Start with these eccentric attractions for a peek into San Francisco's quirky culture
San Francisco is weird. Perhaps a source of pride among locals, little nuggets of “why did someone put that there?” are scattered throughout the 7 by 7 mile tip of the peninsula for all the attentive, or perhaps lost, wanderers to explore. They invoke our deepest layers of curiosity, fascination, frequent wholesome chuckles, occasional bewilderment, but mostly “huh...?” moments. From elaborate pieces of public art, to historical tributes, to a hanging red cow, these are the stories behind some of the most unusual things to do in San Francisco. Keep an eye out for these cultural gems the next time you’re on your neighborhood stroll (gathered by someone who probably walks too much).
1. Golden Fire Hydrant
On the corner of 20th and Church, adjacent to the stunning Dolores Park, the Golden Hydrant stands as a symbol of hope and strength. Appropriately nicknamed “little giant,” it’s repainted gold every year to honor it’s saving of the Mission district from the fire of 1906.
2. Hopper’s Hands at Fort Point
At the very end of Marine Dr, home to one of the most scenic routes in the city, and understandably thousands of joggers every year, stands a fence. It may seem like any other fence preventing public access to the historic Fort Point, but if one looks closely one will see a wooden plate, with a pair of painted hands, attached to the fence. In 2000, Ken Hopper noticed that runners frequently placed their hands on the fence before turning back, and the rest is local history. In recent years, the hands have also become a symbol for the lives lost to the bridge, which Hopper worked on for many years.
3. Pianos on Ava 55 9th
The giant set of 13 flying pianos off the side of the Ava 55 9th apartment complex is actually a work of public art called “Caruso’s Dream” by Brian Goggin. After a night of performing Bizet’s famous opera “Carmen,” Enrico Caruso woke up the next morning to what would be known as the earthquake of 1906. This artwork imagines what Caruso’s dream would have been that night. Read more here. A strange find indeed, but a fascinating work of art that honors the piano manufacturing history of SOMA.
4. Hanging Red Cow
I can’t even explain this one, it’s just fun. Located on the appropriately named “Holy Cow Nightclub,” the cow really is a jarring sight every time one walks down Folsom St.
5. Lotta Fountain
Another remnant of history made famous by the 1906 earthquake. Although no longer functioning, the fountain is still very visible to this day. Despite being located right in the heart of Downtown San Francisco, on the intersection of Market, Geary, and Kearny St, the Lotta Fountain and its history is often overlooked by the thousands of commuters that pass by it everyday. It’s two majors claim to fame is, one, being the oldest monument in San Francisco, and two, serving as a rendezvous point for many San Franciscans during the 1906 earthquake.
6. Lands End Labyrinth
A beloved site among locals, and even some keen tourists alike, the Lands End Labyrinth is not only a fun five-minute activity, but serves perhaps one of the most breathtaking views of the West Coast and the Golden Gate Bridge. Take the easy and accessible Coastal Trail Hike and follow directions to Mile Rock Beach, and after a little searching you’ll be sure to find it (or as someone nearby)! Make sure to complete the Labyrinth, no cheating!
7. 16th Tiled Steps
This is another more well-known location worth visiting on its own. Located in the Inner Sunset, the gorgeous 163 stairway connecting 16th Ave. to Grandview park is one of SF’s most impressive and stunning works of public art. 10/10 times I will recommend people I truly care about to ditch Lombard street for the 16th tiled steps. For those of us less prone to climbing stairs, it may be wise to start from 15th Ave. then walk down the stairs. Make sure to look back every few steps or so to see the gorgeous mosaic images come to life! Bonus tip, it is absolutely worth it to climb the stairs, and then climb another set, to reach the top of Grandview Park. Despite a gruesome walk upwards, Grandview parks serves arguably the most encompassing view of San Francisco. From the Pacific Ocean, to the avenues, to the overpowering Golden Gate Park, through all of downtown, the City by the Bay truly feels like it’s at your fingertips.
8. Bummer and Lazarus Plaque
A story of epic proportions (deserving of a full read here), Bummer and Lazarus were two universally adored stray dogs that roamed the streets of San Francisco in the 1860’s. Known for their legendary rat-capturing abilities, Bummer and Lazarus were both granted immunity from the strict laws of the time which loomed over the world of stray-dogs. Today, their romance and legacy are immortalized on a plaque in Transamerica Redwood Park (near the Clay St. entrance). Bonus tip, behold the magnificent Redwoods that dominate the stunning pocket park. However, even these natural giants are absolutely dwarfed by the behemoth that is the Transamerica pyramid, which is both above and directly adjacent to you. I highly doubt you’ll miss it.
9. Love on Haight Art Corner
The hippie mecca, it’s the Haight-Ashbury! Although perhaps a bit saturated with tourists nowadays, the Haight still has many wholesome and incredible small finds. From an original Banksy, to the iconic Piedmont Boutique legs, there is much to discover for the keen observer/explorer. However, my personal favorite is hidden in the back corner of the iconic, hippy-merch, psychedelic galore store that is Love on Haight. Brightly painted on the corner of Masonic Ave. and Haight St., it’s surely an easy and convenient find. However, if you scuffle to the back of the store, past a sensory-overload amount of colors, you’ll find a small corner with paper, tape, and markers. Tourists and visitors have been contributing their own little works to the walls of the room for years, and according to the staff, they don’t remove any of it if they don’t have to! Give it a try, leave a little magic behind.
10. Arthur Conan Doyle Monument
A small homage to the legendary detective-fiction novelists (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, think Sherlock Holmes). The plaque is on a building across the street from Lafayette Park on Sacramento St. It only notates that Mr. Doyle once lived in the building, but a fun find nonetheless for those that care!