San Francisco, California is filled with culture, good food and stunning scenery — quite simply a city that should not be bypassed. There’s a never ending list of popular spots to visit when in San Francisco, but there’s also some lesser known spots we highly recommend! Keep reading for our list of 6 unique places in San Francisco you should not miss.
When to Visit San Francisco?
San Francisco may be in California, but this does not mean it’s warm year-round. To quote Mark Twain, “the coldest winter I ever experienced was a San Francisco summer”. In general, San Francisco temperatures range from 45 F to 72F, so you won’t be freezing in any month of the year. With all this said, the best months to visit are September to November. These months will be the warmest and have slightly less crowds than during the summer.
How to Get Around San Francisco?
If you’re staying downtown and plan on visiting all the main, downtown spots, then you’ll be fine to walk or use public transportation. However, if you want to check out some of our recommendations of unique places in San Francisco, you will want a car. Having a car allows you to visit these spots more efficiently and make the most of your time in the city! Outside of the downtown core, parking is usually free and accessible.
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Muir Beach and Muir Beach Overlook
A part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, just across the Golden Gate Strait from San Francisco, is Muir Beach and Muir Beach Overlook. Muir Beach Overlook provides uninhibited views of the Pacific Ocean and coastal cliffs. This area was initially used as a strategic overlook point during the 1900s. This lookout housed defense guns that were ready to defend against invading warships. Luckily, these stations weren’t put into action and is now open for everyone to enjoy. There’s a large and free parking lot and also access to restroom facilities. The overlook will take anywhere from 10-30 minutes, making it a perfect pit stop before heading to the beach.
Muir Beach is actually a cove, making this a perfect beach nestled between cliffsides. The beach itself is relatively quiet, but can get windy. The parking is again free with restroom facilities. To get to the beach, just follow the short-trail down — you cannot miss it! This beach is not lifeguarded, so be mindful of the waves. To ensure you’re staying up to date with the all the latest information and closures, check out the National Park’s website.
Kirby Cove (+ Hidden Rope Swing)
If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten trail to view the Golden Gate Bridge, then you need to visit Kirby Cove. Kirby Cove is located across the Gold Gate Strait from San Francisco at the base of the Marin Headlands and will require a small amount of hiking to access. To get here: park at the Golden Gate Vista point at Battery Spencer on Conzelman Road. Battery Spencer is a popular spot to view the Golden Gate Bridge, so it can bet crowded here, making parking tricky. We recommend arriving early in the morning during peak-season. From here, you will begin the 1-mile descent down to Kirby Cove. The hike is along the old Kirby Cove Road, so it’s largely paved on the way down and starts with the closed gate. The gate is only closed to stop car traffic, you’re able to hike down! The hike will take you past Battery Kirby and end at Kirby Beach.
Getting to the not-so-hidden rope swing is easy as well. The swing is located at the far east end of the cove, nestled between two trees. The swing faces west and towards the Golden Gate Bridge, which offers a really unique view point.
Update: the hidden rope swing may have been cut down by the Golden Gate National Recreation Services, if this is the case, we still recommend coming here for a quieter spot to enjoy the Golden Gate views.
Location: 1004 Point Lobos Avenue
Sutro Baths are a historical landmark that offers stunning views of San Francisco and the bay. In 1894, self-made millionaire Adolph Sutro designed the Sutro Heights and later the Cliff House. Sutro’s goal was to create a healthy and inexpensive recreational swimming facility for San Franciscans. Unfortunately, the Bath’s didn’t become successful and slowly faded during The Great Depression Era. From the lack of maintenance and then a fire in 1966, the Sutro Baths today are largely ruins. Sutro Baths is now owned by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and open for anyone to explore the ruins.
Parking here is free and easily accessible. From the parking lot, you’ll take an easy 0.5 mile hike along a dirt trail and down to the ruins. This is really one of the most unique places in San Francisco to explore. We highly recommend getting here for sunset, the light off the water onto the ruins is stunning!
Marshall’s beach is, in our opinion, one of the best places in San Francisco to admire the Golden Gate Bridge from. The beach lies at the bottom of the serpentine cliffs, west of the Golden Gate Bridge. The beach provides panoramic views of both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. Two things to note about this beach are: the large waves and undertow make it unsafe for swimming and this is a clothing-optional beach, so it’s not always family friendly.
Getting to Marshall’s Beach can be tricky if you don’t know where to look. You can either hike over from Baker beach or hike down from the road. From Baker Beach, head north to access the trails. You will walk Sand Ladder at Baker Beach trail up to the road and then hike the Batteries to Bluffs Trail down to Marshall’s Beach. The trail is well laid out, especially once you pass an old WWII memorial. You’re other option is parking along Lincoln Boulevard and hiking down the Batteries to Bluff Trail to the beach. This option is less hiking, but the parking is limited and illegal — we saw plenty of cars parked here, but there is a risk for a ticket.
Bernal Heights Swing
Location: 3450 Folsom Street
Located in the Bernal Heights neighborhood is another rope swing that offers incredible city views. Not only is the swing itself photogenic, but the sweeping city skyline views are as well! In the background you can even see both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge. This unique spot is located in a local neighborhood, so it’s often crowd-free and almost always tourist free.
To get here, drive to Bernal Heights Park and grab a parking spot. From here, walk up the hill to reach the top of the park. After this short walk, the swing will be at the top hanging from a tree.
Lastly, if you have the time, we highly recommend the quick trip to the town Pacifica. Pacifica is a 15-minute drive south of San Francisco, located just off the Pacific Coast Highway. While this is technically not within San Francisco, it’s so close that we feel it counts. Plus, there’s several spots to explore within Pacifica and would be a great spot to try out surfing!
Pacifica State Beach:
Pacifica State Beach is a crescent shaped beach known for its surfing. You can opt to have surf lessons here and head into the swell or simply watch from the shoreline. Additionally, the Taco Bell along the beach is toted as the most beautiful in the country and worth the stop.
Devil’s Slide Trail:
Devil’s Slide Trail is a great hike for all hiking levels and ages within Pacifica. The trail is a 3.1 mile there and back trail that is along a pathed road for almost the entirety of the hike. The trail itself is well-trafficked and has a large parking lot at the trailhead. Hiker’s will have views of the stunning California coastline throughout the hike. Overall, this is a great spot for incredible views with minimal effort!
Gray Whale Cove State Beach:
Gray Whale Cove State Beach is a sheltered cove beach that’s nestled between cliffsides, and is popular for surfers and locals to hang out at. We went in the off-season and the beach largely to ourselves. An important point to note is the north end of the beach is commonly referred to as Edun (‘nude’ spelt backwards) Beach due to its clothing optional practices. While this is not formally a nude-beach, it has become a common spot to practice nude-bathing regardless.
Getting here is a touch difficult due to the tricky parking situation. The parking lot is on the east side of the highway and sneaks up on you, so we recommend having the location typed into Google Maps. The parking lot itself is relatively big, but is gravel, which has caused some pretty big dips and holes (read: not for small sports cars). Once you park, you will need to cross the highway on foot, which will take patience to wait for a break in traffic. Once across, there’s a short trail to a set of steps that will take you down to the beach. Make sure to check out the rope swing before you head down the steps!
There you have it, our top 6 recommendations for unique places in San Francisco to visit! We absolutely love visiting San Francisco and experiencing everything the city has to offer, however it is nice to escape the crowds and enjoy some of these more adventurous spots! If you’re continuing your California adventure, check out our recommendations for driving the Pacific Coast Highway.