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San Francisco Ferry Building
heyengel | Adobe Stock

10 Unique Things to Do in San Francisco

San Francisco has a reputation for its vibrant neighborhoods, iconic architecture, and being a foodie’s paradise. You’ve likely heard of can’t-miss activities like Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street, riding cable cars, and getting selfies with the Golden Gate Bridge, but this Bay Area city offers many hidden gems as well.

Not only is there something unique for everyone, but many of these off-the-beaten path activities are budget-friendly—or even free! So rather than spending all your time shopping at Pier 39, check out these unique spots around San Francisco. 

Book an Architecture Tour

Evening skyline of San Francisco, painted ladies
Sergey Novikov | Adobe Stock

San Francisco wouldn’t be San Francisco without the iconic Painted Ladies showing off to the loungers and coffee drinkers at Alamo Square. Check out more unique architecture such as Victorian style homes, grand stairways, and other beautiful urban spaces in the city by booking a tour with a local architecture connoisseur. Not only will you better learn your way around the city, but you might even learn a few history tidbits that even locals don’t know. 

If architecture isn’t your thing, most tour groups offer other options, such as neighborhood specific tours or hop-on hop-off buses if you need a little extra help getting around the city.

Want an easy walk from your hotel to the Painted Ladies for some morning yoga? Check out The Grove Inn where you can appreciate cozy lodgings with a façade worthy of the architecture tour.

Glimpse the Past at the Sutro Bath Houses

Sutro Baths Ruins with a Distant House in San Francisco at Night

Read up on your history at the Sutro Baths’ visitors center. A once magnificent center for swimming and bathing, the bath houses served both the rich and the poor throughout the 20th century but were forced to close due to financial woes. Today, it is a great place to see a bit of old San Francisco history with a side of salty sea spray.

Tourists are free to explore the area, but watch your step—the ruins are not maintained and can be slippery. After exploring the ruins and tunnels, don’t miss the sweeping ocean views from the edge of the lookout that are worth the trip alone.

If you’re looking for a comfortable space next to Ocean Beach, try Rodeway Inn & Suites, a budget-friendly option just south of the Sutro Baths’ ruins.

Watch a Lion Dance Performance in Chinatown

Chinatown Dragon
Natalee | Adobe Stock

While Chinatown itself is a must-see neighborhood for first time and frequent visitors, not many get the chance to catch a Lion Dance. Commonly seen during Lunar New Year and other important festivals, San Francisco tourists can see various groups practicing or performing in the heart of Chinatown year-round. 

Weekends are the best times to see groups like LionDanceME. This group in particular currently performs at 3pm every Saturday and Sunday, but check local groups’ websites in advance for updated performance and practice times. If you happen to be in the Bay Area during July, check out the annual  Lion Dance Festival for beautiful dancing and a celebration of culture and heritage.

For nearby hotels, book comfort with modern amenities like Hilton’s San Francisco Financial District or the Grant Plaza hotel, which gives you an unbeatable location for exploring all that Chinatown has to offer.

Hilton San Francisco Financial District

Grant Plaza Hotel

Listen to the Wave Organ

The Wave Organ sign at sculpture installation pipes - San Francisco, California, USA - 2022
MichaelVi | Adobe Stock

One of San Francisco’s best kept secrets, this spot is slowly becoming a more popular stop for city visitors. The Wave Organ is a unique acoustic sculpture churning out sounds through waves hitting pipes, creating “music” from the ocean. You will find it peeking out from a jetty in the Marina District.

Go at high tide to get the best sounds while soaking in the views of the Golden Gate bridge, Alcatraz, the marina, and the downtown skyline. While you’re there, check out sailing boat tours near the jetty or bring a bite to eat on the Marina Green Picnic Area.

Located in the Marina District, the Greenwich Inn is within easy reach of many popular restaurants and just a quick drive away from the Wave Organ.

Stop by the Bison Paddock

5 Buffalo Grazing, 5 baby bison in background, San Francisco Bison Paddock
Larry Zhou | Adobe Stock

Many San Franciscan tourists are surprised when the rolling landscape of golf courses gives way to an open field of calm, grazing American Bison. An odd sight in the middle of such a busy city, the bison of Golden Gate Park are definitely worth making a stop.

Not native to San Francisco and originally placed there as a conservation project in 1891, the bison have now become a staple in the park. Though the tricky creatures have made a few escape attempts in the past, rest assured that the fencing has gone through extensive updates over the years, giving you a safe view of the bison grazing and lounging in the large paddock.

Although hotel options near the park are not as plentiful as they are downtown, the Monte Cristo Bed and Breakfast is barely over a mile away from Golden Gate Park and offers highly-rated accommodations with complimentary breakfast.

Book an Alcatraz Prison Night Tour

Alcatraz jail in San Francisco
kropic | Adobe Stock

Yes, Alcatraz is not the most off-the-beaten path activity in San Francisco, but most tourists flock to the prison during the day, giving you a chance for a unique experience by booking a night tour. In addition to fewer crowds, the views of the sunset and city skyline from your tour boat can’t be beat.

Advantages of coming during the evening include access to the creepy hospital wing of Alcatraz, which isn’t open to daytime tours. Stay as long as you want exploring the various sections of the prison, just don’t miss the last ferry back!

Many boat tours of Alcatraz Prison leave from Pier 33, so book a stay at nearby Washington Square Inn. Established in 1910, this beautiful boutique hotel is also only a 10-minute walk to Coit Tower and the sea lions on Pier 39.

Stroll the Grounds of the Palace of Fine Arts

Palace of fine Arts in San Francisco
Andy | Adobe Stock

Like Alcatraz, this ethereal structure is not exactly a hidden gem, but it’s nighttime beauty is often overlooked by tourists who only stop by during the day. Avoid the crowds by exploring the museum later in the day, then stick around  to catch a colorful sunset surrounded by the Roman inspired rotunda and columns. Stay as it gets dark to have the grounds all to yourself and gaze at the lights reflecting off the water.

Only a few blocks away from the Palace of Fine Arts (and even closer to the Presidio of San Francisco), the Inn at Golden Gate offers comfortable, private rooms with friendly, attentive staff.

Relax at the Japanese Tea Gardens

Beautiful pagodas in the Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco
Olga | Adobe Stock

Although growing in popularity and known to have crowds as the day goes on, this spot earns the title of hidden gem because it really is quite hidden. Tucked in the middle of Golden Gate Park, this serene sanctuary can give you a break from the noise of the City by the Bay. Five acres of gardens, koi ponds, waterfalls, and Instagram-worthy bridges will help you get some quiet time in between sightseeing.

You can easily spend an hour or two here just wandering the gardens and getting tea; more if you are a plant lover and want to spend a little extra time admiring the native Japanese plants.

For a hotel with character and sunny rooms, look no further than the Stanyan Park Hotel. Located just across the street from Golden Gate Park, guests can take a morning walk through the park or explore the highly-rated restaurants nearby.

Book a Chocolate Tasting Tour

San Francisco, CA / USA - August 05, 2022: Building of the old Ghirardelli chocolate factory in San Francisco, today the Ghirardelli Square.
Gilberto Mesquita | Adobe Stock

Ghirardelli Square is what often comes to mind when coupling chocolate with San Francisco; however, a Dandelion Chocolate Factory tour is the way to go if you want to see the bean-to-bar process and sample some of the best chocolate the Golden City has to offer. In addition to the factory tour, Dandelion also offers chocolate-making classes, giving you a chance to get hands-on experience creating treats to take home with you.

The historic brick building on 16th Street also hosts a café in case you want to try their famous frozen hot chocolate or grab some pastries to bring back to your hotel for a late-night snack…if you can resist that long!

Don’t miss the Inn San Francisco if you want to be within walking distance to the factory and also near the dazzling murals of the Mission District. This Victorian mansion turned bed & breakfast will be sure to charm you with its cozy rooms and rooftop terrace.

Take in the Views at Battery Spencer

Battery Spencer San Francisco
Alonso Reyes | Adobe Stock

One of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge is from this abandoned defense point and the nearby hills. Many tourists head to Fort Point for their dose of military history and photo-worthy shots of the Bridge, but the viewpoint from here will stick with you long after your trip has ended.

Although the lookout itself tends to have a constant flow of cars coming by for the view, take your time checking out Battery Spencer and imagine the former gunners watching for enemy ships attempting to enter the harbor. Although there’s a chance that fog may block your view of the city, you are sure to get some amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

If you are looking for a more luxurious stay in San Francisco, experience the high-end accommodations and breathtaking views at Cavallo Point. Enjoy exceptional spa services and fine dining during your visit as well.

Book Your Stay With SmarterTravel Hotels

Find the best San Francisco hotels at the lowest prices by booking on SmarterTravel Hotels.

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