How to Get Off the Beaten Path in San Francisco
Few cities are more unconventional than San Francisco. After all, it’s here that you’ll find eccentric politics, cuisine, technology, attitudes, lifestyles, and much more. It begs the question: what about alternative travel? Where is "off the beaten path" in a city that has trailblazed so many of them? There’s nothing wrong with checking out the Golden Gate Bridge, hopping on a cable car, and chowing down chowder before calling it a day. But if you’d like to get closer to the city, and perhaps see its wilder edges and out-of-the-way gems, here’s where to head.
See the Legion of Honor and Land's End
A majestic museum at the foot of a community coastal trail.
A cast replica of Auguste Rodin’s Thinker sits in the front courtyard of the elegant Legion of Honor, a museum with more traditional collections than its city siblings, the Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) and De Young. After a morning browsing the artworks, take the Land’s End Trail from Legion of Honor Drive through Lincoln Park, passing Seal Rock’s Beach, the USS San Francisco Memorial, and Sutro Baths to the Land’s End Lookout. It’s a rugged coastal trail frequented by dogwalkers and hikers rather than tourists—and has ubiquitous Monterey Pines framing to-die-for views of the Pacific Ocean.
Climb the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps
A constellation of staircases and public art in an ordinary neighborhood.
Tucked away in a purely residential area overlooking the Sunset District, the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps started as a community project and blossomed into an under-the-radar attraction and neighborhood quirk. The 163 steps to Grand View Park are decorated with mosaics of the cosmos created by teams of local artists and volunteers. There isn’t a better urban hiking destination in the city, and there are myriad other staircases in the quiet neighborhood to explore. There are, in fact, enough for a full day of exploring. Here’s a list: the Cascade Walk, Quintara Steps, Mandalay Steps, Moraga Stairs, and the Hidden Garden Steps.
Explore the Presidio
If a true urban forest does exist, it looks exactly like the Presidio.
A sizeable flush of green on the northern tip of the San Francisco peninsula, the Presidio is a former military outpost (presidio means roughly “fort” in Spanish) blanketed today in pine, cypress, and eucalyptus trees. It’s lovely to see en route to the Golden Gate Bridge, but inside you’ll find wooded trails, public art, cemeteries for US military members (and their pets); a museum dedicated to Walt Disney; and a statue of Yoda of Star Wars fame. Explore the park aboard a vintage fire engine, or between visits to Crissy Field or Baker Beach on the park’s far west side.
Try dim sum in the Richmond
There’s an under-the-radar foodie scene in this quiet neighborhood.
Chinatown is the star of San Francisco dim sum, but the Richmond District (“the Richmond” in the local lexicon) is a close runner-up. A quiet neighborhood with few major attractions, the Richmond isn’t a major tourist destination. Take a close look, however, and you’ll find one of the best under-the-radar food scenes in the city, with proximity to the Presidio, Land’s End, and Golden Gate Park. It’s multicultural too, with Russian markets, French and Chinese bakeries, and one of the best hole-in-the-wall dumpling houses in San Francisco: the legendary Kingdom of Dumpling.
Take the San Francisco Crosstown Trail
Nothing beats an unmarked trail for off-the-beaten-path adventures.
This grassroots creation of volunteers has few, if any, signs on the ground, and cuts through the heart of the city from Candlestick Point through the hilly middle to Land’s End. There’s a downloadable map and app—but wandering through residential neighborhoods, hidden paths and stairways, community gardens, and public parks takes visitors closer to the “real” San Francisco than pretty much any other road. It’s possible, though challenging, to walk the 17-mile (27-kilometer) trail in one day. Following one or two of the five sections, or biking, is recommended.
Visit Mission Dolores (Mission San Francisco de Asís)
The oldest building in San Francisco might just be the least frequented.
Mission San Francisco de Asís isn’t precisely off the beaten path. The city’s namesake and oldest building (the original cathedral collapsed during the 1906 earthquake) is in the thick of the Mission District next to Mission Dolores Park, where throngs of hipsters throw ultimate frisbee contests on sunny days. Some walking tours note the mission in passing, but few enter. The adobe structure is modest by California standards, but holds stained-glass windows depicting the state’s 21 missions, a memorial commemorating American Indian laborers, and a graveyard where the first governor of Alta California and the first mayor of San Francisco rest.
Hang-glide at Fort Funston
Windy, wild, and beautiful—Funston is the most far-flung place in San Francisco.
Thankfully, there’s no reason for the tourist circuit to touch Fort Funston, a former military reservation–turned–windswept public beach at San Francisco’s southernmost edge. The far-flung location is part of the appeal—it’s not far from the more famous Ocean Beach, but much less crowded on the days that count. In fact, 200-foot (60-meter) bluffs and persistent winds make Funston one of the most popular hang-gliding spots in the US. If extreme adventure sports aren’t on your itinerary, the beach below the cliffs is one of the best-kept secrets—and wilder coastal areas—San Francisco has to offer.