Sponsored by

Whether you’re in San Francisco for the day or for an extended stay, this California jewel has no shortage of iconic locations. Fisherman’s WharfGhirardelli Square, and the Golden Gate Bridge are always worthwhile sights. It’s the hidden gems found off the beaten path, however, that put this city on the map for every kind of traveler. 

The feeling of stumbling upon an out-of-the-way attraction is incredible, and no city offers more concealed delights than San Francisco. Read on to discover treasures tucked away in alleys and back streets that are sure to take your trip to The Golden City from memorable to utterly unforgettable.

The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park
The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park dates to 1894 and features a tea house, a pagoda, and more across its three acres. ©Willowtreehouse/Shutterstock

Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park is home to a wealth of botanical gardens, museums, and other sights. The Japanese Tea Garden is special in that it can make you forget what continent you’re traveling on. A lovely mile walk from the park’s Haight-Ashbury entrance, the Japanese Tea Garden offers peaceful koi ponds, pagodas, and an arched drum bridge open to the public. Visitors are welcome to order tea and other refreshments to enjoy as they sit and take in the grounds of the oldest public Japanese garden in the US.

Macondray Lane

Located in chic Russian Hill, Macondray Lane offers a pleasant oasis to all who are looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. A short stroll through this residential alleyway showcases vibrant views of the city and Alcatraz on a clear day. Enjoy taking in the gardens and charming homes, but mind your step on the stairs. This is a must for Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” fans, as the famed Barbary Lane was based on this street.

Landscape San Francisco Presidio Adventure
Wood Line in San Francisco’s Presidio is more than 1,200 feet long. © Kali Conlon/Getty Images

Wood Line, The Presidio

Public art is often beloved when it lets visitors interact with it. Wood Line is no different — you can even walk on it. This sculpture is made of eucalyptus logs snaking along the ground through the eucalyptus canopy of the Presidio, a vast park at the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Created by artist Andy Goldsworthy, Wood Line reimagines the cycle of life and death; the branches that made it were all part of required tree removal in the park. The space it occupies held rows of cypress trees planted by the army in the 1800s that didn’t survive the forest’s conditions. Wood Line is made entirely of natural materials and is intended to decay over time. Make sure it’s on your visit list before it disappears!

Church of 8 Wheels

Looking at the old Sacred Heart Catholic Church and its stained-glass windows depicting the Virgin Mary, you’d never know that a different kind of worship went on inside. Opened by San Francisco’s own “Godfather of Skate,” the Church of 8 Wheels is open for holy rollers 4 days a week who want to work out in style. The owner, David Miles Jr, is a passionate roller-skating advocate who fought to keep the sport from being banned in Golden Gate Park in 1979 and has skated down the coast of California over 15 times. The church itself began construction in 1897 and closed in 2004. It remained abandoned for years before Miles came in with an idea. It’s a great spot to spark your own passion, whether you’re an avid roller skater or a beginner. For the latter group, the rink offers beginner lessons on Saturdays. 

Vesuvio Cafe and City Lights Bookstore
Vesuvio Café and City Lights Bookstore are San Francisco’s enduring beatnik mainstays. © Kirkikis / Getty Images

Jack Kerouac Alley 

Named after the famed author and his fellow Beats who would spend time at Vesuvio Cafe, the nearby bar, Kerouac Alley is great for passersby and travelers seeking a quiet day to themselves. Enjoy the murals on either side of the alley, the poetry inscriptions on the sidewalk, and the buskers playing live music. If you want to experience the history of the place, head into City Lights Bookstore on the corner, founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and publisher of literary legends like William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. Once you’ve made a purchase, cross the alley to Vesuvio Cafe to settle in with a drink in Jack Kerouac’s own regular haunt. For those interested in more context, The Beat Museum across the street offers the early history of the neighborhood and the luminaries who spent their time here. 

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory is one of the last places to fold their cookies by hand. ©Steve Wood/Shutterstock

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, Chinatown

Ever wondered how fortune cookies are made? Step inside this tiny factory in a Chinatown alleyway in the likely birthplace of the fortune cookie (yes, they are credited as a San Francisco invention!) and sample a freshly hand-folded cookie. One of the last places in the country to fold their cookies by hand, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory has been around since 1962 and is run today by the same family that started it. Having cash on hand is recommended for tips and purchasing confections because once you smell the fresh fortune cookies from the line in the alleyway, you won’t be able to resist taking a bag home! If you’re feeling adventurous, try the strawberry or green tea flavors. 

Balmy Alley, Mission District

San Francisco is perhaps most historically known for its counterculture movements and explosive art scene, and these two things go hand in hand at Balmy Alley. Lined with murals dating to as early as the mid-80s, the alley features a rotating outdoor gallery of murals created both in protest of social injustices and in celebration of social progress. Visit the Precita Eyes website to join a guided mural walk.

balmy alley
Balmy Alley’s murals have been a popular destination for photographers since the 1980s. ©Sabrina Dalbesio/Lonely Planet

Filbert Street Steps, Embarcadero and Telegraph Hill

If hiking up the hills of San Francisco isn’t enough to get your calves burning, Filbert Street Steps is a great way to level up. Lined with gorgeous flowers, the Grace Merchant Gardens, and even wild parrots, the amazing sights help you forget the 400+ stairs on your way to glittering views of the bay. These stairs will take you close to the base of Coit Tower, where you can choose to take an elevator (or even more stairs) to the observation deck. Or simply enjoy the 1930s-era murals inside the base of this San Francisco landmark that recount the histories of life in California.

Hidden Garden Steps, Inner Sunset

Public art lovers will enjoy this community project that opened in 2013, featuring colorful mosaics on each of its 148 steps that create larger works of art when viewed at a distance. Start at the bottom at 16th and Kirkham and climb your way up as you take in the carefully tiled snails, flowers, and other natural elements of this free meditative attraction. For more mosaic stair art, take a 6-minute walk south to the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps.

Sponsored by Visit California

As a travel entertainment and inspirational media outlet, we sometimes incorporate brand sponsors into our efforts. This activity is clearly labeled across our platforms.

This story was crafted collaboratively between Visit California and Lonely Planet. Both parties provided research and curated content to produce this story. We disclose when information isn’t ours.

With sponsored content, both Lonely Planet and our brand partners have specific responsibilities:

  • Brand partner

    Determines the concept, provides briefing, research material, and may provide feedback.

  • Lonely Planet

    We provide expertise, firsthand insights, and verify with third-party sources when needed.

Explore related stories

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 21: People gather at the historic White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village to perform an "Irish Funeral" to protest the change in ownership of the bar on March 21, 2019 in New York City. The White Horse Tavern, dating back to 1880, has been known as a haven for artists. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
new york


10 timeless literary bars around the world

Apr 23, 2024 • 6 min read