Searching for San Francisco’s History: Hidden Gems Edition

Posted on: October 4th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Compiled by Amy Webb, Anthony Veerkamp, Brian Turner, and Maria DeRyke, San Francisco Field Office

Preservation magazine’s associate editor, Gwendolyn Purdom, chronicled her visit to some of San Francisco’s more tourist-friendly historic sites back in August (see part 1 and part 2).

Now we're going off the beaten path and sharing some of the city's hidden gems with you, courtesy of the National Trust's San Francisco office. Following these top picks will soon have you rubbing elbows with locals for a true San Francisco experience. Let's get started ...

1. Start your San Francisco visit at the Haas-Lilienthal House (built in 1886 and one of our National Treasures) at 2007 Franklin Street. Alamo Square’s painted ladies on “Postcard Row” may be the best known Victorian icons in San Francisco, but Haas-Lilienthal is the place to go if you want to visit an authentic Victorian with its original interior furnishings and paint color. (After all, San Francisco was traditionally known as a “cool, gray city of love” both for its fog and its favorite house color.) This Queen Anne style home was built for a prominent Jewish family and was occupied by three generations of the same family before it was gifted to San Francisco Architectural Heritage in 1973. Plan your visit for a Wednesday or Saturday between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m., or Sunday between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. when tours are offered.

2. From Haas-Lilienthal, it’s just a few blocks to the Van Ness Street terminus of the California Street Cable Car line. In addition to offering vertiginous views down California Street towards the Bay Bridge, boarding at Van Ness is like slipping behind the velvet rope at a popular club -- there is rarely a wait, in stark contrast to the Market Street terminus of the Powell line. The California Street line was first financed by Leland Stanford in 1878 to reach his mansion on Nob Hill (and was said to add years of life to his prize horses).

3. From the Market Street end of the California line, stroll a few blocks to the iconic 1898 Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street. Come any day and you can enjoy this temple of gourmet food in relative peace, but it’s most fun to join the hoards on Saturday morning when you may spot a celebrity chef shopping at what many claim is the best farmer's market in the country. After nourishment, you can hop a ferry to the low-key destinations of Oakland's Jack London Square, Alameda, or Tiburon for a different perspective on the city.

4. You’ve already ridden San Francisco’s justifiably famous cable cars, but SF MUNI’s Museums in Motion also include dozens of restored vintage streetcars from around the world that ply a route along Market Street and the Embarcadero. Learn more at the San Francisco Railway Museum across from the Ferry Building before hopping the F-line up to the Castro. If you’re lucky, you might score a ride on the biggest head-turner -- the open-air No. 228 from the Victorian seaside resort of Blackpool, England.

5. Once in the Castro, you can’t miss the enormous rainbow flag at the corner of Market and Castro. If you’re up for a drink, stop by the Twin Peaks Tavern, the self-described "gay Cheers" that has been recommended for landmark status as "the first known gay bar to feature full-length open plate glass windows," as well as "a living symbol of the liberties and rights gained by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered community."

6. From Castro Street, stroll down 18th Street to the Mission District’s beloved Mission Dolores Park, the epicenter of hipster cool in the neighborhood recently named by Forbes as America’s second hippest neighborhood.  Turn left on Dolores and visit the place where it all started, the 1776 Mission San Francisco de Asís (better known as "Mission Dolores").  Enjoy a quiet moment in the small graveyard, then continue down 18th Street to check out the showstopper MaestraPeace mural on the historic Women’s Building.  If that mural piques your interest, consider an in-depth tour of the Mission’s renowned collection of street murals, with the well-regarded Precita Eyes.

7. Valencia Street in the Mission offers a culinary embarrassment of riches, but if you are yearning for authentic Asian cuisine without gourmet prices, head across town to San Francisco’s “Other Chinatown” on Clement Street in the inner Richmond where you’ll find a startling amount of restaurants specializing in Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, Burmese, Schezuan, and other Asian cuisines.  Follow your meal with free tea tastings at Aroma Tea Shop, which is just cattycorner from the city’s famed Green Apple Books at 6th and Clement.  Note: If it was sunny in the Mission, it will probably be foggy in the Richmond; never doubt the reality of San Francisco’s micro-climates.

8. The Richmond District is sandwiched between San Francisco’s two expanses of green -- Golden Gate Park to the south, and the National Historic Landmark Presidio of San Francisco to the north. For a quintessential San Francisco experience, join the legions of joggers, strollers, birdwatchers, and dog walkers at Crissy Field, a former airfield along the bayfront.  If the weather’s chilly (hint: the weather is always chilly), stop at the well-named Warming Hut before continuing on to the massive 1861 fortification at Fort Point, where you can get an astonishing perspective on the Golden Gate Bridge.

9. If your legs are up for it, double back along the Marina Green through historic Fort Mason, home to myriad arts organizations and a frequent haunt for San Francisco’s legions of gourmet food trucks. You are now in striking range of one of the most hidden of San Francisco’s hidden treasures:  the 1931 The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City mural on display at the San Francisco Art Institute (a school, not a museum). The Making of a Fresco is actually one of four murals in the Bay Area painted by famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957).

10. If all this seems too daunting, put yourself in the trustworthy hands of San Francisco City Guides, which offers at least a half dozen local volunteer-led tours every day. Best of all, they’re free!  Check out their schedule to see what’s available during your visit.

What’s your favorite undiscovered spot in San Francisco?  Share your insider tips in the comments.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.