San Francisco

The Best Spots in the Bay Area to Briefly Escape It All

Howard Ignatius / flickr

One of the things that makes living in San Francisco so amazing is that there’s always something new to discover. While we’ll never grow tired of looking at the Golden Gate Bridge or listening to the cable car greet us with its ringing bell, it’s finding the stuff that’s hidden by a hill, tucked away in a park, or off the beaten path that makes us happy to call this place home. So wherever you’re going or whatever “important” thing is on your schedule, you should make time for a mini adventure. Like going to all of these places, all of which are exactly where you need to be… even if you have somewhere else to go.

Unwind in a Japanese bath house with incredible food

There’s a belief in Japan that a daily soak will cleanse and purify the body and soul. And there’s a belief in America that a good meal can bring people together. Onsen, a bathhouse and restaurant in the Tenderloin, is the perfect meeting of the two. Start in the bathhouse where $35 gets you nearly two hours to spend in the communal tub (set at 104 degrees), sauna, steam room, and cold plunge. Then head to the dining room to enjoy a gorgeous meal made with light, seasonal ingredients and plenty of sake.

Bite into the best cinnamon toast you’ll ever eat

Trouble Coffee
Thanks to this tiny Outer Sunset coffee shop, cinnamon toast is no longer a snack just for kiddos. Trouble’s grown-up version is made with thick, chewy bread that’s smothered with butter: a perfectly proportioned mix of sugar and cinnamon that melts just right so that every bite is as delicious as the one before it. And it comes with a very adult $4 price tag. We promise it’s worth every penny… and tastes even better if you enjoy it with a cup of coffee while sitting outside on the tree trunk parklet.

Britt Reints /flickr

Explore a “hidden” alley with colorful murals and street art

Clarion Alley
Clarion Alley (between 17th and 18th Streets and Mission and Valencia) is only 560ft long and 15ft wide, but you could easily spend an hour looking at the public art that covers the walls of the buildings. Look closely, however, and you’ll see that these murals are more than just beautiful art. They’re messages about inclusiveness and social justice. They’re speaking about people who’ve been marginalized. They’re about those looking to build a better future. If you want to learn the whole story, the Clarion Alley Mural Project offers artist-lead tours every other Saturday at 1pm for a sliding scale donation starting at $5.

Take a boat ride in Golden Gate Park

Stow Lake
Whether you want to row or pedal, a boat ride around Stow Lake is the perfect way to experience a serene moment in an oasis in the middle of Golden Gate Park (while also burning a few calories). You’ll go under an old stone bridge, past the Chinese Pavilion, and right by the waterfall that spills down Strawberry Hill and into the lake. It takes about an hour to make the full loop, after which you can celebrate with an It’s-It or, even better, a cold beer.

Listen to a musical instrument played by the bay

Wave Organ
The Wave Organ is one of those secrets that a lot of people have heard about, but never bother to actually visit. Now that you know about it, don’t be one of those people because this water-activated acoustic sculpture is one of San Francisco’s most magical destinations. It’s located on a jetty in the Boat Harbor in the Marina that was constructed with material from a demolished cemetery, which is either creepy or romantic, depending on how you feel about places where people were buried. Either way, grab a seat, be quiet, and really listen. It’s the only way to truly hear the 25 PVC organ pipes that play music with the rise and fall of the tide.

PunkToad / flickr

Walk through an art installation made of felled tree trunks

Andy Goldworthy’s Wood Line in the Presidio
Take a trip down Lovers’ Lane in this 1,500-acre national park if you want to see Andy Goldworthy’s second installation made specifically for the Presidio. You need to know where to look to see the curvy line of branches winding their way up the forest floor; Wood Line is “hidden” in a eucalyptus grove that runs parallel to the Lovers’ Lane path. And though you have time to experience this piece of outdoor art, it’s not a permanent piece, as one day it’s going to decompose and return back to the earth from whence it came.

Take a hike to see stunning views of the city

Twin Peaks
Okay, sure you could just hop in the car and drive to the top of Twin Peaks, which, at 922 feet in elevation is the second tallest peak in San Francisco (Mt. Davidson wins the title at 938 feet). And it’s true -- however you get there, the views are some of the best SF has to offer thanks to their central location. But you’ll appreciate seeing the Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, Transamerica Building, Pacific Ocean, Bay, Oakland, and Mount Diablo so much more if you get there using your own two feet. Plus, everyone knows that the very best view is on the peak farthest away from the parking lot. (Or at least they do now.)

Climb over an arched drum bridge surrounded by cherry blossoms

Japanese Tea Garden
If you need a moment of tranquility, look no further than the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States. There you can wander among pagodas and stepping stone paths, while taking in native Japanese plants, koi ponds, and a zen garden. After, you should enjoy a tea ceremony, but not before climbing over the drum bridge, which is steep in order to take up a minimal amount of space, reflects a full circle in the water, and forces you to slow down and think about every step you’re taking. Visit in March or April to see the cherry blossom trees in full bloom.

Swing through the air while taking in stunning skyline views

Billy Goat Hill
If you want to enjoy the sweeping views of the San Francisco skyline that you can see from the rope swing atop Billy Goat Hill, the most important thing to remember is to keep your eyes open -- which is harder than you’d think, since this swing hangs from a tree branch at the edge of the hill. It feels like the ground has fallen out from beneath you in the best possible way… as long as you hold on for dear life.

Enjoy dinner by an indoor lagoon complete with thunderstorms and lightning

Tonga Room
This old school tiki bar in the Fairmont Hotel is festive, campy, and touristy in all of the best ways possible. Feast on a pupu platter that will taste much better after your second umbrella-festooned rum cocktail, and listen to the Top 40 cover band serenade you from the floating stage in the middle of the swimming pool-turned-lagoon. And be sure to stick around for at least an hour, since that’s how often the periodic storms rain down from the sky. Or rather, ceiling.

Scott Beale / flickr

Find the statue of Yoda at the Presidio

Yoda Fountain, Lucasfilm
Do or do not visit this bronze, life-sized (so, uh, just over two feet tall) statue of the wisest Jedi from a galaxy far, far away. There is no try. He can be tricky to find, but the fountain is located in front of Building B Letterman Digital Arts Center in the Presidio. May the Force be with you.

Say hi to the bison in Golden Gate Park

Bison Paddock
A herd of bison (it’s okay if you call them buffalo, by the way) have been living in Golden Gate Park since 1892 and have called their current enclosure -- west of Spreckles Lake along John F. Kennedy Drive -- home since 1899. Stop by and say hey to these shaggy beasts on your way out to Ocean Beach.

Slide down “secret” cement slides in a park

Seward Street Slides
Adults are supposed to be accompanied by children in order to play in this park, but all of the adults in San Francisco technically still are children, so you’re fine. Plus, the biggest thing kids are taught is the importance of sharing and these steep concrete slides were definitely meant to be shared. Just be sure to wear pants and bring a piece of cardboard (though the latter is often left there by other sliders).

Explore an abandoned octagon house hidden in the trees

Land’s End Octagon House
In 1927, an octagonal lookout station was built at Land’s End to watch for ships and announce their arrival. Ninety years later, it’s totally abandoned and hidden amongst the trees while it awaits restoration by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. But until that happens, it’s a creepy, yet delightful, hidden gem that goes unnoticed by most and is just begging to be Instagrammed.

Supannee_Hickman /

Picnic in a structure constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition

Palace of Fine Arts
Stop by Lucca Delicatessen or Marina Subs to pick up sandwiches and enjoy them at this iconic SF spot that was built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. Since then it has become a place for every single bride to take wedding photos, but also to just enjoy a peaceful afternoon watching the swans glide around the lagoon.

Go lawn bowling at the oldest lawn bowling club in the U.S.

Golden Gate Park Lawn Bowling Club
People have been lawn bowling on this green since 1901 and the competition now is a fierce as ever. Watching the game, you may think it’s like bocce, but any serious player will tell you that while bocce is like checkers, lawn bowling is like chess. Want to learn how to play? The club offers free lessons every Wednesday (and some Saturdays) at noon.

Savor a (free!) jazz interlude

Club Deluxe
Right down the block from the corner of Haight and Ashbury is a bar where you can hear live blues and jazz from 6pm to round about midnight all week long. Even better? You can often walk right in without paying a cover (it’s free Sunday through Thursday and there’s a mere $5 cover on the weekends that goes to the bands). The lights are low, the drinks are strong, and the music is always amazing. Even if jazz isn’t your thing, slip in, order a classic cocktail, and let the mellow moment move through your bones. Then you’re gone before you can say “Salt peanuts.”

Watch free SF Giants baseball

AT&T Park
Sure, you can get a bleacher seat for relatively little money, or you could head to the Portwalk along the outfield wall and root root root for the home team for free. Think: The old Knothole Gang, but right along the water’s edge and with amazing views of the bay. You’re allowed to watch for three innings, at which point you can head across the street to any of the nearby bars and catch the rest of the game on TV.

Daisy Barringer is a San Francisco-based freelance writer who always stops to say hi to the bison when she’s riding her bike to the beach. Stop and say hi to her on Twitter.
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