Here, we’ve rounded up some of the most interesting spots that look totally out of place in the city. Some of these places are more well-known than others, but even the most seasoned San Franciscans still get a kick out of them. Read on to discover some amazing places you won’t believe are here in San Francisco!
1. Tree Fern Dell, a.k.a. Mescaline Grove
Golden Gate Park has plenty of hidden gems that have made this list, the first of which is Tree Fern Dell. This leafy green space looks straight out of Jurassic Park, and its massive tree ferns and winding pathways earned it the hallucinogen-inspired nickname “Mescaline Grove” in the ’60s. Park superintendent John McLaren initially planted the New Zealand ferns in the late 1800s, and the collection has thrived in the Bay Area fog to this day. A stroll through this ancient garden will transport you to a far-away and far-forgotten time.
Location: East Edge of Golden Gate Park, across JFK Drive from the Conservatory of Flowers
Many a visitor to Golden Gate Park is surprised to discover a tall cascading waterfall hidden among the trees. Huntington Falls is another treasure courtesy of John McLaren, who decided to incorporate artificial lakes and waterways throughout the park’s landscape. His inspiration for Huntington Falls came after a trip to the Sierras with John Muir, and the falls certainly look the part. Visitors can explore them by walking across a bridge at the top, or a stone path at the base.
Location: Northeast corner of Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park
This tiny pedestrian path in Russian Hill isn’t known by many, but it’s actually on the National Register of Historic Places as the Russian Hill Macondray Lane District. 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. 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.
Location: Between Taylor St. and Jones St., running parallel to Union St. and Green St. in Russian Hill.
John Hamlin Burnell built this giant stone castle in 1870 as a state-of-the-art brewery, which was eventually shuttered as a result of Prohibition and transformed into the Albion Water Company. It changed hands several times – notably, sculptor Adrian Voisin added many of its medieval elements – and is now owned by SF Police Lieutenant and real estate investor Bill Gilbert. It has two enormous subterranean cisterns accessible through secret caves, which still provide clean water to this day. The 150-year-old castle is not open to the public and you can’t see much of it from the street, but it is available to book for private events and there’s a great photo tour on its website.
Location: 881 Innes Ave in Hunter’s Point
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). These bright green and red birds, known as cherry-headed conures, are not native to the city, of course. They’re actually native to Ecuador and Peru, but appeared in San Francisco as a result of the exotic pet trade.
The SF parrot population is unfortunately suffering from neurological problems due to private use of rat poison. Parrot rescue organization Mickaboo is dedicated to rescuing the birds when they’re unable to fly, rehabilitating them, and adopting them out in pairs to a loving home.
Location: Look for the bright green and red flock near SF’s Ferry Building.
Many a tourist in San Francisco is surprised to discover a herd of American Bison grazing in the middle of Golden Gate Park. Bison faced extinction in the United States in the late 1800s as a result of mass hunting, and Golden Gate Park Superintendent John McLaren introduced the first bison to the park in 1891 in an effort to preserve the species. The park’s herd bred over 500 calves throughout the years, and it’s fluctuated in numbers from 5 to as many as 30 in 1918.
Given that the current group is entirely female, you’re unlikely to see much action beyond a leisurely stroll around the paddock, although they can run at up to 30 miles an hour. The herd’s older members are descendants of a pair that then-mayor Dianne Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum, gifted to her on her birthday.
Location: 1237 John F Kennedy Drive on west end of Golden Gate Park
This stunning columbarium is one of San Francisco’s few remnants of the 19th century, and one of the few places where San Franciscans remain interred within city limits. At the beginning of the 1900s, the city relocated nearly all of its cemeteries to nearby Colma, in order to free up real estate. This historic building was one of the few relics left behind, and it existed for decades abandoned and vandalized until it was cleaned up by the current caretaker Emmitt Watson.
Of course, it’s wildly rumored to be haunted, and woman a who once felt an icy touch on her back later discovered a white handprint on her shirt. The caretaker himself and several security guards have witnessed the ghost of a little girl in 19th-century clothing wandering the circular walkways. Visitors sometimes report a child giggling or the touch of a small hand.
Location: 1 Loraine Court in Lone Mountain neighborhood
Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden is a quaint spot in the northwest corner of the park, next to an authentic Dutch windmill, which Queen Wilhelmina herself donated to the city in 1902. It originally served as an irrigation system that reached to the Strawberry Hill area, although it is no longer in use today.
This beautiful, authentic windmill is charmingly accompanied by hundreds of tulips and other colorful blossoms, which bloom in the springtime. In Dutch culture, tulips are a symbol of peace and reconciliation.
Location: 1690 John F Kennedy Drive, west end of Golden Gate 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
This beautiful building turns heads up and down the street, but not everyone knows that it was originally the very first Hindu temple in the United States. It was built in 1905 by the Vedanta Society, miraculously surviving the city’s massive earthquake a few months later. The building continued to serve as a temple until 1959, when a new temple was erected elsewhere and the original building was converted into dormitory and classroom space.
Swami Trigunatitananda, one of the Society’s original supervisors and a direct disciple of Ramakrishna, once said, “this Temple may be considered as a combination of a Hindu temple, a Christian church, a Mohammedan mosque, a Hindu Math or monastery, and an American residence.”
Location: 2963 Webster St in Cow Hollow
Featured image: @nicagirl415 via Instagram