Pier 39, Alcatraz, Golden Gate Bridge, and Lombard Street. They’re the activities you’re expected to do in San Francisco. Do them, they’re cool (well I haven’t been to Alcatraz yet, but I’m sure it’s as cool as the others).
But what about San Francisco off the beaten path?
You might be surprised like myself to learn San Francisco’s population is less than 1,000,000. It’s rather landlocked by the bays as well, which makes it all the more impressive in my eyes.
For what the city lacks in size, they make it work not only for themselves and those who come for a look. If you’re looking for something different to do in San Francisco, these six ideas will keep you well entertained.
1. Help Out For A Few Hours At St. Anthony’s
I’ll never forget my first impressions of San Francisco. I was diligently following the instructions my cousin had sent me to get from SFO to her house. I was exiting a BART station, coming up the escalator ready for my first glimpse of San Francisco. My first glimpse of San Francisco was a dozen or so people sleeping on the street.
The issue with homelessness in San Francisco is well know. But there are lots of people inside organizations of various sizes who are helping to ensure those sleeping rough have a chance every day. Of course, most of these places are non-profit organizations that rely on donations to continue serving. One such place is St. Anthonys, and beyond accepting donations, they need people to help keep their most well-known programme the dining room going.
One of those people could be you, it’s super simple to help out with food prep or on the delivery line. 2000+ meals are made every day at St. Anthony’s.
You can apply to volunteer for open spots online. When it comes to your volunteering day, the people who run the volunteer operations are fantastic and will ensure you feel like you’ve made a contribution.
I joined to help with food prep one morning and spent four hours taking fresh mozzarella and ricotta cheese out of the packets that had been donated, ready to be integrated into a meal the following day. It wasn’t glamourous, but someone has to do it and I did feel like it was useful (I loved how the vegan got put on the cheese station).
What I wasn’t expecting was the chance to sit in the dining hall for lunch while the people who take use their services were dining too.
They encourage volunteers to sit in the dining hall on their first day so to get an immersive experience. While I didn’t know exactly how to behave etiquette-wise I got chatting to a couple of guys who were appreciative of the meals. One guy started telling me stories from 20+ years ago when he and his friends would drive up and down the west coast partying for weeks on end. He was smiling as he was thinking back during the story but the reality set in as he left without saying goodbye after his meal. I then saw him on a street corner a few hours later, it was awkward, but also it me hard.
Sometimes it can feel like you’re wasting peoples time when you’re volunteering on a one-off, but the staff at St. Anthony’s see new volunteers every day and you’ll make a valued contribution in the four hours you’re there (for the food prep shift).
2. Write Your Fortune At The Golden Gate Cookie Factory
Quick Quiz: Where was the fortune cookie invented?
D: San Francisco
This would make for quite the pub trivia question.
Turns out the fortune cookie was invented in San Francisco (that seems to be the consensus anyway)! And to this day, fortune cookies are not a tradition in China as you might be led to believe. Rather, they’re a traditional inside Chinese restaurants in Western countries. They’ve been adopted as a desert and it remains that way to this day.
You can have a unique fortune cookie experience in San Francisco’s Chinatown at The Golden Gate Cookie Factory. Opened in 1962 this factory rocks the old school way of manufacturing fortune cookies, producing upwards of 20,000 cookies a day. You can buy bags of the fortune cookies your self, but you can also have your own personalised cookies to take with you.
When you arrive at the factory on the discreet side street, you are immediately on the factory floor. If there’s no line, someone will point you in the direction of a table where you can write your own words of wisdom to put on a bit of paper to go straight into the cookie seconds later.
There will be two or three employers sitting beside the machinery making the cookies right in front of you. You’re welcome to take pictures, but do be kind and leave a small donation in the bucket for doing so. If you have chosen to write your own fortune, you’ll pass it to one of the employees and they’ll pop them straight inside a cookie straight off the production line and pop them in a cute little box for you to take away. A $1.50 for two personalised fortune cookies.
The experience doesn’t take long, but I really enjoyed the few minutes I spent inside the factory. If there is a crowd of people outside the door waiting there turn, don’t let that put you off, with another staff member ensuring people continue moving in and out of the factory that fits 15 people max. You won’t be waiting long.
p.s. you’ll have a chance to have a free sample wafer cookie or two. Bonus!
3. Get Picnicing & People Watching At Dolores Park
Dolores Park, you beauty! If you’re coming to the Mission District, you must spend some time hanging out at Dolores Park. After millions of dollars was spent renovating the park in the early 2000’s, Dolores Park is possibly the number hang out spot for San Francisco locals on any given (non-rainy) afternoon.
The southern Mission is the sunniest spot in the city according to metoerologists, so if you’re feeling the chill in San Francisco (jeans in the middle of summer is a norm), head to the Mission to bust out your shorts.
You’ll be joining 100’s, if not 1000’s in the weekend at Dolores Park. Everyone coexists in there own groups doing there own thing. It’s something spectacular. The park is sneaky big too, so there’ll be a patch of grass somewhere for you to park up and enjoy the hive of activity going on around you with a beer or wine.
It’s truly an awesome place to be, you’re bound to see something you’ve never seen before.
READ MORE: THINGS TO DO IN THE MISSION DISTRICT
4. Buy Some New Threads At A Thrift Store
San Francisco is known as a place where you need a reasonably high level of income to live a comfortable lifestyle. Some say San Francisco’s gentrification is out of control, but I don’t believe that. There are more than enough people who are ensuring you can get by on a modest income with a bit of creative thinking. And this means that people are happy to donate there perfect ‘old’ clothing to thrift shops.
I ended up at Goodwill on Bay Street on my first day in San Francisco. I needed some jeans having assumed the summer temperatures would be fine for shorts long into the evening. How wrong I was. But I picked up a wicked nice pair of jeans for less than $15.
When you’re walking around the city, you’ll notice people are well dressed in general but that doesn’t mean they spend hundreds of dollars on every item. Many locals who can afford to shop at designer stores prefer shopping at thrift stores to find something they’d normally never consider if they had to pay for it at full retailt.
If you’ve got any stereotypes about buying used clothes, it’s time to confront those stereotypes and head into one of the 50+ thrift shops in San Francisco.
5. Find A Hidden Gem At Green Apple Books
A bookshop? Yeap, they’re actually a pretty cool thing to visit these days thanks to Instagram (independent bookstores that is). But that’s not why you should come to Green Apple Books. The collection of books you can buy here is diverse, comics included.
The handmade signs around the store are fun and helps create a cool atmosphere. Have a chat with the staff, they are part of the atmosphere too, and might be able to point you in the direction wof an awesome previously loved book. I picked up one of my reads of the year for $2.50!
6. Learn About The Beat Generation Of The 50’s & 60’s
It’s common knowledge that we learn best with stories, and the Beat Generation is full of stories. I was vaguely familiar with the beat generation, but I didn’t know that San Francisco was the home of the Beat Generation.
I can’t explain what the Beat Generation is succinctly so will quote Google’s description:
“A movement of young people in the 1950s and early 1960s who rejected conventional society, valuing free self-expression and favouring modern jazz. Among writers associated with the movement were Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.”
The Beat Museum is a small museum off Columbus Street spread across two floors detailing the leaders of the Beat Generation. You’ll want to spend around 45 minutes here, with a collection of memorabilia preserving the cultures spirit. There’s also a short movie you can watch while you’re there that is reasonably interesting.
7. Explore Russian Hill Beyond Lombard Street
If you’re renting a car in San Francisco, then you’re probably planning to drive down the crooked Lombard Street. But don’t move on right away. Find a place to park up nearby and explore Russian Hill by foot for some epic views of the city. It took until my third trip to grasp the geography of San Francisco which was helped when I could see everything from a distance walking around Russian Hill.
Walk from your parking spot near Lombard street to walk to Ina Coolbrith Park (where the photos you see in this post are taken from) and back. It’s a small peaceful park with my favourite city views.
San Francisco isn’t the biggest city, with 850,000 people living in an area defined by the surrounding bays. This makes it great to visit as a tourist, with many of the attractions easily traveled between without spending three hours stuck in traffic.
That also makes it hard to experience San Francisco off the beaten path, but it is totally possible like always. You need to veer off track, just a little, to find something different to do.