Ultimate Offbeat Guide to San Francisco
Macabre museums, and a real herd of buffalo wandering the city!
San Francisco has long been considered a safe haven for outsiders of all sorts, so it should be no surprise that when it comes to offbeat attractions, the Golden Gate City is hard to beat. In fact, there’s so much weird stuff to do in San Francisco that it can be a little daunting wondering just where to begin your adventures into the odd. This Ultimate Offbeat Guide to San Francisco will have you navigating the stranger side of the city like an old pro.
Audium-Theatre of Sound-Sculptured Space
The Audium-Theatre of Sound-Sculptured Space is the only theater on earth made to give the listener an experience that is totally sound-specific. Every Friday and Sunday night, listeners are plunged into darkness and treated to “sound sculptures” from the theatre’s 169 speakers, which create compositions that are totally immersive and can actually produce drug-like side effects.
Tip: Book your tickets online and show up early enough to choose good seats. The closer to the middle you sit, the trippier your experience will be.
Red Door Cafe
The brunch here is only available Thursday through Monday, and even then it’s only open for a few hours each day, and there is a bevy of rules that must be followed before you are granted entrance, but it’s worth it to enjoy a meal at this quirky restaurant. Once AD, the drag queen hostess with the mostest, approves you for entrance (just be cool and open minded), you’ll be handed a creepy doll to hold instead of taking a number. I won’t mention the names of the dishes here, because they’re definitely not PG (the decor inside is not PG either), but rest assured that the French toast, breakfast burrito, and breakfast sandwiches are all well worth the effort. Plus, this place is super vegan-friendly! Just remember, “No angry, entitled and Alpha spoilt mama’s boys or angry-cheerleader wannabe girls.”
USA Hostel’s San Francisco location is constantly ranked as one of the best in the country, and for good reason. Just a ten minuteten-minute walk to Union Square, it makes a great base for your offbeat adventures. They also offer lots of in-house perks like karaoke, pool tournaments, and even pub crawls!
Tip: Bring your own lock for the in-room storage lockers. They’re equipped with electrical sockets so you can make sure all your gadgets are fully charged while you explore the city.
This strange-looking building near the Cliff House restaurant overlooking Ocean Beach may be totally dark inside – but from within, it gives visitors a one-of-a-kind view. It’s actually an enormous camera obscura, one of only a few in the world of its kind.
Tip: While the views are awesome any time (well worth the $3 admission), the best time to visit this retro roadside attraction is, of course, sunset. You get an awesome view of nearby landmarks like the ruins of the Sutro Baths in a better-than-1080p-resolution. It’s definitely one of those things that needs to be seen to be understood – or to be believed!
Looking at the abandoned ruins of the Sutro Baths outside San Francisco, it’s almost impossible to comprehend that they were once part of the world’s largest indoor swimming establishment, boasting 7 massive pools that could hold up to ten thousand happy bathers. Now, only a few stone walls and pillars remain. The ruins of the building, which burned down, remained abandoned until 1980, when the National Parks Service saved the land from being developed. Nowadays you can visit what little is left of the huge glass structure. Although it’s nothing compared to what it once was, the misty (and mysterious) beach is absolutely stunning.
Tip: If you’re brave, be sure to explore the tunnel that once likely housed the pump – but be warned; there are rumors that souls have been sacrificed inside, and bringing a lit candle into the tunnel at night will summon them. Despite the total and complete creepiness of that legend, the view from within the tunnel, especially when the waves roll right up to the edge, can’t be beat.
You might find this hard to believe, but there’s actually a herd of buffalo roaming around in the middle of San Francisco. Located at the western end of Golden Gate Park, next to Spreckels Lake, you can come face-to-face with living history. The bison herd has been a beloved part of the park since the 1890s, even if the big guys are a little out of place nowadays.
Tip: The bison paddock is free to visit, but bring binoculars – they can be a little shy sometimes.
The Dinner Detective, San Francisco
One part dinner, one part interactive show, The Dinner Detective has become one of the city’s most favorite events. What makes Dinner Detective better than other similar productions is the fact that it’s set in the current time, so you won’t have to look past cheesy costumes and weird scripts to enjoy the show. The Hollywood, New York, and Chicago trained actors blend in with the rest of the diners, so guests have no idea who is part of the show… until they die. You’ll have to solve the crime to find out who the killer is before you’re the last man standing. Winners get prizes and, most importantly, big time bragging rights!
Tips: The tickets can seem a bit pricy (roughly $150 for two tickets), but you’ll get dinner, desert, and a show out of the deal, which makes it about the same price as a dinner and movie date night. The whole experience lasts about three hours. Sorry kids, due to the nature of the show, no one under fifteen is admitted.
At the world-famous AsiaSF, guests are led into into the theater by the beautiful “Ladies of AsiaSF”, who serve you a delicious 3-star Cal-Asian fusion meal before taking to the stage for a number of jaw-dropping performances. Oh yeah, and every single performer is transgender!
Tip: After the performances, head downstairs and get your groove on at the hidden club, where the DJ spins until 2AM.
Often described as “Martha Stewart meets David Lynch”, Paxton Gate might just be the weirdest store in San Francisco. An eclectic cross between a nature supply shop and a curio cabinet, Paxton Gate is the perfect place to grab a bleached raccoon skull and a handful of glass eyeballs. Everything you find in the odd little shop is for sale, but you might have trouble mistaking the place for a natural history museum – don’t be surprised if you spend an hour or more poking around the nooks and crannies of Paxton Gate.
Tip: Got kids with you? Head a few doors down to check out their sister store “Curiosities for Kids”, where they can pick up a plush post-dissection frog instead of the real thing.
Foreign Cinema, named one of San Francisco’s “Top 100” for two decades, emphasizes an outdoor dining experience where you can dig in to some of the best seafood in the city while watching your favorite films – like “The Goonies”, for example – as they’re displayed on the former warehouse’s massive wall.
Tip: Call ahead and make your reservations: trust us, you don’t want to miss out on the show.
Heinold’s First and Last Chance
Originally opened in 1883 as the J.M. Heinold’s Saloon, Heinold’s First and Last Chance looks nearly the same as it did over a century ago, making it a must stop for any Bay Area road trip. Originally built from the remains of an old whaling ship, this old saloon has served as watering hole for all kinds of writers and adventurers, and get this: it’s even supposed to be haunted!
Tip: Don’t expect a huge selection here. There’s only six beers on tap and a few bottled drinks, but it’s enough to get the job done while you take in the scenery… that’s why you’re here.
Cartoon Art Museum
With over 6,000 original pieces of art from the world of animation and illustration, The Cartoon Art Museum will keep you busy for at least a couple hours as you explore their research library and five galleries. Today the CAM is the only museum in the western USA dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of cartoon art in all its forms.
Tip: Check their museum schedule before you plan your visit, because they regularly host book signings, workshops for aspiring cartoonists, and lectures where fans come together to geek out while learning about the craft.
Surrounded by loads of shops, restaurants, and the awesome Japantown neighborhood, the Hotel Tomo is a super fun alternative for someone looking to stay somewhere a little… different. Your room will likely be decorated with Godzilla toys, kawaii artwork, bright and cheerful colors, and televisions that play nothing but anime all day long. It’s wonderful, weird, and couldn’t be more perfect for a offbeat vacation.
Tips: Ask to upgrade to a room with a balcony and thank us later. In the afternoon, there’s a wine happy hour, and a fun Japanese restaurant and bar attached to the hotel.
As one of the few real “diners” remaining in San Francisco, there’s not too many places you can grab an authentic breakfast like Mel’s. The ambiance also adds a real time-travel touch, from the chrome booths and the period-appropriate decor to the individual silver jukeboxes at each table belting out 50s hits, Mel’s Drive-In is a real blast from the past.
Tip: This place is FAST. If you’re in a pinch and need to chow down quickly, you can’t beat Mel’s.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
Tucked away off a side street in Chinatown is the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, where you can watch as cookie-makers skillfully create over fifteen-thousand of the famous treats every single day. Getting a peek at how the cookies are made is just part of the fun, though. You can also write your very own custom fortune, load up on tons of different varieties of cookies (yes, there’s more than one type), and, most importantly, you’ll get to sample an unrolled fortune cookie fresh out of the oven!
Tips: This place is tiny, but cool. Expect to be in and out in in five to ten minutes. Love the taste of fortune cookies? They’ll sell you a huge bag of broken ones for cheap!
The Beat Museum
The Beat Museum celebrates the lives and legacy of the “beat generation” authors like Jack Kerouac, who gave us “On the Road”, inspiring more Great American Road Trips than anyone else. How fitting! Located right across the street from Vesuvio, Kerouac’s old hangout, the Beat Museum houses artifacts like Kerouac’s car, original posters, loads of books, and more. You’ll even have a chance to pick up a rare first edition of books by Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, to name a few.
Tip: If you’re into vinyl, be sure to poke around the record collection. They’ve got lots of rare albums and they’re all for sale.
Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze
Mirror mazes can be more than just boardwalk diversions: they’re often works of art. None exemplify this more than Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze, a twisting, turning series of confusing tunnels that will stump kids and adults alike. These guys are so serious about their mirror maze that you have to wear a pair of gloves to check it out, because trust me, you’re going to be bumping into some walls, and they don’t want to make it easy.
Tip: Entry is just five bucks, and considering how long you’re going to be stuck in there, that’s a steal.
San Francisco Sock Market
With a massive variety of socks for adults and children, the San Francisco Sock Market will help you leave behind the world of plain white socks and diving feet-first into a universe you never knew existed. Bigfoot socks, socks with ears, heated socks, even socks for each of your toes! You’ll leave so proud of your new socks that you may never want to put shoes on again.
At 7D Experience, each theater is equipped with moving seats, custom surround sound, fog machines, 3D projections, and even special light guns that you use to actually become part of the movie you’re watching! The experiences are short, running around 10-15 minutes each, and include everything from zombie attacks, encounters with city-destroying giant monsters, and mad scientists!
Tip: One ride will set you back about $12, but if your experience has left you wondering what the other movies are like (and it will), you can snag discounted tickets for $7 after your first flick.
San Francisco Dungeon
Billing itself as a “thrill-filled journey through San Francisco’s murky past”, the Dungeon treats visitors to hour-long storytelling experiences that are just as fun as they are scary. Guests get the inside scoop on the dark history of the Golden Gate City from top notch actors that regale you with tales of slavery, prostitution, theft, and murder. Sometimes, you even become part of the story.
Tip: They aren’t shy about the subject matter, in fact, they recommend that children under ten don’t attend the San Francisco Dungeon. But hey, you’re the one who has to deal with the nightmares.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum
When it comes to weird museums, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! can’t be matched. From the authentic medieval torture instruments, to real shrunken heads, to the impeccable wax likenesses of the world’s most incredible humans, there’s a reason that Ripley’s museums have been fascinating visitors in dozens of cities for decades. Unique to this San Francisco location is a perfectly preserved car crushed during the city’s 1989 earthquake!
Tip: Tickets will set you back $18.99, and while you set your own pace, the full experience will take you anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half.
The Musee Mecanique on Fisherman’s Wharf is an old-timey arcade, similar to the ones on boardwalks years and years ago. They have over 300 “coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines in their original working condition”…and you can play them all. They’ve got player pianos, fortune tellers, skeeball, love testers, arm wrestling machines, music boxes, mechanical dioramas, pinball, and yes…they’ve got 1980’s-era arcade games too. Among the more notable pieces in the collection are machines made by prisoners at Alcatraz from toothpicks, a steam-powered motorcycle, and Laffing Sal, a 6-foot-tall automaton that’s been described as “famously creepy.” Shiver.
Tip: The Musee Mecanique is free to visit – just make sure to bring lots of change so you can work the machines. Most games are between 25 and 50 cents.
From classic arcades, to fortune cookie factories, to giant cameras that you can actually walk into, San Francisco is pretty much an oddball’s dream destination. Now, you’ve got no excuse not to hit the steep streets of the Golden Gate City and experience all of its strangest shops, museums, and hotels on an adventure of your own.
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