The panoramic view from San Francisco's Grandview Park (photo: Daniel Ramirez/Flickr Creative Commons)

Under-the-Radar San Francisco Attractions

By Greg Weekes

Think San Francisco and certain iconic things come immediately to mind—the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, Alcatraz Island, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown. These are all major tourist attractions, and they should all be on every visitor’s do-not-miss travel itinerary. But that doesn’t mean you should neglect the city’s off-the-beaten-path points of interest, a few of which are detailed here.

This windswept retreat in the Inner Sunset neighborhood is one of the city’s best-kept secrets, in part because it requires a strenuous effort to reach. You’ll need to climb two steep sets of stairs to reach the summit of a rocky hill, but your reward is an unobstructed 360-degree view that takes in the downtown skyline, Golden Gate Park, a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge, row upon row of houses to the west and, on clear days, the Pacific Ocean. Grab the lone bench if it’s unoccupied and enjoy the view. In a city where there are many awesome spots to experience a sunset, this is one of the best.

Balmy Alley is a well-known Mission District showcase for the talents of San Francisco street artists, and a stroll along it is well worth your time. Few people, however, know about nearby Lilac Alley. Its primary purpose is to provide access to garages and the back doors of businesses, but a walk down the alley reveals walls and garage doors covered with graffiti and cool examples of street art—intricate geometric patterns, beastly faces, Mayan gods and cartoon characters, just to name a few.

All urban stairways are first and foremost transport routes, and the Lyon Street Steps (Lyon Street, from Green Street to Broadway) are no exception. Connecting Cow Hollow to Pacific Heights, they’re very useful if you happen to be in either one of those neighborhoods. The steeper of the two sections runs from Green up to Vallejo Street, two narrow flights of 62 steps each. It’s a favorite workout circuit for fitness enthusiasts. The stairway from Vallejo up to Broadway—eight flights of 15 steps—is wider, less steep and landscaped. The impressive view from the top takes in the Palace of Fine Arts dome, the rooftops of the Marina District and San Francisco Bay.

Planning a trip to the City by the Bay? The amazing Mexican taquerias can help keep your belly full—and your wallet, too!

Plenty of people hike the Coastal Trail, but not many know about the stairway detour off the trail that leads down to Mile Rock Beach. The secluded cove is narrow and pebble-strewn; find a spot on a log where you can perch and watch waves crash impressively against rocks at the shoreline, with the Marin Headlands as a scenic backdrop. A dirt trail winds up a steep hill to vantage points offering spectacular views looking out over San Francisco Bay. It’s a lovely spot on a sunny day, and suitably brooding when the weather is overcast or foggy.

By definition, a columbarium is a vault that provides a final resting place for urns holding the ashes of the deceased. Built in 1898 and restored in the early 1980s, this circular, domed Beaux Arts structure stands in a quiet Richmond District residential neighborhood. Inside there’s a feeling of musty antiquity, with stained-glass windows casting a soft glow. Three floors hold some 8,500 burial niches in orderly rows. Copper-covered cubbyholes are engraved with information about the occupant; glass-covered recesses display plastic flowers, faded photos and sentimental keepsakes. This isn’t something you’ll need to see more than once—unless you have a personal connection, of course—but it’s a fascinating part of San Francisco’s history.