sit the five houses known as the Painted Ladies. The architectural style of these Edwardian and Victorian houses originated in the late 1800s. In the past much of San Francisco was characterized by this style but the 1906 Earthquake did away with many of these. Today the five iconic “Painted Ladies” are just one group of several similar houses that dot San Francisco though the iconic view from the group of five near Alamo Park has been made famous for its usage in the TV show Full House as well as in post cards and film.

Painted ladies and the city skyline

As you can see, San Francisco is fairly small but it hosts plenty to do. While you’re here I recommend trying to visit some of these places as they are also part of what makes San Francisco what it is.




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