Secret San Francisco’s 21 Favorite Secret Spots From 2021

Jamie Ferrell Jamie Ferrell

Secret San Francisco’s 21 Favorite Secret Spots From 2021

2021 was a wild year, and we have the articles to prove it! After writing about endless secret spots, new restaurants, escapes, and local news, we certainly have some frontrunners that stand the test of time. Here are our 21 favorite secret spots, whether they were especially interesting, lesser-known, or just plain fun to research and write about.

While you’re at it, be sure to read about our 10 favorite food and drink roundups from 2021.

1. Here’s everything you never knew about SF’s funky octagon houses

SnapASkyline via Shutterstock

Have you seen this bizarre blue home in Russian Hill? The McElroy Octagon House is a famous reminder of the octagon craze of the 19th century, and it continues to turn heads even 160 years after it was built. You may also be familiar with the Feusier Octagon House and the Land’s End Octagon House. The octagon craze was a wild Victorian trend resulting from the 1848 book The Octagon House: A Home For All, written by amateur architect Orson Squire Fowler.

2. San Francisco is home to the oldest chess club in the United States 

Have you heard of the Mechanic’s Institute Library and Chess Room in San Francisco? This historic club can be found in a beautiful building in the Financial District. Its origins date back all the way back to 1854, when the city of San Francisco was still just beginning to take shape. Now it is a thriving educational space where members can get expert instruction in chess, engage in cultural programming and classes, browse a vibrant general-interest library, and much more.

3. This stunning plant store is a ‘shared living room’ in the Mission

Whether or not you have a green thumb, you’ll be blown away by this breathtaking plant store on Mission Street. Arcana is an urban greenhouse that opened in May, featuring dozens of thriving plants, beautifully crafted pottery and gardening tools, and cozy couches for lounging.

Iranian asylum seeker, queer activist, artist, and SF standout Naz Khorram founded Arcana as a “mystical shared living room experience,” and certainly followed up on their promise to bring a popular community space to the Mission. Arcana now includes a vibrant wine bar, tea shop, and live jazz nights on weekends.

4. The dark history of San Francisco’s hidden Gold Rush-era tombstones

Cirruspop via Wikimedia Commons

One of SF’s spookiest tales is that of the Gold Rush-era grave markers hidden around town. As SF’s cemeteries began to fill to capacity in the early 1900s, the city looked at relocating the bodies so as to free up real estate. From 1914 through the 1940s, the city relocated most headstones and bodies to mass graves in Colma, but their accompanying remains didn’t always make the journey with them. You can find the unclaimed headstones now lining drains at Buena Vista Park, serving as breakwaters in Aquatic Park, and in the Marina’s Wave Organ.

5. You have to visit this historical country estate and its breathtaking gardens

If you haven’t heard of Filoli, you have got to add this spectacular historical estate to your list. The house and garden themselves cover 16 immaculate acres in Woodside, having been beautifully maintained for over a century.

Filoli’s gardens are unique in that they bloom all year round, thanks to seasonal planting and carefully planned maintenance by the estate’s 14 full-time horticulturalists. Over 75,000 spring bulbs are planted each year.

6. You can stay in this epic pinecone treehouse just an hour outside of the city

This pinecone treehouse is seriously blowing our minds. As if our beloved redwood trees couldn’t get any more impressive, you can actually sleep in their upper canopy thanks to an incredible tiny house that’s suspended from above. The house provides 360 degree views of the surrounding forest, and it’s complete with a queen-sized bed, a bathroom, heating, and wifi.

7. Golden Gate Park honored its anti-statue superintendent with a statue of himself

Image: Daderot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At 1,017 acres, Golden Gate Park is one of the largest public parks in the world – and it wouldn’t be here today without John McLaren. He was quite particular about the park’s design and function, saying “There will be no ‘Keep off the Grass’ signs.” He designed the park to have a natural look, and strongly disliked statues, which he called “stookies.”

On McLaren’s 65th birthday, a friend presented him with a life-sized statue of himself, perhaps as a snide joke. Highly displeased, he hid it away under blankets in the park’s stables. The statue wasn’t discovered until after his death in 1943, at which point it was placed in the John McLaren Memorial Rhododendron Dell.

8. Skate the night away at this groovy 19th-century church turned roller disco

Have you heard of this amazing roller disco near the Painted Ladies? The Church of 8 Wheels is the ultimate hidden gem, hosting San Francisco’s most avid skaters within a 120-year-old abandoned church. You can zoom around the rink before a backdrop of stained-glass windows featuring Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Disco music and neon lights bring the party to this unconventional skating experience!

9. This free museum has over 300 antique arcade games and coin-operated machines

Musée Mécanique is one of the world’s largest private collections of coin-operated mechanical instruments, and one of the most unique museums in San Francisco! The collection was started by SF native Edward Galland Zelinskey, who bought his first coin-operated game when he was just 11 years old in 1933. Since then, it’s grown to include over 300 antique arcade artifacts, coin-operated pianos, slot machines, animations, and more! Zelinskey passed away in 2004, but his magnificent collection is still free for the public to enjoy at Pier 45 in San Francisco.

10. Bay Area photographers are obsessed with this fascinating local shipwreck

Whether you’re a history enthusiast, a photographer, or just a fan of cool, old things, you should check out this old boat up the coast from the City. The S.S. Point Reyes is an old abandoned fishing boat that’s been stranded on a sand bar in Inverness for several decades. According to photographer Greg Disch, it belonged to a local resident who intended to repair it, but ended up beaching it in the Tomales Bay. Since then, it’s been a go-to spot for local photographers who love capturing the deteriorating old wreck.

11. The nation’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant is in San Francisco 

Calling all foodies who love a good bargain! San Francisco restaurant State Bird Provisions, which has one Michelin star, is the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the nation. Chef Proprietors Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski create an exquisite, ever-changing selection of unique American cuisine. They specialize in amazing delicate quail dishes.

12. The Chamber of Secrets has been opened… and it’s in San Francisco 


Any loyal Harry Potter fan will recognize this characteristic Chamber of Secrets door right near Lombard Street. This 8-foot tall door was created by sculptor Steve Penetti and is free to visit. Penetti designed this sculptural masterpiece in just a week and a half, using a large piece of sheet metal as the base and pipes for the serpents’ bodies. The door features 7 silver serpents complete with detailed welded scales and red jeweled eyes, on a metallic golden backdrop. You cannot enter through the door as this is a private residence, but you can pass by 2645 Leavenworth Street to check it out.

13. This SF artist creates an incredible work of art on his front gate every month

Todd A. Young is a local artist with a talent for seeing beauty in the mundane. Where others might see a wrought-iron gate, he sees a canvas. And he’s been decorating his front gate every month since 2014. He creates pointillism-inspired art pieces, sometimes of neighborhood dogs, other times of historical figures.

“I want my artwork to make people stop, or at least to look up and to notice everything that is happening and changing all of the time, and to really BE in the moment, so I change it up every single month, and have been doing so since January 2014!”

14. Take a slippery ride down these awesome neighborhood slides

For decades, thrill-seeking adults and children alike have enjoyed these legendary slides hidden near the Castro. The Seward Street Slides were designed by a 14-year old girl named Kim Clark, who grew up nearby.

The 2 slides run parallel to each other, although the yellow one is slightly steeper. There’s a bit of a steep trek to the top and there’s soft sand to catch you at the bottom. The park’s sign says “No adults unless accompanied by children,” but childlike adults often slide under the radar.

15. This T. rex skeleton at UC Berkeley is one of the most complete ones to date

Image: John Martinez Pavliga via Flickr

The Cretaceous period’s most famous predator is just across the bay at UC Berkeley in the Valley Life Sciences Building. It has proudly stood on the building’s ground floor since 1995, when a team of professors, sculptors, and undergraduate researchers carefully constructed it piece by piece.

Tyrannosaurus rex existed between 65 and 85 million years ago, so it’s very difficult to find a fossil that’s not missing a large amount of bones. The 15-20 other skeletons around the country range from 10-80% complete, but UC Berkeley’s T. rex specimen is about 90% complete, only missing a few bones from the tail.

16. Volcanic eruptions created this magnificent national park just 2 hours south of SF

[Featured image: National Park Service]
Pinnacles National Park is a beautiful rocky landscape that was born from fire – from volcanoes, to be exact! The rocky peaks at Pinnacles began forming about sixty million years ago, when the North American plate pushed over top of, or subducted, the heavier Farallon plate. Eventually the Farallon plate began to melt and push molten rock, or magma, up through the surface. The resulting volcanic activity ended up forming the Pinnacles, made by layers upon layers of magma oozing or erupting through the surface. Continuous erosion at the Pinnacles has added even more interesting facets to the park’s geography, such as steep ravines, caves, towering rock walls, and canyons.

17. This ‘wave organ’ in the harbor plays haunting music generated by the ocean

In the Marina district of SF, you’ll find a unique outdoor installation that’s more than just a cool-looking art installation. The Wave Organ, created by artists Peter Richards and George Gonzalez in 1986, is an acoustic sculpture activated by the waves of the San Francisco Bay. Its haunting  music comes from 25 different organ pipes placed at different levels around the sculpture, changing with the rise and fall of the tides.

18. This eccentric SF store is home to taxidermy animals, exotic insects, and carnivorous plants

Paxton Gate aims to collect “treasures and oddities inspired by the garden and natural sciences.” That may include things as benign as gardening coffee table books – but it also includes skulls, bones, skeletons, fossils, crystals, minerals, and glass taxidermy eyes.

Oh, and human molars. And turkey feet. And dried toads. And racoon penis bones. And a taxidermy blind mouse in a top hat walking a guide snail.

19. We love this bizarre ‘Bubbleboat’ cruising around the SF Bay

If you’ve spent time by the water during the last 10 years or so, you might’ve spotted this mysterious UFO-looking vessel floating around the San Francisco Bay. Now, most San Franciscans are pretty used to seeing eccentric art displays or interesting characters out and about, but Eric Staller’s Bubbleboat still has long-term residents doing a double take.

20. Here’s how you can adopt a pair of SF’s iconic wild parrots

The wild parrots of San Francisco are a quintessential part of the city’s animal population. You may have heard them cackling over by the Ferry Building, where they tend to convene in large pandemonium (no, really – the word for a flock of parrots is a pandemonium).

Many of the SF parrots are unfortunately suffering from neurological problems due to private use of rat poison, according to Mickaboo, a parrot rescue organization. Mickaboo puts these playful birds up for adoption so they may continue to receive lots of food, care, and love. Most parrots are adopted in pairs as they tend to do better with a friend.

21. This big crack in the ground is actually a work of art hidden in plain sight

At first glance, it might look like a simple break in the stone. The result of a California earthquake, perhaps. But in fact, this curious crack in the ground at the de Young Museum is actually a meticulously planned, symbolic art piece by legendary English artist Andy Goldsworthy, a prolific artist with a number of famous sculptures in the Presidio. This large man-made crack cuts through 8 large stone blocks, which double as outdoor seating in the de Young Museum courtyard.


Featured image: @michelle.lawrencee via Instagram

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