Any SF history geek knows that you can’t walk out the door without passing some interesting spot with a crazy backstory. Here we’ve rounded up some of our favorites that you can see for yourself on any given day. The best part? Nearly all of these spots are outdoors and free to visit, so you never really know when you’ll stumble across one.
Scroll to the bottom for a map to point you in the right direction.
This one-block alley off of Columbus Ave stands at the base of the Transamerica Pyramid. You’ll know you’ve found it when you see the wavy lines in the concrete — they mark what was once SF’s original shoreline before the Gold Rush. (Another shoreline marker from 1852 can be found at 160 King Street in the Financial District)
The street itself was named for Anson Parsons Hotaling, who owned a whiskey warehouse around the corner that miraculously survived the 1906 earthquake. Another building that survived is now Barbarossa Lounge, whose original red-brick back entrance still stands on Hotaling Place.
As for what didn’t survive, legend has it that a herd of stampeding cattle raced down the street to their deaths during the big ‘quake, and you can still hear the ghost cows if the conditions are right. You can learn more about the history of Hotaling Place in this SFGATE article.
Location: Hotaling Pl., Financial District
2. Drawn Stone
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.
This large man-made crack cuts through 8 large stone blocks, which double as outdoor seating. They are actually a type of sandstone called Appleton Greenmore that comes from Goldsworthy’s native Yorkshire, England.
Location: de Young Museum Courtyard, San Francisco
You could be forgiven for overlooking this tiny pedestrian path in Russian Hill, but it’s actually on the National Register of Historic Places as the Russian Hill Macondray Lane District. Macondray Lane was the inspiration for Barbary Lane in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, a famous series of novels that takes place in San Francisco.
The lush pathway is home to a small verdant village of historic SF homes, the oldest of which dates back to 1878. At one point the neighborhood was home to middle-class Italian-Americans, artists, and Bohemians, and its narrow, shaded pathway evokes a quiet and contemplative mood.
Location: Between Taylor St. and Jones St., running parallel to Union St. and Green St. in Russian Hill.
San Francisco’s Painted Ladies are one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. But few people know about the equally stunning “Four Seasons” houses in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, a row of Queen Anne Victorian homes painted and styled to represent the winter, spring, summer, and fall seasons. Shipwright John Whelan built the Four Seasons Houses in 1896, and his family lived in the “winter” home until 1905. The street view remains much the same as it was over 120 years ago.
Location: 1315 Waller Street in SF’s Haight-Ashbury district.
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. The octagonal design was meant to let in sunlight on all sides of the building throughout the day, and use fewer materials to approximate a circular shape. The design ended up being quite cumbersome given the strange angles, and one estimate says there are just over 2,000 octagon houses left in the United States from this era.
- McElroy Octagon House: 2645 Gough Street in Russian Hill, open for periodic public tours.
- Feusier Octagon House: 1067 Green Street in Russian Hill, private home not open to the public.
- Land’s End Octagon House: 2301-2409 El Camino Del Mar, not open to the public.
One of SF’s spookiest tales is that of the Gold Rush-era graves that once filled San Francisco’s cemeteries. As SF’s cemeteries began to fill to capacity in the early 1900s, the city began relocating the bodies to nearby Colma so as to free up real estate. Many of the early graves belonged to lonely miners and immigrants who had no one to claim them. Unclaimed headstones were repurposed for various parts of city infrastructure, including Buena Vista Park, landfills, sea walls, and even the Wave Organ in the harbor. Have you seen them around town?
- Wave Organ: 83 Marina Green Drive
- Aquatic Park and Marina breakwaters: 700-898 Beach St. You can see some of the tombstones lining the walls at low tide.
- Buena Vista Park: Buena Vista & Haight St. Find tombstones lining the pathways about 2/3 of the way up.
This is one of San Francisco’s last surviving natural lakes. It served as a central watering hole for thousands of years, serving the Ohlone tribes, Spanish explorers, and more. Mountain Lake has survived a highway reducing its size, locals releasing their pets into it (including turtles, goldfish, and even an alligator), pesticides from the local golf course, and more. It’s since been revived by park staff, volunteers, and scientists.
Location: Presidio of San Francisco. Take the Juan Bautista De Anza National Historic Trail.
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. McLaren was a Scottish horticulturist who served as Golden Gate Park’s superintendent for 53 years. He was quite particular about the park’s design and function, famously 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. John McLaren’s statue is the park’s only one not mounted on a pedestal, to symbolize his closeness with nature.
Location: John McLaren Memorial Rhododendron Dell, Golden Gate Park
9. The real steepest and “crookedest” streets in San Francisco
Steepest: Bradford above Tompkins
When it comes to the steepest street in SF, many sources point to Filbert Street between Leavenworth and Hyde, which has a 31.5% grade and is just 2 blocks down from Lombard Street.
However, according to software engineer, computer scientist, and artist Stephen Von Worley, the actual steepest street in San Francisco is Bradford Street in Bernal Heights. It clocks in at a whopping 41% grade at the steepest bit, which is a 15-foot section above Tompkins Avenue.
Location: Bradford Street (above Tompkins Ave) in Bernal Heights
“Crookedest”: Vermont Street
We all know Lombard Street. You know, that famous red-brick street in Russian Hill that attracts 2 million tourists per year (or per day, it seems). Vermont Street, on the other hand, is a little rougher around the edges – it could use a good pave, and the gray concrete doesn’t exactly invite the same pristine aerial shots as Lombard. It’s also a little steeper and features one less turn – but yes, it is still in fact “crookeder.”
A California’s Gold episode from 2011 corroborates this fact. In the clip, representatives from the San Francisco Department of Public Works compare official city maps from the 1920s and calculate the streets side-by-side in a 100 foot section. It turns out that the curves in Vermont Street are in fact closer together!
Location: Between 20th and 22nd Street in Potrero Hill.
Sister cities signpost
SF Public Works installed this signpost honoring all of its sister cities in June 2018. City names are ordered from top to bottom by how recently they were designated, with room for more.
Location: Hallidie Plaza
Sister City Gardens
Yerba Buena Gardens has a display of Sister City Gardens along the length of its upper terrace above the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. They feature flowering plants from across the international cities for a “global quilt of colors.” You can also find quotes from Dr. King translated and inscribed into the cities’ languages on the memorial below.
Location: Yerba Buena Gardens
Chinese Pavilion at Stow Lake
Taipei, Taiwan presented San Francisco with a beautiful Chinese Pavilion in 1976. You can visit the beautifully-carved red structure for free, and it’s available for private reservations.
Location: Stow Lake, Golden Gate Park
11. Klamath ferry
The San Francisco waterfront recently welcomed back the Klamath, an out-of-commission Bay Area ferry from 1925. The Bay Area Council moored it permanently at Pier 9 to serve as their new headquarters, and the historic vessel is now open for the public to visit for free on weekdays and on the first Saturday of each month. The ship has been restored and made accessible with the additions of an elevator and large roof deck and garden.
The Klamath was built in 1925, and at 246 feet long and 65 feet wide, it was one of SF Bay’s largest ferries. It could carry up to 1,000 people and 78 vehicles at a time on its over 37,000 square feet of interior and exterior space. This ferryboat is one of only 5 remaining from the original fleet of 120, which had peak operations in the Bay from 1850 through 1939.
Location: Pier 9, The Embarcadero
Have you heard of the Mechanics’ 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.
Location: 57 Post Street
This might be one of the smallest relics of the 1906 earthquake, but its might is unparalleled! When the rest of the Mission District’s water mains failed on that fateful day, this singular hydrant is credited with saving the neighborhood in what was nothing short of a miracle. The plaque next to the hydrant reads, “Though the water mains were broken and dry on April 18, 1906 yet from this Greenberg hydrant on the following night there came a stream of water allowing the firemen to save the Mission District.” Each year on April 18th, neighborhood residents repaint the hydrant so that it never loses its luster.
Location: Church St. and 20th St., Mission District
14. Cayuga Park
This hidden park and playground is tucked away alongside I-280 and BART tracks in the Outer Mission, and it’s a favorite for local families. It’s also home to a substantial collection of curious hand-carved sculptures by Philippine artist Demetrio Braceros, which are dotted around the park as whimsical additions to the lush garden landscape. Visitors can walk through this mysterious wonderland of colorful figures, many of which are carved from naturally protruding dead tree stumps. It’s a pretty fascinating collection of hidden treasures that contrasts bizarrely with the neighboring highway and BART trains.
Location: 301 Naglee Avenue in the Outer Mission
Many a visitor to Golden Gate Park has overlooked this small bridge on Kezar Drive, but it is in fact America’s first reinforced concrete bridge. The engineering marvel was built in 1899 by Ernest L. Ransome, who pioneered the technique of reinforcing concrete with twisted metal bars. As a result, the bridge survived the 1906 earthquake a few years later. The concrete is textured to look like stone, and even has some ornamental “stalactites” in the pedestrian tunnel underneath.
Location: 499 Kezar Drive