Secret sights of San Francisco


San Francisco is known the world over for its beauty, its open-mindedness and its weirdness. So it should be no surprise that the City by the Bay is chock full of strange and unique secrets. Below are just a few of favourites known only to locals, and only the locals that really explore their own back yard. Sure, we could tell you more, but some things have to remain secrets, don't they?

The Wave Organ

Located on a jetty in the San Francisco marina, the Wave Organ is musical instrument played by the San Francisco Bay itself! Finished in 1986, the instrument is constructed of 25 PVC organ pipes of various lengths that go down beneath the jetty and into the water. As the tide changes, so do the sounds that the Wave Organ makes. It’s a great spot for a little late night make out session, if it’s not freezing cold outside. Interesting fact that might just kill the romantic mood: the jetty is made up of material taken from a demolished cemetery.

The Seward Street Slides

Hidden up in the hills of the Castro are the Seward Street Slides. Constructed of smooth cement, the best way to ride these shoots is to put your butt on a piece of cardboard (often found at the foot of the slides, but bring some just in case) and push off from the top. And if you really wanna go fast, throw in a few handfuls of sand before you go sliding down. One thing to note: the neighbours can be pretty cranky, so if you’re too loud, they’ll come out and harass you a bit, so keep this one literally on the hush-hush.

Seward Street Slides'Seward Street Slides' by Braden Kowitz, CC BY-SA 2.0

The San Francisco Columbarium

Before the city of San Francisco began moving all of its cemeteries (including the caskets) down to Colma, the Richmond District had quite a few of them. One was the Odd Fellows Cemetery which the beautiful neo-classical San Francisco Columbarium was a part of. (A columbarium is akin to a mausoleum but used for urns and ashes instead of bodies and caskets.) Now a San Francisco landmark, the SF Columbarium is the final resting places for such local luminaries as Chet Helms (a 1960’s music promoter and the dude who brought Janis Joplin to California) and Harvey Milk (California’s first openly gay elected official).

The Presidio Pet Cemetery

One of the few cemeteries left in the city, the Presidio Pet Cemetery is where servicemen and their families who were stationed in the Presidio buried their animals. Surrounded by a white picket fence, the cemetery is dotted with gravestones dating back to the 1950s bearing names like 'Trouble' and the creatively named 'Mr. Iguana'. The Presidio was a military installation as far back as when the Spanish occupied California, and there are rumors that this spot was originally used to bury dogs and horses used by the US military in the 1800s. No new pets are allowed to be buried at the cemetery, but you can still go see the site for a fur-raising experience.

The Pet Cemetery'The Presidio Pet Cemetery' by Orin Zebest, CC BY 2.0

The Golden Fire Hydrant

In 1906 a terrible earthquake and fire ravished San Francisco and left most of the city in shambles. Much of the Mission District was consumed by the rapidly spreading fire because the earthquake had damaged the pipes that fed the hydrants. Luckily this little fireplug at the corner of 20th St. and Church was unfazed and single-handedly provided the water that stopped the fire from spreading south of 20th St. As a result, the fire hydrant is given a new coat of gold paint each year on April 18th, the anniversary of the earthquake. And if thoughts of brave fire fighters hoisting hoses isn't enough, if you visit the Golden Fire Hydrant on a sunny day you'll be treated to a view of the ever-present scantily-clad sunbathers in nearby Dolores Park.

6th Floor of the Main Public Library

Affectionately referred to by some as 'San Francisco’s attic' the 6thfloor of the SF main public library is a treasure trove of books, photos, art, and other ephemera all concerned with San Francisco’s illustrious past. There are original photos from the Gold Rush, posters from turn of the century dog shows, old restaurant menus featuring long-forgotten foods of the past, and so much more. The history geek in me is squealing with glee as I write about it - if you're of like mind, pay a visit to the attic on your next San Francisco trip.

Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, has written travel guides for Lonely Planet but is probably best known for his print and online guides to living cheaply in San Francisco and New York and his recent book Young, Broke & Beautiful: Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide to Living Cheaply. Follow Stuart on Facebook and Twitter.