Ultimate Offbeat Guide to San Francisco
From Macabre Museums to a Real Herd of Buffalo Wandering the City — Here are the Most Interesting Things to Do in San Francisco
San Francisco has long been considered a safe haven for outsiders of all sorts—so it shouldn’t be a surprise that when it comes to anomalous 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 where to begin your adventures into the odd? This guide to San Francisco will have you navigating the stranger side of the city like a pro.
Booking a trip to San Francisco?
A Performance Experience Unlike Any Other
1616 Bush St | Lower Pacific Heights | www.audium.org
The Audium-Theatre of Sound-Sculptured Space is the only theater on Earth that’s designed 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 176 speakers, which create compositions that are totally immersive and can actually produce drug-like side effects.
Tip: Make sure you book your tickets online beforehand and show up early enough to choose good seats. The closer to the middle you sit, the trippier your experience will be …
Stay the Night a Few Blocks from Union Square
711 Post St Lower Nob Hill | www.usahostels.com
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.
The Best View of Ocean Beach
1096 Point Lobos Ave b/t Upper Great Hwy & Merrie Way Sea Cliff | www.giantcamera.com
This strange-looking building just north of Ocean Beach isn’t actually a building at all—it’s an enormous camera obscura, an optical device that uses a small hole to create a “pinhole image.” One of only a few of its kind in the entire world, this is a stop that well-worth the three-dollar admission.
Tip: While the views are awesome at any point during the day, the best time to visit this retro roadside attraction is (of course) sunset. You get an awesome view of the surroundings, including nearby landmarks, and if you’re lucky sunspots, a solar flare, or even a green flash! It’s definitely one of those things that needs to be seen to be understood—or believed.
History, Legends, Beauty—What More Could You Ask for?
680 Point Lobos b/t El Camino Del Mar & Merrie Way Sea Cliff | www.nps.gov
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 seven 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 creepiness of the legend, the view from within the tunnel—especially when the waves roll right up to the edge—can’t be beat..
Gold Gate Park’s Hidden Treasure
B/t JFK Dr & Chain of Lakes Dr E Golden Gate Park | www.goldengatepark.com
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 now.
Tip: The bison paddock is free to visit, but bring binoculars – they can be a little shy sometimes.
Dinner, a Show, and the Perfect Mix of (Staged) Drama
500 California St Financial District | www.thedinnerdetective.com
One part dinner, one part interactive show, the Dinner Detective has become one of the city’s favorite events. What makes Dinner Detective better than other similar productions is the fact that it’s set in the current time, so you don’t have to look past cheesy costumes and weird scripts to enjoy the show.
Trained actors blend in with the rest of the diners, so guests have no idea who is part of the show—that is, until they die. You’ll have to solve the crime to find out who the killer is before you’re the last one standing. Winners get prizes and (most importantly) big-time bragging rights!
Tips: At roughly $150 for two tickets, the attraction can seem a bit pricey—but you do get dinner, dessert, and a show out of the deal. The whole experience lasts about three hours. Sorry kids, due to the nature of the show, no one under fifteen is admitted.
Restaurant, Cabaret, and Nightclub—All in One
201 9th St Downtown | www.asiasf.com
At the world-famous AsiaSF, guests are led into into the theater by the beautiful Ladies of AsiaSF, who will serve you a delicious Cal-Asian fusion meal before taking to the stage for a number of jaw-dropping performances.
Oh yeah, and every single performer is transgender (no hate allowed!).
Tip: After the performances, head downstairs and get your groove on at the hidden club, where the DJ spins until 2 am.
Brimming with Oddities That You Can Take Home
824 Valencia St Downtown | www.paxtongate.com
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.
Eat, Drink, Watch, and Enjoy
2534 Mission St Downtown | www.foreigncinema.com
Foreign Cinema, named one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Top 100” for nearly 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 reservation: Trust us, you don’t want to miss out on the show.
Experience the Wild West at This Historic Oakland Bar
48 Webster St Jack London District | www.heinoldsfirstandlastchance.com
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 a watering hole for all kinds of writers (including Jack London) and adventurers.
Plus, 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—after all, that’s why you’re here!
Comics, Anime, Graphic Novels, and More
781 Beach St Fisherman’s Wharf | www.cartoonart.org
With nearly 7,000 original pieces of art from the world of 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 the museum schedule before you plan your visit, because it regularly hosts book signings, workshops for aspiring cartoonists, and lectures where fans come together to geek out while learning about the craft.
Comics, Anime, Graphic Novels, and More
781 Beach St Fisherman’s Wharf | www.cartoonart.org
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!
Across the Street from the Famous City Lights Bookstore
540 Broadway Jackson Square | www.kerouac.com
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.
A Psychedelic Labyrinth in the Middle of Pier 39
Pier 39 Bldg O-11 | Fisherman’s Wharf | www.magowansinfinitemirrormaze.com
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.
Two Hundred Years of History Condensed into an Unforgettable Hour
145 Jefferson St | Fisherman’s Wharf | www.thedungeons.com
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: It isn’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!
Who Knew History Could Be This Much Fun?
Pier 45 Shed A Fisherman’s Wharf | museemecaniquesf.com
The Musée Mécanique at Fisherman’s Wharf is an old-timey arcade, similar to the ones on boardwalks years and years ago. They have over 300 games and other mechanical oddities—and you can play them all: Player pianos, fortune tellers, skeeball, love testers, arm wrestling machines, music boxes, mechanical dioramas, pinball, and even 1980s-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 Laughing Sal, a 6-foot-tall automaton that’s been described as “famously creepy.”
Tip: The Musee Mecanique is free to visit—just make sure to bring lots of coins so that you can work the machines. Most games are between 25 and 50 cents.
Embrace the Weird in San Fran
San Francisco is pretty much an oddball’s dream destination—and now, you’ve got no excuse not to hit the steep streets of the Golden Gate City. Experience all of its strangest shops, museums, and hotels on an adventure of your own.
What’s the strangest place you’ve stumbled across while traveling? Don’t forget to share your weird findings with us on Facebook.
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