9 Quirky San Francisco Sites You Must See

A wacky town full of offbeat sites, quirky San Francisco is alive and well these days. After all, it was once home of the Barbary Coast, a neighborhood in what is now the Financial District that was born with the advent of the Gold Rush, and home to ample amounts of Wild West debauchery and disorder.

About a century later, the hippies made the City by the Bay the Bohemian capital of North America, as they thumbed it here looking to find a groovy vibe and a chill aura. Today, the city may be dominated by the tech scene, but underneath it all you can still find that original bohemian and quirky San Francisco that people know and love. You just have to know where to look!

A worker at Boudin Bakery proudly displays a loaf of bread in the shape of a crab.
In an other city, just fresh sourdough bread would be enough, but in San Fran, it has to be a massive, crab-shaped sourdough bread. Quirky—and delicious.

So if you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. And don’t miss these great off-beat sites in the city. After all, Mark Twain famously said: “San Francisco is a city of startling events.”

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

Fortune cookies were an American invention. Located in a small alleyway in Chinatown, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory is one of the oldest of its kind. The Chang family have been running the factory since 1962.

Fortune cookie
Who doesn’t love fortune cookies? This place makes it even better with personalized fortunes! Photo credit: Filipe Garcia

Today visitors can take a tour of the factory and even buy fortune cookies in different flavors. One extra cool perk: you can order cookies in advance and have your own personally written fortunes in them. Which is great because, let’s face it, when was the last time you got a note in a fortune cookie that wasn’t kind of trite? Now is your chance to put something truly philosophically profound in a fortune cookie!

Golden Gate Park Bison

No one really expects to encounter some massive buffalos while strolling around Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. But walk long enough and you’ll come face to face with an American bison. A herd of them.

two bison
Seeing bison in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is definitely a surreal experience. Photo credit: Josefine S.

The bison of Golden Gate Park came to be in 1891 when the park superintendent purchased one and named it “Ben Harrison.” A female buffalo, named “Sara Bernhardt,” arrived a couple of years later and, as is the case, baby bison suddenly appeared. Today the (fenced-off) herd of bison peacefully roam around a large prairie in the park and visitors can gawk at these enormous beasts for free.

Hua Zang Si

Located in a once-abandoned Lutheran church in the Mission District, Hua Zang Si is one of the most unique and beautiful Buddhist temples in North America.

One of the most unique Buddhist temples in the country, Hua Zang Si is a must-see in San Fran. Photo credit: Anomalous_A

If you’re a Buddhist, they welcome you in to the temple to meditate. And if you’re not a Buddhist, they also welcome you in the temple to have a look around. Huang Zang Si is the only Buddhist temple in the United States that has relics of the Buddha.

Institute of Illegal Images

The Institute of Illegal Images is not exactly what you think it might be. Also known as the “Blotter Barn,” this museum is actually Mark McCloud’s vast collection of decorated LSD blotter art. It is, in fact, the world’s largest collection.

page with red drawings
Blotter art certainly has its place in San Francisco’s long history of LSD use. Some of the art work is really impressive. Photo credit: St. Albert

Located in McCloud’s Mission District home, the museum displays acid tabs from the 1960s to the present, some of which have images of Mickey Mouse or were designed by legendary underground comic artist R. Crumb. Admission is free but visitors must make an appointment first.

Land’s End Labyrinth

Located on the Land’s End trail at the northwest portion of the San Francisco peninsula, the Land’s End Labyrinth is a fascinating art installation.

The Land’s End Labyrinth is certainly worth a stop on your San Francisco tour. The views are incredible. Photo credit: Jen

In the Middle Ages, European cathedrals often installed large labyrinths on the church floor to act as a symbolic pilgrimage for the faithful who could not travel to the Holy Land. Today people use them—and this one in particular—as a kind of walking meditation. It’s a great way to quiet the mind and get in touch with your inner self.

Mission Dolores Cemetery

Attached to the San Francisco Mission, the oldest building in the city (from 1776), the Mission Dolores Cemetery is one of the few gravesites left in San Francisco and the oldest of its kind in the city.

statues in cemetary
The Mission Dolores Cemetery is attached to the San Francisco Mission, the oldest building in the city. Photo credit. Dennis Brumm

Today visitors can see the graves of thousands of members of the Ohlone tribe, as well as some of the city’s founders and a hodgepodge of criminals, assassins, businessmen, and mayors.

The Tonga Room

Since 1945, this jewel of a tiki bar has been providing escapism for San Francisco locals and visitors alike. Located in the bowels of the Fairmont Hotel in Nob Hill, the Tonga Room is as aesthetically pleasing on the eyes as the tropical drinks are for the palate.

The Tonga Room is a must on any trip to San Francisco. You really can’t find anything else like it in the city! Photo credit: Wieland Van Dijk

Tiki bars emerged after World War II when US soldiers who’d been stationed in the South Pacific returned with a yen to re-capture South Pacific vibes. The Tonga Room is the undisputed queen of tiki. The kitsch here goes a long way, complete with waterfalls, fake thunderstorms, bamboo huts with thatched roofs, and all sorts of faux-Polynesian nicknacks.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

When you first see them, you might be thinking you’re having an LSD flashback from your visit to the Institute of Illegal Images. But your eyes are seeing it right: a flock of colorful wild parrots make Telegraph Hill their home.

Strolling through Telegraph Hiill is a wonderful way to enjoy a sunny day in San Fran. Photo credit: torroid

The theory is that a pair of pet parrots escaped their cage and settled around Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. Soon enough, they began to multiply. And now you can stroll up this enchanting hill—already an attraction in its own right—and gawk at this sometimes boisterous flock of exotic wild parrots.

Yoda Statue

Tucked away in the verdant and tranquil Presidio National Park is a beloved statue. It’s no surprise that the park is also home to LucasFilm headquarters. And so strollers will come upon a statue of a Jedi knight. Nope, not Luke Skywalker. It’s even better: Yoda.

Don’t miss this beautiful statue of Yoda in Presidio National Park. Photo credit: eling008

The small statue is in the courtyard of Building B. Maybe it will remind you of one of his famous Buddhist-ish quotes: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” 

As you can see, if you’re looking for quirky San Francisco sites, there are quite a lot in this amazing city. If you’re looking to keep discovering the best that The City by the Bay has to offer, don’t miss our list of the oldest restaurants in San Francisco.

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About the author

David Farley is a West Village-based food and travel writer whose work appears regularly in the New York Times, National Geographic, BBC, and Food & Wine, among other publications. He’s the author of three books, including “An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town,” which was made into a documentary by the National Geographic Channel. You can find Farley’s online homes at https://www.tripout.online/ and https://dfarley.com/index.html

More by David Farley

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